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Sleepers, Steals, Studs: Two Panini America Editors Tackle the Tough Fantasy Issues

August 29, 2018

Fantasy Football Main

By Robert Halliman and Kieran Steckley

The fantasy football season has finally arrived and it’s time to rejoice, set up the TVs, feast on all the finger food your stomach desires and get down to business. We know this is an exciting (but perhaps stressful) time for fantasy owners, who so often double as football collectors, too. You stay up late filling out mock drafts along with your checklists. You rack your brains over which players to pluck and whose Rookie Cards to pursue.

So take a deep breath and allow noted football savant Kieran Steckley and me (Robert Halliman) to be your tour guides. Though fantasy football is like any other game, requiring an insane amount of luck and a bit of strategy, I fancy myself as an expert, having won last year’s Panini America Editorial League after demolishing my boss, Jeff Sullivan, by a healthy margin. Sorry, Boss. So we thought we’d share our expertise and list fantasy projections along with some sleepers to watch in 2018. Enjoy . . .

Fantasy Watson

TOP THREE QUARTERBACKS
>> Russell Wilson; Cam Newton; Deshaun Watson Halliman
>> Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson; Cam Newton Steckley

Fantasy Bell 2

TOP THREE RUNNING BACKS
>> Ezekiel Elliott; Le’Veon Bell; David Johnson Halliman
>> David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley Steckley

TOP THREE WIDEOUTS
>> Antonio Brown; Michael Thomas; DeAndre Hopkins Halliman
>> Antonio Brown; Odell Beckham Jr.; DeAndre Hopkins Steckley

Fantasy Gronk

TOP THREE TIGHT ENDS
>> Rob Gronkowski; Travis Kelce; Zach Ertz Halliman
>> Rob Gronkowski; Travis Kelce; Greg Olsen Steckley

TOP THREE DEFENSES/SPECIAL TEAMS
>> Rams; Vikings; Cowboys Halliman
>> Jaguars; Eagles; Rams Steckley

Fantasy Mayfield

TOP THREE ROOKIE QUARTERBACKS
>> Sam Darnold; Josh Allen; Baker Mayfield – Halliman
>> Sam Darnold; Josh Allen; Josh Rosen – Steckley

Fantasy Saquon 2

TOP THREE ROOKIE RUNNING BACKS
>> Saquon Barkley; Rashaad Penny; Ronald Jones II Halliman
>> Saquon Barkley; Royce Freeman; Kerryon Johnson Steckley

Fantasy D.J. Moore

TOP THREE ROOKIE WIDEOUTS
>> DJ Moore; Calvin Ridley; Tre’quan Smith Halliman
>> DJ Moore; Calvin Ridley; Anthony Miller Steckley

TOP THREE ROOKIE TIGHT ENDS
>> Mark Andrews; Mike Gesicki; Jordan Akins Halliman
>> Mike Gesicki; Dallas Goedert; Mark Andrews Steckley

Fantasy Zeke

FANTASY MVP
Ezekiel Elliott: If you thought the Cowboys relied on the legs of Elliott before, wait until you see what they do with him in 2018. If Dallas wants to get back to its 2016 form and return to the postseason, then the game plan will be simple: run Zeke right, run Zeke left, run Zeke up the middle, throw Zeke screen, repeat. Off sheer volume alone, the tailback should run away with the fantasy crown. Enjoy. Halliman

David Johnson: The Cardinals will feature Johnson as their No. 1 tailback and No. 3 receiver. He is essential to the team’s success and is motivated to come back from injury stronger than ever. Arizona offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has a history of featuring running backs – Knowshon Moreno, Willis McGahee, Melvin Gordon – in his system. It adds up to monster numbers for the fourth-year pro. Steckley

DONT SLEEP ON THESE QUARTERBACKS
Patrick Mahomes II (Kansas City): I’m usually not too keen on the success of quarterbacks in their first year as the starter. The differences between Mahomes and most in his position, however, make him an exception. For one, he has an offensive guru in Andy Reid to lean on and should benefit from the offense’s versatility. He also has a number of weapons he can unload passes to, including two of the fastest wide receivers in football (Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins), the best tight end in the league not named Gronk(Travis Kelce), and a heck of a receiver out of the backfield in Kareem Hunt. Don’t rush to grab a quarterback; Mahomes will be around in Rounds 6-8.

Fantasy Mahomes

Eli Manning (N.Y. Giants): Don’t be fooled by the Giants’ offensive woes in 2017. They’re finally healthy, and the vast amount of weapons surrounding Manning in 2018 should lead to a revamped aerial attack. What other quarterback has the options of throwing to a group as skilled as Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram and Saquon Barkley? Combine that with passing game genius Pat Shurmur’s system, and Manning’s got the recipe for a successful campaign. Fans might learn a dance move or two from all of the touchdown celebrations the Giants’ supporting cast will be doing this year. As far as QB2s go, Manning is at the top of the list. Don’t sleep on this sleeper.

Teddy Bridgewater (N.Y. Jets): If this preseason has been any indication of how Bridgewater would bounce back after suffering a horrific knee injury a few seasons ago, fantasy owners should pay a little more attention to the signal-caller in the later rounds of the draft. He looked impressive during his first two outings with the Jets, and has the chance to beat out Sam Darnold, the team’s future, for the starting-quarterback job. This is shaping up to be the perfect audition for Bridgewater (he could get traded), and with ample playing time, he’ll put up fantastic numbers.

Sam Bradford (Arizona): In 2016, Bradford set the NFL record for highest completion percentage in a season. Though his following campaign was cut short due to injury, he returns in 2018 with a clean bill of health and a supporting cast in Arizona that features surefire Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, arguably the best receiving tailback in the NFL in David Johnson, a dynamic rookie in the slot in Christian Kirk and a big-bodied red-zone target in Ricky Seals-Jones (6-foot-5, 240 pounds). Given ample protection, there should be no reason Bradford doesn’t land in the top 10 in multiple statistical categories. Halliman

DONT SLEEP ON THESE RUNNING BACKS
Chris Carson (Seattle): One of the most talked-about players out of Seahawks training camp the past two years, Carson is a north-south runner, which means he won’t lose a lot of yards trying to make something out of nothing. He emerged from the pack as the lead runner in 2017, averaging 4.2 yards per carry – and caught seven of eight targets – in only four games and three starts. Pete Carroll plays the best guys regardless of draft position, so don’t be threatened by first-round pick Rashaad Penny.

Aaron Jones (Green Bay): The most explosive of Green Bay’s haul at running back, Jones impressed when he got a steady dose of touches as a rookie in 2017, averaging 3.8 yards per carry (led team). In four games of 10 or more carries, he scored double-digit fantasy points in non-PPR leagues three times. Due to his two-game suspension to begin the season, he will be available in later rounds.

Peyton Barber (Tampa Bay): Somewhat forgotten after the Bucs drafted Ronald Jones II, Barber has garnered plenty of fantasy attention from his preseason performances. After gaining 53 yards on 10 carries through two exhibition games, the Tampa Bay coaching staff will give the running back plenty of chances.

Wayne Gallman (N.Y. Giants): Gallman is more similar to starter Saquon Barkley than Jonathan Stewart, which should lead to more lucrative opportunities when the rookie comes off the field. The Clemson product averaged more than 4 yards per carry in the final four contests of his rookie season. The second-year pro is a higher-upside runner and better pass catcher than Stewart, his chief competition for carries.

Tevin Coleman (Atlanta): When on the field, Coleman is tough to contain, averaging 4.3 yards per carry and 12.2 yards per catch in his career. The tailback prepared in the offseason for a bigger role in the offense (including possibly lining up as a receiver), and it showed with back-to-back 15-yard runs against the Chiefs in preseason. Look at him as a co-starter in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman.

Fantasy Coleman

Duke Johnson Jr. (Cleveland): Although the Browns signed Carlos Hyde and drafted Nick Chubb in the second round, Johnson still has a role on the team. He is an outlet pass option for quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and Todd Haley is dialing up the same plays that helped Le’Veon Bell emerge as one of the top pass-catching backs in the league. Also a factor in non-passing situations, he has a 4.2 yards per carry average in his career.

Bilal Powell (N.Y. Jets): The later rounds are best used to draft players who could have high impact if given opportunity. Powell falls into this category every year. During the preseason matchup with the Redskins, the veteran logged 24 of the Jets’ 27 first-quarter snaps and five of his 13 routes came split out wide, per Pro Football Focus. Especially if rookie Sam Darnold starts, New York will rely on its running game and short passing attack. Steckley

DONT SLEEP ON THESE WIDEOUTS
Tavon Austin (Dallas): If the Cowboys pivot from the Rams’ strategy in 2017 and employ Austin in multiple roles to get him the football, then the do-it-all offensive weapon will easily post career highs in multiple categories. Not only is he dangerous as a pass catcher for a Dallas team looking to dink-and-dunk more often in 2018, his ability to hit home runs as a tailback and return man will lead to him racking up the points in bunches. You’ll have plenty of time to select Austin, so be patient and wait until the later rounds.

Cooper Kupp (L.A. Rams): In 2017, Kupp led the rookie class in receptions (62) and finished second in receiving yards (869) and touchdowns (five). He continued building his relationship with quarterback Jared Goff during the offseason, when the two worked out together. He plans to smash those numbers this time around. Kupp is one of the league’s better receivers when it comes to beating press coverage and finding openings in the zone. Don’t be surprised if he finishes in the top three in grabs; he’s a pure PPR stud.

Dede Westbrook (Jacksonville): The Jaguars parted ways with receivers Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson, giving room for Westbrook to take his place at the top of the team’s depth chart and prove his value as a complete receiver. Makes sense following a rookie campaign in which the Oklahoma product displayed his sure hands and playmaking ability, tallying three outings with at least five receptions. He’ll compete with rookie DJ Chark Jr. for the lion’s share of targets, but he is a can’t-miss prospect in the later rounds.

Fantasy Westbrook

Kelvin Benjamin (Buffalo): After being shipped from Carolina to Buffalo in 2017, Benjamin is looking to eat the proverbial chip off his shoulder and show the world he’s still the same dominant red-zone threat he was during his first two seasons in the NFL. As the undisputed No. 1 target in the Bills’ passing attack, he should get a chance to prove himself. Look for Benjamin in Rounds 4-6. Though he’s not a prime WR1 target, he’s an excellent WR2 or WR3 option.

Robby Anderson (N.Y. Jets): After a quiet rookie season, Anderson exploded onto the scene in 2017, setting career highs in receptions (63), receiving yards (941) and touchdown grabs (seven). With more confidence in his game and an offensive coordinator who should help maximize his skills in Jeremy Bates, the dreadlocked pass catcher is going to become a household name, and your fantasy league’s most valuable WR2.

John Brown (Baltimore): Joe Flacco owns one of the strongest arms in the NFL. So what do you do when you have a quarterback who can chuck the ball 70 yards on the fly? Get a wideout who has the wheels to run under those deep heaves. Since joining Baltimore during the offseason, the speedy Brown has wowed onlookers by snagging a host of deep receptions from Flacco in training camp. He already proved his merit with a rocket-armed signal-caller in 2015, when he set career highs in receptions (65), receiving yards (1,003) and touchdown grabs (seven) with Carson Palmer at quarterback. Plan on him duplicating that success in Crab Country. He’ll be around in later rounds, a great option at WR3 and a prime play against teams lacking speed in the secondary.

Corey Davis (Tennessee): During Tennessee’s final game of 2017, a playoff loss to New England, Davis left fans in awe, grabbing two touchdown receptions and routinely beating a highly touted Patriots secondary. Looking to pick up where he left off, the wideout enters the season as the Titans’ No. 1 pass catcher. He should be around in the middle rounds of the draft and serves as the perfect WR2 in PPR leagues. Halliman

DONT SLEEP ON THESE TIGHT ENDS
Benjamin Watson (New Orleans): Watson was quietly a borderline top-10 fantasy tight end in 2017 (61 catches and 522 yards). He returns to a Sean Payton system he flourished in during the 2015 season (74/825/six touchdowns). Drew Brees isn’t pushing the ball downfield like he used to, which leaves more chances in the intermediate passing game. He will be available in later rounds.

Jack Doyle (Indianapolis): Doyle will reap the rewards of Andrew Luck’s return under center. Usage has never been a problem for the tight end, who averaged 5.3 catches, 7.1 targets and 60.6 offensive snaps per game in 2017 – all top five among tight ends. Don’t be afraid to make him the sixth or seventh tight end off the board.

Vernon Davis (Washington): Coming off back-to-back seasons of 40-plus catches, Davis is still an effective player entering his age-34 season. Although he’ll be slotted behind Jordan Reed to start the year, the veteran is sure to see plenty of the field and is guaranteed to still be on the board after multiple kickers during fantasy drafts.

Ryan Griffin (Houston): Some players get elevated by the talent around them. Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins get most of the attention in Houston’s offense, and Griffin could end up as the No. 2 pass-catching option in Houston, making him worthy of a late-round, Hail Mary selection. Steckley

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