Forecasting the breakthrough top-10 players of 2018

Forecasting the breakthrough top-10 players of 2018

Draft Strategy

Forecasting the breakthrough top-10 players of 2018

Finding value.

Season-in and season-out, that’s A-No. 1 on the to-do list of successful fantasy football drafters, and the quickest and surest path to league contention and fantasy championships.

But that quest for value doesn’t stop with your draft. Being able to see beyond the boxscores and the next few weeks on the schedule in making the right early-season, waiver-wire pickups also is vital.

What we’re really after here in our pursuit of value are the holy grails of the game: The unexpected fantasy studs who burst onto the scene from the depths of drafts – or the early-season waiver wire – and go on to rewrite the narratives and determine the fantasy champions in legions of leagues.

They’re the breakout, breakthrough, low-average draft position players who seemingly appear out of nowhere and finish the season ranked among the top-10-highest fantasy point producers at their respective positions. Hit on a few of these players in the middle or late rounds of your draft or the September waiver wire while not totally flubbing your first few draft picks, and it’s an instant welcome to league championship contention.

In the meantime, though, with the multitude of magazines, the proliferation of podcasts and a web filled with pigskin-themed URLs, you would think that we’d all be getting better at this fantasy-football forecasting thing in identifying these surprise studs before, well, they actually become surprise studs. But the raw numbers say it’s as unpredictable as ever.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Some quick facts:

  • Over the last five seasons more than 50 percent (103) of the 200 players who finished the year as top-10 point-producers at the four primary positions (quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end) did not enter their respective regular seasons with top-10 re-draft league ADPs, going by the data at myfantasyleague.com.
  • And a full 28 percent (56) of those 200 top-10 players entered their respective seasons with ADPs of 21 or lower at running back and wide receiver and 16 or lower at quarterback and tight end.
  • Last season, 19 of the top-10 QB, RB, WR and TE finishers owned preseason ADPs outside the top 10 and eight of those 19 had ADPs of 16 or lower at quarterback and tight end and 21 or beyond at running back and wide receiver. That latter group included the likes of Alex Smith (QB22 in ADP to QB5 at season’s end), rookie Alvin Kamara (RB59 to RB4), Marvin Jones (WR42 to WR5) and rookie Evan Engram (TE22 to TE 5).

So, yeah, unpredictable as ever. And, going by the averages, we can expect at least another 20-or-so top-10 surprises to emerge again this season, with roughly half of those 20 players owning preseason (i.e. right now) ADPs of 16 or lower at their respective positions.

And now comes the tricky part of our little exercise: Identifying those breakthrough top-10 fantasy finds in August.

Simply picking those players with ADPs just outside the top 10 doesn’t provide fantasy general managers with much value, though, so we’ll dig deeper to come up with our potential top-10 candidates, choosing from the players with current ADPs outside of the top 15 at quarterback and tight end and beyond the top 20 at running back and wide receiver. Hit on a few of these in the middle or later rounds of your draft – or scoop them up off your league’s waiver wire –  and you’ll be relishing and reveling in the high-round production for the late-round price all the way to the fantasy postseason.

So here’s my annual list of fearless predictions/best guesses for the surprise top-10 breakthrough seasons of 2018, utilizing the Aug. 19 MFL.com re-draft, standard-scoring ADPs at each of the four primary fantasy positions.

Quarterback (current ADP of 16 or lower)

Patrick Mahomes (ADP 16) – Sure, the untested 2017 first-round pick is going to make his share of mistakes and turn the ball over. (And it’s really going to stand out given K.C. predecessor Alex Smith’s lack of them; he had only 33 interceptions in five seasons with the Chiefs). But Mahomes offers a gunslinger, big-play upside that Smith never did. Just re-watch his 69-yard scoring strike to Tyreek Hill from preseason Week 2 – if it’s not already committed to memory. Like Smith, Mahomes can also contribute with his legs. And then couple the talented weapons Mahomes has at his disposal  – even adding WR Sammy Watkins to the mix this year – with the game-to-game shootout potential given K.C.’s questionable defense, and there’s no reason to think Mahomes can’t follow Smith’s 2017 path into top-10 fantasy QB territory.

Marcus Mariota (18) – In 2016, his second NFL season, Mariota finished just outside the fantasy-QB top 10, throwing for 3,426 yards and 26 TDs while rushing for 349 yards and two more scores on the ground. Last season, though, Mariota inexplicably fell off a cliff, throwing for 3,232 yards and only 13 TDs while tossing 15 interceptions. He did run for 312 yards and a career-high five TDs in 2017, but obviously a decided aerial improvement is going to be required for Mariota to challenge the top 10 QB contingent again. The supporting cast is in place to make a run. New offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur is now in the Music City, hoping to bring some of the Rams’ 2017 offensive magic with him, and Mariota also has a new running back to work with in Dion Lewis to go along with stalwart pass catchers Delanie Walker and Rishard Matthews and up-and-comers Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor and Jonnu Smith.

Other candidates – Derek Carr (19), Alex Smith (20), Mitchell Trubisky (21)

Running back (current ADP of 21 or lower)

Alex Collins (ADP 21) – Collins burst onto the fantasy scene a year ago after the Ravens turned to the free-agent signee as their lead back early in the season. Using a productive combo of speed and power, Collins proceeded to roll up 1,160 total yards and six TDs on 235 touches and finish as fantasy’s 15th-ranked running back. And that was without finding the end zone until Week 11 and, moreover, playing behind a decimated offensive line that heads into this season in much stronger shape, including the return of perennial All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda. Many have pegged Collins as a 2018 bust after his sudden, out-of-nowhere emergence a season ago, but there are more compelling reasons why he could head in the opposite direction – and into the top 10 – this season.

Sony Michel or Rex Burkhead (24, 34) – Even with the fantasy stigmas of unpredictability and committee approaches, the Patriots’ lead back has finished among the top 13 fantasy RBs in each of the last two seasons. And going back a decade through the 2008 season, New England has totaled a league-most 183 total rushing touchdowns over that span. So contrary to popular belief, there is fantasy rushing gold to be mined on the Tom Brady’s Patriots, and Burkhead, in his second year with the squad, and the first-round pick Michel are the top two candidates to lead the N.E. running backs in touches. Both, however, have dealt with undisclosed knee issues this preseason, but if one or the other emerges as the team’s clear-cut lead back this fall and can remain relatively healthy, a top-10 fantasy designation is not out of question come the end of December.

Royce Freeman (26) – The Broncos, meanwhile, haven’t had a top-10 fantasy running back in their stable since Knowshon Moreno turned the trick in 2013. Third-round rookie Royce Freeman, though, could change that. Midway through the preseason, Freeman was looking like he’ll win the team’s No. 1 gig after notching a rushing TD in each of the first two exhibition contests. That’s been a continuation of his decorated days at Oregon, where he totaled 64 TDs in 51 career games. And with the Broncos aiming to feature a balanced attack to make the transition easier for new starting QB Case Keenum, Freeman’s fantasy owners could find themselves with a bell cow back and a fourth-or-fifth-round steal in the rookie RB.

Other candidates – Kerryon Johnson (26), Marshawn Lynch (30), Carlos Hyde (38)

Wide receiver (current ADP of 21 or lower)

Alshon Jeffery (ADP 21) – There are justifiable concerns about Jeffery recovering from his offseason rotator-cuff surgery in time to start the regular season, but if he does, his upside as the top pass-catcher in one of the league’s most dangerous offenses is undeniable. A year ago, Jeffery finished as the WR18 courtesy of his nine touchdown grabs, and that was with a five-year career low 789 receiving yards on 57 catches. Jeffery did post top-10-esque stat lines in 2013 (89-1,421-7) and ’14 (85-1,133-10) with the Bears, who last time we made a comparison, were not in the same offensive ballpark as the current Eagles. Sure, there are more mouths to feed in the Philly attack, but if he’s able to play close to a full season again, Jeffery is a bona fide top-10 fantasy WR threat.

Marvin Jones (26) – No one should be especially surprised if Jones turns in a top-10 fantasy season after he just got done completing one a year ago, tying the Falcons’ Julio Jones for fifth overall. Marvin did it by hitting career highs with 107 targets, 1,101 yards and his league-leading 18-yards-per-catch average. Now, hey, intrepid Huddle readers are sure to point out that I just got done referencing some of those numbers in making a regression case for MJJ in last week’s players on the upswing/downswing article. But anyone arguing one side need not be blind to the counter points. Perhaps the emergence of second-year wideout Kenny Golladay will instead cut deeper into WR Golden Tate’s totals, and perhaps Jones will receive the Lion’s share (pun intended) of the 86 targets and 53 receptions left behind by TE Eric Ebron’s departure to Indy. So on this list of possible top-10 WR longshots, there are much longer shots than Jones.

Marquise Goodwin (39) – Prior to last season’s 56 catches for 962 yards, Goodwin had totaled 49 receptions and 780 yards in four seasons with the Bills. But the Olympic-level speedster came into his own by the Bay last season – particularly when Jimmy Garoppolo took the controls – putting up a 35-462-1 receiving line on 49 targets as the QB’s top weapon in Jimmy G’s six appearances, including five starts. To be certain, the competition for targets will be tougher with fellow WR Pierre Garcon back from injury, the continued emergence of second-year TE George Kittle and the additions of free-agent pass-catching RB Jerick McKinnon and rookie wideout Dante Pettis. But preseason reports out of northern California insist that the Garoppolo-Goodwin connection is stronger than ever, and much like fellow speed-burning wideout Tyreek Hill did a year ago, Goodwin could blaze his way into the WR top 10. Being the top target of one of the game’s most promising young QBs can go a long way in getting him there.

Other candidates – Corey Davis (23), Chris Hogan (28), Will Fuller (29)

Tight end (current ADP of 21 or lower)

Tyler Eifert (ADP 16) – It’s simply a matter of health for Eifert, who famously two years ago posted a 52-615-13 receiving stat line that placed him sixth among fantasy tight ends. Over the two seasons since then, Eifert has totaled 33 catches for 440 yards and five scores in only 10 games due to injuries. Last year, he was limited to two games and four receptions for 46 yards, and in his stead, TE Tyler Kroft posted a 42-404-7 stat line to finish as fantasy’s 12th-best tight end. Sure, counting on Eifert is a huge health gamble – he’s played in only 23 games total over the last four seasons – but those 23 contests have yielded 1,055 receiving yards and a whopping 18 receiving TDs. And that kind of production almost assuredly means a top-10 finish if Eifert can at least hit double digits in games played in 2018.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins (21) – Maybe the answer to the Jaguars’ fantasy WR conundrum is none of the above. Maybe, instead, that answer is ASJ who is looking to continue his young-career resurgence with his third team in five years. And maybe – wait, make that definitely — Seferian-Jenkins is due for some positive-touchdown karma after last season’s 50-357-3 receiving stat line with the Jets should’ve included at least a couple more TDs which were unjustly wiped away by baffling replay reviews and since-changed-convoluted-catch-rule interpretations. In any case, J’ville tight ends combined to catch 43 passes for 505 yards and six TDs last season – which combined would’ve ranked 16th among fantasy tight ends last season – and we can easily paint a picture in which the still-25-year-old Seferian-Jenkins improves on those marks and finishes as a surprise top-10 tight end this year.

Other candidates – Mike Gesicki (18), Ben Watson (20), Ricky Seals-Jones (28)

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