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2018 Fantasy Football Draft Prep: Jamey Eisenberg

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As we all know, things change. And in the NFL, when things change, we as Fantasy owners — and analysts — have to adjust. It’s part of life.

So when I first wrote Breakouts 1.0 in February, before free agency and the NFL draft, most of it was speculation. I feel good about several of the players listed there, some of whom will be repeated here in version 3.0, which is my all-star breakouts list. Those players include Deshaun Watson, Jimmy Garoppolo, Derrick Henry, Joe Mixon, Jamaal Williams, Chris Carson, Corey Davis and Will Fuller.

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In Breakouts 2.0, which was done following the NFL Draft, I had some players who looked like they were headed into good situations, but things might not be so rosy now. Those guys included Jerick McKinnon, Rashaad Penny and Ronald Jones. I also had Derrius Guice as a breakout, and I was confident he’d be a star as a rookie, but unfortunately he suffered a torn ACL.

Maybe next year for Guice.

For this season, I’m still confident in McKinnon, but a calf injury in the preseason has put a slight damper on my optimism. He also has a ridiculously high Average Draft Position in Round 2 at No. 23 overall, and even I don’t like him that much.

By drafting McKinnon in Round 2, you’re taking him with the expectation he will produce at his ceiling. And that’s likely unrealistic for him in becoming a first-time featured back with the 49ers, even as good as Kyle Shanahan has been with his running backs during his coaching history.

I’m still targeting McKinnon as a breakout candidate, but I’m only drafting him toward the middle of Round 3. And his calf injury and ADP forced me to remove him from this list.

Penny and Jones are also no longer breakout candidates and look more like busts. Penny was behind Carson on the depth chart in Seattle before suffering a broken finger, and his status for Week 1 is in doubt. And Jones has struggled through two preseason games, and he’s behind Peyton Barber on the depth chart in Tampa Bay.

I hope nothing changes for the players listed here with two preseason games still to go, but as well we all know, it’s the NFL, which means anything can happen. Still, these are the players I’m targeting in the majority of my leagues because I’m expecting all of them to be breakouts in 2018.

Quarterbacks

Watson looks fully recovered after suffering a torn right ACL in early November. And he’s someone to consider as a top-three Fantasy quarterback this year. We all saw the upside last year before he got hurt, as he averaged 35.8 Fantasy points in his final five starts, including three games with at least 40 points. We hope he doesn’t shy away from running the ball following his knee injury because he averaged 5.8 Fantasy points with his legs during his six starts. He has a tremendous receiving corps with DeAndre Hopkins and Fuller, who remains a breakout candidate also after he averaged 17.0 Fantasy points per game in a non-PPR league in four starts with Watson.

I’m looking for Watson right after Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady come off the board in all leagues.

Garoppolo comes off a solid finish in 2017, and he’s played well so far in the preseason. He looks legit, and he’s worth buying into as a potential top 10 Fantasy quarterback. Last season, he played great once he took over as San Francisco’s starting quarterback in Week 13, going 5-0 to close the season, including wins over the playoff-bound Titans, Jaguars and Rams. He also averaged 21.7 Fantasy points a game in his final three outings. He had a full offseason with Shanahan, and he gets Pierre Garcon (neck) back after he missed the final eight games for the 49ers.

Marquise Goodwin seems on the verge of stardom, and Garoppolo also has decent options in Trent Taylor, Dante Pettis, George Kittle and McKinnon. Garoppolo is worth drafting with a mid-round pick, and the hype seems for real — at least when it comes to his potential Fantasy production.

Mahomes was touted for having a big arm, and we already saw an example of that in the second preseason game against Atlanta when he unleashed a bomb to Tyreek Hill that traveled 68.6 yards in the air, according to to the NFL’s NextGen Stats. He’s going to be fun to watch with a receiving corps that features Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins and Kareem Hunt in Andy Reid’s offense. There will be some lumps, possibly in the interception department, but he’s oozing with upside. In his final two years at Texas Tech, Mahomes passed for 9,705 yards, 77 touchdowns and 25 interceptions, and he ran for 744 yards and 22 touchdowns.

He’s expected to be drafted with a late-round pick, but he has the potential to be a top-10 Fantasy quarterback this season.

Running backs  

My colleague Pete Prisco visited the Vikings in training camp, and he had this to say about Cook in his recovery from last year’s torn ACL.”It was unreal how good Dalvin Cook looked in drills,” Prisco tweeted after watching Minnesota practice. “Explosive. He says he’s quicker and faster now after the ACL surgery. If you didn’t see him, you wouldn’t believe it. But it looks to be true.”

That’s awesome to hear because Cook was on his way toward being a star as a rookie in 2017 before hurting his knee in Week 4 against Detroit. If you project his stats from the first four games over a full season, he would have finished with 296 carries for 1,416 yards and eight touchdowns and 44 catches for 360 yards. That would have put him in the range of being a top-five Fantasy running back in all leagues, and that’s the kind of upside Cook has for this season.

He’s worth being selected in the early part of the second round in most formats. You should be thrilled to get Cook this year.

Mixon got his 2018 season off to a great start in the first preseason game against Chicago when he scored on a 24-yard reception, eluding two defenders. He’s slated to be Cincinnati’s featured back, and he came into training camp in better shape, slimming down to 218 pounds after playing at 230 last year.

The Bengals spent resources on their offensive line this offseason by trading for left tackle Cordy Glenn from Buffalo and drafting center Billy Price, and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s system will benefit Mixon. While he will lose some touches to Giovani Bernard, Mixon was better than you think last season when he averaged 9.1 Fantasy points in a standard league over nine games from Week 3 through Week 12. An ankle injury cost him two games at the end of the season, but he closed out the year averaging 5.02 yards per carry over his final four games. He also had seven games with at least three receptions, and Mixon should be considered a low-end No. 1 Fantasy running back this year.

He’s worth drafting toward the end of Round 2 or beginning of Round 3 in all leagues.

If there’s one concern about Collins this season it could be his involvement in the passing game given the potential roles for Javorius Allen and potentially Kenneth Dixon if healthy, but Collins should still have the chance for around 30 catches if he plays 16 games. Last year, Collins took a while to get going because the Ravens seemed to fear his fumble problems, but he was exceptional to close the season.

He scored double digits in Fantasy points in a non-PPR league in five of his final seven outings, and he had 20 catches over that span. If you project his stats from those seven games over a full season, Collins would have finished with 272 carries for 1,033 yards and 14 touchdowns, along with 46 catches for 352 yards. Hopefully he can achieve that kind of production this year, and he’s worth drafting in Round 3 in non-PPR leagues and Round 4 in PPR.

Freeman should be considered the No. 2 Fantasy rookie running back coming into this season behind Saquon Barkley now that Guice is out for the year. He’s set up for a big role with the Broncos, especially once the team realizes Devontae Booker is best suited as a backup. Freeman has performed well in preseason games against Minnesota and Chicago with 10 carries for 58 yards and two touchdowns, and even though he’s splitting first-team reps with Booker, that will hopefully change by Week 1.

Last year, C.J. Anderson was the No. 16 Fantasy running back in non-PPR leagues as the main rusher in Denver, and Anderson had 273 total touches. The majority of that work should go to Freeman, who had 947 carries for 5,621 yards (5.9 yards per carry) and 60 touchdowns, along with 79 catches for 814 yards and four touchdowns in four years at Oregon. He’s a top 20 running back coming into the season, and he’s worth drafting as early as Round 4.

Johnson was one of my favorite rookies coming into the NFL Draft, and I love the landing spot in Detroit. I also love the offensive line with the addition of rookie guard Frank Ragnow, as well as left tackle Taylor Decker (hopefully) playing 16 games. Johnson has to prove he’s the lead running back for the Lions ahead of LeGarrette Blount, as well as getting work on passing downs along with Theo Riddick. But the Lions traded up to get Johnson in the second round of the NFL Draft for a reason — they wanted him. More likely, they needed him, and he just finished 2017 as the SEC Offensive Player of the Year at Auburn. I’m excited about Johnson’s potential because the Lions want to be more aggressive running the ball, and he should be in line for at least 200 total touches (Ameer Abdullah had 190 last year).

I’m not overly concerned about Blount, Riddick or Abdullah taking Johnson off the field for huge stretches at a time, and I consider Johnson a low-end starter heading into Week 1. He’s worth drafting in Round 5 in the majority of leagues.

Wide receivers

Diggs closed last season on a tear, and he picked up where he left off with a strong first preseason game against Denver. In his final five games of 2017, including the playoffs, Diggs had 30 catches for 362 yards and four touchdowns. Granted, he had the 61-yard fluke touchdown against the Saints in the playoffs, but he has tremendous upside heading into 2018 with a new quarterback in Kirk Cousins. The two looked to have a solid rapport against the Broncos in the preseason opener when Diggs had three catches for 35 yards and a touchdown in limited work, and I like Diggs better than Adam Thielen this season. He should have the chance for his first 1,000-yard campaign, and I’m expecting 80-plus catches and still around eight touchdowns. I plan to target Diggs early in Round 3 in the majority of leagues, and I consider him a No. 1 Fantasy receiver in 2018.

There’s a lot to like about Cooper this season, but he was clearly a disappointment in 2017. Injuries to him and Derek Carr were part of the problem, but Cooper was a third-year dud instead of a third-year breakout. Enter new coach Jon Gruden, and Cooper should be back in the good graces of Fantasy owners, even with the additions of Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant.

Gruden said in an interview with CBS Sports at the NFL owners meeting that “we’re going to make (Cooper) the main vein of our pass offense. Move him around a lot. We are really excited about him. He’s entering the prime of his career.”

Gruden has compared Cooper to Hall of Famer Tim Brown, and he wants to help Cooper get back to his production from his first two years, when he averaged 78 catches for 1,112 yards and five touchdowns. With Gruden’s track record with receivers — he coached a receiver to at least 1,000 yards and six touchdowns in 10 of his 11 years as a head coach — Cooper is in good shape to bounce back and perform at a high level. He’s worth drafting no later than Round 4 in all leagues.

James Washington’s performance this season will likely sway how good Smith-Schuster is in 2018. Washington is replacing Bryant, and if he has a prominent role, then it will be hard for Smith-Schuster to have a breakout campaign. But with Bryant gone, I expect Smith-Schuster to see a bump from the 80 targets he received in 2017, which was fourth on the team behind Antonio Brown (162), Le’Veon Bell (107) and Bryant (84). When Bryant was benched in Week 8 at Detroit, Smith-Schuster went off for seven catches for 193 yards and a touchdown on 10 targets. And in the final three games of the regular season when Brown was either hurt or out with a calf injury, Smith-Schuster had 21 catches for 332 yards and two touchdowns on 23 targets. This is a dominant offense, and Smith-Schuster should see more than 100 targets as the likely third option behind Brown and Bell. I’m counting on a second-year leap in production for Smith-Schuster, who already has two touchdowns through two preseason games. He’s worth drafting as early as Round 4 in the majority of leagues.

I’m hoping Hogan stays healthy because he could be awesome in 2018. The Patriots receiving corps will look different this season after Brandin Cooks was traded to the Rams and Danny Amendola left for the Dolphins as a free agent. Julian Edelman is back after last year’s torn ACL, but he’s suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. That should put Hogan in a good spot to get plenty of targets early in the season along with Rob Gronkowski and the running backs, but Hogan should be viable all year.

Hogan looked good in 2017 before injuries forced him to miss seven games, and he was on pace for 66 catches for 876 yards and 10 touchdowns before starting to miss time in Week 10. Of the nine games he played last year, Hogan scored double digits in Fantasy points in a non-PPR league in four of them.  And Hogan also showed his upside in Super Bowl LII against the Eagles with six catches for 128 yards and a touchdown after Cooks was hurt early in that game. Hogan has No. 2 Fantasy receiver potential, and he’s worth drafting as early as Round 5 in the majority of leagues.

The more I watch Goodwin play, the more I like him as a Fantasy option. And it’s clear he’s the No. 1 receiver for the 49ers coming into the year. Garcon will have a prominent role, and Kittle, Taylor, Pettis and the running backs are going to be involved in the passing game as well. But Goodwin is the No. 1 target for Garoppolo, and they should build off the rapport they started to develop last season.

Goodwin had 29 catches for 384 yards and one touchdown on 43 targets in five starts with Garoppolo, although Garcon was out during that time. Still, if you project Goodwin’s stats over those five games for a full season, he would have finished with 93 catches for 1,229 yards and three touchdowns. While he will hopefully find the end zone more with Garoppolo in 2018, it’s clear Goodwin should have the chance to produce in a big way.

His ADP has climbed to the Round 7 range, but I’m looking for Goodwin as early as Round 5. He should be considered a No. 2 Fantasy receiver to start the season.

Tight ends

Burton was instantly one of my favorite breakout players the minute he left the Eagles and signed with the Bears, and we saw a glimpse of his potential in the second preseason game against Denver when he had four catches for 48 yards and a touchdown.

He is going to be the featured tight end in new Chicago coach Matt Nagy’s offense, and Nagy was the offensive coordinator in Kansas City last season when he had Travis Kelce in that role. And we saw flashes of stardom from Burton every time Zach Ertz  missed time due to injury. That happened twice in 2017 when Ertz was out in Week 9 against Denver and Week 14 against the Rams. Against the Broncos, Burton had two catches for 41 yards and a touchdown on four targets. Against the Rams, Burton had five catches for 71 yards and two touchdowns on six targets. And in Week 2 of the 2016 season with Ertz out, Burton had five catches for 49 yards and a touchdown on seven targets against the Bears.

Burton has the potential to be a top-five Fantasy tight end in all leagues, and he’s worth drafting as early as Round 6.

Njoku was originally a sleeper for me in February, but I continue to move him up my rankings, so I changed his designation to a breakout. We got to see how good he can be in the first preseason game against the Giants when he had two catches for 46 yards and two touchdowns, and he should benefit from playing with Tyrod Taylor, who had a good rapport with tight end Charles Clay in Buffalo. There are a lot of mouths to feed in Cleveland with Jarvis Landry and Josh Gordon, along with the running backs out of the backfield, but Njoku could prove to be a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-4 and 246 pounds, with outstanding speed.

We hope Browns coach Hue Jackson will feature Njoku more in his sophomore campaign, and he’s someone to target with a late-round pick in all formats.

Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy Football cheat sheets from the model that called Alvin Kamara’s huge breakout last season and find out.  

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