It’s never too early to find out who will win or lose the fantasy season for you. Well, it probably is too early right now, but here’s all that info anyway

By Gary Gramling
May 13, 2017

I stepped off the train on Wednesday morning and there, on the platform, was a shiny 2015 penny, heads-up. The literal definition of a lucky penny. Now, I don’t have to tell you that the No. 1 way to ward off infectious disease and feral cats and invite general good fortune is a lucky penny. So I scooped it up, put it in my pocket and sure enough, that day I went 4-for-4 in softball, was charged nothing at Home Depot for a piece of scrap lumber that I needed to jam into my lawnmower while I removed the blade for sharpening, and I didn’t encounter a single feral cat along the way.

My point is this: I’m on a frickin’ roll. So what better time to unveil my first look at mind-blowing sleepers and busts for the 2017 fantasy football season.

First, the sleepers. In parenthesis are my current position ranking for each player (full rankings are coming later in May). And in order to properly set the mood, I suggest you read these while listening to Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption solo:

Terrance West (26): When they fired Marc Trestman last October, all the Ravens talked about was how much they needed to get back to running the ball and also Pink Floyd. They didn’t get back to the ground game, but now they’ve had a full offseason to think about it and to, presumably, realize that they don’t have very good pass catchers on their team. I’d expect a renewed commitment to the ground game, and with Kenneth Dixon suspended to start the year there’s the potential for a big workload for West, at least early in the year.

Eli Manning (10): Manning hasn’t fallen off from a physical standpoint. The problem last year was that the Giants were trotting out Odell Beckham Jr. and four guys they rounded up at the Port Authority as Manning’s skill position weapons, especially problematic in an offense that relies heavily on isolation routes that require their receivers to win one-on-on battles. Going from Victor Cruz, Will Tye and Rashad Jennings to Brandon Marshall, Evan Engram and Paul Perkins is a monstrous upgrade, and Manning could easily turn in 4,000 yards and 30 TDs.

Joe Mixon (7): If you can stomach the whole punching a woman in the face when he was 18 thing… Mixon is basically what Jeremy Hill is supposed to be as a runner, combined with Giovani Bernard’s ability as a pass catcher. There’s no reason Mixon shouldn’t take at least 60% of the Bengals’ snaps. And with opposing defenses sufficiently freaked out about A.J. Green and John Ross, Mixon has a chance to be the AFC’s version of David Johnson. He’s worthy of a first-round pick but won’t go first round in most drafts; he’d be a steal in the second.

Derek Carr (9): I dunno, just a guess. It’s Carr’s fourth year, he got a long-awaited upgrade at tight end with Jared Cook, Todd Downing’s promotion from QB coach to offensive coordinator likely means good things, the Raiders’ are relying on 31-year-old recent retiree Marshawn Lynch as a bellcow back... I could see Carr throwing 40-plus passes per game with a great supporting cast.

Paul Perkins (21): As mentioned above, Perkins is a big upgrade over Rashad Jennings, and while the Giants don’t have a great offensive line they now at least have the passing-game weapons opposing defenses will have to respect. Perkins is a capable lead back in an offense that should be much improved over last season.

Jamison Crowder (28): Washington’s offense is designed well enough to move the ball even with the downgraded weaponry for Kirk Cousins. Crowder undoubtedly has the highest floor among their wide receivers, and he proved last year that he’ll play a role in the red zone with so much attention paid to Jordan Reed (16 targets and nine catches in the red zone for Crowder last year, both top-25 in the NFL).

Joe Williams (60): If you read Part I of my boss’s piece embedded in the 49ers war room, you know that Kyle Shanahan essentially promised he’d burn the city of Santa Clara to the ground if the Niners didn’t draft Joe Williams.

Jameis Winston (8): This country is going to be divided, neighbor vs. neighbor, by the Winston vs. Mariota debate. I’ll try to minimize the bloodshed by pointing out that Winston’s supporting cast just got a lot better (DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard) and the Bucs still have question marks at running back, meaning a heavier reliance on Winston. A year ago that lack of a run game led to Winston throwing a ton in goal-to-go situations, with 12 of their 21 GTG series ending in a TD pass, helping the Bucs become the most efficient goal-to-go offense in football. So they’ll score more points, and they have one of the best short-field passing games in football. That’s a recipe for a big TD number.

Leonard Fournette (9): Unless something wacky happens this summer, he’s a borderline first-round pick. The Jaguars will refocus the entire offense around him.

Carson Wentz (16): Sorta like with Manning, though at least Eli had Odell Beckham last year. Wentz’s receiving corps was, at the very least, football’s worst east of the Mississippi, if not in the entire NFL. The addition of Alshon Jeffery gives Wentz an honest-to-God starting-caliber NFL wide receiver for the first time, and a No. 1 at that. And Torrey Smith brings a much-needed speed element. Wentz showed the ability to manage every aspect of a pro offense last year. Now he has players with whom he can produce.

Ty Montgomery (14): Not sure why he’s not being viewed as a true lead back after his performance last year, and he’s playing in one of the NFL’s best offenses.

Tyreek Hill (21): Surely they’ll make more playing time for him in his second season. And you saw last year what he can do while playing only 30-something snaps per week.

Adrian Peterson (17): Andy Benoit is usually right about these things, and he correctly points out that, if Peterson is 90% of his old self after sitting out essentially two of the last three years, he’s going to overtake Mark Ingram as the early-down back in New Orleans. (And, with the Saints probably no longer interested in going home early, and with a downgraded group of receivers, New Orleans might be going with a more run-heavy approach to keep their terrible defense off the field.) Peterson will have a much better line to run behind than he did in Minnesota, as well as a system tailored to his running style.

Doug Martin (27): He has the suspension to start the year, but the depth chart behind him lacks an early-down option (third-down backs Charles Sims and Jeremy McNichols plus Jacquizz Rodgers who is so tiny you could hold him in the palm of your hand). Martin has been borderline great when healthy, and he has the opportunity for a big workload once he returns.

Jack Doyle (11): He’s not great, but he’s pretty good. More importantly, Andrew Luck seems to have a thing for him, and Doyle has a chance for a significant red-zone role considering Donte Moncrief is the only other pass-catcher on the roster who presents a threat down there and, for whatever reason, the Colts often keep Frank Gore on the sideline when they get near the goal line.

Adam Thielen (29): Things tended to go very well when Bradford targeted Thielen last year, and he’s locked into a starting job on what should be an improved offense now that the offensive line has gone from league-worst to league-presentable.

Jonathan Williams (52): With Mike Gillislee gone after getting the call-up to the big leagues in Foxboro, Williams has little competition to claim the No. 2 role behind a frequently banged up LeSean McCoy. It’s a good O-line and a similarly run-heavy offense under new OC Rick Dennison, with a heavier dose of the stretch zone runs that play to Williams’ slashing style.

Mike Williams (32): I was surprised to see him so low on Fantasy Pros. Williams should overtake Tyrell Williams in short order, and even if he’s Option 2 behind Keenan Allen the guess is that the Chargers are going to build their red zone offense around the rookie, finally moving on from Antonio Gates.

Wendell Smallwood (41): Why is everyone so down on Smallwood? Ryan Mathews is quite possibly done because of that neck injury, and the only other backs in Philly are Darren Sproles and Donnel Pumphrey, and one of them would have to get on the other’s shoulders and drape a trench coat over themselves in order to pose a between-the-tackle threat.

David Njoku (16): He’s a dynamic talent on a team that figures to throw a lot because they’ll be trailing a lot. And when Kenny Britt is one of your starting wide receivers your wide receivers kinda stink. It’s not terribly likely, but it’s definitely possible that Njoku will emerge as the best pass-catcher in Cleveland by midseason.

Alex Collins (71): This is the deepest sleeper I’ve got for ya. If you listen to the podcast I do with Andy Benoit (which you should only listen to if you enjoy being entertained and becoming more knowledgeable about football, otherwise stick with that network stuff), you heard his claim that some assistant coaches around the league think Collins is Seattle’s best pure runner. I was surprised to hear it, and obviously you don’t need to burn a draft pick on Collins. But it’s something to file away.

Martavis Bryant (26): He’s the original Sammie Coates, but better. Discount him a notch in PPR leagues, but lots of big plays and Bryant is a potential red-zone monster.

Curtis Samuel (64): The Panthers are talking about manufacturing some touches for Samuel in the run game in what will be a drastically different offense in Carolina. He could end up being Tavon Austin, but… good.

Julius Thomas (12): I don’t want to get too giddy about Thomas and Adam Gase finally getting back together, but Gase clearly wants to get the tight end involved in all those Y-iso formations (in which they never threw to Dion Sims last year, mostly because Dion Sims wasn’t good enough). Thomas certainly has potential for a big bounce-back year.

* * *

And, as the gods demand, every early list of sleepers must be countered by an early list of busts in order to maintain proper balance in the universe. So review the players who will surely disappoint you while watching this video...

Eddie Lacy (44): Top-20 on Fantasy Pros!? Someone’s gotta explain this one to me. You could argue that Lacy is the fourth-best running back in Seattle, and you’d probably be right. I’m not sure he even makes the team. Plus, the special clause in his contract: If his weight drops below 255, the bus blows up. I think. I might not have that right. But it’s definitely not encouraging.

Ben Roethlisberger (11): Whatever. Including postseason, 323.1 yards/game and 38-to-14 TD/INT ratio in 13 home games over the last two years, 270.0 yards/game and 16-to-19 TD/INT ratio in 18 road games over the last two years. If your goal is a .500 season, Roethlisberger is your guy.

Hunter Henry (14): I like the cut of his jib, but (1) I’m not sure Antonio Gates is dead yet, and (2) the Chargers clearly drafted Mike Williams with the idea of building their red-zone passing game around him. I’m not sure there’s much upside with Henry.

Amari Cooper (17): I’m not a big third-year receiver breakout guy anyway, but I’m lukewarm on Cooper for four reasons: (1) His struggles against press coverage in an offense so reliant on timing-based throws, (2) Derek Carr’s affinity for Michael Crabtree, (3) the arrival of Jared Cook to siphon a few targets, and (4) Cooper’s minimal impact in the red zone over his first two seasons (in 33 career games, eight catches and two TDs inside the red zone, zero(!) catches on snaps inside the opponent’s 10. He’s a high-floor guy, but a No. 1 in fantasy? (No, is the implied answer to that question, by the way.)

Drew Brees (7): I’d stay away this year. His receiving corps is worse, he’s a year older on account of the forward march of time, his arm strength continues to diminish, and the Saints have two bellcow backs in Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram and plenty of motivation to control the clock and keep their horrific defense off the field (which might solve their inability to make the playoffs despite all those points).

Kevin White (50): I agree that he has upside, but I’m mostly pessimistic because White looked like he was LARPing electric football last year. I’m not sure he is even close to grasping an NFL offense yet. I’d much rather have Cameron Meredith, and while White has a much higher ceiling I’d give Kendall Wright a 50% chance at outproducing him.

C.J. Fiedorowicz (29): He is, at best, the second-best pass-catcher among Houston’s tight ends (a distant second behind Ryan Griffin) and the eighth best receiving weapon among all the Texans’ skill position players. He caught 54 passes last year because the Texans had a quarterback who couldn’t be trusted to throw the ball further than four yards downfield. Just because I used to eat a head of iceberg lettuce and rice covered in barbecue sauce for dinner every night when I was making $140 a week in this industry doesn’t mean I’m gonna eat that way once I no longer have to. The Texans don’t have any stud QBs on the roster at the moment, but between Tom Savage and Deshaun Watson they should be able to run something resembling an NFL offense.

Brandin Cooks (30): Cooks is a very good player, but he goes from Option 1A in New Orleans to Option 3 in New England. And it’s not like he didn’t have a great QB to play with in New Orleans.

Marshawn Lynch (28): I’m glad he’s back! But the Raiders have a pretty good change-of-pace back in Jalen Richard, another potentially pretty good change-of-pace back in DeAndre Washington, and Lynch is 31, only lasted 124 touches in 2015 and didn’t play at all last season. He’ll have value due to a likely red-zone and goal line role, but anything above 200 touches would be gravy.

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