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Fantasy GMs that lean heavily on draft capital and recent production for their roster decisions are playing the odds. This is an important part of managing a fantasy football roster because it gives you a macro-level understanding of the ebb and flow of talent.
It limits avoiding errors rooted in ignorance. When leaned on exclusively, it also limits fantasy GMs from being ahead of the curve on players that can help you win games at a minimal cost.
The more homework you do to understand the factors that can lead to a player's emergence, the better you get at finding players who can help you before your peers recognize their value. The most important lesson that most people know but don't embrace: Every player who has earned consideration from an NFL team is talented.
For example, on the Audible's live podcast of the first round of the NFL Draft a few years ago, I stated that Daniel Jones was a fraud. The implication is that Jones was a fraud as a potential franchise starter worthy of a first-round selection, not that he lacked the talent to be in the league.
However, like most entertainment professions, fans have been conditioned to view talents from an all-or-nothing lens. They are great or they aren't worthy of the league. Another package of disposable commodities of pop culture. If the corporate machine isn't touting them, they are worthless.
This week, I'm sharing an exercise I undertake at least 2-3 times a year and that's generating players who are not in the collective consciousness of the fantasy community who are worth monitoring. When you operate on the presumption that every player who has earned consideration from an NFL team is talented, you are poised to embrace a second important lesson: player fit can have a huge role in elevating or diminishing the viability of talent.
Here's a list of 20 players below (or on the margins of) the collective fantasy radar. I'm listing them in ascending order of my level of interest over the next 6-12 months.
20. Laquon Treadwell
Treadwell's entry to the NFL occurred during a period of the NFL where teams were changing offenses and seeking receivers who weren't Dez Bryant types. Treadwell's game reminded me a lot of Bryant — physical and winning the ball in tight coverage.
Treadwell didn't show the complete game that he needed to become an immediate starter and when he had difficulty grasping an offense and holding onto the ball during his first 2-3 years in the league his lack of speed made it easier for teams to move on from him.
Treadwell lead the Jaguars in receiving last week against Atlanta with 8 catches for 53 yards. This is probably what you can expect to be Treadwell's ceiling in any given week (give or take a touchdown) if he continues to earn more opportunities. After all, he's not a speedster and he thrives on trust throws, slants, and underneath targets.
If Treadwell can prove reliable and maybe even exceed expectations with his ability to separate in the intermediate passing game, he could be worth monitoring as more than a desperation play for a team operating on garbage time in December.
I'm open to the idea but as you can see, he barely made the list.
19. Mitchell Trubisky
It's difficult to know what a quarterback has learned during his time away from a starting lineup. Jameis Winston is the latest in a line of passers (Mike Vick, Rich Gannon, Steve Young, and Jim Plunkett) who've improved their game behind the scenes.
Winston corrected the glaring issues with his footwork, which used to lag well behind his upper body. Without getting too technical, Winston's mind was running ahead of his body and it influenced Winston to make hasty decisions because he was moving one step behind what he perceived or he was unable to see what he should do because he was too focused on the immediate problem of getting his body into the correct position to make a play.
Now that his body doesn't impede normal processes, Winston is seeing the field better and making smarter decisions. He'll always make errors that remind you of what he looked like during his worst moments, but the improvements he's made decrease the frequency.
Unlike Winston, Trubisky lacks significant technical flaws with the physical processes of quarterbacking. This makes Trubisky a difficult player to bet on improving where he makes the bulk of his mistakes: Poor situational football awareness. Will time off help him learn when not to force the ball into bad spots or hold onto the ball too long?
I doubt it. Still, Trubisky has all of the physical and technical elements of a quality starter. If the time away from a starting lineup has encouraged Trubisky to address his game in an honest and intelligent manner, we could see him emerge elsewhere as a quality starter.
This alone makes him worth monitoring.
18. Jake Fromm
The former UGA quarterback whose play led to Jacob Eason and Justin Fields transferring to other schools is now in New York after the Giants signed him off Buffalo's practice squad. Fromm lacks the high-end arm talent that most teams want from an NFL starter.
He also made some ignorant statements leading up to the NFL Draft. Josh Allen made ignorant statements in a similar, if not worse way, but made them while in high school. When comparing the two behaviors, organizations are far more forgiving of something that happened in high school than they are of a player who knows he's on the cusp of becoming a professional and still lacks the knowledge and wisdom that they seek from a potential team leader.
Of course, when you're on the opposite side of 50 like yours truly, you begin to see ages 18-30 as a period where individuals can undergo tremendous growth.
Fromm reminded me of a young Kirk Cousins. He was smart with the football, efficient as a decision-maker, and there's room for his arm to improve to the point that it's competent for a play-action passing game. Cousins needed 4-5 years to solidify his value as a legitimate NFL starter in a system suited for his talents.
I still believe Jones is a fraud of a franchise pick and I think the Giants will reach this conclusion over the next 8-12 months, if not sooner. I don't expect New York to look at Fromm as their future but Jones' neck issues and lackluster line play could force New York to get Fromm some playing time this year. If not, Fromm might do enough to hang around New York this spring and summer and work his way into an opportunity to back up Jones.
If Fromm had Trubisky's arm, he'd be at least 10 spots higher on this list.
17. Sammis Reyes
A basketball star on Chilean's national team, Reyes delivered a fantastic workout pre-draft and the Washington Football team nabbed him as a late-round developmental project. This year is Reyes' only experience with American football so he's not remotely ready to contribute at a high level.
With Logan Thomas in the fold, Reyes has time on his side and potentially a mentor who can use his own transition to the position as a tool for facilitating Reyes' long-term development. If Reyes can begin making plays in camp and the preseason — even as a third-team player, it will be enough to continue monitoring him.
A lot of NFL tight ends — starters you know like Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, and Robert Tonyan Jr as well as many reserves — were converts from basketball or quarterbacking. If Reyes proves a quick study, he has the elite athletic ability of a future Gates.
16. T.J. Vasher
A rookie receiver from Texas Tech with the length and tensile strength of a praying mantis, Vasher has fantastic ball-tracking skills, leaping ability, and concentration to win targets against tight coverage. I was impressed with his release skills and potential to work outside and from the slot. He has a lot to learn as a route runner but the fact he's still on the Cowboys' roster as a UDFA when Dallas has a strong depth chart is a telling indication that Vasher made an impression this summer.
With Michael Gallup likely moving on in 2022, Vasher could be on the shortlist of current Cowboys who could see a bigger opportunity next year.
15. Frank Darby
A physical receiver who thrived in Arizona State's vertical passing game, Darby hasn't moved the needle on Atlanta's depth chart this year despite losses to its receiving corps. He earned his first catch two weeks ago and there's no indication he'll earn additional playing time in the coming weeks.
Still, Darby has the potential to emerge as a training camp stud in 2022 and work his way into a contributing role. I'd also keep an eye on Austin Trammell, who almost made this list, who is on the Falcons' Practice squad. Trammell had a strong training camp and he's an excellent slot receiver with impressive athletic ability. In fact, let's make Trammel the unofficial 21st option on this list. I know if I could influence player-personnel acquisitions, I'd be shopping for Trammell.
14. Tylan Wallace
An impressive vertical threat from Oklahoma State, Wallace suffered a difficult knee injury two years ago and it decimated his draft capital because he played on the knee when it was clear he could have used more rehabilitation time. He's a tough receiver who has the mindset to work his way into a bigger role but may not be in the right offense to do so.
13. Qadree Ollison
I've written about Ollison multiple times here and at The Replacements. Reader Jonathan Cook sent me this link to an ESPN article about Ollison refining his running style. It's a worthwhile read because it validates something that Ollison has displayed since his years at Pittsburgh: a mature and intelligent mindset for the game.
It remains to be seen if Arthur Smith's desire to give Ollison more carries was a statement about the Patriots' game or long-term, although the fact that Ollison returned to the practice squad last week indicates it's the former. Still, Ollison was a bright spot in Falcons' training camp and could build on it in 2022 and earn a red-zone or two-down role.
12. Ameer Abdullah
The Panthers made a terrific midseason acquisition when they signed Abdullah. Minnesota had good things to say about Abdullah's tenure with the team after the Lions gave up on him as its lead back after injuries and fumbles. Abdullah has the quickness, contact balance, receiving skills, and vision to approximate some of the things that Christian McCaffrey does well.
So far, he's earned a split in the workload with rookie Chuba Hubbard and while I haven't watched Carolina's offense in a few weeks, I'm reading that Abdullah outplayed Hubbard. Don't expect a career-renaissance from Abdullah as a long-term starter, but he could work his way into a long-term role for Carolina that either stalls or derails Hubbard's development.
Don't give up on Hubbard if you have him, but you should monitor Abdullah's play so you can make a clear assessment of Hubbard's value.
11. Darwin Thompson
The typical fan-analyst logic: The Chiefs have struggled to generate a ground game with its current backs. If Thompson wasn't talented enough to earn a role in Kansas City, who can he be worth monitoring? Matt Breida couldn't earn a role in Miami last year. Neither could Jordan Howard. Raheem Mostert couldn't earn a role with six different teams.
Thompson has great strength for his size, acceleration, promising skills to become a good pass protector, and he's shifty. A part of Tampa Bay's practice squad, Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones II, and Giovani Bernard are all free agents at year's end. KeShawn Vaughn has shown nothing.
I'm not expecting Thompson to be the lead back in Tampa Bay but much like Dion Lewis, who was an afterthought in Philadelphia under Andy Reid — yes, they have the same coach in common — it took Lewis getting paired with Tom Brady to emerge as a viable contributor with fantasy upside.
10. DErnest Johnson
The Cleveland Browns' third-string back is just 25 years old and will hit the market at year's end. With tape of him behind the best run-blocking offensive line in football, Johnson should earn consideration as a potential backup who can deliver starter value.
Although a lot of Johnson's carries were through good rushing lanes, he showed an ability to set up blocks and create when easy creases weren't there. He's a much better runner in Cleveland than he was as a collegian at South Florida. His skills as a pass-catcher should also enhance his resume.
Johnson is one of those players who could deliver that Mike Davis-Mostert type of fantasy year due to a season-ending injury to an established starter.
9. Kene Nwangwu
A speedster with physicality out of Iowa State, Nwangwu is two years removed from an Achilles tear and looks no worse for wear. He has made his mark on special teams during his rookie year with the Vikings and based on his draft capital and the release of Abdullah and Mike Boone, that Minnesota views Nwangwu as a potential running back of value to them in 2-3 seasons.
Nwangwu functioned best in a gap scheme and had some decision-making flaws with zone runs. If he can improve in this essential part of the Vikings' ground game, he has starter athletic ability. With 2022 being Alexander Mattison's final year in Minnesota barring a new deal, Nwangwu could be poised for a bigger role by this time next year.
Titans head coach Mike Vrabel gave a harsh assessment of Fitzpatrick during training camp but the rookie is earning opportunities to play in recent weeks due to the injuries to Tennessee's wide receiver depth chart. Fitzpatrick has the physical tools of a starter and showed signs of promise as a route runner. If Fitzpatrick took Vrabel's assessment to heart and works on his craft, he could be a starter by 2023.
7. Kylin Hill
Green Bay's running back room is packed with talent and it's not going anywhere for at least the next two years. That's the bad news for Hill. So is a season-ending knee injury.
The good news is Hill was clearly the best running back on the Packers depth chart after Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon. He's a tough inside runner, shifty in the open field, and an excellent pass catcher. If Hill can regain his pre-injury form, Patrick Taylor is no match for him.
Considering the run-heavy scheme and the rate of turnover for NFL running backs, Hill should not be forgotten as a potential contributor.
Note: The rest of these players below are going to be on the collective radar of many fantasy leagues, but that should be expected as you ascend a list of candidates...
Last year, I loved the Ravens' selection of Duvernay because he's a former running back whose tape looked like a match for Baltimore to use him as a speedier Danny Woodhead. Although he only played eight games for the Ravens as a 32-year-old, he had two years in San Diego with over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and at least 8 touchdowns. Woodhead earned at least 6 downs and 700 yards from scrimmage for 5 of his 9 years in the league.
For four of those years, Woodhead was a legitimate fantasy starter for any league format.
Although Mark Andrews, Marquise Brown, and Rashod Bateman are the headliners in this passing game, Duvernay has earned a steady role and according to the NBC broadcast crew on Sunday night, the Ravens' staff believes Duvernay is beginning to grasp the role they intended for him, which happens to mirror a lot of the things Woodhead did for a team.
If the Ravens can get healthier and better along its offensive line, Duvernay could emerge as a "position-less" player with fantasy value.
Jordan was my third-rated tight end in the 2021 NFL Draft class. He fell to the Texans because at least a handful of teams expressed reservations about his maturity and emotional commitment to football. Knowing how the NFL has been known to make awful assessments from interviews because they have untrained people analyzing things that should be above their paygrade and outside their lane, this assessment of Jordan could either be dead-on or another example of teams passing on Arian Foster because he was a Philosophy student and therefore, lacked the toughness and mindset to play the game.
Jordan has earned more playing time in recent weeks and making plays. He's not an elite speedster nor a big enough option to thrive as an in-line blocker, but there are shades of what makes Irv Smith, Jr. a promising fantasy commodity. Houston is a mess, but we've seen organizations turn things around fast or at least find key talents that support the talents of other teammates.
If the Texans figure out their quarterback situation, Jordan might become a draftable fantasy option in a year or two.
Another H-Back type, Granson earned immediate comparisons from Frank Reich to former Colt Tre Burton. Granson is earning limited playing time as a rookie and gaining experience in the offense. Carson Wentz has revitalized his career in an offense that uses tight ends and Granson has the potential to develop into a key weapon in this scheme.
3. Richie James
Kyle Shanahan's personnel management over the past few years has earned a lot of questions this season and if there's enough truth to the criticism, James is part of that case against Shanahan. When he's earned starter-caliber targets, James has proven he can be a playmaker after the catch, in the vertical game, and in the middle of the field.
A former do-it-all option at Middle Tennessee State, a lot of what James brought to the table reminded me of an unrefined Antonio Brown. He'll be free of the 49ers at year's end and if he can avoid a label that limits his opportunity to compete for playing time, James has the talent to contribute to an offense.
He's a priority player for me to add as a preemptive pick for expanded offseason dynasty rosters.
2. Matt Breida
Two weeks ago, Breida was the Add-Now candidate in The Replacements and he's played well enough for the Bills to make Zack Moss inactive in Week 12. Although Moss hasn't been a standout performer when a second-year player picked in the third round is rendered inactive for Bredia, a player who spent most of the year on the practice squad, that's a significant statement about how they value Bredia's recent contributions.
Devin Singletary remains the lead back, but Breida is pushing more playing time and generating big plays. Read what I wrote about Bredia two weeks ago and you'll understand why he's in a position to experience a career renaissance.
I devoted an entire piece to Jefferson two weeks ago. DAndre Swift's injury could end his season and that opens the door for Jefferson to emerge as a contributor alongside Jamaal Williams. Jefferson suffered what was characterized as a high-ankle sprain against the Steelers but the Lions said the injury wasn't as serious as it first appeared.
While Detroit typically offers unreliable injury updates, Jefferson earned limited playing time last week, which provides some validation of their assessment. If Jefferson performs as well as he did against Pittsburgh for the rest of the year, the Lions have an out with Williams' contract that could thrust Jefferson into a significant role with fantasy value in 2022.