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What does it mean for a player to "make your draft?" For Sigmund Bloom, it means the player delivers every-week starter reliability for half fo the season for more than a cost of a fourth-round pick or less.
Your first three picks are supposed to be cornerstones. If you hit on those picks and then get a fourth cornerstone later, even in the fourth round, you will be well ahead of the competition.
Makes sense. I'm sure Bloom will put out his own list of players who can make your draft, but with training camp action delayed a bit for extra conditioning time due to the pandemic, I thought I'd steal this idea and deliver my own list.
Here are three-dozen players who could make your 2020 fantasy drafts.
1. James Conner, Steelers: If you've been reading the Gut Check this summer, you know I've been banging the drum for Conner as a big-time rebound candidate.
Pittsburgh has an excellent offensive line, Ben Roethlisberger and JuJu Smith-Schuster are back to take the pressure off the ground game, and the continued development of Diontae Johnson and the addition of Eric Ebron diversify this offense enough for Conner to earn even larger rushing lanes. A punishing runner, Conner is in the best shape of his career entering camp, and with recent news that Jaylen Samuels might not make the team, the most experienced receiver in the backfield by far is Conner. Mike Tomlin already tabbed Conner the featured back and went into depth how Conner's presence helps the entire offense from a schematic perspective. This one is easy.
2. David Johnson, Texans: Johnson was a top-six fantasy back during the first two months of the 2019 season before he got hurt. He may be a little older than the backs with similar years of NFL experience, but there's no reason to expect that he's a worn-out player. While the Texans lack a great offensive line, it's significantly better than what Johnson had in Arizona while earning fantasy RB1 production early in the fall. There's a chance you could land two fantasy RB1s at the 3-4 turn this year and that's free money.
3. Jonathan Taylor, Colts: I get that if you examine the history of running backs who get drafted early and fail to usurp the incumbent starter is high enough that you shouldn't expect it to happen. More importantly, I understand that when you examine the history of running backs who get drafted and fail to usurp the starter that you're discounting so many variables about those players involved, the scheme fits, and the surrounding talent that there's nothing predictive about the point. Taylor is a beast of a running back with superior ground-game skills to Mack.
As long as Taylor doesn't fumble away the opportunity and proves adequate with learning pass protections by mid-season, you're in a position to earn at least a half of a season of fantasy RB1 production from a top talent behind a terrific offensive line.
4. Raheem Mostert, 49ers: When Mostert demanded a trade earlier this summer, much of the fantasy analysis industry laughed at the demand. He's old for a starter, running backs are a dime-a-dozen, and Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers offensive line "made" Mostert what he was last year. A month later, the 49ers capitulated with Mostert's demands for a raise despite the presence of Shanahan favorite Tevin Coleman, the return of Jerick McKinnon, and the drafting of JaMycal Hasty.
The reason is simple: Mostert is by far, the most complete back on the team. He also added muscle to his frame to prepare for a lead role and a high volume of touches.
Mostert is a smart runner who sees everything you want from a top-tier starter. He wasn't a superstar runner last year but if he worked on developing a greater economy of footwork to completement his vision, Mostert is a dark horse candidate to shock the league as its 2020 rushing leader--especially with All-Pro tackle Trent Williams as an upgrade to an already strong unit.
5. Tyler Lockett, Seahawks: Lockett's career has trended upward along with the Seattle offense. Although a dip in yards per reception may seem like a negative for a receiver of Lockett's explosive ability, it's a signal that he has become Russell Wilson's go-to option. Lockett has become a refined route runner.
The value of selling the vertical route with a straight stem vs. zone; #seahawks Tyler Lockett maintains disciplined stem until S turns head to the inside and that's enough of leverage cue for Locket and Russell Wilson to connect. pic.twitter.com/0SPc4fKElZ— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 18, 2018
Most of all, you should really be paying attention to his 2019 catch rate of 74 percent and his career catch rate of 71 percent. Even if Lockett's 2020 production plateaus somewhere between 2018 and 2019's outputs, you're looking at a borderline fantasy WR1 at the cost of a fifth- or sixth-round pick. If you rolled with three running backs in the first four rounds and took a receiver or elite tight end with the other pick, landing Lockett as your first or second receiver is a gift that you can expect.
6. Russell Wilson, Seahawks: With Lockett and Chris Carson in their primes, D.K. Metcalf still an emerging force, and Greg Olsen not nearly as washed as most think, this could be the best collection of surrounding talent Wilson has had in Seattle during his illustrious career. Add Josh Gordon to the equation, and this offense will be even more difficult to defend. A bad fantasy year for Wilson has been at the low-end of the top-10 at his position. Considering he approached career highs in attempts, completions, completion percentage, yards, and touchdowns and had a career-low five interceptions in 2019, you should expect even bigger things from this upgraded and/or improved supporting cast. This is the quarterback with the best combination of safety and upside not named Patrick Mahomes II.
7. Darren Waller, Raiders: If judging Waller as a tight end, it makes sense to believe his 1,146-yard, 3-score campaign in 2019 will be ripe for a 2020 regression. However, Waller is a tight end in-name-only. Watch his tape and it's clear he's a receiver that plays in the slot or outside with occasional work from a three-point stance.
When you have a TE-sized WR at the line in 12 or 13 personnel, you will have some success sneaking him into the flat. This doesn't work as well here with the check-down but the idea is good and the extension to the high throw is easily done. pic.twitter.com/QRro30haPq— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) July 18, 2019
While his targets, receptions, and yardage totals may take a slight dip, I wouldn't count on it being a massive decline. Although there isn't "history" that shows production in the red zone, the idea of Waller topping three touchdowns shouldn't be an alien concept. If Waller doubles his touchdown total, it might be enough to counteract the loss of points with a slight dip in receiving volume. Waller is a fantasy cheat code as a productive fantasy WR2 disguised as a tight end.
8. Ronald Jones II, Buccaneers: You should love Jones this year because the fantasy community wrote him off after feeling foolish about embracing him as a rookie. Jones was an excellent athlete at USC with great speed and agility who got people excited for the wrong reasons and when he disappointed, most of the same people didn't understand the quality reasons to keep an open mind about his development the following year. Bruce Arians told reporters after the LeSean McCoy signing that Jones will carry the load, has shown notable improvement with his hands, and that the rest of the depth chart is battling for situational roles "when Jones gets tired." Jones has also added additional muscle to his frame to handle the volume he's slated to receive. This is a top-15 fantasy back that your "resident experts" think is only worth a flier as RB30 in early August.
9. J.K. Dobbins, Ravens: If you took Ray Rice's compact frame, agility, and strength and combined them with Ladainian Tomlinson's footwork, speed, and quickness, you'd have Dobbins' upside once he gets acclimated to the speed and savvy of NFL defenders.
The Ravens have the most dominant rushing attack in the NFL with Lamar Jackson at the helm behind this terrific offensive line. If Mark Ingram II gets hurt or Dobbins proves himself too valuable to keep off the field by midseason, this rookie could give your starting lineup a rocket booster to the title.
10. Drew Brees, Saints: I can't remember the last time Brees has had a second viable outside receiver who can run every route and you don't have to say a special prayer when the ball is in the air. Emmanuel Sanders is that guy and because of what he enforces from coverage with his route prowess, combine him with Michael Thomas Jared Cook, and Alvin Kamara, and the collective skill should unlock this offense in a way that could rival Brees' 2011-2016 campaigns that routinely flirted or exceeded 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. Because Brees is among the safest for 4,000 yards and 30 scores, he and Tom Brady (see below) are at that perfect intersection of everything you want from a fantasy quarterback.
11. Tom Brady, Buccaneers: The thing about fantasy quarterback strategy is that while it's true you can "wait," if you wait too long you could miss the best combination of value and upside. Brady is that guy this year. You can't name a good and healthy perimeter receiver on the Patriots last year. So until we see Brady look like a shadow of himself with this All-Pro cast of Tampa skill players, you can best believe I'm writing off the past two years of Brady's production as an aberration compared to his elite production of 2017 as fantasy football's No.2 passer. While Randy Moss was one of the best receivers of all time and by far the best individual option Brady had, Tampa's options are the best collection of receiving talent that Brady has worked with during his career. Remember Peyton Manning's record-breaking campaign in Denver? The pandemic may hurt the chances for that outcome, but that's Brady's two-year upside in Tampa. While this year may not be "the year," it won't be disappointing.
12. Marvin Jones, Lions: Jones has fantasy WR1 upside, a realistic fantasy WR2 expectation, and a fantasy W3 floor during the weeks that he stays healthy. If he can reverse the recent trend of injuries that cost him 10 games during the past two years, Jones will be a value because he is the most complete receiver on the depth chart and the option Matthew Stafford trust the most.
13. CeeDee Lamb, Cowboys: Dak Prescott showed last year that he could support 3,300 yards of receiving among four wide receivers in this offense. Lamb is a versatile and tough playmaker who will consolidate the combined 1,100-yard efforts of Randall Cobb and Tavon Austin and deliver more timely plays in the process.
Expect Lamb and Amari Cooper to share snaps from the slot. Give Lamb 4-6 weeks, and you shouldn't be shocked if Lamb has a stretch-run where he out-points his teammates.
14. Emmanuel Sanders, Saints: Without the benefit of preseason reps, Sanders walked onto the 49ers organization beginning Week 8 and earned 36 catches, 502 yards, and 3 touchdowns with Jimmy Garoppolo.
That’s a franchise-caliber throw right there. Hope to see more of this from Garoppolo. pic.twitter.com/aJksTRppjw— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 1, 2019
Listen, Garoppolo is a pretty quarterback on the field when you look at what he does devoid of the decision-making context—maybe the prettiest technician in the NFL. He still has road to travel as a decision-maker. It's why it amazes me that few are projecting Sanders to earn 1,000 yards and at least 5-7 touchdowns with the surrounding skill talent in New Orleans that's clearly superior to San Francisco. Make Sanders your accomplice as your rob your league blind.
15. Jerry Jeudy, Broncos: Based on his route running and hands, Jeudy has a real opportunity to lead the Broncos in receptions and become one of the top-two yardage producers in this passing game as a rookie.
Sanders was on track for 69 catches, 839 yards, and 5 scores in Denver. This is a reasonable expectation for Jeudy and low-end fantasy WR3 production based on last year's results for Sanders. As a high-floor fantasy option not valued this highly in early-August drafts, this is value.
16. Zack Moss, Bills: While I believe Moss runs a lot like one-time Bill Travis Henry and has greater versatility in the passing game, you aren't drafting him to beat out Devin Singletary this year. Moss assuming the "Frank Gore role" in this offense will likely be touchdown-dependent when it comes to weekly fantasy value. You're drafting Moss in case Singletary gets hurt.
If Moss earns the lead role early in the year due to a Singletary injury behind this Bills offensive line, you can expect 1,000-1,200 yards and a flirtation with double-digit scores. Even if he's just filling in for 2-3 games, Moss' production should extrapolate to that season-long output. It's this potential that makes Moss worth a 10th-round pick.
17. Alexander Mattison, Vikings: Minnesota has almost as good of an offensive line as Minnesota, a more experienced quarterback, and a scheme based on running the football. Mattison has starter talent and flashed his skills last year.
If he didn't get hurt around the same time Dalvin Cook was lost for the year, Mattison would have been the main option in the backfield. While Minnesota has more running back talent on its depth chart than Buffalo, Mattison should still earn enough touches as the lead back in the event of a Cook absence that he can at least carry the RB2 spot in fantasy lineups on a weekly basis.
18. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: I don't think a year away from the game is going to diminish Roethlisberger's top-10 and top-3 performances from 2017-18. Antonio Brown's absence is a concern, but the fact that the stellar offensive line remains intact is the most important factor. Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and James Conner offer enough pass-game diversity to support starter production from Roethlisberger. He's one of the last of the late-round starters available and if you can time it well enough to grab him, he's worth it.
19. T.J. Hockenson, Lions: He's the next elite tight end in this league. How soon he reaches that loft perch depends on his health. With more than a dozen tight ends that leave fantasy drafts before him, he's the perfect No.2 option to take if you want upside or a risk-friendly No.1 considering that there are still sharp plays available at the position that include Mike Gesicki, Dallas Goedert, Ebron, Irv Smith, and Greg Olsen, who you could pair with Hockenson for weekly streaming if Hockenson's production falters.
20. Tony Pollard, Cowboys: Dallas still has an excellent run-blocking unit and the offensive balance to prevent defenses from loading up consistently against them to stop the run. Pollard showed enough last year that the event an Ezekiel Elliott injury makes the second-year back a potential league-winner.
22. Sammy Watkins, Chiefs: More potential free money, people have written off Watkins after demonstrating reasonable patience with his game because he didn't have bananas-worthy fantasy production when Tyreek Hill got hurt. If you consider each step in Watkins' process of development from his rookie year through the NFL playoffs, you'll still have confidence relative to his end-of-the-draft value. This is especially true if you consider the developmental trajectories of Mark Ingram II, DeVante Parker, Robert Woods, and Tyler Higbee—players most fantasy players quit on 2-3 years earlier than their breakouts.
23. A.J. Dillon, Packers: Quicker and more versatile than you think, this load-carrying rookie prospect has proven durable and will earn his shot to be the lead back in 2021, if not a lot earlier thanks to Aaron Jones' track record with injuries.
Dillon is another potential injury-induced, league-winner in an offense that wants to run the ball a lot.
24. Justin Jackson, Chargers: Likely the third option on a depth chart with Austin Ekeler and rookie Joshua Kelley (see below), Jackson has marginal value as long as Ekeler remains healthy. However, his value could skyrocket with an Ekeler injury. There's a lot of Jamaal Charles' influence in his game when it comes to working between the tackles and play quickness. While I prefer Kelley as a late-round choice and don't want to have shares of the entire Charger backfield in most leagues, impatient fantasy players will likely deposit Jackson on the waiver wire by month's end.
25. Preston Williams, Dolphins: If Williams didn't suffer an ACL tear last year, he'd probably be drafted 7-8 rounds higher. While no two ACL tears are the same, shorter rehabilitation times are trending upward in recent years. Cooper Kupp's rehab was fast enough after suffering a mid-year tear in 2018 that he posted top-10 fantasy receiver production in 2019. Chan Gailey runs a receiver-friendly offense and Williams will likely be on the field full-time by mid-September and performing with either a veteran quarterback capable of supporting strong receiver production in Ryan Fitzpatrick or the excellent young rookie Tua Tagovailoa.
26. Eric Ebron, Steelers: The Steelers hoped Ladarius Green would provide them the detachable weapon from the line of scrimmage that they've long sought from a tight end. Ebron is what Green could never live up to. Although Ebron has been an inconsistent player throughout his career, Jared Cook is a good example of an uber-athletic player with early-career inconsistency who eventual hit his stride. Expect Ebron to deliver as a fantasy bargain.
27. Joshua Kelley, Chargers: Kelley is used to playing in an offense that condensed the field, which forced its running backs to excel at reading an manipulating the defense in tight spaces.
In this respect, playing in a zone-spread scheme will be an easier transition for Kelley in some respects that others may not expect from a rookie runner. If Justin Jackson gets hurt, Kelley could earn a full share of the "Melvin Gordon III role" that Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn believes the rookie has to talent to eventually assume during his first contract with the club.
Like Gordon, Kelley wasn't used a great deal as a receiver during his college career but the quality of his reps offer enough evidence that catching the ball is not a problem. If Kelley earns that Gordon role for himself, that's roughly 1,000 yards and 4-6 touchdowns of offense that would make him a start able fantasy option.
28. Damien Harris, Patriots: With Cam Newton opening up rushing lanes because he forces opposing defenses to account for all 11 offensive players on every running play, the Patriots starting running back should have an easier year in 2020. Sony Michel is the incumbent, but he's had an injury-plagued career and he's not performing as the Patriots hoped when they made him a first-round pick. The Patriots just signed Lamar Miller and depending on his condition and ADP, he could be an excellent value. Still, Harris is a versatile performer who lacks elite athletic ability but if he proves he can process the NFL game as quickly as he did at Alabama, he could emerge as the most productive option on the depth chart and a starter at free-agent price in many formats.
29. Adrian Peterson, Football Club: He has lost breakaway speed and calendar youth. That's about it. Everything else remains, including the quicks, acceleration, vision, contact balance, and brute strength.
Expect his value to climb with Derrius Guice gone but because most of us don't want to believe that the old man is the best man for the job, expect Antonio Gibson and Bryce Love's values to climb more. Exploit that bias like the shark you can be.
30. Carlos Hyde, Seahawks: DeeJay Dallas is a promising reserve who may one day fulfill the role that Hyde has with the Seahawks. However, the difference between the two backs is that Hyde can fullfill Chris Carson's role if called upon in a way that Dallas cannot. Hyde is an excellent fit in this Seattle offense as the redundancy plan for Carson. Don't let the new blood distract you from getting the true reserve with starter upside in this offense.
31. O.J. Howard, Buccaneers: Your potential End-Game Masterpiece, the Buccaneers used two tight ends the 13th-most in the NFL last year. With Rob Gronkowski in the mix, that number will rise, and all the targets won't be going his way. Howard is the most athletic tight end in the NFL and with three great receiving options creating problems for defenses, think of Howard as the equivalent of Chiefs receiver Mecole Hardman running wide open against overwhelmed defenses. Also add the red-zone factor to the equation, and Howard gives you a shot at TE1 production for a minimal investment.
32. Eno Benjamin, Cardinals: Kenyan Drake? Absolutely. Chase Edmonds? Good reserve with upside to deliver lead-back production. Benjamin? Why not? 98-Proof LeSean McCoy is also an excellent fit in the Cardinals offense.
Drake has never handled a starter workload for a full season in college or the NFL. Neither has Edmonds. Throw in the issues with our pandemic, and Benjamin is worth nabbing in deeper leagues.
33. Parris Campbell, Colts: Remember him? You will if Campbell plays the Keenan Allen role opposite Philip Rivers in this Colts offense that has the tools to create mismatches for the speedy receiver with big-play ability after the catch. Two of the most successful plays in any spread offense's play book are the quick-hitting crosser and seam routes off play action. While T.Y. Hilton has the wheels to be that guy, Campbell is the most likely to earn that time in the slot.
34. Darwin Thompson, Chiefs: It's clear that the Chiefs loved what they saw from Clyde Edwards-Helaire to make him a their guy. Yet, after the draft, the Chiefs coaching staff reminded the media not to sleep on Thompson, who "improved every week." Usually, post-draft statements of this nature can range from the truth to a motivational ploy for a player that they value as a contributor if he can continue to make strides. If Edwards-Helaire gets hurt, Thompson has more promise to be the lead back than anyone on the depth chart thanks to his speed, strength, contact balance, and third-down skills.
35. Bryan Edwards, Raiders: The forgotten rookie receiver in this rich class, Edwards has excellent strength, skill in the open field, and he wins contested plays as well as any receiver in this class. He had some technical lapses with his hands as a junior that some draft analysts and scouts didn't want to forget about despite shoring up those deficiencies a senior. Tyrell Williams is in the final year of his contract and Edwards, who can play multiple roles, will see playing time early in the year but could take over as the full-time split end or flanker by midseason.
36. Quintez Cephus, Lions: Regardless of how quick, fast, and strong Cephus might be, the threads of his game vital to receiver play offer a glimpse into his promise as future NFL contributor. Whether it’s his hand usage at the break-point, his skill to track difficult targets with his back to the ball, or his willingness to mix it up, the underlying theme of Cephus’s game is an unabashed approach to hitting and being hit.
If Cephus proves his athletic skills meet NFL starter baselines, he offers a mix of skills that could stylistically resemble Joe Horn or Roddy White. It’s a nice aspirational comparison for a young player lost among a rich class of 2020 NFL Draft prospects. With Geronimo Allison opting out, Cephus could see the field a lot more than planned. If one of the starters gets hurt, you'll see why Ohio State cornerback and new teammate Jeffery Okudah told the media at the NFL Combine that Cephus was the toughest receiver he faced in his college career.