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Everyone (and probably their grandmother, too) has told you which starters and units are performing well. Now that we've seen some action, let's focus on contributors and reserves you should be stashing whenever possible.
You shouldn't acquire every player on this list—you'll lack the room if you have a contending squad. However, these are options you should be consider from the waiver wire or negotiate their addition as throw-ins to package deals on the trade market.
If something goes awry with the starter, these players can deliver as starters of note.
True Hidden winners And worth overstating
Some of these players are obvious, but it's worth noting how good they can be.
Tony Pollard: The Cowboys arugably have a top-five offense. Pollard has shown excellent vision between the tackles for a rookie and skills in the screen game. This is a big-play runner who hits creases decisively and then uses his athletic ability to gash defenses for big gains once he reaches open space. As long as the core players stay healthy—the offensive line, Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and Jason Witten—Dallas has the offensive pressure points to make Pollard's life easy and fantasy players with his roster rights ecastic. Pollard will deliver fantasy RB2 production if Ezekiel Elliott misses extended time and have RB1 upside.
Justin Jackson: Ekeler has 124 rushing yards on 29 carries. Jackson has 116 yards on 13 carries. Ekeler is out-targeting Jackson 13-4 and earning red-zone love. A superior route runner, Ekeler will remain the most productive fantasy runner on the Chargers as long as he can maintain the workload (out-snapping Jackson 97-34 during the past two games).
If the Chargers call upon Jackson to replace Ekeler, fantasy players are getting the best runner on the roster in an extended role. There is a valid argument that an Ekeler injury would influence the Chargers to negotiate with Melvin Gordon but I think Los Angeles knows that an Ekeler-Jackson combination is as good or better than Gordon. What they might even be wondering is if Ekeler and Jackson are actually as effective (if not moreso) than Gordon, individually.
I think they know the answer with Ekeler. I bet the organization would prefer to give Jackson a chance to do the same if Ekeler gets hurt and bring in a veteran runner on the cheap rather than succumb to Gordon's demands long-term.
As far as Jackson's ability is concerned, I've written a ton about him. The executive summary: Although not nearly as fast, Jackson has a Jamaal Charles-like style to his game. He's savvy between the tackles, rarely takes a big shot, super-quick, creative in space, and handled a high workload at Northwestern for four seasons and with excellent ball security.
Alexander Mattison: While never a Kirk Cousins fan, I think this passing offense will improve and prevent defenses from thinking it would be better to simply stop the run and make Cousins beat them. Even if this is exactly what defenses try to do, the Vikings have a strong offensive line and a well-schemed ground game that's more than its headliner, Dalvin Cook.
Mattison has performed as expected early on and the Vikings will be confident about using him as its starter if Cook gets hurt again. Mattison gives Minnesota's offense everything it desires from a runner with the exception of Cook's game-breaking speed.
If he had Cook's speed he would have been a first-round pick because he runs with balance, strength, and excellent vision. Look for Mattison to earn significant production in the screen game if Cook gets hurt and expect him to dominate touches as a near-feature back. He'll be an instant fantasy RB2 if called upon.
Jordan Wilkins: I could have devoted this article solely to Wilkins and been happy about it. The Colts have a fantastic offensive line and creative scheme that supports a competent between-the-tackles runner in Marlon Mack who excites because his long speed can turn explosive plays (gains of at least 12 yards) into breakaway runs that flip the field.
Wilkins is not a breakaway threat, although as seen below, he can deliver gains of 40-50 yards with his speed.
This is not the type of hole that I would expect Mack to anticipate as well as Wilkins, who I believe has the best vision on the team. Wilkins' style of running is far more cerebral and instinctive. He's also more powerful and has better footwork than Mack.
Wilkins' style reminds me of Arian Foster — you can read a sample of his RSP pre-draft scouting report, here. Althoguh Nyheim Hines would retain his passing-down role, Wilkins is a good receiver and would earn quality targets in high-leverage situations (screens, flat routes, and throw-back passes up the seam and/or sideline) where he could earn strong gains as a receiver.
If you have a good roster with Mack as your starter and have the luxury of adding Wilkins, do so.
Rashaad Penny/C.J. Prosise: The Penny Truthers are out in force after a pair of Chris Carson fumbles but it will take a lot more than last weekend's mishaps for Seattle to bench its best running back. Penny is getting better a processing zone runs but he's still not consistent enough to overtake Carson without an injury or a massive slump in play.
Penny and Prosise are similar players. Both came from gap schemes, possess big-play speed, and catch the ball like receivers. Prosise is superior to Penny in this respect, but injuries have derailed his chances of contending for a starting role until recently.
Even now, Prosise is essentially the guy who played too well not to cut this year. Yet, all it takes is an injury and fortunes change dramtically at this position. Alex Collins, Mike Davis, Justin Forsett, Carlos Hyde, Isaiah Crowell, and others can attest—and the first three mentioned were all Seahawks at one time.
If you have Penny and he becomes the starter due to a Carson injury, Prosise is a must-add. If you have Carson or lack a share of the Seattle backfield, Prosise is worth a flier as a way of getting back into this run-heavy scheme.
It's possible that with Penny's extended opportunity, the Seahawks will want to ease him into the role and lean more on Prosise. And if Penny fails to capitalize immediately, the more chances Prosise gets to regenerate the excitement the organization had for him as a third-round pick four years ago.
Well-known who can help but won't dominate
You don't need me to say much about this players. They're all capable performers who should be on your radar without me telling you:
- Ito Smith: A shifty back who is showing more burst than Devonta Freeman right now and has improved his patience but will not dominate touches if Freeman loses his hold on the backfield.
- Josh Reynolds: The Rams don't give him the chance to win 50/50 balls, which he's great at, but he is a realiable route runner with red-zone skill.
- Brian Hoyer: Skilled enough to light it up any given week, Hoyer is also killed enough in the pocket that it's hard to believe he'll stay healthy long.
- Ty Montgomery and Bilal Powell: Count on them splitting time. Montgomery earns the most reps but loses valuable situational looks to Powell.
- Josh McCown: An older, wiser version of Carson Wentz with less talent, McCown can keep this offense a unit of viable fantasy options.
Don't turn up your nose at these options
A lot of fantasy players will dismiss these players and opt more more exciting athletes, but it would be foolish to do so. Both can give you starter production despite lacking the pedigree that most glom onto as the basis for free agent decisions.
Matt Moore: As Patrick Mahomes II' backup, I doubt you'd dismiss him out of hand. Yet, I can imagine the buzz about dramatically lowering expectations on all Chiefs receivers if Mahomes were to miss extended time.
Moore won't pick up where Mahomes left off in the weekly box score, but he has been at least 60 percent accurate during four of the five seasons where he earned atleast 80 attempts in relief of a starter. Those five stints occurred in Miami's "we might as well have tanked days" and pre-Cam Carolina.
The cupboards in those stops weren't fully stocked and Moore 41 touchdowns to 27 interceptions in those 34 games. Moore is a skilled thrower on the move and has shown a willingness to attack downfield.
With Andy Reid at the helm of the Chiefs, I project Moore could deliver mid-to-low-range QB1 production if the rest of this offense stays healthy. Moore was a better quarterback than Josh McCown when they were both young.
Age and experience often helps backups process the game like starters. The tough part is hanging on that long to acquire this experience. Both have and Moore is worth a significant portion of your FAAB if the unfortunate happens to Mahomes.
Jamaal Williams: Yes, he's too slow for any team to want him as its starter. However, he's still quick and fast enough to be a productive starter when called upon. There's a difference between "too slow to want as a starter" and "too slow to play."
Overlook Williams' third-down skills and short-yardage power and you're going to miss out on a player who has accumulated startable production whenever given touch volume in Green Bay. While possible that the Packers would add a veteran to the mix as its primary runner if Aaron Jones gets hurt (yet again), it will be relatively easy to get Williams on the cheap while it takes the new back a week or two to seen singificant playing time.
Cheap fliers with ability
Will Grier: Kyle Allen will start if Cam Newton can't play this weekend but I disagree with my industry brethren who take this as a hot-and-bothered diss of Grier, who the Panthers claimed they graded higher than Kyler Murray (so did I). If you're the Panthers, wouldn't you go with a veteran as a one-week replacement if that's all the time you anticipate?
I would. Much of quarterbacking is about assignments, diagnosis of potential problems, adjustments to create solutions, and strong communication. Most rookie quarterbacks earn praise for "learning the system" quicker than they expected in the spring and by August and September, they are messing up a variety of things when the real games begin.
The Panthers are 0-2 in a division where they are only one game out and all three rivals are experiencing issues that could derail them for weeks at a time. Why put a rookie on the field for one game, lose it due to mental mistakes, potentially rock that player's confidence, and not use him again for a year or two?
However, if Cam Newton's injury requires weeks, if not an entire season of rest and rehab, I expect we'll see Grier soon. If this happens, he's an excellent anticipation passer with downfiedl accuracy and creative savvy. He could wind up a viable garbage-time play, at worst and a surprisingly productive fantasy QB2 with QB1 games, at best.
Chad Kelly: Brissett is tough but ungainly maneuvering the pocket. Brian Hoyer can deliver big numbers but he tore his ACL in 2013, broke his left forearm in 2016, and has been benched multiple times during the past five years for in-game struggles. If no team claims Kelly of waivers—he was waived today upon his return from suspension—the Colts will likely re-sign Kelly to its practice squad and he'll be productive if Brissett gets hurt and Hoyer ultimately does what he has frequently done in the NFL.
Since teams are usually cautious about players with bad reputations unless they are established superstars, I'd be a little surprised if he's signed. Still, the Jets, Jaguars, and Steelers could all benefit.
Brian Hill: Strong and quick enough to hit creases and find his way into open field, Hill has a strong training camp but struggled down the stretch of the preseason. The struggles were minor mistakes that did not erase the strenght of his practice play, but he has been inactive so far for game days. If Ito Smith earns a lead role at the expense of Freeman, who will likely need to be hurt for this to happen despite his initial struggles, Hill will earn a split with Smith because the Falcons won't initially trust Smith to earn a feature workload—if ever.
Although sitting behind Smith and Freeman, if one or both players gets hurt, Hill has the highest likelihood of earning lead-back touches because he can do it all at the position. The Falcons offensive line has been through a trial-by-fire early on, but I think the unit is settling in and it should lead to better production from its backs as the season unfolds. If Hill is called upon, he can deliver flex or RB2 production depending on his role.
Juwann Winfree: Tim Patrick had hand surgery and this elevated Winfree into an active role. So far, the Broncos starting rotation is performing well. If something changes, Winfree's size, route running, and hands are all assets that could make him a cheap and surprising fantasy flex (WR3-WR4) if called upon.
Byron Pringle: He didn't make the final cut in Kansas City, but the Chiefs signed him to the practice squad and then elevated him to the active roster after Tyreek Hill's injury. Pringle impressed throughout the offseason and he's release was more of a number's game than anything else. Mecole Hardman is a gadget player at this time who is unlikely to replace Sammy Watkins or Demarcus Robinson if either option gets hurt while Hill is out. It will mean snaps for the speedy, YAC-friendly Pringle who could surprise as a first-come, first-serve waiver addition.
Ty Johnson: I didn't love Johnson's body of work at Maryland only because there wasn't enough of it to truly get a great read on his ability as a between-the-tackles runner. There were impressive moments of processing the box and setting up blockers that led to huge plays thanks to Johnson's speed. If his performances during practice and games have been good enough to release C.J. Anderson, you should take note. He'll be worth a flier as a preemptive addition if you have Kerryon Johnson, especially because he can catch.
Irv Smith: If Kyle Rudolph gets hurt, Smith has Delanie Walker's production upside as a receiver and it wouldn't be surprising if the Vikings opted for more two tight end sets to use Smith as a slot and wing option.