No fantasy owner’s draft plan should be so rigid as to classify any player as a “must-own,” but it’s wise to enter your draft with a short list of names to target. Below, we identify eight players we believe will be key to winning a fantasy title this season.
You shouldn’t plan to get all of them on your roster – that’s probably impossible – but if you build your draft plan around selecting at least a few players on this list, you’ll greatly increase your chances of fantasy glory this season.
Related: Super deep sleepers for 2017
Average draft position (ADP) data courtesy of FantasyPros and is based on 12-team leagues with standard scoring.
Jameis Winston, QB, Buccaneers
You could spend an early draft pick on Aaron Rodgers, or Tom Brady, or Drew Brees, or you could use that pick on a stud tailback/wideout and wait to draft a quarterback on the cusp of joining the ranks of the NFL’s truly elite passers at a bargain price.
Winston entered the league in 2015 as a borderline generational prospect and has continued to display astronomical potential since then, throwing for more than 4,000 yards and 22 touchdowns as a rookie and following up with 4,000 more yards and 28 touchdowns last year.
With the Buccaneers adding DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard this offseason to complement Mike Evans in their receiving arsenal, the time for Winston’s final ascent is now. Don’t miss out.
Joe Mixon, RB, Bengals
The Bengals have a history of looking past players’ off-field issues, but they wouldn’t have invested a second-round pick in Mixon and endured the public shaming that followed if they didn’t believe he is a game-changing talent.
It’s easy to see why they think that. The vision, patience, elusiveness, and receiving ability Mixon shows on tape conjures images of Le’Veon Bell or David Johnson. He has all the tools to be a three-down player as a pro.
Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill remain in the picture, but there’s not a single thing they do that Mixon can’t do better. This is the rookie’s job to run with, and fantasy owners who can stomach drafting Mixon despite his off-field transgressions will reap the rewards.
Isaiah Crowell, RB, Browns
Recommending a Browns player seems like fantasy blasphemy, but the trend of outright avoiding everyone on their roster is coming to an end.
Crowell was a surprise fantasy starter in 2016, finishing with 952 rushing yards, 319 receiving yards, and seven touchdowns. He averaged an impressive 4.8 yards per carry and ended the year as the RB15 in standard leagues and the RB14 in PPR. The 24-year-old also saw a big increase in passing-game usage over the second half of the season, which bodes well for him holding off Duke Johnson for touches.
Browns head coach Hue Jackson has gone on record saying the team is committed to running the ball, a move that was obvious when it beefed up its offensive line in free agency. All signs are pointing up for Crowell, who has a chance to move into the RB1 conversation.
Derrick Henry, RB, Titans
Think Leonard Fournette running a 4.51 40-yard dash at 240 pounds is impressive? Consider that only a year prior, Henry ran 4.54 at 247 pounds. This is a beast just waiting to be unleashed behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines.
The problem is there’s a major roadblock in the way. His name is DeMarco Murray.
Betting on an injury requires a leap of faith, but in this case it’s a leap worth taking. Though Murray has been more durable in recent seasons than his reputation would suggest, he’s 29 years old and touched the ball nearly 350 times last season.
Henry only needs a tiny opening and he will knock the door off its hinges. It might not come in Week 1, or even by Week 4, but by the fantasy playoffs this will be Henry’s backfield and he should be dominant in the role.
Michael Thomas, WR, Saints
When Sean Payton uncharacteristically offered up fantasy advice last summer, everyone should have listened. Payton suggested he would try to have Thomas on his team if he played fantasy football, and that proved to be more than just coachspeak, as the rookie went on to haul in 92 catches for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns.
Thomas is a student of the game with an unstoppable work ethic, and entering the 2017 season, he’s officially at the top of the Saints depth chart following a trade that sent Brandin Cooks to New England.
While Drew Brees loves to spread the ball around, Thomas should see an increase in targets after Cooks’ departure, which will lead to an even bigger sophomore year.
Martavis Bryant, WR, Steelers
Ask yourself where Bryant would be drafted if his 2016 suspension for substance abuse violations hadn’t occurred. Then consider where he’s actually being selected.
Bryant is a truly dynamic weapon in an offense that should be among the NFL’s best. He’s probably the Steelers’ best red-zone threat and he will never see double coverage thanks to the presence of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.
The Steelers can’t count on Bryant staying out of trouble long-term, but fantasy owners have nothing to lose but a draft pick – and a heck of a lot to gain considering the bargain price Bryant comes at.
John Brown, WR, Cardinals
Brown’s breakout campaign was supposed to occur last year, but issues with his sickle-cell trait affected him all season long. The health woes cut his production in half after a 1,003-yard, seven-touchdown campaign two years ago and left his future in football in doubt.
However, entering 2017, Brown and the Cardinals are extremely optimistic about his recovery, with the receiver saying he’s feeling like himself again and teammates and coaches remarking that he has his explosiveness back.
There’s still plenty of risk attached to Brown, but at his current ADP (WR47) he’s a player worth targeting in every draft.
Martellus Bennett, TE, Packers
Bennett has been a top-10 fantasy tight end in three of the last four years and, barring injury, he’s a lock to do the same in his first season with the Packers.
While the Packers haven’t featured the tight end prominently in their offense, Aaron Rodgers has never had a talent like Bennett to work with at the position. Bennett isn’t going to challenge for 1,000 yards, but his touchdown total will more than make up for that. Repeating the numbers he posted in New England last season – 701 yards, seven touchdowns – is easily attainable and would keep him comfortably as a mid-level TE1.
Outside of Rob Gronkowski, there isn’t a tight end worth spending a high pick on, so why not wait to address the position later in the draft with a potential weekly difference-maker like Bennett.
More from this series
- Breakouts to target
- Busts to avoid
- Sleepers to steal
- Risky picks to gamble on
- Bounce-back candidates
- Super deep sleepers
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