David Johnson Is No. 2, Be Patient and Wait for Luck and Mahomes, the Non-Saquon Rookie You Want

Gary Gramling
Sports Illustrated
Plus, tight ends to target, a couple of face-melting sleepers, why this is the year for DeVante Parker oh my God I swear it’s true, how to DOMINATE!!! your draft, why your fantasy football playoff system is dumb, and why you have to stop asking other people to set your lineup for you

David Johnson Is No. 2, Be Patient and Wait for Luck and Mahomes, the Non-Saquon Rookie You Want

Plus, tight ends to target, a couple of face-melting sleepers, why this is the year for DeVante Parker oh my God I swear it’s true, how to DOMINATE!!! your draft, why your fantasy football playoff system is dumb, and why you have to stop asking other people to set your lineup for you

1. Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. That opening line gives me the option of veering off and making this a Rodgers and Hammerstein column should I feel compelled. But, no, we’ll stick with fantasy football, and what do to if you have a pick in the top four, but don’t have all the picks in the top four.

Todd Gurley is the No. 1 overall pick and it’s not really debatable. And that’s because, among other things, the Rams are better in the screen game than any group of humans are at anything. That’s Gurley, but it’s also Sean McVay’s designs and play-calling, and Andrew Whitworth and Rodger Saffold getting out as blockers. Even if the Rams’ rushing attack slides back, Gurley is going to rip off enough big plays in the screen game to more than make up for it. He’s essentially bust-proof because of it.

If you pick second and Gurley is gone, David Johnson is your guy. He’s healthy, and the best part is his legs are fresh because, while he missed 15-plus games last year, it wasn’t the usual knee/ankle/foot stuff that sinks a running back’s stock. On top of that, the Cardinals quietly upgraded their offensive line this offseason, and they’re going to be fine under center, whether it’s Sam Bradford in the three quarters before he shatters his pelvis or whatever, or Josh Rosen after that.

Le’Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliott are fine in the 3 and 4 slots. Flip a coin. Or go alphabetically. By first name. Or last name. The problem with Bell is that he didn’t rip off many big plays last year (three rushes of 20-plus yards), suggesting maybe decline is setting in. And a 431-touch season in 2017 won’t soothe your jangled nerves. As for Elliott, the Cowboys don’t have a single pass-catcher on the roster who warrants a double team. It’s not an exaggeration to claim they enter the year with the worst group of passing game weapons in football. On one hand probably means a few more catches for Elliott. But on another hand means every opponent loading the box with every defender and their extended families. And that’s it, just two hands. I don’t think Dallas is going to score many points in 2018.

2. The thing the kids were talking about this time last year was how Julio Jones was going to be featured in the red zone. He was not. Again. You can throw out 2013, when he was limited to five games, but he still has only 23 touchdowns over the past four seasons combined.

It’s all due to the lack of a role in the red zone, where he has 10 TD catches since 2014, which is the same number as guys like Andre Holmes and Richard Rodgers and Gary Barnidge—who wasn’t even in the NFL last season—during that span. Over the last two seasons, fellow Falcons Mohamed Sanu (16 rec, 9 TDs) and Austin Hooper (10, 4) each had more red-zone catches and TDs than Jones (9, 3).

In PPR leagues, Julio is still a surefire first-rounder. Half-PPR leagues? Sure, first round, but you’re getting more floor than ceiling. Standard leagues? He’s not a first-round pick.

3. Saquon Barkley is a first-round pick in every format. He’s going to play three downs—the Giants need him to play three downs—he’ll immediately be one of the top-five receiving backs in football, and (if his college tape is any indication) fellow rookie Will Hernandez is going to be one of the league’s better pulling guards, which should allow the Giants to play a simple numbers game when Barkley’s on the field, resulting in a lot of yards and a lot of points.

After Barkley, Rashaad Penny is the rookie you want. Chris Carson is probably healthy and Pete Carroll loves competition, etc., but with needs across the roster this spring the Seahawks invested a first-round pick at a non-essential position. They clearly think Penny is something special, and they’ll have egg on their collective face if he ends up in a limited role this year.

Then there's Derrius Guice, whose momentous draft-day slide took him all the way from early second round to late second round and who is already on a Hall of Fame trajectory after proving to be untackleable during non-contact drills this spring. I really do understand the hype—his college tape looks like Marshawn Lynch circa 2012 and his name is an anagram for “cruise guider.” But Chris Thompson is likely to come into camp healthy, and he’s too valuable in the passing game to not get close to half the snaps in Washington. Factor in the downgrade from Kirk Cousins to Alex Smith (understand, Smith doesn’t get to bring Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill with him), and Guice is going to have a tough time breaking into the top 15 RBs this year, even in standard leagues.

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4. At QB, take a pass on Rodgers/Brady/Wilson/Watson and wait for Andrew Luck and/or Patrick Mahomes.

Luck is going to play and, more importantly, play for a team with the NFL’s worst defense. Perhaps Matt Eberflus, Indy’s first-year defensive coordinator, has some tricks up his sleeve, but I'm not sure anything short of sneaking 14 defenders onto the field at a time is going to help. It's all on paper right now, but this roster looks like it is going to give up close to 500 points this year (right now I’m referring to the season as a whole, but I reserve the right to amend that number to per-game). Luck is going to be playing from behind constantly, and considering the investment they made in the offensive line this offseason, it seems Frank Reich is ready to basically let Luck play with a similar reckless abandon he played with pre-injury.

As for Mahomes, look at it this way: For stretches last season, Alex Smith was more aggressive than he’s been in the past, but Smith was still overly conservative. However, with Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill—the latter of whom created some easy long throws when he ran straight past an opposing defense—and one of the best offensive lines in football, Smith threw for 4,042 yards and 26 TDs. Mahomes will never be considered conservative. He’ll also have Sammy Watkins as a third option. Mahomes might be turnover-prone in his first year as a starter, but his aggressiveness is a must considering his talent and the group he’ll be throwing to. Have a Plan B in place, but Mahomes has the potential to put up something in the neighborhood of 4,500 yards and 35 TDs this year.

5. Similarly but also not really the same: With tight ends, if you can get Gronkowski or Travis Kelce in the third or even the late second, go for it. If you miss out on them, sit it out (unless you think this is the year Jordan Reed stays healthy, which it probably isn’t because Jordan Reed never stays healthy).

Wait around for Trey Burton, David Njoku or Tyler Eifert. And if you manage to miss on those three as well, go Eric Ebron. That’s right, Eric Ebron. The Lions stopped playing him because of his outright refusal to block anyone, anywhere, ever. That didn’t stop the Colts from signing him, which tells you that the Colts don’t anticipate asking him to block anyone. And as, essentially, a supersized receiver on a team that doesn’t have a big receiving target opposite T.Y. Hilton, plus getting to catch passes from Andrew Luck, Ebron actually becomes an interesting fellow, even with the continued existence of Jack Doyle.

Also, just to be clear, earlier in this section I was referring to Rob Gronkowski. For the Patriots. Not Glenn. Or any of the retired Gronkowskis.

6. Of course, if you truly want to DOMINATE YOUR DRAFT!!!!! the way so, so many publications and websites suggest you should want to do, you’re going to want to rely on physical domination. Insist that your friends get together at your place for the draft. For fun. Entice everyone to come over with the promise of free pizza and beer. Then, once the draft starts, take out a fresh slice and slap another participant across the face with it, blinding them with scalding hot grease. Or, that beer you promised? Don't let on that you've boiled it to 250 degrees and plan on showeing it upon your friends-turned-hated opponents. Remember, almost anything in your home can be turned into a weapon. Especially a broadsword. Also…

O.K., hang on, our legal team says I can not encourage you to harm or threaten people with a broadsword during your fantasy football draft. However…

All right, one sec, I’m also being told to tell you not to do any of that other stuff either, the scalding and burning stuff. So I guess maybe just have everyone stay in their individual homes and draft online. Unless you enjoy the company of others.

• SI’S 2018 FANTASY DRAFT PREP: Everything you need to get ready for fantasy draft season, from rankings to sleepers to the SI mock draft.

7. Remember that episode of Mad Men where Pete and Harry Crane are talking about DeVante Parker’s upcoming breakout season. It’s the one where they drink alcohol and talk about advertising. And it speaks to the historical accuracy of the show, because people have been anticipating DeVante Parker’s breakout season since the early 1960s.

This is the year though. The Ryan Tannehill-Jarvis Landry romance that once captured our hearts is over, and Parker is the new go-to guy in Miami. He’s the best player, and as my podcast co-host/world-renowned chef Andy Benoit mentioned on our Wide Receivers Show: Adam Gase is getting into Parker as a screen game weapon, because Parker is a physical, no-nonsense runner after the catch. There are only so many points to be milked out of that Dolphins offense, but Landry’s departure opens up some 150 targets of possession-type throws, and they’re not all going to Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson. Kenny Stills remains a big-play guy but not really an underneath/intermediate target. I think Parker ends up leading Miami in catches and yards. If he can squeeze out eight TDs along the way (and at his size, he should be a bigger red-zone factor), baby you've got a stew going.

8. I’ve tried to be nice about this, but if you’re still doing your fantasy playoffs in December you’re a frickin’ goober.

This is how you construct a fantasy football season schedule: Fantasy regular season is the NFL regular season, Weeks 1 through 16. Don’t play Week 17, too many guys sit out. And you don’t do playoffs in Weeks 15 and 16 because too many guys are injured and it turns the whole fantasy season into a war of attrition.

After 16 games (everyone has a 16-game record, just like the teams in real life!), the top six advances to the playoffs, which is essentially a series of daily-fantasy matchups through the NFL playoffs. But instead of salary-cap leagues (like you’d get in DFS), you do a non-serpentine draft, with draft order based on regular season record (thus, instead of 1-2-3-4, 4-3-2-1, your draft goes 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4). No keepers, regular season-to-playoffs or playoff round-to-playoff round. The playoff schedule is as follows:

Wild-Card: 3-seed vs. 6 seed, 4-seed vs. 5-seed, top two seeds get byes

Divisional: 1-seed vs. lower-seeded Wild-Card winner, 2-seed vs. higher-seeded Wild-Card winner

Conference Title Games: Two Divisional Round winners, for the championship

Can’t find a site that will do that playoff format for you? Oh, God forbid you open a spreadsheet, you baby.

Anyway, sorry for calling you a goober. And a baby. But just know: People are making fun of you behind your back because your fantasy football playoffs are stupid.

9. These next guys, I like the cut of their jibs…

Rex Burkhead: You should probably avoid the Patriots backfield altogether, but it's tough to ignore that offense and Burkhead has the highest upside as the most well-rounded back in New England. He can be a factor in the passing game, but more importantly he’s the favorite to handle goal-line duties.

Jimmy Graham: Aaron Rodgers has been hankering for those chess piece tight ends the last couple seasons, first Jared Cook, then Martellus Bennett, now Graham. Davante Adams is the clear-cut No. 1 target, but with Jordy Nelson gone there are red-zone targets to be had in Green Bay. It’s well within the realm of possibility for Graham to collect double-digit TDs. And as for outside the 20, Graham spent the last couple seasons playing with the second-best improv QB in football in Russell Wilson. Now he gets to play with the best. He’s my top TE choice after Gronk and Kelce.

Austin Ekeler and Tarik Cohen: If you’re asking, Who’s this year’s Alvin Kamara?, the answer is no one. But if you’re going to be a jerk about it, I’ll nominate Ekeler and Cohen as guys who could catch 80 passes for 800 yards and add in the neighborhood of 500 rushing yards (though double-digit TDs—Kamara had 13 last year—is a stretch). I’m not sure the Chargers want to lean on Melvin Gordon the way they did last year, so expect a healthy amount of playing time for Ekeler. And Philip Rivers is as good as any quarterback in football at getting to his checkdown quickly and giving that back a chance to create. As for Cohen, you saw what he could do in spots last year and he’s in for an expanded role in 2018. While Jordan Howard is a far superior runner, new head coach Matt Nagy surely prefers a back who can be a factor in the passing game. And Nagy has already proclaimed that Cohen is “a player you can get giddy about,” despite the fact that, as Cliff Clavin once said in Cheers, “Men don’t get giddy.” It was the episode where they’re at the bar.

Amari Cooper: I’m actually not that excited about Cooper, but I think he’ll do a lot of work out of the slot this year (covering up his near-fatal flaw of not being able to get off the line of scrimmage against press coverage), and the departure of Michael Crabtree opens up a lot of targets. I’m not sure he’ll ever be a red-zone factor, but Cooper is in line for 100-plus catches and 1,000 yards if things go well.

Dion Lewis: Derrick Henry will have a significant role, but look at the last two offenses new Titans OC Matt LaFleur worked in: 2016 Falcons under Kyle Shanahan, 2017 Rams under Sean McVay. Both those teams were among football’s best in the screen game, and at marrying the running game and passing attack. That’s Lewis, not Henry. Lewis is obviously much more valuable in PPR formats, and in half-PPR. I think he’s also going to give Henry a run for his money in standard leagues, getting more playing time and touches, though Henry will likely take all goal-line carries.

Joe Mixon: It’s just a matter of whether or not the Bengals can block anyone. If Cordy Glenn and Billy Price provide a legitimate upgrade up front, Mixon is a top-10 fantasy value.

Jerick McKinnon: Though it seems everyone loves him now. McKinnon is a perfect fit in a Kyle Shanahan offense. Durability might be the only question.

Taywan Taylor: Just a hunch, but let’s proclaim him the first of two face-melting sleepers. He’s a much better fit as an underneath target/gadget guy in LaFleur’s offense than he ever would have been in Mike Mularkey’s exotic smashmouth. I think Taylor has a chance to catch 75 passes and hold some FLEX value as a PPR target.

Jordan Wilkins: Face-melting sleeper No. 2, and probably the more melty one. He was my favorite NFL draft sleeper last spring. Wilkins had an abbreviated career at Ole Miss because of academic problems, so he comes into the league with plenty of juice left in his legs, and he needed only 181 touches to put up 1,252 yards from scrimmage in the SEC last season, (he had 146 yards over 21 career carries—7.0 average—against Alabama). He’s a big back with speed, creativity, and passing-game skills (even if he has to get a little more serious about blitz pickup). The knock is that he’s “finesse” for a big back, though I thought that was more a matter of trying to bounce everything outside, a habit he should be able to break with more reps (the more you see, the better your instincts become) and with the benefit of NFL coaching. He’s the best pure talent in Indy’s backfield by a wide margin. It’s just a matter of how quickly he comes along. This is your 2018 version of Alex Collins (who I told you about this time last year). Make Wilkins your last pick if you can.

Eric Ebron, David Njoku, Gerald Everett: Three late-round tight ends. Ebron is covered above, Njoku has a chance to carve out at least a big red-zone role in Cleveland, and I’m less bullish on Everett since the Brandin Cooks acquisition, but I think Sean McVay has some things in store for him as a moveable piece.

10. Last thing: Don’t ask anyone for lineup advice—experts, "experts," anyone. Or at least try not to. You can if you really want to. But it’s your team, you’re the one participating and it’s supposed to be fun. When I’m playing basketball, I don’t catch on the wing and then ask someone else to chuck a three for me. When I golf, I don’t get to the green and then ask someone else to putt for me. When I order a meal I don't ask someone else to chew it for me. When I’m being intimate with my wife, I don’t . . . well, you get the picture.

Plus, as someone who has reluctantly answered thousands of lineup questions over the years, most of them are 53/47 propositions anyway. They’re coin flips. You can make your own guess, be your own man/woman, control your own destiny. And if it’s not a coin flip proposition—if you’re racking your brain wondering whether you should start Titans WR Rishard Matthews or Gérard de Nerval at your FLEX spot, because Nerval has been dead for more than a century-and-a-half but was one of the most important figures in the emergence of romanticism in 19th-century French literature and his influence on the Surrealist movement is undeniable and that's gotta count for something, and also Matthews is facing a tough Jaguars secondary—you’re not winning anything anyway, so just have fun and play the guys you feel like playing.

Also, lineup questions usually require going onto Twitter, and that place is the worst. Never go on Twitter. Make that your New Year’s resolution in July. But mostly, set your own lineup because I believe in you.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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