NFL Players Who Should Thrive in New Roles for 2018 Fantasy Football

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJuly 26, 2018

NFL Players Who Should Thrive in New Roles for 2018 Fantasy Football

0 of 10

    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    In fantasy football, just as in the NFL, change is constant.

    The annual carousel of roster movement powered by free agency and the draft has a huge impact on player values, whether it's that of the guys making moves or the ones staying put.

    For some, a new role and/or new team means more than a different jersey or bigger paycheck. It's an opportunity to carve out a bigger role. To become a pivotal part of their team's success.

    And to rack up the stats fantasy drafters drool over.

    We're focusing on those players. For each of these youngsters and veterans there's a bigger, better role coming in 2018.

    The sort of role that brings with it increased expectations.

    And might bring with it a big fantasy season.


Kirk Cousins, QB, Minnesota Vikings

1 of 10

    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    It happened without a ton of fanfare, but Kirk Cousins was a sneaky-good fantasy option the past two seasons. In both 2016 and 2017, Cousins finished fifth among quarterbacks in fantasy points in's default scoring.

    He won't sneak up on anyone this season, though. It's difficult to be stealthy after signing a three-year, $84 million contract in which every last penny is guaranteed.

    That's the whopper of a deal the Minnesota Vikings ponied up to win the bidding war for Cousins' services. With it comes the weight of increased expectations, as Cousins is expected to push Minnesota into the Super Bowl.

    But in fantasy football, he's still flying under the radar—at least a bit. His ADP is eighth among signal-callers.

    If one takes a quick look at the offensive weaponry in the Twin Cities, then that asking price becomes attractive quickly. There's a talented 22-year-old tailback in Dalvin Cook, a solid tight end in Kyle Rudolph, a quality offensive line and defense, and one of the NFL's best one-two punches at wide receiver in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.

    All the ingredients are there for a third consecutive top-five fantasy finish—a feat that would make Cousins both a great value for drafters and an object lesson in why wise fantasy owners wait before taking a quarterback.

Alex Smith, QB, Washington Redskins

2 of 10

    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    If Cousins is flying slightly under the radar, his replacement in the nation's capital is completely off it—despite a career year and top-three fantasy finish in 2017.

    Alex Smith is a late bloomer. Long considered a disappointment after being drafted No. 1 in 2005, Smith developed into an excellent starter over five years with the Kansas City Chiefs. He capped that run with his first 4,000-yard season and 21 more touchdowns (26) than interceptions (five) in 2017.

    However, those numbers haven't captured fantasy drafters' imaginations. His ADP is 19th among quarterbacks. That drop is due mostly to Smith's move from Kansas City's loaded offense to one in Washington that doesn't boast the same kind of firepower. Smith traded Tyreek Hill for Jamison Crowder. Travis Kelce for Jordan Reed. And Kareem Hunt for rookie Derrius Guice.

    However, in an interview with Joe Theismann for the team's website, Smith cautioned we shouldn't sleep on Washington's offense:

    "I still feel like my best football's in front of me. I still feel young … I see a hungry football team. When I first stepped in the door I was anxious to see what the culture was like, what the attitude was like, what the locker room was like. You know, work ethic, determination, sense of urgency … I think right away it hit me how hungry this team is, how willing to work this team is, how willing to sacrifice this team is."

    It won't take much for Smith to justify his modest draft price. Or exceed it, for that matter. And while trusting the 34-year-old as a weekly starter might not be advisable, Smith's potential for cheap production makes him an interesting late target as depth.

Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

3 of 10

    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Unlike the other players on this list, Patrick Mahomes didn't switch teams this offseason.

    The Smith trade shook up Mahomes' world—and thrust the second-year pro under a microscope as intense as any player in football faces.

    In 2017, the Kansas City Chiefs won 10 games and the AFC West. But after another first-round playoff disappointment, they moved on from Smith—and turned to the player they moved up to draft 10th overall in 2017.

    As Mike Florio reported for Pro Football Talk, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid insisted Mahomes won't have training wheels in 2018.

    "You surely don't want to stifle that at all. One thing that he is blessed with is he has good vision, so you don't ever want to stifle that and put him in a box with that. Allow him to see. Is there going to be a hiccup here or there? Yeah, there's going to be a hiccup here or there, but you don't want to stifle that at all. We'll see how that goes and monitor as it goes. We don't miss much, but we'll continue to teach."

    If Reid's a man of his word, Mahomes could put up big numbers. With Hunt, Kelce and wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Hill, the Chiefs have the division's best assemblage of offensive talent—including two vertical-threat wideouts who should mesh well with their strong-armed quarterback.

    With an ADP outside the top 15 at QB and a ceiling inside the top 10, Mahomes has the makings of just the sort of upside pick smart drafters target as a backup or part of a platoon.

Jerick McKinnon, RB, San Francisco 49ers

4 of 10

    Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

    When it comes to players in new places, no one is generating more hype than San Francisco 49ers tailback Jerick McKinnon.

    He's never carried the ball 160 times in a season. And in each of the past two years, the 26-year-old averaged under four yards per carry with the Minnesota Vikings. Yet McKinnon's ADP is a robust 13th among running backs and No. 21 overall. That's the second round in 12 team leagues.

    The reason can be summed up in a pair of words: Kyle Shanahan.

    Per Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, the 49ers head coach and offensive wunderkind raved about how well McKinnon's skill set fits what the team does.

    "There's so many things I liked about him, just visualizing how I would use him and the stuff that we would do," Shanahan said. "Even though there wasn't a ton of it, you've still got to see him do some stuff that we do a lot. And whenever he did, he excelled a ton and looked very good at it."

    Fantasy owners have visualized it as well.

    In 2015, Devonta Freeman exploded into fantasy prominence with the Atlanta Falcons under Shanahan's offensive coordinator reign, rushing for 1,056 yards, catching 73 passes and leading all players at his position in PPR fantasy points by a wide margin.

    Just like Freeman, McKinnon's an excellent receiver out of the backfield. And just like the 5'8" Freeman, McKinnon's an undersized back at 5'9".

    McKinnon is overvalued in fantasy football in 2018. Buying a share at a second-round price means drafting him a lot closer to his ceiling than his floor—and that's a recipe for trouble.

    Still, he has a good shot at realizing the sky-high upside that's driving that hype.

Dion Lewis, RB, Tennessee Titans

5 of 10

    Elsa/Getty Images

    Dion Lewis won people money in 2017. And trophies. And fantasy leagues.

    Over the second half of the year, the talented but oft-injured ball-carrier reminded everyone how dangerous he could be for the New England Patriots. From Week 10 on, only four running backs posted more PPR fantasy points than the 27-year-old.

    Then came free agency—and a double-whammy gut punch.

    It was bad enough that Lewis landed in Tennessee, where his path to consistent touches is anything but clear. But in doing so, he also blocked Derrick Henry's path to fantasy prominence. Henry was generating a lot of early hype after the team released DeMarco Murray.

    It was a wild 11 minutes.

    Henry is pegged as the back to own in Nashville, with an ADP 10 slots higher among tailbacks than Henry.

    But Lewis is the better value.

    It's not a knock on Henry—mostly. He played well in an increased role in his second NFL season in 2017, and he's a punishing between-the-tackles grinder capable of wearing defenses down.

    But Lewis is no slouch between the tackles—and he's a much more explosive and well-rounded player. The Titans brought him in because he can hurt teams outside and catch the ball out of the backfield—things Henry doesn't do.

    There's a real chance he'll both out-touch and out-point Henry in 2018.

    In other words: a second straight season of the kind of value that wins people money. And trophies. And leagues.

Sammy Watkins, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

6 of 10

    Uncredited/Associated Press

    It's summer—and that means it's time for breathless proclamations that this will be the year Sammy Watkins is a fantasy breakout.

    It's an annual tradition dating back to 2014.

    To be fair, Watkins topped 1,000 receiving yards with nine touchdowns in 2015. And while he caught just 39 passes in his lone season with the Los Angeles Rams in 2017, eight went for scores. But Watkins hasn't lived up to the hype in the NFL or fantasy.

    As such, the size of the crowd that's making those proclamations has shrunk. Watkins has dropped to WR3 territory in PPR drafts this year—29th at the position.

    That slide presents an interesting opportunity for fantasy owners who aren't risk-averse.

    There have been significant changes in Kansas City, including a new quarterback in Mahomes. And there are a lot of mouths to feed in the passing game, from Hunt to Hill to Kelce.

    But the Chiefs didn't bring in Watkins as a complementary piece on a prove-it deal. They handed Watkins an average of $16 million a season for three years with $30 million in guarantees. Watkins is making more per season than Julio Jones ($14.3 million).

    The Chiefs are sure going to want a return on that investment—and that means targets for Watkins. Given how offensively stacked they are, there'll be lots of single coverage. That means the opportunity for chunk plays down the field—an area where Watkins shines.

    If Mahomes can get the ball there accurately and consistently, Watkins could smash his ADP's value.

Jarvis Landry, WR, Cleveland Browns

7 of 10

    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Speaking of overpaid wideouts, let's talk about Jarvis Landry.

    To be fair, if someone offered me $15 million-plus per season to do what I do, I wouldn't stop to ask if I deserved it.

    And, Landry led the NFL with 112 receptions in 2017. Over the past three seasons, he's averaged over 100 catches and 1,000 yards. Besides, per's Pat McManamon, so far as Landry's concerned, he's worth all that cheese.

    "I consider myself the most complete receiver," he said. "If you turn on the film, I do everything—I block, I play inside, I play outside and I come out of the backfield. My value is that much more to the team and to the offense. I consider myself the best receiver in the NFL."

    It's possible Landry will hit that 100/1,000 benchmark in his first season in Cleveland. And if that's the case, a fourth straight top-15 finish and second consecutive top-10 year in leagues that award a point for receptions is in play.

    Just know Landry's value is all about volume. The 25-year-old averaged a career-low 8.8 yards a pop on those 112 catches last year, and he is barely clearing the 10-yard mark on average for his career.

    Landry is an excellent slot receiver who excels at the underneath stuff but isn't a threat to beat teams over the top. He'll need a steady diet of targets from Tyrod Taylor to match what he did in Miami.

    With an average draft position barely inside the top 25 receivers, he's a worthy gamble.

Michael Crabtree, WR, Baltimore Ravens

8 of 10

    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    It's been a while since fantasy owners put much stock into the Baltimore Ravens' passing game. Only three teams threw for fewer yards than the Ravens in 2017.

    The team is aware of its struggles. Baltimore added three veteran receivers in Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead and John Brown. It offered a multiyear contract to Dez Bryant but couldn't get a deal done.

    Of that group, Crabtree is easily the most proven player. He's topped 1,000 receiving yards twice in nine seasons, including two years ago in Oakland. In two of the last three seasons, Crabtree caught 80-plus passes, and in each of those campaigns he scored at least eight times.

    He was also a top-20 fantasy option in PPR formats twice, although that number slid to 31st last season.

    Per Nick Shook of, Crabtree's well-aware he's being counted on as Baltimore's No. 1 receiver.

    "I don't have a choice," Crabtree said. "I'm going on 10 [years] in the game, and all these guys are three-, four-, first-year guys. That's just my role. At the same time, I'm out there competing like I'm 21, so I'm going to have fun with it."

    It's understandable many fantasy drafters have a hard time getting excited about a 30-year-old receiver who's coming off a down year and moved to one of the league's most anemic offenses. But Crabtree is being drafted (WR28) much closer to last year's finish than this year's potential.

    That knocking sound you hear is opportunity.

Jimmy Graham, TE, Green Bay Packers

9 of 10

    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    Some would argue Jimmy Graham has lost a step. That he's not the field-stretching matchup nightmare he was during his heyday with the New Orleans Saints.

    For his part, as's Rob Demovsky reported, Graham thinks that's a steaming pile of hooey. He maintains he can still be a dominant force.

    "I'm still 6-[foot]-7 and can still run a 4.5 [40-yard dash], so I think so," Graham said. "Hopefully I can do that here. When my number is called, I'm going to be ready, I can tell you that."

    It's not like Graham was chopped liver with the Seattle Seahawks. His 10 touchdowns last year were his most since 2014, and his 14.2 yards per catch two years ago was a career high.

    Eighty percent of Graham is better than 80 percent of the league's tight ends.

    In 2018, he'll play with the third main quarterback of his career. That Aaron Rodgers is that signal-caller (after Drew Brees and Russell Wilson) probably makes players such as Julius Thomas weep uncontrollably.

    Rodgers' Packers have never been known for big tight end numbers, but the team also hasn't had a player of Graham's caliber there. And with wide receiver Jordy Nelson gone, Graham's ability to go up and get it in the red zone will come in handy.

    There is one second-tier tight end with a chance to crack the GronKelce party and challenge to be fantasy's top guy at that spot. One with a ceiling far higher than the likes of Greg Olsen and Rudolph.

    That's Graham.

Trey Burton, TE, Chicago Bears

10 of 10

    Nam Huh/Associated Press

    Tight end is something of a hot mess in fantasy football. There are a few elite options, a few second-level guys (such as Graham) and a whole lot of maybes.

    There just aren't enough dependable starters. And that leaves fantasy owners with a draft-day dilemma: Do you pay a premium to get a reliable starter or roll the dice on an upside option later?

    If door No. 2 is for you, then Trey Burton of the Chicago Bears should be on your radar. Burton's coming off draft boards ninth at the position on average, between steady veteran Delanie Walker and the talented but perpetually hurt Jordan Reed.

    Burton doesn't have much of a professional resume. His stats from four years of playing behind Zach Ertz in Philadelphia look like one good tight end season (63 receptions for 629 yards and six scores).

    But five of those touchdowns came in 2017—a year in which Burton found his footing and showed his ability to stretch the field and win in the red zone. The Bears saw something they liked, because they handed Burton $22 million in guarantees in free agency.

    If quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is going to make a big sophomore jump, he needs improved weaponry. And while Allen Robinson is the team's No. 1 receiver on paper, he's a newcomer, too.

    Burton could become a Trubisky favorite underneath.

    If that's the case, he'll be a favorite of the fantasy community as well.


    Gary Davenport is a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the 2017 award winner as the FSWA's Football Writer of the Year. Average Draft Position data courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator.