I realize that it’s probably irresponsible to write any non-rookie content at this time of the year if I’m hoping to maximize viewership. In the heart of NFL Combine and pre-draft season, dynasty owners (myself included, of course) are fully absorbed in analyzing the incoming rookie class. No one wants to talk about current NFL veterans, which is precisely why this is the perfect time to pounce on market inefficiencies and overvaluation of rookie draft picks.
While compiling my dynasty rankings for FantasyPros and The Fantasy Authority, I noticed a glaring market inefficiency that I couldn’t ignore. After completing a legitimate 3rd-year breakout campaign and finishing as PPR WR #39 in the 2016-17 season for the Jaguars, Marqise Lee is currently listed as WR #66 on FantasyPros and WR #55 on TFA.
The strategy of “buying low” in dynasty almost exclusively refers to a scenario in which a player has recently underperformed in comparison to his potential or expected level of production. It can also be associated with an injury concern or an off-the-field issue, or any situation in which a player’s value is currently lower than it should or will be in the future. That’s what makes Marqise Lee such an intriguing case study. You will rarely ever have the opportunity to buy low on a player after a career year, but that is exactly the opportunity we have here.
There are certainly reasons for experts and owners to be skeptical about Lee, and I’m not suggesting that he comes without risk. I do, however, suggest that his upside is worth significantly more than the WR5/6 status that he is currently being valued for. In order for you to fully appreciate my argument in defense of Marqise Lee, I will present all of the possible counterarguments against him, and then proceed to swiftly debunk each of them one by one.
Rewind to Lee’s junior season at the University of Southern California. After setting the college football world on fire in 2012 with 118 receptions, 1,712 yards, and 14 touchdowns, he suffered a grade 2 MCL sprain in Week 5 of the 2013 season. Formerly projected as a consensus 1st round NFL Draft pick, the injury concern facilitated Lee’s slip to the 7th pick of the 2nd round. He was drafted ahead of fellow Jaguars Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, but we’ll get to that later.
Lee fully recovered from his MCL sprain in time for the start of his rookie season in 2014, during which he proceeded to pull his hamstring in Week 2. He missed 3 games before returning to the lineup but fell behind the Allen duo on the depth chart while sidelined. Hamstring injuries are always a red flag for receivers due to their tendencies to linger and reoccur, but the strain turned out to be an isolated incident.
During OTAs in the summer of 2014, Lee hurt his right ankle and spent a couple weeks in a walking boot before returning to practice. By this point, he had earned the “injury-prone” label, and the Jaguars were content to move forward with their promising young nucleus of Robinson and Hurns. The 2015 OTAs were equally frustrating, as Lee injured his left knee and was forced to miss minicamp once again. The knee injury was unrelated to his MCL sprain at USC, but he was dangerously close to adding “bust” to his collection of shiny new labels.
In order to understand the implications of his injuries on a deeper level, I consulted with physical therapist and fellow TFA writer Matthew Betz, who uses his medical expertise to provide injury insight for dynasty players. The goal of my research was to get a sense of whether or not Marqise Lee’s injuries were related to one another, and whether or not they are likely to reoccur in the future. Matthew explained that a grade 2 MCL sprain indicates that the medial collateral ligament is partially torn but doesn’t completely tear, and surgery is not needed for rehabilitation. On whether the injury should affect Lee’s dynasty value, Matthew confirmed, “I have zero concerns about this injury, especially since it was all the way back in 2013.”
Regarding the minor hamstring, ankle, and knee injuries that slowed Lee’s first 2 years in the league, Matthew was equally unconcerned. He actually liked that the Jaguars medical staff kept him off the field for 3 weeks to allow “adequate time for Lee to get back to full speed rather than rushing him back [from the hamstring strain].” He also was not alarmed that Lee was placed in a boot after his ankle injury, assuring me that boots are standard NFL procedure for ankle and foot issues – “usually regardless of the severity of an injury.”
Fast forward to the present. Marqise Lee has now played in 22 consecutive games and is still just 25 years old. He’s approaching a contract year as he’s playing the best football of his NFL career and will be entering his prime with a clean bill of health. Talent was never the question with Lee. He needed to prove that he could stay on the field in order to showcase that talent, however, and it appears that he’s finally shaken the injury bug.
Competition for Targets
Another common explanation for the pessimism surrounding Marqise Lee is the presence of the other two young receivers with whom he’s competing for snaps and targets. The 3 receivers arrived in Jacksonville simultaneously, but their careers have taken 3 noticeably unique paths since then.
Allen Robinson established himself as a top-10 fantasy receiver in 2015, only to take a step back and finish outside of the top-24 in 2016. He is undoubtedly still an elite dynasty WR but displayed inconsistency at times this season. Marqise Lee finished the season with just 10 receptions, 32 yards, and 3 touchdowns fewer than ARob. Like Lee, Robinson will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2017 season, and the Jaguars will obviously prioritize his contract over Marqise Lee’s. He will come at a substantially higher price, however, but the Jags would be crazy to let him walk. He’s not going anywhere.
Allen Hurns’ roster spot, on the other hand, is on decidedly shakier ground. One of the most common misconceptions about Marqise Lee’s breakout year in 2016 was that his true “breakout” occurred after Hurns went down with a hamstring injury to end his season. The truth is that Lee passed Hurns on the depth chart long before that. The two receivers played 11 mutual games before Hurns’ injury in Week 12; Lee recorded more receptions than Hurns in 8 of those games and recorded more yardage than Hurns in 7 of 11 games. There were only 3 games all season in which Marqise Lee was targeted less than 6 times. His role is not only legitimate, but it is reliable and secure.
Another misconception regarding the long term receiving core in Jacksonville is the true nature of Allen Hurns’ contract extension. In June of 2016, Hurns inked what appeared to be a 4-year, $40 million dollar contract, locking him in as ARob’s sidekick for many years to come. Rotoworld blurbs don’t always include the fine print. In reality, the deal only guarantees $16 million total upon signing, of which ALL guaranteed money is acquired within the first 2 years of the contract. Should the Jaguars decide that Hurns is not worth that price after the 2017 season, they can cut him and lose ZERO dollars in dead money. If Lee outperforms Hurns yet again next season, the Jaguars could cut Hurns for free and re-sign their top 2 receivers. You know who they are.
Here are Allen Hurns’ contract details according to Spoctrac:
Poor Quarterback Play
When evaluating the dynasty value of wide receivers, one of the most crucial factors to consider is the quarterback that the receiver is tied to. Blake Bortles was bad in 2016; there’s no way around it. He regressed mightily from his promising sophomore campaign, raising questions about his future in Jacksonville if he can’t improve his throwing mechanics and decision-making. Bortles is a much better fantasy football player than he is an NFL player, however, and he still managed to finish as the overall QB8 in 2016 despite all of his on-field struggles. Due to the already pass-heavy nature of the Jaguars offense and the bad-at-football nature of the Jaguars football team, Bortles was forced to play from behind in nearly every game. That resulted in an average of 39 pass attempts per game, enough to morph any mediocre quarterback into a top-10 fantasy QB.
An obvious side effect of high passing volume is high receiving volume, and the Jags’ receiving core lacks depth after the top 3 receivers. Bortles has proved that he can support multiple fantasy WRs even as a bad football player, and the coaching staff has vowed to invest resources toward his improvement. If he doesn’t improve and the team decides to move on from him in the future, almost any quarterback would be an upgrade. Bottom line: if Marqise Lee can produce in this offense with Bortles at quarterback, his value is unlikely to shift dramatically despite the uncertainty at QB. Which leads me to my next point…
Marqise Lee’s positional versatility helps insulate his value against dramatic shifts in scheme and personnel. Let me explain. Lee started the season in the slot with Robinson and Hurns split out wide as the X and Z receivers, using his speed and quickness to thrive in the open field. As he passed Hurns on the depth chart, he moved opposite ARob on the outside and forced defenses to respect him as an intermediate threat on the boundaries. His well-rounded skill set allows for him to move all over the formation without a drop off in production. In addition to his versatility in the passing game, Lee emerged as the team’s primary kick returner in Week 6, giving the coaches yet another excuse to keep him on the field.
Marqise Lee is one of 5 NFL players to score a touchdown in 3 different ways this season (receiving/passing/returning). Yes, you read that right; Lee actually threw a touchdown pass to Blake Bortles on a gimmick play against the Titans. He also had a span of 5 straight weeks with at least 1 rushing attempt in the middle of the season. My point that Blake Bortles being bad shouldn’t scare you away from Marqise Lee. If Bortles is a deal breaker for you, though, keep in mind that Lee enters unrestricted free agency after 2017 and is likely to have many non-Jaguar suitors knocking at his door.
The Marqise Lee haters are awfully quiet now. That’s the beauty of writing an article alone in a quiet room, especially when you invented the opposition’s arguments yourself in the first place. So, now that I’ve dominated my imaginary debaters, how should we value Lee in dynasty?
First, let’s look at Lee’s value in a startup draft. As I listed in my Dynasty Rankings for FantasyPros and TFA, I rank Marqise Lee as the 35th wide receiver and 62nd overall dynasty player. To compare with my colleagues, that’s 20 WR spots and 55 overall spots above the consensus (and that’s AFTER my rankings skewed the average). Even if you aren’t as high on Lee as I am, recognize that he will be a screaming value in the 10th round of drafts.
Another way to assign value to players in dynasty leagues is by rookie draft currency. Rookie picks are gold this time of the year, and capitalizing on their overvaluation is one of the best ways to improve your roster quickly. I conducted a Twitter poll to gauge the dynasty community’s assessment of Lee: 67% of 424 voters would rather possess the 2017 rookie 2.06, as opposed to 33% for Marqise Lee. You can buy him for a late-2nd round rookie pick in this hyped up draft class, and I would make that trade in a heartbeat. The unknown is more exciting than the known, but in this case, most dynasty owners still don’t even know what they have in Marqise Lee.