Fantasy draft risers
Christian McCaffrey: I entered draft season wary of McCaffrey, given his big splits with/without Greg Olsen last year (who Carolina gets back), and the Panthers also adding D.J. Moore and C.J. Anderson, having a shaky offensive line and employing arguably the league’s best goal-line runner at quarterback. McCaffrey also graded last in pass blocking efficiency and near the bottom in YPC after contact (2.1) last season.
However, he’s being treated as a true workhorse, seeing nearly 90% of the preseason snaps with Cam Newton (compared to 11% by CJA), even getting 10 carries in the first quarter of Friday’s game. McCaffrey always had a high floor given he led all RBs in targets as a rookie, and it’s certainly possible he improves as a runner in year two. With so many question marks at the position soon thereafter, McCaffrey makes a lot of sense early in the second round staring at such a big workload.
Alfred Morris: He started the 49ers’ third preseason game and dominated first-team snaps, running for 84 yards on 17 carries (he had another nice run called back on penalty). Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida are expected back for Week 1, but both are dealing with injuries and neither are proven workhorses (McKinnon’s never had 160 rushing attempts in a season). Meanwhile, Morris got 4.8 YPC last season and has thrived in Kyle Shanahan’s system before, averaging 1,444 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns during two years together in Washington. He doesn’t play special teams, but after Saturday’s performance, it’d be shocking if Morris didn’t make San Francisco’s roster, and he’s quickly become one of the better late-round fliers as a result. Morris could be looking at immediate goal-line work with room for much more in an offense with a ton of upside.
Keelan Cole: Marqise Lee was carted off the field during Saturday’s game with a knee injury that looked possibly season-ending, and if that’s the case, Cole’s value gets a huge boost as Jacksonville’s likely new No. 1 receiver. Over a four-game stretch as a rookie late last season, Cole had 442 receiving yards with three scores. He got an elite 9.01 yards-per-target while Blake Bortles managed just 7.0 YPA, as only three receivers averaged more yards after the catch than Cole, who clearly offers more upside than Lee (I moved Cole well ahead of where I had Lee on my WR rankings). Dede Westbrook needs to be bumped up draft boards and becomes quite interesting now as well.
Patrick Mahomes: He officially grabbed the fantasy world’s attention when he completed this TD pass that traveled farther in the air (68.6 yards) than any touchdown thrown in all of 2017 and by a wide margin. Mahomes takes over a position that finished as fantasy’s QB4 last season, and he has a bunch of rushing ability to go along with that cannon, so only a handful of quarterbacks match his upside this year.
Moreover, Tyreek Hill, who’s one of the fastest players in the league, now suddenly has a QB like this throwing to him after having the league’s most risk-adverse passer in Alex Smith over the first two years of his career. Sammy Watkins has also struggled in camp while learning a new offense, and while everyone expects Hill to regress, it’s pretty remarkable he’s put up 2,102 yards from scrimmage with 20 touchdowns on a modest 188 targets over the first two seasons of his career as a deep threat with a QB who hated throwing deep (Smith ranked 18th and 38th in Deep% over the last two years). Hill finished second in fantasy points per target last season, and hopefully a fading KC defense leads to a faster pace after they ranked 31st in Sec/Play (neutral situations) in 2017. My colleague Liz Loza strongly disagrees, but I’m moving Hill up my WR draft board.
Trey Burton: He’s been a great fit in Travis Kelce’s part in Matt Nagy’s offense (Mitchell Trubisky has targeted Burton on a third of his attempts over the first two preseason games), and that role was only solidified with TE Adam Shaheen out indefinitely. The Bears have a ton of targets available, and Allen Robinson remains a question mark as the team’s No. 1 passing option. Burton is top-five on my tight end board.
Josh Gordon: He’s back with the Browns and cleared to practice (although now dealing with hamstring tightness), making Gordon the biggest risk/reward pick in fantasy football this year. Moreover, teammate Carlos Hyde has also seen an ADP bump, as he’s clearly beaten out rookie Nick Chubb as Cleveland’s lead back entering the year.
John Brown: I was as guilty as any of hyping Brown last year, and there’s always concern about his health, but he’s been the talk of Baltimore’s camp, and his speed is a good complement to Joe Flacco’s strong arm. Michael Crabtree is one of the more easily replaceable WR1s in the league, and Brown is just two seasons removed from ranking third in the NFL in yards per target (9.9).
Adrian Peterson: Washington signed Peterson to give him a chance as its lead back with Derrius Guice out for the season, as the alternatives on the roster are weak. He immediately saw most of the first-team snaps Friday, when he impressed rushing for 56 yards on 11 carries (and further moving up draft boards). But Peterson is 33 years old, has 2,500+ career rushing attempts and is nonexistent as a receiver, so those willing to draft him at his rising price are likely to be left disappointed.
Fantasy draft fallers
Dalvin Cook: It was nice to see Cook back in action Saturday for the first time since his ACL tear, but it was brief (one series), and it’s become increasingly clear he’s going to split more work with Latavius Murray than fantasy owners would like, especially those who spent an expensive pick on him earlier this summer. The Vikings also have a few questions on their offensive line, and Murray is plenty capable of taking advantage of increased touches (including at the goal line), so Cook looks like a risky second round pick even before the ACL factor.
Tarik Cohen: The Bears’ coaching staff has stayed true to their word, treating Jordan Howard as the team’s feature back, even splitting third-down work. The 5-6 Cohen will make some big plays this season, but his ADP is dropping like his projected touches.
Ronald Jones: He’s been badly outplayed by Peyton Barber all summer, struggling in pass protection and even prompting the Buccaneers’ RB coach to say “there’s probably a reason” the rookie wasn’t thrown to much at USC. Jones played on just 3-of-34 first-team snaps during the team’s first two preseason games and once again took a backseat to Barber over the weekend. Taken early second round on a Tampa Bay team with a bunch of young upside at the skill positions aside from running back, Jones had a golden opportunity to have huge fantasy value right away, but he’s been one of August’s biggest draft fallers instead.
Rashaad Penny: He was already looking like Chris Carson’s backup entering the year even before suffering a broken finger, and now reports have Penny weighing 236 pounds at camp this week. That’s 16 pounds more than at the combine, which is significant. Penny has the pedigree and upside, but Carson has been the better fantasy pick for a while now, and that gap is only increasing.
Dez Bryant: A once-promising option to sign in Cleveland vanished with Josh Gordon’s return, leaving Bryant an increasingly short timeframe to find a new team. It’s unclear if he’s asking for too much, or if teams fear he’s washed up (or maybe both), but it’s obvious Bryant is running out of time (and options) to be fantasy relevant again anytime soon. He’s still not 30 years old.