Many of my Gut Check articles between May and July focus on analysis that I conduct to create my August draft plans. Those articles feature analysis that leads me to recommend what I think is best. This week, I'm taking a break from that to share a list of players that I like from each 12-pick tier in David Dodds' Top 300 Player Rankings in early July.
These are players I believe in regardless of what my analysis recommends and I'm willing to go down with the ship if enough of these guys falter. It's unlikely I will try to draft all of these players on every team, but a handful of them will be on many of my crews heading into the fall.
Ten Picks Where I'm willing to Go Down With The Ship
1. Ezekiel Elliott: I'll gleefully take David Johnson (or LeVeon Bell) in drafts where the opportunity presents itself. Johnson is a special player with some of the best hands at the position that I've seen in decades. My stylistic preferences for a running back still bend the needle towards Elliott. Even when he was at Ohio State, Elliott ran with the intelligence of a seven-year NFL veteran.
Say want you will about the Cowboys' offensive line and what Darren McFadden did the year before, but comparing McFadden in 2015 to Elliott in 2016 is like comparing the standup prowess of Denis Leary and Robin Williams. I suppose the former can make you laugh when he's not narrating truck commercials on PEDs, but he's not in the same universe as the latter.
Elliott told the media that his goal is to become as knowledgeable and indispensable to a passing offense as Marshall Faulk was with the Rams. Elliott may lack the preternatural pass-catching talents of Johnson, but just because Johnson could make a spectacular acrobatic grab in a heavily trafficked zone doesn't mean it's a smart idea for the Cardinals to target him this way. What makes a running back a great receiver is the baseline level of skill to catch the ball and an advanced understanding of reading coverage so he can adjust with his quarterback pre- and post-snap and exploit the opponent for big plays.
I have a lot of confidence in Elliott developing along those lines and doing so with a young quarterback on the rise. Despite losing its right tackle and left guard, the Cowboys line should still be good enough for an elite decision maker like Elliott to generate productive plays.
2. Jordy Nelson: There are younger and more athletic primary receivers in the league right now, but none of them have Aaron Rodgers. The Packers quarterback has the fastest release in the sport, he's one of the most mobile in the game, and he and Nelson have built nearly a decade of rapport. Combine all three of those factors with Nelson's physicality and route running and you get planned and improvised plays that often leave opposing defenders looking to their sideline and letting their shrug tell the coaching staff "what did you expect me to do with that?" You may expect Julio Jones or A.J. Green to have a season where they break records in receptions, yardage, and touchdowns, but I've long expected Nelson to have seasons as a WR1. Four of his past five, where he took the field, have hit the mark, and I'm not expecting anything different this year.
3. Marshawn Lynch: I bet there are people who look at the Lynch love as a trendy thing and think the hipster take is to fade him as an overvalued commodity. It might happen but for all I care, they can take themselves and their Warby Parkers, food photos, and Facebook-inspired wardrobes and move to Portlandia where there is no football.
Lynch is a proven commodity working behind a good offensive line on an ascending team. I'd rather be wrong with Lynch for the right reasons in the fourth round than luck out with things coming together for players available in the same ADP range (and often earlier) like Leonard Fournette (suspect line, shotgun scheme adjustments) Sammy Watkins (health), Alshon Jeffery (Carson Wentz's accuracy), DeAndre Hopkins (quarterback), Emmanuel Sanders (quarterback), or Tom Brady (ADP vs value).
4. DeSean Jackson: I love Drew Brees' game. Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, Jordan Reed, and Greg Olsen are also safe no-brainers or upside plays too difficult to pass up in the early rounds. So when I look at this fourth tier in Dodds' rankings and see that he's equally as high on Jackson as I am, I have to mention the Buccaneers' new receiver. Jackson may not be as refined of a route runner as Emmanuel Sanders but he's not that far away. Jackson also has a better quarterback, greater skill after the catch, more speed, and he's much tougher than credited.
I also like Winston's deep ball skills and I think they are only getting better. I remember him making a vertical stud of Jaguars reserve Rashad Greene, who is a slower, less creative version of Jackson.
5. Jimmy Graham: Like the fourth tier, at least half of the fifth tier has players I like. If Dodds' rankings were dead-on equal ADP, I'd package my second and third round picks with later picks and exchange them for fifth-rounders (and an additional mid-to-late pick for each), I'd feel good about what I could mine from it. Considering that Kelce, Reed, Olson, and Gronkowski are all leaving boards a round or two earlier, I like Graham's value as a late-fifth or early sixth round option.
I also love the player. If you don't know much about his childhood, it's worthwhile reading. It has a lot to do with his development as a tough, dedicated professional who knows how to overcome adversity. I'd say his statistical production as the No. 2 fantasy tight end in football with a career-high average of yards per catch a year after suffering an injury many thought would derail his career is a testament to his grit. Seattle will be better, Graham and Russell Wilson will have more rapport, and while there are several great upside picks in this round, Graham has the best combination of upside and safety.
6. Doug Martin: Joe Mixon and DeVante Parker are tempting picks for this tier, but I passed up LeVeon Bell in a league last year due in part to his suspension and it was likely the difference between me going 10-3 and losing in the semifinals and earning the title. Most wouldn't equate Martin's talent with Bell's, but each time he has played a 16-game season he has been the No. 3 fantasy back in those two years. If that's not a testament to his ability when he's healthy and the line is reasonably good, I don't know what is. After all, Bell has a fantastic crew of run blockers and no one doubts his talents anymore. In the eighth round, it's hard to pass up Martin—especially when teammates and coaches raved about him this spring. I'll deal with Martin's three-game suspension because I believe he'll finish the year as a top-12 back despite the absences.
7. Terrelle Pryor: Available at the end of the fourth round, Dodds and I differ on Pryor's value. Dodds, like most, are worried about other players cutting into his opportunities. Jordan Reed will arguably be the primary option. Jamsion Crowder will start as a perimeter option in two-receiver sets. And the team is still hopeful that Josh Doctson will be healthy enough to compete for playing time this fall. It means that at best, Pryor will be the No. 2 outside receiver. At worst, he'll be a situational No. 3 receiver. Add Reed into that mix and it could mean that Pryor is the No. 3 or No. 4 option in this offense and that doesn't excite fantasy owners.
But I'm not buying this assumption. Crowder's role may sound juicier on the surface but the Washington offense loved to use three- and four-receiver sets on a frequent basis last year. The scheme often featured Crowder and DeSean Jackson paired with Reed and Vernon Davis split from the formation in 2x2 receiver 10 personnel or 1x2 11 personnel alignment to generate big plays for Crowder against linebackers.
This scheming will continue in 2017, and it will help fantasy owners investing in Crowder. However, I'm not convinced that Crowder will elevate his game to the point that he's the "go-to" guy as a vertical threat and red zone option. Pryor is that player who wins the ball and gets vertical. He'll also earn yards after the catch in these 2x2 and 1x2 combinations Washington uses.
Don't be surprised if Pryor usurps more of Vernon Davis' targets (44-583-2 last year) in addition to replacing Pierre Garcon's production (79-1041-3). In fact, I bet Pryor matches Garcon's receptions and yardage totals and triples his touchdowns. That kind of production is likely fantasy WR1 material.
8. Tyrell Williams: I don't believe in Mike Williams this year. He's already dealing with a back issue and the depth chart is loaded when healthy. I also think the addition of Mike Williams had more to do with concerns about Keenan Allen's ability to stay healthy than Tyrell Williams being a fluke.
As mentioned in our newswire's quote of Oregon Live's report, Williams was fifth in the NFL with 13 catches of at least 25 yards last year. Allen and Travis Benjamin's injuries were contributing factors, but I certainly saw Philip Rivers try to mine these big plays from Dontrelle Inman without success.
A strong runner after the catch who has developed quickly for a small-school player, Williams is a great example of where playing against the rookie hype train may pay dividends. He's still working on separation against tight coverage but that's a detail that I believe will come. It's harder to teach his unbelievable 3-cone speed and knack for making the timely catch on third down. I'm buying.
9. LeAdrian P-Funk: I can't decide between LeGarrette Blount, Adrian Peterson, and Samaje Perine, so the correct answer in rounds 8-10 is LeAdrian P-Funk. Yes, New Orleans traded an early-round pick for the fumble-prone, conceptually immature satellite option Alvin Kamara. And no, they didn't find a trade partner for Mark Ingram. But as RB34, I'm waiting for Adrian Peterson's play to completely show signs of flatlining before I give up on him.
When players say Peterson still has it, I'm paying attention even if beat reporters and executives are skeptical. They were skeptical about Frank Gore for the past two years as well. One of the reasons for the skepticism in a recent ESPN article published on July 3rd is the idea that Drew Brees throws for 5000 yards every year.
Sigmund Bloom found that "the Saints have consistently produced strong weekly running back fantasy value despite having a multi-back approach most of the season." Ingram earned at least 15 carries in 8 games and his touch count ranged between 16-24 in those contests. If he didn't have fumbling issues that led Sean Payton to roll with Tim HIghtower—ho earned this volume in weeks 8, 9, 11, and 12—Ingram's value would have been higher.
At worst, Peterson will offer solid value for his price if he stays healthy and part of a committee. If he looks like the Saints believe they see, Ingram will be an overpriced fantasy contingency option.
Darren Sproles is the best pure player pound-for-pound on the Eagles depth chart and Ryan Mathews has the most upside if filtering out his health issues. Even so, Blount isn't far behind either player in either category. The Eagles have one of the top lines in football and every year that Blount is available in this range and still healthy is a year that I'm investing.
In terms of power, Perine in a class above Peterson and Blount. This may surprise you, but if you read the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, you know I've described Perine as a hot cast iron skillet and defenders as butter. If they don't melt, Washington's offense can pick Perine up by the handle and use him as a blunt instrument.
10. Marvin Jones: C'mon now, how can any Waldman list not include Marvin Jones? I believe in talent and situation. Jones' injury last year has been conflated with a lack of talent and that equals value for fantasy owners. When healthy to begin the season, Jones was borderline dominant at times. He has always been an excellent route runner and underrated athlete who can play multiple roles in a passing game. I met Jones several years ago and it's clear that he's a student of the game.
While working with a former player doesn't always pay dividends, the right combination of teacher-pupil can be beneficial. Jones paired up with Randy Moss this offseason. The future Hall of Famer's game may not seem similar to Jones' on the surface, but both are wiry-strong athletes with excellent skill at tracking the ball in the air and having underrated physicality at the catch point. Jones will not become the next Moss, but there's enough opportunity in Detroit for him to elevate his production from fantasy WR2 to WR1 totals at year's end.