By Joe Pollock
It's not the Le'Veon Bells of the world that win you your fantasy football league every year. The guy you draft in the first round has to produce, but it's late round guys like Alvin Kamara (2017 14th Round Pick) and Adam Thielen (2017 10th Round Pick) that will set you apart from the competition. Even the guy you draft in the eighth that gives you top five production like Zach Ertz did in 2017 can be invaluable to your fantasy team. These later-round values are often the difference between taking home the hardware and crying in your beer on Championship Sunday. Here are my five pre-draft, late-round guys that are set to explode in 2018:
1.) Kyle Rudolph (7th Round)*
In 2017, Kyle Rudolph was a victim of the Case Keenum effect. Rudolph saw 132 targets from Sam Bradford in 2016. That number dropped to 81 in 2017 in a Keenum led offense. With Keenum shipped off to Denver and Kirk Cousins coming in on a massive fully-guaranteed 3-year deal, the future is bright for Rudolph. Cousins targets the tight end position relentlessly. Since Cousins became a full-time starter in 2015, he's peppered tight end with targets in Washington. Jordan Reed saw 114 targets in a 14 game season that year. The position received a whopping 150 targets in 2016 and 126 in 2017. The most reliable predictor of performance for pass-catching fantasy assets is the number of passes thrown their way. My way-too-early projections have somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 passes headed Kyle Rudolph's way in 2018.
Rudolph isn’t a freak of nature like Jordan Reed, but at this point in his career, neither is Vernon Davis. It seems like it doesn’t matter who you throw in a Kirk Cousins offense at the tight end position; they always thrive.
2.) Allen Hurns (13th Round)*
The Cowboys cut Dez Bryant last Friday. After eight years in Dallas, the star wide receiver–and his $16 million cap hit–had finally worn out their welcome in the Lone Star State. Enter Allen Hurns. The fifth-year wideout signed a 2-year, $11 million deal with the Cowboys after being cut by the Jaguars earlier this offseason. Now, it appears, Hurns will be facing an expanded role in the Dak Prescott led offense in Dallas.
How often do you see a 26-year-old wide receiver just two years removed from a 100-reception, 1000-yard, 10-touchdown season going at the last pick in the 13th round of PPR fantasy drafts? Yes, Hurns has traveled a rocky road since his 2015 breakout performance, but at his current draft position, he's virtually free. The perfect high-upside, low-risk player to fill out the back end of your roster.
3.) Jerick McKinnon (6th Round)*
McKinnon was Pro Football Focus' number eight back in 2017. The San Francisco 49ers just backed up the Brinks truck for him in March with a 4-year, $30 million deal. Kyle Shanahan's zone scheme is the perfect fit for McKinnon's running style and uses the running back position heavily in the passing game where Jerick McKinnon thrives.
When given the opportunity, Mckinnon has been one of the more productive backs in the league. In 2017, he saw 20 or more touches in four games. His average PPR production when seeing 20 or more touches? 25.3 points. We're not merely talking about a set of outliers. When McKinnon sees an increased workload, he excels. In games where he garnered at least 14 touches, McKinnon averaged 18.3 points per game. Devonta Freeman saw 17.5 touches per game in his last season under Shanahan. If Kyle Shanahan genuinely sees McKinnon as the Freeman type player in his offense, 2018 could be the year we see Jerick McKinnon make a name for himself in the National Football League.
One of the big concerns for McKinnon’s 2018 value that’s keeping his draft position so low is the possibility–or maybe probability–that the Niners will bring in another back in the draft. I say let it happen. If no back is brought in to play the Tevin Coleman role in that Shanahan offense, McKinnon’s value will shoot through the roof. That’s why not only am I not fearing a two-headed monster in San Fran, I’m welcoming it. I’ll say it right now: If McKinnon is drafted in the sixth round or later he’ll be the best value at the running back position in all of fantasy regardless of scoring format.
4.) Matthew Stafford (9th Round)*
It feels criminal that we have to go through this every year. Matthew Stafford entered the league in 2009. He played his first 16-game season in 2011. From that year forward, Stafford has finished as the number 5, 11, 7, 15, 9, 7, and 7 quarterback for fantasy in standard 4-point per passing touchdown scoring. One finish outside QB1 territory in seven years as a starter and he's currently going in the 9th round.
Every year I draft Matthew Stafford. Every year I pound the table for everyone else to recognize just how consistently excellent Stafford has been over the last seven seasons. Every year my league and thousands of others across the fantasy football community sleep on the guy throwing passes in the Motor City. Do it again. I dare you. If you let me have Stafford in every one of my leagues again this year, I'll be taking home the cash once more.
5.) Trey Burton (13th Round)*
Zach Ertz' shadow is a large one from which to step out. He's a monster. Battling through countless coaching and quarterback changes, only to finish strong in a new offense, with a new quarterback, every season. Now it's time for Burton to learn a new system with a new quarterback in his first season as a Chicago Bear.
Burton's fate will depend greatly on the development of young Mitchell Trubisky as a passer. If Trubisky takes a step forward, likely too will Trey Burton. If Trubisky falls flat, so too will Burton. I'm betting on the former.
Matt Nagy's offensive scheming in 2017 was nothing short of remarkable. He used Travis Kelce's size and speed masterfully. Whether lining up at the end of the line, in the slot, or even under center and in the shotgun or as a running back in the backfield, Kelce's role was extraordinary.
Dynasty owners and redraft speculators alike will have their eyes glued to the 6'3”, 228 lb tight end in 2018. The skillset, the scheme fit, the talent, it's all there. If average draft position stays the same, the hardest thing about drafting Trey Burton come August will be deciding whether to reach on him or Allen Hurns. Heck, maybe we'll just have to reach on both.
*Rounds Taken from FantasyFootballCalculator.com Average Draft Position on Day of Publication