Sixty players come off the board in the first five rounds of a 12-team fantasy football draft. Many of these players are sure things, but some of them have the widest range of realistic possible outcomes in the league. We take a look at eight such players in our profile of this season’s ultimate high-risk/high-reward fantasy football candidates.
Devonta Freeman, RB, Falcons
Freeman was the No. 1 overall fantasy player in 2015. The next season, he ranked sixth among running backs in all scoring formats while racking up 1,079 rushing yards, 54 receptions, 462 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. He took a bit of a step back in 2017, but still had 865 rushing yards, 36 receptions, 317 receiving yards and eight scores, doing that in 14 games. Injuries robbed him of his 2018 season, and health concerns have pushed him outside the top 30 in average draft position.
The injury issues are certainly valid, but consider what Freeman did on a per-game basis from 2015 through 2017. The 27-year-old averaged 66.7 rushing yards, 3.6 receptions, 30.2 receiving yards and 0.8 touchdowns per game. That comes out to 1,067 rushing yards, 58 receptions, 483 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns over a full 16-game season, with each stat rounded to the nearest whole number. In fantasy terms, Freeman has played at a 16-game pace of 262 points per year over the last three seasons in half-PPR leagues. That would’ve made him the No. 6 back last year, sandwiched between Ezekiel Elliott and James Conner.
Tevin Coleman is gone, and while Ito Smith will certainly have a role in Atlanta’s offense, Freeman can be nearly a bellcow if he stays healthy. He could go totally bust, but his reasonable ADP makes him worth the risk. — Michael Beller
Joe Mixon, RB, Bengals
No one needs to be reminded of just how good Mixon is. Yet his 11.4 ADP completely dismisses the obvious risk in leaning on him as a first-round pick. In short, a back on a bad team typically needs extreme volume or to be a major part of the passing game to transcend his environment. We saw that last year from Saquon Barkley, who rode 261 carries and 121 targets to be the No. 2 back in all scoring formats last year, trailing only Todd Gurley. Mixon certainly could dominate Cincinnati’s backfield on the ground this year the way Barkley did last year, but he’s never been a huge part of the aerial attack. Mixon had 34 targets as a rookie and 55 last year, and has a career receiving line of 73 receptions for 583 yards and one touchdown. The new coaching staff could increase his role in the passing game, but Giovani Bernard is still in the fold, and the Bengals have a couple of high-volume receivers in A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd. Mixon’s too good and has too large a presence in the offense to be a bust, but there’s serious risk in treating him as a no-doubt RB1. Mixon could end the season as the top scorer in fantasy leagues, or fall out of the RB1 class, and that makes him one of the most confounding players with a top-15 ADP. — MB
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Jets
Bell’s move to the Jets fills the much-needed role of a feature back for New York, and the volume should be there for Bell to at least have the opportunity to post league-winning numbers like he has in the past. The Jets ranked fifth in percentage of touches given to their running backs last season despite winning only four games. Adam Gase’s arrival as the head coach should push that usage trend forward—Gase’s offenses have ranked in the top 10 in running back touch share in three of the last four seasons. Bell should finish near the top of the league in touches, but his situation comes with significant risk.
The biggest concern for Bell is his offensive line. In Pittsburgh, Bell ran behind a line that ranked in the top 10 in adjusted line yards in each of the last four seasons. New York finished dead last in that category in 2018, and 4for4’s Justin Edwards projects the Jets to again have one of the worst o-line units in the league. On the team level, New York will have to make significant strides to give Bell the touchdown upside needed to finish near the top in fantasy leagues as the Jets finished 31st in yards per drive last season. The combination of massive volume but on a potentially bad offense behind an untalented line gives Bell one of the widest ranges of outcomes of running backs taken in the first two rounds. — T.J. Hernandez
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs
Mahomes is a curious case because while I firmly believe that he can repeat as fantasy’s QB1 in 2019, he still comes with some risk. It comes down to price and regression. By paying up for a quarterback that might go as early as the second or third round, you are banking on a repeat of last season while also passing up on position players that offer far more value over replacement level than most quarterbacks ever will. Mahomes outscored 2018’s QB2 by 73.7 fantasy points, the largest gap between the top two fantasy quarterbacks this decade—over the previous 10 seasons, the average point differential between the top two passers was 26.7 points.
Not only was Mahomes the second quarterback ever to crack 400 fantasy points, but he posted the best fantasy season in history while becoming the seventh quarterback to reach a touchdown rate better than 8.5%. For perspective, the top two active career touchdown rates belong to Aaron Rodgers (6.2%) and Russell Wilson (6.0%). Simply put, Mahomes and the Chiefs were scoring at an unsustainable rate. The possibility of playing without Tyreek Hill for at least paert of the season limits the potential explosiveness of this offense and Mahomes’ upside. Even if Mahomes finishes as the QB1, it’s unlikely that he does so by such a big margin that it justifies his price. — TJH
Derrick Henry, RB, Titans
Henry is the epitome of high-risk, high-reward in 2019. If you believe in his strong finish from last season, when he racked up 585 yards and seven touchdowns on 87 carries for an impressive 6.72 yards per carry over the last four games, then he’s certainly worthy of a top-40 pick. Of course, there’s also the Henry from Weeks 1–13, who averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and found the end zone four times. Which Henry do we see in 2019?
The expectations are that Tennessee will lean on Henry all season the way it did over the final month last year when he won people fantasy championships. However, if Henry starts out cold like in previous years, he may not get that chance. The Titans’ run-first plan also may be thwarted by their schedule, as they face Deshaun Watson and Andrew Luck twice, along with the Browns, Chiefs, Chargers, Saints, Falcons, Panthers and Buccaneers, all of which could have powerful offenses this season.
Henry is indeed an imposing runner, but for my fantasy money he’s too game-script dependent and not involved enough in the passing game to warrant his current ADP. — Jen Eakins
Tyler Lockett, WR, Seahawks
There is a plethora of reasons to love Lockett in 2019 and just one big one that makes him risky. Lockett has a clear path to the top of the depth chart in Seattle with Doug Baldwin hanging up his cleats, and he’s proven that he can be at least a WR2 in fantasy leagues. He checked in with double-digit PPR fantasy points in 15 of 17 games in 2018 and did not register one drop the entire season. Russell Wilson had a perfect passer rating when targeting Lockett. Yes, perfect. According to NFL Football Operations, from 2002 through 2017, the highest target number for a receiver whose quarterback had a perfect rating when throwing him the ball was 15. Lockett had 70 targets last year.
That all sounds great, right? Enter Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. It’s well known that he loves to establish the run and will most likely stay in that lane in 2019. Seattle topped the league in rush attempts last season with 534, to just 427 pass attempts. The run-heavy model of this offense is Lockett’s main drawback, and brings real risk to his outlook. Still, considering he ended last season with the 17th-most PPR points among receivers and was one of the most efficient receivers in the league, I’m all-in on Lockett at his current fifth-round ADP. — JE
Kenyan Drake, RB, Dolphins
Kenyan Drake was supposed to break out a year ago. Drafted as a potential RB2, Drake was a massive disappointment for fantasy owners, thanks in large part to confusing underutilization by the erstwhile Miami coaching staff. Drake saw a mere 120 carries compared to 156 for Frank Gore. While he did catch 53 passes and finished the season with a combined 1,012 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns, it was a far cry from what owners hoped for when they took him in the third round of most drafts.
This season, Gore has moved on to the Bills and the coaching staff has been replaced. Drake should be primed for a much larger workload. If he gets only a modest 30% increase in carries, he projects to finish as a top-10 fantasy back. On the other hand, if the new coaching staff decides he’s still not ready for more than 10.8 touches per game, he could be a huge disappointment, as his post-hype sleeper reputation has put him back in RB2 territory. Drake is currently being drafted in the fifth round, and for the second consecutive season, he’s a boom-or-bust option with significant upside. I think he’s well worth the risk. — Brandon Niles
Adam Thielen, WR, Vikings
Thielen was the best receiver in fantasy through eight weeks last season. He began the year with eight straight 100-yard receiving games and scored in seven of his first nine contests. However, he only finished with one 100-yard game over the second half of the season and scored just twice in his last seven games. Thielen also saw only four targets per game after offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was fired and replaced by Kevin Stefanski, who remains in charge of Minnesota’s offense this year. If the last three games of last year were any indication for the team’s direction this season, the Vikings may run the ball as much as any team in the league. Two of Kirk Cousins’ three games with fewer than 30 pass attempts were after Stefanski took over. That’s a small sample size, but with an early third-round price tag attached to Thielen, Stefanski’s 2018 play-calling has to be considered a major risk factor.
Thielen still has obvious upside. If the new offense clicks and Thielen and Cousins rekindle that magic from the first half of last season, he’ll be a bargain in the third round. But if his early-season success was an outlier, it could be a long year for fantasy owners drafting him as a borderline WR1 option. There’s too much risk here for me to trust him at his ADP. — BN