It’s the time of year when fantasy playoffs are right around the corner. Maybe your trade deadline has come and gone; maybe you don’t have one. No matter your league settings or your team’s outlook, there are always ways to plan ahead and get a leg up on next year. For some, it’s simply adding names to a watch list. Others are actively sending low-priced offers or getting under-the-radar players as add-ins with larger trades. For dynasty fantasy football players, the season never ends and it even picks up after the fantasy playoffs. With the 2024 NFL Draft and Free Agency only months away, a lot can change in terms of outlooks. We take a look at four players this month; like always, we evaluate what their pathways to relevancy are and what they might be able to do with them.
Alec Pierce (WR), Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts are a team on the come-up. After years of searching for the next face of the franchise they believe they have found one in rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson. The Colts brought in Shane Steichen to lead the organization after failing to reach the playoffs. Owner Jim Irsay seems determined to bring the midwestern franchise back to its glory days when Peyton Manning had them as Super Bowl favorites every year. The team has a young core. Along with Richardson, they re-signed bell cow running back Jonathan Taylor to a long-term deal. Taylor is only 24 years old and looks to have a long life as an NFL running back. Richardson’s shoulder injury has delayed the ascension to the top of the AFC South for a year but the future is bright.
Talent at the skill position will need to be addressed at some point. Perennial top wideout Michael Pittman is heading towards free agency along with defensive starter corner Kenny Moore and backup quarterback Gardner Minshew. The pass-catching options have been hit or miss this year. The tight end positions are an endless rotation of Jelani Woods, Kylen Granson, Will Mallory, Andrew Ogletree, and Mo Alie-Cox. After Pittman, the top target-getter has been rookie Josh Downs and then sophomore Alec Pierce. The Colts aren’t afraid to spend money or draft capital on players and there still seem to be plenty of holes to fill across this team. They rank in the bottom third in run defense and have the 9th most points against them scored. With Taylor locked in as a top running back along with Richardson’s rushing upside depth and youth in the offensive line will be needed.
This should open up room for Alec Pierce to continue to be a threat in that offense. Currently, he is playing as the number two wide receiver behind Pittman although is falling behind Downs in targets. Pierce is the big play threat. Josh Downs while talented is a smaller receiver who excels from the slot. With Pittman possibly headed out the door, having a big-body receiver who plays on the outside will be a premium. Especially one who is still on his rookie contract. We have to remember that wide receivers usually take time to develop. Recently we have wanted our wideouts to make immediate impacts but we have to be patient.
Pierce showed some flashes during his rookie season. He had four games over 50 yards including three in a row which was followed up by a 49-yard performance where he scored his first NFL touchdown. It’s what we wanted to see from a rookie. He averaged almost 14.5 yards per target and caught 52.5% of his targets. That was all with inconsistent quarterback play. With stability in that position, Pierce has the potential to continue to improve his game. Pierce was a late bloomer in college at the University of Cincinnati where he didn’t start till his second year, where he had 37 receptions but turned them into 652 yards and two touchdowns. His junior year was cut short and he only played in six games but had three touchdowns. In his senior year, Pierce was the leading receiver on the team that made it to the College Football Playoff and lost to Alabama. That season Pierce finished with 884 yards and seven touchdowns.
Coming into the league at 6’3″, 211 lbs, he showed speed at the combine with a 4.41 forty time and good utilization for his size with a 40.5” vertical jump. He was touted as a tough receiver who plays a physical style more than an elusive. He is good at contested catches and uses his size to beat coverage. He doesn’t add a ton of yards after the catch but is a capable receiver who finds open areas in zone coverage and can be a quarterback’s best friend since he often outsmarts and out-toughs defenders. If he can improve on his release off the line and crips up his route running he will be a force.
Laviska Shenault (WR), Carolina Panthers
Coming into the league back in 2020, there was a ton of hype for 2nd round pick Laviska Shenault and rightfully so. After a lackluster freshman year at Colorado University, he came back and finished his final two years with 24 touchdowns between receiving and rushing. Shenault was a dynamic all-purpose player who could do both. Through the air, he had 142 receptions for 1,775 yards and 10 touchdowns. On the ground, he saw 182 carries over those two years, took 17 of them to the end zone, and racked up 2051 yards. Coming in at 6’1″, 227 lbs, people were expecting slightly better speed at the combine but those individual workouts did not showcase his skills. Shenault was known for his bully mentality often outworking defenders in tight spaces and off the line to get open and breaking tackles.
When he came into the NFL, drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars, he showed a ton of promise. In his rookie season, he had 58 receptions for 600 yards and five touchdowns. One concern has been injuries which limited him some in college and kept him out of a few games during his rookie season. As the Jaguars changed up their coaching situation, Shenault was traded to the Carolina Panthers. Since moving to Carolina, Shenault has dealt with another coaching change and this year is dealing with a rookie quarterback. He only has nine receptions for 52 yards but he has caught all his targets. Being surehanded is a trait that often gets overlooked for a receiver. He has been given 12 rushing attempts and while only having 53 yards he has three first downs. Shenault is a system player. He needs to be given the ball in creative ways. He is not a smooth route runner nor big enough to make a ton of contested catches. If a team can get him involved in their offense he has the potential to break off big plays and provide a momentum spark.
The Panthers are rebuilding. They sold the farm for the 1st overall pick which they used on quarterback Bryce Young. With that, they have limited their options moving forward. They have veteran Miles Sanders under contract and his backup Chuba Hubbard. They have veteran wideout, and 2023 fantasy star Adam Thielen under contract but after that it gets dicey. They drafted wideout Jonathan Mingo in the 2nd round this past year and they signed veteran D.J. Chark. The issue is what happens once the 2023 season is over. Chark is slated to be a free agent as is Shenault. The Panthers would have to either draft or sign another player or two to replace them. What could be a more attractive option is to bring them back since they are already familiar with the system that Frank Reich is trying to run. Granted, Reich is no longer with the Panthers which means Shenault will most likely be looking for a new team. Either way, it’s a positive for him. If you bring him in, you do so because you like his play-making abilities. You know that you are getting a guy who can make plays when it’s designed for him. He is the new version of Cordarrell Patterson or Jerrick McKinnon. A new start might be just what we need for Shenault to have more fantasy value. He will have to stay healthy which has been the biggest issue for him. If he does, I expect a team to utilize him going forward.
Justin Shorter (WR), Buffalo Bills
There is no denying that the Buffalo Bills are in their Super Bowl window. They have a talented quarterback in Josh Allen who, when good is a top 3 passer in the league. They have a very good and deep defense that has overcome many injuries in the past two years and has plenty of talent at the skill positions. The Bills have a solid young rusher in James Cook. They traded up in the draft to get tight end Dalton Kincaid to pair with Dawson Knox. These weapons are there to open up space for elite wide receiver Stefon Diggs. In that wide receiver room, they also have Gabe Davis who has been at times, boom or bust, and break-out star Khalil Shakir, who was featured in the March Futures Report. After that the Bills have been running out Trent Sherfield and Deonte Harty in spot work duty.
Missing from that list is fellow rookie Justin Shorter. Shorter was on the injured reserve list early in the season with a hamstring injury and has yet to play in a game. What is interesting about Shorter is the role he can play on the Bills moving forward. At the end of this season, the Bills are currently projected to be $42 million OVER the salary cap. That’s a massive number that will require some creative work by general manager Brandon Beane. What this means is I don’t see any big-name free agents landing in Buffalo. One of those names is their own Gabe Davis who will be 24 years old hitting the open market and probably seeing a good amount of interest. Sherfield is also hitting the market. The Bills also have some key players on defense looking for new deals including defensive linemen A.J. Epenesa, Shaq Lawson, and Jordan Phillips, and secondary players like Micah Hyde and Dane Jackson. They have some tough choices to make on where they spend their money. With Diggs filling one of the outside receiver spots and Shakir becoming a solid slot receiver, Shorter could step into the other outside role and replace Davis. That role saw 93 targets last season and is currently on pace for 95 this year.
Justin Shorter had a good preseason, with a five-reception, 47-yard game with a touchdown the second week. He was a 5th-round pick by the Bills after having a lackluster combine where he only ran a 4.55 and a had miserable 35.5” vertical jump. Not a great number for a 6’4” 229 player but not the worst. His college production was lacking which also hurt his draft stock. He played five years starting with Penn State back in 2018 before transferring to Florida to start the 2020 season. He didn’t start producing till he landed in Florida. The issue is in three years with the Gators, he only had eight touchdowns and 1,552 yards. What’s often forgotten is that Shorter was the top recruit coming out of high school. He has just failed to live up to that hype.
He has been underused at times. Some of his shortcomings are that he isn’t quick off the snap and takes time to get his big frame to top speed. He is great at deep routes and high-pointing jump balls. He uses his size well but isn’t crisp when making cuts or turns in his routes. Having the year to get healthy and learn at the NFL level is good for him. He should get a shot next year to take over as the third guy on the field with Diggs and Shakir. He might fall to 4th on the target depth chart behind them and Kincaid, but his big play ability will make him interesting, especially to the best ball players. We have seen Davis at times be a more consistent target getting and moving into a solid flex or WR3 type player but he hasn’t maintained that long enough. Shorter can easily fill that role. He’s a rookie who hasn’t played and probably won’t this season so you have to look at next year as his rookie year. Give him time to grow. Stash him in your IR spot now and if you can slide him on a taxi squad next season you will see plenty of dividends in 2024 and 2025.
Charlie Jones (WR), Cincinnati Bengals
Back in August, I highlighted Cincinnati Bengals rookie receiver Andrei Iosivas. A lot of what was said then is still true and this time it’s fellow rookie receiver Charlie Jones. This is a Bengals team that has to re-sign both Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, and even with a lot of room under the cap, trying to sign both might be difficult. However, between them and Ja’Marr Chase, they have missed 16 games over their careers before this year, which should open up a ton of opportunities and targets for someone like Charlie Jones
What’s different between Jones and Iosivas is their role in the offense. Iosivas’ size makes him primarily an outside receiver and the Tee Higgins replacement. Jones is a receiver who can play in the slot and projects as the Tyler Boyd replacement. At 6’0″ and 188 lbs, Jones doesn’t have the size to beat guys in contested catches but can work over the middle, especially against zone defense, due to his excellent route running. Jones was a 4th round pick by the Bengals and that was mainly due to Jones’s limited college production. He started his collegiate career at the University of Buffalo where he had three touchdowns.
He then transferred to Iowa where he wasn’t used his first season. In his second season, he had another three touchdowns on only 21 receptions. He then transferred to Purdue where he had a breakout senior year. He had 110 receptions for 1,361 yards and 12 touchdowns. He finally found an offense that utilized his skills and he is now in that similar offense with the Bengals. He only has one reception so far in the NFL but he did miss a chunk of time due to a thumb injury. You almost don’t want him playing this year now that Joe Burrow is out. Dealing with Jake Browning might lead to frustration and bad habits. There should be a shake-up in that receiving room this offseason this should open up targets for Jones. If he were to move into the Boyd role we could see him shine. Boyd last season had 83 targets and is on pace for 111 this year. Jones is capable of absorbing the majority of those targets.
REVISIT- Noah Gray (TE), Kansas City Chiefs
Below is from October 2022. Back then we were looking at Noah Gray being a possible piece in this offense, on top of being a Travis Kelce replacement. Since then a few things have changed. First, Kelce has admitted that he has thought about retirement more and more, as the wear and tear on his body are starting to take their toll. At 34 years old, he is definitely near the end of his career. Could another Super Bowl run top off his career and he heads out on tour with his new girlfriend Taylor Swift? Next, we have Gray who has seen an increased role this season. In 2022 he saw 34 targets and is on pace for 43. He already has a touchdown on the year which matches what he has done in his previous two campaigns. He will be close to setting a career-high in yards this season as well.
Last year, he had 11 games where he played over 50% of the snaps, capped off with an eight-game stretch to finish the season. This year through 11 games, he already has eight games over that mark. The Chiefs run two tight end sets on average 40% of their plays which has been consistent even with Eric Bienemy leaving. It’s a sign they will continue to get those players looks. The Chiefs have also found a budding young star at wideout in Rashee Rice. With Rice starting to command more attention on the outside it opens up from in the middle of the field which is where Gray can shine. He currently runs 40% of his routes from the slot and another 38% from inside the lines. Getting those mismatches in coverage will help him continue to see opportunities. When you add that he is currently catching 75% of his targets, he is building that trust with Patrick Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid. Even if Kelce plays another year or two, injuries start to add up and missed games are not out of the question. Kelce missed the first game this year and has been questionable for a number of contests.
Noah Gray was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2021 draft in the fifth round. He came out of Duke after being the team captain for the team his final year in 2020. His College numbers aren’t great. He only posted a career of 105 receptions, 948 yards, and eight touchdowns. To put that in comparison Baltimore rookie Isaiah Likely was second in tight-end production in 2021. He had 59 receptions and 912 yards and 12 touchdowns in one year. So the numbers for Gray don’t jump off the page at you. Probably why he fell to the fifth round. He measures just under 6’4” and 240lbs which is a pretty solid size for an NFL tight end. Compare him to his KC teammate and mentor Travis Kelce who is 6’5” and 250 lbs. His 40 time wasn’t great at 4.62. He’s not the big Physical athlete who will dominate you or the fastest guy who will break open in coverage. What gray does well is the first block. As a tight end who can block and pass catch, it allows the team to keep him on the field more. He also works well underneath. he runs very solid routes and makes quick cuts to present an open target to his quarterback. He gets to learn from one of the greatest ever in the game in Kelce and has a quarterback in Patrick Mahomes who favors the tight end.
Being on the Chiefs Gray is behind Travis Kelce. Kelce’s contract is set for now. He doesn’t become a free agent till the 2026 season. So where is the pathway for Gray? It’s not as clear as others on the list. He will need an opportunity to prove himself. Kelce has only missed one game in his career due to injury. The other games he missed were the last week of the season rest games. Kelce just turned 33 a few weeks ago. He has taken a massive amount of hits. He has 1046 receptions over his now 10-year career. It’s a lot of punishment. I’m not one to wish an injury on anyone but it would seem to be an outlier that someone involved hasn’t missed more time. This doesn’t even take into account his snaps blocking which also beat on the body. Kelce could very easily play at a high level for the next 5 years. Gray won’t ever supplant him as the tight-end one in Kansas City. What I do think is possible are the Chiefs playing in more two tight-end sets. We can see that in the past two years, they had to tow tight end on the field 27% and 23% of the time. In 2019 when they won the Super Bowl, they played in two tight end sets 33% of the time. It’s not a huge jump but seemed to be a way for them to win. Even so far this season Gray is laying a higher percentage of snaps than most tight-end tows have for this offense. In the previous 3 years, the tight end two has played 26%, 25%, and 38%. This year through six games Gray is playing on 47% of the snaps. All while Kelce is still playing his usual snap share. Gray is currently getting 6% of the team’s targets. While not a huge number it’s a big increase from the usual 1.55 that tight-end twos have seen in previous years. If Gray continues to get on the field it will only be a matter of time before he starts seeing more targets and opportunities. This year KC’s passing offense is very different with the subtraction of Tyreek Hill and the underwhelming performance of Juju Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling
Isaiah Hodgins (WR) New York Giants
Showed promise last year. QB issues this year
Cole Turner (TE) Washington Commanders
Young with an aging veteran in front of him
Khalil Shakir (WR) Buffalo Bills
showing an uptick in snaps and targets
Van Jefferson (WR) Atlanta Falcons
A new team with a new QB incoming,
Tommy Tremble (TE) Carolina Panthers
A new coach is incoming. Young with a young QB.
Gary Brightwell (RB) New York Giants
fall to third on the depth chart.
Demetric Felton (RB) Cincinnati Bengals
On the practice squad of his second team.
John Bates (TE) Washington Commanders
Playing limited snaps but in a primarily blocking role.
Danny Gray (WR) San Fransisco 49ers
Injured again. Falling down the depth chart
Ko Keift (TE) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Not playing and good young talent in front of him on the depth chart