The fantasy football season may seem like light years away, but here’s a secret: the summertime is the perfect time to get a jump-start on your journey to winning your league trophy. SI.com’s fantasy experts Michael Beller and Pat Fitzmaurice debate some burning topics below.
Which QB will be the first drafted?
Beller: Aaron Rodgers, and by a longshot. How many quarterbacks could lose their No. 1 receiver, who happens to be one of the seven best in the league, before the season and still finish the as a top-10 quarterback? I’d argue Rodgers is the only one capable of pulling off that feat.
Nelson is back this season, once again giving Rodgers his full complement of weapons. Randall Cobb is free to wreak havoc in the middle of the field. Davante Adams can go back to being a complementary player rather than a starter. Jeff Janis emerged in the playoffs, likely earning more time this season, and the Packers added another receiving threat in tight end Jared Cook. A slimmed-down Eddie Lacy, who flashed as a receiver the last time Nelson was healthy and stretching the field, will also keep some pressure off of Rodgers. But really, this is about the simple fact that Rodgers remains the best quarterback in the league, and he won’t have one arm tied behind his back, in the form of Nelson’s torn ACL in ‘15, holding him down this season.
Cam Newton is a one-of-a-kind talent, but he stretched the bounds of quarterback touchdown rates last season, throwing 35 scores on just 496 attempts. He could produce at 80% of what he did last year, and still have a great season. It just won’t be enough to outpace Rodgers.
Fitzmaurice: You could make strong cases for Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson, but Newton sits atop my QB rankings.
Yes, Newton will probably throw fewer touchdown passes this season—before last year’s 35 tosses, his single-season high was 24. But the 27-year-old Newton is at the height of his powers, and with Kelvin Benjamin back after missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL, Newton will have the best group of pass catchers he’s ever had. Benjamin and second-year man WR Devin Funchess are both king-sized targets capable of hauling in slightly off-target throws, and Greg Olsen remains an elite tight end.
And of course, there’s Newton’s running ability to consider. He’s averaged 641 rushing yards and 8.6 (!) touchdown runs in his five NFL seasons, and there’s little reason to think Newton will stop calling his own number in goal-line situations.
Newton led all QBs in fantasy points last season and has been a top-four fantasy scorer in four of his five seasons. I don’t think there’s much separation between Newton, Rodgers and Wilson, and I don’t recommend spending the sort of draft capital that it would take to land any of the three, but I do think Newton is the best of those options.
Which highly-ranked RB should be avoided at all costs?
Beller: I can’t see myself owning Devonta Freeman in any of my leagues. He surprised everyone last season, using the opportunity created by Tevin Coleman’s injury to become the No. 1 fantasy back in both standard and PPR formats. He was a truly electrifying player at times, and given his ADP, he was likely on a number of championship teams.
With that being said, he’s a prime bust candidate this year. First of all, the history of running backs who emerge from seemingly nowhere to shine one season, only to crush the dreams of their fantasy owners the next, is rich and storied. Need I remind you of the 2015 campaigns of Jeremy Hill and C.J. Anderson? More importantly, however, Freeman’s production waned significantly as the season progressed. He ran for at least 100 yards in four of his first five starts. Over his final eight games of the season, he never topped 88 rushing yards, came up shy of 60 yards five times (he got injured in one game, to be fair), and averaged 3.31 yards per carry.
The biggest issue could be Coleman’s presence. The second-year player was never right last season, and it’s likely that the Falcons still want to figure out a way to use their backs in tandem. Freeman may have been great last year, but he also had plenty of volume, averaging 25.4 touches per games in the games he was Atlanta’s featured back. He could struggle to reach 20 this season.
Fitzmaurice: Michael disagrees with me on this, but I’m not going anywhere near Le’Veon Bell at his early-first-round ADP.
Don’t get me wrong: A completely healthy Bell is an easy choice as the RB1. But Bell is only about eight months removed from a double knee ligament tear. Will he still have the same exotic combination of quickness and power after tearing his MCL and PCL? Will he be ready for Week 1? Will the Steelers judiciously manage his workload upon his return?
Bell has posted video of himself playing basketball, and he did light work in the Steelers’ recent OTAs—encouraging signs, yes. But come September, will he be able to confidently elude defenders with jump-cuts? Will he still be able to outrace linebackers to the corner or elude defenders on wheel routes? How will his knee hold up the first time it absorbs a square blow from a tackler?
The Steelers have very little incentive to take risks with Bell’s recovery. DeAngelo Williams may well be the best backup running back in the league, and an early-season RB platoon would make a great deal of sense. Do you really want to spend a top-five pick on a running back who might not get 20 carries in a game until after Pittsburgh’s Week 8 bye?
Bell’s current ADP doesn’t price in any of the risk associated with a running back coming off a devastating knee injury. Let some other owner assume that risk.
Which player will perform best with his new team?
Beller: Lamar Miller was the most underutilized, underappreciated player in the league during his time with the Dolphins. After proving he could handle a starter’s workload in the wake of Knowshon Moreno’s injury in ‘14—running for 1,099 yards while catching 38 passes for 275 yards and finding the end zone nine times—he seemed in line for stardom last season. Joe Philbin stubbornly refused to feature him, and Miller had just 37 carries in the team’s first four games. The situation didn’t get much better under Dan Campbell, even though Miller was clearly the most dangerous player on Miami’s offense.
Miller couldn’t possibly have found a better landing spot than Houston. He has an offensively minded coach in Bill O’Brien who will feed him the ball as often as he can take it. He’ll be stepping into a system in which Arian Foster thrived, when healthy. He’ll be teaming up with DeAndre Hopkins to give the Texans one of the best receiver-running back pairings in the league. If Brock Osweiler is competent, Houston’s offense should take a significant step forward this season. Miller’s fantasy stock will rise right along with it.
Fitzmaurice: It has to be Lamar Miller, who’s going from a spa diet in Miami to an all-you-can-eat buffet in Houston.
The Dolphins’ reluctance to fully unleash Miller was utterly baffling. Miller had more than 15 carries in only 12 of his 61 games with Miami, and he had 20 or more carries just twice. I’d love to buy former Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin a few rounds and try to find out why he refused to loosen the reins on Miller. Ditto for Dan Campbell, who replaced Philbin last year. Stamina concerns? Lack of trust? Meh ... it doesn’t matter now. Miller has new handlers, and they’re going to let the thoroughbred run.
Miller seems an ideal fit for the Texans, whose strong defense is begging to be paired with a low-risk, run-heavy offense. New Texans QB Brock Osweiler hasn’t demonstrated that he can capably lead an all-out aerial assault, so Texans head coach Bill O’Brien will likely seek offensive balance. Miller will get the chance to play a role similar to the one Arian Foster played for Houston in between his myriad injuries.
Which second-year wide receiver will do their best Allen Robinson impression this season?
Beller: You could make a strong argument for Amari Cooper, Kevin White, DeVante Parker, Dorial Green-Beckham or Tyler Lockett to be this year’s Robinson. I’m going to eliminate the first two on technical grounds. Cooper’s ADP is too high to be a true Robinson parallel, while, in some ways, this is White’s rookie year after he missed all of last season with a shin injury. Instead, I’ll shift my gaze to Miami, where Adam Gase should be able to work enough magic in Miami to make Parker one of the breakout players of the ’16 season.
Parker was limited at the beginning of his rookie season because of a lingering foot injury from his days at Louisville that required surgery after the draft, but keeping him in the garage until the end of November was another comical failing of the previous regime in Miami. Over the final six games of his rookie year, Parker caught 22 passes for 445 yards and three touchdowns, which translates to 10.42 points per game in standard-scoring leagues, on par with what Jeremy Maclin, Brandin Cooks and Demaryius Thomas posted for all of the ’15 season.
The 14th pick in last year’s draft, Parker is a supreme talent, and at 6' 3" and 218 pounds is an imposing physical presence. Adam Gase received glowing reviews during his time as an offensive coordinator in Denver, and then succeeded at the much tougher task of making Jay Cutler a more efficient, possession-conscious quarterback during his lone season in Chicago. If he can have the same effect on Ryan Tannehill, Parker will shine in his second season. A top-20 year is well within his reach.
Fitzmaurice: DeVante Parker and Tyler Lockett could make big jumps in 2016, and Dorial Green-Beckham will be a candidate for an A-Rob-ian leap if he can pair his rare physical gifts with a badly needed dose of professionalism. But Amari Cooper is the best bet for second-year superstardom.
Cooper finished 24th in fantasy scoring among WRs last season and would have fared even better if he hadn’t limped to the finish line with a foot injury that limited him to 20 or fewer receiving yards in three of his last four games. Cooper got off to a fast start last year, catching 45 passes for 662 yards and four TDs over the first half of the regular season, including three 100-yard games in his first six outings.
Drafted fourth overall in 2015, Cooper immediately demonstrated that he’s the complete package. I think we’ll see Raiders QB Derek Carr lean more on Cooper and less on Michael Crabtree this season. A 100-catch, 1,300-yard, 10-touchdown season is well within Cooper’s grasp.
Which player should owners not sleep on this season?
Beller: Martavis Bryant is suspended for the entire 2016 season, creating an opportunity for someone to emerge alongside Antonio Brown in one of the league’s most potent offenses. Markus Wheaton will have the highest ADP among the candidates, but I’ll be sitting back and targeting Sammie Coates late in all of my leagues.
The Auburn product caught exactly one pass as a rookie, playing in only six games with no real role available to him in the offense. That the team selected him in the third round in last year’s draft, even though receiver wasn’t a position of need, should give you an indication of how the brain trust views his potential.
As good a runner as Le’Veon Bell is, the Steelers are a team built to pass and get up and down the field. Over the last three seasons, Ben Roethlisberger has attempted 37.8 passes per game. As much as he might want to, he can’t throw all of those to Brown and Bell. You’re going to want to find a way to invest in this offense, but you can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to fight the crowds clamoring for the big three in Pittsburgh. You can, however, find cheap investment in the Steelers offense by having Coates’s name starred on your cheat sheet.
Fitzmaurice: Latavius Murray was gifted an enormous workload last season—only Adrian Peterson and Doug Martin had more carries—but was underwhelming as Oakland’s workhorse, and it seems unlikely he’ll shoulder the same sort of load in 2016. Murray was especially ineffective in the passing game last year, averaging just 5.7 yards per catch and 4.4 yards per target, with zero TD catches. I expect the Raiders to use rookie RB DeAndre Washington in the passing game quite a bit, and there’s a chance the fifth-rounder out of Texas Tech could cut into Murray’s rushing load, too.
Washington had 124 career receptions at Texas Tech, including 41 last year. He averaged 10.0 yards per catch over his final two college seasons. Washington also ran for more than 1,000 yards in each of his last two seasons with the Red Raiders, with 1,492 yards rushing yards and 14 TD runs last season and an average of 6.4 yards per carry. Washington figures to get a lot of work on passing downs, and Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has said that the rookie could be an every-down back.
I’ll be fading Latavius Murray this season, and I’ll be looking to acquire Washington on the cheap. At his current ADP, Washington can easily be acquired at the tail end of most fantasy drafts, and I think he makes for a compelling lottery ticket.