The old adage goes: “You can’t win your fantasy football league title at the draft, but you can certainly lose it.” With the regular season just a few weeks away and countless drafts taking place between now and then, here are some under-the-radar candidates to target to take that first step toward glory (and away from infamy) this year.
Bounceback Candidate: Cam Newton
Let’s look at Newton’s stats last season relative to his career averages: 67.9% completion percentage (highest of his career), 33.6 passing attempts per game (highest of his career), 242.5 yards per game (second-highest), and 24 passing TDs (tied-second). Meanwhile, Newton still averaged over 7 rushes per game, in line with his career average. Still, the Panthers struggled, and Newton finished as QB13 despite playing in only 14 games.
But the public has cast Cam off. It feels harsh to label Newton a player in need of a bounceback, but the 2015 MVP is being drafted at QB11, behind rookie Kyler Murray. Newton is still a physical specimen on the field, and has spent the offseason refining his throwing mechanics to hit his an impressive group of weapons including 2018 first-rounder DJ Moore, 2017 second-rounder Curtis Samuel, do-everything running back Christian McCaffery, and a healthy Greg Olsen.
Every year Newton has finished all sixteen games (five times), his average finish is the QB2.5. Before his shoulder injury last year in Week 12, Newton was the QB4. But this year, you can stock up on running backs and wide receivers while your friends reach for QBs, and then let Newton fall into your lap late.
Breakout Candidate: Sam Darnold
Darnold was banged up last season with a foot injury, but many folks forget how effective the USC product was upon his return. Two consecutive weeks of 100+ passer ratings and a newfound connection with speedster Robby Anderson gave the Jets faithful hope heading into the offseason, and most of the team’s moves have been with Darnold in mind.
First, the team’s firing of defensive-minded head coach Todd Bowles, who was replaced with Adam Gase, the former head Dolphins head man with a background in developing QBs, should be hugely beneficial for the 2018 third overall pick. The team’s biggest move, of course, was bringing Le’Veon Bell, a dangerous dual-threat out of the backfield who should be highly motivated with how his exit in Pittsburgh transpired. In addition, the Jets went out and got G Kelechi Osemele to take pressure off Darnold, and brought in slot WR Jamison Crowder for Sam to use as a reliable target underneath.
Don’t even bother drafting Darnold as he’s being selected as the QB24 at present, but he may be a name worth monitoring in the season’s early stages. In deeper leagues or 2QB setups, snag the signal caller in one of the draft’s last rounds and you’re likely to find great value.
Bounceback Candidate: Leonard Fournette
Count me among the fantasy owners that were pushed to their wit’s end by Fournette last season after spending a first (or early second) round pick on him. The 2017 fourth overall pick only suited up in eight games last season, missing time due to injury and boneheaded disciplinary mistakes. Additionally, Fournette’s rushing yards per game when he was healthy plummeted from 80 in his rookie year to 54.9, and the former LSU star averaged a brutal 3.3 yards per carry.
There are plenty of reasons for optimism with Fournette, however. While the health concerns are real (Fournette has missed games in both his NFL seasons), he is still just 24 years old. The Jaguars brought in Nick Foles to replace Blake Bortles at quarterback, so defenses won’t be able to simply stack the box against the run and dare the Jags to throw anymore – Foles will be able to make plays. Perhaps most exciting of all, the Jaguars let TJ Yeldon, who handled most of the passing game duties at running back, sign with the Bills. Yeldon was never sufficiently replaced, so now behind Fournette are an underwhelming crew headlined by Alfred Blue and Ryquell Armstead.
Fournette has every opportunity to right the ship this season, and at an RB2 price (RB13 ADP) in standard leagues, which Fournette is best suited for, the 2017 fourth overall pick is a steal.
Breakout Candidate: Josh Jacobs
While Josh Jacobs has been hiding from the Hard Knocks cameras thus far, he was never going to go unnoticed by fantasy owners after the Alabama bruiser was selected as the first running back off the board in April’s draft. While Jacobs is being selected as the first rookie rusher off the board with David Montgomery in the late-RB2 range, he’s still being undervalued in drafts.
First, the situation Jacobs is entering in Oakland is becoming a lot more favorable for fantasy options this season. Everyone knows about the Antonio Brown addition, but Tyrell Williams was also brought in to stretch the field even more. Jacobs will also be joining Oakland with offensive linemen Trent Brown and Richie Incognito, who have both been excellent when they’re on the field. The Raiders are going to score a lot more this season and should comfortably top last year’s 4-12 record.
Jacobs is also tremendous player in his own right. The unheralded three-star recruit played with a nasty edge as he worked his way up the depth chart at Alabama, rounding into a tremendous runner, receiver, and kick returner. Jacobs has a nose for the end zone, too, scoring 11 times on 140 touches last season. History has shown that running backs can stuff stat sheets in their rookie seasons, and Jacobs should be the next piece of evidence.
Bounceback Candidate: Robby Anderson
If I think Darnold is going to breakout, I have to follow up by mentioning the man who is far and away his best target. Anderson finished at WR36 in standard last year but came on very strong as the season wore. The Temple product went for at least seventy yards and a touchdown in every game in weeks 14-16 after never eclipsing four receptions in the first eight weeks of the year.
All of the reasons I’m betting on Darnold apply to Anderson as well. Le’Veon Bell and Jamison Crowder should divert attention away from the speedster Anderson, and an improved offensive line would give Darnold time to uncork downfield. Additionally, the Jets used a second round tender on Anderson this summer to show they value having him around.
Betting on Anderson week-to-week is always a scary proposition for conservative fantasy owners because of the boom/bust nature of his scoring. But in standard leagues where yards and scores are king, Anderson can provide a good week’s production on one snap. Anderson is being drafted at WR29 around players that are second options on their teams, including Will Fuller, Jarvis Landry, and Marvin Jones. I expect Anderson to outgain each of them.
Breakout Candidate: Mike Williams
Being the primary target on a team isn’t the sole indicator of fantasy values, though! Mike Williams incredibly finished as the WR20 in standard leagues last season on just 66 targets – there have only been 16 players in the last decade to finish in the top 20 on less than 100.
That type of hyper efficiency is a signal of the type of playmaker Williams is when the ball gets thrown his way. With the Chargers letting competition for targets like Tyrell Williams and Antonio Gates leave the team, the 6’4”, 220 pounder should see an uptick in that department, while Melvin Gordon’s holdout means Los Angeles may look to throw more.
The public seems to be deeming Williams’ season a fluke, however. That WR20 finish on 66 targets has Williams being drafted at…WR24 in standard leagues this year? I don’t see it. A word of caution, however: both Anderson and Williams have top-10 most difficult strength of schedules for wideouts, according to FantasyPros.
Bounceback Candidate: Delanie Walker
Delanie Walker broke his ankle in Week 1 of last season and is now 35 years old, so he’s not without his red flags. Further, the Titans offense will likely lean on running back Derrick Henry and have added pass catchers including AJ Brown and Adam Humphries to further slice an already-small pie. Fantasy owners have taken all this into account and are drafting Walker at TE12 in standard leagues this year.
There are plenty of reasons to believe in the 14-year vet, though. For one, Walker suffering his broken ankle is Week 1 gave him an extended period to come back to full health, and before that Walker had never missed significant time due to injury. I see Walker playing 16 games. Additionally, it’s easy to forget just how productive Walker has been in his thirties: four straight seasons of at least 100 targets and 800 yards before last year. He was TE6 in standard (and TE4 in PPR) at 33 two seasons ago.
I’m not saying Walker will eclipse 100 targets again with the new faces in Nashville, but you’re not paying close a 100-target price way down in the last rounds of your draft. Marcus Mariota feels more comfortable with Walker than anyone else he’s throwing the ball to, and I think Delanie is worth a pickup if there’s not good value on that initial two tiers of tight ends.
Breakout Candidate: Vance McDonald
The 29 year old seems at a peculiar age for a breakout season, but this has everything to do with player movement around McDonald. We all know that Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown’s departures mean lots of targets have opened up in Pittsburgh, but equally important for McDonald was Jesse James leaving to sign with the Lions.
Last year, McDonald put up 50 catches, 610 yards, and 4 touchdowns despite only playing 50.5% of the Steelers snaps – that number is sure to skyrocket. The Rice graduate finally got healthy last year, and showed off his natural traits as a receiver – a huge catch radius, and an ability to make things happen in space.
With McDonald, you’re betting on the man who could well be the #2 target on a team that threw the ball a whopping 670 times last season, and you’re drafting him at TE9 on average. I like Vance over Jared Cook and Eric Ebron this year, but luckily for you, you probably won’t have to draft him ahead of those two.