There isn’t an exact point when a draft leaves behind the early rounds and enters the middle rounds. That late-early/early-middle gray area definitely includes the third and fourth rounds, and could include the fifth, depending on league and roster size. It’s also where you find the game’s most extreme high-risk, high-reward players.
It hurts to miss on a third- or fourth-round pick, especially as you watch so many of the players you passed on hit or exceed expectations. At the same time, those players are going in the third and fourth rounds for a reason. The payoff on them could be massive. The latest entry in SI.com’s player profile series looks at this season’s quintessential high-risk, high-reward players.
Jerick McKinnon, RB, 49ers
The case for: McKinnon has long been one of the most dangerous per-touch players in the league. In four years with Minnesota, McKinnon was more than just a change-of-pace back. Whether he was teamed with Adrian Peterson, Dalvin Cook or Latavius Murray, he was a threat every time he touched the ball, providing some much-needed lightning to his teammates’ thunder. McKinnon has the receiving chops necessary to be a do-it-all back in today’s NFL. Now in San Francisco, McKinnon has more than just his first real shot at a starting gig. In Kyle Shanahan, he has a coach who has proven his understanding of how to deploy a player with his skill set. With a potential star under center in Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco’s offense could take off this season.
The case against: The fact that McKinnon has been a strong complementary player during his four years in the league isn’t all good. Why didn’t he break out in a way that netted him a larger role in Minnesota? He had an opportunity to run away with the starting job with the Vikings in 2014, when Peterson missed all but one game due to suspension. He ran for fewer than four yards per carry in three of the six games in which he got double-digit rushes, and suffered a season-ending injury in November. At 5’9”, there’s legitimate concern that McKinnon’s frame may not be suited to a workhorse role, though, to his credit, he has missed just one game the last three seasons. The optimism surrounding San Francisco’s offense is justifiable, but it’s still a work in progress and mostly a theory. McKinnon’s 20.4 average draft position means passing on some combination of Keenan Allen, A.J. Green, Rob Gronkowski, Christian McCaffrey and Mike Evans, among others.
T.Y. Hilton, WR, Colts
The case for: Hilton’s charms are obvious. He has had at least 1,083 yards in four of his six seasons in the NFL. Of the two years that fell short, one was his rookie season, in which he got just 91 targets, and one was last year, when Andrew Luck spent the entire campaign on IR. In those four big seasons, he totaled 324 receptions for 5,000 yards and 23 touchdowns, numbers which ranked ninth, fourth and 15th, respectively, among receivers. Hilton will turn 29 a little more than halfway through the season, meaning he’s right in the heart of his physical prime. If he entered this season without any red flags, he’d be an easy top-10 receiver. There is, however, one significant red flag waving in our faces.
The case against: Is Andrew Luck healthy? That’s it. That's what will determine Hilton's fate this season. His four great seasons all came with Luck at the helm, save for half of 2015, which was his worst year of the four. We saw last year what happens to Hilton, and the entire Colts offense, without Luck, and it isn’t pretty. He had 57 catches for 966 yards and four touchdowns, career lows outside his rookie year. On top of that, he was one of the biggest boom-or-bust players in the league, falling short of 50 receiving yards in 10 different games. If Luck’s shoulder remains compromised, Hilton loses more fantasy value than any other player in the NFL, and his opportunity cost comes in the form of Stefon Diggs, Rashaad Penny, Travis Kelce and Alex Collins.
Joe Mixon, RB, Bengals
The case for: It all starts with opportunity. The backs immediately behind Mixon on Cincinnati’s depth chart are Giovani Bernard and Mark Walton. Bernard is going to have his usual role in the offense, but there’s a path to 300-plus touches and goal-line work for Mixon. That’s the foundation for a workhorse, and Mixon is one of the few players available in the draft’s early-middle gray area with such a workload within his realistic range of outcomes. Mixon is entering his age-22 season, and despite a disappointing rookie campaign, it isn’t hard to see his talent. In his final year at Oklahoma, he ran for 1,274 yards, caught 37 passes for 538 yards, and scored 15 total touchdowns, all while getting fewer carries than Samaje Perine. Cincinnati couldn’t quite get things right on offense last year, firing offensive coordinator Ken Zampese two games into the season, and replacing him with Bill Lazor, who returns for his first full season running the offense. The team also greatly missed offensive line mainstay Andrew Whitworth a year ago, and addressed that by trading for tackle Cordy Glenn and using its first-round pick on Ohio State center Billy Price.
The case against: There was undeniably tumult in Cincinnati last season, but Mixon didn’t exactly lack chances. He had 178 carries and 34 targets, and turned that into just 913 total yards and four touchdowns. He ranked 23rd in carries, with more rushes than Derrick Henry, LeGarrette Blount, Kenyan Drake and Alvin Kamara. Despite all those chances, he ranked 27th in points per opportunity in standard leagues, and 30th in PPR formats. No one should write him off after just one year, but there’s a non-zero chance the Bengals whiffed when they took him with the 48th overall pick in the 2017 draft. Mixon may be an adept receiver, but Bernard caught 43 passes for 389 yards last year and isn’t going anywhere. On top of that, Bernard has proven himself a capable runner, too, meaning Lazor and Marvin Lewis can turn to the nominal backup without hesitation if Mixon falters again. If you want to secure Mixon’s services, you’ll eschew a shot at Mike Evans, Doug Baldwin, Tyreek Hill and Josh Gordon.
Kenyan Drake, RB, Dolphins
The case for: Did you catch the Dolphins at all in the second half of the season? Drake was a revelation, especially over the final five games when the team truly committed to him as the starting back. Drake racked up 444 yards on 91 carries, caught 17 passes for 150 yards and scored two touchdowns. That comes out to 14.28 points per game in standard-scoring leagues, and 17.68 points per game in PPR formats. Over the full season, those averages would have made Drake the No. 10 back in standard, and the No. 9 back in PPR leagues. With Jarvis Landry now in Cleveland, there’s a lot of production up for grabs in Miami’s offense. Drake may not be a receiver, but he’s easily the team’s most dangerous, dynamic playmaker. Adam Gase would be wise to direct a significant share of the opportunities Landry left behind to Drake. Like Mixon, he’s an early-middle gray-area back with a real chance to be a true workhorse.
The case against: The shine is off Adam Gase’s apple a bit after last year’s disaster in Miami. To be fair, he lost starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill shortly before the season started, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Dolphins had one of the most vanilla offensive attacks in the league. That he brought in old Chicago colleague Dowell Loggains to run the offense doesn’t inspire much confidence, either. The bigger problem, however, could be the rest of the depth chart. First, the team signed veteran Frank Gore in free agency, which didn’t exactly signal strong belief in Drake. If that weren’t enough, the Dolphins snagged Kalen Ballage in the fourth round of this year’s draft. Gase can’t stop himself from saying great things about the Arizona State product, and it’s hard to imagine a team with as many holes as the Dolphins burning a fourth-round pick on a player at a position that wasn’t a need, and then not using him. Drake has real competition in the backfield and a coaching staff that may not be fully sold on him.
Amari Cooper, WR, Raiders
The case for: Even after a disappointing three-year start to his career, Cooper remains one of the best talents at his position in the league. And, really, how disappointing were those three years? Cooper eclipsed 1,000 yards in both of his first two seasons, and scored a career-high seven touchdowns last year. He was seemingly on the cusp of putting it all together after hauling in 83 passes for 1,153 yards and five touchdowns in 2016, a season that had him ranked 13th among all receivers in standard-scoring leagues, and 16th in PPR formats. This may be his fourth year in the league, but Cooper will play this season at just 24 years old. Even if he started his career on a three-year arc similar to Odell Beckham’s, we’d rightly expect him to grow into more production and more consistency, especially considering he’s playing with a similarly young quarterback. If and when Cooper puts it all together, he’ll have top-five upside at the position.
The case against: There’s no way to overstate just how great a disaster Cooper’s 2017 season was. Those 2016 numbers referenced in the case for him above portended a breakout, and instead he hit the very bottom of his realistic range of outcomes. Cooper had fewer receptions (48) than Austin Hooper, and fewer yards (680) than Jack Doyle. Would you prefer to compare him to fellow receivers? OK, Cooper was outgained by Paul Richardson, Keelan Cole, Mohamed Sanu, Tyrell Williams and Marqise Lee. What’s more, 29.2% of his catches, 47.8% of his yards and 42.9% of his touchdowns came in two games. Derek Carr may never be a true franchise quarterback, having underperformed leaguewide yards per attempt in all four of his seasons. There’s a discount on Cooper this year compared with previous seasons, but you’ll still need to wave goodbye to Lamar Miller, Zach Ertz, Juju Smith-Shcuster, Brandin Cooks and Allen Robinson to get him.
Jay Ajayi, RB, Eagles
The case for: It was just one year ago that Ajayi was a popular late-first- or early-second-round pick in most drafts, and with good reason. He was one of the surprise stars of the 2016 season, running for 1,272 yards, catching 27 passes for 151 yards, and scoring eight touchdowns in what turned out to be his final full season with the Dolphins. A falling out with Adam Gase landed him in Philadelphia at midseason, a move that couldn’t have gone much better for the back. He was never quite a true workhorse, but he did lead the team in carries and rushing yards over the final three weeks of the season and in the playoffs. Given the success the Eagles were already having, it was always silly to expect him to step into a 20-carry-per-game role in the middle of the season. Now with a full offseason to implement him in the offense, and with LeGarrette Blount in Detroit, Ajayi is set for a starter’s workload. Corey Clement will spell him and likely handle more passing-game work, but health is the only thing standing between Ajayi and a 250-carry season in one of the league’s premier offenses.
The case against: The Eagles were wildly successful with an everyman approach last season. No Philadelphia running back or receiver finished in the top-20 at his position, but Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor were both top-25 receivers, while Ajayi, Blount and Clement were all top-50 running backs. Carson Wentz and Zach Ertz got theirs every week, while the other skill players took turns stepping up alongside them. Why would anything change this year? Blount may be gone, but Clement proved himself too good a real-life player to marginalize. He may not get enough touches to be a real fantasy weapon, but he will have a large enough role to keep Ajayi from being more than a low-end RB2. Don’t forget, too, that Darren Sproles is back. If he can stay healthy, he’ll take another bite out of the running back pie. There’s a realistic path to Ajayi getting fewer than 200 carries, and that makes taking him over the likes of Josh Gordon, Adam Thielen, Travis Kelce and Stefon Diggs a major risk