2014 might have been a great year for the Dallas Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Antonio Brown, the Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck and several other NFL stars, but It was not great for everybody.
Many players were no help whatsoever in fantasy football leagues last year. But that does not mean they should be excluded from your cheat sheets heading into fantasy drafts in August and September. Some of them will be on new teams, some will have better supporting casts and some will have more important roles this upcoming season.
Here are three players whose fantasy values will improve in 2015:
Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints (WR)
Jimmy Graham is gone, Kenny Stills is gone and Joe Horn and his cell phone are never coming back to save the day.
Drew Brees has to throw to somebody, and while Marques Colston has been his buddy for a long time, Colston has a better chance of collecting social security this year than posting a 1,300-yard, 10-touchdown comeback season.
Cooks is the last man standing in the receiving corps, and the super sophomore can fly. He has been able to pick up New Orleans’ complicated offense quicker than other receivers in the past.
The former first-round pick was not fantasy gold like so many other first-round pass-catchers were last season, though. While New York’s Odell Beckham Jr., Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans, Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin and Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins lit up scoreboards and box scores with their numbers, Cooks had a pedestrian 53 receptions for 550 yards and three touchdowns.
New Orleans’ offseason moves make you want to believe that the organization is changing the offense to revolve around its rushing attack. Do not buy it for a minute. With Brees at the helm and Sean Payton as the head coach, the Saints will be passing as often as they are marching in.
Look for Cooks to take a giant step in his development and subsequently his production. New Orleans is not going to become a ground-and-pound team Rex Ryan would be proud of. The Saints may run a little more, but when they pass, Cooks will be the top target.
Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs (QB)
He has never thrown for 3,400 yards or had 25 touchdown tosses in any of his nine seasons, which is remarkable considering the NFL makes it so easy to pass these days that you figure any starting quarterback with a healthy arm could achieve those numbers.
Smith could set new personal bests across the board in 2015, though. Kansas City spent millions on receiver Jeremy Maclin, who had a career-high 1,318 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Odds are he will catch a touchdown pass this year, something no Chiefs receiver did last year. Not a one.
Smith’s 18 touchdown tosses all went to tight ends and running backs. And the good news is that on top of Maclin and any other receiver the Chiefs draft or sign, the top-flight tight end (Travis Kelce) and tailback (Jamaal Charles) that caught the majority of Smith’s scores last year are still with the team.
So if you team Maclin and a rookie receiver (hopefully one who works out better than Jon Baldwin did a few years ago) with Kelce and Charles in an Andy Reid offense that favors the pass over the run, then Smith passing for 3,600 yards and 25 touchdowns is not out of the realm of possibility for fantasy owners.
DeAngelo Williams, Pittsburgh Steelers (RB)
Williams’ fantasy value looked like it had been flushed down the fantasy toilet bowl a month ago. After six subpar games and a season-ending injury ruined his 2014 campaign, he signed with the Steelers to back up one of the NFL’s most productive workhorses, Le’Veon Bell.
Williams’ odds of getting 10 touches per game at the start of the season were as slim as E.J. Manuel’s odds of passing for 5,000 yards this year. But everything has changed faster than you can say, “Your wife is very pretty, Mr. Tom Brady.”
Bell was handed a three-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy because of his transgression with LeGarrette Blount last season, when the two were arrested for marijuana possession.
This means Williams will be the one monopolizing the rushing attempts and screen passes for the Steelers' first three games next season. So not only does Williams become one of the most valuable running back handcuffs in fantasy football heading into the 2015 season, he could be a must-start during the first month while Bell is suspended.
Williams has never looked washed-up, even in his last couple of seasons with the Carolina Panthers where he was far from a fantasy force. The Panthers just chose not to give him the ball more than 12 times a week despite his decent yards-per-carry averages that he had up until last season’s career-low 3.5.
When the NFL schedule is released next week, fantasy owners will have a better idea of what Williams could do during his three weeks as Pittsburgh’s starter. There is no doubt, however, that his fantasy value is on the rise compared to last year and even compared to last month.