Fantasy Football 2018: NFL Veterans Whose Stocks Are Soaring This Offseason
It's May, the transition period where we go from spending four months talking about the NFL draft to spending four months talking about fantasy football drafts. Nothing is more "May" than looking at the influence that last month's draft will have on your fantasy picks in August.
Between free agency, the draft and a rejuvenated trade market, players moved around the league fast and furious this offseason. Not to mention, projected roles for certain players have changed several times since March. With that in mind, we'll take you through who some of the biggest veteran "winners" of the draft were.
Some of these players have made little impact so far in their careers but are primed for a major role in their current offenses. Others were 2017 breakouts who will be afforded playing time after their teams targeted other positions in the draft. No matter the case, we'll go through the top eight veterans who have the most to gain from their teams' actions in late April.
Marlon Mack, RB, Indianapolis Colts
After parting ways with the 34-year-old Frank Gore, who posted 261 carries last season, one of the biggest question marks for the Indianapolis Colts on draft weekend was their running back situation. The only back on their roster with more than 25 carries last season is 2017 fourth-round pick Marlon Mack, who has just 358 rushing yards under his belt.
The Colts showed confidence in Mack via their actions during the draft, though. The team made five picks in the first two rounds, a stretch when seven running backs were drafted, and they still refused to pick one until Day 3. They had ample opportunity to vote Mack onto the bench, but they never swung.
Mack's top competition right now is fourth-round pick Nyheim Hines, a former receiver who had more receptions than carries until the 2017 season, and fifth-rounder Jordan Wilkins, who was taken with the 169th pick.
Over the last four seasons, only one running back, Alfred Blue, has recorded at least 500 rushing yards after being drafted as late or later than Wilkins. Until we're told otherwise, it's safe to assume Mack is going to be the RB1 in Indianapolis while Hines contributes as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.
Case Keenum, QB, Denver Broncos
Case Keenum signed a two-year contract this offseason, which promised him a shot at a starting job but with no guarantee of taking the role full time. For example, if the Denver Broncos find a trade partner for Keenum next season, he would only count $3 million against the cap, saving them $18 million.
Denver held the fifth pick in a draft where many projected five quarterbacks to come off the board in the first round, so Keenum's job status was not completely entrenched until the team selected North Carolina State pass-rusher Bradley Chubb with the fifth pick. On top of keeping the Keenum-Paxton Lynch-Chad Kelly depth chart intact, John Elway drafted some toys for his new quarterback.
After releasing former running back C.J. Anderson, the team drafted Oregon running back Royce Freeman with the 71st overall pick to be the new top tailback. SMU wide receiver Courtland Sutton was also added in the second round, and Penn State receiver DaeSean Hamilton was selected in the fourth round. Sutton and Hamilton will compete for playing time with 2017 third-round pick Carlos Henderson and 2017 fifth-round pick Isaiah McKenzie behind established receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. The latter duo can be released for cap purposes in 2019, but until then Keenum should have plenty to work with.
Job security? Check. Running game help? Check. Passing game help? Check.
Jay Ajayi, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
After being traded from the Miami Dolphins midseason, Jay Ajayi led the Philadelphia Eagles with 128 touches from November through the playoffs. And he did not play the team's final regular season game.
Ajayi's touches over that span dwarfed Corey Clement's 62 and Wendell Smallwood's 12, the other top returning backs on the team. After months of running backs like LSU's Derrius Guice being mocked to Philadelphia with the 32nd overall pick, the team eventually traded out of the final pick in the first round with the help of the Baltimore Ravens and secured tight end Dallas Goedert of South Dakota State in the second round.
Ajayi has the second-highest yards per carry on positive attempts among rushers with at least 200 carries over the last two years, and he is finally in a high-volume situation where his breakaway style of running can overwhelm teams behind a strong offensive line. After LeGarrette Blount signed with the Detroit Lions, the Eagles backfield should revolve around Ajayi moving forward.
Alex Collins, RB, Baltimore Ravens
Last September, Alex Collins was a waived former fifth-round pick. While he did post over 1,000 yards from scrimmage in 2017, running backs with his background come and go often. There's a reason why only two running backs (LeSean McCoy and Devonta Freeman) are playing under significant veteran contracts in the NFL: Turnover is massive in the league at the position.
There's no doubt that Collins met or surpassed everyone's expectations last season, but history is littered with backs who were able to do it for one year and then were immediately replaced by a top-100 pick. After the Baltimore Ravens chose to not select one of the running backs in this class, the only significant backs on Baltimore's roster behind Collins are Javorius "Buck" Allen and Kenneth Dixon.
Allen started six games in 2015 but hasn't started a single game in the last two seasons. Dixon has just 544 total yards over his two NFL seasons. Collins may have to prove himself and re-earn a starting role every offseason for the rest of his career, but his path to playing time on the 2018 Ravens should be a brisk walk.
Kenyan Drake, RB, Miami Dolphins
From the start of last season to the point when Ajayi was traded, 2016 third-round pick running back Kenyan Drake had just 10 of the Miami Dolphins' 169 rush attempts. After the Ajayi trade, Drake had 123 of the team's 192 carries. Going from six percent to 64 percent of a team's carries is drastic, even when the team's top back is removed from the equation.
The question heading into the draft was if Drake was receiving these touches because the team believed in his long-term potential or simply because he a warm body had to replace Ajayi. Soon to be 35-year-old running back Frank Gore was added in the offseason, but it would be an upset in just about everyone's book if he became the starter.
On draft weekend, the Dolphins only added one running back: Kalen Ballage of Arizona State. Ballage spent the last three years with the Sun Devils as the team's No. 2 back behind Demario Richard and D.J. Foster, who were both undrafted free agents in 2018 and 2016, respectively.
If Drake is second in touches out of the backfield, it's much more likely to be a product of Gore's presence than Ballage's. It would be the first time since high school that Ballage would have commanded a backfield.
Terrance Williams, WR, Dallas Cowboys
After recording 2,197 receiving yards in his first three seasons in the league, Dallas Cowboys receiver Terrance Williams has failed to hit 600 yards in each of his last two seasons. With a dead cap number somehow still $2.5 million higher than his cap hit, Williams is more difficult to cut than Dez Bryant was.
With Bryant and now-retired tight end Jason Witten off Dallas' roster, a huge volume opportunity has opened for Williams as the team's top returning receiver. He does have to battle Jacksonville Jaguars cap casualty Allen Hurns for the top spot, but Williams should be second at worst in receptions on the team.
There is some optimism about 81st overall pick Michael Gallup's impact on this year's team, but cautious optimism is the best approach with rookie receivers. Williams has averaged 671.8 receiving yards per season in his NFL career. Over the last five years, only two receivers have eclipsed that number as rookies after being picked with the 81st pick or later. Those receivers, Stefon Diggs (720 yards) and John Brown (696 yards), only beat Williams' career average by less than 50 yards.
When you stop assuming that Gallup will be a savior for the wide receiver unit, Williams emerges as a legitimate 800-snap receiver almost as a necessary evil.
Geronimo Allison, WR, Green Bay Packers
With the release of Jordy Nelson, the Green Bay Packers need to find a new outside wide receiver. Davante Adams is clearly going to be the team's starting X receiver, but Randall Cobb has predominantly spent his career in the slot, and you don't often see the slot-to-outside transition from a would-be 28-year-old.
The top veteran replacement for Nelson on this current Packers roster is Geronimo Allison. The team did add three wide receivers (J'Mon Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown) in the draft, but they were all drafted with the 133rd pick or later. For reference, no wide receiver drafted that late over the last seven years has started more than 10 games as a rookie. Only four of 98 receivers taken 133rd or later over the last seven seasons have started even a half-season as rookies.
These rookies are heavy underdogs to win the outside receiver role opposite of Adams early on. Assuming Cobb stays in the slot, that puts Allison in a high-target situation. For reference, here are the Packers' second-highest non-Cobb targets since 2012:
- 2017 (Jordy Nelson): 88 (15 games)
- 2016 (Davante Adams): 121 (16 games)
- 2015 (Davante Adams): 94 (13 games)
- 2014 (Davante Adams): 66 (16 games)
- 2013 (James Jones): 93 (14 games)
- 2012 (Jordy Nelson): 73 (12 games)
Six targets per game over 16 outings would leave Allison with 96 at the end of a healthy season, a number which would have ranked 46th in NFL last year. Allison could be a sleeper in a deeper PPR league due to his likely high-target role in the pass-heavy red-zone offense of Aaron Rodgers' Packers.
Dallas' Tight Ends
ESPN.com's Chris Mortensen reported during NFL draft weekend that Jason Witten, at the time the Dallas Cowboys' top returning leader in receptions, was thinking about retiring. Witten has since taken a job with Monday Night Football, leaving the Cowboys without a proven tight end.
At the moment, the team's top tight ends are:
- Geoff Swaim, a 2015 seventh-round pick with nine receptions in his NFL career
- Rico Gathers, a 2016 sixth-round pick with no receptions in his NFL career
- Dalton Schultz, a 2018 fourth-round pick who never caught more than 23 balls in a season for the run-heavy Stanford Cardinal.
There were plenty of pass-catchers the Cowboys could have selected in the draft who would have found an easy path to a starting role. Instead, the team took a blocking tight end. Witten received 87 targets last season and the team also lost Dez Bryant who led the team with 133 targets. Those 220 targets are going to have to be replaced somewhere.
With turmoil at the receiver position, will the Cowboys have to lean on Swaim or Gathers as a heavily-targeted tight end? While they haven't "broken out," only outside receiver Terrance Williams and slot receiver Cole Beasley have more years under their belts as Dallas pass-catchers. Your guess whether Swaim or Gathers will be the team's top tight end is as good as mine, but the prospects for whomever wins the job in August were boosted by the Cowboys' actions in April.