Overlooked fantasy winners from major NFL offseason moves: Let Phase 2 of Josh Jacobs' evolution begin

Liz Loza
·7 min read

Less than two rounds into the NFL Draft and pundits web-wide were declaring individual winners and losers. We’ve all heard the “Dak is gonna be a top-three fantasy football quarterback” and “Clyde Edwards-Helaire for fantasy MVP” takes by now. But there’s nuance to everything. Plenty of other players — ones without product endorsements and/or first-round draft pedigrees — also received a boost. Below are five not-so-obvious winners of the offseason.

Jarrett Stidham, QB, New England Patriots

On a recent episode of the Yahoo Sports NFL Podcast, Terez Paylor emphatically argued that the 2020 Patriots will win at least nine games (and Vegas agrees). That, of course, doesn’t mean that Stidham will post QB1 FF stats, but it is an affront to the “Pats are gonna suck” narrative. There is no player in the league with a bigger opportunity than Stidham, emerging as the leading cast member in what is likely to be Bill Belichick's Magnum Opus.

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Bouncing back from a down 2018 at Auburn, Stidham flashed throughout last summer’s training camp, ultimately beating out Brian Hoyer for the backup job. He followed that up with a solid preseason, completing nearly 68 percent of his passes and posting a YPA of 8.2. A smart player praised for his accuracy, touch, and quick release, Stidham is a clean passer who is often compared to Alex Smith. That same measured approach aligns with New England’s current offensive philosophy of meticulous chain-moving that establishes the run and prioritizes swift throws to the short and intermediate portions of the field.

Obviously, checking down and running the ball aren’t conduits to teeming fantasy production, but they do provide Stidham with an attainable foundation from which to grow. And let’s not forget that TB12 passed for fewer than 200 yards and 1 TD per game as the team’s starter, finishing as fake football’s QB22 back in 2001. The following year, however, momentum built and his stats lifted significantly, as he cracked the top-twelve fantasy passers and began his ascent to greatness.

I’m not elevating Stidham to GOAT status, but I am making the case for a player with late-round draft pedigree and underrated weapons to surprise us. As my colleague Dalton Del Don pointed out in a recent article, New England’s skill position players are better than people realize. With N’Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu back to health, Marqise Lee added, and former childhood teammate Damien Harris poised for a breakout, this offense has just enough juice for Stidham to squeeze. Ranked my QB28 on the season for redraft, I’m higher on him than the consensus and willing to lean into his upside when stashing for dynasty and/or hunting for value in 2QB and Superflex leagues.

Josh Jacobs, RB, Las Vegas Raiders

With 2.5 aerial weapons added to his arsenal, Derek Carr is a clear offseason winner. But he’s not the only beneficiary. Jacobs — who put together a solid rookie campaign (RB17, overall) despite playing through a fractured shoulder since Week 7 — should get more room to run, as well as an increase in passing game action.

The Alabama product saw at least seven defenders in the box for over 53% of his carries last year. Additionally, he averaged an impressive 4.9 YPC when facing those stacked fronts. In 2020 he’ll reunite with his former college teammate Henry Ruggs, whose sub-4.3 speed will stretch the field and test the mettle of opposing DCs. Factor in the defensive attention needed to quell Bryan Edwards’ physicality and Darren Waller’s athleticism, and Jacobs’ light-front carry rate figures to spike.

While it would seem an increased number of pass-catchers — as well as Jalen Richard’s contract extension — could eat into Jacobs’ target share, Mike Mayock has remained emphatic about the lead back’s expanded involvement in the passing game. In fact, the Raiders’ GM decreed 2020 “Phase 2” of Jacobs’ development. Last year, the 22-year-old drew a frustrating 2.2 looks per contest. Since then, however, the team has parted ways with DeAndre Washington, who gobbled up 40 looks. As this offense evolves and adds the complementary pieces necessary to stay competitive within the AFC West, so too does Jacobs’ evolution into every-down stud continue to progress.

Josh Jacobs #28 of the Oakland Raiders scores
This offseason has been good to Josh Jacobs. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Mecole Hardman, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

Less than a week ago Tyreek Hill stated that there existed “no ceiling” for Hardman and that he’s “definitely a 1000-yard receiver.” The rest of the Chiefs organization appears to be in agreement, as they chose to eschew the wide receiver position during the NFL draft. This hints at a larger role for Hardman moving forward. Sure, Sammy Watkins is still making starter money, but his latest interview has undoubtedly ruffled organizational feathers and could motivate KC to look elsewhere beyond 2020.

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That’s where Hardman becomes interesting. He may have only managed a snap share of 43% in 2019 but he made every play count … averaging a filthy 20.7 YPR (WR1) and hauling in six TDs on 26 catches. In fact, the Georgia product averaged 47.8 yards per catch on those six scores, which was the highest of all NFL players with at least four spikes. Currently available until the ninth round of fantasy drafts, Hardman has an opportunity to earn starter snaps in one of (if not THE) most lit offenses in the NFL.

Devin Funchess, WR, Green Bay Packers

One man’s loss is another’s gain. So it goes for Aaron Rodgers and Devin Funchess. The Packers’ brass passed on drafting a receiver in the deepest class we’ve seen since 2014 (or ever?), making Funchess the favorite for No. 2 duties opposite Davante Adams. It’s possible that Rodgers’ frequent house guest Allen Lazard could challenge the vet for total opportunities, but with Jimmy Graham’s departure freeing up 65 targets, there are looks to be had nonetheless.

Some might argue that Funchess’ 2017 season — wherein he posted a 63-840-8 stat line and top-20 fantasy numbers — was an anomaly. I would argue that when his size (6-foot-4, 232 pounds) and skill set (HaSS in the 87th percentile) were prioritized and properly utilized (remember, Kelvin Benjamin was traded to Buffalo on Halloween that year) he was able to produce. The following year, however, Funchess’ momentum was derailed by a change in offensive philosophy as well as the addition of Combine Crusher DJ Moore. More bad luck followed in 2019 when Funchess broke his collarbone during the season opener and his debut as an Indianapolis Colt.

That leads us to the present … where a 26-year-old receiver with an enviable catch radius and undeniable red-zone appeal is attached to Aaron Rodgers but remains largely undrafted by fantasy managers. The risk vs. reward proposition here provides a winning situation for all parties involved. Lean into it.

Mike Gesicki, TE, Miami Dolphins

A 97th percentile SPARQ athlete, Gesicki’s testing scores at the 2018 Combine broke minds. His on-the-field play that same year broke hearts. As an original author of those hype-train pieces, I understand the fantasy fatigue surrounding offseason prognostication inspired by the Penn State standout. But there’s no denying that his situation continues to improve.

Consistently deployed out of the slot and utilized more as a receiver than a traditional tight end in 2019, Gesicki posted top-seven numbers in route participation (71.6%) and total targets (nearly six per game). That usage resulted in a 51-570-5 stat line and a top-11 fantasy finish. Considering the Dolphins used just one of their 11 draft picks to obtain a pass-catcher (QB/WR Malcolm Perry out of Navy in the seventh round) Gesicki’s role in the offense and dominance as a deep threat (TE3) figures to grow. He’s currently the Yahoo Consensus ranked TE14.

Which overlooked offseason winners do you think will make the biggest fantasy splash? Engage with Liz on social @LizLoza_FF.

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