By Joe Pollock
Last week in my article, 5 Later-Round Players Set to Explode in 2018, I talked about some undervalued veterans in new situations or coming off down years that are set to explode in 2018. This week, it's all about those underappreciated rookie sleepers & values.
First, let's go through how last week's later-round players weathered the NFL draft. Astonishingly, only one–Allen Hurns–was negatively affected by this draft, and even he wasn't significantly impacted. Michael Gallup (3rd Round) is a quality player from Colorado State University, but not one that projects to light up the scoreboard in year-one. Tavon Austin–acquired in a day-three draft trade–is rumored to be utilized more in the running game than the passing game. Neither figure to significantly affect Allen Hurns' usage.
The 49ers didn't draft a running back at all. Jerick McKinnon is now my guy for 2018. I have no fear of Joe Williams. Matt Breida will be a good change of pace back, but shouldn't significantly eat into McKinnon's carries or catches. 2015 Devonta Freeman numbers aren't out of the question for McKinnon this year. Jerick McKinnon should have every opportunity to succeed in a system tailored to running backs with his skillset.
The Bears didn't draft a tight end to compete with Trey Burton. The Vikings drafted a tight end that will compete for second-team reps but won't challenge Rudolph in the slightest. The Lions helped Matthew Stafford's stock substantially with the additions of C Frank Ragnow and RB Kerryon Johnson.
As long as all the guys from last week's article stay later-round guys–debatable, I know–they should be excellent values for 2018.
Now for the steals; this is the first chance we've had to analyze rookie talent in the presence of scheme fit. Football nerds rejoice! For highbrow fantasy football owners, this week is the first week of serious preparation for 2018. A rookie sleeper or value can win you your league. Ask Hunt, Kamara, Watson, Engram, McCaffrey–need I go on?–owners what a rookie can do for your team. I played in seven leagues in 2017 and consulted for hundreds if not thousands more. Not one championship lineup was absent a rookie, not one.
Post-Draft 2018 Rookie Sleepers & Values
Everyone knows about the Calvin Ridleys, DJ Moores and Saquon Barkleys of the world. Household names are great. They're likely to become staples on your teams for years to come. We'll have plenty of time to talk about those guys as the offseason rolls on. Today, though, we're talking sleepers and values; mid-to-late round draft picks that come out of nowhere to win you your league. By definition, sleepers are hard to identify; a task made even harder when the calendar has just flipped from its fourth to its fifth month. These guys are far from guaranteed, but they should see the opportunity to bust-out year-one.
1.) Royce Freeman RB – 3rd Round; Pick 71 – Denver Broncos
The Broncos offense was abysmal in 2017. The team scored the sixth fewest points and finished 20th in passing yards. The only remotely bright spot for Denver's offense in 2017 was the rushing offense–12th overall. Pro Football Focus ranked Denver's offensive line 23rd, but again, most of the problems were in pass blocking. Denver's 4.31 Adjusted Line Yards (Football Outsiders) were good enough for 9th in the league. At right tackle, John Elway and company traded a sixth-round pick for Jared Veldheer. Veldheer should at least provide a stop-gap replacement for the abysmal production supplied by Menelik Watson and the rotating cast of characters that came after him.
C.J. Anderson accrued 1,003 of Denver's 1,852 rushing yards in 2017. C.J. Anderson is currently a free agent. Royce Freeman will be competing for a 1k+ yard piece of a nearly 2k rushing yard puzzle with another 664 yards available through the air. Furthermore, Denver has a new quarterback. Case Keenum will unload the box better than Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, and Brock Osweiler did in 2017. Of that much I am sure.
If Denver had done a better job addressing their issues across from Ron Leary at the other guard spot–there are rumors Leary will be sliding to left guard in 2018–I'd have Freeman as my number one dynasty running back this year. That's how much I like this fit. The opportunity is incredible.
2.) Kerryon Johnson RB – 2nd Round; Pick 43 – Detroit Lions
Adios LeGarrette Blount. Your days in Detroit were always numbered. With the Lions' selection of Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson, they may as well be none. Johnson will win out in that backfield sooner rather than later. I hope it's not too soon so we can still call Johnson a sleeper come draft time, but somehow I doubt it.
Ten times Barry Sanders rushed for 1,000+ yards in his decade with the Lions. Sanders retired abruptly following the 1998 season. Since that season, the Lions have produced only four 1,000-yard rushing seasons. That's 15 out of the last 19 years with below average running back production in Detroit. In addition to Kerryon Johnson, there are six other backs on the Detroit depth chart as we move towards training camp. Six backs, 22 seasons, and only three 1,000 yard seasons. Stiff competition is not something Johnson will be facing in the Motor City.
3.) Christian Kirk WR – 2nd Round; Pick 47 – Arizona Cardinals
I'm going to start sounding like a broken record with this, but it's essential to understand if you want to be a successful fantasy player. The most reliable predictor of fantasy production for pass catchers is the number of targets they receive. One more time with feeling: the most reliable predictor of fantasy production for pass catchers is the number of targets they receive. Got it? Sweet.
Christian Kirk was in the middle to back of my first-round dynasty rookie draft board during the pre-draft process. No love, no hate, just an average prospect with decent upside and as safe a floor as a receiver can have in this kind of draft class. His 40 time is above average, but not blazing. His agility drills looked solid, but nothing special. He's strong but doesn't have freak strength by any means.
Kirk is here because he fell on a team that needed him. He'll slide in day-one as kick and punt returner; that's a bonus if you get points for return yards and touchdowns. He'll be competing for the spot as the second (or third if you count David Johnson) pass catcher in Arizona. One thing that falls in Kirk's favor is the quarterback situation for the Cardinals. Sam Bradford's strengths lie in the short and intermediate passing game. He's a timing route quarterback with enough arm strength to zip the ball into tight windows. Bradford's skill set fits Kirk perfectly.
As long as Sam Bradford is the starting QB in Arizona, Kirk should have a good shot to obtain a substantial percentage of the targets thrown out in that offense. Fitz will get his, but in a Mike McCoy west coast offense, there should be plenty of short and intermediate passes to go around.
4.) Equanimeous St. Brown WR – 6th Round; Pick 207 – Green Bay Packers
Why did ESB fall so far? After a solid combine performance, armchair GMs had St. Brown going in mocks as high as the second round. Leave it to the fantasy players and washed out front office execs turned television analysts to over-hype yet another young kid based on his showing in the underwear Olympics. The 2017 tape shows a receiver with the size and speed of an elite NFL prospect, but one with average to below-average play-strength and want-to.
There's only one reason Equanimeous St. Brown is on this list. His name is Aaron Rodgers. St. Brown will be an uber-late round wide receiver. If Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and maybe even Geronimo Allison stay healthy, this could be a guy that struggles to find relevance in 2018. On the other hand, if St. Brown comes out and sets the world on fire in camp and the preseason, he could earn himself a role in what's historically been one of the highest touchdown volume offenses in the league year in and year out. Low risk picks with high upside are what I'm looking for in rounds that typically see the selection of kickers and defenses. Unless the hype train gets rolling, ESB will probably fall into that category in 2018.
5.) Mike Gesicki TE – 2nd Round; Pick 42 – Miami Dolphins
I know, I know. Tight ends don't produce in their first year in the league. They need everything to fall right to be relevant for a whole season. Nobody's arguing that point. nevertheless, rookie tight ends do have game-to-game relevance on teams without great pass-catching options at the position almost every season. David Njoku, O.J. Howard, Austin Hooper, Clive Walford, heck even Eric Ebron had at least one good game in a predictable matchup. Gesicki probably won't be the next Evan Engram, Hunter Henry or Rob Gronkowski in his rookie year, big deal.
At 6'6”, 247 lbs. Mike Gesicki has all the measurables to be a successful player at the NFL level. His combine numbers are fantastic, and he's landed in an offense that once used a tight end to the tune of 12 touchdowns in back-to-back seasons. Historically speaking, the odds of him making you the next Dunder Mifflin Paper Company office league champion are low, but as a matchup-based streamer on a team with little to no talent at the tight end position, Gesicki should have some value this year.
6.) Daniel Carlson K – 5th Round; Pick 167 – Minnesota Vikings
No, I don't think Daniel Carlson is going to overtake Kai Forbath as the starting kicker of the Minnesota Vikings. So why is he on this list? Because I love kickers? Absolutely not. If you know anything about me by now, it should be that I believe the kicker position to be the most unpredictable and luck-influenced position in all of fantasy; a position that should burn in the hellfires of Mount Doom (Too nerdy? Yeah, you're probably right).
The reason I have Daniel Carlson on this list is the example given to us by the 2017 season. Sabastian Janikowski, Cairo Santos, and Caleb Sturgis all went down with significant injuries in 2017. Now I'm not saying three or more kickers on relatively high-value offenses for the position are going to suffer substantial injuries again this season or any other for that matter. What I'm saying is, when a kicker on an offense ranked highly in total offense but poorly in red zone efficiency goes down, this is the name you're going to want to remember. Daniel Carlson.
File it way in the back next to Dan Marino's career touchdown total (420) and Tony Gonzales' career reception total (1,325). Now picture this: You're drowning the sorrows brought on by your beloved Lions' Sunday Night Football overtime loss to Bill Belichick and company in a second night-cap. After the post-game, you see on the SportsCenter ticker that Matt Bryant has just undergone sports hernia surgery and will be out 6-8 weeks. This is the perfect moment to head to the waiver wire and pick up that unknown practice squad kicker named Tucker Carlson in your 20 team salary cap dynasty before anyone else even knows the guy's name. If you're going to play in a league with kickers, at least know the tricks to finding top performers on the waiver wire every week.
In the NFL defense wins championships; in fantasy football, sleepers do. The injury bug will hit your team, this year and every year. When it happens to you, late round, high upside players will save you. Keep this in mind when you're drafting your teams in August. Don't forget, a lot can change between now and then, so stay tuned to The Fantasy Takeaway for updates all offseason.