Fantasy football drafts often follow a typical set-aside formula and pattern. However, there are certain inflection point players that cause waves not only for the teams that select them but also for those who pass.
It's these players that often require us to make the strongest stance; you can't simply be a "neutral" when it comes to your feelings on these players. The questions they come with require us to either be strong for or strong against paying for them at their current average draft position. After piles of drafts have come and gone this offseason, these are the seven players that seem to require the strongest stance to either green or red light making an investment for in fantasy football this season.
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers
Does the past truly inform the future? Panthers backfield players haven't cracked 60 combined catches since Cam Newton's rookie year in 2011, when Jonathan Stewart snagged a career-high 47. Carolina runs a long-held offensive system that revolves around deep passing and a running quarterback combining to make the receiving running back an afterthought. For this reason, some fantasy analysts question whether Christian McCaffrey can truly access his pass-catching upside in Carolina.
Perhaps the Panthers saw their lack of a player like McCaffrey, not only a receiving threat out of the backfield but someone who can man the slot and quickly separate in his routes, as the primary reason their offense led by the 2015 MVP grew stale and eventually broke late last year. No quarterback threw into tight coverage more often than Cam Newton last year, per Next Gen Stats, which helps quantify just how few layups the Carolina offense afforded him with such a frequency of low percentage throws. McCaffrey is the antithesis of the Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess and even Ted Ginn-type receivers this team invested capital in these past years.
By taking McCaffrey eighth overall in the 2017 NFL Draft the Panthers made clear that they believe he is a transformative figure. He's meant to be the central figure in the offensive evolution the organization declared it wished to implement after their 2016 campaign mercifully ended. What happened in the past with players that just so happen to share the "RB" designation with McCaffrey but don't play anything like him on the field should hold little bearing on how we project this new player.
McCaffrey's ADP rests at RB14 on Fantasy Football Calculator and he routinely goes off the board in the top-30 picks of fantasy drafts. Drafters are banking on him not only being a transformative player but also that he will have a "can't put the genie back in the bottle" moment during the season where he becomes too good to not be the featured piece of the Panthers offense. It's a tough ask but one that this wildly gifted and exciting player is certainly capable of.
Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
Back in May, it looked like the second-round pick would have no issues taking over the early down role from an underperforming Jeremy Hill and had a shot to own passing downs while Giovani Bernard recovered from a 2016 ACL tear. The variables changed in the months that followed. The team ran the 230-pound Hill out as the starter throughout the preseason, despite Mixon looking fantastic when he got chances, and more importantly gave him all the goal-line work before he left with an injury in Pre-Week 3. Bernard returned to action the moment the Bengals opened training camp and reportedly looked fantastic with his reps. We now have every reason to believe those two will play some sort of role and have exactly zero indications that Mixon will be anything resembling a feature back.
With both veterans looking locked into high-value roles as a scoring area vulture (Hill) and pass-catching option (Bernard), Mixon suddenly has no path to dominant market share numbers for the "money touches" for fantasy scoring. That makes Mixon's top-20 running back ADP suddenly look quite dubious. No one doubts that Mixon has the ability to usurp this backfield and render the other two irrelevant, but even as ancillary players they'll make the rookie's margin for error on a weekly basis razor thin. You'll have to take a strong stance on whether or not you believe Mixon's talent is so enormous he can force the Bengals hand and force them to alter their clear and intended plans with their backfield.
Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders
The 2015 fourth-overall pick for the Raiders if off to a tremendous start in his NFL career. Amari Cooper racked up 155 catches for 2,223 in his first two seasons, all before he turned 23-years-old. He's quickly established himself as an elite and dangerous route-runner at all levels of the field. You can't ask much more from a young wideout to begin his NFL journey.
Yet, it's odd that fantasy owners came away from his first two seasons feeling as if they wanted a little more out of the WR21 and WR14 finishes he offered in PPR leagues. Despite excellent season-end numbers there's no denying Cooper was a volatile producer in 2016. Cooper gave you four massive games where he finished inside the top-10 wide receivers in half-point PPR scoring last season and posted another three weeks inside the top-24. However, he didn't crack the top-35 in any other week. His boom or bust nature is directly tied to the fact that he fell below Michael Crabtree in the target pecking order in each of the last two years. It's especially apparent in the scoring areas, where Crabtree has 29 red zone targets to Cooper's 16 and six touchdowns inside the 10-yard line to zero for Cooper.
There are theories to posit as to why this usage trend held for two years, such as Cooper's poor showing in contested situations:
Nevertheless, that and others like it are merely theories. What we've seen out of Cooper in his first two NFL seasons is enough to also support the idea that this explosive young talent is simply too good for the trend to not eventually reverse. Any year now Cooper could take the top target position and red zone usage from Crabtree simply because he's a dynamic, and still improving young weapon. With his ADP sitting as a top-10 wide receiver across the industry, you must project that this is the year because you'll be paying for it.
Keenan Allen, WR, Los Angeles Chargers
The eight-game stretch to start off the 2015 season where Keenan Allen was on pace for 130-plus receptions still burns bright in the minds of fantasy drafters. Despite the season-ending injury that ended his campaign and closed his 2016 run after just a half of play, Allen still holds a top-15 wide receiver ADP on Fantasy Football Calculator.
The question for fantasy drafters is whether Keenan Allen comes with upside that resembles the dominant 2015 stretch in his range of outcomes this year. The Chargers hired Anthony Lynn as their head coach this offseason. Lynn operated the NFL's second-highest run play percentage offense last season in Buffalo. The Chargers also have a bevy of weapons available for L.A.'s newest team, making it tough to project Allen for the 26 percent market share he held in 2015. There are plenty of reasons to doubt his case as a WR1 this year.
Yet, Allen and Philip Rivers appear to have a locked-in chemistry and affection based on the veteran wide receiver's elite route running in the intermediate areas on the field. The duo looks locked in once again this preseason and last we saw Allen he was dog-walking Chiefs star cornerback Marcus Peters in his only half of action for 2016. There's a chance that Allen is indeed so talented and established that, despite the proven promise of young players like Tyrell Williams and Hunter Henry, he once again resumes the target hog role on the passing totem pole for the Chargers. If so, not only would he be one of the safest weekly floor plays among the second to third-tier of wide receivers, but he would even be a value at his current draft price.
Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs already gave the vote of confidence to Tyreek Hill's ability to operate as a traditional wide receiver this offseason when they jettisoned veteran Jeremy Maclin after the draft despite being a contender. Terez Paylor of the Kansas City Star reported the change was going swimmingly this summer, calling him "the star of camp" while noting Hill won at every level of the field with his route-running. Despite mostly operating as a gadget player last year, Hill tested out extremely well on the limited routes he ran when put under the Reception Perception lens:
If he's up to the task, there's fantasy juice to squeeze out of the top receiver spot for the Chiefs. Maclin collected 124 targets and finished as the PPR WR15 in 2015 when he and Travis Kelce were the only two receiving threats to hit triple digits in pass game looks. Fantasy drafters as a whole are banking on Hill accomplishing the goal of a smooth transition to a fully-fledged wideout, as he goes off the board as the WR19 in FantasyPros consensus ADP.
The question for us is not whether Hill can repeat his rookie year efficiency. We already know he can't; you aren't adding anything to the conversation by pointing that out. The puzzle to solve is whether he can function well enough in a role outside of that rookie gadget assignment, because that's what Kansas City believes he can do and will ask of him. You better have a strong answer to that question when deciding whether to invest in or fade him at his current draft cost because there is no doubting his week-winning hammer upside.
Corey Davis, WR, Tennessee Titans
Does talent create opportunity? That should be the question at the forefront of your mind when deciding to select Corey Davis. The Titans offense suddenly looks flush with pass-catching options after the additions of Davis, Eric Decker and sneaky good rookie Taywan Taylor along with 100-target holdovers from 2016 in Rishard Matthews and Delanie Walker.
Suddenly, the Titans passing game has a wide array of weapons after the team fielded a group largely bereft of talent last season. Their offseason moves certainly speak to a team that wants to expand what they ask of Marcus Mariota and take to the air more often, but they were one of the most run-heavy teams in 2016. Tennessee ranked third in the NFL with a 47.2 run play percentage. Even if you bump the Titans down to a 45.2 run play percentage for this coming season, amounting to around 532 passes for Marcus Mariota paced on their recent pace of play, it's tough to project multiple players for 100-plus targets. At least a few of these newcomers and potentially one of the holdovers will get left out in the cold.
Unfortunately for Davis he's behind the eight-ball in the race to lead the team in targets after a hamstring injury cost him multiple weeks of training camp and preseason time. Decker's role as a short-area big slot receiver and elite ability in the scoring areas makes him an obvious choice to lead the receiver group in targets. Matthews and Mariota closed 2016 on a tear and have familiarity. Walker cleared 100 targets in each of the last three seasons. If all those players get theirs it will leave about 80 targets to pick off the bone for Davis, which simply won't be enough for a stable fantasy season.
What Davis drafters must hope for is that the rookie wideout hits the field, despite the limited practice time, and shows right from the jump he's just too good not to be featured. His talent needs to overwhelm to the point it creates opportunity by vaulting veterans in the pecking order. The good news for them is that Davis is truly that good. He was outrageously productive at Western Michigan, the third best wide receiver at beating man coverage in Reception Perception over the last two draft classes and is wildly impressive after the catch. Even more important; the Titans agree with the assessment of his talent. The team made the aggressive move to pluck him with the fifth-overall selection and installed him in the coveted top X-receiver spot essentially as soon as he hit the practice field.
Davis has the potential to be a difference-maker this season. It's up to drafters to decide whether his injury-induced lost preseason and a packed house of pass-catchers is enough to delay that gratification late into the season or if he's simply too talented to not usurp the top receiver job right from the jump.
Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals
The Cincinnati offense as a whole appears to be an inflection point in fantasy drafts this year. Offensive line concerns loom large, but there's no denying the Bengals boast a bevy of talented weapons. The additions of Joe Mixon and John Ross brings a potential feature back and dangerous 4.2-40 speed to stables that already had high draft picks in the backfield and a wideout crew led by All-Pro A.J. Green.
However, the most overlooked piece of this scoring unit is tight end Tyler Eifert, despite the fact he has more potential than anyone else on the team to be a weekly difference maker at his position for fantasy. The massive tight end has 18 touchdowns over his last 21 games played. Eifert collected 24 red zone targets over the last two seasons and more importantly, converted eight of his 13 targets inside the 10-yard line into scores. Touchdowns are the lifeblood of fantasy football and Eifert is one of the best in the game at scoring them. The sort of weekly advantage brought on by an asset who can so frequently post six points for your lineup is undeniable.
Legitimate injury concerns are likely the reason Eifert's ADP sits in the sixth-round (Fantasy Football Calculator) despite the elite scoring potential. Back, ankle, shoulder and elbow injuries along with a concussion have all popped up on the tight end's injury rap sheet during his NFL career. And yet, is that altogether different than the tight ends who go ahead of him, outside of Greg Olsen? Kelce, Rob Gronkowski, Jordan Reed and Jimmy Graham all have at least one major injury in their history. At least with Eifert, the risk of a multi-game absence is priced in with the proposition of an elite week-to-week scoring tight end.
If the Bengals move the ball well this year, Eifert's resume indicates he is the best on the offense to finish their drives with six points. When targeting a onesie position (QB, TE) in the early or middle rounds you need to make sure the player you select has the top overall scorer within his position in his range of outcomes. Eifert, top-three in points per game the last two years, certainly has it.