"Summer nights and my radio. Well that's all we need, baby, don'tcha know? We celebrate when the gang's all here. Ah, hot summer nights, that's my time of the year!"
Van Halen's tune was the anthem for those of us who grew up in the 1980s (and loved rock 'n' roll) as school ended and summer time began. Now, summer signifies the start of the fantasy football season, as owners begin researching data, ranking players and preparing for the upcoming NFL campaign. It's also at this time of the year when I release a list of the players who I "love" heading into drafts.
These players aren't labeled as sleepers, breakouts or bargains, they're just the guys who I'm crushing on and will be targeting in all my leagues ... you should too.
Jay Ajayi, RB, Miami Dolphins: If you can find a negative report on Ajayi during the offseason, I'd be shocked. Offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen has called him the most improved player on the team, and there's even been talk that he could see 350 carries. Ajayi, who has worked on his skills as a receiver, projects to be one of the true featured runners in the league. A legitimate contender to lead the NFL in rushing, Ajayi is a great target for those with a late pink in the first round.
Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints: Thomas ranked 20th in targets (121) among wide receivers as a rookie, and he turned those opportunities into 92 receptions, 1,137 yards, nine touchdowns and the ninth-most fantasy points at the position. With Brandin Cooks now in New England, the statistical sky is the limit for the talented wideout in an offense that will continue to be one of the league leaders in pass attempts. There won't be a sophomore slump (let's hope), so consider Thomas in Round 2.
Isaiah Crowell, RB, Cleveland Browns: Crowell ranked 14th in fantasy points among running backs last season, and now the Browns project to field one of the best offensive lines in the league after the additions of Kevin Zeitler and JC Tretter. Several running backs have found fantasy success under Hue Jackson during his time as an NFL head coach and offensive coordinator too, so everything is lined up for the Crow to produce 1,000-plus rushing yards and his best fantasy campaign.
Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals: Mixon does have competition in the form of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, but I believe he'll pass them both on the depth chart and become the lead back for head coach Marvin Lewis. The Bengals have finished in the top 10 in rushing attempts and red-zone carries in each of the last three seasons, and that won't change with one of the best young runners in the 2017 class on their roster. Mixon could push for high-end RB2 value during his rookie season.
Terrelle Pryor, WR, Washington Redskins: Pryor emerged as a top-20 fantasy wideout last season while catching passes from five different quarterbacks in an offense that averaged a mere 204 passing yards a game. Now he joins Kirk Cousins and a Redskins offense that ranked third in passing yards per game (297.4). The team also lost starting wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon during the offseason, so Pryor should have more than his share of opportunities to produce.
Bilal Powell, RB, New York Jets: Powell showed flashes of brilliance at the end of last season, scoring 16-plus fantasy points three times in his final four games. That included two performances with over 100 rushing yards. While Matt Forte is still in the backfield mix, Powell projects to be the primary weapon for a Jets offense that doesn't have a whole lot of firepower. I wouldn't be shocked to see him contend for the league lead in receptions among runners.
Mike Gillislee, RB, New England Patriots: The Patriots have a crowded backfield after what was a rampant offseason, but Gillislee is still in a great position to become a relevant fantasy starter. That's due in large part to the fact that he's the best fit to replace LeGarrette Blount, who scored 18 touchdowns and raced to a seventh-place finish in fantasy points among runners last year. While that sort of finish might be out of reach, I like Gillislee to find the end zone eight-plus times in 2017.
Stefon Diggs, WR, Minnesota Vikings: Diggs, who is entering his third NFL season, has the talent and should have the opportunities to break out in the stat sheets. While his proneness to injuries has been an issue, Diggs will enter camp in better shape and figures to lead the Vikings in targets. In fact, a season with 100-plus receptions is well within reach. In a best-case scenario, Diggs could push for high-end WR2 value. He has the potential to be a real bargain in the middle rounds.
Martavis Bryant, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers: Maybe you've forgotten because he missed all of last season due to a suspension, but Bryant is one of the NFL's most athletic wide receivers. The Clemson product has added 10 pounds of muscle since he was last on the gridiron too, and he'll benefit from the presence of fantasy superstar Antonio Brown in what figures to be a super-productive pass attack. I can see a scenario where Bryant pushes for double-digit touchdowns.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans: Mariota showed that he has the skills to emerge into a No. 1 fantasy quarterback last season, but a broken leg cost him a chance to finish in the top 10. Barring a setback in his return, the Oregon product should reach that level (and maybe more) in an offense that has added playmaking rookie Corey Davis and veteran touchdown machine Eric Decker. I'm projecting Mariota to be this season's fantasy football version of Matt Ryan.