With the NFL Draft behind us, it is time for football fans to set their sights on the next season. Fantasy season. I get why some people might think it’s way too early to start thinking about fantasy football, and they might have a point, but you can never go wrong with getting a head start on your opponents. With rookie minicamps in full swing, now is a great time to look around and see which rookies are making a good (or bad) first impression. It was at this time two years ago when I first learned about Michael Thomas’ early dominance. About eight months later, Thomas helped lead my fantasy team to victory. Using ESPN’s current rankings (which are bound to change), I identified some guys who could potentially pay huge dividends for their owners in the fall. Next to each name is the player’s ranking among their position, which are too low in my opinion. I tried to pick players who were ranked relatively low, so guys like Jerick McKinnon (14th-ranked running back, per ESPN.com’s fantasy projections) or Deshaun Watson (10) don’t count for this articles’ purposes.
Matt Ryan (17) This seems almost too good to be true. After posting an MVP-caliber season two years ago, Ryan followed up his career-best year with an average season that placed him just 15th among quarterbacks. Normally, once a veteran quarterback experiences a down year I tend to look the way other way when drafting quarterbacks the following season. However, Ryan is a special case. The newly-highest paid player in NFL history is back with all his weapons, including the lethal Julio Jones. Ryan’s arsenal doesn’t top off there. He’ll have a loaded backfield in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman at his disposal as well as a reliable receiver in Mohamed Sanu. Not to mention that Ryan was just awarded Calvin Ridley, arguably the best receiver in the draft class. Coming off a down year, look for Ryan to rebound with his old and new toys.
Jared Goff (20) Like Ryan, Goff is surrounded by talent. Superstar Todd Gurley is obviously an excellent asset and newly acquired receiver Brandin Cooks be a heavy contributor as well. Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods also proved to be reliable options last season. Additionally, the entire starting offensive line returns after allowing the fifth-fewest sacks in the league. However, there are two main reasons why I’m buying into Goff. The first is that Goff is only getting better. Under Coach of the Year Sean McVay, Goff looked like a whole new quarterback, and his massive spike in stats reflected his growth. Second, the Rams’ offense was first in total points scored last season. An offensive juggernaut is a goldmine for high-scoring fantasy quarterbacks. Spoiler: Not only do I think Goff can be a fantasy superstar, but I think he can be an All-Pro quarterback, too.
Deep Sleeper: Eli Manning (26)
Marlon Mack (33) The number one indicator for fantasy relevancy among running backs is touches. The second indicator is receiving ability, especially in PPR leagues. Both can apply to Mack, who returns for his sophomore season as the top running back on the Colts’ depth chart and has flashed as a receiving back. Unfortunately for Mack, the Colts added two running backs in the draft, including deep sleeper Jordan Wilkins. As a Marlon Mack advocate, I’m not too discouraged by those recent additions. Mack just has the all-around talent to succeed with 20+ carries in a game. He sat behind veteran Frank Gore last year, but Mack scored in each of the two games where saw ten or more carries. My one concern is how new coach Frank Reich approaches the running game. With such a young group of running backs, Reich could easily incorporate a committee, a.k.a the fantasy graveyard. Mack’s situation is an important one to monitor because how he looks during camp could dictate how much he is used and how effective he could be.
D’Onta Foreman (46) I wasn’t a huge fan of Foreman coming into last season as a receiver, but in his very limited usage as a receiver (he was targeted eight times), Foreman racked up 83 receiving yards. On the ground, Foreman averaged a stellar 7.8 carries per game, including five performances of ten or more carries. Those numbers are unexpectedly high considering Foreman’s role behind Lamar Miller on the depth chart. When I watched Foreman last season, it was hard to miss his downhill running style and his surprising elusiveness. I would be more shocked if Miller continued to start rather than if Miller was benched for Foreman. Clearly, the Texans think very highly of Foreman, as evident by his increase in usage throughout the season. They still haven’t added a running back in the offseason, either. Unfortunately, Foreman’s promising rookie season was cut short by a ruptured Achilles tendon, so you should keep an eye on his recovery. If he’s able to suit up for the preseason, consider Foreman a sneaky pick to steal carries (and eventually the job) from Miller.
Deep Sleeper: Jordan Wilkins (64)
Sterling Shepard (40) I have been a massive Shepard fan since before he was drafted. His route running skills are top-notch and he has displayed very reliable hands. The injury bug took five games from the young wide receiver last season, thus deflating his stats, but he still managed to make the most of his time on the field. Shepard averaged 7.8 targets per game, including three double-digit performances, while averaging just over 66 yards a game. The intriguing thing about Shepard is that when healthy, the least percentage of snaps he saw was Week 16, where he was on the field for a whopping 90.3 percent of the plays, per 4for4.com. Like touches are for running backs, snap percentage and targets are essential for receivers. Shepard is basically on the field at the rate of a top ten receiver. What others may view as a negative in regards to Shepard’s development, I view as a positive: Odell Beckham. Beckham will almost always demand the top cornerback on the field. This allows for Shepard to settle for the second-best option, which works out in the Giants’ favor because Shepard is really good. With the addition of Saquon Barkley, defenses could forget about Shepard and open the door for the third-year receiver to continue his ascension into fantasy stardom.
D.J. Moore (72) Like I said earlier, opportunity is the greatest asset a fantasy player can have. As the first receiver taken in the 2018 NFL Draft, Moore will almost assuredly see a large chunk of the Carolina offense. I dove into the electric playmaker a few weeks ago and I really love his fit here. Moore is the perfect complement to the bigger Devin Funchess, who quietly posted the 22nd-highest fantasy performance among wide receivers. This creates a similar situation to that of Sterling Shepard’s in which Moore will slip through the cracks while defenses focus on the Panthers’ other options. Let me just say, those are some good options. Rising star Christian McCaffrey and veteran star Greg Olsen will inevitably draw the defense’s attention. Not to mention that Cam Newton will be throwing Moore the ball, too. All in all, this is a fantastic situation for Moore who fits perfectly in the Carolina offense. Moore will capitalize on all the targets that should have gone to the number two receiver (who, according to statistics, was never truly established) and could eventually become the team’s best receiver.
Deep Sleeper: Michael Gallup (94)
Trey Burton (14) Frankly, I’m shocked Burton is ranked this low. In his limited time behind Zach Ertz, Burton flashed major potential. During Ertz’s two-game absence, Burton proved he can be a top fantasy option by scoring three times on 112 receiving yards. My favorite thing about Burton is his versatility. He can lineup in the backfield, which only increases his potential usage. He’ll also finally be a starter after signing with Chicago this offseason, who have been surprisingly solid at producing fantasy relevant tight ends (See: Miller, Zach). New coach Matt Nagy has some experience with Travis Kelce, but expecting Burton to duplicate Kelce’s success is ludicrous because they are completely different players. On the bright side, Nagy is one of the most innovative offensive minds in the NFL and has shown that he is willing to adjust his playbook to reflect his players’ skill-sets. Enter Burton, who I expect to see heavy usage en route to a top-seven performance among tight ends.
George Kittle (17) Kittle’s greatest asset is not something that can be reflected in stats: his superb blocking skills. This does have fantasy relevance, however, because tight ends who block see the field more. More playing time equates to more opportunities, and you can piece together what that leads to. (Hint: A happy fantasy owner.) Last year, the younger Kittle split time with veteran Garrett Celek but the sophomore is expected to see an increased role in 2018. When given the opportunity, Kittle showed he can be a reliable tight end. He saw his most playing time in Weeks 10 and 14, which were his most productive games of the season. With rising superstar Jimmy Garoppolo tossing him the pigskin in Kyle Shanahan’s innovative offensive system, Kittle could have the chance to flourish into the team’s best tight end since Vernon Davis was in his prime. Pay close attention to Kittle’s role in camps, though.
Deep Sleeper: Mike Gesicki (26)