- Offseason mock drafts:
There are some of you who are going to read this column and complain. And I can see the tweets already.
"Why are you writing a sleepers column in February?" will be one version of the tweet from someone named @allidoiscomplain.
"There hasn't even been the NFL Draft or free agency yet," will be another tweet from someone called @ilikecheesewithmywhine.
We get it. It's early in the process.
But you should get it also. It's early in the process.
We're trying to educate you now on certain players who could be difference-makers this season. That's all. What's wrong with more information?
We're well aware free agency and the NFL Draft are going to alter the landscape for plenty of players for the upcoming season, including several mentioned here. This list is far from set in stone, and I'll be doing three versions of sleepers, breakouts and busts prior to the start of preseason games.
This list is speculating on players who will hopefully be available with mid- to late-round picks on Draft Day. Average Draft Position will ultimately determine the value for these players in re-draft leagues, but we're just guessing now that most of these guys will be players you look at as reserves with upside.
Again, things will change between now and August once we see what most NFL rosters look like. Until then, just start thinking ahead to what could possibly happen with several of these players, and hopefully they can make a positive impact on your Fantasy team in 2018.
Mariota was a Fantasy disaster in 2017, especially since he was considered a breakout candidate. He never appeared healthy coming off his broken leg from 2016, and a hamstring injury in Week 4 further complicated matters with his health. He also never got the boost expected from a revamped receiving corps, including prized rookie Corey Davis missing time early in the season with a hamstring injury. Mariota only had three games with at least 20 Fantasy points, and his passing touchdowns were cut in half from 2016 when he had 26. But this year should help him bounce back in a big way. New offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur is coming off two solid campaigns working with Matt Ryan in 2016 and Jared Goff last year, and LaFleur already is talking about Mariota being more aggressive throwing the ball downfield. He's averaged 330.5 rushing yards and 3.5 rushing touchdowns the past two years, and if he can stay in that range and get to at least 3,500 passing yards and 25 touchdowns, his Fantasy value could skyrocket. He's an easy quarterback to target with a late-round pick in all leagues.
The Chiefs made the decision to go with Mahomes over Alex Smith this season when they traded Smith to Washington at the end of January. It was a process that started during the NFL Draft in 2017 when Mahomes was selected at No. 10 overall from Texas Tech. He only started one game in 2017, which was Week 17 when Kansas City had nothing to play for, but Mahomes looked good against the Broncos on the road. He showed off his athleticism and arm strength, and he played that game without the help of Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce. We hope the Chiefs add another playmaker in the passing game to help Mahomes, but Smith just finished as the No. 3 Fantasy quarterback in 2017 behind Russell Wilson and Tom Brady with 4,042 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, five interceptions, 355 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown. No one is expecting Mahomes to replicate that kind of production, but he has a high ceiling given his skill set. In his final two years in college, Mahomes passed for 9,705 yards, 77 touchdowns and 25 interceptions, and he ran for 744 yards and 22 touchdowns. He's another easy target with a late-round pick.
There was an ESPN report in February that said the Broncos plan to release C.J. Anderson this offseason and push Booker forward as their No. 1 running back. Clearly if that happens, Booker's value will rise, and he could emerge as at least a flex option in the majority of leagues to open the season. Don't overlook second-year running back De'Angelo Henderson as a sleeper also with a late-round pick, but the Broncos are clearly fond of Booker. He hasn't been overly impressive through his first two seasons, and he only had one game with double digits in Fantasy points in a standard league in 2017. But Anderson was healthy for most of the season, and Jamaal Charles was part of Denver's backfield. In 2016, when Anderson was limited to just seven games, Booker had at least eight Fantasy points in a standard league in six of his final 10 games. Keep an eye on what happens with Anderson, and if another running back of significance isn't added in Denver, plan to draft Booker with a mid-round pick in all leagues.
The Colts desperately need to add a running back this offseason, but we still expect Mack to have a prominent role in 2018. Frank Gore isn't expected to return, and Mack will hopefully still be in position to get at least 10 touches per game under new coach Frank Reich -- if not more. It will all depend on the caliber of running back coming to Indianapolis this year via free agency or the draft. Reich, the former Eagles offensive coordinator, used multiple running backs in Philadelphia with Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement, and Reich should realize that Mack is a weapon. He had three games as a rookie in 2017 with at least 10 touches, and he scored double digits in Fantasy points in a standard league in all three outings. He also proved to be a capable receiver out of the backfield, and Andrew Luck has heavily relied on his running backs in the passing game throughout his career. Mack is an excellent late-round selection in all leagues, and his value could rise if his role increases in 2018.
I like what McKinnon is already saying this offseason, and I'm excited to see where he ends up as an unrestricted free agent. It's almost certain he will leave Minnesota because he said to ESPN that "I want to be the guy." That likely won't happen with the Vikings because of Dalvin Cook, and McKinnon was already rumored to be a target for the Raiders, which would be awesome given his skill set in Jon Gruden's offense. We'll see where McKinnon signs, but he could emerge as a starting Fantasy option in the right situation. In 2017, with Cook missing 12 games because of a torn ACL, McKinnon had 10 games with at least nine carries in the regular season. He scored double digits in Fantasy points in a standard league in five of those outings, and he had six games with at least five catches after Cook got hurt in Week 4. In two playoff games, McKinnon had 18 carries for 74 yards (4.1 yards per carry) and a touchdown and 14 catches for 92 yards. Let's hope McKinnon gets a featured role with a big-time offense in 2018, which would make him an exciting Fantasy asset on Draft Day.
Breida and Mack are in similar spots because both had some positive moments as rookies in 2017, and both could get a new backfield mate in 2018. There's still a chance the 49ers bring back free agent Carlos Hyde, but Breida could be elevated to a more prominent role if a high-profile addition doesn't come to San Francisco via free agency or the draft. Last year, Breida had eight games with at least nine touches, and he scored double digits in Fantasy points in a standard league in four of them, including two in a row to close the season. In those two games, which came with new quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo under center, Breida had 23 carries for 146 yards (6.3 yards per carry) and one touchdown, and two catches for 40 yards. We still expect him to get at least 10 touches a game in 2018, and his Fantasy value will increase if he gets a bigger role. It's a backfield to follow this offseason, and Breida is an excellent target with a late-round pick in all leagues.
Former Bears receiver Muhsin Muhammad once said Chicago is "where receivers go to die" because for years the team had a hard time cultivating talent at the position. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery slightly changed that perception, but the Bears receiving corps was an epic disaster in 2017. Kendall Wright was Chicago's leading receiver last season with 59 catches for 614 yards and one touchdown. The No. 2 receiver was Joshua Bellamy with 24 catches for 376 yards and one touchdown. It was so bad that calling it ugly would be a compliment. A big reason why was Meredith suffering a torn ACL in the preseason, but he's expected to be ready for training camp and should return to Chicago as a restricted free agent. And the hope would be the addition of new coach Matt Nagy, as well as a year of maturity for second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, will help this passing game. Clearly, Chicago needs to upgrade its receiving corps. But Meredith showed flashes of brilliance in 2016 and was a popular sleeper candidate last year before getting hurt. Don't forget about him on Draft Day with a late-round pick, and he could pay big dividends for the Bears and Fantasy owners if he's healthy this year.
Former Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins told me during Super Bowl week that Crowder was never fully healthy in 2017, and he battled a nagging hamstring injury from Week 9 until the end of the season. I'm hopeful that was the reason for his disappointing campaign when he was pegged for a breakout season. He still has plenty of upside, so Fantasy owners shouldn't give up on him, and he should benefit with Smith as the new starting quarterback. Crowder set a career-high with his 104 targets, but his receptions, yards and touchdowns all declined from 2016 when he had 67 catches for 847 yards and seven scores. I would expect him to be closer to that production in 2018 if he remains healthy, and he's worth drafting with a mid-round pick in all leagues. Crowder had eight games in 2017 with at least seven targets, and he scored at least seven Fantasy points in five of those outings, including three with at least 10 points. Smith will quickly find out that Crowder will be one of his top weapons in 2018.
If all you saw was the first game of 2017 and the last game of the season then you would think Golladay was the second coming of Calvin Johnson. In Week 1, Golladay had four catches for 69 yards and two touchdowns on seven targets against the Cardinals. Then he had two catches for 80 yards and a touchdown on three targets against Green Bay in Week 17. Those performances were awesome. Unfortunately, there were nine other games in between for Golladay (he missed five games with a hamstring injury), and he didn't thrive in his rookie season as some of us hoped. But there's still plenty of potential for him in his sophomore campaign, and it's just a matter of how many targets he'll get in a crowded receiving corps that features Marvin Jones, Golden Tate and Eric Ebron. Still, Golladay is a big target at 6-foot-4, 213 pounds, and we're expecting him to improve in 2018. It will take him some time to emerge as a starting Fantasy option, but he is someone to stash on your bench with a late-round pick in all leagues.
Shepard had a choppy season in 2017 because of injuries and the presence of Brandon Marshall to open the year. He could never get in a rhythm even after Odell Beckham (leg) was lost for the season. While Beckham should return at 100 percent, and the Giants have another quality weapon in tight end Evan Engram, don't overlook Shepard still being a big part of the offense, especially with Marshall not expected back with the team. This will be Shepard's third season in the NFL, and he's played well when given a healthy amount of targets. In 2017, he had six games with at least eight targets, and he scored at least seven Fantasy points in a standard league in four of them. In 2016, he had five games with at least eight targets, and he scored at least seven Fantasy points in four of them. Now, it might be difficult to consistently get eight targets on a regular basis while sharing the field with Beckham and Engram, but new coach Pat Shurmur showed as the offensive coordinator in Minnesota last year that he can feature two receivers and a tight end with success with Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph. Shepard should be a late-round pick in most leagues, but he will definitely outproduce that kind of value if he stays healthy in 2018.
The 49ers need to upgrade their receiving corps in some capacity, so what happens this offseason could easily impact Kittle. But if he returns as the starting tight end as expected, he should have the chance to at least be a streaming option to open the season. In his final three games of 2017, with Garoppolo under center, Kittle had 14 targets for 11 catches, 194 yards and one touchdown. He had double digits in Fantasy points in a standard league in two of those outings and scored at least nine points in PPR in all three games. Garoppolo showed a propensity to lean on his tight ends in his five starts in San Francisco since he also threw two touchdowns to Garrett Celek, which meant a 49ers tight end either scored or had 100 receiving yards four games in a row to close the year. Some of that had to do with Garoppolo playing with a weak receiving corps, which will be upgraded this season, but he won't avoid his tight ends. And Kittle is the best tight end in San Francisco, with the chance to be a quality Fantasy option.
When Njoku was drafted at No. 29 overall in 2017, he was considered a project out of the University of Miami. It probably didn't help that he went to Cleveland since the Browns had inconsistent quarterback play, but the hope is that will change in 2018. With the right quarterback, Njoku could prove to be a valuable weapon -- in Fantasy and reality. He still has plenty to work on, from his route running to just general understanding of the game, but the raw potential is there. He had 43 catches for 698 yards and eight touchdowns for the Hurricanes in 2016, and he's a big target at 6-foot-4, 246 pounds. We hope Browns coach Hue Jackson will feature Njoku more in his sophomore campaign, and the quarterback situation in Cleveland will likely determine how much of a Fantasy asset he can become. He's not someone you want to target as a No. 1 Fantasy tight end to open the season, but he is someone to draft with a late-round pick in all leagues. If things click for Njoku this season, he could easily start fulfilling that immense potential now.