Fantasy Football 2017: Players Who Should Thrive in New Roles

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJuly 28, 2017

Fantasy Football 2017: Players Who Should Thrive in New Roles

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    DeSean Jackson
    DeSean JacksonKim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    The NFL is a perpetual-motion machine. Players are always coming and going—both rookies and veterans alike.

    This offseason we saw the usual flurry of veteran moves. Whether it was on the offensive line, in the secondary or in the pass rush, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to lure players to one team or another.

    Fantasy football enthusiasts aren't so much interested in that, though.

    The men and women preparing to draft their fake football teams want to know if any of the quarterbacks who moved will have big years. If any of the running backs who changed mailing addresses will roll to huge seasons. If any of the wide receivers who caught on with new employers will catch baskets full of fantasy points.

    There are also those players for whom a window of opportunity opened with those moves—players who have a solid chance at a breakout 2017.

    And wouldn't you know it? That just so happens to be why we're here, with a look at players who should thrive in new homes and roles in 2017.

The Maybe Brigade

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

    These players all have new homes and/or roles that offer the opportunity for a significant increase in fantasy relevance. Perhaps even stardom.

    But it's also a group that (for one reason or another) I look at and say, "I hope they'll be better," as opposed to "I think they'll be better."

    Still, each bears mentioning.

              

    LeGarrette Blount, RB, Philadelphia Eagles

    As the lead back for Doug Pederson, a head coach who likes to run the ball, Blount has upside if the workload's there. However, we're talking about a 30-year-old bruiser of a tailback who has played in 16 games once in four years and is coming off a career season that included an unsustainable 18 rushing touchdowns.

               

    Pierre Garcon, WR, San Francisco 49ers

    Garcon is generating a lot of "sleeper" buzz in fantasy circles. He's a proven producer coming off a 1,000-yard season in Washington and will be the unquestioned No. 1 wide receiver for the 49ers. But I just can't include Garcon as a player sure to thrive in fantasy football when the majority of his statistical production in 2017 will probably occur in garbage time.

               

    Mike Gillislee, RB, New England Patriots

    Gillislee averaged 5.7 yards a carry last year for the Buffalo Bills and could have a huge season if the Patriots make him their featured back. But with James White, Dion Lewis and newcomer Rex Burkhead also part of a crowded stable of backs, we appear headed toward another maddening fantasy season of running back roulette in New England.

               

    Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

    Hill emerged as one of the NFL's most dangerous open-field weapons as a rookie last year, and the Chiefs' release of Jeremy Maclin leaves Hill as the No. 1 wideout in Kansas City. But that new status will come with extra attention from defenses as the focal point for a passing attack that no one will confuse with the run and shoot.

             

    Brandon Marshall, WR, New York Giants

    Don't get me wrong. Expect Marshall (who was long a fantasy football stalwart before injuries ruined his 2016) to a have a bounce-back year of sorts as the new No. 2 receiver for the Giants. But playing opposite Odell "Write the Check" Beckham Jr., Marshall will be just that: a clear second-fiddle in the passing game. Optimism's great, but don't pay for that which has already happened.

              

    Paul Perkins, RB, New York Giants

    Perkins is a solid play this year as a relatively inexpensive flex option in fantasy leagues that award points for receptions, and he has top-20 upside. And given how bad the Giants' run blocking was a season ago, Perkins' 4.1 yards a carry isn't that bad. But while Perkins is the lead back for the Giants, Shane Vereen (passing downs) and rookie Wayne Gallman (short yardage/goal line) both lurk as touch vultures.

            

    Adrian Peterson, RB, New Orleans Saints

    If Peterson repeats his 2015 numbers (1,485 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns) in 2017, he'll be fantasy's MVP given how late he's being drafted. And he's proved the naysayers wrong before. But he's also a 32-year-old running back on a crowded depth chart who has missed most of two of the last three seasons and averaged less than two yards a pop last year before tearing up his knee.

Brandin Cooks, WR, New England Patriots

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    Bill Sikes/Associated Press

    Playing the last two years in New Orleans with Drew Brees, Brandin Cooks was wildly productive. He topped 1,100 receiving yards in each of those seasons, hauling in 17 touchdowns over that span.

    In 2016, Cooks ranked 11th among wide receivers in PPR fantasy points. And with an average draft position of WR13 in PPR formats at Fantasy Pros, Cooks isn't expected to suffer a drop-off in the eyes of many fantasy owners after he changed teams in the offseason.

    Of course, that might be because he joined the juggernaut that is the New England Patriots. He'll catch passes from arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history in Tom Brady, and will play in an already deep receiving corps that includes wideouts Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan and the NFL's best tight end, Rob Gronkowski.

    Each of ESPN's AFC East beat writers labeled Cooks the most impactful newcomer in the division this season, including Mike Reiss.

    "Cooks (reminds) me of a thoroughbred horse coming down the homestretch with the end zone representing the finish line," Reiss wrote. "He can fly, giving the Patriots a home run threat they haven't previously had on the roster."

    It's fair to wonder how Cooks will fare late in the season when the weather gets sketchy in Boston, but he has the potential for a monster year. If opponents focus their attention on Cooks, Brady will shred them underneath. As soon as they pull off—WHAMMO!—Brady will hit Cooks over the top.

    His 2016 production is a reasonable expectation for his first year with the Patriots.

    And 1,100 yards and eight scores sure sounds like thriving.

Jamison Crowder, WR, Washington Redskins

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Jamison Crowder had something of a coming-out party in 2016, hauling in 67 passes for 847 yards and seven touchdowns.

    That may have been just the beginning. Numerous outlets are calling for a breakout season from the third-year pro, including Bleacher Report, where my colleague Sean Tomlinson wrote earlier this month that "Jamison Crowder Could Be the NFL's Top Breakout Player of 2017."

    That's the sort of statement fantasy owners should pay attention to.

    As ESPN's John Keim reports, the Redskins plan on an increased role for Crowder. He'll start in two-receiver sets and kick inside to the slot when they go three-wide.

    Head coach Jay Gruden believes Crowder is up to the task.

    "We'll utilize Jamison and try to get him more involved," Gruden said. "He's an excellent player, dynamic player. He just continues to prove every day why we like him so much. He can run just about anything you ask him to run ... He gets himself open because he's got a great feel. He's got quickness in and out of his breaks."

    Last year, Crowder received 99 targets, according to FF Today. Pierre Garcon (Washington's leading wideout in 2016) got 114. So, it's safe to say Crowder will receive at least that small bump in targets. If he can improve ever so slightly on his 67.7 percent catch rate from last year—at his 12.6 yards per catch from 2016—Crowder will flirt with 1,000 yards on 80 catches.

    Throw in the same seven touchdowns from 2016 and you have a top-20 fantasy receiver in leagues that award a point for receptions.

Eric Decker, WR, Tennessee Titans

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Eric Decker must be part cat.

    He's certainly adept at landing on his feet.

    After being part of the veteran purge with the New York Jets after an injury-marred 2016, Decker found a new home with the up-and-coming Tennessee Titans.

    He told Jim Wyatt of the team's website the fit made signing in Nashville an easy call.

    "There were a lot of factors," Decker said. "This is a team on the rise, and I like the coaching staff, the GM, and the philosophy upstairs. I like the quarterback, the locker room and the mentality. When I talked to the GM and the coaches, finding out what they wanted out of me, what my role would be, Tennessee was the best opportunity."

    Now, Decker joins a crowded depth chart. The Titans added No. 5 overall pick Corey Davis and rookies Taywan Taylor and Jonnu Smith to a pass-catching corps that includes Rishard Matthews and veteran tight end Delanie Walker.

    In fact, some reports indicate Decker's no sure bet to start—he'll have to beat out Taylor just to earn slot duties.

    I'm not buying it. Provided Decker's healthy after offseason hip and shoulder surgeries, he'll do more than just carve out a complementary role. Decker will emerge as Marcus Mariota's go-to receiver.

    Decker's a sure-handed, big-bodied (6'3", 214 lbs) receiver who excels at making catches in traffic. From 2012 to 2015 in Denver and with the Jets, Decker averaged over 1,000 yards a season and reeled in 41 touchdown passes.

    Given his relatively modest ADP so far (WR43), I'm buying Decker in as many drafts as I can.

DeSean Jackson, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    There are players included here who aren't wide receivers, honest.

    We just haven't gotten to any yet.

    When speedster DeSean Jackson left the Washington Redskins for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it was one of the first splash signings of free agency.

    Jackson told Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times it wasn't a hard decision to make, given the weapons the Bucs already had—including a strong-armed young quarterback in Jameis Winston.

    "He's a great young quarterback with a big arm," Jackson said. "And he's the leader. That's what you want your quarterback to be. Once I knew (the Bucs) were really going to be interested in me, it really sparked me, and I was like, 'OK, they've got Jameis, they've got Mike (Evans). They got that defense. … It would be cool to play with them.'"

    Of course, it wasn't just Jackson who saw the appeal of his speed in combination with Winston's big right arm. Fantasy owners have been drooling over the duo since the moment the ink dried on the deal.

    Mind you, it's not as if Jackson will become the top receiver in Tampa. That role belongs to young star Mike Evans.

    But the combination of Evans and Jackson leaves defenses to pick their poison: Let Evans run amok or double him and risk being burned deep by Jackson, who had 56 catches for 1,005 yards and four scores in 15 games last year.

    That season landed Jackson in low-end fantasy WR3 territory in PPR formats, which also happens to be where he's coming off draft boards.

    Jackson's always been a high-variance fantasy option, and that won't change. But playing opposite Evans with a quarterback who plays to Jackson's strengths, he'll get at least a small bump in yardage and scores in 2017.

Alshon Jeffery, WR, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    What do you want from me? I didn't tell all these wideouts to change teams.

    For Alshon Jeffery, it wasn't an easy switch, either. The 27-year-old found a cool market before settling on a one-year, $9.5 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles.

    The reason isn't hard to see: Jeffery was suspended four games for a performance-enhancing drug violation in 2016 and lost nearly half of 2015 to injury.

    The best ability, they say, is availability.

    However, that one-year-deal leaves Jeffery with plenty to prove. Quarterback Carson Wentz told Matt Lombardo of NJ.com that Jeffery has already begun the task.

    "It's really nice having a guy like Alshon," Wentz said. "Not only his catch radius, but he has some of the strongest hands I've ever seen. The thing with Alshon and I, it's all about building that chemistry and building that relationship, and I'm excited. You can just see, it's kind of a different animal throwing the ball to him. He covers some ground."

    Jeffery will serve as the No. 1 receiver for the Eagles in 2017, a role he thrived in back in 2013 and 2014 with the Chicago Bears.

    There's that word again.

    Now, it may be a stretch to say Jeffery will rank in the top 11 in the NFL in targets this year, as he did in those seasons. Philly's not exactly an air-it-out offense, and there are other options in the passing game.

    But 125 targets is a reasonable expectation. Assuming a catch rate of 59 percent (his average in 2013 and 2014) and his career average of 15 yards per reception, that's 74 catches for 1,110 yards.

    Add in seven touchdowns, and you have a top-12 PPR receiver.

Eddie Lacy, RB, Seattle Seahawks

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    See? I told you there were non-receivers.

    To this point in the offseason, there's been much written about Eddie Lacy's acquisition by the Seattle Seahawks in free agency.

    Most of it has centered around just how much of Lacy the Seahawks acquired.

    As Gregg Bell of the Tacoma News-Tribune reported, so far Lacy's weight has been a non-issue in his new home. Twice Lacy has earned bonuses related to making a certain weight, and head coach Pete Carroll insisted he's been nothing but pleased with what he's seen from the four-year veteran.

    "He's really joined in. He's been a really good addition," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He's been competing the whole time he's been here, more so than anybody because he's had a lot to overcome—some habits and lifestyle—to do what he's done. He's done a beautiful job. He's off to a great start."

    The thing is, Lacy's durability has been a much bigger concern over the last couple of years than his weight. Lacy played big last year for the Green Bay Packers, but he also came up big—averaging over five yards a carry before an ankle injury ended his season.

    Now, an argument can be made that Lacy's poor conditioning contributed to the injury, but all indications are that he's turned over the proverbial new leaf.

    There's still the significant matter of beating out Thomas Rawls for lead back duties. But the Seahawks didn't sign Lacy as a complementary piece.

    They signed him to bring back the power ground game that was missing last year—the power ground game that was such a big part of their Super Bowl runs.

Marshawn Lynch, RB, Oakland Raiders

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    When it comes to veteran players who changed teams in 2017, the biggest story is undoubtedly Marshawn Lynch joining the Raiders—the hometown kid coming out of retirement for a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

    Left tackle Donald Penn put it well while speaking with Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle.

    "We're trying to win the Super Bowl, and Marshawn is a big part of that, but this is bigger than football," Penn said. "He came back for Oakland."

    History is stacked against the 31-year-old. He's well past the age where players at his position usually decline. He didn't play football in 2016, and his 2015 campaign was disappointing and ended prematurely due to injury.

    However, one can argue that the year away was one less season of wear and tear on Lynch's legs. And as recently as 2014, he was still in full-on Beast Mode, punishing the NFL for over 1,300 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns.

    By all reports, Lynch looked spry in training camp and OTAs, including peeling off a touchdown run in OTAs that had Twitter, well, Twitterpated.

    There's also the small matter of a potent Raiders offense that features a franchise quarterback, one of the best one-two punches in the NFL at receiver and the AFC's best offensive line.

    Go ahead. Put eight in the box. See what happens.

    The fantasy community appears to be on board the Lynch-wagon. His ADP in PPR leagues is on a steady climb that will soon hit RB1 territory in 12-team leagues.

    Personally, I'm in Row 4, Seat 6. At their respective prices, I'd rather have Lynch than Jordan Howard of the Chicago Bears (RB10) or Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams (RB7). 2014 numbers are within his reach, and he was a top-five fantasy back that season.

    Time for a Beastquake in the Black Hole.

Jeremy Maclin, WR, Baltimore Ravens

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    It's been an eventful offseason for Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. In the span of a couple of months, Maclin went from the No. 1 wide receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs to a surprise cut late in the offseason to the new No. 1 receiver for the Baltimore Ravens.

    And everything I'm about to write could be rendered moot if the back injury that will cost Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco the first week of training camp is more than the nothing burger the team insists it is.

    But for the sake of argument, let's assume the Ravens are being honest and Maclin has recovered from the injuries that wrecked his 2016—a reasonable enough assumption given Maclin is 29.

    If that's the case, we could be onto something here.

    The Ravens didn't have a bigger need this offseason than an underneath receiver to replace Steve Smith Sr. After Baltimore whiffed in free agency and the draft, Maclin's late release was a gift for the team—especially with tight end Dennis Pitta suffering another dislocated hip early in OTAs.

    The Ravens have Mike Wallace, who is coming off a career year. But Wallace is a vertical threat. They also have tailback Danny Woodhead, but with Pitta now gone, the Ravens need more than one underneath target.

    In both 2014 and 2015 Maclin topped 1,000 yards and caught 80 passes. He averaged nine touchdowns a season over that span.

    Maclin was a top-15 fantasy option in each of those years. Even if he drops off and finishes just inside the top 25, he'll be a bargain at his current WR44 ADP.

Terrelle Pryor, WR, Washington Redskins

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    Much like Alshon Jeffery, wide receiver Terrelle Pryor went into this offseason with visions of a massive long-term contract dancing in his head.

    And just like Jeffery, Pryor was disappointed—eventually settling on a one-year, $8 million contract with the Washington Redskins.

    Coming off the first 1,000-yard season of his career, Pryor appears to have completed his transformation. The caterpillar of a failed scrambling quarterback has given way to a butterfly of a 6'4" wide receiver with soft hands who runs like a gazelle.

    It doesn't look like he's even running at full speed on some plays.

    Per ESPN.com's Pat McManamon, Pryor's old receivers coach thinks last year's 77 catches for 1,007 yards and four scores is just the beginning for the 28-year-old.

    "I will be shocked if he isn't in the Pro Bowl," said Browns receivers coach Al Saunders. "He's going to have that kind of year. ... When you look at it, one year, never playing receiver in his life and going for over 1,000 yards, 70-some catches—what he did was unprecedented. In one year."

    There are other receiving options in Washington, of course. I've already mentioned Jamison Crowder. And I hear tight end Jordan Reed is pretty good.

    But Kirk Cousins, who has already been working privately with Pryor as he enters a third straight contract year, is going to figure out something PDQ (if he hasn't already).

    Pryor has the potential to be not just a Pro Bowl player but also one of the best receivers in the NFL. His physical gifts are innumerable—size, speed…he's got it all. He also has a unique perspective on route running after being a quarterback in the NFL.

    He may be a late bloomer, but better late than never.

    And for Pryor, bloom goes the dynamite in 2017.

Danny Woodhead, RB, Baltimore Ravens

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    There's a name that has been spoken in hushed whispers by fantasy football diehards for some time—quietly, so as not be overheard by others.

    Danny Woodhead.

    Well, the lid's been blown off everyone's favorite sleeper in the backfield in 2017. As Ryan Mink of the Ravens' website reported, tailback Kenneth Dixon will miss the 2017 season after having surgery to repair a torn meniscus.

    That, in turn, means larger roles for Terrance West and Woodhead, who joined the Ravens in free agency after four years with the San Diego Chargers.

    Woodhead was a hot commodity in fantasy circles even before Dixon's injury. Yes, he's 32 and coming off a torn ACL (his second major leg injury in three years). But Woodhead was already drawing raves from quarterback Joe Flacco, according to Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com.

    "Really, ever since we lost Ray Rice, we haven't had a type of back that's quite like how Ray was and quite like how Danny is in the passing game," Flacco said. "They just have a very good feel for when they're open and how to get open, how to sit in holes, how to find my eyes, and you can already see that."

    In his last full season, Woodhead caught 80 passes for the Chargers and finished third among fantasy running backs in PPR formats. I'm not going to sit here and say Woodhead will again be a top-five fantasy option…

    But I won't say he won't, either.

    The Ravens' run game is now a big question mark, and Flacco (assuming, once again, his back issue isn't one) has always been fond of passes to the tailback—in Rice's last five full seasons as the starter for Baltimore, he averaged 67 catches a season.

    In PPR leagues, Woodhead's a viable RB2 with considerable upside and an ADP of RB28.

    Too bad it won't stay there.