“League winner” is a term thrown around a lot, but what exactly makes a league winner?
A top talent
In an offense set up to convert that talent into the maximum possible production
I didn’t mention opportunity because opportunity can be fluid as the season progresses. Injuries, reevaluation of the depth chart, and changes in personnel or coaching can present very different situations than the ones we expected when setting preseason ranks and projections.
Think of it as gasoline (surrounding situation) and matches (talent/ability). Even if the gasoline and matches are far apart right now, events can intervene to move them close enough to ignite the fire. We should be identifying the players who represent an explosion of fantasy points if the matches and gasoline get in contact. Even if the events necessary seem remote in possibility at this juncture, only a small percentage of players have season-changing ceilings. While those events could be unlikely, we see unlikely scenarios unfold every single season. The good news is that because most, if not all, fantasy players see the best-case scenario as improbable, if not impossible, a lot of potential league winners are available after you use your premium picks.
Who are the potential league winners available outside of the top 50 picks?
Tom Brady, QB, TB
Remember when Tom Brady went off on the league because he had an impossible-to-solve tactical advantage with Wes Welker and Randy Moss? He could reprise that kind of buzzsaw run through the league with Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, and Co. now that Brady and the team are fully accustomed to each other and he's had his knee surgically repaired. Between Brady and Arians, there’s not a personality type that will let up when the team can pour it on against overmatched defenses. This year, Brady is an especially attractive pick in 6-point pass touchdown leagues or leagues with 300/400 passing yard game bonuses. He fits in a wait-on-quarterback strategy and opens the year with the Dallas and Atlanta defenses to help your team get out to a 2-0 start.
Darrell Henderson, RB, LAR
Henderson isn’t going to get the same workload that Cam Akers was set to get, but he probably won’t need it to have a real fantasy impact if the Rams offense takes over under the stewardship of Matthew Stafford. We haven’t seen a Sean McVay offense unencumbered by quarterback play yet, and McVay couldn’t contain his excitement upon seeing Matthew Stafford in training camp. This could be a special year for this offense (assuming the line holds up), judging by how much success Jared Goff had when the limited but effective version of the McVay offense he led got rolled out. Stafford will extend the field with deep passing to DeSean Jackson and Tutu Atwell, and Tyler Higbee will make sure there is stress on the middle of the field in the pass defense, which should equal lighter boxes for Henderson. The Rams running game only had modest success last year, but some of that was because defenses could compress closer to the line of scrimmage and not honor the deep pass with Goff in at quarterback. What if Todd Gurley’s amazing fantasy seasons were a byproduct of the offense more than Gurley? Remember what C.J. Anderson did in a very short stint when the Goff offense was clicking? This year, Henderson could be making more than one house call if Stafford regains top form and McVay keeps defenses off balance with his play design and calls.
Trey Sermon, RB, SF
As my nephew Matt Harmon said, there are a lot of paths to value for Sermon. Raheem Mostert can’t stay healthy, and for as long as he does, the 49ers will limit his workload to keep him on the field. We can’t be sure when Jeff Wilson plays, and Sermon could easily show the team that he is a superior option. Last season, Wilson had one three-score game and two two-score games when Mostert was out and a 183-yard game when Wilson only scored once. The 49ers liked Sermon enough to trade up for him in the third round when they had already mortgaged the future for Trey Lance. He’s a good fit for the Shanahan running game and will take over this backfield sooner or later.
Tony Pollard, RB, DAL
Pollard’s path to league winner value is pretty simple - Ezekiel Elliott breaks down. Before you protest, remember that Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley missed most of last year. Elliott didn’t look like prime Zeke last year, and he may have hit his peak earlier age-wise than most backs because of his workload. Whether through bad luck or accumulation of punishment, there is a non-zero chance Elliott misses significant time, and in that case, Pollard would become an instant RB1. Pollard was worth 31.2 PPR points and 25.2 non-PPR points in Elliott’s one missed game last year.
A.J. Dillon, RB, GB
Like Pollard, Dillon isn’t going to win leagues unless the running back ahead of him goes down, but if Jones and Elliott both went down, we would have trouble deciding which of Pollard and Dillon to take first. Unlike Pollard, Dillon might be viable as an RB2/Flex even if Aaron Jones doesn’t miss time. The Packers paying Jones this offseason indicates that they will not adopt the model they had in Week 16 last year when Dillon got the majority of the work in a 40-14 cakewalk over the Titans when the second-round pick posted 129 total yards and two scores. Still, he should get more work than he did last year and perhaps even get more chances to score to help offset the extra work Jones will get in place of Jamaal Williams on passing downs. Dillon as the thunder to Jones lightning is probably an attractive picture to Matt LaFleur.
Tee Higgins, WR, CIN
Higgins is your best candidate to be this year’s DK Metcalf, that is a wide receiver who was impressive as a rookie taking a big leap forward in the WR1 ranks as a second year. He had a terrific offseason and only needs Joe Burrow to regain form to fully take advantage of pass defenses that will also have to account for Tyler Boyd and Ja’Marr Chase in addition to containing Joe Mixon. He’ll get to pick on the Minnesota, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Jacksonville corners to open the season.
Michael Thomas, WR, NO
It is impossible to leave Thomas off of this list. He obviously has league-winning upside and displayed it just two years ago. Drew Brees is gone, but Jameis Winston can certainly create fantasy overachievers in the wide receiver room, and Taysom Hill fed Thomas to the tune of 9-104, 9-105, 8-84 in three of his four starts, and Thomas wasn’t even 100% at the time. There’s a lot of uncertainty here - when will Thomas play, how will he riff with Winston if Winston is the starter, will the Saints trade him or otherwise make him less central in anticipation of moving on from him, is Thomas even interested in making it work with the Saints. But the payoff, if Thomas hits, is undeniable.
Odell Beckham Jr, WR, CLE
Beckham got hurt before the Browns offense turned the corner last year. Defenses caught in the bind between overselling to stop the run and staying on guard against the play-action pass will have even more trouble defending Beckham, who still had a signature week-winning game against the Cowboys and scored from distance against the Bengals (with a second long score only prevented by a William Jackson III holding penalty that was not called. Beckham won’t get a high volume of targets, but he might not need to for a return to the fantasy WR1 ranks as the designated shot play target on play-action passes.
Mecole Hardman, WR, KC
Hardman needs a Tyreek Hill injury to hit league winner status, but he can still be plenty relevant and maybe even an every-week play with Hill playing 17 games. We are hearing all of the right things about his progress this year and the role that no offseason played in his lack of progress last year, and Hardman will have a chance to see his role grow with Sammy Watkins no longer on the roster. Buying into Hardman is buying into Patrick Mahomes II and buying into a receiver who should rarely see safety help over the top, with Kelce and Hill occupying the attention of opposing secondaries.
Tyler Higbee, TE, LAR
Higbee is an easy call to include here because he was the #1 tight end in fantasy football the last time he played without Gerald Everett. Some of that could be due to Jared Goff’s inability to throw well downfield and reliance on Higbee as a high percentage target (a reason to consider T.J. Hockenson at ADP in PPR leagues). Still, Higbee’s numbers could compensate for a drop in volume with more valuable downfield targets from Matthew Stafford. Higbee has the highest ceiling of any tight end outside of the top six.
Blake Jarwin, TE, DAL
The bar for league-winner at tight end is a little lower. If you decide to wait and forego tight end in the late rounds and land a consistent fantasy play who ends up in the top 6-8, that player can be the difference when waiting at tight end, allowing you to lock in a bigger advantage somewhere else. Jarwin can be that guy if he’s fully recovered from his ACL tear suffered in Week 1 last year and Dalton Schultz doesn’t get in his way in the target share allotment. Jarwin is a better receiver and big-play downfield threat than Schultz will ever be. The Cowboys showed they are going to give tight ends 100+ targets last year in any event, so Jarwin might only need to get two-thirds of the targets to hit as long as he maintains his ability to rip the seam and punish defenses that will let him beat them at the expense of slowing down the Cowboys running game and elite wide receiver trio.
Gerald Everett, TE, SEA
Everett is at the intersection of converging factors that should maximize his upside. He came over from the Rams with new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, who will soup up the tempo and add layers of deception to the offense. He was also Everett’s tight end coach in his rookie year. It seems reasonably certain that Waldron endorsed this addition. The Seahawks drafted DWayne Eskridge to be their third wide receiver, but he has missed most of the offseason and camp with a toe injury that will require an orthotic to be placed in his shoe, so you know it isn’t going to get much better this year. It’s not difficult to picture Everett as the #3 receiver in an offense that should allow Russell Wilson to cook, and it’s not difficult to picture that role producing good enough numbers to place Everett in the top 6-8 fantasy tight ends at a bargain-basement price.