The collection intelligence of the fantasy community improves every year, and those who build early ADP with a lot of activity are generally the most "in the know". Still, there are new realities coming into focus that remain fuzzy in the view of the "conventional wisdom". While we wait for camp and preseason buzz to shake up our boards, we can anticipate at least a few players who should not be available at current prices in a few short months.
Note: All ADP Data taken from Footballguys Consensus ADP
Matthew Stafford, QB, DET (QB19, 130 overall) - I know, I know Calvin Johnson retired this offseason. Johnson didn’t have the gravitational in 2015 that he had in years past, and the Lions have Marvin Jones Jr and developing young targets like Eric Ebron, T.J. Jones, Theo Riddick, and Ameer Abdullah to improve the passing game, not to mention the addition of Marvin Jones Jr to the starting lineup and first-round draft pick Taylor Decker to shore up the offensive tackle position. Once offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter took over, Stafford was QB10, and after the bye, he was QB6. The Lions best between the tackles running back is Zach Zenner or maybe Stevan Ridley. This offense is going to run through Stafford, and with a full offseason to craft it around Stafford and his targets’ strengths, it should produce top 10-12 numbers for Stafford in 2016. As long as you can get Stafford well outside of the top 12-15 quarterbacks, there’s no reason to rush your pick at the position.
Kirk Cousins, QB, WAS (QB18, 129 overall) - Cousins isn’t quite in ours or Washington’s circle of trust yet, but that is good for his 2016 fantasy prospects, because the quarterback will be playing under the franchise tag - ie for what will likely be a 75-100 million dollar (if not more) long-term contract. After a slow start last year, Cousins was a top 6 quarterback from Week 7 on, and the #1 quarterback in the fantasy playoffs. A look at this year’s roster reveals a completely unproven running game lead in Matt Jones with no proven backups, and the addition of highlight-reel-waiting-to-happen wideout Josh Doctson in the draft. The rest of the potent passing game from 2015 is intact, with some development coming from slot receiver Jamison Crowder and the return of Niles Paul. This offense will put pressure on the opponent via the passing game, and they should have a lot of success. Even if Cousins reverts to his early 2015 form, the cost is easy to stomach when the reward is a top 6 quarterback.
Wendell Smallwood, RB, PHI (RB75, 243 overall) - Look for Smallwood to become a fashionable sleeper by August as the buzz builds through OTAs and training camp. While Smallwood didn’t appear to be special in any way at West Virginia, he is an excellent receiver and efficient runner who should be competent at worst if he is pushed into a large role. With only Ryan Mathews, a potentially cut or traded Darren Sproles, and Kenjon Barner situated as obstacles, we would be interested in ANY running that was the fourth in that group. Even though Smallwood comes with a third-day draft pedigree, the team is already excited about him, and it’s very easy to picture scenarios where he leads the team in running back touches in the second half of the season, if not all year.
DeAndre Washington, RB, OAK (RB63, 199 overall) - The Raiders didn’t make any splashy moves at running back this offseason, but they gave off a lot of signals that they are not sold on Latavius Murray. 2015 free agent pickup Roy Helu is barely even being mentioned by the team in the running back picture, so Washington has the inside track to the receiving back job. If the compact back with a lot of juice in his legs can flash as a receiver, it’s only a matter of time before he gets chances to run behind a terrific offensive line in an offense that can spread the field and get defenses stretched laterally. With his hands, quicks, and burst through his cuts, Washington may be a better fit for the Oakland offense. We will get a chance to see, and you want him on your bench while that happens, because this offense - and team - could be about to take off.
Frank Gore, RB, IND (RB34, 89 overall) - Gore’s 2015 was a disappointment, and his advanced age of 33 makes it at least slightly more likely he breaks down this year, but if the Colts offense wasn’t stuck in neutral for most of the year, he would have had a top 12-15 season, if not better. Gore was RB20 on a points per game in PPR leagues, which more than justifies taking him at or even a round or two earlier than ADP. The return of Luck should improve his standing, and the Colts made no moves at running back this offseason that indicate any misgivings about Gore as their lead back in 2016. Running backs with limited to no track record without a quarterback like Luck are going 2-3 rounds ahead of Gore, and that is simply ageism when you look at how Gore has defied age curves for his entire career.
Sammie Coates Jr, WR, PIT (WR63, 175 overall) - Martavis Bryant’s suspension is a bummer for the Steelers offense, but the team drafted Coates in the third round last year with the thought that Bryant might not be with the team in the future due to his involvement in the league substance abuse program, so we should assume they knew what they were doing when they drafted him. Coates is a freaky athlete with a true fifth gear despite a rocked up build. He is a bit raw tracking the ball and will be a boom/bust player, but if he slides into Bryant’s deep receiver and screen pass role, he won’t need to be consistent catching the ball as long as he is consistently explosive when he does. This pass offense should be forced into a lot of sprints because of the secondary problems on defense, and Coates is well-suited for the role Bryant has vacated. Ed Bouchette, who has written about the Steeler longer than some of you have been alive, recently wrote that Coates should benefit the most of any Pittsburgh receiver in the wake of Bryant’s suspension, and that he has “worked like crazy”, “is in great shape”, and the coaches “expect him to progress nicely”. The upside is more than worth the late round pick, and if he starts to split first-team reps outside with Markus Wheaton, Coates’ ADP could get to the 10th round or earlier.
Sterling Shepard, WR, NYG (WR50, 134 overall) - The second round pick is on the fast track to a starting spot in a role that could be much more fruitful for fantasy than we anticipate. He is “catching everything” in OTAs by most accounts and former Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer said Archie Manning told him his son and Giants quarterback Eli Manning loves him, and that they are thinking about adopting Shepard. Odell Beckham Jr Jr. will remain the obsession of defenses, and the running game was mediocre at best last year, so the passing attack will remain the best face of this offense. Victor Cruz still isn’t practicing, leaving Shepard ready to inherit a role that Rueben Randle turned into a 57-797-8 line last year despite getting only 90 targets and receiving a cold shoulder in the free agent market. Shepard’s route-running, hands, run after catch ability, and nose for the end zone should make Randle’s 2015 and 2014 (71-938-3) closer to the rookie’s 2016 floor than ceiling.
A.J. Green (WR7, 12 overall) - Marvin Jones Jr and Mohamed Sanu are gone, now Tyler Eifert’s early season status is in question, leaving all arrows pointing at Green as the focal point of the Bengals pass offense. Last year, Green put up numbers just off his career peak numbers of 2012 and 2013, but with 44 and 46 fewer targets. With so much of the pass offense falling on his wide shoulders this year, Green is almost certain to set new career highs without an injury. It’s not a stretch to see him approaching Antonio Brown/Julio Jones territory when you hear Green say that the offense will “run through” the connection between him and Andy Dalton.
Michael Thomas (WR59, 155 overall) - The Saints sorely needed help at all levels of their defense, but they still took Thomas in the second round of the draft, showing just how much they liked him. In OTAs, they have revealed their plan for him. Thomas will fill the “big slot” role Marques Colston vacated. The one that Colston turned into over 1000 receiving yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie in 2007 - a seventh-round rookie. Thomas has Colston’s size and ball skills, but he is much more dangerous after the catch and could rival Coby Fleener for the most red zone looks in this prodigious pass offense. Drew Brees is already talking about the natural chemistry between him and Thomas, which is the foundation of fantasy goodness in an offense like New Orleans’s.
Martellus Bennett, TE, NE (TE27, 223 overall) - This one baffles me more than any other. We know the Patriots LOVE two and three tight end sets. Bennett should basically be a starter in terms of snaps and targets. We know Bennett is a good receiving tight end. We know the Patriots offense can support two top fantasy tight end options. Their best wide receiver options - Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola - are out for the offseason with surgeries and we know their injury histories. Speaking of injury histories, if Bennett’s running mate Rob Gronkowski gets hurt, Bennett could contend for TE1 overall this year. Brady and Bennett are working together on red zone plays, which should be music to your ears if you take Bennett as the first option in a TEBC approach. Tom Brady’s suspension could take the bite out of starting Bennett early in the season if it is not overturned, but Bennett just becomes one of the few tight ends worth stashing on your bench in that event.