12 Players on the Rise after the NFL Draft - Footballguys

A look at 12 players who saw their offensive roles and fantasy opportunity solidify as a result of their teams' inaction on draft weekend.

By now, you’ve probably had your fill of post-draft analysis centered around who the incoming crop of rookies are as players and how they fit with their new teams from a fantasy perspective. A strong chance also exists you’ve read more than one article detailing how these rookies will impact the production of the players around them.

With so much draft content currently being consumed by the masses, and so much of it focused on the same (or similar topics), an ever-so-slightly contrarian approach to draft analysis could gain fantasy owners an edge in their early research. Instead of analyzing the players each team drafted and what it means for the remaining players on those rosters, can’t we learn at least as much from how teams elected not to invest their draft capital?

Quite a few teams surprised during the draft by neglecting perceived positions of need. The actions of these teams (or lack thereof) can only be seen as votes of confidence in the players listed below. All of these guys might not become stars next season, but their fantasy outlook has improved significantly based on moves their teams didn't make on draft weekend.

Alex Collins

Alex Collins came off the practice squad last year to rush for nearly 1,000 yards in 12 games as a surprise starter. John Harbaugh told reporters at the NFL League Meetings that Collins would remain Baltimore’s lead back in 2018, and the Ravens backed up their head coach’s assertion by ignoring running backs in the draft. Unless you still believe in Kenneth Dixon -- who has been suspended twice since 2016 and missed all of last season with a torn meniscus -- Collins appears locked into solid RB2 numbers, even if Javorius Allen remains the preferred option on passing downs.

Jordan Howard

Jordan Howard has rushed for 2,435 yards and 15 touchdowns since entering the league in 2016, so you would think his role as Chicago’s lead back wouldn’t be called into question. But after an off-season filled with trade rumors and questions about his fit with new head coach Matt Nagy, it was a relief to see the draft end without the Bears new regime hand-picking competition for Howard. After posting back-to-back top-10 running back finishes to open his career despite playing in bottom-5 scoring offenses both years, Howard’s ceiling could very well be overall RB1 if he can make even a slight improvement as a pass-catcher and Nagy’s play calling is as good as advertised.

D'Onta Foreman

When D'Onta Foreman’s 2017 ended in Week 11 last year, he was in the process of relegating Lamar Miller to a change-of-pace role with a 10-65-2 rushing line against Arizona. Foreman’s relative success (4.2 yards per carry) running behind the same blocking as Miller (3.7 yards per carry) suggests the extraordinary athleticism he possesses for his size can make up for the ball security concerns and poor pass-blocking mechanics he was dogged for coming out of Texas. The fact Houston -- traditionally a run-first team under Bill O’Brien -- didn’t draft a running back despite Foreman’s injury and Miller’s general mediocrity since signing with the Texans, bodes well for the second-year player. He may not help you win games in the first half of the season, but once fully healthy and ready for an increased workload, Foreman has league-swinging potential as the top back in a Deshaun Watson-led offense.

Jerick McKinnon

When the Footballguys staff got together to discuss free agency back in March, the only concern anyone voiced about Jerick McKinnon landing with the 49ers was the possibility the team might not be done adding to their backfield. We can now safely say those fears were unwarranted as San Francisco didn’t draft a single running back, putting McKinnon in line for all the work he can handle. The idea of McKinnon as a top-10, or even top-5, fantasy running back is far from a stretch. If Carlos Hyde managed 59 receptions last year playing under Kyle Shanahan, McKinnon’s floor is somewhere close to 75. And as long as Jimmy Garoppolo's five starts to close out 2017 weren’t a fluke, McKinnon won’t go wanting for scoring opportunities. Last year, Hyde scored a combined four rushing touchdowns in Garoppolo's five starts -- the same total he rushed for in the season's previous 11 games.

Randall Cobb

Three of Green Bay’s first eight picks were wide receivers, so to say they ignored the position during the draft would be false. But they waited longer than expected to begin searching for Jordy Nelson’s replacement, and came up with three receivers in the mid-late rounds who share the same profile -- big, fast, athletic, and need time to develop. Regardless of what you think of J’Mon Moore, Marquez Valdez-Scantling, or Equanimeous St. Brown long-term, the odds of any member of the trio making a fantasy impact this year are slim. Since Aaron Rodgers became the team’s starter in 2008, no Packers rookie wide receiver has posted more than Davante Adams' 38 catches, 446 yards, or 3 touchdowns. There isn’t another player being drafted close to Randall Cobb’s current 10th-round ADP who projects to receive a 20+% target market share in one of the league’s highest-scoring offenses.

Tyler Lockett

It feels like forever since Tyler Lockett posted 51 catches, 664 receiving yards, and 6 touchdowns in only 8 starts as a rookie. An MCL sprain hampered him through most of 2016 and while he appeared in every game for the Seahawks last year, he clearly lacked explosiveness as he made his way back from a gruesome leg injury. With 34% of Seattle’s targets vacated by the departures of Paul Richardson Jr and Jimmy Graham in free agency, it wouldn’t have been shocking for the team to spend an early-round pick on a pass-catcher. Instead, they selected zero wide receivers and a tight end -- fourth-round pick Will Dissly -- who is a converted linebacker. If Lockett is back to his old self nearly two full years after breaking his leg, he’ll have every opportunity to realize the breakout so many analysts saw coming in 2016.

Jaron Brown

On the flip side, if Lockett fails to return to pre-injury form, Jaron Brown is the most likely Seahawks pass-catcher to benefit. Brown’s five-year NFL résumé isn’t very impressive, but he did set career highs in starts, targets, receptions, and touchdowns last year for the Cardinals. His greatest strengths -- 4.34 speed and the ability to track deep passes -- blend nicely with Russell Wilson’s deep ball skills. Even if he never overtakes Lockett for WR2 targets, Brown is a worthy end-game pick in Best Ball drafts due to the near-certainty he reels in a handful of long touchdowns.

Corey Davis

It would have been a tad surprising to see the Titans select a wide receiver on the first two days of the draft after spending the fifth overall pick on Corey Davis last year (plus a third-rounder on Taywan Taylor). But choosing to skip over the position completely was equally unexpected since they hadn’t replaced Eric Decker in free agency. The entire offensive pie should get bigger for Tennessee’s pass-catchers with new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur calling plays. Davis, in particular, should benefit from the simpler route combinations LaFleur will ask him to run. When you add up all the evidence -- Decker no longer wasting targets, LaFleur installing a more pass-friendly scheme, a pair of healthy hamstrings, and two strong playoff performances to build on -- Davis cracking the top-20 wide receivers this season appears possible.

Ryan Grant

Poor Ryan Grant lost out on $9.5 million in guaranteed money after the Ravens rescinded his contract and he was forced to accept a one-year deal with the Colts. At least he landed in a prime spot to earn a big contract next year -- provided, of course, Andrew Luck is healthy. Since the start of last season, Indianapolis has traded Phillip Dorsett, let Donte Moncrief walk, and replaced them with...Grant, tight end Eric Ebron, and a couple of late-round draft picks. In Luck’s best seasons, there has been room for more than one wide receiver (and usually more than one tight end) to be relevant in fantasy. Grant’s ceiling is capped by his ho-hum physical traits, but he has great hands and could easily become Luck’s go-to target when he needs to move the chains. You can probably look past him in redraft leagues, but Grant makes another solid late-round target for Best Ball.

Ricky Seals-Jones

Troy Niklas signed with the Patriots in early-April. Jermaine Gresham is approaching 30-years old and tore his Achilles in Week 17 last year. It seemed a foregone conclusion Arizona would add some tight end depth next to 2017 undrafted free agent, Ricky Seals-Jones, through the draft but it never happened. As a result, expect to see Seals-Jones’ name on plenty of sleeper lists this summer. At 6’5’’, 245 lbs., he’s essentially a gigantic wide receiver. From weeks 11-13 last season, Seals-Jones never saw more than 24% of Arizona’s offensive snaps, yet still managed to pile up 9 catches, 170 yards, and 3 touchdowns on 16 targets. The Cardinals don’t have proven weapons on offense outside of David Johnson and the ageless Larry Fitzgerald. Seals-Jones proved last year he creates mismatches when motioned out of the slot or the backfield. He’ll have as much opportunity for a breakout season as any player on this list.

Luke Willson

The Lions pulled the plug on Ebron and lost run-blocking tight end Darren Fells to free agency. Levine Toilolo was signed to play Fells’ role, which leaves just Luke Willson, who came over on a one-year deal from Seattle, and last year’s (admittedly intriguing) fourth-round pick, Michael Roberts, to compete for the role of pass-catching tight end. Willson has a decisive experience edge on Roberts, and coming out of Rice in 2013, he had the athletic edge on him too. At his Pro Day, Willson -- at 6’5’’, 251 lbs. -- ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds. He had a 38-inch vertical jump, 10’2” broad jump, 7.04 seconds three-cone drill, and did 23 reps on the bench -- all top-tier measurables for a tight end. Stuck behind Jimmy Graham for most of the last three seasons in Seattle, Willson’s career stats won’t blow you away, but he’s caught 65% of his career targets for a solid 8.24 yards per target and managed 4 touchdowns last year on just 22 targets. At the very least, we can expect Willson to emerge as a weekly streaming option, but there’s clearly upside for more.

Rico Gathers

It was all but official entering draft weekend that Jason Witten was pursuing a career after football, leaving Rico Gathers atop the Cowboys tight end depth chart. While Dallas added Stanford’s Dalton Schultz in the fourth round, his impact is expected to be as a run blocker, which sets Gathers up to inherit Witten’s pass-catching role. Gathers didn’t even play football in high school or college, making him the definition of a project, but the 6’6’’, 290 lbs. former Baylor power forward flashed in last year’s preseason, with 7 catches for 106 yards and 2 touchdowns over two games. Witten and Dez Bryant leave behind 58% of the team’s red zone targets from last year, giving Gathers touchdown upside few other tight ends possess, provided he can secure the starting role in training camp.

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