With the second week of the pre-season in the books, everyone is revving up their metaphorical fantasy football engines. Mock drafts are frivolously being done, ESPN and Yahoo articles are being pored over, and every owner is feverishly preparing for the ever-approaching season. For those looking for last minute advice on which players to select – this one’s for you. These are the players that are fantasy musts, sleepers with great upside, and players to avoid at all costs. Without further delay, here is my “fantasy football draft day diary.”
Editor’s Note: I will omit kickers and defenses from this list because, when it is all said and done, they are pretty much all equivalent.
Must have: Matt Ryan
I wanted to try and avoid the “Big Three” quarterbacks: Manning, Brees, and Rodgers. We know they are going to be spectacular and make up three of the top five fantasy quarterbacks in fantasy football. But which quarterbacks will take the other two spots in the top five? My vote is for Matt Ryan to take one of those spots. Without Julio Jones for most of the season and Roddy White in and out of the lineup for the majority of the year, Ryan managed to throw for more than 4,500 yards and 26 touchdowns. Ryan is currently being taken behind Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Nick Foles, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, and Robert Griffin III, and he is currently being taken in the ninth round on ESPN and the sixth round on Yahoo. If you don’t draft the “Big Three” I would wait for Matty Ice and by pass the aforementioned names. With a healthy Julio Jones and Roddy White coupled with an emerging Harry Douglas, Ryan should return to fantasy relevance. Think Matt Stafford with fewer interceptions.
Avoid: Nick Foles
Foles took the league by storm last season throwing for 2,891 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, and only two interceptions. TWO INTERCEPTIONS! He is sure to regress in that department. In actuality, Foles’s absurd touchdown-to-interception ratio is the only reason he had any real fantasy value at all. He had four games in which he threw under 200 yards. He threw for less passing yards than Alex Smith, Chad Henne, and Geno Smith last season. Let me repeat that last part: Geno Smith threw for more yards than Foles. The Eagles are a rushing team first and foremost, which is exaggerated this season when you factor in their decision to trade DeSean Jackson (to the rival Redskins no less). Foles looks more like a bye-week filler than a starting quarterback on a fantasy football playoff team.
Sleeper: Ryan Tannehill
Tannehill is another player that falls on the list of “Players who Threw for More Passing Yards than Nick Foles.” He finished the year with 3,918 passing yards, tenth in the NFL, and 24 passing touchdowns. Tannehill also benefits from the addition of Bill Lazor as his new offensive coordinator. Lazor was the OC of the Philadelphia Eagles and…Nick Foles. Do you guys see where I’m going with this? Tannhill should have a breakout year this season, and while 27-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio will probably never happen, 25-10 is a very reasonable expectation for the third-year man out of Texas A&M.
Honorable mention: Jake Locker
Ken Whisenhunt was the offensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers last season. Philip Rivers, his starting quarterback, had a terrible season the year before. He finished the 2013 throwing for 3,606 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. In 2014, under Whisenhunt, Rivers threw for 4,478 yards, 32 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Whisenhunt is now the head coach of the Tennessee Titans and his quarterback is Jake Locker. While Locker has never played at the level Rivers has been known for, he is still a 26 year old with all the QB tools in the toolbox. Locker has Kendall Wright, Nate Washington, up-and-comer Justin Hunter, and rookie running back Bishop Sankey to throw to. All signs point up for Locker and the Titans.
Must have: Eddie Lacy
Eddie Lacy deserves much more press then he has been receiving this off-season. He belongs in the conversation with Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, LaSean McCoy, and Matt Forte. Last year, Lacy rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns. Those numbers were good enough for eighth and third in the league, respectively. The Packers may have a passing offense, but Lacy is the only back in the backfield receiving major carries. James Starks is not a real threat to Lacy, especially in the red zone. It would not surprising if Lacy lead the league in rushing touchdowns this season. Lacy is as much of a sure thing at the running back position as you can find in this day and age.
Avoid: Zack Stacy
I was a huge Zack Stacy supporter last season. Jeff Fisher is a run-first coach and Stacy was surprisingly effective at Vanderbilt. However, the writing may be on the wall with this backfield. Tre Mason was drafted in the third round in this year’s draft, and Benny Cunningham is getting a lot of reps with the first team offense. If anything, Fisher may be using a “running back by committee” in order to see what type of players he has in his backfield. If that is the case, Stacy should not be drafted, under any circumstances. With Cunningham breathing down his neck and Mason waiting in the wings, Stacy is too much a risk to draft this year.
Sleeper: Terrance West
Ben Tate has never played a full season in his NFL career. He also has a problem with holding onto the ball, having committed six fumbles throughout his three-year career. West may not be the starter Week 1, but he has enough skill to over take Tate for the starting spot. West is worth a flier, especially considering how big of a question mark Tate is.
Honorable mention: Jonathan Grimes/Alfred Blue
Running back is a crapshoot yet again this year. Fantasy owners are looking for any little bit in order to gain an edge in the running back category. Arian Foster only played in eight games last season, and he has yet to play a pre-season game. This makes Foster’s back up extremely vital to the Texans’ offense. Grimes and Blue are in a heated battle for the back up spot. Whoever wins this battle is sure to not only be actively involved in the Houston’s running attack while Foster is healthy, but will take over as the starter if (when) Foster gets injured.
- Wide Receiver:
Must have: Antonio Brown
As Matthew Berry from ESPN stated, “During the second half of last season, only Josh Gordon had more fantasy points among wide receivers than Antonio Brown.” During that time frame, Jerricho Cotchery (10 touchdowns) and Emmanuel Sanders (6 TDs) were his teammates. All three of them served as Ben Roethlisberger’s top three targets. Both Sanders and Cotchery are no longer with the team, leaving Brown as the top man in Pittsburgh. Former third round pick Markus Wheaton, rookie Martavius Bryant, Derek Moye, and free agent additions Lance Moore and Darius Heyward-Bey are Brown’s only competition for targets. Brown is head and shoulders above the rest of his teammates, and while he may be the focal point of most defensive schemes, he should be able to flourish as Big Ben’s go-to receiver.
Avoid: Percy Harvin
Percy Harvin has only played ten games the past two years, and has only played in all sixteen games once in his career. Harvin is too fragile to be trusted. He also plays for one of the best running teams in the NFL. Doug Baldwin is entrenched as the number one wide out for Seattle, leaving Harvin as the “gadget guy.” There may not be enough offense for Harvin to truly matter in fantasy this year.
Sleeper: Harry Douglas
119 targets: that is how many Harry Douglas had for the Flacons last year. He was first on the team. Granted, Roddy White and Julio Jones were both hurt, but that number is far too big to ignore. In 2012, White lead the team with 143 targets, Jones finished second on the team with 129, and Tony Gonzalez finished third with 124. Gonzalez retired this past season, and with a lack of a good tight end option replacing him, Douglas should reap the benefits.
Honorable mention: Marquise Lee
With Cecil Shorts injured and Justin Blackmon suspended, Marquise Lee has looked like a star this pre-season. Against the Bears in his second pre-season game, Lee had four receptions for 27 yards and a touchdown. Lee was a highly touted prospect that was expected to go in the first round of this year’s NFL draft. Lee has the talent to excel, and Jacksonville may be the perfect place to do so.
- Tight End:
Must have: Jimmy Graham (Obviously)
There is no question Jimmy Graham is the best tight end in fantasy football, and the competition is not even close. I like Graham so much, I would draft him over Peyton Manning and Calvin Johnson. If those first five running backs are off the board, I would strongly recommend drafting Graham. He is THAT good.
Avoid: Vernon Davis
Davis appears to the lowest man on the totem pole when it comes to targets this season. With Michael Crabtree healthy, Anquan Boldin back for another season, and the addition of Stevie Johnson, Davis looks like the fourth option on a team that really only needs to use three. Unless Jim Harbaugh decides to drop the team’s run first identity, then Davis is sure to regress from a great season a year ago.
Sleeper: Delanie Walker
After a career year, Walker is looking to come back for seconds. Whisenhunt has a very tight end friendly offense and with Jake Locker in need of a dependable red zone target, Walker looks to be the “Antonio Gates” of the Titans’ new offense.
Honorable mention: Travis Kelce
The Chiefs have been looking for a starting caliber tight end since Tony Gonzalez was traded away in 2008. Kelce possesses the best ball skills off the bunch, and the Chiefs passing game is in desperate need of a playmaker. Dwyane Bowe is coming off of his worst season since 2009, and Donnie Avery is not a very appealing option for fantasy owners. Kelce is the ultimate boom or best option this year, but considering the rest of the tight prospects available, he is well worth the risk.