Key fantasy football players to watch in 2017

083117_david-johnson_1200
The Arizona Cardinals’ David Johnson in action against the Seattle Seahawks last December.

Three examples why it’s a bad idea to have fantasy football drafts before the third preseason game:

1. Spencer Ware

2. Cameron Meredith

3. Julian Edelman

So congratulations to those leagues that haven’t drafted yet. You have avoided having to deal with critical season-ending injuries and you might even get some clarity on Ezekiel Elliott’s status over the next few days. ESPN reported that a reduction of his six-game suspension is possible.

So as we head into Labor Day Weekend, here’s a look at the top players to be considered by those whose draft is near.

Key Quarterbacks

Tom Brady, Patriots: He should be fine without security blanket Julian Edelman, who is out for the year with a torn ACL. Obviously needs tight end Rob Gronkowski to stay healthy, which is a crap shoot. Remember when Brady was the first quarterback to throw 50 touchdown passes in a single season? Yeah, that was ten years ago.

Drew Brees, Saints: Turned 38 in January, which also is the number of touchdown passes he has averaged over the last six years. Favorable late schedule includes games that are indoors from Weeks 13-16.

Derek Carr, Raiders: Is healthy again after suffering a heartbreaking fractured fibula in Week 16 last season. Starting left tackle Donald Penn, whose only sack allowed last year came on the play when Carr broke his leg, ended his holdout on Aug. 23.

Marcus Mariota, Titans: Will continue his ascension as a fantasy option, but only if the Titans’ new wide receivers (Eric Decker, Corey Davis) can stay on the field.

Cam Newton, Panthers: The call here is for a return to QB1 status for Newton, who completed a career-low 53 percent of his passes in 2016. It’s going to be interesting to see what sort of impact rookie running back Christian McCaffrey will have in the passing game.

Dak Prescott, Cowboys: Looked terrific in training camp but will have to carry a little more of the offense if Elliott’s six-game suspension is upheld. Prescott’s next challenge is continuing to feed wide receiver Dez Bryant, who had season highs of nine catches for 132 yards (and two touchdowns) in that wonderful playoff game against Green Bay.

Aaron Rodgers, Packers: Not buying Ty Montgomery as a workhouse running back, so make Rodgers the No. 1 fantasy quarterback. Had a career-high 610 pass attempts last season (which was only three more than Carson Wentz, by the way). Green Bay is going to have to throw the ball to win.

Matt Ryan, Falcons: Quarterbacks typically take statistical steps back following a loss in the Super Bowl. Ryan had career bests with 38 TD passes and 4,944 yards last season. His average draft position entering the week was around No. 25 overall, according to CBS Sports. The bottom line as it relates to fantasy is don’t reach for him.

Matthew Stafford, Lions: Stafford threw for a rather pedestrian 24 touchdowns with 10 picks last year. He’s a low-end QB1. Just because the Lions overpaid for him doesn’t mean you should.

Carson Wentz, Eagles: His ADP entering the week was No. 130, which is anywhere from rounds 11-13. Wentz is a QB2 with high upside.

Russell Wilson, Seahawks: There’s a lot of chatter in Seattle about how healthy Wilson is after struggling with knee and ankle injuries last season. But Wilson has been sacked at least 40 times in each of the last four years and starting left tackle George Fant was lost for the season in mid-August with a torn ACL.

Jameis Winston, Buccaneers: Would much rather gamble on Winston as my QB1 than someone like Stafford or Kirk Cousins. Younger, has better weapons, team on the rise, etc.

Sleeper watch: Jay Cutler, Dolphins: Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers; Carson Wentz, Eagles.

Deep sleeper watch: Sam Bradford, Vikings.

No thanks: Andrew Luck, Colts.

Key Running Backs

Jay Ajayi, Dolphins: He’s a good RB2, but let others reach for him as an RB1 simply because he looked good against the Eagles last week. Ajayi had three monster games last season but was mostly mediocre in the others.

Le’Veon Bell, Steelers: Expected to end his holdout on Friday, which will give him time to fully practice ahead of the Week 1 opener at Cleveland. Bell was suspended for the first three games last season and ran for 144 yards in his return, which has led folks to simply dismiss the time he’s missed this summer. The difference is he participated in OTAs and training camp in 2016. Bell hasn’t been hit since last January, which is worrisome enough to make David Johnson our No. 1 back.

Devonta Freeman, Falcons: How hard is the running back position to figure? Consider that Freeman is the only player to run for 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons. Spent half of August in concussion protocol but returned to practice on Monday. Tevin Coleman is a valuable handcuff.

Todd Gurley, Rams: Another guy being overdrafted, probably because new Rams coach Sean McVay coordinated such a powerful offense in Washington last season. Gurley’s only an RB1 if you decide to wait until the third round to pick your first running back.

David Johnson, Cardinals: Legitimate threat to gain 1,000 yards rushing and receiving, something that’s been done only by Roger Craig (1985) and Marshall Faulk (1999). Don’t worry about that Week 17 trip to Seattle. Johnson had three TDs in Week 16 there last year.

Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys: It’ll be Darren McFadden followed by Alfred Morris as Elliott serves his six-game suspension to start the season. Three of those six games (Giants, Cardinals and Packers) were against teams that were in top third of the fewest points allowed to RBs in 2016.

Jordan Howard, Bears: Had laser eye surgery in the offseason, a procedure that he thinks will help him become a better receiver. Howard told the Chicago Sun-Times that he often used to squint to see the ball. Yikes. Howard had 29 receptions last year.

Kareem Hunt, Chiefs: Will be the first man up now that Spencer Ware (torn PCL) is done for the season. Charcandrick West is behind Hunt, a rookie out of Toledo that Kansas City traded up to draft in the third round.

LeSean McCoy, Bills: He’s on track to become a poor man’s Barry Sanders. Gathering Hall of Fame credentials with no real chance to ever win a Super Bowl in Buffalo.

DeMarco Murray, Titans: Is still Tennessee’s lead back, but the guess here is that Derrick Henry’s strong summer will eat into Murray’s workload in the fall.

Sleeper watch: Dalvin Cook, Minnesota; Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland; Christian McCaffrey, Carolina.

Deep sleeper watch: Rex Burkhead, New England; Chris Carson, Seattle.

No thanks: Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville; Frank Gore, Indianapolis; Lamar Miller, Houston; Terrance West, Ravens.

Key Wide Receivers

Keenan Allen, Chargers: It was a good sign to see Allen, who ripped up his knee in Week 1 last season, get into a fight during a joint practice with the Rams a few weeks ago. Has 100-catch potential but hasn’t finished a season healthy since 2013. Still just 25 years old.

Doug Baldwin, Seahawks: His targets, catches and yards have gone up in each of the last five seasons. He ceded some TDs last season to Jimmy Graham, but is still a perfect WR2 in 10- to 12-team leagues.

Odell Beckham Jr., Giants: Most people who drafted before Aug. 21 probably never heard of Briean Boddy-Calhoun. But after the Browns defensive back scared the stuffing out of them with his violent — but not dirty — hit on OBJ, they know who he is now. It looks like Beckham will be healthy enough to start the opener.

Antonio Brown, Steelers: Signed a contract extension that made him the highest-paid receiver at an average of $17 mil per year. He’s also the No. 1 fantasy WR and arguably No. 1 overall in PPR leagues.

Dez Bryant, Cowboys: No Elliott for (at this point) six games should mean more reliance on the passing game. In 2015, before Elliott arrived, the Cowboys passed on 56 percent of their plays. Last year, with Elliott, it was 50-50 pass-run.

Brandin Cooks, Patriots: Feel bad that Super Bowl hero Edelman is hurt, but this should mean more looks for Cooks and Chris Hogan. Ideally, Cooks is a fantasy WR3 since Brady spreads the ball out so much.

Mike Evans, Buccaneers: Told the Tampa Bay Times that the acquisition of DeSean Jackson was “awesome” because of the attention Jackson will command. Evans’ touchdown totals his first three years are 12, three and 12.

Alshon Jeffery, Eagles: The trade of Jordan Matthews elevated Jeffery to undisputed No. 1 on the Eagles. He’s a solid WR2 in fantasy, maybe even low-end WR1 in larger leagues.

Julio Jones, Falcons: Remember that Saints defense that was last against the pass and 31st in points allowed last season? Julio will see them in Weeks 14 and 16.

Jordy Nelson, Packers: Led the league with 14 TD catches and had a career high 152 targets last season after missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL. Love that the Packers threw it 63 percent of the time in 2016.

Terrelle Pryor, Redskins: Sorry, but I’m a little skeptical that Pryor will improve on his 77-catch, 1,000-yard season last year in Cleveland. He’s a converted QB playing in a new system. Hard to see the move being seamless.

Michael Thomas, Saints: Anybody who is Drew Brees’ top target can sit at my bar any day. Thomas had his ups and downs as a rookie last year (nine TD catches, just three 100-yard games), but is a good option in Round 2 for fantasy players who take David Johnson or Le’Veon Bell in the first round.

Sleeper watch: Pierre Garcon, 49ers; DeVante Parker, Dolphins; Sterling Shepard, Giants; Adam Thielen, Vikings.

Deep Sleepers: Robby Anderson, Jets; Jaron Brown, Cardinals; Chris Conley, Chiefs; Corey Davis, Titans; Zay Jones, Bills.

No thanks: DeAndre Hopkins, Texans; Marqise Lee, Jaguars; Any other New York Jet (clarified).

Key tight ends

Martellus Bennett, Packers: When it happens, Aaron Rodgers will be the fourth Super Bowl-winning quarterback to throw a touchdown pass to Bennett. Tom Brady, Eli Manning, and Brad Johnson are the others. Not a bad gig for Bennett going from Brady last season to Rodgers this year.

Zach Ertz, Eagles: The only thing keeping Ertz from high TE1 consideration is he doesn’t get into the end zone enough. His four TDs last year were tied for 12th among tight ends.

Jimmy Graham, Seahawks: Entering his third season in Seattle, but the first in which he is healthy.

Rob Gronkowski, Patriots: Had his contract restructured to include several incentives tied to his ability to stay on the field. There’s no question Gronk is the No. 1 tight end when he’s healthy. Now there is financial incentive for him to be a little less like a human wrecking ball out there all the time.

Travis Kelce, Chiefs: With no Jeremy Maclin (Ravens) and an uncertain Chiefs running game, Kelce could hit 90 catches.

Sleeper watch: Coby Fleener, Saints.

Deep sleeper watch: O.J. Howard, Buccaneers.

No thanks: Jordan Reed, Redskins.

Top 100
For PPR Leagues
Player, Pos., Team Bye
1. David Johnson, RB ARI 8
2. Antonio Brown, WR PIT 9
3. Le’Veon Bell, RB PIT 9
4. Julio Jones, WR ATL 5
5. LeSean McCoy, RB BUF 6
6. Odell Beckham Jr., WR NYG 8
7. Aaron Rodgers, QB GB 8
8. Tom Brady, QB NE 9
9. Jordan Howard, RB CHI 9
10. Melvin Gordon, RB LAC 9
11. Mike Evans, WR TB 11
12. A.J. Green, WR CIN 6
13. Jordy Nelson, WR GB 8
14. Devonta Freeman, RB ATL 5
15. Michael Thomas, WR NO 5
16. Rob Gronkowski, TE NE 9
17. Ezekiel Elliott, RB DAL 6
18. Drew Brees, QB NO 5
19. Dalvin Cook, RB MIN 9
20. Matt Ryan, QB ATL 5
21. Dez Bryant, WR DAL 6
22. Michael Crabtree, WR OAK 10
23. Doug Baldwin, WR SEA 6
24. Lamar Miller, RB HOU 7
25. Todd Gurley, RB LAR 8
26. T.Y. Hilton, WR IND 11
27. Jimmy Graham, TE SEA 6
28. Christian McCaffrey, RB CAR 11
29. Jay Ajayi, RB MIA 11
30. Keenan Allen, WR LAC 9
31. DeMarco Murray, RB TEN 8
32. Amari Cooper, WR OAK 10
33. Kareem Hunt, RB KC 10
34. Ben Roethlisberger, QB PIT 9
35. Cam Newton, QB CAR 11
36. Davante Adams, WR GB 8
37. Kelvin Benjamin, WR CAR 11
38. Marcus Mariota, QB TEN 8
39. Stefon Diggs, WR MIN 9
40. Alshon Jeffery, WR PHI 10
41. Travis Kelce, TE KC 10
42. Mike Gillislee, RB NE 9
43. Jameis Winston, QB TB 11
44. Joe Mixon, RB CIN 6
45. Derek Carr, QB OAK 10
46. Golden Tate, WR DET 7
47. Carlos Hyde, RB SF 11
48. Brandin Cooks, WR NE 9
49. DeVante Parker, WR MIA 11
50. Mark Ingram, RB NO 5
51. Demaryius Thomas, WR DEN 5
52. Kyle Rudolph, TE MIN 9
53. DeSean Jackson, WR TB 11
54. Tyreek Hill, WR KC 10
55. Leonard Fournette, RB JAC 8
56. Marshawn Lynch, RB OAK 10
57. Ty Montgomery, RB GB 8
57. Martavis Bryant, WR PIT 9
59. Dak Prescott, QB DAL 6
60. Pierre Garcon, WR SF 11
61. DeAndre Hopkins, WR HOU 7
62. Ameer Abdullah, RB DET 7
63. C.J. Anderson, RB DEN 5
64. Matthew Stafford, QB DET 7
65. Brandon Marshall, WR NYG 8
66. Darren Sproles, RB PHI 10
67. Russell Wilson, QB SEA 6
68. Kirk Cousins, QB WAS 5
69. Terrelle Pryor, WR WAS 5
70. Sammy Watkins, WR LAR 8
71. LeGarrette Blount, RB PHI 10
72. Tyrell Williams, WR LAC 9
73. Jamison Crowder, WR WAS 5
74. Adam Thielen, WR MIN 9
75. Jarvis Landry, WR MIA 11
76. Darren McFadden, RB DAL 6
77. Terrance West, RB BAL 10
78. Corey Davis, WR TEN 8
79. Greg Olsen, TE CAR 11
80. Allen Robinson, WR JAC 8
81. Emmanuel Sanders, WR DEN 5
82. Larry Fitzgerald, WR ARI 8
83. Andy Dalton, QB CIN 6
84. Isaiah Crowell, RB CLE 9
85. Doug Martin, RB TB 11
86. Eric Decker, WR TEN 8
87. Marvin Jones, WR DET 7
88. Carson Wentz, QB PHI 10
89. Andrew Luck, QB IND 11
90. Jeremy Maclin, WR BAL 10
91. Paul Perkins, RB NYG 8
92. Thomas Rawls, RB SEA 6
93. Jacquizz Rodgers, RB TB 11
94. Martellus Bennett, TE GB 8
95. Sam Bradford, QB MIN 9
96. Jordan Reed, TE WAS 5
97. Bilal Powell, RB NYJ 11
98. Eddie Lacy, RB SEA 6
99. Willie Snead, WR NO 5
100. Tevin Coleman, RB ATL 5