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The Gut Check No.394: Better Late Than Never

Waldman lists players heading into years 3-5 that fantasy owners should still monitor or stash. 

Life doesn't unfold in a straight line. If yours appears to be doing so, I promise you that the odds are stacked against it remaining as such in the future. It's why I believe in the value of patience.

It's also why I believe in late bloomers in fantasy football. I also have a broad definition of what a "late bloomer" is because "slow development" could imply that the player isn't smart when it could include any number of things: 

  1. A good or great player ahead of them on the depth chart (Aaron Rodgers behind Brett Favre). 
  2. A bad team, scheme, or situation that doesn't use him to his potential (Greg Olsen in Chicago).
  3. Off-field issues that scare teams away (two DUI arrests for Spencer Ware in Seattle).
  4. Mislabeling the potential of an incoming player cut from his original team or multiple teams (Joique Bell and Fred Jackson).
  5. A great athlete but not in the best position to contribute (Terrelle Pryor).
  6. A bad fit with a new coaching staff (Willie Snead, Taylor Gabriel, and several others).
  7. Early-career injuries (Rashad Jennings).
I could name several for each. Here's a look at players entering years 3-5 of their pro careers who I still believe have the skills to help your fantasy teams and are worth monitoring in the news or stashing in larger leagues.
 
Some are already playing well as the season comes to a close; others have flashed promise, and many haven't done much at all. Here's why you should stay open to the possibilities for each while maintaining an appropriate sense of caution. 
 

Quarterbacks

Brett Hundley: As my buddy, Eric Stoner mentioned this week on Twitter, Josh Rosen was given far more freedom in the UCLA offense and it hasn't operated as well as it did when Jim Mora Jr. handcuffed Hundley in an unimaginative scheme that didn't allow him to even make checks at the line of scrimmage. Hundley, a film rat, surprised the Packers with his capacity to learn as fast as he did during his rookie year. 

When a pro team is surprised by a player's capabilities it often stems from the information fed to scouts by the staff at the player's school. Jim Mora Jr. and/or his staff likely labeled Hundley as an athlete more than a quarterback. I know that Mora told the media that Hundley would need more time to develop the mental part of quarterbacking and it was phrased in a way that put the issue squarely on Hundley and not Mora limiting the quarterback's development timetable.

I think Mora made poor assumptions with Hundley and it limited the quarterback's development timeline. It's why the Packers were pleasantly surprised that Hundley absorbed the Packers offense as fast as he did during his rookie year and led the NFL in preseason QB rating. It's Hundley's work and capacity to handle more than Mora gave him that has Hundley as Aaron Rodgers' backup. 

Don't be surprised of Hundley earns the Packers a draft pick and he's vying for a starting job somewhere else—especially if the NFL buys the idea that 2017's QB class is a weaker one. I don't believe Hundley will be traded this year, but I believe in his ability to develop into a good NFL starter.

Matt BarkleyThe former USC star reads the field well, makes good decisions, and displays enough short-to-intermediate accuracy that he can move the chains and hit big plays with the help of a strong ground game. The first two qualities of Barkley's game needed more time to manifest than what he'd receive in terms of playing time early in his career. Athletic players with these qualities can lean on their physical skills to overcome the NFL's conceptual development curve. Barkley wasn't one of them.

The Bears have the makings of a good ground game and Barkley has performed well with a lineup of many backup quality players. I still have more to see from Barkley to believe in him as a long-term starter, but you shouldn't let his early-career start prejudice your decision to monitor his development.

Teddy BridgewaterThe Vikings might like enough of what Sam Bradford did this year to make him the incumbent starter heading into 2017 even if Bridgewater returns to full health earlier than expected. It could mean that Bridgewater is eventually shopped around. This is far from a concrete map for the future of the Vikings offense.

Bridgewater is one of those players that looks better when you study him up close than what he's delivering on the surface. Even so, Bridgewater's preseason was another step forward. His deep accuracy had improved and he had gained a full-field understanding of Norv Turner's offense.

Even with Bridgewater's injury, the Vikings offensive line fell apart and would have forced him to scramble for his life and make hurried decisions. The future for Bridgewater is in limbo but I have no doubt that if he were in Oakland, he'd also be leading the Raiders to the playoffs. 

Tom SavageI have to see the Jacksonville game as well as this week's tape before I tell you what I think of Savage after he's spent a couple of years on the bench. What I can tell you is that Savage's physical skills were never the problem. He had to develop greater maturity because he relied too much on his gun of an arm and not enough on smart decision-making. 

He had the normal mechanical issues that plague many quarterbacks: His stance got too wide and led to inaccuracies from the pocket, he didn't protect the ball in the pocket or on the move, and he didn't have a firm grasp of coverage. 

The potential knockout factors in his game were more troubling: He perceived pressure and reacted too early to the potential of it arriving in the pocket. stared down first reads and showed little skill at holding safeties. And he relied more on his arm than his reads. He ignored wide open check-downs in situations where it was the right decision to make. 

If Savage has matured, become a student of the game, and he's tamping down the urge to be the hero on every play, the Texans may have found its long-term starter. Big ifs, but I'm willing to give him a shot now that he's had a couple of years to sit. For more on my pre-draft thoughts on Savage, read here

Running backs

Ameer AbdullahCan he stay healthy? Will the Lions give him a chance as the feature back? Can the combo of Theo Riddick and Dwayne Washington push Abdullah to the wayside? All of these questions are valid. 

Washington has the potential to become a good NFL starter and if he works his tail off this winter and spring, he could push for a big role. His power and speed used in optimal ways could offer a dimension that no other back in Detroit can bring to the role. But Abdullah's burst, balance, and vision are excellent and if you remember Charlie Garner, I think Abdullah has that kind of potential. Garner couldn't stay healthy early in his career, either.

Andre EllingtonThe Cardinals want to find ways to get him on the field, but it has been a difficult problem to solve. Some team will get a versatile, dynamic runner in 2017 who could become a strong fantasy RB2 if he can do the one thing that he hasn't been able to do in Arizona that Abdullah hasn't done in Detroit and Garner didn't do in Philadelphia. 

Benny CunninghamHe lacks special speed and burst, but he has enough acceleration to hit creases for solid gains. Paired with good vision and underrated balance, and Cunningham will likely find a gig as a solid reserve. If he earns the No.2 job with a better team than the Rams, he's a first-off-the-wire addition in re-draft leagues capable of giving you that Bilal Powell-Chester Taylor production as your fantasy lineup's favorite substitute teacher. 

Christine MichaelTy Montgomery has earned a real shot at the starting job next year. Eddie Lacy's future is a mystery. Michael continues to flash the skills that could make him a good starter. I think he'll begin the year as Green Bay's No.2 RB with a chance to overtake Montgomery or star as the Packers' favorite substitute with big-time upside. The Packers have a good feel for skill talent. They wanted Marshawn Lynch when he was in Buffalo and lost the bidding war to the Seahawks. Keep that in mind.

Damien WilliamsSpeed and pass receiving are two hallmarks of Williams' game. He's a tough runner that has continued to grow into his job as a professional. Behind a decent offensive line, Williams could surprise as a fantasy RB2 and every-week starter. 

DuJuan Harris49ers RB Coach Tom Rathman (who blocked for Roger Craig and a host of good Nebraska backs) said at the beginning of the year that if Harris could develop more patience at the line of scrimmage, he'd become a strong contributor and "[the 49ers] would really have something." Harris has flashed better patience this year. The former Troy State runner has the balance, burst, and C.O.D. of a player built in the mold of Maurice Jones-Drew. If he continues working, Harris should vie for the No.2 role in San Francisco next year and become another fantasy favorite substitute.

Ka'Deem Carey: A hard runner with enough burst to do the job, Carey's opportunity to become the starter passed on that Monday night last year when Jeremy Langford showed more speed and strong receiving skills. At that point, he's been relegated to a backup role. He's a favorite among teammates and they admire his play. Carey is more in the Cunningham-Williams tier of options that aren't likely to earn a lead role anywhere but can do the job effectively in the right situation. Think Justin Forsett's one year in Baltimore. 

Kerwynn WilliamsAn excellent receiver, Williams reminded me of a player whose style was similar to former Charger and Bengal Pro-Bowl player, James Brooks. Williams isn't that good, but he's good enough to earn a contributing role that's larger than the one we've seen in recent weeks for the Cardinals. Head Coach David Dodds–err, Bruce Arians says Williams has earned additional playing time this year because he continues to handle everything they try with him. Williams has been flashing this ability for a few years if you remember his quality fantasy production as a desperation substitute for Arizona during his rookie year. I could see him earning the No.2 role in 2017 and surprising fantasy owners if David Johnson gets hurt.

Malcolm BrownOne of my favorite underrated players in the 2015 NFL Draft, Brown has everything you want from an NFL back with the exception of top-end speed. Brown caught the eye of Eric Dickerson and Marshall Faulk during the preseason for the same things I loved about him: power, burst, and vision. Brown should begin 2017 as Todd Gurley's backup but if he's sent packing due to a new regime bringing in "its guys," I think there's enough good tape on Brown for another team to take him. They'll discover they got a potential gem. 

Rex BurkheadCheck out my post, Player B, and you'll learn how athletic Burkhead is compared to his peers. His body type and style reminds me of Fred Jackson. The Bengals players believe Burkhead is a good player stuck on a strong depth chart. He'll be a free agent next year, I'd add him to the list of players who could wind up a lot more elsewhere.  

Wide receivers

Breshad PerrimanThis is an obvious choice. Perriman has flashed the skills the Ravens expected from him as a rookie from UCF. Perriman is earning a great opportunity to learn from Steve Smith, who has been a valuable teacher and coach on the field for this receiving corps. I think Perriman has the skills to be a future fantasy WR1. He has made catches in tight coverage, he's getting open routinely on vertical routes despite the leg not looking 100 percent earlier this year.  

Brice ButlerWriter John Owning commented on Butler's development this summer and from what I've seen, the receiver has shown greater consistency as a pass catcher and he's finding those open zones with greater regularity. He has the athletic ability of a primary receiver. If his game continues to develop, he should earn a No.2 role in Dallas within another year or two (or he will elsewhere). 

DeAndre SmelterCalled up from the 49ers' practice squad this week, the greatest question about Smelter is his health. He tore his ACL two years ago and didn't look healthy this summer. If the leg is fully healed and he's confident in it, Smelter has the size, skill after the catch, and ability in tight coverage to develop into a good starter. This is a Brandon Marshall-like receiver in style. If the 49ers find a quarterback capable of using him, Smelter's career could take off. 

Devin SmithI'm not optimistic about Smith, but he's a great deep threat when healthy. The bigger question is his mental focus and preparation. Neither of these things was his strengths. I doubt he sticks in New York, but if getting cut next summer helps him mature and he works at his game, he could be a find elsewhere. 

Jaelen StrongIf the Texans can find a quarterback capable of using three receivers (something all but 12-15 teams lack) productively, Strong will be in a position to become that "big slot" option along the lines of Marques Colston, Michael Thomas, and Michael Crabtree

Jaron BrownI loved what I saw from Brown earlier this year. He outplayed Michael Floyd and John Brown. His routes were good, he made tough grabs in must-have situations, and he earned the trust of Carson Palmer. He could wind up a starter in 2017 if the Cardinals don't draft a top prospect. 

Jordan TaylorI told my RSP readers in 2014 to keep tabs on Taylor's whereabouts after the draft because he was an excellent ball-tracker with smarts, strong hands, and a physical style of play. Taylor has earned playing time routinely despite a good depth chart to overcome in Denver. He's a favorite of Trevor Siemian and I like his potential to develop into a bigger contributor. 

Kenny BellHe's still a favorite of mine and I thought he'd be a great fit in Pittsburgh or Baltimore because of his playing style. Bell's injury as a rookie derailed a promising training camp and this summer he fell out of favor with the Buccaneers coaching staff. Bell made numerous careless mistakes in camp and during games and got buried on the depth chart by the third week of the preseason. The Ravens added Bell to its practice squad in October. I would not be at all shocked if he's soaking up knowledge of Steve Smith and he works his way into the active roster in 2017. 

Kevin WhiteThe second-year receiver showed me a lot of what I expected from him when he was on the field earlier this year. The fibula injury isn't a deal breaker for his prospects at all. Look for White to make strides in 2017 and breakout fully by 2018. 

Markus WheatonIt's clear that Wheaton needs a new setting. It's not clear whether he'll make the most of his new opportunity or if coaches will consider him a potential starter after three years of disappointing performances. Wheaton was a good vertical receiver with skill in the middle of the field. Let's see if that reappears in 2017. I'll stash him early on based on what I saw from him at Oregon State

Marquess WilsonWe've seen promising play from Wilson in brief moments between injuries. He'll be a four-year veteran in 2017 and the same age as many rookies about to enter the league. Quicker than fast and a good leaper, Wilson still has room to mature physical, mentally, and professionally. Don't be surprised if we see a Rishard Matthews-like emergency somewhere down the line.

Michael Campanaro: Fit matters and Campanaro is not taking Steve Smith's role in Baltimore. He's also not getting looks when Smith and Dennis Pitta occupy the area of the field where Campanaro thrives. He's a terrific threat against the zones of the defense. Think of him as an Eli Rogers-like player who can do the shallow work, but also stretch the intermediate areas. Campanaro hasn't stayed healthy, but if he can for a new team or until Steve Smith retires, he could emerge as a PPR value. Don't count on it, but stay open to the possibility.

Paul RichardsonRussell Wilson has mentioned that Richardson makes big plays in practice and they want to see it translate to the playing field. Staying healthy will be the first step. The next step is an offensive line that gives Wilson time to make that second or third read. Richardson is the type of player that I'll be monitoring through that second contract that will likely come with another team.

Robert WoodsIf it isn't the Bills, another team will get a potential steal if Woods stays healthy for once. He didn't have these health issues at USC and he was the steadier, smarter, technically more proficient receiver than Marqise Lee. He's a good middle of the field and second read option, but the Bills haven't had a quarterback capable of making these plays enough to target him with regularity when he is healthy. 

Tight end

A.J. DerbyThe Broncos staff obviously believes in Derby because it got the tight end on the field almost immediately after acquiring him from the Patriots. Derby adjusts well to the football, he's smart, physical, and capable of developing into a better blocker than he is right now. He's likely no better than a low-end fantasy TE1, but it's enough to put him on your radar.

Austin Seferian-JenkinsThe ability is there, but the professionalism is a completely different story. We'll all have to wait and see. 

Blake BellThe former OU goal line quarterback has to become consistent and it's something that happens with maniacal work on the details behind the scenes. I don't see Bell showing consistency, which leads me to wonder about the dedication. I still see a fluid, strong player capable of making plays on the ball and earning yards after the catch. 

Dion SimsIf the Dolphins don't re-sign Sims and make him the starter, they've made a huge mistake. I've written about him enough in recent weeks.

Erik SwoopeThe Colts' long-term basketball developmental project actually looks like a tight end on the field this year. I'd continue monitoring his progress. If he earns routine playing time this summer or early September, better grab him fast if he's still around. 

James O'Shaughnessy: Not as good of a blocker as Demetrius Harris, but a better receiver. O'Shaughnessy is also fast and a fine ball carrier after the catch. He'll surprise fantasy owners or a new team at some point. 

Logan ThomasThe Bills signed the former Virginia Tech QB as a tight end. I have nothing to tell you other than let's see how this experiment plays out. Even if it does, will Buffalo have a quarterback that can read the field well enough to target him? Charles Clay would tell you "no, but we still have hope."

Marqueis Gray: We know he can catch but what will earn Gray a bigger opportunity is if he can become a much better blocker. I'm not convinced but continue to remind yourself that Gray has earned multiple opportunities in the NFL and he has improved with each stop.

Maxx WilliamsMaturity is the issue. If it ever matches his talent, fantasy owners will get a return on investment. 

MyCole PruittHe's an H-Back with good hands and better skill after the catch. A team like San Diego would be an ideal fit. We'll see what he can do in Buffalo. My bet is "not much" considering that John Fox's offense prefer in-line guys that block like linemen. I'm still keeping tabs on him.

 

 

 

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