Let's say you've blown most if not all of your free agent budget on a Week 1 or Week 2 star but you know it might not be enough to help your team. While exploring the league for a trade is an option, another cheap and effective method of adding talent is the first-come, first-serve window of the waiver wire.
I don't know about other places but at Footballguys we call free agent additions who haven't experienced a breakout "pre-emptive pickups." These players are low-risk with the potential to develop into bye-week or flex plays. In some cases, you can unearth a starter.
Thomas Rawls, Spencer Ware, Marcel Reece, Taylor Gabriel, and J.J. Nelson are good past examples. So was Jay Ajayi last year after trigger-happy fantasy owners thought they saw the writing on the wall when they dumped him in September because he crossed head coach Adam Gase and got disciplined.
If you play in 8- and 10-team leagues with 15-player rosters were Alvin Kamara, and/or Samaje Perine are available, this article isn't for you—at least not yet. However, it could be 3-5 weeks from now and advanced scouting is a valuable fantasy service.
With two weeks spent at the gigantic football candy shop that's the NFL, I have three players that I believe have the talent, fit, and potential opportunity to qualify as preemptive pickups for fantasy owners who need (or prefer) low-cost investments.
Now: Jaguars WR Allen Hurns
Hurns wasn't the starter to begin the year for three reasons:
- Every other year, Hurns has experienced issues with drops: As a UDFA, Hurns burst onto the scene with big plays against tight coverage in the middle of the field. He also had a lot of drops. Even so, he outplayed Marqise Lee, who could not stay healthy, route disciplined routes, make consistently wise decisions after the catch, or hang onto the ball. Hurns dramatically decreased his drop rate a year later during his top-15 fantasy season and became Blake Bortles' favorite target when he needed a receiver to get open in the middle of the field. Last year, the drops returned to a rate that exceeded expectations for a player who signed a new deal for starter money.
- Hurns had health issues: Hurns played through soft-tissue injuries and a hernia during his first two seasons. While admirable, his health history makes his team wary about counting on him long-term.
- Marqise Lee's emergence: The Jaguars drafted Lee in the first round during the same year it picked Allen Robinson in the second round and Hurns as a street free agent. The expectations for Lee have always been high and it should tell you how much better Hurns was than Lee when they were rookies for Hurns to significant time at Lee's expense. Last year, Lee figured out how to stay healthier and developed greater consistency as a route runner and playmaker. Despite Hurns's skills, the front office has been invested in Lee because, like many teams, it still envisions Lee the way it did when it scouting him at USC.
Despite these reasons, Hurns remains a Bortles favorite. Last year, Hurns only earned fewer than 7 targets in 4 of 11 contests despite a corps of Lee, Robinson, and Julian Thomas on the field with him. The Jaguars are a garbage-time offense and with Robinson out for the year, the only way Hurns earns fewer than 7 targets per week are game scripts where Jacksonville has the lead as pounds Leonard Fournette like it did against Houston in Week 1.
The weeks where I see Hurns having a stronger chance of sub-par target totals include Week 4 (Jets), Week 7 (Colts), Week 13 (Colts), and Week 15 (Texans). As it looks right now, the Jaguars have a lot of contests where the games should remain close enough for the offense to have a good balance of run and pass that leads to big-play opportunities for Hurns, or the defenses are strong enough to build a strong lead and force garbage-time. These weeks include this weekend against Baltimore, Week 5 (Steelers), Week 6 (Rams), Week 9 (Bengals), Week 10 (Chargers), Week 11 (Browns), Week 14 (Seahawks), and Week 16 (49ers).
But c'mon, Matt, it's Blake Bortles. Do you want to rely on a receiver who relies on Bortles?
When Hurns was still healthy and not gutting out the season with an injury, he had 5 of 7 weeks with at least 11 fantasy points. I'll take that as a flex-play or bye-week starter. I'll also take what I saw last weekend: a receiver who still works well with Bortles to find openings in zone coverage for Bortles when opposing defenses leave the trash bins out for the blue, black, and yellow truck making its fourth-quarter rounds.
Now or Later: Ravens RB Alex Collins
Baltimore has a tough situation ahead for its offense. Danny Woodhead is weeks away from even seeing a practice field and Marshal Yanda, one of the best run blocking guards in the game, is on IR. And Terrance West is iffy for Week 3 with a soft-tissue injury. Javorius Allen will earn the start, but he's a lot like the skill players the Ravens have drafted over the years: M-E-H.
With the exception of Kenneth Dixon, I have not liked any of Baltimore's draft picks at receiver, tight end, and running back. The personnel staff loves big or fast athletes at receiver who don't exhibit the finer points of playing the position and year after year, they struggle to develop into reliable options.
The best tight end the Ravens ever took was drafted with the 23rd pick in the first round of the 1978 NFL Draft when they were still the Cleveland Browns in name (and not just in stolen spirit). Despite his personnel's taste in skill talent, Ozzie Newsome has done a fine job overall. The second-best tight end, Dennis Pitta, suffered another hip injury that will probably end his career. Pitta was savvy, technically sound, and tough—everything Maxx Williams hasn't been.
Its running backs since drafting Ray Rice in 2008 have been a series of uninspiring options. Anthony Allen in 2011, Bernard Pierce in 2012, Lorenzo Taliaferro in 2014, and Javorius Allen in 2015. Apparently, the curse I placed on them after they picked and cut Cedric Peerman in 2009 is working.
By the way, the only cure is returning the stolen Browns and their two Super Bowl titles to Cleveland, moving the Colts back to Baltimore, and sending what's in Cleveland to Indianapolis. It's the only just thing to do, but I digress.
Here's my pre-draft scouting report on Allen from the 2015 Rookie Scouting Portfolio:
I want to like Buck Allen more than I do. He’s the type of runner who would often appear in the bottom half of my top-10 lists in several recent draft classes, but this underrated designation doesn’t mean he’s a future starter. When I examine the components of his game separately, I see starter material. Put it all together, and I see a second-string back who provides a reliable effort when the starter needs a blow.
Allen displays some patience with footwork and stride variation to set up creases and burst through them. There’s enough anticipation to his game that he’ll adjust to penetration and create space to hit a crease at the line of scrimmage. He generally hits creases hard and he’s a strong runner capable of pushing through first and second-level wraps for yards after contact. He keeps his pads low through contact and drives for extra yards. In a game where Boston College’s defense dominated the USC offensive line, Allen displayed good decision-making at the point of attack, patience setting up the available blocks, and when possible, made the first man miss and extended his body through contact for extra yards.
Where I’m not sure Allen’s game translates as a future NFL starter is his change of direction. I’ve seen him make several sharp, lateral cuts, but he often has to slow down to make the move and despite good times in agility drills at the Combine, Allen’s change of direction doesn’t appear as crisp on the field. If what he’s doing on the field matches his times, he’s definitely an underrated back.
Even so, Allen is not a dynamic tackle breaker for his size. If he's not moving down hill with momentum he doesn’t break many tackles. Most of his broken tackles come from hits to the lower legs.
Allen has room to grow into an excellent pass protector. His punch could be a little more technically sound and his position is sometimes questionable. However, there is a purpose to his technqiue and he's effective against
college defenders. He also uses that blocking skill to set up releases on screen passes. Allen has good hands. He catches targets from a variety of angles and makes receptions with his
back to the line of scrimmage.
He has the conceptual skills and size to contribute to an NFL backfield as a reserve. If he can play special teams, he should latch on, develop a little more more explosion and strength and grow into a better option.
Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice: I’d definitely make the investment in Allen, because the only thing debatable about his game is his upside. He’s a good football player, a good athlete, and he understands the position well.
Allen has delivered on this scouting report almost to the letter. However, the Ravens may need a more creative runner with better skill after contact with West possibly out and Yanda gone for the year. Alex Collins could be that fit.
Like Allen, his physical talents are closer to that of a first-tier backup or contributor. Unlike Allen, Collins has a little extra in the departments of balance and agility. Collins lost out in a numbers game for the Seahawks despite arriving in camp in great shape and turning the heads of his coaches and teammates during the spring. It's what happens when a team has sunken costs in Eddie Lacy, C.J. Prosise, and went all "bright and shiny toy" with Chris Carson while hoping Thomas Rawls could get healthy.
Here's Collins' pre-draft scouting report from the 2016 RSP:
Of the three types of players in this tier, Collins is the first type in my eyes: A career contributor who won’t embarrass his team if he’s asked to hold down the starting job for a period of time. It’s a nice way of saying that he’s a back up with enough developmental upside to become a committee role player.
Collins’ footwork is his greatest asset. He’s a patient runner with good control of his stride length to change direction at the latest possible moment to set up backside cuts or creases as the the play is designed. He has a good eye for reading defensive penetration and reacts with a variety of moves paired together to avoid defenders and earn yards.
Collins’ natural stride is short and choppy and it helps him side-step, cut, dip, and jump cut because he’s always running in control. Part of that control is a low pad level that helps Collins drive through contact. Combine his excellent feet, sound pad level, and good initial burst, which helps him explode in and out of cuts, and he’s not easy to bring down, even if the number of broken tackles attributed to him doesn’t reflect it.
Collins runs with high intensity and a wiggle. Some part of his body is always moving just enough to avoid contact, work through glancing blows, or bait a defender in the wrong direction. He often spins through contact, and he has the strength to run through the wraps of defensive ends.
A mature runner who doesn’t bounce plays outside unless he has a good read of the situation and the field position is optimal to gamble, Collins has enough burst to beat linebackers through the second level of the defense. The limit on his acceleration comes at the the next level, where he has difficulty maintaining his separation from defensive bcks and lacks the speed to beat a safety with a good angle. He’s also not the athlete to gain the corner against a gap disciplined defense solely with his speed.
Collins style is maturity and attrition. He takes what the defense gives him and has enough skill and athletic ability to get a little more. He routinely turns losses into positive yardage, he’s not hesitant about hitting tight creases. He doesn’t have delusions of grandeur.
At the same time, Collins has that slippery style that can make two men miss, bounce off a glancing blow and then push a pile five yards to convert a 3rd and 8. He’ll wear a team down with his intensity. Like Kenneth Dixon, Collins carries the ball with either arm and keeps the ball tight when making changes of direction. Most of his targets as a receiver come on screen passes or short outlets where he’s facing the quarteback. He catches the ball with his hands, and if he drops the ball, it’s a matter of focus more than a true deficiency.
Although it’s a single target during his career, Collins ran a wheel route up the sideline against Florida a few years ago and caught the ball over his shoulder between a trailing corner in tight coverage and just before the safety worked across to deliver a hard shot. The potential to do more as a receiver is in Collins’ portfolio of work.
Collins has skills as a pass protector, and he should get good enough for a team to trust him. He makes good inside-out reads and diagnoses edge pressure. He understands how to square his body to the defender, and he’s quick enough to redirect his opponent.
What’s missing in his game is a punch. He has the size to bend his knees, roll his hips, and punch through that movement so he can generate leverage on a defender, but it’s missing from his game. Collins also drops his head into contact, which makes it harder for him to control a defender after the initial collision.
He does the same thing on cut blocks. He’ll make contact, but it’s not at an optimal angle because he’s telegraphing the movement and giving the defender room to avoid the worst of the collision. Collins’ effort influences his fumble rate to the extent that his ball security is strong, but the extra effort to work through contact can induce fumbles. He’ll need to become more careful because his fumble rate of 1 per 43.3 carries is among the highest of this class. He fumbled five times in 2015.
There are at least six players with more upside ranked behind Collins, but they also have more to prove. He’s the safest pick of the players in this tier because of what he does; he’s a well-rounded back with the athletic ability to give teams a little extra, and without massive swings of downside.
Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice: Collins will probably be a fourth or fifth-round pick in the NFL Draft. I’d consider him in the late third or fourth round, but there will be leagues where he won’t get past the late second because they’re zealous about running backs.
In terms of his mentality as a runner and all-around game, Collins reminds me some of Spencer Ware, who the Seahawks also originally drafted. Collins fumbled in his debut against the Browns but according to our recap crew, Collins was the most decisive runner of the three who played last weekend and the coaching staff fed him the ball to begin its next offensive series. This game and the Colts-Cardinals matchups were the only two I haven't seen.
I'd consider adding Collins now because West's status appears iffy and the team liked Collins enough to use him despite only having a few weeks of experience as a Raven. It's a good sign that Collins has picked things up fast and impressed the team with his play. However, West could return quickly and Allen could hold things down well enough that Collins is a 3-to-5-carry afterthought who winds up on the bench and off your roster in a couple of weeks.
Still, soft tissue injuries often need more time than the initial diagnosis. West and Woodhead's injuries both qualify and it could mean Collins will have a chance to force a split with Allen or overtake him. At the very least, continue monitoring Collins.
Now: Browns WR Rashard Higgins
Rashard Higgins has earned consideration from fantasy analysts after earning 11 targets against the Ravens and he was listed as the starter on Tuesday's unofficial team depth chart. Another report from ESPN's Pat McManamon indicates that Higgins will be the slot receiver. Here is my pre-draft report on Higgins from 2016:
After Higgins ran a 4.64-40 at the NFL Combine some of the public wondered if Higgins is an NFL-caliber athlete. The answer is yes, he’s a good enough athlete to play in the league and he has NFL-caliber craft at his position.
Does Higgins have starter skills? That’s what folks are asking with the original question. After my initial viewings of Higgins, I originally thought he possessed that combo of athletic ability and craft to be a top prospect in this class. Now I’m more skeptical.
Although Higgins has the speed to beat several college cornerbacks straight-up on the go route, he is a quicker-than-fast receiver with sudden stop and turn ability. This is more vital to earning separation on most routes than sprinter speed. That said, even when watching tape of Higgins dealing with a foot and ankle injury that forced him to take frequent breaks from the game, he showed deep speed. Higgins uses a chop move choreographed with footwork to earn releases from press coverage.
Adept at setting up his releases with pace and footwork, Higgins displays some techniques at the line that you'll see from A.J. Green: baiting opponents into declaring a side before the receiver even steps forward from his pre-snap alignment. The flashy work is fun to watch, but when Higgins faces a defender willing to take the fight to the receiver, his release game falls apart. When punched first, he struggles to work free against press. He also does a better job getting free on releases to the outside than he does to the inside. If I’m spotting these tendencies, NFL defenders will, too.
In addition to getting better at working against aggressive cornerbacks, Higgins must develop his hands to pair with his footwork. Once he can incorporate a rip or swim with his chip, he’ll be tougher to jam.
Once into his route, Higgins displays some skill to accelerate into his breaks when he reaches the top of his stem. He has some skill with hard breaks but doesn’t execute the technique as often as the opportunity presents itself. On speed breaks, Higgins needs to turn faster and at a tighter angle on breaks with a defensive back sitting over top of his routes. Not doing so costs Higgins the ability to shield defenders from the target.
There are also a few situation-based issues that indicate Higgins has to become a more refined student of the game. There was a game where he ran mutiple routes with questionable depths based on the timing of the throws and the down and distance situation. He also displayed no coherent plan to execute fade routes in the red zone—no movement, no story to fool the opponent.
Higgins catches the ball with his hands and is adept at adjusting to targets thrown high or behind him. His technique for catching passes is spot-on for the location of the ball. He can also track the ball in fullstride over his shoulder or even directly over his head—a most difficult angle for any receiver. He’s an acrobatic pass catcher who can shield his opponent, and operate tight to the boundary. At the same time, Higgins telegraphs his hands on routes when his back is to the ball and good cornerbacks will find this tendency a helpful tell from the receiver. When near the first down or the front pylon of the endzone, Higgins can integrate several of these pass-catching skills against tight coverage near the boundary and still find a way to extend for the marker.
Higgins can make the first and second defender miss with multiple moves in the open field and he practices good ball security measures. An average sized receiver at best, Higgins will play a physical brand of football. He's willing to lower his pads and hit a defender hard in the open field to earn extra yards after the catch. And he'll work inside to push a safety into the pile on a run play. Despite the will, Higgins can get lifted off the ground when wrapped and this technique ends his work fast.
This is also true of Higgins’ work without the ball. He’ll cut a defender hard and aggressively in the open field, but he’s also capable of using finessee to win an assignment. He’s adept at running off defenders and then gaining position on the opponent to push him from the path of the ballcarrier. When he finishes an assignment on one defender, he’ll peel back to attack another.
Higgins’ punches need more pop. He must learn to roll his hips into his strikes. Overall, he’s too tentative about committing to an assignment because he’s often waiting too long to gauge the angle of his opponent with the intent of delivering the perfectly timed block rather than letting the runner work around his engagement.
I am not always comfortable making assumptions about a player’s mindset but based on what Higgins has shown on the field, I get the sense that he believes he’s a better player than he is when in fact, he’s a big fish in a small pond. All players performing at the level Higgins has should have great confidence.
There are a lot of details missing from Higgins’ game that separate an NFL starter from a reserve. The fact that Higgins displays feats that indicate an intuitive grasp of disparate skills integrated into a successful play holds promise that the more Higgins studies the game, the more likely can masterfully express its nuances.
I’m optmistic Higgins will learn enough to contribute, but skeptical he will learn everything required to transcend his physical limitations and become an every-down starter.
Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice: Higgins’ skills and talents fit somewhere between Greg Jennings’ peak years and Harry Douglas’ intermediate slot game. I’d consider him as a late-round pick and stash him for a year to see if he can make the transition.
I think the range of Douglas-Jennings is a good spectrum of what to expect from Higgins at this point. I'd hedge to the lower end because he lacks the caliber of veteran quarterback and receiver talent that can help a receiver become a better pro. Jennings had Favre, Donald Driver, and Robert Brooks to begin his career. Demaryius Thomas became an infinitely better route runner when Peyton Manning came to Denver and Emmanuel Sanders' attention to detail in this area reinforced the importance of leaning on more than physical talent.
The Browns have Kenny Britt and quarterbacks with a year of experience, at most. Then again, the Browns also let Willie Snead IV and Taylor Gabriel join other teams and both have shown enough to become preemptive pickups in their own right.
The greatest issue for Higgins earning long-term success is that if he remains in the slot, the Browns still want to use two tight end sets with Seth Devalve and David Njoku. Because Njoku also showed up this weekend, it wouldn't be surprising if the use of 12 personnel sets is as much of a limiter of Higgins volume as his quarterbacks.
If Higgins succeeds, he'll likely have proven that he can win as an outside receiver against corners who don't typically play in the slot and he can do so against physical play. Higgins is a worthwhile cheap pickup to see what he can do with extended time, but I'd continue monitoring the development of the receivers on the depth chart who play on the perimeter.
Later: Browns WR Kasen Williams
One of those perimeter players is Ricardo Louis, a physical stud who has made incremental improvements since his rookie year. I'm still waiting to see just how game-ready his route running and hands techniques have become. I fear that the Browns still have a greater infatuation with his athletic prowess than his football skill.
If Louis struggles, keep tabs on free agent acquisition Kasen Williams, who has steadily improved during his three summers with the Seahawks. Williams put on a show against Xavier Rhodes this summer, the same top tier man coverage corner who did a decent job against Antonio Brown this weekend.
Williams, like Collins, got caught in a Seahawks numbers game on the wide receiver depth chart. Doug Baldwin is entrenched as the primary. Paul Richardson Jr and Tyler Lockett have flashed enough game-breaking and big-play ability that Seattle felt it important to remain patient and hopeful with them. Amara Darboh was a rookie pick drafted high enough that the organization wouldn't release unless he bombed training camp. He's earning playing time. And Tanner McEvoy can play multiple positions and special teams.
Williams was a big-time recruit off to a great start early in his college career, but a broken tibia and dislocation in his left foot resulted in season-ending surgery and derailed his trajectory. If he can stay healthy, there’s potential for him as a possession threat that works the sidelines and the red zone.
Williams knows how to play with strength and finesse at the line of scrimmage. He demonstrates decent footwork to avoid a jam against off coverage and he displays quickness to stack and chop an opponent to earn separaton. If he can learn a few more release techniques and demonstrate fluency with using them, Williams can dictate the course of most routes with his size and skill to adjust to the football. Although he has to do a better job of driving off his initial release, Williams displays savvy to alter his stride and pace during his stem, setting up breaks with this nuance of route running. Williams’ feet aren't crisp on routes and breaks. He has some decent footwork with releases, but not with stems and breaks.
He takes too many steps after what should be his hard plant step and knee/hip sink into the break. Williams has great head fakes and sets up double moves, but the move itself isn’t as sharp and defined as it could be. His suddenness is limited to his turns on breaks back to the quarterback. He's not fast and requires a double move to get open on deeper intermediate and vertical routes. He'll get caught from behind as a ballcarrier in the open field. Williams’ best fit is in the possession game, and possibly as a big slot man. Williams works back to the ball with his breaks and he often works back to his quarterback when the play breaks down. He recognizes when to turn a deeper route into a comeback and attack the ball.
One thing Williams does as well as any receiver is post-up. He shields the defender with his body, and takes contact well. He uses his hands and body well to gain position. His physical style with routes and gaining position complements his efforts at the catch-point. Williams has a wide catch radius. He can high-point the ball or sprawl for low targets. With either type of target, Williams is adept at working the perimeter. The boundary is definitely his ally when facing defenders in tight coverage. Williams has mastered the sideline toe-tap and lean. He understands how to gauge the sideline and keep his feet inbounds while making off-balanced, high-point catches.
The UW receiver has enough quickness to spin from his catch-point and earn yards after the catch. He can make the first man miss with a dip, but Williams is a physical player at heart. He pushes through wraps and leans for extra yards and he has an effective stiff-arm. Williams has enough agility to layer moves in the open field, and he reads blocks in space well. He can make some cuts, but they aren’t dynamic angles. Don’t expect him to thrive in the open field off a steady diet of cuts, stop-starts, or jukes. He tends to use his strength to twist or turn free of contact or bounce off it rather than avoid it.
He'll punch you in the run game and he can sustain blocks and turn defenders in open space. At this point, he still has to integrate these skills to do it all on the same block. It means Williams is a decent run blocker for college, but he must show he can use all three skills on a single assignment to do good work in the NFL.
The potential is there but the consistency is not. He is patient to close the gap and then throw and maintain his hands with a strong grip. He knows how to establish position as a blocker in the run game so he can close the gap, turn into an opponent, and deliver his hands to generate a push.
Williams’ Lisfranc foot injury remains a question mark with his future. The healing process was a slow one. However, Williams had enough good moments at the East-West Shrine game that he could earn draft-day consideration. If he gets healthy and is matched well with a coaching staff and offense, Williams could be a top-12 performer from this class when it’s all said and done.
Williams told the media before the Baltimore game that he expected to see more playing time after he got open on a deep target in the opener but the ball was thrown out of bounds. Those opportunities went to Louis and Higgins. However, it doesn't mean those players will prove to be a better match.
Higgins has the route skills to make plays on the perimeter, which I think are the best throws Kizer makes. Louis has the size and skill to win at the catch point against tight coverage. Williams has the best blend of both receivers' strengths that mesh well with Kizer.
Williams saw 12 snaps in Week 1 and was declared inactive during Week 2. I suspect this had to do with the elevation of Higgins (54 snaps) from the practice squad and the attempt to see what recently traded Sammie Coates Jr (26 snaps) had to offer. Most of you only care about the end result so if Coates and Louis aren't consistent but their athletic skills tantalize the team into feeding them, you'll be happy. However, I believe the long game of physical talents faltering often pays off when you're shopping for preemptive picks.
Charcandrick West was considered the better player by most fantasy owners when Spencer Ware was behind West on the Chiefs roster. Speed was the reason. The reasons Ware earned the job ahead of West could be summed up as "everything else that actually matters to running back performance."
Take a shot on Hurns and Higgins and at least keep an eye on Williams and Collins. They aren't magic beans for your fantasy team, but they have the potential to grow into something substantial with the right opportunity and environment.