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.
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