Early ADP Battle: Jared Cook vs. David Njoku
Value in fantasy football is a fascinating thing. Early rankings and average draft position can shape an entire draft cycle, and with it an entire fantasy football season. How a player is valued in May can dictate how is treated throughout an offseason. What changes that value is a change in opportunity, be that due to injury or performance. In general, outside of these situations, once a players value has been set it can take a lot to change it. However, that does not mean fantasy players should blindly follow that ADP, and that is what I hope to achieve with this series. I am hoping to open peoples eyes to misleading ADPs, and that it helps them make decisions which they look back on and smile about come seasons end.
The great thing about this series is that there is so much it can touch on. In this series I will look at players with widely differing ADPs, who the numbers suggest should be closer together. Players with similar ADPs who really should not be close together, and in some cases even players whose ADP should be completely switched if the numbers are to be believed.
In the other article in this series, I took a look at Lamar Miller vs. Sony Michel.
Jared Cook, TE, OAK
In his last two season in Oakland Cook has begun to deliver on some of the promise we all hoped for when he was with the Titans to begin his career. The strange thing is that his actual numbers do not look massively different to other times in his career. However, his PPR rank of fifth among tight ends last season was by far his best career finish.
A big reason for his improvement, especially last season was the increase in opportunity. With his previous four teams, Cook had never averaged more than three receptions per game. However, with the Raiders, he averaged 3.8 receptions per game, and in 2018 that was as high as 4.3. Thanks to that opportunity he averaged other career highs of 49.5 yards per game, 0.25 touchdowns per game, a 65.2% catch rate. However, it was not just increased opportunity, Cook also did more with those opportunities, averaging 8.5 yards per target and 1.92 fantasy points per opportunity.
The Saints effect
The great thing with Jared Cook in 2019 is there is every reason to believe he could repeat, or potentially top his 2018 performances. Cook left Oakland this offseason and landed in New Orleans, filing the one real offensive hole on the Saints roster. Last year that spot was manned by an aging Benjamin Watson, and an inconsistent Dan Arnold and they struggled for any real production. In fact, the Saints have struggled to get consistency from their top tight end in each of the last three seasons. That has largely been due to having a lack of real receiving threat at the tight end position.
You need to go back to 2015 for the last time the Saints had their TE1 rank among the top-five. That year the damage was done by a younger Watson, but it is the four years before that on the graph above which are particularly interesting. Those four years saw the Saints TE1 finish in the top two for four straight years. That tight end was Jimmy Graham.
Can Cook be the next Graham?
There are a couple of reasons why Graham was so effective for the Saints. During those four years, Graham saw a lot of opportunities to score fantasy points. He averaged 8.75 targets per game, catching 63.5% of those targets for 5.63 receptions per game. However, it was not just opportunity that Graham had, he also had the talent to make the most of those opportunities. The opportunity ratio graph above demonstrates just that, as Graham averaged around two fantasy points per opportunity. That was in large part thanks to 69.8 yards per game and .73 touchdowns per game. In fact, the consistency chart below shows you just how good Graham was in those four years.
All of this looks very promising for Cooks. However, that is not to say Cooks will be as good as Graham. Graham did not have to compete with a receiver of quality of Michael Thomas for targets. However, even with Thomas, there should still be plenty of targets to go around, even if it is just an average of seven per game, that would be promising for Cook. Graham was also just 27 in that final year in New Orleans, Cook will be 32 next season. However, Watson was 35 when he has that top-five finish as a Saints tight end, and he did have Brandon Cooks to compete with for targets.
There is a real possibility that Cook will see the second or third most targets in the Saints offense this season. That may not be as many targets as we saw for Graham. However, based on what we saw last year, Cook has the talent to make the most of those opportunities.
David Njoku, TE, CLE
Njoku is a perfect comparison for Cook as they are going right next to each other in ADP this season. In fact, in some places, Njoku is just shading Cooks in ADP. Njoku is coming off a solid sophomore season in which he had a second straight four touchdown season. He supplemented that with 56 receptions for 639 yards.
However, Njoku appears to benefit massively from the Browns boost in 2019. Yes, he finished eighth in fantasy points last year but the situation has changed massively this season. On one hand, the Browns should have a more fully function offense for longer than they did in 2018. The issue is there are more mouths to feed. The additions of Kareem Hunt and Odell Beckham Jr. have seen to that.
Let’s get hypothetical for a second. In 13 starts last season Mayfield threw the ball an average of 35.6 times per game, for a total 463 passes. In those 13 starts, Njoku saw 47 targets, at an average of 3.62 per game. Let’s say in 16 starts this season, at the same average, we see Mayfield throw the ball 570 times. Where are those targets going to go? Below are the most recent projections for the Browns from my colleague Michael Zingone.
Michael is more bullish than my projected 570 attempts for Mayfield, and he actually sees Njoku’s target share per game increasing to 4.74. However, what is also shows is just how many players there are looking for targets. The positive is that there is no other real receiving tight end threat. What there are are a lot of talented receivers and backs for Mayfield to get involved. For me, this is an absolute ceiling for Njoku and I have him projected for roughly 10 fewer targets than Michael (65).
The question is not just about targets but what can Njoku do when he gets those targets. Last season Njoku averaged 7.3 yards per target. Good but when we compare it to Cook and his 8.9, it looks fairly mediocre. The opportunity ratio graph below demonstrates a similar trend.
While Cook has seen an increase in fantasy points per opportunity, Njoku was static from his rookie season to his sophomore season. If Michael is right and Njoku sees an increase in opportunities relatively this season then he should still see an increase in fantasy points. However, if my concerns are realized and the addition of Beckham and Hunt leads to no growth of opportunities or even a loss, then this lack of improvement is a concern and could lead to Njoku being very frustrating this season.
These are two fascinating tight ends at very different points in their career. Cook is a veteran fighting every season to continue to prove his worth. Njoku is a third-year tight end in a growing offense, desperate to carve out a role. The fact their ADP is so similar is even more fascinating. Everything in the article above suggests that Cook should have the stronger case to be the better tight end this season. It is undeniable that Njoku has talent, but despite that Cook seems to have the higher upside.
The graph above reinforces the upside advantage Cook has. In the last two years, Cook has been a top-five and top-12 option more often than Njoku. With the Njoku situation only seemingly worse, and Cook seemingly in a position which may even be better, this gulf could even widen. In terms of their ADP, it is more about an undervaluing of Cook for me than anything majorly wrong with where Njoku is valued. Cook is not part of the “sexy” young tight end options and that seems to be why his ADP is below many of them. In fact, I am that bullish on Cook I would place him as my favorite to be the highest ranked tight end not named Zach Ertz, Travis Kelce or George Kittle come seasons end.