For over 200 young men, the NFL draft is the culmination of a lifetime of hard work and the best day of their life. For the veterans that they are about to put out of a job, it’s not exactly an ideal weekend. You may remember when Martavis Bryant took to Twitter to project whose job JuJu Smith-Schuster was there to take in Pittsburgh: him or Sammie Coates? (Spoiler it was all three as he took Antonio Brown‘s job too!) The point is, there are players in a very favorable fantasy position at this very moment that may be worth very little after Saturday, April 27. Let’s see who may be joining the Martavis Bryant Memorial Support Group.
The Return of the Workhorse
Last year, exactly one RB had more than 300 carries (Ezekiel Elliott). As a matter of fact, we haven’t had a season with more than one 300+ carry RB since 2014. Here are three backs that could join Elliott if their team doesn’t add some support on draft day.
I can tell you right now that Dalvin Cook will be “My Guy” in 2019, so expect to read about him a few more times before the season kicks off. As of now, he has no competition for carries and his team is too dangerous at WR for any defense to think of stacking the box. Yes, he’s been banged up during his first two seasons but the talent is undeniable. He finished 2018 as the RB29 despite only playing in 11 games and receiving 133 carries. He took those 133 carries and turned them into 645 yards and 6 TDs. If they add an RB and “only” double Cook’s touches, he’s a 1200 yard 12 TD player, which would be good enough for top 5 status most seasons. By the way, he was the RB6 over the season’s final 5 games. But if they don’t add any real threat, a Zeke-like 300 carry season is within the realm of possibilities and that could make Cook the RB1 overall.
Mixon already has a complimentary back on the roster in Gio Bernard, but the Bengals did not use them as a 1-2 punch in 2018. Mixon saw 77% of the team’s carries last year, as Bernard saw mainly passing down work. Mixon still added 55 targets and 43 receptions, both higher than Bernard. Let me paint a picture for you: In 2016, there was a talented young RB that suffered in an outdated system and had to face obscene amounts of stacked boxes due to the fact every person on the planet knew that his team was going to run the ball. He finished at the RB17. They fired his inept head coach and hired an innovative young coach. He finished as the RB1 in back to back seasons. That RB was Todd Gurley. Mixon is coming out of a similar situation and his new head coach is from the Sean McVay coaching tree. With A.J. Green returning, defenses will not be able to key on Mixon and he is primed for an electric 2019 if there is no RB added to usurp his carries.
Fournette is shaping up to be one of the most hotly debated players in fantasy football this season. One of my fellow writers, Lauren Carpenter, already labeled him one of her 2019 Bust Candidates. His recent arrest for multiple traffic violations isn’t doing my argument any favors, but I think Fournette is much more likely to end 2019 with around 20 carries per game than he is to finish outside of the top-15 RBs. After a solid rookie year, in which he saw 268 carries, Fournette took a step back in 2018, he also took a few swings at opposing players, resulting in a suspension. All in all, he only played in 8 games and still did enough to finish as a top 40 RB. With Jacksonville seemingly letting every RB not named Leonard Fournette to leave town, he, like Dalvin Cook, finds himself the most talented player in a very lonely backfield. Even if the Jaguars became a pass-first team under new OC John DeFilippo, there are still going to be around 300-400 carries to go around and nobody but Fournette to do anything with them…that is, assuming, that they don’t burn one of their four Day 1/2 picks on an RB.
Full disclosure: These are my favorite fantasy backs heading into 2019 based on ADP. You could throw Devonta Freeman in there but I don’t see Atlanta going to a one-back system. If Fournette’s ADP drops due to negative publicity, it may be possible to land all three of these backs and that will be my RB draft strategy heading into this fantasy season.
Time to Top the Charts
Some vacancies are screaming to be filled and these position groups need a leader. These are players that are currently atop their team’s depth chart, or competing to be the #1, and could hold great fantasy value…or they could be an afterthought when a guy like Hakeem Butler, D.K. Metcalf, or David Montgomery takes their job.
Washington suffered from less than stellar QB play last year and was a bottom-10 team in terms of passing attempts and yardage. I’m not sure that Case Keenum is the answer to anyone’s prayers but he certainly can’t be worse than what they had last season. Doctson is in the “prove it” year of all “prove it” years for a fantasy WR. He has been underwhelming in his first 3 years after Washington spent a 1st Round pick on him in 2016. The Redskins own middle picks in each of the first two rounds and four of the top-100 overall picks. I’ll be shocked if they don’t add a WR, but if they don’t, Doctson should be this team’s clear cut WR1 and a sleeper in fantasy drafts.
Peyton Barber / Ronald Jones
It feels funny even mentioning Ronald Jones as a possible starter when it seemed that Tampa’s previous coaching staff went out of their way to not play him in his rookie season after spending a 2nd round pick on him. Barber parlayed the role into an RB27 finish last year and would be in line for another solid year as a starter in Bruce Arians’ offense. Arians’ system made guys like Andre Ellington and Rashard Mendenhall RB2’s and helped David Johnson to the overall RB1 in 2016. Clearly, neither Barber nor Jones is DJ, but they compare favorably to Mendenhall / Ellington. The problem is that Tampa Bay already signed Ellington and if Arians wants to add an RB of his choosing in the draft, it would make these guys an afterthought. There may not be a Saquan Barkley in this draft but it won’t take one (or an early pick) to win this job.
Dante Pettis / Marquise Goodwin / Jordan Matthews
The #1 WR in Kyle Shanahan’s offense can feast…the problem is none of these guys are all that appetizing in fantasy football. Matthews was added this offseason, making San Francisco his 4th home since 2017. Early coach speak (which is often less than reliable) is that he is perfect for this system. Goodwin and Pettis showed flashes last season but couldn’t do it consistently. With Jimmy Garoppolo returning and George Kittle keeping defenses honest in the middle of the field, one of these guys could be a star this season. The question is which one? The 49ers pick 2nd, and it seems impossible that they take a WR in the 1st Round. But things are less certain at 36th overall, especially with the amount of playmaking WRs in this draft.
Dede Westbrook / DJ Chark / Marqise Lee
Jacksonville finds themselves in a situation similar to San Francisco. Westbrook looked good, not great in his sophomore season. Chark was underwhelming as a rookie but the team invested a 2nd round pick into him just a year ago. And Lee is only one year removed from leading this team in receptions. They all did this while overcoming the greatest of obstacles, Blake Bortles. Now that Nick Foles and a more pass-friendly OC are in town, one (or even two) of these guys could be a major player in fantasy. But with Jacksonville holding five of the first 110 picks, it will all come down to if any of them has really proven to head coach Doug Marrone that they can the #1 this team needs.
I tried to bury Miller when I wrote this article last season but he fought through and had a solid 2018. He amassed 973 rushing yards and 5 TDs on his way to an RB22 finish. With the firepower this offense already has, if he remains the starting RB in Houston, he will likely put up similar numbers and finish as a fantasy RB2 again. But Houston owns three picks from pick 23 – pick 55 and that has bad news written all over it.
The Baltimore Ravens are bare at WR. Snead is easily the most talented WR on the roster and it’s not really close. Snead reeled five or more balls in nine different games last season; the issue is that Lamar Jackson wasn’t exactly slinging it downfield. The Ravens saw enough in Jackson to trade Joe Flacco and enough in Snead to let John Brown and Michael Crabtree walk. While he led the team in receptions last year, Snead only caught one TD. If he’s all they have, he may have a WR3 floor with a high WR2 ceiling. If they add a young WR, we may never hear Snead’s name again because Jackson is not supporting two WRs at this stage in his career.
Who Does #2 Work For?
Unlike the teams I mentioned above, there are some teams that have the top of depth chart filled out in permanent marker, but the backup is definitely only penciled in and could be a fantasy steal as a complimentary player or handcuff. While they might not unseat the incumbent, players like A.J. Brown, N’Keal Harry, or Josh Jacobs could very well find value at the two slot in the right landing spot.
Will Fuller is his own worst enemy. If he could stay healthy and on the field, this would not even be a discussion worth having. When playing with Deshaun Watson, it seems like all he does is catch TDs. Putting it as simply as possible, if he plays he is a solid fantasy WR2 with tremendous potential for many WR1 games, that’s what playing opposite DeAndre Hopkins affords you. If the Texans have lost faith, the right rookie could slide into the perfect situation here.
As mentioned before, I don’t see Atlanta leaning as heavily on Freeman as they during his RB1 season in 2015 so Smith could be the beneficiary. Over the last two seasons, Atlanta has employed an almost a 50/50 split between Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. With Coleman now in San Francisco, the job falls to Ito Smith. As a rookie, Smith turned just 90 carries into 300 yards and four TDs. He did this with Freeman out most of the season so we haven’t seen much what a split between the two would look like. A double up in carries is not out of the question and that could put him in the fantasy RB2 discussion, especially in this offense. Coach Dan Quinn has spoken highly of Smith but he’s not the kind of player that couldn’t be replaced by the right rookie RB.
Tre’Quan Smith / Cam Meredith
For one season, back in 2016, we got to see what Drew Brees could do with two immensely talented WRs. That year, both Michael Thomas and Brandin Cooks went for over 1100 yards and eight TDs. Even Willie Snead had over 800 yards that year. We also saw glimpses of it during the Jimmy Graham years too, but those are long gone. Last season, Smith was a rookie and had the rocky year we tend to expect from rookie WRs in a complex system. Meredith couldn’t get healthy from the day he was signed and was never a factor. These two guys are in an almost ideal situation, playing across from one the best WRs in the league and ahead of one of the most talented pass-catching RBs. If they play their cards rights one, or both, could end the year as a WR2. If the right WR falls to the Saints at pick 62, both of these two could be forgotten before ever getting a chance to make their mark.
Phillip Dorsett / Josh Gordon
Putting it simply, Tom Brady has to throw to someone. Gronk is retired and Julian Edelman is unlikely to catch 200 balls this season. The team’s 2nd best pass-catcher right now is RB James White so there is room for improvement on the outside. The Patriots rarely draft WRs early but with this likely being Brady’s last hurrah, maybe they get him a parting gift. If not, with Gordon’s constant off-field issues, Dorsett becomes a fantasy asset on volume alone.
Corey Clement / Wendell Smallwood
Yes, the Eagles just went out and traded for Jordan Howard. But the two constants of Doug Pederson‘s time in Philly work against Howard. No RB has held more than a 50% share of the Eagles total carries and he loves to throw to his RBs. With Howard living off of volume and struggling as a pass catcher during his time in Chicago, the situation screams for a complimentary back. That role would, as of now, be held by either Clement or Smallwood and one of them could end the year as a solid RB3 with some boom weeks. But with the Eagles having three picks in the first 60, that could change quickly.
Malcolm Brown’s 2019 fantasy value is suspect. On one hand, he is the primary backup of one of the best RBs in all of football and may never see the field. On the other hand, Todd Gurley has an injury history and was diagnosed with arthritis in his knee. The Rams paid up to keep Brown from leaving town, but you’d have to think they’d love to see one of these young RBs sitting there with one of their two 3rd round picks. Brown may be the most important handcuff in 2019, or he could hold no value at all, if Gurley stays healthy or if a rookie takes his job.
Don’t Forget Tight Ends
Tight Ends have become an afterthought in fantasy football lately…look how far down they were in this article. But there are definitely teams that need them and quite a few guys that could fill those roles on draft day, and one of them isn’t even a rookie. With Iowa TEs Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson looking NFL ready, they could easily put more than a few incumbent TEs out of work.
The fact is that the Raiders favored the TE in the passing game in 2018. With Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams coming to town, that will certainly change a bit but not completely. Last season, Jared Cook finished as the TE5 with over 100 targets. Waller has gotten rave reviews thus far, but since you likely didn’t know who the Raiders’ TE was before reading this article, I wouldn’t call him irreplaceable.
Big Montana looked like a waiver-wire gem after two weeks of 2018. Then he got hurt and now nobody remembers who he is. But he should enter 2019 as the starter for Seattle, with Doug Baldwin still not 100%, and that could be big for fantasy football owners. Especially in the TE void that currently exists in fantasy. If you add up the production of all three Seahawk TEs last season (Dissly, Nick Vanett, and Ed Dickson) you would end up with the overall TE6. Seattle only owns four picks in the entire draft, so it would need to be a priority if they decide to go TE. But if they don’t, Dissly is a guy worth owning in 2019.
Brate is a different case from everybody else I have mentioned…he needs to be traded ASAP and the draft seems like the perfect time. Brate is a proven talent, having finished as a top 10 TE in two of the last three seasons, but he is trapped behind the far more talented O.J. Howard on a team with good WR options as well. If Brate were to end up in Oakland or on another team that both favors and needs a dominant TE, he could easily be a top-5 steal in 2019. As it stands, he is not even worthy of drafting, as shown by his non-existent ADP. While he doesn’t have a ton to lose on draft day, he has everything to gain.