There's a feeling in the air. No, not the dull lingering heat that hasn't quite broken for the cool of autumn. Although that's firmly there, too. No, I'm talking about the feeling that the NFL season is right around the corner. While a lot of us degenerates have been drafting fantasy squads since they started sweeping up confetti off the field at SoFi Stadium in February, the bulk of the fantasy football playing public is just starting to come online.
I know we've truly reached fantasy draft season when I start getting texts from people I haven't spoken to in months asking who they should take with their first-round pick or which mid-round receiver they should take a swing at.
For those of you just getting back into the fantasy life ... welcome back! We're happy to see you again. There's plenty that you've missed. While we don't have time to get into all of it, let's catch you up on what you need to know heading into your drafts. Namely, where you can stand to be a step or two ahead of your competitors.
Average Draft Position (ADP) is a phrase tossed about frequently this time of year and is a nice guideline to help you build your roster. But remember that it's just that -- a guideline, not a gospel. It's always OK to reach a little early for guys who you think will help you win a title. To that end, I've put together a list of 12 guys you should be willing to like a little more than consensus.
The early bird might get the worm, but the early drafter might bring home a trophy. Which, honestly, is a better option. Because what are you going to do with worms anyway? Let's get started.
It doesn’t take much to understand why fantasy drafters aren’t fighting each other to draft Barkley in the first couple of rounds. Every season since his blockbuster rookie campaign in 2018 has been marred by injury -- notably missing the final 14 games after an ACL tear in 2020. Even last year’s lackluster RB30 finish has fantasy folks afraid to take a big swing on Barkley in 2022.
But if we fear the thing we want the most, then it makes sense to take a reach on a player who ultimately has top-five upside. He’s two years removed from ACL surgery. While that isn’t a guarantee of success, Matthew Betz of The Fantasy Footballers notes that other young running backs (Barkley is 25) have seen a resurgence in the second year after major knee surgery. So far, the reports from training camp suggest the Saquon who dominated the NFL in his first year could be back. The idea of spending a mid-second round pick on a running back who could see 20-plus touches per game with a chance to catch 80 or more passes should make you feel warm in your tummy.
My friend and podcast partner Michael F. Florio has taken to calling Fournette “League-winner Lenny” … and with good reason. Last year, Fournette had an eighth-round ADP only to finish as the RB6. This year, you won’t be able to draft Lenny like he was a special found on Amazon Prime Day, but he’s still on the fantasy sale rack. Why? Because he decided to enjoy his offseason a little bit? We should all be so carefree.
Every year, we try to bury Fournette in favor of a younger back. But like The Real Housewives of Whatever, Fournette keeps coming back -- with almost as much drama. Over the past three seasons, only Alvin Kamara and Austin Ekeler have had more targets from the running back position. Not bad for a guy who isn’t considered a great pass catcher. He’s also earned the trust of Tom Brady as a pass protector. Rachaad White’s day could eventually come, but as long as people in Tampa still see Fournette as a three-down back, we should do the same.
The chorus in support of Zeke has grown louder as the summer has progressed. Yet, I worry that a full year of slander has taken hold. If Elliott is washed, we should all wish to be that washed. Playing on a partially torn PCL, Elliott still finished as the RB7 last year. The haters, of which there appear to be many, will quickly point out that Zeke’s week-to-week totals were wildly inconsistent and his 14.8 points per game barely landed him in the top 15. That's when I again point to the bright neon sign that says, “partially torn PCL.”
Despite Twitter’s best efforts to put Tony Pollard in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor, there’s no indication that Dallas is moving away from a Zeke-based economy. Nor should they. Matt Waldman of Football Guys (subscription needed) has a wonderful breakdown of why making Pollard a starter would be crazy talk. Conversations about Pollard lining up in the slot should be our first clue. There aren’t many backs who you can rely on for 275 or more touches. It’s crazy to let one of them slip into the third round. Though, I’ve been thankful for the discount.
I promise that not all the players on this list are running backs. The good news for Dillion is that people are cluing in and lifting his ADP out of the fifth round. It’s nice to see us all come together to get the hard work done. Our next mission should be to push Dillon ahead of less surefire options like Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Josh Jacobs. I know we can do it if we put our minds to it.
Despite being the ostensible RB2 on the Packers' roster last year, Dillon led the team in carries and rushing yards. While he’s still technically the backup to Aaron Jones, head coach Matt LaFleur has referred to them as “1A and 1A”. Aaron Rodgers has taken it a step further and suggested that both players could catch 50 passes this year. That’s a sizeable upgrade from the 34 balls Dillon caught last year. By the way, the Packers had the third-most red zone pass attempts last season. With Davante Adams now in Las Vegas, some of those throws near the goal line could turn into runs. More touchdown upside for Dillon? Yes, please.
Usually when the entire fantasy community agrees on something, it’s probably a good idea to take a deeper look. But it seems undeniable that the Broncos receiving corps was missing one thing: a good quarterback. That problem has been apparently solved with the arrival of Russell Wilson. For most of his career in Seattle, you could lock in DangeRuss for somewhere around 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. By contrast, Drew Lock has 25 touchdown passes in his CAREER. This is the year that we’ll get to see if our Mile High receiving dreams come true. However, my esteemed colleague Mr. Florio and I have hit a Rocky Mountain divide. While he is #TeamJeudy, I am decidedly #TeamSutton.
It's not that I believe Jeudy will be a flop, but I think Sutton will not only soar but even exceed his current Round 5 ADP. If glowing training camp reports give you the warm fuzzies, then hearing that Sutton is Wilson’s favorite receiver in training camp should be like getting a hug from a giant, furry Muppet. But if you prefer the cold, hard truth of numbers, look no further than Sutton’s role within Denver’s offense. Among receivers with at least 50 targets last season, Sutton’s 15.4 average depth of target was third-best. Yes, there’s a different coaching staff in place this year but offensive coordinator Justin Outten hasn’t shied away from saying his offense will stretch the field. It’s easy to feel that way when you have one of the best deep ball throwers in the league commanding your huddle. Courtland Sutton in the fifth? *Russell Wilson voice* Let’s ride.
If you wanted to start a fight on Fantasy Twitter at any point this summer, the easiest conversation grenade to throw was to say something negative about Gabe Davis. Admittedly, I spent much of the offseason watching these battles from afar. I had nothing against Davis. I just wasn’t ready to wade into the fray. (Like Leonard Fournette, I also try to enjoy my offseasons.) Now, I’m ready to make my personal pronouncement. It turns out, I’m pro-Gabe Davis. I don’t pretend to be a thought leader in that regard, and I’ve never been ready to go to the mattresses the way some have been. But I do believe we’re shortchanging him with a late sixth-round ADP.
Davis’ pièce de resistance last year was his four-touchdown performance in the playoffs against the Chiefs. But the signs of the breakout were coming in the weeks leading up to that. In the final six weeks of the regular season, Davis had surpassed Cole Beasley as the No. 2 target on the offense. At the same time, he was showing an average route depth of 13 yards – higher than Stefon Diggs. He was getting the ball, he was getting it downfield and he was getting in the end zone. It’s the fantasy receiver trifecta! This year, with Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders out of the mix, Davis’ target share should rise markedly. With Josh Allen at the helm, Buffalo’s passing game can support multiple top 25 receivers and Davis as the team’s WR2 could be even more productive than the WR1 in lesser passing offenses.
The lack of respect for Ertz all summer long has baffled me. At a time when we’re desirous of having more viable tight ends, I’m not certain why we’d reach past a proven producer for later-round hopefuls. Actually, I do know why. Fantasy folks are always in search of that elusive “upside.” That’s fine in some respects, but not at a position with the lack of depth we find at tight end. Ertz’s value was always going to be capped playing alongside Dallas Goedert in Philly, which is why the trade to Arizona was good for all parties involved.
From when he made his Cardinals debut in Week 8 until the end of the season, Ertz was the TE5. In that period, he posted a 21.3 percent target share -- third-highest among tight ends. Extrapolated across a full 17-game season, he would have been breathing down Dalton Schultz’s neck to be the TE3. Yes, I know that’s an inaccurate tool for measuring, but indulge me that bit of joy. Entering 2022, Ertz could be Kyler Murray’s go-to option at the beginning of the year. DeAndre Hopkins (suspension) is unavailable for the first six weeks. Marquise Brown is certain to get plenty of looks but occupies a vastly different role in the offense. Rondale Moore is an intriguing gadget option but is still a bit of a mystery box. Ertz offers a safer target floor than Goedert and a potential higher air yards per target than T.J. Hockenson. Being able to wait until the eighth round feels like incredible value and is worth exploring a little earlier.
I can already hear your eye rolls. “But Marcas, we put our eggs in the Aiyuk basket last year and ended up with yolk all over our shoes.” I get that argument. But things are going to be different this year. Don’t believe me? Believe general manager John Lynch, who said no one has “worked harder this offseason” than Aiyuk and that the third-year receiver “has made a giant leap.”
Beyond just flowery words from the front office, Aiyuk has shown a real rapport in practices with new starting quarterback Trey Lance. It’s a connection that goes back to last season. In his appearances, Lance’s second-favorite target (after Deebo Samuel, of course) was Aiyuk. The pair connected six times for 126 yards on 10 targets. The Niners have shown a desire to use Aiyuk as a downfield option, which fits nicely with Lance’s arm strength and willingness to go vertical. If we can get out of our collective feelings after last year’s disappointment, fantasy managers could conclude that Aiyuk should come off the board before the eighth round.
Yes, I’m aware that Romeo Doubs is the new hotness when it comes to Packers receivers. Yes, I’ve bought a ticket for his hype train. But Green Bay’s passing game cannot live on Doubs alone. Replacing Davante Adams will take a group effort and the leader of that effort is undoubtedly going to be the Lazard King. In our quest to determine who would be Rodgers’ WR2 of choice, Lazard turned out to be the right answer -- even if it was underwhelming. There aren’t many people touting 40 catches and 513 yards.
Yet even with the heightened expectations for Jones and Dillon in the passing game, Green Bay has nearly 220 targets vacated by the departures of Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. A fourth-round rookie isn’t going to pick up all of that slack. In 2021, Lazard was second among Green Bay’s wideouts in routes run, air yards per target and yards after the catch. All those totals should rise this year. If we believe in the power of Rodgers to elevate his receivers, then we should have more faith in Lazard than in guys like Elijah Moore and Devonta Smith. Three seasons of subpar production is the reason why Lazard’s ADP hovers in the eighth round ... but maybe it shouldn’t.
Last running back, I promise. The Gordon malaise has gone hand-in-hand with the Javonte Williams hysteria. I love Javonte. You love Javonte. Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend loves Javonte. But let us not forget that Melvin Gordon was good last year. Very good. 918 yards and 10 total touchdowns good. I know we want it to be one way, but it in 2021, it was the other way. Last season, the split between Denver’s two backs was almost as even as it could get. Williams played 51 percent of the snaps compared to 48 percent for Gordon. They had the exact same number of carries with Williams having slightly more total touches.
It wouldn’t be surprising for Williams to have a slightly larger snap share in 2022, but that gap isn’t likely to be prohibitively large. There are also a couple of things working in Gordon’s favor. He had the edge in goal line carries last year -- an important stat for a player who has been a touchdown machine since famously (infamously?) failing to score as a rookie. It may also help that the Broncos will have better quarterback play this year. Per Football Outsiders, they trailed on average for more than 15 minutes per game last year -- seventh-most in the league. If that number comes down, as expected, Gordon could be called on to help kill clock in the fourth quarter. Maybe he isn’t a pass-catching specialist, but he’s good enough to be going before the eighth round.
I’m a staunch believer in opportunity outweighing pure talent in fantasy football. Every year, plenty of talented players make their way onto NFL rosters, but if they aren’t in situations that will give them a chance to showcase their skills, it doesn’t matter much. It’s why I haven’t totally bought into the Isaiah Likely hype. But that’s another rant for another column. However, sometimes talent and opportunity meet in a serendipitous fashion. That’s how you end up with Ja’Marr Chase.
I won’t sell you a story about Drake London having a Chase-like rookie season. The Falcons offense isn’t built that way. And Marcus Mariota isn’t Joe Burrow. You didn’t need me to tell you that, but it’s still worth repeating. Nonetheless, London was considered one of the top receiver prospects in the draft, and the Falcons spent the eighth-overall pick on him for a reason. He lands on a roster that is looking for a complement to Kyle Pitts. Especially after losing Russell Gage and the 94 targets he occupied last year. If the Falcons live up (or down?) to everyone’s low expectations, game scripts will feature a lot of second-half pass attempts. Expect the rookie to see more than his fair share. As a player with WR3 upside, his 10th round ADP price tag feels a little bit like stealing.
My fascination with Cole Kmet began sometime during the middle of last season. While we were all looking for tight ends to stream, Kmet stood out as a guy whose metrics were attractive. He had a large target share (17.7 percent), a decent number of routes run (25.9 per game) and a respectable aDOT (7.75). Everything was aligned for Kmet to be a difference maker for TE-needy fantasy rosters late in the season. And then Jimmy Graham would score the touchdowns. Granted, Graham only had three scores all year, but with the Bears only notching 16 touchdown passes, that’s a significant number.
This year, Graham is nowhere to be found. That screams positive touchdown regression for Kmet. Also working in his favor is the departure of Allen Robinson. ARob wasn’t a target monster last season, but his presence meant he always had a shot at targets. Unless you’re lighting a candle for Byron Pringle, Dante Pettis or Velus Jones Jr., Kmet should see an uptick in targets this year. Chicago’s passing game won’t be great this year, but if will be predictable. Which is great for fantasy. That kind of potential hasn’t gotten him out of the shadow of Mike Gesicki in the latter part of the 10th round, but it definitely should.
Marcas Grant is a fantasy analyst for NFL.com and a man who has gotten enough preseason reps and is ready for the real thing. Send him your tales of anxiousness or fantasy football questions on Twitter @MarcasG or TikTok at marcasgrant.