All of the final draft preparations are over, with the exception of one last blast of data in the third week of the preseason. We’re close enough to the end of draft prep season to take a stand on the most important kind of player - the one who can make your draft. You have build upside into your draft, and the best way to do that is taking a handful of players who can blow away their ADP - return exponential value on investment. Here’s my list of the 20 players most likely to do that this season.
Tom Brady, NE - This is the best offense that has been assembled around Brady since the 2007 version that broke records. There is no way for defenses to answer all of the questions the Patriots set of weapons asks on every play. There’s even offensive line continuity after a few rough years. Bill Belichick always sweeps the leg and that could equal astronomical numbers. All of the productivity coming out of this attack will intersect at Brady.
Aaron Rodgers, GB - Rodgers pulled away from the pack at quarterback after Eddie Lacy went down last year. The Packers may strive for more balance this year, but a return to health for Randall Cobb and the addition of Martellus Bennett should spike the efficiency of the passing game, and the defense doesn’t look like one that will keep games low scoring. There’s room to grow even if Rodgers’ attempts come down a little from last year’s career high.
Russell Wilson, SEA - Wilson was hurt for the first half of 2016, but he recovered to put up top five fantasy quarterback numbers in the second half, only weighed down by inexplicably disastrous road games against Tampa Bay and Green Bay. With healthier versions of Tyler Lockett, Jimmy Graham, and C.J. Prosise, this passing game could take off - assuming the Seahawks are willing to let Wilson throw more. That might seem preposterous with some contemplation, but Wilson’s ADP reflects the limitations Seattle has put on his upside in the past more than the possibilities for growth in the near future.
Marcus Mariota, TEN - Mariota is in the eye of a perfect fantasy storm. He has an excellent offensive line returning five starters, an outstanding backfield duo, a greatly upgraded receiver corps, and a strong receiving tight end. He was a top five fantasy quarterback from Weeks 5-12 before running into Denver and Kansas City and then getting hurt. Denver and Kansas City aren’t on the schedule this year. Invest with confidence.
Marshawn Lynch, OAK - There’s risk here because of Lynch’s layoff and injuries the last time we saw him, but there’s upside galore. Latavius Murray turned this situation into RB1 numbers last year - and that’s with two other running backs getting over 100 touches each. The offense and defense should both contribute to high scoring games. Lynch is back in Oakland and by all accounts living up to the team’s expectations. Strong RB1 numbers are within reach.
Dalvin Cook, MIN - Cook has taken control of the Minnesota backfield and doesn’t appear to be looking back. He might yield some goal line or game finishing carries to Latavius Murray, but Cook is explosive enough to put up big games in a similar role to the one Jamaal Charles had with Thomas Jones leading the backfield in carries. That shouldn’t dictate expectations here as Murray is no Thomas Jones, but it should reassure you that Cook has more than enough upside to be worth a third round pick. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur turned up the dial on running back passes when he took over last year, which should only help Cook.
Christian McCaffrey, CAR - It is almost impossible to find someone that has watched McCaffrey this summer and not been impressed by him. We all knew he was going to have a big impact in the passing game, but he also looks like a natural in the Panthers running game. Jonathan Stewart’s role is going to shrink as the year goes on, and his durability record is spotty at best. Don’t put artificial limitations on McCaffrey’s upside based on the Panthers offense in the past. He’s a true gamechanger.
Danny Woodhead, BAL - Woodhead isn’t a sexy name, but he could benefit greatly from a Ravens offense that will have trouble establishing a downfield passing game and consistent running game if all of the injuries and changes prevent this unit from gelling. Baltimore targeted the running back over 150 times last year and two of the top three targets from that 2016 group won’t play a game for them this year. Eighty catches, over 1,000 total yards, and 8-10 scores are well within his range of outcomes. In 2015, Only Adrian Peterson had a better points-per-game average in PPR leagues among backs who didn’t miss a game.
Ameer Abdullah, DET - Abdullah is explosive and he should be set up to succeed in this offense. Last year, in his one full game, he had 120 total yards and a score on 17 touches. After Abdullah went out, Theo Riddick, an inferior talent as a runner, was RB11 on average in PPR leagues. There is a lot of PPR potential at the running back position in Detroit, and if Abdullah stays healthy, he can unlock it.
Doug Martin, TB - It is easy to forget that Martin was a solid fantasy RB1 just two years ago. All accounts all offseason and preseason and now what we have seen on the field point to Martin regaining his 2015 form. This is a better Bucs offense led by a better version of Jameis Winston playing behind a better line than what Martin had to work with in 2015, not to mention a better defense to keep games on run-heavy scripts. Missing three games is no big deal when they are at the beginning of the season when you can draft to compensate for Martin’s absence. Bagging 80% of an RB1 in the sixth or seventh round is unfair.
Rex Burkhead, NE - Burkhead’s catch and run score in the second preseason game is letting the cat out of the bag. He is talented enough to put up RB1 numbers on only 15 touches a game in this offense, and the hamstring woes of Mike Gillislee are opening the door for just that to happen. The backfield is crowded, but injuries and Burkhead’s all-around play and ability to keep defenses off balance could clarify it very quickly.
Derrick Henry, TEN - This one is elementary. If Demarco Murray goes down, Henry will immediately take on first-round value. We don’t want to be in the business of predicting injuries, but they happen, and Murray has logged a lot of work over the last few years. He had a foot issue at the end of last year and already has had a hamstring problem in camp. Even if Murray doesn’t break down until November, that means you’ll have Henry’s strong RB1 for the playoffs when you need it the most.
Corey Davis, TEN - Davis barely practiced in the offseason, then showed up in camp and was immediately installed as one of the team’s top two receivers, over Eric Decker. Then he immediately dominated practices by most accounts. He has missed a lot of time with a hamstring injury, but the Titans don’t seem disinclined to give him a huge role without much preparation. He could become the #1 target by force and is on schedule to play in the preseason for reassurance.
Demaryius Thomas, DEN - Thomas is over the debilitating hip injury from last year and the reunion with offensive coordinator Mike McCoy means a lot more screens to him this year. Trevor Siemian won the quarterback job as expected. while it lowers the upside of the offense as a whole, but could mean even more high percentage targets for Thomas. Career highs in targets and receptions are not out of the question, giving Thomas first-round PPR upside in the third round.
Brandin Cooks, NE - The Patriots didn’t trade for Cooks without having a plan for him. All of the elements are in place to put Cooks in one-on-one situations both downfield and in space on shorter passes. Perhaps he will be up and down because of the long list of weapons in New England, but he was up and down on his way to low WR1 numbers in New Orleans last year. If Rob Gronkowski can’t stay healthy, Cooks could be an amalgam of deep target high ceilings and short target high floors. Don’t underestimate what the Patriots can do when they have clarity and a clear strategic advantage.
Tyreek Hill, KC - Hill was WR7 in PPR leagues once the Chiefs got him more involved last year, and that wasn’t as a full-time player. This year, he will be full-time and one of the focal points of the passing offense. Defenses could adjust to Hill, or perhaps his adjustment to being a full-time receiver will be bumpy, but a strong WR1 season is within his range of possibilities and at a very reasonable low WR2/high WR3 cost in your draft.
Martavis Bryant, PIT - Heeeee’s back. Well not 100% officially yet, but all signs point to Bryant suiting up against the Browns in Week 1. He was already producing big plays at a scalding clip as a green part-time first and second year player. The year layoff adds risk to his outlook, but the presence of Antonio Brown to draw attention and aggressive downfield passing nature of Ben Roethlisberger more than offsets the risk with added reward. He’s one of the few receivers available outside of the first round who can win your week for you on two or three plays.
DeVante Parker, MIA - A faster Alshon Jeffery? I don’t quite know what that looks like, but if that’s what Parker is, sign me up. Jay Cutler sees that, and Jeffery was a solid WR1 when he was with Cutler in Chicago, while sharing targets with Brandon Marshall. Cutler could shift targets away from Jarvis Landry and towards Parker, and his willingness to throw 50-50 balls fits Parker’s game much more than Landry’s.
Rob Gronkowski, NE - Gronkowski gives you one of the 6-8 most valuable players in fantasy football at a second round price this year. He was as productive as all but two or three wide receivers when healthy last year, and needed only seven targets a game to do it. The injury risk is real, but probably not significantly more than most of the other tight ends going in the top five. If Gronkowski can just play 12-13 games and not miss the fantasy playoffs, he’ll be a profitable pick who could put you over the top when it matters the most.
Jimmy Graham, SEA - This offseason we learned that Graham was highly managed in his return last year and had to gut out the 2016 season at less than 100%. His return from a catastrophic knee injury seemed unlikely and his regaining of old Graham form at times even more surprising. What will his stats look like if he has truly found his old game now that his knee doesn’t need kid glove care?