2018 Fantasy Football Offseason: Dalvin Cook, Deshaun Watson, Derrick Henry headline Breakouts 1.0 for 2018
Jamey Eisenberg gives you his first look at some early breakout candidates for the 2018 season.
- Offseason mock drafts:
When the Vikings selected Dalvin Cook in the second round of the NFL Draft in 2017, I was skeptical about his chances of being a standout Fantasy running back in his rookie campaign. After all, Minnesota had just signed Latavius Murray in free agency, and I've always been a fan of Jerick McKinnon.
But Cook proved to be an elite talent, and it was easy to see he was the best running back for the Vikings when the season started. For the first four weeks of the year, Cook was a difference maker – in Fantasy and reality.
He suffered a torn ACL in Week 4 against Detroit, but he's expected to be fine for training camp this year. And he enters the 2018 season as one of my favorite breakout candidates.
You won't see him listed below because, in full disclosure, I needed someone to talk about at the beginning of this column. But he's part of this group of early breakout candidates, and Cook should be in line for a monster campaign.
If you project his stats from the first four games over a full season – 74 carries for 354 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and two touchdowns, plus 11 catches for 90 yards – he would have finished with 296 carries for 1,416 yards and eight touchdowns and 44 catches for 360 yards. That would have made him the No. 5 Fantasy running back in standard leagues.
A lot could change for Cook for him to replicate those stats this season – Murray stealing touches (he was hurt early in 2017), a new quarterback if Case Keenum is gone, McKinnon possibly back as a free agent and Cook having a setback in his recovery, to name a few possibilities – but he has plenty of upside. If Cook is healthy for training camp as expected then he should be drafted early in Round 2 in the majority of leagues.
We know a lot will change with free agency and the NFL Draft still upcoming in the next few months, but this list is just an early look at breakouts for 2018. I'll have two more versions before the start of preseason games, but this is just the early start of the preparation process.
The more you know, the better off you'll be when Draft Day is here. So start studying and learning about these guys now.
Watson told me on radio row at Super Bowl LII that he will be ready for the start of training camp after suffering a torn right ACL in early November. And as long as he remains on that timetable then he should be considered a No. 1 Fantasy quarterback and potential top-five player at his position coming into the season. We all saw the upside last year before he got hurt, as he averaged 35.8 Fantasy points in his final five starts, including three games with at least 40 points. We hope he doesn't shy away from running the ball following his knee injury, because he averaged 5.8 Fantasy points with his legs during his six starts. He has one of the top receivers in the NFL on his side with DeAndre Hopkins, and Will Fuller should emerge as a quality sidekick. This is an offense on the rise because of Watson, and he's a great Fantasy option to target in Round 6 in one-quarterback leagues and Round 2 in two-quarterback formats.
I'm drinking the Garoppolo Kool-Aid, and you should also. He has the chance to be a standout Fantasy option if the 49ers give him some more weapons. He played great once he took over as San Francisco's starting quarterback in Week 13, going 5-0 to close the season, including wins over the playoff-bound Titans, Jaguars and Rams. All Garoppolo did during that five-game stretch was throw for 1,542 yards (308.4 per game) with seven total touchdowns and five interceptions, and he averaged 21.7 Fantasy points a game in his final three outings. Keep in mind he did that with his top three receivers being Marquise Goodwin, Aldrick Robinson and Trent Taylor. The 49ers will definitely upgrade that group this offseason, including the healthy return of Pierre Garcon (neck), and Garoppolo should be considered a top-10 quarterback to open the year. He's worth drafting with a mid-round pick in one-quarterback leagues (by Round 3 or 4 in two-quarterback formats), and you should get excited about the potential for Garoppolo in 2018.
I'm excited about Henry's outlook for 2018 since he should be headed toward a featured role with DeMarco Murray likely to be released this offseason. And Henry's teammates are also looking forward to seeing what he can do with more work. "He just hasn't had his shot like he's wanted," Titans tight end Delanie Walker told me at the Pro Bowl. "But I think he's going to be the premier back coming soon, once he gets that shot. He's a big guy. Runs the ball very hard. And with him being out there, he gives us a good shot at winning games." Henry got a shot at being the No. 1 guy to close last season with Murray out with a knee injury, and he averaged 14.3 Fantasy points in a standard league in his final three games, including the playoffs. Henry now has six games in his career with at least 14 carries, and he's scored at least 12 Fantasy points in a standard league in all of them. We hope Henry gets the No. 1 job in 2018 with Murray gone, and if that happens as expected then Henry should be drafted in Round 2 in standard leagues and Round 3 in PPR.
Mixon wasn't a bust in 2017, but he definitely didn't have a breakout rookie campaign. He has the chance to rectify that this season and will open the year as the starter. Last season, Mixon started the year sharing touches with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. Once the Bengals got Hill out of the way, things started to improve for Mixon, who averaged 9.1 Fantasy points in a standard league over nine games from Week 3 through Week 12. An ankle injury cost him two games at the end of the season, but he closed out the year averaging 5.02 yards per carry over his final four games. He also had seven games with at least three receptions, and we hope the Bengals invest in upgrading their offensive line this offseason. Mixon will still share touches with Bernard this year, but Mixon has the potential to gain 1,500 total yards and eight touchdowns in 2018. He's someone to consider in Round 3 or 4 in the majority of leagues on Draft Day.
The Packers could have a three-headed backfield again in 2018 if Ty Montgomery returns at running back, although there's an ESPN report that Montgomery could move back to receiver, especially if Randall Cobb is released this offseason. But even if Montgomery stays at running back, the Packers should stick with Williams as the starter, with Aaron Jones as the No. 2 option. I like Jones as a sleeper, but Williams has the most upside of this group. He had seven games in 2017 with at least 15 carries – none with Aaron Rodgers healthy due to his broken collarbone – and he averaged 13.4 Fantasy points in a standard league over that span. Williams also proved capable as a receiver with four games with at least three catches in his final seven outings, and he should benefit with Rodgers back under center. Teams obviously won't stack the line of scrimmage against Williams because of Rodgers, and Williams can also be valuable in the passing game. I like him as a high-end No. 2 Fantasy running back in all leagues, and he has top-15 upside. He's someone target as early as Round 4 on Draft Day in all formats.
Carson appeared on his way toward having a good, if not great, season for the Seahawks as a rookie in 2017. By Week 4, he had emerged as the best running back in Seattle, but he suffered a broken leg in the fourth game against the Colts and was lost for the season. The Seahawks are likely going to bring in competition for their backfield this season, but Carson could still end up atop the depth chart as the No. 1 option. An upgrade along the offensive line in Seattle is also needed as well to help this running game, but Carson had consecutive games with either 100 total yards or a touchdown before getting hurt. He's not someone you want to reach for on Draft Day – unless Seattle's offensive line massively changes – but he should be considered a flex option with upside. Keep an eye on what the Seahawks do at running back this offseason, but Carson is a great mid-round selection in the majority of leagues.
Gordon returned to the NFL in 2017 after a two-year hiatus because of his suspension, and he immediately got the attention of Fantasy owners again in just five games. Despite poor quarterback play – when has Gordon actually had good quarterback play? – he had at least eight Fantasy points in a standard league in three outings, including two games with double digits in points. The Browns, barring something extremely unexpected, are going to upgrade their quarterback position, whether through free agency or the draft, and Gordon should be the No. 1 target in the passing game. He was a breakout player in 2013 when he had 87 catches for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns on 159 targets, and we hope to see that player again this year. Gordon got his life back on track in 2017, and his Fantasy arrow is again pointed upward. He's someone to target as early as Round 3 in the majority of leagues, and with the right quarterback, Gordon can actually be a top-10 Fantasy receiver in 2018.
Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota told me on radio row at Super Bowl LII that Davis' performance in the divisional round playoff loss against New England last season will be the jumping off point for him in 2018. Davis had a coming-out party against the Patriots with five catches for 63 yards and two touchdowns. It was the only time he found the end zone all season, as Davis was a disappointment as a rookie, especially since he missed five games with a hamstring problem. He has to stay healthy, but the Titans should feature him under new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, who is expected to open up the passing game. Davis is going to be drafted by Fantasy owners as a high-end No. 3 receiver with a pick in Round 6, but he could easily emerge as a weekly starter. We don't like to get over-excited about a playoff performance, but Davis was drafted No. 5 overall in the NFL Draft last year for a reason. And now is his time to prove it.
Kupp was one of my favorite players coming into 2017, and he played well as a rookie as part of the new-look Rams. He was actually their leading receiver since Robert Woods missed three games with a shoulder injury, and Kupp should again be heavily featured, even if Sammy Watkins returns as a free agent. Kupp actually led all receivers in the NFL in red-zone targets with 26, and he scored all five of his touchdowns inside the 20, per Pro Football Reference. We hope that continues with his rapport with Jared Goff, and Kupp has the potential to be 75-plus catches and gain at least 1,000 yards this year. This Rams passing attack should continue to improve, and Goff should continue to flourish in his third season in the NFL. Kupp is worth drafting as a No. 3 Fantasy receiver, but he has the chance to be a top 20 option, especially in PPR. I would draft Woods first if you're ranking the Rams receivers, but I like Kupp better than Watkins in any format this year.
Fuller has to prove he can stay healthy because he's failed to play 16 games during his first two seasons in the NFL. He battled three injuries in 2017 with a shoulder injury to open the year, a rib injury during the season and then had to undergo minor knee surgery in January. But when he was healthy last year at the same time as Watson the upside was immense. In four games together, Fuller had seven touchdowns and averaged 17.0 Fantasy points per game in a standard league. He was touchdown dependent since he had just 13 catches for 279 yards over that span, but I'm excited to see what Watson and Fuller can do together over a full campaign. This is also Fuller's third season in the NFL, so hopefully he will mature as a receiver and have a breakout year. Given his price tag on Draft Day, which is likely a mid-round pick at best, he is well worth the investment since he could become a weekly starter as long as he and Watson stay healthy.
Shaheen had a mostly forgettable rookie season in 2017 because he barely played early in the year before battling injuries late. He did have two games with double digits in Fantasy points in a standard league, and it was the only two games where he saw at least four targets. The Bears will need Shaheen to step up in 2018 to help second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, and we expect new head coach Matt Nagy will feature Shaheen quite a bit. He's been called "Baby Gronk" because of a comparison to Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, and Fantasy owners would love to see the 6-foot-5, 270-pound former Ashland standout produce at that level. That's obviously a huge stretch, but he does have plenty of upside heading into his second year, especially playing for the Bears, who need help in the passing game. Shaheen is someone to wait for on Draft Day, but he could emerge as a weekly Fantasy starter during the season if Nagy uses him more as expected.
Howard is listed here with the assumption that Cameron Brate leaves as a restricted free agent, but that's not a guarantee. If Brate is back in Tampa Bay this season then Howard might find it hard to reach his potential. But if Brate does leave and Howard is clearly the featured tight end then he could emerge as a standout Fantasy option in 2018. Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston has a great track record of leaning on his tight ends, going back to his days at Florida State. And Howard was starting to become a viable threat in Tampa Bay's offense before an ankle injury landed him on injured reserve for the final two weeks of the season. In five games before his injury, Howard had at least nine Fantasy points in a standard league in three of those outings, including three games with at least 50 receiving yards. He will improve in his second year, and he will benefit with a boost in targets if Brate is gone. Howard is a great tight end to wait for on Draft Day given his upside.
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