Last week for the column and what to cover? At this point of the season, we already know what happened, where we found fantasy value and where we did not – regardless of where we drafted the guy. With the season the freshest on our minds, here’s a quick look at six guys that proved to be great fantasy draft picks.
These were the guys that were surprises, the ones that were difference-makers for fantasy owners and did not cost them nearly as much as what they would return in fantasy points. We all got them wrong for a variety of reasons but it is always worth understanding what went right, even if we didn’t see it coming. Why were they so far ahead of expectations? Here are my Top-6 surprises with where they were drafted within their position, and where they actually ranked in fantasy points for their position.
1.) QB Trevor Lawrence (JAC) Drafted No. 19, Actual No. 6
The Jaguars first pick of the 2021 NFL draft only ranked No. 22 as a rookie with just 12 touchdowns and 3,641 passing yards despite trailing in nearly every game. He was drafted last summer as a deep backup and ended up as the No. 6 fantasy quarterback entering Week 18. He’s thrown for 3,899 yards and 24 touchdowns, plus ran for 294 yards and five scores.
Why? Lawrence was considered the most talented player entering the NFL last year, and he suffered through the horrific implosion of the team under Urban Meyers with a lack of viable targets. The offense was upgraded with Christian Kirk and Evan Engram. He improved throughout the season and can be even better in 2023 when the team should add even more receiving help.
2.) RB Josh Jacobs (LV) Drafted No. 23, Actual No. 3
It isn’t that Jacobs had an unsuccessful career. For the last three years, he had ranked No. 12, No. 8, and No. 20. Entering his fourth season, the Raiders were onto a new coaching staff led by HC Josh McDaniels and they declined Jacob’s fifth-year option as a first-round pick. But Jacobs has led the NFL with 1.608 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, plus 51 catches for 395 yards.
Why? This would be easy to explain had he completely flopped. What was widely reported in August was that ” Jacobs will be in a committee with Ameer Abdullah, Zamir White and Brandon Bolden.” That followed what McDaniel had long used in New England. Jacobs was said to be a poor fit for the new offense. The Raiders also were considered to have one of the worst offensive lines, but that came together far better than expected. And Jacobs just took over as being far more productive than any other running back. His career-year was almost impossible to see in advance. Adding Davante Adams to the offense did force defenses to respect the pass more and stack the line less. But even the Raiders had no idea that would happen and now will have to pay up if Jacobs is to remain.
3.) TE Evan Engram (JAC) Drafted No. 18, Actual No. 5
Engram started his career on a high note with 722 yards on 64 catches and six scores but never repeated that level of success. He was forced into such a heavy workload (115 targets) when the Giants ran out of healthy receivers in 2017. Engram played out his five years in New York and joined the Jaguars on a one-year deal and then finally topped that rookie season with 69-739-4 entering the final game. He caught on more after midseason and produced two 100-yard efforts in the last month.
Why? The most obvious was swapping out Daniel Jones for Trevor Lawrence who was looking for viable targets. He played his final three seasons with Jones, who hasn’t proven to be the passer he was expected to be. Engram is still young (28) and was matched with an emerging star for a quarterback. The issue now is that he will be a free agent in the spring, so his landing spot will be key to his 2023 value.
4. WR Garrett Wilson (NYJ) – Drafted No. 59, Actual No. 22
The Jets used their 1.10 pick on the Ohio State star as the second wide selected in the 2022 NFL draft. While fantasy football loves highly-drafted rookies, Garrett was dinged for being behind Elijah Moore, if not Corey Davis. He was dinged for being a Jet and pairing with the underwhelming Zach Wilson. And then he caught 74 passes for 1,014 yards and four scores which was roughly double of any other wide receiver.
Why? Good question. Wilson was highly talented and while receivers do not make the quarterback, he opened with three weeks of Joe Flacco and his first 100-yard game. Wilson took over and his stats dropped until picking back up around midseason when the Jets faced tough opponents and Breece Hall was lost. Mike White would later also boost his stats. He far outplayed any other Jets’ receiver, and his needle points up with the Jets finally coming to the reality that Zach Wilson is not ready, and maybe never will.
5.) WR Devonta Smith (PHI) – Drafted No. 38, Actual No. 9
Smith was already a success as a rookie, when he caught 64 passes for 916 yards and five touchdowns as the No. 29 fantasy wideout. The Eagles added A.J. Brown and he was expected to dominate targets and drive Smith’s value down. And Brown did become the No. 5 wideout with a stat line of 84-1401-11 entering the final week. But Smith upped his game as well, currently the No. 9 fantasy wideout with 88-1129-7.
Why? He became better for two reasons. First, the Eagles had a better schedule in 2022 and Jalen Hurts overall passing improved by having two viable targets from the wideouts. Secondly, Brown took the primary coverage each week, and left the speedy Smith able to better exploit lesser coverage. The Raiders added Davante Adams but did not see their No. 2 wideout improve, but they also have the best running back in the league this year. And Smith is not just another No. 2 wideout. He was the Heisman-winning star wideout from Alabama drafted at the 1.10 – higher than Brown’s 2.19.
6.) RB Dameon Pierce (HOU) Drafted No. 40, Actual No. 16
There were already indications that Pierce was going to be far better than your average fourth-round pick when he joined the Texans. He entered his rookie year slated to share the backfield with Rex Burkhead but he instantly proved to be a far more productive back. His season ended with an ankle injury in Week 13, but he had already racked up 939 rushing yards on 220 carries and caught 30 passes for 165 yards and a total of five touchdowns.
Why? It is a testament to Pierce’s talent and determination more than anything. The Texans have one of the worst offensive lines for the last several years, and the passing offense was worse this year than last. He finished with six games of 100+ total yards. He became the workhorse back for the Texans. He had the benefit of opponents not preparing as much against him, knowing they would win the game anyway, plus the Texans were constantly behind and giving him 18+ touches in 11 games was also a sign of the problems in passing.