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. Some of these are longer shots than others, but they all have a high top end in their range of outcomes. Here’s my list of the players that can make your season:
Andrew Luck, IND - Luck doesn’t have a strong wide receiver group and needs T.Y. Hilton to stay healthy, and Eric Ebron hitting a new level of play would help, but we already know from his past that he can basically rub two sticks together and be a strong QB1. He is reportedly as motivated and excited as he has been in his career, and he has one of the crop of budding offensive geniuses - Frank Reich - as his head coach. The Colts are unlikely to have a running game worth feeding, their offensive line might be the best Luck has played behind (not saying much), and their defense might get them into some shootouts. The shoulder issue could make him rusty at first, but Luck might hit a new cruising altitude after that.
Cam Newton, CAR - Newton has carried fantasy teams before, and he is set up to do that again in 2018 - offensive line willing. He has Greg Olsen back, added D.J. Moore and Torrey Smith, Devin Funchess should be healthier and is entering his prime, and Christian McCaffrey is ready to hit his stride. Heck, even 2017 second-round speedster Curtis Samuel might be ready to make some plays. If Norv Turner can mix these elements with a recipe that keeps defenses off-balance and puts Newton in his comfort zone, we could see a reprise of his 2015 glory days.
Deshaun Watson, HOU - Watson might not get into as many shootouts with J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus back, but he will also be in an offense that is molded to his talents instead of taking over an offense with an approach that was designed for Tom Savage over the entire offseason, camp, and preseason - the team gave Watson no chance to win the job in the summer. The Texans don’t have a strong running game and their rebuilt offensive line probably won’t turn that around quickly, but Watson operated behind an arguably worse line last year. It's not a given that Watson will take a huge tumble from 2017 productivity, when he was performing at a level that would have made him worth a first-round pick in fantasy drafts, even in a quarterback depressed fantasy environment.
Alex Collins, BAL - Collins isn’t going to finish the season in the Gurley, etc. uberstud tier, but he could post numbers to rival the next group of backs going off of the board and give teams the chance to start WR1/Gronk and get away with it at RB1, or have an RB2 that is scoring like some teams’ first-round pick. He was a low RB1 after he took over last year while sharing with Javorius Allen and eventually Danny Woodhead with a less healthy Joe Flacco and no Marshal Yanda. He was also added right before the season. The Ravens lack of moves in the backfield acted as a huge endorsement of Collins. This was a heavily-used and productive backfield last year, and Collins will get the biggest share. We’ll look back at his ADP and wonder why it wasn’t higher.
Joe Mixon/Giovani Bernard, CIN - The Bengals offensive line and Bill Lazor with a full offseason has to give an assist here, but with John Ross stretching defenses and the Bengals first-round pick turned into two new starters on that line, Mixon could be fed like a feature back in a much, much better situation. Bernard actually outplayed Mixon last year and might be able to take even more advantage of the improvement in surroundings than Mixon, but it seems clear that the team is going to treat Mixon like a workhorse, so Bernard would need a Mixon injury to tilt weekly matchups.
Royce Freeman, DEN - The Broncos running game was fruitful in fantasy leagues when they would feed C.J. Anderson last year; they just didn’t do it enough. The offense should be better with Case Keenum, and Freeman is the only back on this team that should be fed in the running game. The team might be stubborn and give Devontae Booker more work than he deserves for a month or more, but Freeman will sort this out and, if the defense does their part, have good game scripts most weeks. Like Collins, he can allow teams that don’t go running back in the first round to skate by with an every-week starter from a later round.
James White, NE - White needs some things to fall into place to hit his fantasy ceiling, but some of those wheels are already in motion. Sony Michel had to have his knee drained and Rex Burkhead has a minor tear - if there is such a thing - in his knee. Jeremy Hill could also crash the party and eat some of the cake if Michel and Burkhead are in and out of the lineup, but it is White who is poised to score double-digit touchdowns, rack up catches, and keep the Patriots offense on schedule if he’s the last man standing. White isn’t built like a classic lead back, but the Patriots aren’t built like the offenses that featured those classic backs. The Patriots offense clicks with White - they get results out of White in the playoffs, they just have never committed to him during the season. With Julian Edelman out and two injured backs next to him on the depth chart, White could have a larger role to open the season and never give it up.
Marshawn Lynch, OAK - If you didn’t see his preseason opener carry,, you might think Lynch is in danger of being in the decline phase of his career. If anything, Lynch is slimmer and faster than last year, when he showed he was still basically his old self once the Raiders used him like old Lynch was used. Hopefully, Jon Gruden sees that the strength of his line is run blocking and delivers on his promise to ride Lynch. If he does, fantasy players will get a potential RB1 for a price that is three to four rounds less than last year’s cost in a situation where he’s set up better for success.
James Conner, PIT - This is one to file away because it requires a LeVeon Bell season-ending injury to hit. There was a time that Bell getting seriously hurt was almost an annual event, and he had almost 400 touches last year if you are afraid of overuse. Meanwhile, Conner has his freshman year burst back and looks a lot better after offseason knee surgery. Conner might give up more catches to Jaylen Samuels than DeAngelo Williams did when he replaced Bell, but otherwise, similar top five weekly upside is there for Conner if he gets the call this year.
Derrick Henry, TEN - Last year, Demarco Murray was as underwhelming as anyone holding Henry could have hoped for and on and off of the injury report, but Henry couldn’t vanquish him. A new coaching staff brought in Dion Lewis, so Henry will share again, with perhaps a larger share of carries, but Lewis is much better than 2017 Murray. All of this could be moot if Lewis gets hurt, which is a common theme in his career. That would leave Henry as a clear lead back with a workload in the Leonard Fournette range. Henry could be a small hit even with a healthy Lewis if the Titans have more scoring drives and overall offensive effectiveness under Matt LaFleur.
Christian McCaffrey, CAR - C.J. Anderson might be better at pass protection and running between the tackles than McCaffrey, but the Panthers appear to be intent on using McCaffrey to the fullest this year, which could surprisingly vault him into having the most opportunity in the league outside of the top four backs. His ADP is likely to rise and make it more difficult to profit from drafting him unless he finishes as RB5 this year.
Jordan Howard, CHI - If you just look at Bears' wins last year, Howard was a top-five running back, including in PPR leagues. He’ll cede more snaps to Tarik Cohen, but if the Bears offense clicks and they are more competitive than last year, Howard could easily have more carries, yards, and touchdowns this year, and he has been tirelessly working on his passing game contributions. He’s only in his third year, so Howard’s game also has some room to grow. The new coaching staff could run him more out of the shotgun, where he has been more effective, and generally set him up better for good results than the previous staff.
Josh Gordon, CLE - You’ve heard it before about Gordon, but it remains true - he has the potential to dominate on NFL fields in a way that swings fantasy league outcomes in the short and long term. He’s sober, he has a competent quarterback, and now he just needs to be fully reinstated by the league. Gordon was getting open last year, but Deshone Kizer couldn’t take advantage. Tyrod Taylor can.
Will Fuller V, HOU - Fuller was a WR1 with Deshaun Watson last year, but like Watson, fantasy players are not buying a carryover of that scoring level to 2018. Fuller’s durability in the pros is a good reason to be skeptical, but Fuller will also get the better matchups, such as in Week 1 when Stephon Gilmore is likely to lock horns with DeAndre Hopkins and Fuller will get someone like Eric Rowe or Jason McCourty. If Fuller can’t stay healthy, Keke Coutee or Bruce Ellington become very intriguing waiver wire names. Maybe even Ryan Griffin. Someone from this passing game is going to blow away their ADP.
T.Y. Hilton, IND - Hilton’s shoulder injury is a bummer and slows down the momentum, but the recipe is still there for a career year. The Colts have no proven pass catchers in the rest of the wide receiver corps, Hilton’s chemistry with Luck is among the best between a wideout and quarterback in the league, and the Colts are likely to be pass heavy under Frank Reich with not much of a running game and questionable defensive roster. Hilton leading the league in targets is not out of the question, and he led the league in receiving yards the last time Luck played.
Tyreek Hill, KC - It seemed like Hill possibly being in for a target share loss this season since Sammy Watkins providing a huge upgrade at WR2 was the biggest change in Hill's fantasy outlook. That was before the second preseason game when Patrick Mahomes threw a pass that went farther in the air than any 2017 NFL regular-season pass. Hill was well ahead of the defense, easily running underneath the pass. Again, that pass covered more yards through the air than any pass thrown in a game last year. Hill actually slowed down to catch it, which isn’t a bad thing because Mahomes led him to comfortable open space with the trajectory of the throw. Mahomes' combination of arm strength and a penchant for extending and creating plays could take Hill to new levels this year.
Corey Davis, TEN - Davis has mostly stayed healthy during camp and the preseason after a hamstring injury robbed him of summer prep time last year. Rishard Matthews has a mystery injury and hasn’t been practicing, so Davis is poised to open the season as the No. 1 receiver. He has the talent and ability to live up to that billing and become a target magnet for Marcus Mariota in the new Matt LaFleur offense.
Amari Cooper, OAK - Confidence isn’t high here, but Cooper will have the chance to draw the highest target share of any Raiders receiver by a good margin and live up to his draft billing after failing to do so for a sustained full season so far in his career. If Hill and Hilton aren’t there in the third and you want a high ceiling receiver, Cooper is a good choice.
Davante Adams, GB - It’s not easy for a second-round pick to make your season and Adams isn’t a preferred target of mine in that round, but his ceiling is unknown as the clear No. 1 receiver for Aaron Rodgers. Jimmy Graham and Randall Cobb should also be prominent targets, but Cobb hasn’t been able to stay healthy, and a healthy Graham might not be deserving of as many targets as the Packers envisioned. Setting career highs across the board and leading the league in touchdown catches are in the range of outcomes for Adams this year.
Stefon Diggs, MIN - It’s possible that Diggs pulls ahead of Adam Thielen this year and becomes the clear #1 receiver for the Vikings. Kirk Cousins is arguably the best quarterback he has played with, and Diggs has gotten off to starts that would put him in Antonio Brown territory the last two years. He hasn’t been able to stay off of the injury report and sustain that pace, but if he does, he’ll deliver great profit on possibly rising into the second round ADP. Diggs looked like he had excellent chemistry with Kirk Cousins in the preseason.
Marquise Goodwin, SF - It’s time to stop ignoring the numerous reports and treat Goodwin as the No. 1 receiver for the 49ers. While we need to forget the past of Pierre Garcon putting up monster numbers for Kyle Shanahan as a No. 1 receiver, we do need to remember that Kyle Shanahan top receivers tend to put up monster numbers. Goodwin is clearly on the same page as Jimmy Garoppolo, and the two have had an entire offseason to refine already natural chemistry.
Doug Baldwin/Tyler Lockett, SEA - Should we trust Baldwin’s knee? Should we trust that Tyler Lockett wasn’t actually 100% last year (as he admitted) and we will see a player again on the sky-high career arc he was on before injuries struck? Both are calculated risks, but one thing we do know is that organizational priorities to establish the run notwithstanding, the Seahawks are likely to have one of their worst seasons since before Russell Wilson was their quarterback, which will in turn put a lot on the shoulders of Wilson and the passing game. Paul Richardson Jr’s departure will free up a lot of deep targets, Lockett was a terrific deep target before his injuries, and Wilson showed a heavy inclination to throw deep so far in the preseason. Baldwin has been Wilson’s security blanket before, especially in the red zone, and he could set career highs in targets and catches if he plays 16 games at or near full strength. Someone in this passing game is going to hit, or the Seattle offense is going to collapse, adjust your strategy based on your beliefs.
Cordarrelle Patterson, NE - This one is venturing into fairy tale land, but we shouldn’t forget that there’s evidence that Patterson is one of the most dangerous open field runners in the league. The Patriots have a need for contributions from the wide receiver position while Julian Edelman is out, and there will be snaps and targets up for the taking. Patterson has had a good, even great camp according to all reports. Bill Belichick is a forward-thinking head coach, but he also embraces obvious truths. Perhaps we will learn that the obvious truth here is that Patterson is just a return specialist/gadget player, but there is some chance that the game-changing ability not seen regularly since Patterson’s rookie year will be conjured up and harnessed by the Patriots, creating a feedback loop that increases his touches and role in the offense. Once upon a time, Patterson had seven touchdowns on only 57 offensive touches. What if the Patriots find a way to give him 100 or more in his prime age 27 season?
Rob Gronkowski, NE - Notice the theme of Patriots on this list. If you believe the offense is going to be one of the most productive in the league once again, there is a surplus of production to allot in projections with Brandin Cooks gone and Julian Edelman out for four games. It just seems logical to give it to Gronkowski, who has been mostly healthy three out of the last four years. No team has devised a reliable way to slow Gronkowski down and he already has established the same kind of consistency and efficiency as a fantasy WR1 at the toughest position to get consistent production at in fantasy football. If he becomes the clear No. 1 target in the offense, Gronkowski could flirt with his legendary 2011 numbers of 90-1327-17.
Jimmy Graham, GB - Graham is a puzzle for fantasy football projection this year. On one hand, he doesn’t have the same snap to his routes and big play downfield ability that he displayed before his catastrophic knee injury. He’s clearly in the autumn of his career. On the other hand, the Packers paid a lot for his services, and he is effectively replacing a player in the red zone (Jordy Nelson) who had 12 red zone scores in 2016 - even though when Aaron Rodgers went out in 2017, it was clear Nelson’s separation ability was spent. It’s within the realm of possibility that Graham scores 15 touchdowns, and the connection was in effect in the preseason already.
Jordan Reed, WAS - In 2015, Reed was the only tight end who could score on Rob Gronkowski’s level. In 2016, he began to be bothered a toe issue that was a bigger problem in 2017 and finally surgically repaired this offseason. All camp reports have been positive and Reed is now with the quarterback that helped Travis Kelce get to career high numbers. He’s only 28 and could hoover up high percentage targets for as long as he keeps the injury bug at bay.
Tyler Eifert, CIN - Eifert doesn’t quite have the ceiling of Reed and Graham, but it’s close, and he is going to cost a pittance in drafts. He hasn’t gotten hurt (yet), and the plan for the Bengals to limit his snaps is actually a good thing. If they exclusively use him in the red zone (where he has been Gronkian) and in obvious passing situations, Eifert could still be a top five fantasy tight end and actually stay on the field for most or all of the season. He opens with Indianapolis, so you could do worse, especially in the range of your draft where you’re taking a streaming tight end anyway.
Dallas Goedert, PHI - It’s a stretch to think of a rookie tight end affecting your fantasy league at all, forget about making your season, but Goedert could be different. He has been a 2015 Eifert, 2017 Graham target in practices, getting a red zone score seemingly every time the Eagles took the field, and then more than looked the part in preseason action. Alshon Jeffery could miss time early or be less than 100 percent, giving Goedert the chance to get off to a hot start. Nelson Agholor is already banged up. Zach Ertz has two concussions, a groin injury, hamstring injury, and a rib injury in the last three seasons. The path could be there for Goedert to be relevant in September and only grow in value as the season goes on.