Get ready for your season with theScore’s 2018 Fantasy Football Draft Kit.
No fantasy owner’s draft plan should rigidly classify any player as a “must-own,” but it’s wise to enter yours with a short list of names to target. Below are seven players we believe will be key to winning a fantasy title this season.
You shouldn’t expect to get them all – that’s probably impossible – but if you build your draft plan around selecting at least a few players on this list, you’ll greatly increase your odds of achieving fantasy glory this season.
Average draft position (ADP) data is courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator and is based on 12-team leagues with standard scoring.
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Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans
One of the most overlooked aspects of fantasy football is that it’s supposed to be fun. Owners often obsess over their lineups, attempting to extract every ounce of value while forgetting that sometimes the simplest answer is the correct one.
Watson was arguably the best fantasy storyline of 2017 despite playing just seven games before tearing his ACL. After settling into the starting role in the opening two weeks, the Texans’ first-rounder went on one of the most prolific runs we’ve ever seen from a quarterback, scoring 19 total touchdowns over the next five games. His ridiculous 9.3 percent passing-TD rate is clearly unsustainable moving forward, but that doesn’t mean Watson won’t be an elite option. It just means he won’t produce at historic levels all the time.
Watson proved he has plenty of upside, and we know there’s talent around him to unlock high-end production. That half-season glimpse into what his fantasy future could hold was enough to make him one of the first three quarterbacks off the board this year.
If your opponents foolishly start an early run on QBs, you may have to pass on Watson, but he’s worth a pick in the fifth or sixth round. Just think of how enjoyable it’ll be to watch him pile up week-winning performances for your team.
Jay Ajayi, RB, Eagles
No matter how hard we try to forecast it, fantasy can be extremely unpredictable. One day you own a struggling running back on the Dolphins, and the next he’s been jettisoned midway through the season to the eventual Super Bowl champion Eagles. In 10 games with Philly, including three playoff appearances, Ajayi averaged 5.3 yards per carry while playing in a committee backfield and learning the offense on the fly.
Heading into his second year in Philadelphia, Ajayi will have a full offseason to familiarize himself with the playbook. He’ll also be the only big back on the roster after LeGarrette Blount signed with the Lions. Darren Sproles and Corey Clement will be mixed in, but Ajayi is the clear lead rusher in an offense that finished third in scoring last season. He’s also due for some positive regression in the touchdown department after finding the end zone just twice following the trade.
Even with his situation improving, fantasy owners seem hesitant to pull the trigger on Ajayi, whose current ADP has him being selected as a mid-range RB2. Outside of the top 15 backs, he offers as much upside as anyone and needs to targeted in the third round.
Rex Burkhead, RB, Patriots
The general sentiment toward any Patriots running back has been outright frustration, with fantasy owners often choosing to avoid the situation altogether out of fear that the unpredictable Bill Belichick will get the best of them. That’s a legitimate concern for anyone who went all-in on Mike Gillislee at the start of 2017. However, a closer look at New England’s rushing attack shows just how productive it’s been – in both real life and fantasy.
The Pats ranked top 10 in rushing yards the last two seasons, employing a fantasy RB1 each year with Blount (RB6 in 2016) and Dion Lewis (RB12 in 2017). Sony Michel, New England’s 2018 first-round pick, was in line for a big role, but reports surfaced that he’ll miss the preseason, and possibly the beginning of the regular season, after undergoing a procedure to drain his knee. The rookie will lose out on valuable August reps, which could affect his ability to contribute when he returns.
Fantasy owners should have already been targeting Burkhead, especially in PPR leagues, however, this news catapults the veteran up rankings. In our Exceeding Expectations series, we discussed how Burkhead’s usage in 2017 could have foreshadowed how he’ll be deployed this season. He finished as the RB38 in fantasy a year ago while appearing in 10 games and sharing the backfield with Lewis. Burkhead also scored eight times in limited action, and he outproduced James White as a pass-catcher down the stretch.
Michel will be a part of the Patriots’ offense eventually, but the fantasy risk-factor tied to him just went way up, with this injury essentially confirming the pre-draft concerns teams reportedly had about his knee. Burkhead, who may have already had the inside track on goal-line work, will now have a chance to establish himself as the lead back in New England. Be ready to take him in the fifth round, which is where his ADP is likely to end up after mock drafters react to Michel’s injury.
Doug Baldwin, WR, Seahawks
More people need to be talking about Baldwin’s fantasy ceiling for the upcoming season. We’ve seen this set-up before around the Seahawks’ star wideout, and the result is a monster campaign.
The last time Seattle played without Jimmy Graham was in 2015 when he missed time late in the season due to an injury. Baldwin sizzled throughout the second half of that year, ending the campaign with a league-leading 14 touchdown receptions. He followed that up with another top-10 fantasy showing in 2016. And even in a down year when he failed to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards, Baldwin still finished just outside the WR1 ranks in 2017.
With Graham now in Green Bay, Baldwin’s true fantasy potential will once again be unleashed. The Seahawks’ defense is no longer a juggernaut, which could result in more high-scoring games, and more passing as Russell Wilson tries to push the offense to come from behind.
Baldwin is dealing with a knee issue, and the team decided it was serious enough to shut him down for a few weeks, but the Seahawks aren’t expressing concern over his regular-season availability. While other owners are worried about the injury, you can take the discount and select him in the third or fourth round.
Chris Hogan, WR, Patriots
Hogan’s resume doesn’t look that impressive at first glance. He’s never topped 700 yards or eclipsed five touchdowns in a single campaign. However, he had the fourth-most fantasy points among receivers from Week 2 to Week 8 last season before a shoulder injury derailed him.
Julian Edelman returning from a torn ACL would be a concern if Brandin Cooks was still with the Patriots. But Cooks moving to the Rams leaves Hogan’s target share intact. In fact, the trade could increase his fantasy upside beyond where it was in 2017. According to Pro Football Focus, Hogan does the majority of his work 20-plus yards downfield, which should allow him to take advantage of the deep-threat void in the Patriots’ offense. Edelman’s four-game suspension should also give Hogan a chance to solidify his role early in the year.
Drafting a hardworking wideout with a nose for the end zone in a high-scoring offense is a middle-round investment that will keep your fantasy team playing deep into December.
Kenny Stills, WR, Dolphins
Stills was one of our recent dynasty buys, and he’s a player being wildly overlooked by fantasy drafters. His redraft ADP is certain to rise as the season nears, but Stills can be had right now for a late-round pick despite finishing as a top-30 fantasy receiver in each of the last two campaigns.
Stills saw a career-high 105 targets last year, and that number should increase since the Dolphins are missing the receiver on the other end for 49.4 percent of their 2017 targets after the departure of Jarvis Landry. The always-enticing DeVante Parker profiles as a No. 1 receiver, but he has yet to deliver on his potential, and hope for a breakout is dwindling. With Ryan Tannehill back under center, Stills’ touchdown upside gets a bump after the duo combined for nine trips to the end zone during their last full season together two years ago.
Stills, not Parker, will lead Miami in most receiving categories this season, and he’s an ideal WR3 for fantasy owners willing to wait on the position. Hopefully, his stock doesn’t blow up too much over the next month as people realize Parker is a fantasy imposter. As is, Stills can be scooped up in the late rounds.
Zach Ertz, TE, Eagles
This spot was reserved for Hunter Henry before the young Chargers tight end was lost for the year with a torn ACL. Breakout candidates like Trey Burton and George Kittle are also excellent options, but Ertz offers top-tier production at a cheaper draft cost than Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce.
Finding a consistent performer at tight end can be difficult. However, after topping 12 PPR fantasy points in 11 of his 14 outings last season, and averaging 76 receptions and 831 yards over the last three years, Ertz has defined consistency. He also corrected his main flaw – a lack of touchdowns – by scoring eight times in 2017, largely thanks to the emergence of Carson Wentz as an MVP-caliber quarterback.
The 27-year-old Ertz is entering his prime and is one of the few guaranteed assets at a position lacking depth. Depending on your league, it will likely take a fifth-round pick to secure his services, but you can make that value up at the deeper positions.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)