With free agency and the draft now in the books, the summer and fantasy football are directly in our crosshairs. MFL10s over at MyFantasyLeague.com are already humming, and many will be kicking off their Dynasty rookie drafts in the coming days. Here at Rotoworld, we’ll have a few articles discussing the incoming rookie class in depth as it pertains to fantasy, so this piece will focus more on the veterans who benefitted from last weekend’s NFL draft. In no particular order, here are some winners that stand out.
Ravens WR Breshad Perriman — The Ravens didn’t draft a single player at an offensive skill position, and that’s after they saw Steve Smith Sr. retire and Kamar Aiken leave in free agency. Those two combined to see 151 targets last season, accounting for 22.7 percent of the team targets, 25.9 percent of the air yards, and 22.6 percent of the receptions. That leaves Mike Wallace and 2015 first-rounder Perriman as the clear-cut top-two receivers. Wallace turns 31 before the season and relies heavily on his long speed. Perriman is 6’2/215 and tested extremely well at the Combine coming out of UCF. Coach John Harbaugh has said numerous times this offseason that he believes Perriman can be a “top-flight,” true No. 1 wideout. After playing a full 16-game season in 2016 following recurring knee issues that ruined his rookie campaign, we should expect a big leap from Perriman for a Baltimore team that is looking to get back to the playoffs after missing in 2015 and 2016.
Titans QB Marcus Mariota — Mariota is coming off a broken lower leg suffered in Week 16, which is an obvious concern, but as of Thursday, he said he’s “probably a week or two away” from running at full speed. As far as the Titans have let on, Mariota’s recovery is going according to plan, and he should be ready well in time for training camp. This will be Mariota’s first mostly-normal offseason from a personnel/coaching standpoint. In 2015, he was a rookie entering Ken Whisenhunt’s offense. Whisenhunt was fired, and last year Mariota had to pick up Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” scheme. The Titans return all of their key offensive players from 2016, including one of the better offensive lines in the sport, and have added first-round WR Corey Davis, third-round WR Taywan Taylor, and third-round TE Jonnu Smith. A true No. 1 receiver was needed in Tennessee. Mariota was a top-12 fantasy quarterback last season and has gotten an upgrade to his supporting cast with an alpha-male No. 1 wideout in Davis. He stands 6’3/209 but moves great for his size and dominated after the catch in college, drawing some Michael Thomas and Keenan Allen comparisons coming out of Western Michigan. The Titans were No. 1 in the NFL in red-one offense last season, but that was mostly due to DeMarco Murray in the backfield and Delanie Walker down the seams. Davis adds another dimension that gives Mariota plenty of options. Entering his third year in the league, expect the Titans to push Mariota and add more to his plate. I’d feel extremely comfortable heading into the year with Mariota as my QB1.
Giants RB Paul Perkins — Following the release of Rashad Jennings earlier in the offseason, the Giants had been loosely connected to Adrian Peterson and LeGarrette Blount. The Peterson thing never made sense, and Blount never officially visited the team. He remains a free agent, but Giants beat writers think that door may be closed following the selection of fourth-round RB Wayne Gallman. Speaking earlier this week, coach Ben McAdoo called Perkins the starter and has said he will get the first shot on early downs. Veterans Shane Vereen and Shaun Draughn are nothing more than pass-catchers out of the backfield, while Gallman is a limited athlete somewhat in the BenJarvus Green-Ellis mold. Perkins should have a lengthy leash this summer, though the possibility of adding a back will always be there, especially if Blount continues to sit on the open market. The G-Men are a pass-first offense with an abominable offensive line that GM Jerry Reese did little-to-nothing to reinforce. But with Odell Beckham and the additions of Brandon Marshall and first-round TE Evan Engram, Perkins should be running against soft fronts with defenses keying on stopping the pass.
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Eagles RB Wendell Smallwood — Ryan Mathews’ career is uncertain following last season’s neck injury that required surgery, and many of the Eagles’ beat writers still expect the team to release him once he’s healthy. Linked to Jamaal Charles early in the free-agent period because of his connection to coach Doug Pederson, the Eagles never showed any interest. They wanted Florida State RB Dalvin Cook in the second round, but the Vikings leapfrogged them and left Philly with injured CB Sidney Jones (Achilles’) in Round 2. In the fourth round, the Eagles took Donnel Pumphrey, a pint-sized (5’8/176) LaMichael James-type back out of San Diego State. He has no shot at taking early-down work at that size. This sets up as a committee-type backfield leaning on Smallwood and Darren Sproles. Sproles turns 34 next month and has said this will likely be his last season. Smallwood has the size at 5’10/208 to handle a bigger workload and had a strong Week 3 against the Steelers as a rookie, rushing for 79 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. But he remained behind Mathews and Sproles on the depth chart the rest of the year and sprained his MCL in Week 14, ending his season. Smallwood tested really well in the forty (4.47), 3-cone drill (6.83), and 60-yard shuttle (11.14) at last year’s Combine. Coaches spent much of 2016 praising his upside and practice habits. Everything has shaken out in his favor this offseason, and the Eagles get back RT Lane Johnson, which boosts an already-strong offensive line.
Lions RB Ameer Abdullah — Abdullah is in a similar situation as Paul Perkins above. The Lions have been linked to running backs all offseason, and along with the Giants, have been the other team connected to free agent LeGarrette Blount. GM Bob Quinn came over from New England and knows Blount well, so Detroit is a real threat to add him once Blount realizes his price isn’t what he thought it would be coming off a career year. But for now, Quinn believes the backfield is “in a good spot” with Abdullah and Theo Riddick atop the depth chart. Quinn has already said Abdullah is the current starter after he missed the vast majority of last season to a torn ligament in his foot. Zach Zenner had some solid games down the stretch as the Lions made it to the playoffs, but Abdullah is one of the most explosive athletes to come out of the draft in recent years and ran really well Weeks 1 and 2 before getting hurt last year. The Lions didn’t add anything to their backfield and upgraded the right side of the offensive line with free-agent pickups RG T.J. Lang and RT Rick Wagner after Detroit finished 31st in run-blocking DVOA last season. C Travis Swanson is also back healthy. It’ll be important to see if Abdullah can get some red-zone and goal-line looks in 2017.
Bucs QB Jameis Winston — Winston may have had the most beneficial offseason among all offensive players in the league. GM Jason Licht did everything in his power to upgrade Winston’s supporting cast, trying to put his young quarterback in the best possible position to succeed. Tampa Bay signed deep threat DeSean Jackson in free agency and used its first- and third-round picks on TE O.J. Howard and WR Chris Godwin, respectively. The Bucs also added RB Jeremy McNichols in the fifth round. Mike Evans is already one of the top receivers in the game and has even more room to grow. Getting a guy like aging and injured Vincent Jackson off the field and out of this offense was crucial, and Adam Humphries and Donteea Dye need to not be playing as much as they have been forced to in the past couple years. The offensive line was already a plus in pass protection and could get better as 2015 second-rounders LT Donovan Smith and C/RG Ali Marpet continue to grow. OG J.R. Sweezy missed all of 2016 and is back healthy as well. Winston’s 71.0 passer rating on deep balls last season was 21st among quarterbacks, and he was particularly bad deep down the right side with a 51.9 rating. D-Jax is going to do wonders for Winston there, as V-Jax and Co. simply couldn’t win one-on-ones down that side with Evans getting double-teamed on the left side. Along with Winston, Evans is also a massive fantasy winner. Winston is a prime breakout candidate.
Bills TE Charles Clay — The Bills did add second-round WR Zay Jones, but they also lost Robert Woods in free agency, so those two essentially cancel each other out in terms of net gain. Like Woods, Jones profiles as a Z/slot receiver, with Jones being the bigger and far more athletic of the two. Buffalo overhauled its coaching staff, bringing in coach Sean McDermott, who hired OC Rick Dennison to take complete control of the offense. Dennison comes from the Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak coaching tree, and it’s one that loves to use its tight ends. Fred Davis and Chris Cooley had big years for Shanahan in Washington, and Owen Daniels was one of the better fantasy tight ends for years under Kubiak and Dennison in Houston, Baltimore, and Denver. Kyle Shanahan made Jacob Tamme a useful piece in Atlanta. On top of all that, McDermott comes from Carolina where Greg Olsen was, and he coached under Andy Reid in Philly. Reid is also a big proponent of using his tight end. Clay has a real connection with Tyrod Taylor, and the two ended 2016 on a high note, with Clay posting receiving lines of 3-52-1, 7-72-1, and 8-85-2 in Weeks 14-16 before Taylor was benched in Week 17. And those Weeks 14-16 breakouts were with Sammy Watkins on the field. Watkins takes coverage away from Clay, who far too often had to play the role of the No. 1 option on offense when Watkins and Woods were hurt. At a shallow tight end position, Clay has some late-round appeal and shouldn’t have to block as much with LT Cordy Glenn healthy and the second-round selection of RT Dion Dawkins to get last year’s RT Jordan Mills of the field.
Rams WR Cooper Kupp — Kupp is the only rookie on this list. The Rams added Robert Woods as a free agent to be their default No. 1 receiver. Behind him is Tavon Austin and seven first- or second-year pass catchers. With coach Sean McVay taking over the reins in L.A., he’s going to want to play his guys. So Jeff Fisher-era draft picks at WR like Mike Thomas and Pharoh Cooper might already be pushed to the bottom of the depth chart and possibly competing for a spot. Kupp isn’t a great athlete. At 6’2/204, he ran a 4.62 forty (7th-percentile among WRs), posted a 31-inch vertical (14th-percentile), and 116-inch broad jump (23rd-percentile). Via mockdraftable.com, four of Kupp’s five most comparable athletes are quarterbacks. That’s, um…not good. Still, Kupp is entering a perfect situation. The Rams lost 296 targets from last season as they watched Kenny Britt, Lance Kendricks, Brian Quick, and Benny Cunningham walk out the door. Those four accounted for 55.8 percent of the team’s targets. Obviously, Woods is going to take on a large chunk of those, and Lance Dunbar will likely get Cunningham’s. But the Rams are going to have to play their young guys. Tight ends Tyler Higbee and second-rounder Gerald Everett should play prominent roles, while Kupp figures to have the early lead for big-slot duties. He could easily find his way into 100 rookie-year targets, and he and Higbee figure to be the best bet for red-zone passing touchdowns. Kupp and Jared Goff also share the same agent and worked out together in the lead-up to the draft. They could already be developing a connection, and it’s fair to wonder if Goff campaigned for the pick.
Steelers TE Ladarius Green — Word on the street in the pre-draft process was that Ben Roethlisberger was advocating for the Steelers to take a tight end early in the draft, possibly as high as the first round. Big Ben flat-out denied those claims, and draft weekend came and went without the Steelers taking a tight end in any round. Green’s first year in Pittsburgh was completely ruined by concussion issues and ankle surgery that forced him to start the year on PUP. He’s participating in voluntary workouts this month. Adding all of that together would seem to be a vote of confidence in Green from the Steelers. Long a favorite of the fantasy and draft community since coming out of Louisiana-Lafayette in 2012, Green is still just 27 (later this month) and is 6’6/240 with an incredible blend of size and speed that had him drawing athletic comparisons to Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, and Martellus Bennett at the tight end spot. He plays in one of the league’s most high-powered offenses with only blocking-type Jesse James to worry about at his position. If — big “if” — Green can stay healthy, he’ll provide massive breakout appeal and should come extremely cheap in fantasy drafts after last year’s debacle that burned several fantasy owners.
Ravens RB Terrance West — We begin and end with a Raven in an offense that didn’t use a single draft pick on a skill position player. Baltimore added Danny Woodhead in free agency, but he’s coming off a torn ACL and isn’t really a threat on early downs. The offseason has broken in favor of West, with the Ravens not adding a big back and Kenneth Dixon getting slapped with a four-game PEDs suspension that will keep him out the first month of the season. Coach John Harbaugh has said time and again he wants to get back to running the ball effectively, and the hiring of ex-Bills and 49ers OC Greg Roman suggests Harbaugh is serious. Roman’s offenses have routinely finished at or near the top of the league in rushing for years now, dating back to his time with John’s brother, Jim Harbaugh, in San Francisco. There’s a real concern on the offensive line after losing RT Rick Wagner and cutting C Jeremy Zuttah, but the Ravens have a strong left side in sophomores LT Ronnie Stanley and LG Alex Lewis, while RG Marshal Yanda remains one of the best at his position.
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