In case you’re wondering whether i’m excited for the upcoming fantasy football season, I hope then next NINE THOUSAND words — it’s actually a bit more than that, but I just rounded down to make it a (startlingly) clean number — will answer that question for you.
For those of you who haven’t yet drafted your fantasy football team for 2017, or for those of you who want to simply get a ‘leg up’ on the competition, here’s a team-by-team look at some of the top headliners, boomers, sleepers, and busts that fantasy football players NEED to know, heading into the 2017 NFL season.
Washington Redskins — Terrelle Pryor Sr, Wide Receiver: Coming off a breakout season in Cleveland in 2016, in which he caught 77 passes for 1,007 yards from the carinval-esque carousel of quarterbacks the Browns trotted out last year, some wondered whether Terrelle Pryor’s production was something of “a glitch in the Matrix,” and if he was something of a one-hit wonder. Why else would he get totally passed over in free agency, and end up in Washington on a team-friendly 1-year, $6M deal? Yet, there’s actually plenty of reasons to believe it’s quite the opposite: that Pryor is just beginning to scratch the surface of his immense potential, and could realize it in our nation’s capital. Standing 6’4 and 228lbs, Pryor has uncanny speed and athleticism for a player of his size, running the 40 yard dash in a legitimate 4.41 seconds, and showing the ability to use his immense size to box out over matched cornerbacks trying to cover him. Pryor had 17 receptions last year that were classified as “tight window” completions, where a cornerback was within one yard of him when he caught the ball, which was the sixth highest total in the NFL. He’s coming in to Washington as the team’s #1 receiving option, after the Redskins became the first team in NFL history to have two wide receivers go over 1,000 yards receiving, and subsequently leave town in free agency. Playing with a quarterback in Kirk Cousins, who threw for the 3rd most yards of any passer in the NFL last year, and with a very potent cast of other receiving options around him, Pryor’s numbers could explode in Washington. And yes, I get that Pryor and Cousins have been far from “on the same page” this preseason, but so has the entire Redskins offense. The dirty secret of the NFL is that most teams really don’t find their groove until the third or fourth game of the regular season (which is why you’ll often have those wonky September wins or losses by certain teams, which look increasingly puzzling when you look back at them later in the season). I take more credence in the fact that Pryor was so dominant during Redskins training camp, with members of the team’s secondary proving unable to cover him; opposing secondaries could find themselves facing that dilemma all year long.
Philadelphia Eagles — Zach Ertz, Tight End: Yes, I realized that Zach Ertz finished in the top five in both receptions and receiving yards among tight ends last season. But with all the additions the Eagles made in the offseason, it’s hard to envision Ertz leading the Eagles in receptions and touchdown this year, and recording the second most targets among all pass catchers, like he did in 2016. Alshon Jeffrey is going to steal redzone targets. Nelson Agholor might steal targets over the middle (don’t laugh). Even Torrey Smith might see a few balls go his way (again, don’t laugh). On top of that, even if Ertz were to put up a similar stat line in 2017 to what he did last year (78 rec, 816 yards, and four touchdowns), the tight end position in fantasy football is deep enough to where you could wait a couple of rounds and draft another player with minimal dropoff. The difference between taking someone like Ertz (whose average draft position is somewhere in the middle of the 10th round), versus someone like Jason Witten (who’s commonly available as late as the 15th round of some drafts) could be less than one point per game, on average. Why not devote that pick to another, more scarce resource? Ertz is a fine player, but far from an exceptional one for the purposes of fantasy football.
New York Giants — Paul Perkins, Running Back: The New York Giants are one of only three teams in the NFL that have not had a running back break the 1,000-yard rushing mark in each of the last four seasons. The once-proud position for the Giants has been marked by a revolving door of mediocre running ball carriers plodding along for forgettable yardage totals. After parting ways with running back Rashad Jennings in the offseason (the team’s leading rusher for each of the past two years), the starting running back job now fully belongs to Paul Perkins, the team’s 5th round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. At 5’10 and 208lbs, Perkins was called a “poor man’s Jamaal Charles” coming out of UCLA, demonstrating a solid burst from the line of scrimmage, superior change-of-direction skills, and an exceptional ability to make defenders miss in the open field. The knock on him coming out of school was that he was better suited to play in a pass-first offense, which spread out opposing defenses and gave him room to operate. Coincidentally, that’s exactly what he’ll be working with in the Giants offense, as they go with “11 personnel” (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) as much as any team in the NFL. If he’s able to hold on to the starting job in New York — and there’s not a lot of competition he’ll have to fend off — it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get upwards of 200 carries, putting him right around the 1,000 yard mark by season’s end. He could represent great value in the middle rounds of the draft.
Dallas Cowboys — Dak Prescott, Quarterback: You know I absolutely loathe saying anything positive about the wretched Dallas Cowboys, or anyone on this god forsaken team. And I know that, despite what those braindead fans in the Metroplex might tell you, there were a LOT of contributing reasons to why Prescott guided his team to 13 wins, and was selected to the Pro Bowl. But how many people realize that Prescott combined for 29 touchdowns last year, finished fourth in yards per attempt (7.99), and only threw four interceptions all year long (the lowest among all starting quarterbacks)? With the newly-imposed six-game suspension handed down to running back Ezekiel Elliott, Prescott now becomes the centerpiece of the entire Dallas offense. I still believe there are a lot of questions to be answered, as far as how Prescott will respond after an offseason in which teams could watch more film on him (and try to figure him out), especially considering Dallas’ first six opponents won’t have to devote the majority of their game plan to stopping Elliott. But Prescott’s late-season rapport with Dez Bryant (the two combined for over 500 yards receiving and six touchdowns in the last eight games they played together), and trust in Jason Witten (14 straight seasons with more than 60 catches) and Cole Beasley (the Cowboys’ team leader in receptions and receiving yards last year) are all still factors. It’ll be interesting to see how Prescott plays in his sophomore season in the NFL.
Green Bay Packers — Jordy Nelson, Wide Receiver: In 2016, Jordy Nelson finished 5th in the NFL in total catches (97), 6th in receiving yards (1,257), and 6th in catches for a first down (62). Oh, and he also led the NFL in total touchdown receptions (14), putting him 5th in the NFL — and #1 among all wide receivers — in total touchdowns scored by a single player. Now consider the fact that Nelson has a chance to come into 2017 and play even better than he did last year. The proverbial “rule of thumb” in the NFL is that a player doesn’t really get back to 100% after tearing his ACL until a full year after he’s cleared to play. Nelson missed all of 2015 with a torn ACL, and he still accomplished what he did in 2016 despite the fact that he might not have been quite at 100%. Oh, and then there’s the fact that Nelson is still catching passes from Aaron Rodgers, who is basically the football player version of Drogon from “Game of Thrones” — ie, he will eviscerate entire groups of people standing before him. Nelson is the sixth wide receiver coming off fantasy draft boards in most leagues, but it would not be any shock if he finished right at the top of his position in total fantasy point scored. He should be considered a top three fantasy receiver this year, alongside Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. … in other words: yes, i’d take him over guys like Julio Jones, A.J. Green, and Mike Evans.
Minnesota Vikings — Dalvin Cook, Running Back: There’s a good chance that we’re going to look back at the 2017 NFL Draft in a few years and conclude that the Minnesota Vikings committed grand larceny, given the fact that they were able to “steal” running back Dalvin Cook with a second round pick. Cook was one of the most talented running backs in this year’s draft class, and should’ve easily been a top 15 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, if it wasn’t for questions about some of the questionable types that were linked to his inner circle. The fact that he’s in Minnesota, far away from the warm weather and numerous tempations of his hometown in Miami, Florida, he’s in a great situation. So far, from all accounts, Cook has been exactly as advertised from on on the field perspective, and maybe even better in some cases. Coaches are already thrilled with him, considering he’s shown a willingness and aptitude for pass blocking, which is something increasing rare for a rookie. Point being: expect Dalvin Cook to be the team’s starting running back right out of the gates. The Vikings did sign Latavius Murray in the offseason, but he spent much of said offseason recovering from ankle surgery, and has progressed slowly through training camp. Plus, Murray is a 230lb plodder who has failed to break 800 yards rushing in two of the past three seasons he’s played in. Regardless of how Murray’s recovery from injury progresses, it would be a surprise if Cook didn’t get the lion’s share of carries this year, ending the year with somewhere in the 225 rushing attempts range. On top of that, with Cook’s ability to catch passes out of the backfield — and quarterback Sam Bradford’s proclivity to throw the checkdown pass — he has the ability to pile up fantasy points in bunches for anyone who might have him on his team.
Detroit Lions — Matthew Stafford, Quarterback: Nobody is questioning the fact that Matt Stafford can throw for big yardage totals. For the last seven years in a row, he’s thrown for over 4,250 yards each year. He averages right around 600 passing attempts per year. In offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s scheme, his completion % has jumped to over 65% in each of the last two years. And yet, Stafford’s 270 passing yards per game last season was tied for 10th in the NFL, and within 10 yards per game of guys like Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton. Ryan Tannehill and Marcus Mariota had a higher yards per attempt than Stafford. And Stafford’s 24 touchdown pass mark last year was only one more than that of guys like Dak Prescott (a rookie) and Blake Bortles (who looked positively miserable for long stretches of last year). And last year wasn’t an anomaly either; it was the third time in the past five years that Stafford has thrown for less than 25 touchdowns in a season. In other words: Stafford might actually be a better “real life” quarterback than he is a fantasy football quarterback. The depth in the quarterback group is so deep this year, with so many guys separated by so little. Stafford is being drafted as a top 15 quarterback, but you could very likely replicate his same level of fantasy production with guys like Dalton, Bortles, or even Carson Wentz, all of whom are being taken later than Stafford.
Chicago Bears — Kevin White, Wide Receiver: Heading into the 2015 NFL Draft, there were numerous draft analysts, and presumably NFL teams as well, who not only ranked wide receiver Kevin White as the best wide receiver in the draft class (ahead of Amari Cooper), but one of the best prospects in the draft overall. When the Bears were able to select him with the 7th overall pick — ahead of future Pro Bowl players like Todd Gurley, Vic Beasley, Melvin Gordon, and Marcus Peters — nearly everyone applauded the pick. Fast forward to the present, and through two NFL seasons, White has played a grand total of four games in his injury-riddled NFL career, recording a grand total of 19 receptions for 187 yards (and a meager 9.8 yards per catch) over his entire NFL career. As the saying goes: the greatest ability in the NFL is “availability,” and for the athletic freak of nature that White looked to be coming out of school, the gift of availability seems to elude him. But for the sake of argument, let’s say White is really entering this season with a clean bill of health. What, exactly, are we supposed to expect form him? Even coming out of the draft, White was an “upside” player: someone with immense physical gifts, which needed to be developed over time. On top of that, White played in a spread offense under University of West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen; most receivers who come out of a spread offense in college take longer to adjust at the NFL level. Two years into White’s NFL career, he’s essentially still a rookie. He’s never gotten to progress along the learning curve of tranisitioning from college to the NFL. There have been reports that he still struggles to run NFL-caliber routes, and that he’s still learning how to “be himself” after two catastrophic injuries to the same leg. A few weeks ago, a story emerged out of Bears camp that White had to be shown film of his days at West Virginia, to boost his confidence and be reminded of how good he actually is. So, while many people are pointing to Alshon Jeffrey’s departure from Chicago opening the door for White to see more targets and increase his production, it’s not that simple. Cameron Meredith looks positioned to be the #1 wide receiver for the Bears, after his strong close to the 2016 season. Markus Wheaton might also cut into some of those targets as well. It’s too early to start using the dreaded “bust” word in regards to White, but at least at this point in time, his NFL career is at a crossroads. But for the purposes of the 2017 season, it’s best to keep some space from White.
Atlanta Falcons — Austin Hooper, Tight End: Last year, thanks in large part to the masterful design by former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the Atlanta Falcons used four different tight ends, who collectively accumulated 58 receptions for 788 yards and 10 touchdowns. Shanahan is no longer in Atlanta, having left to take the head coach position in San Francisco, but expect the production from tight end position of the Atlanta Falcons to continue into 2017 seasons. The Falcons used a second round pick on tight end Austin Hooper from Stanford University last year, and even as a rookie, he had the most receiving yards (271) and touchdowns (three) among all the tight ends. Heading into his second year, he could be primed for a breakout season. Quarterback Matt Ryan has never been hesitant about throwing it to his tight end, especially considering he had the luxury of Tony Gonzalez for much of his formative years in the NFL. But under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the offense is still going to take some time to get its rhythm and footing in place. That could result in a lot of passes from Ryan to “security blanket”-type receivers. In which case, Hooper would be first in line for those targets. He has the athletic ability to be one of the next great tight end mismatches in the NFL.
Carolina Panthers — Cam Newton, Quarterback: It’s hard to wrap your head around the idea of a guy who is just one NFL season removed from generating 45 touchdowns and winning the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award is now sitting on my “bust” list. And yet, here we are. Even if you ignore the fact that Newton is coming off a season in which he had the lowest completion percentage, yards per attempt, and overall passer rating over the course of his career, it simply comes down to that fact that’s he’s a victim of his circumstances. For one, despite the fact that the Panthers went out and drafted two hybrid running back/wide receiver-type players, they still don’t have anyone who can really attack a defense vertically, and fully maximize the fact that Newton might have the strongest arm in the NFL. This is probably the only time in history that anyone will say that a team will miss having someone like Ted Ginn, or at least the theoretical threat of him catching passes deep downfield. Guys like Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess are decent receivers, but neither of them are known for their speed, and both are better suited to be #2 receiver-types anyway. Even with guys like Greg Olsen, as well as the rookies in Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, he has a bunch of guys who are better in the intermediate parts of the field. The Panthers have preached the idea that they want Newton to get the ball out of his hands faster and avoid taking as many hits as he has in the past, but that doesn’t play to his strengths. In addition to all of that, Newton’s fantasy numbers put him right in the mosh pit of second tier (fantasy) quarterbacks. Even with the rushing touchdowns he puts up, there’s not much that separates him from another half dozen other quarterbacks. He’s still an incredible talent, but from a fantasy football perspective, he’s a replaceable talent.
New Orleans Saints — Adrian Peterson, Running Back: Someone in your league is going to be sitting there on draft day, while they’re on the clock to make their pick in one of the early rounds, thinking to themselves: “how can I pass on Adrian Peterson?” If you really want to do yourself a favor: don’t be that guy. There are few players — let alone running backs — in NFL history who have more freakish abilities than Adrian Peterson. But ask yourself this question: how many running backs in NFL history have signed with another team as a 32-year old free agent, and put up the same level of production that he did at his last stop, in his younger years? That list is virtually non-existent. As the saying goes: Father Time is undefeated. Even if you’re betting on the idea that Peterson is unlike any running back in recent memory, don’t forget the fact that the team he signed with — the New Orleans Saints — didn’t necessarily acquire him with the idea of giving him 25 or more carries per game in mind. The Saints have publicly stated that Peterson is “1A” on their running back depth chart, alongside incumbent Mark Ingram, the latter of whom is coming off a season in which he ran for a career-high 1,043 yards. Even if you do the simple math, that means that a best-case scenario for Peterson would be getting somewhere between 180 to 200 carries. If you multiply that by 4.5 yards per carry (his average over the last two full seasons he’s played in), that’s barely 900 yards rushing; again, that’s also a best-case scenario. At this point in his career, Peterson has become a change-up running back who’s trying to prolong his playing career, at a position where teams are increasingly using younger players and a committee approach. If you want to take Peterson in the middle-to-late rounds of your draft, perhaps as a handcuff to Ingram, go for it. But if you have any visions of the legendary Adrian Peterson of years past in your head, you’re only fooling yourself.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Jameis Winston, Quarterback: Jameis Winston has shown a preternatural ability to transition from the college to the professional game as quickly as any young quarterback we’ve seen in recent memory. After finishing among the top 10 quarterbacks in touchdown passes last year, Winston looks primed to make a big leap forward in year three of his young career. To facilitate that, his front office has given him a repertoire of weapons that would make any quarterback envious: wide receiver DeSean Jackson (brought in via free agency), tight end O.J. Howard (the team’s first round pick in the draft), and wide receiver Chris Godwin (the team’s third round selection), to join incumbent tight end Cameron Brate (who led the league in touchdown catches among tight ends last year) and superstud receiver Mike Evans. And perhaps most importantly, Winston has enjoyed the continuity of playing in the same offense since he arrived in the NFL, under head coach (and former offensive coordinator) Dirk Koetter. The Buccaneers could be a breakthrough team in the NFC this year, which means Winston could very well being highly discussed among those who cast MVP ballots. It would not be the slightest bit surprising to see him finish among the top four to six quarterback in fantasy football this year. He could be had in the early-to-middle rounds of your fantasy football draft, meaning he presents incredible value for such a pick.
Arizona Cardinals — John Brown, Wide Receiver: A year after his breakout sophomore season in the NFL, wide receiver John Brown of the Arizona Cardinals finished with career lows in virtually every receiving category there is: targets, receptions, receiving yards, yards per reception, and touchdowns. So why do we have him listed as a “boom” player? Because after spending all of 2016 basically being a complete shell of himself physically, the medical staff of the Cardinals found out the root of his problems: it started with sickle cell issues, and was compounded with a cyst on his spine. After the final game of the season, Brown had the cyst removed, and instantly felt “back to normal,” in his own words. Assuming that’s the case, and he’s able to manage his medical situation for the duration of the season, we should see the John Brown who went for over 1,000 yards receiving and had seven touchdown receptions — both good for second on the team — in 2015. While he’s been limited in the preseason with a nagging quad injury, his speed and ability to “take the top off a defense” gives the Cardinals an offensive element they sorely missed last year, especially in head coach Bruce Arians’ vertical passing game. Plus, given the fact that the Cardinals have the constant threat of David Johnson carrying the football, defenses will be more likely to cheat towards the line of scrimmage on play-action passing plays. That could create lots of big play opportunities for Brown. He’s an intriguing buy-low candidate, with tremendous upside this season.
Los Angeles Rams — Cooper Kupp, Wide Receiver: It might seem strange to see the name of a rookie wide receiver, taken in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, for a team that finished 31st in the NFL in passing last year, especially given how many people believe the team’s young quarterback is destined to be a colossal draft bust. But don’t be surprised if Cooper Kupp actually ends up leading all rookie receivers this year in the total number of passes caught, and presenting fantastic value in leagues that award points (or half points) for receptions. Playing at tiny Eastern Washington University, Kupp was perhaps the most productive wide receiver in Football Championship Subdivision history, setting all time records in total receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns (73). A crafty wide receiver with hands than snare in every pass in his direction, Kupp has that incredible knack for simply getting open. Even though the Rams signed wide receiver Robert Woods in free agency, and then surprised everyone by acquiring wide receiver Sammy Watkins in a late-summer trade, Kupp could easily turn into a something of a security blanket for quarterback Jared Goff, who best operates in a precise, timing-based offense anyway. If you’re looking for a ceiling and floor comparison for Kupp, think of Jarvis Landry of the Miami Dolphins and Cole Beasley of the Dallas Cowboys. Both of those guys caught 75 or more passes for their respective teams, and it wouldn’t be a total shock to see Kupp get somewhere in that neighborhood this year, even as a rookie.
San Francisco 49ers — Carlos Hyde, Running Back: Carlos Hyde just seems like one of those players who everyone talks themselves into, despite what the statistical evidence may say. Case in point? Hyde is usually somewhere between the ninth and 15th running back taken in most fantasy drafts, despite the fact that in his three seasons in the NFL, he’s never played in all 16 games (missing 14 games over the past three years), he’s never had more than six rushing touchdowns in a given season (he had a grand total of seven rushing touchdowns in his first two seasons), and he’s never hit the thousand-yard mark in rushing (he had less than 500 yards rushing in his first two seasons). Sure, Hyde is getting the benefit of the doubt now, given what new head coach Kyle Shanahan did for the running game of the Atlanta Falcons this past season: guiding them to a top five finish in rushing yards per game as a team. But does that necessarily translate into Hyde being successful this season? For one, teams playing San Francisco this season will undoubtedly do what they can to stop the 49ers rushing attack, given that the team has very little in the way of a passing attack to threaten a defense. And then there’s the fact that the 49ers never really seemed that thrilled with the idea of Hyde as their main running back to begin with. There were reports this past spring, coming out of the Bay area, that the front office was ready to move on from Hyde, and even seriously considered taking Leonard Fournette with the second overall pick in the draft. In the days leading up to the draft, new General Manager John Lynch openly questioned Hyde’s fit in Shanahan’s outside-zone running scheme. Lynch and Shanahan didn’t acquire running backs Tim Hightower (whom Shanahan coached back in Washington) and Joe Williams (their third round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft) to simply fill roster spots; they could very likely push Hyde for carries. Hyde’s contract also expires at the end of this season, meaning San Francisco has an easy way to phase him out of their offense and part ways with him after this year.
Seattle Seahawks — Eddie Lacy, Running Back, Seattle Seahawks: I strongly urge you not to buy into the idea that Eddie Lacy is going to resurrect his career in Seattle, after his previous two injury-plagued seasons in Green Bay. There are just too many red flags, when it comes to Lacy. For one, we’re talking about a player who had to be contractually and financially incentivized to get his weight down to a reasonable number before camp starts. At one point in time, it was revealed that Lacy weighed as much as 267lbs in the offseason, which is nearly the same weight as what Myles Garrett — the defensive end who went #1 overall in the 2017 NFL Draft — was officially listed at. He’s basically one more buffet table away from eating himself out of the league. Weight issues aside, there’s too much potential for the Seahawks to either spread out their rushing attempts among multiple running backs, and/or having one running back finish with more carries than Lacy this season. Incumbent Thomas Rawls is a favorite of Seahawks’ head coach Pete Carroll, and was running with the first team for most of the spring and early summer while Lacy was still mending from his season-ending injury last year. Seattle still has running back Alex Collins, their fifth round pick from the 2016 NFL Draft. CJ Prosise, their 3rd round pick in last year’s draft, will steal a few carries per game as well, although he’s more of a threat as a pass catcher out of the backfield. But the most intriguing name to watch in the backfield might be running back Chris Carson, the team’s 7th round pick in this most recent draft. He’s impressed the team with his performance this year, and with Seattle’s history of giving unhearalded running backs an opportunity to play, that’s another person who could potentially siphon off carries from Lacy. If you’re heading into this year thinking that Lacy could be a reliable RB2, let alone an RB1, you might be setting yourself up for disappointment.
New England Patriots — Mike Gillislee, Running Back: Leave it to the New England Patriots to sneakily snatch up a player who could turn out to be one of the true steals in free agency. As a member of the Buffalo Bills last season, Mike Gillislee led the NFL in yards per attempt (5.71), average attempts per rushing touchdown (12.63), and ranked second in yards before first contact per rush (3.89). Touching the ball only 110 times total last year, he flirted with double-digit touchdowns. And yet, somehow, the Buffalo Bills let the New England sign Gillislee to an offer sheet (he was a restricted free agent), and then inexplicably chose not to match it, letting him go to their hated division rival. While New England is primarily known for being a passing-driven offense (on account of that Tom Brady guy), many people forget that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has preferred to have a running back who can grind out the tough carries between the tackles, like Stevan Ridley in 2012 and 2013, and then LeGarette Blount in 2015 and 2016. Gillislee will have the first chance to replace the departed Blount’s production in this offense, and considering Blount scored a league-leading 18 rushing touchdowns last year, Gillislee’s upside could be immense.
Buffalo Bills — Jordan Matthews, Wide Receiver: After shooing away every wide receiver worth a damn off of last year’s roster, somebody has to actually catch passes from Tyrod Taylor this season… unless the Bills plan on just employing a Wing-T option-based offense featuring Taylor and LeSean McCoy running the ball every play (hint: that’s highly doubtful). After acquring Jordan Matthews from the Philadelphia Eagles, he basically becomes the team’s top wide receiver by default, considering behind Matthews are guys like Zay Jones (their second round pick who missed much of the offseason due to injury and faces a steep learning curve after playing in a spread offense at East Carolina University) and Corey “is your name Corey or Philly?” Brown. As far as Matthews, at 6’3 and 212lbs, he’s the rare “big receiver” who can effectively play both outside, and out of the slot position (meaning Buffalo could move him around and try to create mismatches with opposing cornerbacks). The former second-round pick out of Vanderbilt has averaged more than 71 receptions, almost 900 yards, and more than six touchdowns over his first three years in the NFL. He’s further and further away from the nagging knee injury that plagued him for all of 2016, and he’s entering his fourth season in the NFL: a year when many young receivers enjoy their true “breakout year.”
Miami Dolphins — Jay Ajayi, Running Back: Jay Ajayi was fantasy football’s version of “feast or famine.” Yes, the three games with 200+ yards rushing were incredibly tantalizing. But what about the fact that he finished with less than 80 yards rushing in 11 of the 15 games he played in last year, and had less than 62 yards rushing in five of his last eight games of the season (when running backs are really looked at to carry the load for their team)? To make matters worse for Ajayi, his blocking situation up front isn’t off to a great start, either. The Dolphins signed offensive lineman Ted Larsen this offseason to start at one of the guard positions, but he sustained a torn biceps injury early in training camp, and is presumably done for the year. Larsen was not only penciled in as a day one starter, but was also an insurance policy at center, in case Mike Pouncey was not quite fully recovered from the hip injury that forced him to miss all but five games last year. The Dolphins injury-riddled line in 2016 was largely responsible for many of Ajayi’s sub-par performances, and given the way things have started off this season, it doesn’t bode well for Ajayi’s production this season either.
New York Jets — Bilal Powell, Running Back: One of the most non-descript running backs in all of fantasy football last year, running back Bilal Powell of the New York Jets not only finished third in receptions among all NFL running backs (his 58 catches was the second highest total for the Jets last year), but also had over 1,100 combined yards from scrimmage, and five total touchdowns. Over the last four games of 2016, taking over for the aging Matt Forte, Powell averaged over 20 carries per game in that stretch, and went over the 120-yard rushing mark in two of those four games. Forte will turn 32 years old this December, and is already right around that age where running backs begin to fall off the proverbial cliff. The Jets will still rely on Forte for the “hard yards” between the tackles, but they’re expected to lessen Forte’s workload substantially this year, with a lot more carries being given to Powell. In standard scoring leagues, Powell has decent value as a flex option, but he could be considered as high as a RB2 in PPR or half-PPR leagues this year.
Baltimore Ravens — Danny Woodhead, Running Back: Here’s a fact: over the last four years, only one running back in the NFL has multiple seasons in which he caught more than 75 passes; that would be Danny Woodhead. In 2015, he tied for the league lead among all running backs with 80 catches, and had 76 receptions in 2013 (good for second among all running backs that year). Frankly, the only reason he wasn’t as high up there in the in-between years is because he suffered season-ending injuries early in the 2014 and 2016 season. But even after missing 14 out of 16 games last year after sustaining a torn ACL, and despite turning 32 years old this offseason, the Baltimore Ravens made Danny Woodhead one of their priorities in free agency this offseason, and signed him to step in and immediately become their third down back. So far, the early reviews on Woodhead, and his relationship with Flacco, are very positive: Woodhead looks great, and he and Flacco are developing a solid rapport. Not only did Flacco already complete the second-most completions to running backs last season, but he also lost three players — tight end Dennis Pitta, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, and running back Kenneth Dixon — who combined for over 150 catches last year. Expect many of those targets to be delivered in Woodhead’s direction. For those who play in a PPR or half-PPR league, Woodhead is a solid RB2, with the upside to become a low RB1 if Flacco can stay healthy through the season.
Cincinnati Bengals — Joe Mixon, Running Back: Regardless of how you might feel about Joe Mixon’s legal issues while at the University of Oklahoma, and how the school and how the player handled said legal issues, one thing is hard to deny: Joe Mixon might have been the most complete running backs in the 2017 NFL Draft. The way he runs, and the way he catches passes out of the backfield, Mixon legitimately has the potential to be a close facsimile to fellow AFC North superstud running back Le’Veon Bell. He’s a smooth glider that gets the ball in his hands, reads the hole, and demonstrates an outstanding burst that allows him to rip off huge chunks of yards with a quickness. He’s also not afraid to drop the pads and lower the boom on defenders, either; he has the size to do so, standing 6’1 and 226lbs. As of right now, Mixon might not be listed atop the running back depth chart in Cincinnati, but it’s only a matter of time before that changes (and it will almost certainly be sooner rather than later). He should quickly supplant the plodding and undynamic Jeremy Hill as the Bengals starting running back on opening day. Plus, with Gio Bernard likely to come back from his ACL injury at less than 100% this year, Mixon could see even more touches as a runner and a receiver. The simple question around him is whether he’s fully and totally distanced himself from the off-the-field stuff in college, and whether he can focus on handling the difference between opposing defenses in the Big 12 conference (or the lack thereof) and opposing defenses in the NFL.
Cleveland Browns — Corey Coleman, Wide Receiver: It’s gotta be really hard for Cleveland fans to stomach the success that wide receiver Michael Thomas had in his first year in New Orleans last year, considering the Browns passed on Thomas and instead made Corey Coleman the first wide receiver taken in the 2016 NFL Draft. Then again, Browns fans are probably used to such a storyline at this point in time. That notwithstanding, Coleman only played in 10 games last year, and as a result, was tied for fourth in receptions among Browns players last year; he actually had less receptions than tight end Gary Barnidge and running back Duke Johnson Jr. While his 12.5 yards per reception were nice (though not great) and his three touchdowns were tied for the second most on the team (even though 84 other players in the NFL had more than three receiving touchdowns last year), Coleman’s rookie year should be considered a disappointment. And if the 2017 offseason is a foreshadowing of things to come for Coleman, then you shouldn’t expect much of an improvement from him this year, either. Injuries kept Corey Coleman largely off the field in offseason work this summer, and he was linked to a brutal assault of a 26-year-old male (though it looks like no charges will be brought upon him for this). Browns head coach Hue Jackson has publicly stated that Coleman has struggled with the adjustment from playing in a spread offense in college to a professional offense in the NFL, and that he needs to step up to the challenge. Still, Coleman will probably put up pedestrian numbers as the #2 receiver in the Browns offense (next to free agency acquisition Kenny Britt), especially given all the question marks they have at quarterback. He’s at least another year or two away from being a meaningful fantasy player.
Pittsburgh Steelers — Le’Veon Bell, Running Back: It’s hard to pick a fantasy player to highlight on this team, considering Pittsburgh’s offense is basically the Baskin Robbins’ 31 flavors of offensive weapons. But as a kid, every time I ended up going to Baskin Robbins for ice cream, I would always start with the most obvious, go-to, reliable flavor in mind (which was Butter Pecan for me), so we’ll do the same for the Steelers. In 12 regular season games last year, Le’Veon Bell ran for 1,268 yards and seven touchdowns — meaning he finished in the top five in the NFL in rushing yards, despite missing a quarter of the season. If you extrapolate those stats over 16 games, he would’ve had over 1,700 yards rushing (which would’ve led the NFL) and over nine touchdowns on the ground. And that’s not even including the fact that he averaged over six receptions for 50 yards receiving during the regular season as well. Playing on the franchise tag this season, he’s essentially in a contract year in Pittsburgh, meaning he has everything to prove in order to procure his one big payday. And he’s heading into this season without any questions around suspensions or injuries for the first time in his NFL career. I expect him to be this year’s version of the “league-altering dominant running back” like we saw from guys like Marshall Faulk and LaDainian Tomlinson in years past.
Houston Texans — DeAndre Hopkins, Wide Receiver: There’s no question that DeAndre Hopkins is a pass-catching savant, with an uncanny ability to contort his body in a way that only allows him access to the ball (and not the guy defending him), or to reach up and snag passes that no one else with his height (he’s 6’1) would have any realistic chance of catching. Here’s the problem with Hopkins, though: he needs a quarterback that can actually get the football somewhere near him. With Brock Osweiler playing quarterback for the Houston Texans for most of 2016, fantasy owners could’ve brought up criminal charges against Osweiler, for the way he murdered Hopkins’ fantasy stats. The same guy who finished 3rd in the NFL in receiving yards in 2015 (1,521) finished with almost 50% less receiving yards (802) the year after. And even though the Texans mercifully got rid of Osweiler in the offseason, it’s not like the situation for Hopkins is going to be much better. For one, Houston is still deciding between Tom Savage (who has all of two career regular season starts under his belt) and first round pick Deshaun Watson (who faces a steep learning curve in the NFL after playing in a spread offense at Clemson University). Plus, there’s absolutely nothing to stop defenses from designing all their coverage schemes to make it impossible to throw to Hopkins, considering there’s absolutely no other receiver on the Texans who’d scare a defense. Wide receiver Will Fuller, their top pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, is out indefinitely with a broken collarbone. Next in line behind Fuller would be guys like Jaelen Strong (a third round pick who has been frustratingly inconsistent for the Texans) and Braxton Miller (a converted college quarterback who is best suited as a slot receiver). If opponents devoted three guys to exclusively cover Hopkins, it doesn’t seem like Houston would make them pay for it. It could be a very long year for DeAndre Hopkins, as well as anyone who has him on their fantasy football team.
Indianapolis Colts — Andrew Luck, Quarterback: If you told someone back in the spring of 2012, when Andrew Luck was considered to be the best quarterback prospect to come out of college since John Elway, that we’d be waiting for Luck to officially “break out” five seasons into Luck’s career, most people would’ve called you a “hater.” But thanks to the gross negligence exhibited by the front office of the Indianapolis Colts over the past several years, where they repeatedly chose not to invest in an offensive line to protect their stud quarterback, Luck has taken a merciless beating in recent years, missing 10 games over the past two seasons thanks to a myriad of injuries. Right now, we’re only days away from the start of the 2017 NFL season, and Luck hasn’t even officially began throwing the football at maximum strength yet, thanks to offseason shoulder surgery. Right now, his availability for the first game of the season is dubious at best, and the Colts are still being intentionally vague on when Luck will actually be ready to play. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say he only misses one week of action, and is ready by game two of the regular season. Consider the fact that he didn’t throw a football for the entire offseason, and will have accumulated a signficant amount of “rust,” in terms of his rhythm and timing in throwing the football. How long will it be before he gets back in “football shape?” And more importantly, how long are fantasy owners of Luck supposed to wait? Even a healthy Luck would be outside the top four or five quarterbacks in the league, from a fantasy perspective. And considering how deep the pool at quarterbacks is in fantasy football, given the passing-heavy era of football we’re currently witnessing, there’s really not all that much separating Luck from most other quarterbacks in the league, from a statistical standpoint. If he’s available in the middle rounds of your fantasy draft, he might be worth taking a flyer on, especially in leagues with keeper systems. But as far as your QB1 for this season? Look elsewhere, because it’s going to take some time before we see the Andrew Luck we all expect to see.
Jacksonville Jaguars — Leonard Fournette, Running Back: Everyone was up in arms after the first week of the preseason, after rookie running back Leonard Fournette brashly declared that the NFL was “easy” compared to the SEC. Once real football starts, Fournette will find out that the preseason isn’t anything like the regular season. But, while you can you can chalk up Fournette’s foolhardy statement to youthful indiscretion and naivete, you’ll soon realize that Fournette has the ability to make things look relatively easy once the regular season comes around as well. The fourth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft was a force of nature during his time at LSU, and one of the most physical — if not violent — runners to come out of college since Adrian Peterson himself. More importantly, he’s coming into a situation where his team plans to use him early and often, all season long. Over their final eight games of 2016, the Jaguars had 226 rushing attempts as a team; extrapolate those numbers over the course of a full season, and that would’ve put Jacksonville among the top 10 teams in most rushing attempts. Over that same period of time, the Jaguars handed the ball to their lead running back 115 times; so if they do the same with Fournette, he’ll rack up at least 230 carries for the season, which would’ve put him in the top half of the NFL in rushing attempts last year. Simply put: Jacksonville drafted Fournette to be the centerpiece of their offense this year, and he has all the potential to be that, and more.
Tennessee Titans — Derrick Henry, Running Back: I’m not rooting for any NFL player to be injured, and/or lose his job because of injury. But if running back Demarco Murray of the Tennessee Titans misses any period of time during the 2017 NFL season due to injury, we may finally get to witness the breakout of backup running back Derrick Henry. And if Henry gets ahold of the starting job in Tennessee, it’s really hard to envision a scenario where he hands it back. A second round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Henry has an absolutely startling combination of size (6’3 and 247lbs) and speed (he ran the 40 yard dash in less than 4.55 seconds). It should be no surprise that, when he plants his foot in the ground and starts running down hill, defenders trying to bring him down must feel like they’re kissing a freight train. Carrying the ball only 110 times last year, Henry finished with 490 yards rushing and five rushing touchdowns. That’s the same number of rushing touchdowns that Terrance West had on 193 carries, and Lamar Miller had on 268 carries. What’s even more scary is that Henry came into Tennessee’s training camp in even better shape this year than he was as a rookie. Again, if Murray falters at any point this year, or misses time due to injury (we are talking about a guy with a history of injury issues), Henry’s numbers could explode as he’s given more carries.
Denver Broncos — Devontae Booker, Running Back: When the Denver Broncos drafted running back Devontae Booker in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft, as part of the typical “we can’t believe he was still available when we made our pick” rhetoric, word came out that the Broncos had a first round grade on Booker, coming out of the University of Utah. But after a lackluster rookie season, we’re here to tell you to step away from the Devontae Booker Kool-Aid that may be offered to you. Sure, Booker might have led the Broncos in rushing attempts (174), yards (612), and tied for the lead in touchdowns (four), but those numbers shouldn’t really get anyone excited. For one, that translates into only 3.5 yards per carry. And then, there’s the fact that Booker is already going to be 25 years old when the 2017 season begins, meaning his ceiling to improve from his rookie season is much lower than you’d expect from any other running back going into his second year. Most importantly, Booker fractured his wrist in training camp, and is expected to be back about midway through September. In a camp where incumbent C.J. Anderson and newcomer Jamaal Charles are already fighting for the lead back role, this puts Booker at a significant disadvantage. At one point in time, there was even talk that him not making the Broncos final roster wasn’t totally out of the question. He’s still going to be on the team come opening day, with the Broncos confident in his recovery enough to not start him on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list to start the season, but it would be a surprise to see Booker lead the team in rushing again this season. On a team that looks to be highly anemic on offense yet again this year, he’s a player you should stay far away from.
Kansas City Chiefs — Chris Conley, Wide Receiver: In fairness to Chris Conley, perhaps the expectations on him are a case of “too much, too soon.” Heading into the 2015 NFL Draft, Conley looked like a mid-to-late “Day 3” pick, likely to go somewhere between the fifth to seventh rounds of the draft (closer to the latter). Instead, the Chiefs were tantalized by his combination of height (6’3) and speed (he ran the 40 yard dash in 4.35 seconds). But there was some concern that Conley’s athletic gifts far exceeded his actual abilities as a wide receiver, and so far, those concerns seem to hold up. Playing in 84% of the Chiefs passing plays last year, Conley had the most targets (66), receptions (44), and receiving yards (530) of any player that failed to find the endzone a single time in 2016. His 4.5% dropped passes led the team. Over the last eight games of the season, he recorded a paltry 18 receptions for 216 yards, meaning he averaged less than 30 yards per game in that stretch. Kansas City apparently thought enough of their current group of receivers that they (rather shockingly) released veteran Jeremy Maclin this past offseason, but that move could prove to be a bit rash. Plus, it’s no guarantee that Conley’s production will improve if and when rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes takes over for incumbent Alex Smith, considering Mahomes is one of the most raw — but talented — quarterback prospects to come out in years. For anyone who might be banking on Conley putting it all together in his third year in the NFL: don’t hold your breath.
Los Angeles Chargers — Keenan Allen, Wide Receiver: Remember Keenan Allen? You know, the guy who burst onto the NFL scene with 1,046 yards and receiving touchdowns as a rookie, and then steadily saw his stats plummet over the past three largely-injury-filled seasons? Yep, that’s the same guy who were putting on our “Boom” list, despite the fact that he’s missed 23 games over the last two seasons, and never played in all 16 games in any season during his career. No, we’re not crazy. One of the unspoken but elusively obvious rules of fantasy football: bet on talent, which is something that Keenan Allen has in abundance. Coming off a torn ACL, which cost him nearly all of the 2016 season, Allen reportedly looked quick and explosive all spring, running at virtually full speed during the Chargers organized team activities. Quarterback Philip Rivers is on record commenting how Allen looked as good this spring as he did prior to getting hurt. So let’s assume that Allen is somewhere close to the guy he used to be. In 2015, prior to missing the second half of the season, Allen was on pace for over 120 catches and 1,400 yards receiving, recording three different games with 12 or more catches. He was on pace for 178 targets that year, which would’ve given him the fourth most targets of any pass catcher in the league. Now, he probably won’t see that many passes in his direction, but he’s going to have a lot more space to operate on the underneath routes, where he excells, thanks to guys like Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin loosening up the defense, and tight ends Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry wreaking havoc up the seams. When healthy, Allen is still one of Rivers’ favorite targets, so assuming his health can stay in check this season, he could be a borderline WR1 this year.
Oakland Raiders — Amari Cooper, Wide Receiver: If it wasn’t for Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh, we’d probably be talking about Amari Cooper of the Oakland Raiders as the guy who plays the wide receiver position as smoothly and effortlessly as anyone in the NFL. It shouldn’t be any surprise, then, that Cooper went over 1,000 yards receiving during his first two seasons in the NFL, putting up that level of production before he even turned 23 years old (his 23rd birthday was this past summer). Now here’s the scary part: Cooper could actually be primed for a monster season in 2017. Over the first half of last season, Cooper had 52 catches for 787 yards, averaging over 15 yards per reception. His statistics fell off precipitously in the second half of the season (31 receptions for 366 yards), which could be attributed in part to a tough slate of opponents down the stretch of the season. But after spending an offseason getting into tremendous shape, and spending lots of time catching passes from and working on his timing with quarterback Derek Carr, Cooper looks primed to have a monster third year in the NFL, when many wide receivers finally have the proverbial “light switch” turn on for them. And with fellow wide receiver Michael Crabtree opposite of Cooper — forming just the third duo in Raiders history to each record 1,000 receiving yards in the same year — teams will be forced to pick their poison in coverage. We could be talking about him as a top 10 receiver by the time the year is over.