Every April, players with first round talent land on teams that suppress their abilities and water down their fantasy football value. We saw it happen with Will Fuller this year. Fantasy enthusiasts were all over Fuller last spring, apparently forgetting that his production would be tied to Brock Osweiler (Did you know Brock Osweiler is really tall? Me neither). In 2015, it was DeVante Parker trying to overcome Ryan Tannehill’s ineptitude and in 2014 the Bills drafted Sammy Watkins, only to start Kyle Orton and E.J. Manuel in Watkins’ rookie campaign. Some of these players can still make their way into your weekly lineup, but wouldn’t it be nice if they wound up in situations where their skills were amplified? Come NFL Draft weekend, you should be rooting for the following pairings between teams and rookies:
Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan – Green Bay Packers
Corey Davis is my favorite wide receiver in this class, and while I don’t think he’ll fall to Green Bay at 29, it’s certainly possible. Whether scouts want to admit it or not, there is a stigma when it comes to players from small schools who have massive college productivity. Davis posted a 51.6% (96th percentile) College Dominator, indicating that his team leaned heavily on him to produce yards and touchdowns. At 6-3 and 213 pounds, Davis undoubtedly has the body to make it in the NFL. Smart organizations will not let the size and caliber of his college deter them from selecting him.
Jordy Nelson will be 32 years old when the 2017 season starts and news recently broke that he even contemplated retirement this season. Nelson has since backed away and re-analyzed his situation, but Green Bay has to be wary of losing Jordy sooner rather than later. Corey Davis would be the perfect style replacement for Nelson. Davis has made a living on intermediate and deep routes, using his big body and killer competitive instincts to fight for the football in the air. I’m anxious to see how Davis performs at the NFL Combine, but I won’t be surprised if his Best Comparable Player is the 32 year old farmer turned wide receiver out of Kansas State.
If Green Bay were to send Roger Goodell to the podium with Corey Davis’ name in hand, the benefits would be two-fold for fantasy owners. Davis would be in position to receive high quality targets from the most prolific fantasy quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, and the Packers would likely part ways with Jeff Janis, giving our hero a chance to play somewhere else and begin his hall of fame career.
Joe Mixon, RB, Oklahoma – Kansas City Chiefs
I believe that Joe Mixon is the most talented running back in a very deep class, but he will not be drafted as such, due to his off-field concerns. Mixon’s act of violence against a woman while he was at Oklahoma was very controversial amongst college football fans, coaches and players, as well as numerous organizations and activist groups unrelated to the football world. It was without question a heinous act, but the NFL has not exactly been the moral standard when it comes to violent acts committed by its players.
Andy Reid and John Dorsey showed us in last year’s NFL Draft that they’re willing to take a flier on a risky, but talented player when they picked Tyreek Hill in the 5th round. Selecting Hill paid off for the Chiefs. His electricity in space as a running back, wide receiver and return specialist helped the Chiefs to a 12-4 record and a 2-seed in the playoffs. The Kansas City offense would have been rather bleak without Tyfreak’s big plays in 2016. Joe Mixon could have an even bigger impact if the Chiefs are willing to wait to address the needs at inside linebacker and cornerback with their later round picks.
Jamaal Charles was the foundational piece of the Chiefs’ offense even before Andy Reid became the head coach, but Charles played in only 8 games over the last two seasons, forcing Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West to work as a committee in the backfield. It was no surprise that a Chiefs organization who prides itself on mining value players chose not to retain the 30-year old Jamaal Charles and cleared $6 million in cap space in the process.
Andy Reid leans heavily on the run and wants his quarterback to take care of the football in the passing game with intermediate and short throws. This plays right into Joe Mixon’s strengths. At Oklahoma, Mixon served as a rotational back on 1st and 2nd down and the primary back on 3rd down, despite being 6-1 and 226 pounds. Oklahoma’s offense was loaded with prolific weapons in Mixon, Samaje Perine and Dede Westbrook. Many players in this situation finish with underwhelming production, but Mixon found a way to catch 37 passes for 538 yards and 5 scores, while running for 1274 yards and 10 touchdowns. Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West are productive enough on the ground, but the backfield receiving suffered with Jamaal Charles on IR. Adding Mixon would give Alex Smith another weapon in the passing game and a change of pace back in the running game.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU – New England Patriots
Many draft pundits have projected Leonard Fournette to be the running back selected by the Carolina Panthers on the first day of the NFL Draft. Fournette is talented, but his limited snaps out of the shotgun in his time at LSU have to make the Panthers’ front office hesitate. Under Les Miles, Fournette ran almost exclusively out of the I-formation and accounted for the majority of his rushing production on power plays. Carolina loves to use the zone running game and the threat of Cam Newton to increase their run game efficiency. This does not fit the playing style of the LSU star.
Leonard Fournette is a hot name right now, but scouts will cool off before the April NFL Draft when they see how limited he is laterally at the NFL Combine. Fournette is still a day one talent, but his game is limited primarily to inside runs. For him to get the most opportunity out of his touches, he needs to be on a team looking for a between the tackles bruiser.
LeGarrette Blount is a free agent whose next contract will be too expensive for New England to consider pursuing. Leonard Fournette is a rich man’s LeGarrette Blount and comes at a much cheaper price for the Patriots. Stylistically, Fournette is the perfect fit for Bill Belichick’s scheme and the Patriots finished 4th in the NFL in rushing attempts per game, so Fournette will get plenty of opportunities. If he falls to 32 in the NFL Draft, he also would not have to put up much of a fight to become the starting running back. New England loves James White and Dion Lewis, but both are scat backs used most effectively on passing downs. Fournette could step in and immediately see the bulk of the work on 1st down and in the red-zone, similar to Blount’s share of the offense in 2016.
Running backs are pretty expendable and not often worth a first round pick, but the Patriots have one of the largest cap spaces in the league, so they can afford to fill team needs in free agency and pursue some players that they want in the NFL Draft. Leonard Fournette would make the New England offense even more prolific than it was in 2016.
Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State – Carolina Panthers
Carolina can afford to pass on Leonard Fournette, but cannot afford to head into 2017 without adding a talented running back. Dalvin Cook fits the Panthers’ plans a lot better than Fournette, and will offer up passing game help that Fournette could not. Cook also has much more experience in a zone running scheme than Fournette and will have an easier learning curve in the Panthers’ zone game.
In his three seasons at Florida State, Dalvin Cook averaged an exceptional 6.8 yards per carry (90th percentile). Doing so at a top tier program like Florida State says a lot about Cook’s talent. Cook was truly electric for the Seminoles and did not back down in primetime contests versus strong defenses, running for 145 yards against Michigan, 153 yards against Florida, and 169 yards against Clemson. While he only found the end-zone through the air one time, he hauled in 33 catches for 488 yards, proving he can be used out of the backfield as well.
In 2016, Carolina primarily counted on Jonathan Stewart to run the football and he was disappointingly unproductive, even with the Cam Newton effect. Newton runs the ball better than any other quarterback, which paves the way for the running backs to experience more success as the defense looks to contain Cam Newton. Even so, Stewart averaged just 3.9 Yards Per Touch (No. 71). When Carolina opens its 2017 season, Stewart will be 30 years old and his backups proved unworthy to receive valuable carries. Dalvin Cook could immediately jump in and absorb a good portion of the carries on a team whose run blocking was near the top of the NFL with a 103.5 (No. 11) Offensive Line score.
5) Mike Williams, WR, Clemson – Detroit Lions
This pairing is probably the least likely of my choices, but could potentially be the best of the bunch. Detroit’s receiving corps was rather underwhelming in 2016, outside of a few flashes from Golden Tate here and there. Even Golden Tate was a disappointment to begin the year, gaining only 134 yards on 17 catches in the first five games of the regular season. Marvin Jones began the season as a top 5 fantasy player, but practically disappeared into thin air after week 4, eclipsing 5 catches just once in the final 12 games of the year. Calvin Johnson’s retirement was even more detrimental than predicted. Detroit has made it clear that Stafford is their guy, but Stafford needs improved play on the outside in order for the Lions to do some damage in the playoffs.
Enter: Mike Williams. A 6-3, 225 pound monster with a massive catch radius and elite ball skills. Williams will be thrown into the rotation immediately, no matter who chooses to select him in the NFL Draft. Mike Williams’ college metrics are a little deceiving. His 27% (39th percentile) College Dominator Rating is lower than you would assume if you’ve watched Clemson and this is due in large part to Dabo Swinney and Clemson churning out elite wide receivers year after year. In his time at Clemson, Williams competed for targets with Martavis Bryant, DeAndre Hopkins, and Sammy Watkins, not to mention other NFL wide receivers Adam Humphries and Charone Peake. Many of Williams’ former cohorts at Clemson have had productive NFL careers and Williams will continue the trend.
Golden Tate will be serviceable enough out of the slot and will even see a production boost if the Lions take Mike Williams at pick 21. Williams isn’t quite as big as Megatron, but could serve in a similar role for Jim Bob Cooter’s offense, taking the top off of the defense and fighting for deep balls that Matt Stafford willy-nilly lobs up sidearm. This will allow Golden Tate, Eric Ebron and Theo Riddick to find open space underneath. Williams averaged 16 yards per catch (68th percentile) in college, which will make him a great fit if he becomes a Lion. Detroit will likely use their first round pick to fill a more pressing need, but this is fantasy football, we’re supposed to dream.