I’m more convinced than ever that the key to success in fantasy football is to be ahead of the curve. There are a lot of ways in which one can be steps ahead of the competition in the fantasy game, but this time of the year, my focus is on keeper and dynasty leagues, since, well, there’s no season going on in February.
The great thing about being in a keeper or dynasty league is that one can enjoy the managing of a roster 12 months a year, and if you’re into that sort of thing, you should be looking now to make some moves before player values shift due to free agency activity and the draft – and before the hype train takes off some choice players in the spring and early summer. And after careful inspection of all 32 depth charts with a full understanding of what might take place in the pending free agency and the draft, here’s my list of players whose values should be rising in the coming weeks and months.
In other words, this is my list of current buy-low commodities for keeper and dynasty leagues.
Carson Wentz (Phi) – An obvious choice, my point with Wentz is very simple: While his numbers weren’t great, he showed he could play, and the Eagles will now focus on getting him the help he needed last year. The passing digits - 379/609 (62.4%), 3782 yards (6.2 YPA), 16 TDs, 14 INTs – weren’t particularly impressive, and I do have some mild mechanical concerns because his throwing motion seemed to elongate as the season progressed. But you have to grade on a curve for a rookie thrown into the fire and asked to throw it quite often to a mediocre receiving corps. In fact, you could argue the Eagles had one of the five worst wideout groups in the league and possibly the worst collection of outside WRs in the NFL. That will be addressed, and Wentz’ fantasy production will progress.
Ryan Tannehill (Mia) – I can’t bail on Tannehill because I still see a player who’s talented enough to be a fantasy difference-maker, yet he remains one of the least-regarded starters in the league, so I see a buying opportunity. Incredibly durable before last year’s knee injury – one that looked career-threatening but will only cost him a handful of games – Tannehill has shown only flashes and has yet to put it all together. That’s worrisome because, at this point, it appears he needs to be in a very good situation to perform at a high level. But he’s on this list because I think he’s in a very good situation with Adam Gase, who helped him post a very encouraging 67% completion rate and 7.7 YPA average, two stats that we’ve used to accurately predict production from young QBs. Tannehill posted 20+ fantasy points just five times on the run-heavy Dolphins, but he did average .69 per pass attempt, which was above the league average of .53. There’s now optimism when it comes to his OL, which was far from the case 1-2 years ago, and having a bell-cow back in Jay Ajayi will help open opportunities in the passing game. I don’t have a lot of faith in Julius Thomas at this point, but he’s still an upgrade at TE, and Tannehill can definitely get him the ball. We’ll see if they lose Kenny Stills, but regardless, Tannehill still has his guy Jarvis Landry and the talented DeVante Parker. This looks like an offense that will move the ball well and score more points in 2017.
Jared Goff (LA) – We were not particularly high on Goff coming out of Cal, and we made it clear after the 2016 draft that the Rams should have taken Wentz with the first overall pick. We still have time to see if that position will be proven correct, but Goff is obviously off to a slow start. Goff played eight games with seven starts as a rookie, and his numbers were pathetic: 112/205 (54.5%, 5.3 YPA) for 1089 yards, 5 TDs, 7 INTs, 11.7 FPG (34th). I’m not totally convinced he’s going to pan out, but what I am convinced about is that his value will be rising considerably in the coming months and likely the coming years. First and foremost, I’m optimistic about new HC Sean McVay, who did a terrific job with Kirk Cousins and the Redskin offense. Goff may be very similar to Cousins in that he’s more of a distributor than he is franchise savior, and that’s fine – if they have weapons to distribute the ball to. There are questions about his supporting cast, but there are some really talented skill players here, like Todd Gurley, Tavon Austin, and second-year TE Tyler Higbee. Goff is nothing more than a decent QB2 in a dynasty league, but I can easily envision his settling in as a top-15 guy in 2-3 years if things go well in L.A.
Tony Romo (Dal) – Romo is an obvious addition to this list, but he’s also a guy who could be dead in the water in a year or less, so he’s a year-to-year guy at best. Romo has stated that he would like to play 2-3 more years, and Dallas will likely oblige by releasing him from his huge contract. The tricky part is that it would be best for them to do so on June 1st, which is obviously late on the NFL calendar, since teams are usually set at the QB position by June. However, there’s one team that makes a ton of sense from a variety of angles: the Houston Texans. Houston’s only a 40-minute flight from Dallas and has the pieces in place for a championship run right now. Even better for both parties, they have two young QBs on the roster and under contract, so waiting until June 1 to acquire Romo isn’t a big issue. Romo’s an upgrade over Brock Osweiler and Tom Savage, and if he’s injured again, the Texans still have those two young QBs to battle for the starting gig, so the move makes a ton of sense. If it happens, then Romo will have a very intriguing group of skill players at his disposal, and he can make them – especially DeAndre Hopkins – better. A top-20 QB finish is attainable for Romo on the Texans, but it does still have to happen. For the record, I’d be less optimistic about Romo if he went to another team, like the Denver Broncos (poor OL, shakier supporting cast).
Mike Glennon (FA) – I’ve seen some Brock Osweiler comparisons with Glennon, and they are similar in that they’re both very tall and fairly immobile passers who’ve sat the bench for multiple seasons. Glennon, the 73rd pick of the 2013 draft, won’t get the huge free agent payday that Osweiler received, but I think he’s a better player. Buc HC Dirk Koetter said this past year that he believes Glennon is a starter in the NFL, despite Glennon failing to beat out both Josh Freeman and Josh McCown in 2013 and 2014, respectively. But he also boasts a 30:15 TD:INT ratio and a stronger arm than Brock. Osweiler is probably a little more mobile, but Glennon’s not a statue, and his pocket awareness and poise appear superior to Osweiler’s. I’m a little surprised the Bucs didn’t trade him last year because he’s going to be free to sign anywhere in a couple of weeks, and he should find a suitor and a starting job for at least 2017. Teams potentially interested are the Jets, Bears, 49ers, Browns, Bills, and maybe even the Cardinals, who are looking for a QB-of-the-future. Glennon’s hardly a sexy fantasy prospect, but he’s a guy who’ll likely go from having no value in 2016 to top-30 value in 2017.
AJ McCarron (Cin) – McCarron showed some flashes for the Bengals in 2015, and with 2017 being the final year of his rookie deal, a trade cannot be ruled out this year. Comfortable working under center and out of the shotgun, McCarron throws with anticipation and throws receivers open, and his accuracy is excellent at the intermediate level. He moves well within the pocket with a good internal clock, and he doesn’t drop his eyes to the pass rush or fall away from his throws. McCarron certainly doesn’t have the strongest arm in the league, and he does have a long release, which hurts his deep ball, accuracy, and velocity, so he does have some limitations as a passer, plus he’ll never beat defenses with his feet as he’s just an average athlete. In the final four games of 2015, McCarron completed 76/115 passes for 832 yards, 6 TDs, and 2 INTs. He also averaged .59 FP per attempt (league average was .54 FP/attempt for QBs) and a decent 7.2 YPA. Respected HC Hue Jackson thinks a lot of McCarren, and he’s something of an underrated sleeper in an off-season that should see a significant number of QB moves and changes. Especially in a weak 2017 QB class that may not feature a rookie ready to start from Day One, it’s probably better than 50/50 McCarron is traded. If so, it will be to either start or compete for starting job with a legit chance to claim it, so his value is on the rise.
Paxton Lynch (Den) – In this case, I’d simply bet on talent, and Lynch has a lot of it. It’s a stretch to believe Lynch will be the 2017 opening day starter for the Broncos, even though he and Trevor Siemian are both tasked with learning a new system. Siemian has a lot of backers on the Bronco roster, and I can see why after watching him play in 2016 and meeting and interviewing him in Houston Super Bowl week. The good news is new OC Mike McCoy is adaptable and has worked with a variety of QBs, so he’ll put the Bronco QB in a position to succeed. After a poor showing in three games – 49/83 for 497 yards (59%, 6.0 YPA) with 2 TDs and 1 INT, 11/25 rushing – Lynch still looks like a developmental player dealing with a steep learning curve, so the safe money should be on him riding the pine for another year. But eventually, this physical freak will get a great opportunity to lead this or another offense, so he’s a viable buy-low guy now. Most likely, his perceived and real value will only be going up the next 1-2 years.
Jacoby Brissett (NE) – This one’s more of a long shot for 2-3 years from now or even more, but if the Pats end up trading Jimmy Garoppolo, I believe that will in part be because they like Brissett, who they selected in the 3rd round of 2016’s draft. Brissett is a player who compares to Jameis Winston, and he has a very good arm with a quick release, and he showed the ability to go through progressions. He isn’t a great mover (4.94 40, 4.53 20-yard shuttle), but he’s a very competitive runner who can escape hits in the pocket, fights for extra yardage, and can be an asset at the goal line. In fact, he puts up 16/83/1 rushing in just three games and two starts. He struggles with his lower-body mechanics, and we saw very little “anticipation throwing” in his college film, plus his internal clock is a question, as he took several bad sacks in college. Yet he was able to manage a solid 62% completion rate and a solid 7.3 YPA with 0 INTs on his 55 pass attempts. He needs time to sit and learn the subtleties of his position, but he will get to do just that if the team trades Garoppolo. And if they don’t trade Garoppolo, then it’ll likely be Brissett who’s moved to another team in 1-2 years.
Todd Gurley (LA) – Call me a glutton for punishment, and I do understand that some of the concerns with Gurley started late in 2015, but I can’t help but view him as a viable buy-low guy on the heels of such a dreadful season. Granted, his owner may not be willing to “sell low,” but if he or she is willing, then Gurley’s someone to seriously consider if you need RB help. You can find all the ugly details of his 2016 season in our divisional reviews and early 2017 previews, but while most of the numbers were bad, he did take a step forward in the receiving department, with 43 catches and a 75% catch rate. In 2016, his OL was a mess, they fired their HC, the #1 pick of the draft at QB struggled, and even Gurley’s game suffered, as he began shying away from contact at times and didn’t run with the same power and juice as he did as a rookie. There are concerns, for sure, but those concerns lower his perceived value, and I’d argue that his situation in LA can only get better in 2017.
C.J. Prosise (Sea) – Prosise is going to be a very sexy fantasy sleeper in 2017, but this early in the off-season, the hype train hasn’t yet left the station. The concern with Prosise is injuries, and it’s a big concern as his durability past (especially in 2016) is checkered. But his combination of size, receiving chops, and movement/speed makes him a potential fantasy star. The numbers all looked good in his rookie season: 6 games total: 30/172/1 rushing (5.7 YPC), 17/208/0 receiving on 19 targets (12.2 YPR, 89.5% CR). As a former college WR, he’s still learning the position, but dating back to the preseason and some runs in the regular season, I thought he ran inside pretty well, and he does have good size. I know from team sources that the Seahawks were very enamored with him last summer, which is why we pushed him as a late-round flyer, and based on his strong showing, we’re all convinced that he has titanic PPR upside if he manages to stay on the field.
C.J. Anderson (Den) – Last summer, I was pretty high on Anderson while not exactly enthralled with rookie Devontae Booker, and by season’s end, I felt pretty good about my position for the Denver backfield. Anderson did underwhelm a little running behind an OL that turned out to be sub-par, but he was still distinctly better than Booker, who exhibited a lack of patience and vision as a rookie, an issue that could dog him throughout his career. In seven games, Anderson posted 110/437/4 rushing (4.0 YPC) and 16/128/1 receiving on 24 targets (8.0 YPR, 66.7% CR), good for 14.6 FPG (15th over full schedule). Those weren’t outstanding numbers, but keep in mind he played with a very inexperienced QB and behind that bad OL. Technically, had he not had a TD reception called back for holding (had little or nothing to do with the play) in October, he would have been on the exact pace to hit our preseason projection. As for Booker, in 16 games, he posted 174/612/4 rushing (3.5 YPC) and 31/265/1 receiving on 48 targets (8.5 YPR, 64.6% catch rate). Once Anderson went down in Week 7, Booker was tied for 29th at RB with 11.8 FPG, which was borderline pathetic give the opportunity and volume he received. We do have a new OC in Denver with Mike McCoy, and he’s a proven offensive mind who could get the best out of Booker, who does flash with his movement and running velocity. Unless the club brings in another back of note, however, I still fully expect the veteran Anderson to open the 2017 season as the top back. He’s not overly talented, and he might only have value for the next 2-3 years, but Anderson is like a coach on the field, pass-protects well, and he takes care of the ball, and pass-pro and ball security are still issues for Booker. Coming off his injury-marred season and with Booker lurking, I’d bet that Anderson’s value right now is at its lowest point it will be at in 2017.
Kenneth Dixon (Bal) – Dixon’s a guy we liked a lot last year, but we did have questions about whether or not he was a true foundation back, and the Ravens to this day seem to have the same questions. Playing only 31% of the snaps, he was involved in only 15.39% of team’s touches, so he didn’t exactly prove to be a foundation RB for the Ravens, who used Terrance West (a RFA this year) along with Dixon all season long. He was slowed by an early knee injury, but he encouragingly got better as the season progressed. Dixon’s numbers weren’t outstanding, but they were solid. He put up 88/382/2 rushing (4.3 YPC) and 30/162/1 receiving on 41 targets (73.2% CR, 5.4 YPC) in 12 games. He’s a little “light in the ass,” so I’m not convinced he can be a true lead back, and there are protection issues he needs to work on, but his receiving work was particularly good, and he did average a strong .87 FP/touch in PPR (avg was .7). He did see more snaps, carries, and yards than West in four of their last six games, so if he can improve as a pass-blocker, he has a chance to finish as a top-20 guy in 2017. However, the Ravens want to run the ball more effectively in 2017 and they do seem intent on adding another viable option this off-season, so I would not sell the farm to acquire Dixon.
Ameer Abdullah (Det) – Honestly, Abdullah is a player I’m probably going to push until he has that breakout season or until he retires. But I do still think he’ll have a breakout season when he’s healthy, getting the ball as a runner and receiver, and operating behind at least a serviceable OL. I don’t have any delusions about his emerging as a 300+ touch guy, but I still think he’s a very skilled runner and a versatile weapon who can be a strong fantasy asset. It might have happened in 2016, since he looked great in the preseason and for the 1.5 games he played in the regular season. In those six quarters, Abdullah put up 18/101/0 rushing (5.6 YPC) and 5/57/1 receiving, so the numbers were very good. I’m sure those who used an earlier pick on him in a keeper or dynasty league back in 2015 are frustrated and perhaps ready to sell at a discount, and that’s why he’s here. He’s not on this list because we can assume a huge role, something that might not be possible with Zach Zenner emerging and pass-catching stud Theo Riddick capping Abdullah’s upside.
Paul Perkins (NYG) – Given his increasing role down the stretch last year, and with veteran Rashad Jennings released, Perkins is a very obvious choice for this list. But he’s not higher on the list because I’m not yet sold or sure he’s going to be “the man” for the Giants. Still, he’s obviously ascending and should be well in the mix to collect a significant number of touches in 2017. There have been some rumors that veteran Shane Vereen could be axed, which would be big for Perkins, but that’s unlikely to happen. Perkins’ rookie numbers don’t jump off the page: In 14 games, he posted 112/456/0 rushing (4.1 YPC) and 15/162/0 receiving on 24 targets (10.8 YPC, 62.5% CR). One concern is that only 9 of his 136 opportunities came in the red zone (6.7%), which could be a sign that the coaches didn’t exactly trust him. When we watched his college tape, we felt Perkins needed to be a dual backfield with another back worked in liberally. It does look like Vereen will stick around, which is a problem for Perkins’ PPR potential. But even if they bring in another back of note, Perkins showed enough in 2016 for me to believe that he’ll continue to rise in 2017. I’d just be careful not to overpay for him under the assumption that he’ll be in line for 250 touches this coming season.
Jerick McKinnon (Min) – I’ve felt strongly since the end of the 2016 season that Adrian Peterson would not be returning to the Vikings, and that certainly appears to be the case two weeks before the league kicks off its new year. McKinnon was a “fantasy two-face” in 2016. At times, this SPARQ hero looked like a dynamic difference-maker; other times, he looked terrible. The good news is I firmly believe his poor showings can be attributed to injury, but the bad news is that he’s clearly failed to show he can handle a lot of work and avoid various bumps and bruises. I do know the Vikings like him, since I talked to HC Mike Zimmer about him a year ago, but I think it’s fair at this point to view him as #1A type of RB who’s used in tandem with another back. That wasn’t easy to accomplish with Peterson and his massive ego on the roster, but if AD departs, then McKinnon is, at worst, a guy who’ll likely be in line for 200 touches, and that’s assuming they acquire a back of note in free agency or the draft. My guess is they use an earlier pick on a back (perhaps a 3rd or 4th rounder – they don’t have a 1st), but McKinnon should have decided advantage, especially when it comes to receiving. He’s not considered a great pass protector, but McKinnon averaged a healthy 5.2/35.3/.33 receiving per game in Weeks 12-17 (prorated over 16 games, that’s 83 catches). For best value, trading for McKinnon before Peterson’s Viking fate is sealed is ideal.
Wendell Smallwood (Phi) – With one season under Doug Peterson in the books, one thing is clear about his rushing attack: He’s perfectly willing to use 2-3 different guys with different skill sets in his diverse running game, so I’m not totally convinced that Smallwood will hold a lot of value in the coming seasons, especially since he lacks ideal size and bulk. But he’s a good bet to be well in the mix in 2017, and he could easily emerge as their leader in backfield touches no later than 2018 (Ryan Mathews is under contract in 2017). In 13 games while playing only 18% of the snaps, he didn’t light it up with 77/312/1 rushing (4.1 YPC) and 6/55 receiving on 13 targets (9.2 YPC, 46.2% CR), but he had some good moments, like a 79-yard performance in Seattle. Given the fact that he was drafted by the current regime and has explosiveness and good hands in the passing game, it’s a pretty safe bet that his fantasy stock will be rising in 2017, so the suggestion here is to get him before it truly does. But like many other RBs on this list, he’s not a guy to go “all-in” on in a trade.
Jonathan Williams (Buf) – Talking to a Bill team source after the season, I asked how McCoy was able to look and perform like a 24-year old back with minimal tread on his tires, and believe it or not, I was told that he actually took the off-season workouts seriously for once (thanks, largely, to Tyrod Taylor). But McCoy will be 29 in July with a lot of mileage, so savvy dynasty owners should be lining up to secure his replacement now. In terms of the players currently on the roster, Williams is clearly that guy. Our Greg Cosell liked his college tape a lot (he played at Arkansas with Seahawk Alex Collins) and felt his skill set translated well to the NFL as a lead back. Williams didn’t play much as a rookie, but considering their depth at the position, it was kind of a surprise he played as much as he did (12% of the snaps in his 10 appearances). He didn’t exactly stand out, and he did lose two fumbles, but Williams is a guy who has legit top-20 potential in 1-2 years, and he can be had for peanuts right now. Note: Williams was charged with driving while intoxicated in Arkansas before the start of training camp and could face NFL discipline next season.
Alex Collins (Sea) – As much as I love Prosise, and despite the presence of Thomas Rawls, I’m still intrigued by Collins, who’s tape at Arkansas showed a player with the skills to play at a relatively high level in the NFL. Collins didn’t exactly soar up the depth chart as the year progressed, and it seemed like he was passed over for playing time a few times during the season. But whether he was used by necessity or on merit, Collins did open my eyes late in 2017. He played in 11 games and saw 19.5% of the snaps, but he saw only 42 touches on the season. Collins posted 31/125/1 rushing (4.0 YPC), but it was his receiving ability that caught my eye. Collins actually caught all 11 of his targets for 84 yards, which to me opened up the possibility for a large role if either Prosise or Rawls missed time. And based on those two players’ recent injury history, I wouldn’t be surprised if both players missed significant time. Collins is a back-of-the-roster guy for even a dynasty league, but the odds seem good that he will get ample opportunities in 2017.
Kenyan Drake (Mia) – Drake didn’t make nearly the impact that many expected he would as the #3 RB taken in the 2016 draft and as the #73 overall pick. But that fact, coupled with the breakout season enjoyed by Jay Ajayi, means that there is zero interest in Drake right now. Drake actually averaged 1.04 fantasy points per touch – the league average for the position was .70 – and he did show some big-play ability. He has a similar build and skillset to teammate Damien Williams, who may depart as a free agent. If so, and even if Williams remains, Drake has a good chance to emerge as a meaningful contributor in year two. Drake isn’t the prototypical three-down back, but thanks to his good size (6’1”, 216 pounds), explosiveness, and receiving ability, a solid role should be forthcoming. Drake’s unlikely to be a major impact player unless Ajayi goes down, but he could be a very useful commodity for those who’ll be appeased by a 10-point-per-week PPR producer.
Andre Ellington (FA) – Three seasons ago, Ellington was coming off a surprisingly productive rookie campaign and was poised to carry the load for Bruce Arians’ Cardinal offense. In fact, Arians himself told me in February of 2014 that he was going to build his offense around Ellington, and he did. Unfortunately, a huge role that year led to injuries and to Ellington falling out of favor. He almost fell completely out of favor in 2016, playing only 13% of the offensive snaps. Ellington, though, is entering free agency, and I wouldn’t at all be shocked if he looks to wind up somewhere else as an active rotational back, with a larger and more consistent role. Arians told me that year that he ran routes better than most of his WRs, so a team like the Saints could be interested. Ellington turned 28 this month, so he’s still in his prime, and he hasn’t accumulated a ton of wear-and-tear over the last year or so. He could be someone to watch in 2017.
Daniel Lasco (NO) – Lasco is a bit of a long shot, but If the Saints don’t have any interest in Ellington, it will likely be because of this guy, who blew up in the 2016 NFL Combine, running a really fast 4.46 40, but also registering a spectacular 41.5” vertical jump and a broad jump of 135”, the latter of which was the best ever recorded by a running back. He did come up short in agility drills, so he doesn’t have much lateral agility. But Lasco is an athletic freak who gained valuable experience in this complex offense last year, and I know for a fact HC Sean Payton and the team are high on him. With some experience, explosive speed, and solid pass-catching and protection skills, he could easily be a factor in this backfield in 2016.
Josh Doctson (Was) – I’ve been banging the Doctson drum in terms of a buy-low keeper for months, and even as we approach the beginning of the league year in early March, there are many questions with him and his Redskins. For one, the health question remains, as his rehabilitation from season-long Achilles’ tendon injuries has been slow. Doctson at season’s end did say that he fully expects to be 100% for the start of the 2017 season, but there’s reportedly been an issue with tendinitis in his left foot. The other questions are also very important, like will he have his franchise QB Kirk Cousins? And will the Redskins lose free agent WRs DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon? If I had to guess, I’d speculate that Cousins will remain in Washington and that the ‘Skins will lose either Jackson or Garcon. If they lose Jackson, then they will look to make Doctson their No.1 WR. Arguably the most gifted wideout of the 2016 class, Doctson, thanks to his big play and leaping ability/ball skills, could be a fantasy dream as the featured outside receiver in this offense. There’s risk, for sure, but now is the best time to buy-low on a guy whose perceived value could be soaring in a couple of months once his health is cleared up and his team’s free agency activity become known.
Donte Moncrief (Ind) – Moncrief is a player we’ve pushed from Day One, and we especially loved him as a fantasy value in 2016. But despite averaging just 34.1 yards a game, no one complained about our endorsement because it’s obvious the guy has talent and is in a good situation with Andrew Luck. While his utilization this past year was odd, as evidenced by his 5.7 yards per target (down from 9.7) and just 34 yards per game, he did score 7 TDs in nine games, so at least he was worth using while on the field. But Moncrief finished up the 2016 season just 45th in fantasy points per route run (0.348) and has now posted back-to-back years as the WR46 in PPR points per game. While Moncrief was labeled as a big-play threat out of college, he really has lacked any sort of pop over the last two years. Moncrief’s yards per target average has slipped in every single year (9.7 > 7.3 > 5.7) while his yards after the catch average (6.7 > 4.1 > 2.5) has fallen off, too. These stats and his injury issues are worrisome, but let’s not forget that the kid is still just 23 years old (24 in August), so he’s very young. That’s a big factor to consider, as is the fact that his value should be way down from 6-7 months ago. I’d still be willing to take him on at a discount as he enters year four with Luck at only 24 years old.
Cameron Meredith (Chi) – There are a lot of questions in Chicago as it relates to Meredith, but by the time we get the answers to those questions in the coming weeks and months, Meredith’s perceived value could skyrocket, so this should be the time to acquire him. Meredith, a former college QB at Illinois State, came out of nowhere to become quite the revelation for the Bears. Even the Bears didn’t know what they had in Meredith, making the second-year WR a healthy scratch for the first two games of the season. He’s long and lean (6’3”, 207 pounds) and showed much more polish as a route runner than one would expect for a relative newbie to the position. He also worked all over the field, doing his best work out of the slot where he caused matchup nightmares for smaller defenders. Meredith is the only player in the league to have 9+ catches and 100+ yards in four games this season – and #1 WR Alshon Jeffery had just one 100-yard game and the most receptions he had in a game was 7. Meredith played on 78% of the snaps, saw a team-high 18.2% target share, and had 9.61% of the team’s touches. He was a boom-or-bust option, topping 19+ FP five times and falling below 7 FP five times, but he showed more consistency from Week 10 on – helped by Jeffery being out of the lineup and, believe it or not, by the solid play of Matt Barkley at QB. Meredith is a pretty obvious pick for this article because he could become the top target here if the Bears let the frustrating Jeffery walk, but he’ll also have a major role even if Jeffery does return. The Bears will also likely be breaking in a new QB, and I can’t imagine the QB situation getting much worse than it was in 2016. In fact, it should get better with an upgrade at the position forthcoming.
Sterling Shepard (NYG) – I had Shepard on this list even before Victor Cruz was released because, well, I figured Cruz would be released. With or without Cruz on the roster, Shepard is a viable buy-low guy because he consistently got open in the slot as a rookie, and it looks like he’ll be a tough cover for years to come. He will have to improve because we can’t rely on 13 targets inside the 20 with 6 TDs, but the concern I have for Shepard is actually Eli Manning, who did not play well in 2016. If we’re at the beginning of the end for Manning, then trading for Shepard now won’t go down as a good move. But if Manning elevates his game, then the smooth and savvy Shepard should be in very good shape playing alongside Odell Beckham, which should ensure Shepard gets good matchups consistently. Obviously, by listing Shepard, I’m not expecting Manning to fall off a cliff.
Corey Coleman (Cle) – I wasn’t really on board with Coleman in 2016 because I had zero confidence in the QB situation, but all of the other Guru guys on staff loved his college tape. A broken his hand in practice after his best game of the season in Week 2 (5/104/2 receiving) ended up costing him six games, which didn’t help. Coleman’s numbers were pretty terrible in 10 games: 33/413/3 receiving on 73 targets (45.2% CR, 12.5 YPC), and only 1.3 FP/target (avg was 1.93). He did play 87% of snaps when healthy, so he was on the field a lot. Coleman never really got to show off his full potential as a rookie with their shaky QB situation, but he did get to show off his elite speed a few times in 2016 and will now work to become a more complete WR in 2017. He’s a good guy to buy low on in Dynasty/Keeper formats, especially since he would be the #1 WR here if Terrelle Pryor slips away in free agency. Pryor does seem more likely to stick with the Browns, but Coleman is five years younger and may still the better long-term prospect.
Jamison Crowder (Was) – We don’t know for sure if he’ll have Kirk Cousins throwing him the ball, but I’m betting that he does, so Crowder stands out as a sneaky buy candidate right now. Crowder’s breakout season came at the perfect time, because Washington’s top two receivers – DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon – are entering free agency. In 16 games, Crowder posted 67/847/7 receiving on 98 targets (12.6 YPC, 68.4% catch rate). With 12.1 FPG, he ranked 40th among WRs, which isn’t exactly fantastic. However, he played a healthy 73.8% of the snaps and had nine finishes as a top-36 WR on the year. Were it not for a late-season slump that buried plenty of fantasy playoff teams, he would have done even better – and his current fantasy value would be much higher. If Cousins returns and Jackson and/or Garcon depart, Crowder looks like a lock for 80+ catches, as HC Jay Gruden did a great job scheming up plays to utilize Crowder’s quickness and speed, and Cousins can clearly get him the ball consistently.
Will Fuller (Hou) – After a ballistic start to his career with three big fantasy performances in his first four games, Fuller fell off of the face of the earth the remainder of his rookie year. Drops and inconsistent routes were one of Fuller’s biggest knocks coming out of Notre Dame, and those issues definitely popped up often in his rookie campaign, but he also had injury issues that slowed him. And we can’t forget that his progress was likely stifled by poor QB play. He’s going to have to improve in terms of tracking the deep balls and consistently hauling in routine passes, and if he does, then his size/speed combination makes him very intriguing. Between Brock Osweiler, who he did click well with in 2016, and Tom Savage, I’d have to think Houston’s QB play will improve in 2017, and if they land Tony Romo, it will be a significant upgrade. The Romo possibility, in particular, makes Fuller look more attractive right now. But while he’s not perfect, Fuller is a young player with the talent to make a big difference, and his value has been dropping for 4-5 months.
Malcolm Mitchell (NE) – I personally undersold Mitchell in 2016, and while he wasn’t a major difference-maker, the kid clearly showed a lot as a rookie in this complicated offense. There’s nothing overly impressive about his rookie numbers on the surface: 32/401/4 receiving on 48 targets (66.7% CR, 12.5 YPC) in 14 games with 55% of the snaps and 8.9% target share. But considering the long-prevalent futility of newbie Patriot receivers – especially rookies but also seasoned veterans – Mitchell’s first season should have created a lot of optimism. Mitchell, for example, averaged a solid 2.00 fantasy points per target (league average for the position was 1.93). He had his best stretch in Weeks 11-14, posting 21/263/4 receiving and averaging 17.8 FPG, which ranked 8th at the position. For being a part-time player through Week 9, Mitchell saw a pretty generous 14 red-zone targets. The Patriots have been looking for a big outside WR for the few years, and now they have two intriguing prospects that fit the bill in Mitchell and Chris Hogan, who will be 29 already early in the 2017 season. Mitchell’s just 24 this coming season, and with Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman getting older and having injury baggage, Mitchell has a chance to be the first consistent outside receiving threat here since Deion Branch.
Tavon Austin (LA) – I know, I know; this guy’s been painful to cover, and as the 8th pick of the 2013 draft, his production so far has been unacceptable. Over the last two years, we’ve continued to ask ourselves questions like “Why can’t the Rams use him like the Pats used Wes Welker?” Or even “Why haven’t the Rams used Austin like the Chiefs used Tyreek Hill or the Falcons used Taylor Gabriel?” These are good questions, and the only answer we can legitimately use is coaching. The hope here is that in new HC Sean McVay and a veteran coaching staff that includes long-time OC Greg Olson, Aaron Kromer, and Matt LaFleur, the Rams will finally figure out how to put Austin in the best position to produce. When asked early in his tenure as the Rams HC about their receiving corps, McVay mentioned only Austin, and talked extensively about the need for playmakers at receiver not only in the passing game, but when they get their hands on the ball, in general. In talking about Austin, McVay said “You look at some of the things that Tavon does with the ball, both in the run-game and when he’s able to catch it as a receiver. He’s a guy that you want to move all over the formation.” McVay said that he is encouraged that Austin can become a “true, complete” wideout in the NFL, and McVay stressed that throwing the football is a “big part” of what the Rams plan to do this year and beyond. McVay last year certainly helped Jamison Crowder emerge from the slot, and Austin can be a more dangerous player than Crowder, plus I see similarities with Kirk Cousins and Jared Goff. It will probably take Austin a full season in this new offense before he’s ready to show us the best he has to offer with good coaching, but the arrow is finally and legitimately pointing up.
Kenny Stills (FA) – Stills has been something of an enigma in his four NFL seasons, but it’s hard to argue with his big-play ability and efficiency. Proving to be a good fit in Adam Gase’s offense, he stretched the field as a vertical threat and led the team in touchdowns (9) and ranked third in the NFL in yards per reception (17.3) for players with 30+ catches, behind only DeSean Jackson and Chris Hogan. Stills also averaged an impressive 2.11 fantasy points per target – the league average for the position was 1.93 – and he averaged 84% of the snaps and had a 17.5% target share. The Dolphins have a tough decision to make on the free-agent Stills, as Gase does love his vertical speed. But there’s a feeling that there’s a strong market for a young (he’s still only 25) outside receiver with vertical ability and a career mark of 16.7 yards per reception. I’m betting here that a team like the Eagles steps up and signs Stills with the expectation that he will be a full-time starter on the outside. If so, Stills’ value will rise considerably, so the time to get him is right now.
Kendall Wright (Ten) – Predicting what can happen in free agency is difficult, but not when it comes to the unrestricted free agent Wright and his future in Tennessee because he’s taken his last snap as a Titan. Wright did have some monster games mixed in this past year, but he was held below 25 yards receiving in 7-of-11 games and only played over 60 percent of the team’s snaps once. Wright primarily operated from the slot when he was on the field, finishing the year running nearly 90% of his routes from the slot in 2016. But after being benched in Week 14 and a healthy scratch in Week 17, it’s clear that Wright needs a fresh start. He’s only 27 years old, has a 94-catch season on his NFL resume, and is a rare vertical threat out of the slot, so I expect him to find a welcoming home in free agency. It’s possible that in his new home, he’s something of a go-to guy, so he’s a savvy “get” right now, before he signs somewhere.
Breshad Perriman (Bal) – I can’t say I’m convinced that Perriman will deliver on his lofty draft status as a #1 pick in 2015, but I’m definitely not giving up on him, either. His 2015 season was a lost one, so I viewed 2016 as his rookie campaign. He didn’t crack the starting lineup, as Steve Smith was a fixture and Mike Wallace was pretty darn good, but Perriman did move into the third WR spot and played a decent 43% of the snaps. With his health issues cleared up and a year of playing under his belt, I’m hoping to see a transformed player in 2017, and a player whose game becomes more multi-dimensional. Perriman has the size, speed, and wide catch radius to be a “No. 1” in this offense and a consistent force, and they may be hanging their hopes on him taking a big step forward. Smith has ridden off into the sunset, and there is a chance the veteran Wallace is a cap casualty, plus Kamar Aiken is a free agent, so Perriman’s perceived value could rise considerably in the coming months.
Terrance Williams (Dal) – Williams has been more of a tease for fantasy than a reliable producer, but I did see a noticeable improvement from him in 2016, especially when he was filling in as the top outside receiver with Dez Bryant out of the lineup. In 16 games, Williams turned in a solid, efficient season, posting 44/594/4 on 61 targets (13.5 YPC, 72.1% catch rate). He finished as a top-36 WR in PPR just five times, but Williams has been consistently better and more productive in his career without Dez, which makes him fairly interesting as a free agent because, among WRs with 50 or more targets, Williams actually finished 8th with 2.09 FP/target. He has to cut down on the number of bad drops and mistakes, but if he leaves Dallas he’ll likely to get more guaranteed playing time, which would give him a chance to settle in as a very nice depth option.
Braxton Miller (Hou) – The former college QB’s rookie season was a lost one in 2016, but I can’t forget how good he looked in the preseason, and his unique skill set. Even when he was active and healthy, Miller played on only 54% of possible snaps when he was available, and his 15/99/1 receiving on 28 targets in 10 games wasn’t exactly encouraging. He’s going to need more time to develop, but if you’re looking for a nice buy-low guy on the low-end, I do think Miller stands out as a very interesting slot receiver (Miller ran 67% of his routes from the slot). A 2016 3rd-round pick, Miller has the athletic ability and short area quickness to be a Percy Harvin-type, and with zero hype surrounding him right now, his value will only go up.
Chris Moore (Bal) – Moore was drafted in the early 4th round of last year’s draft, 107th overall, but he never really got the shot to make an impact as a vertical threat with Joe Flacco busy checking it down seemingly every chance he could. Moore had almost no role late in the year, catching just one pass after Week 7, and on the season and he played just 16% of the snaps. The Ravens already have vertical threats in Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman, but Wallace is a potential cap-casualty, and we can’t view Perriman as a sure thing just yet, plus Steve Smith is gone. At some point soon, we should see the Ravens taking better advantage of Flacco’s big arm, and the younger Moore could be at worst his second option at WR. He’s a viable dynasty stash no matter what, but if Wallace is out of the mix, Moore’s keeper value will rise considerably.
Paul Richardson (Sea) – I definitely respect Tyler Lockett’s game, and Lockett’s not going anywhere, but Richardson really flashed to me late in the season, and I have not forgotten how he was actually their first draft pick in 2014 as the 45th pick of the draft. Richardson had a mini breakout in the playoffs, posting 131 yards and a TD on 7 catches (9 targets) in two games. In particular, his game against the Lions in the Wild Card Round was most impressive, as he caught 3 passes, but all 3 were of the spectacular variety (the TD was arguably the best catch all season, as he caught it around a defender). Richardson can really run, and it appears his four-game stretch in the limelight once Lockett went down gave him the opportunity to shine that he’s never really had. If Lockett is at all limited in his return from a broken leg – and heck, even if not – Richardson could be the favorite to start as a deep threat for Seattle in 2017.
Hunter Henry (SD) – Henry was our top rookie TE in 2016, and he was probably everyone’s top rookie TE last year, so you’re not going to sneak up on anyone and steal him in a trade. However, with the news that Antonio Gates will be back for an amazing 15th season, Henry’s short-term value has taken a hit, making a trade for him a little more appealing. In 15 games, missing one with a knee injury, Henry posted just 36/482 receiving on 52 targets (13.4 YPR, 69.2% catch rate), but with 8 TDs. Yes, he was TD dependent, but he showed exceptional promise. Despite a part-time role, he finished as a top-12 TE on six occasions, including in both games that Gates missed. Henry played just 58.1% of the Chargers’ offensive snaps, and you’d think that number will go up in his second season. Gates should stay involved in the red zone, where he was second among TEs in targets in 2016. However, the only TE with 50 or more total targets who saw a higher percentage of red-zone targets than Gates (23.9%) was Henry himself, who saw a whopping 32.7% of his targets come inside the 20. For him to click so well with Philip Rivers so quickly and in the red zone, it bodes very well for his 2-3 years with the future HOF QB, so I view Henry as a top-3 guy right now for dynasty and keeper leagues.
Austin Hooper (Atl) – Hooper’s numbers weren’t impressive in his rookie season, as he put up only 19/271/3 (14.3 YPC) on 27 targets in 14 games. However, it was pretty clear watching him early on that he can play, and in my mind, he backed up what he told me at the 2016 Combine: that playing in Stanford’s pro-style offense is a distinct advantage for a young TE. In fact, in the 3 games he saw 5 or more targets he put up promising numbers: 3/46/1, 5/41, 3/32/1. Hooper won’t swallow up 100% of Atlanta’s tight end production if Jacob Tamme and/or Levine Toilolo are not brought back, but it is worth mentioning that all of the Falcons’ TEs put up a combined 196.8 PPR points in 2016. At that scoring rate, 196.8 PPR points would have bested Jimmy Graham for the cumulative TE4 slot on the year. If Atlanta does not elect to bring back UFAs Tamme and Toilolo, Hooper’s keeper stock will soar, so I’d suggest drafting him now. He’s probably going to wind up being a better pro than another TE coming out of Stanford, that being Coby Fleener.
Tyler Higbee (LA) – Of all the young TEs in the league who are basically off the radar to everyone but hardcore keeper and dynasty players (and Ram fans), Higbee is the guy to hone in on. Higbee was barely involved in 2016, so there is currently very little buzz with him. He did play in all 16 games and was out there for a healthy 40% of the snaps, but he hauled in just 11 of his 29 targets (37.9%) for 85 yards and a TD (7.7 YPR). But if you’re looking for a Travis Kelce type with big upside down the road, this former WR with huge hands fits the bill. He has to fill out more and polish up his game, but he’s a big guy who can really move, and new coach Sean McVay has experience with athletic TEs, notably Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis this past year in Washington. A lot needs to go right for Higbee to be impactful in 2017, including improvement at the QB position, but the coaching change at least puts him on the radar. We liked him as a prospect pre-draft and especially post-draft once we heard from team sources about how good this guy can be.
Jared Cook (GB) – Cooks been frustrating and inconsistent from a fantasy and NFL perspective, so the Packers were wise to sign him to only a 1-year deal last year. But given how Aaron Rodgers clearly developed chemistry with Cook and some of the big plays that were made in key spots, I’d have to think the Pack will bring Cook back. Cook tore it up in the playoffs with Jordy Nelson missing a large chunk of the postseason, posting 18/229/2 receiving and averaging 17.6 FPG. He’ll be 30 in April, but he should have 1-2 big years left in him at least, and the prospect of him back with Rodgers with a year in the system under his belt is very intriguing. If you’re without an impact starter at TE, trading for Cook now will likely go down as a good move because his value will go up if he re-ups with the Packers.
Coby Fleener (NO) – For the record, I’m completely alone with this selection, as our entire staff other than yours truly is sick of Fleener and may never say another positive thing about him again. Actually, I’m weary of Fleener, too, but my point here is very simple: he has to get better in his second season in New Orleans. In retrospect, expecting a lot from Fleener in his first year of this system and with Drew Brees was too much to ask. It’s a very complicated system, and compounding the issue was Fleener trying to get on the same page as Brees, a coach on the field and a precision QB who expects his TE to be in exact spots on the field based on the defense. Fleener will likely remain inconsistent for the rest of his career, but he does still have a lot of talent and is in an offense that can produce stud TEs. On the low-end, I’d be willing to take him off someone’s hands for peanuts right now.