It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish, so the idea of having an elite RB1 like LeVeon Bell for the price of a second round pick, or an elite QB like Tom Brady for an eighth round pick, or a potential elite WR1 like Josh Gordon for a pick in the 7th-10th round range is enticing. If you hit on your other picks, you will lock in an advantage over your peers who didn’t mine as much late season value from their picks.
If you do target one or more of these suspended studs, you’ll have the knowledge that you are taking them to help you prepare for their four-game absence, which can cushion the blow of getting nothing from a core pick for the first four weeks of the season. Which players are the best targets to pair up with Bell, Brady, and Gordon?
Note: Remember that number of bench spots is a key variable to consider when determining whether taking these players are wise for your team. In a 14 or 16-man roster league, taking a suspended player necessarily (especially in Brady’s case) means you have to carry an extra player than can’t contribute and therefore clogs up a roster spot that can be used in the all important early waiver wire runs. In 20-man roster leagues, you should easily be able to carry replacement candidates without limiting early season roster flexibility. Just make sure you don’t take too many other “late bloomers” like rookies or injured players that you will feel reluctant to release early in the season.
DeAngelo Williams, PIT - Cost: 6th-8th round - Duh. Williams gives you the direct replacement of RB1 projected games while Bell is out. If your leaguemates don’t try to punish you by reaching for Williams, this should be your plan A. By taking Williams, you preserve your lock on the Steelers starting running back, which gave fantasy players far and away the RB1 in 2015 season. Williams was a league winner in 2015. Bell was a league winner in 2014. This isn’t difficult. This is not a range where you are passing on essential pieces or potential league winners at other positions, outside of possibly Gordon or Brady…
Frank Gore, IND - Cost: 7th round - Gore is a good pick in the seventh whether or not you take Bell. He will be the lead back, including work in the passing game and at the goal line, even if his workload will be scaled back a bit to keep him on the field all season. The Colts open at Detroit and have tough run matchups in Week 2 at Denver and Week 4 at Jacksonville, but Gore will be projected as a low RB2 (which he fulfilled as the offense as crumbling around him last year) at worst.
Arian Foster, MIA - Cost: 8th-9th round - Foster is healthy and looking like his old self coming off of an achilles tear. He will certainly share work with Jay Ajayi to open the season, but his pass catching ability has been highlighted by the team as one of the big reason they signed him, and it made him a strong RB1 in PPR last year while he was on the field even though it was only a short time and he was ineffective between the tackles. Week 1 and 2 games on the road at Seattle and New England should equal a lot of target for Foster. As long as Jay Ajayi’s ADP is hovering at or near Foster’s, you could also pair up the Miami backs and hope that Foster’s level of play or his injury history clarifies the situation.
Bilal Powell, NYJ - Cost: 12th-14th round - First and foremost, Powell’s ADP is a joke and he should be a target for you no matter who you take early on. Beyond that, Powell’s late season performance and early season schedule makes him an even better target for Bell drafters. Add in that Matt Forte is already dealing with a hamstring and you have the makings of a surprise RB1 to open the season who was a surprise RB1 in PPR to close the season. Games against Cincinnati, Buffalo, Kansas City, and Seattle all feature defenses that are probably easier to nibble around the edge than take head on in the running game.
Latavius Murray, OAK - Cost: 4th-5th round - Murray is building momentum after an offseason full of indications that the Raiders weren’t sold on him as their feature back. Rookie DeAndre Washington could cut into his workload by the end of the season, but to open, the Raiders and their top-notch offensive line get the Saints, Atlanta, Tennessee, and Baltimore, all very winnable games that should see Murray get close to 20 carries and scoring opportunities. He’s a much more attractive pick in the fifth than fourth.
Rashad Jennings, NYG - Cost: 8th-9th round - Jennings was an RB1 last year down the stretch when the team finally turned to him to lead the backfield. His injury history might have been part of the reason they didn’t ride him earlier in the season, but the team sounds like they are not going to make that mistake again this year. Jennings could break down under a full workload, but as long as that doesn’t happen until Week 5 or later, he’ll serve his purpose for Bell drafters. Dallas, New Orleans, Washington, and Minnesota isn’t the most attractive schedule, with Shane Vereen possibly figuring in larger in the potential track meets against the Saints and Washington, but as long as Jennings is the lead back to open the game, he’ll be a fine fill-in.
Jonathan Stewart, CAR - Cost: 6th round - Stewart will own the running back position for the Panthers to begin the season, but just like last year, he might not be there for you at the end of the season. His opening schedule is mixed, with a road game at Denver in Week 1 and tough matchup at home against Minnesota in Week 3. Week 2 against San Francisco and Week 4 at Atlanta should be more favorable for him.
Danny Woodhead, SD - Cost: 6th-7th round - Woodhead was more of a boom/bust play from week-to-week last year, but the booms were big, and they could be large to open the season. He fits better in the spread/hurry-up aggressive pass offense that the Chargers will need to keep up with Week 1-4 opponents Kansas City, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, and New Orleans. The Chiefs like to play more conservative, but without Justin Houston, Philip Rivers should have plenty of time to operate.
T.J. Yeldon, JAX - Cost: 7th-8th round - Yeldon is set to open the season as the 1A with Chris Ivory, but he’s the better passing down back, and he would likely get more work in high-scoring games, which is exactly what is on tap for the Jags to open the season. They get Green Bay, Baltimore, and Indianapolis at home, with a road game at San Diego in Week 2. Along the way, Ivory could get dinged, giving you a reliable RB2 going forward. This pick doesn’t give certain RB2 production for the first four weeks, but it is a calculated risk with injury and schedule upside.
Justin Forsett, BAL - Cost: 9th-10th round - This one has lost some luster with Terrance West generating buzz and Javorius Allen still looming as potentially a better or at least as good receiving option out of the backfield as Forsett. Still, this team may be short-handed at wide receiver to open the season, and the team could treat Forsett as the incumbent and only turn to West if Forsett starts slow. Buffalo, at Cleveland, at Jacksonville, and Oakland to open are all winnable games, and Forsett’s receiving ability should keep him in the game plan even if the Ravens fall behind. If Forsett’s ADP falls on the positive Terrance West news, he’ll be a more attractive target for Bell drafters.
Philip Rivers, SD - Cost: 8th-9th round - Rivers is often falling farther than this in drafts, but he is actually worth the pick in the 9th, if not the eighth, based on his strong performance before Keenan Allen went down last year. Rivers was a top five quarterback with Allen, and the Chargers offense should remain pass heavy this year. The matchups are the real kicker here with Kansas City, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, and New Orleans to open. If Rivers starts as hot as last year, he could be trade bait, or alternatively allow you to trade Brady once he comes back. In 12 team or larger leagues this could be an added incentive to take Brady and Rivers between the 7th and 10th rounds.
Matthew Stafford, DET - Cost: 10th-11th round - Stafford was one of the bigger winners of camp to date when his offense added Anquan Boldin, and it looks like Eric Ebron will be ok after an injury scare in camp. The Lions offense will clearly run through Stafford, and he’ll open with Indianapolis, Tennessee, Green Bay and Chicago in a four-game run that shouldn’t scare anyone. Stafford is a great pick anyway as a QBBC option and top 10 quarterback from the second half of 2015 who is often going outside of the top 15 quarterbacks off the board.
Kirk Cousins, WAS - Cost: 10th-11th round - Cousins has the risk of regressing back to first half of 2015 Cousins, but his schedule should grease the skids for a strong fantasy takeoff. Pittsburgh, Dallas, the Giants, and Cleveland all have weaknesses to exploit in the secondary, and Washington has the array of weapons (even if Josh Doctson is not ready for the season) to win all over the field. If Cousins craters early, you might have to go to the waiver wire, but his upside each week is in the top 3-5 passers.
Tyrod Taylor, BUF - Cost: 11th-12th round - It looks like Sammy Watkins should be fine to open the season (stay tuned), and Taylor will open Baltimore, the Jets, Arizona, and New England, in games that could stress the Buffalo defense with pass-heavy attacks although of course the New England game will not feature Tom Brady. Taylor is a weekly high ceiling QB1 who is discounted a bit because of injury risk, but that is diminished if all we care about is a four-game window.
Alex Smith, KC - Cost: 15th+ round - Don’t laugh. Smith had the most productive stretch of his entire career when Justin Houston went down with an elbow injury in 2013. He had strong QB1 games with multiple scores and at least 287 passing yards in the three of the next four games, including the game when Houston went down at the half. This year, the Chiefs open with San Diego, Houston, the Jets, and Pittsburgh, with at least two of those setting up as shootouts, and maybe more if JJ Watt joins Houston on the sidelines in Week 2 after he had back surgery right before training camp.
Derek Carr, OAK - Cost: 9th-10th round - At cost, Carr isn’t attractive, but he will fall past the tenth at times, and certainly merits a look if he falls out of the top 12-15 quarterbacks. The early season lineup of New Orleans, Atlanta, Tennessee, and Baltimore could be very good to Carr, especially that season opener in the Superdome. The Raiders have a top notch offensive line and terrific set of targets for Carr. He threw for three scores against Baltimore and Tennessee last year, so the positive precedent has been set for these matchups.
Robert Griffin III III, CLE - Cost: 15th+ round - Griffin is for the true bargain shoppers among us. While he won’t have Josh Gordon for those first round weeks, he will have matchups against Philadelphia, Baltimore, Miami, and Washington. All of those games could be high-scoring, none of those defenses are too imposing, and Griffin should be set up to succeed with Hue Jackson’s track record and the optimism around his turnaround. If Griffin bombs in Week 1 against the Eagles, you might have to resort to a streaming approach until Brady returns.
Jimmy Garoppolo, NE - Cost: Last Round - A simple, if uninspired choice, Garoppolo has been in the incubator and the team was preparing for him to start the first four games last year. Reviews out of New England have been good, although we know not to put too much stock in them. The most compelling case for Garoppolo is the early season schedule of Arizona, Miami, Houston, and Buffalo, teams that have their best defensive players up front, except for Arizona, and that game could turn into a shootout. The Patriots might try to protect Garoppolo by running more, but the short passing game has been good against Buffalo and Miami last year, and New England should be true to the matchups they like to isolate and exploit even with Garoppolo.
It isn’t necessary to draft for Gordon’s absence, because you are very likely taking him as your fourth receiver in the seventh round or later. If you do have to replace Gordon among your “starters”, here are a few ideas.
Corey Coleman, CLE - Cost: 8th-9th round - Assuming Coleman gets over his early camp hamstring strain, he should be lined up to lead all Browns wide receivers in targets until Gordon returns. The team will want to get the ball out of Robert Griffin III III’s hands quickly to keep him from taking hits and regressing early in his Browns tenure, so hitting Coleman in space to set up run after catch opportunities. He could be a PPR monster.
Pierre Garcon, WAS - Cost: 15th+ round - Garcon is a presumptive starter in a good pass offense, but he has fallen off of the face of fantasy earth. His main competition for snaps, first-round pick Josh Doctson, has been out with an achilles injury, and he might not be ready to contribute a lot in the early season. Garcon is an afterthought pick, but he has great matchups to open the season and shouldn’t be overlooked.
Kamar Aiken, BAL - Cost: 10th-13th round - Aiken is healthy and on the upslope of his career, and he’s the only Ravens wideout we can say that about right now. We know he was a strong weekly play last year after Steve Smith went out, and there are no signs yet that Smith will be ready for Week 1 or even Week 4. Buffalo, Cleveland, Oakland, and Jacksonville to open shouldn’t scare you away from playing Aiken as your WR3 or flex.
Willie Snead IV, NO - Cost: 9th-10th round - Snead has been growing and improving this offseason by most accounts, and he should be a central target to begin the season. New additions Coby Fleener and Michael Thomas will certainly play big roles in the pass offense, but Snead is already clearly on the same page as Brees, and he’ll have a chance to flourish in good matchups against Oakland, the Giants, Atlanta, and San Diego to open the season.