The new NFL season is on the horizon and Mike Wright of The Fantasy Footballers podcast is at hand with a dose of expert advice to give you an edge ahead of the 2021 campaign.
From Ryan Fitzpatrick’s role in Washington to the potential of Najee Harris in Pittsburgh to an unsung tight end option, Wright guides you through some of his top tips heading into September…
The Fantasy Footballers – co-hosted by Mike Wright, Andy Holloway and Jason Moore – are entering season seven as a year-round podcast having surpassed 41 million views and built a following of 246,000 subscribers on YouTube, as well as winning People’s Choice at the Podcast Awards four successive years from 2016-2019 and top Sports and Recreation podcast in four of the last five years.
Picture it. You have likely seen two of Patrick Mahomes, Kyler Murray, Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson fly off the board and are sitting there wondering – who is my third choice quarterback? It may be one of the aforementioned names, or it might be an NFC East starter…
Wright: “I’ll bring up two guys. One, he’s not three but I like Jalen Hurts for fantasy football a lot. I don’t draft quarterbacks early because you can find value later on every single year. Jalen Hurts right around now is going where Josh Allen was going last year.
“If you play fantasy football, you know a quarterback that runs is a cheat code. He doesn’t have to be a Patrick Mahomes prolific level passer if he’s going to run the ball for over 1,000 yards. You see it year after year, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Josh Allen, they’re padding their stats with that rushing ability. I like him as a top 10 guy.
“But if you want the ‘three’ quarterback I’m interested in, it’s Ryan Fitzpatrick for Washington. What we’ve seen of him in the past couple of years, he’s been great for fantasy. He can’t hold down a starting quarterback job but when he’s out there he’s giving us fantasy production. Last year before he got benched he was averaging points per game that would have made him QB7.
“He has Terry McLaurin who is an elite wide receiver, Curtis Samuel assuming he’s okay from his groin injury, Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic who are great pass catching options out of the backfield and they just re-signed Logan Thomas. Nobody wants to draft Ryan Fitzpatrick but he will not surprise be in the least if he’s a top 12 guy at the end of the year.”
Familiar faces tend to reign supreme when it comes to the elite tight end candidates in Fantasy, with Travis Kelce leading the way followed by the San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle, who was limited to just eight games last season due to injury, and the Las Vegas Raiders’ Darren Waller.
But with Kyle Pitts entering the league with the Atlanta Falcons, Mark Andrews serving as an ever-reliable target to Lamar Jackson, Irv Smith Jr. primed for an expanded role with the Minnesota Vikings, Robert Tonyan a trusted companion to Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay and the Detroit Lions’ T.J. Hockenson and Denver Broncos’ Noah Fant continuing their development, tight end options are by no means short in supply…
Wright: “My guy all offseason and last year a little bit, Adam Trautman from the New Orleans Saints. Again you have to follow the story of what has happened. Adam Trautman, a third round pick last year, he’s out of a small school which is why he kind of fell in the Draft but he was a dominant player at that small school.
“A day two pick, that’s great for fantasy, and they traded a bunch of picks. The Saints unloaded like all of their day three picks to get back into the third round and draft Adam Trautman. Rookie tight ends – bad for fantasy football so you aren’t looking at him for that but you’re keeping your eye on him. Immediately in the offseason, Jared Cook, Josh Hill, the two veterans at tight end for the Saints are waived, they are moving the future to Adam Trautman.
“There are already a couple of highlights out there, he is going to be able to play at the NFL level. But the team has cleared the space, cleared the way for him. The pass-catching options for the Saints behind Michael Thomas – very nebulous, who’s the number two guy? I’m not counting (Alvin) Kamara. You have Tre’Quan Smith who has never surpassed 500 receiving yards even though he’s spent his entire career with a Hall of Fame quarterback.
“Nobody has been able to step up, so Adam Trautman to me could become the number two pass catcher. Michael Thomas is going to be out, now he goes from maybe being the number two option to, if he is good enough, potentially the number one pass catching option for this team. I think he has the chance to surprise and be a top 10 guy this year.”
Every player wants exclusive rights to their own sleeper, their own hidden gem. But in this era of fantasy football, that’s easier said than done…
Wright: “Sleepers are funny. Seven years ago I could like a player who is my sleeper and basically hear nobody else talk about him on Twitter, that doesn’t exist anymore. If you are in it, every single player on every single team is being touted by somebody out there for reasons, some good and some bad.
“I really like Michael Pittman of the Indianapolis Colts. He is a second year player. We didn’t get to see a tonne of him last year unfortunately, when it looked like he was about to get going he got hurt but we saw enough of him to know he can be a top producer for the NFL and fantasy.
Michael Pittman Jr. 2020 season
“He was a high second round pick, the Colts really wanted to get Michael Pittman. You have T.Y. Hilton who was the superstar for a long time and Father Time, undefeated, has been after T.Y. Hilton the last two years, he is averaging just 50 yards per game. There is no true No. 1 receiver for this team.
“Fantasy Football is a game of probability and leaving the door open for the story of ‘can I see this happening?’. His athletic profile is there, his Draft capital is there, I think he was seeing about a 14 percent target share in games last year which is not superb but it’s enough of a building block that he was being used in the offense for him to take that next step and really become the guy.”
Once again the NFL is spoilt for choice when it comes to rookie talent in the skill positions. From the born playmaking ability of Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith to the explosiveness of Jaylen Waddle, and the daunting mismatch qualities of tight end Pitts to the offense-carrying expertise of running back Najee Harris.
Wright: “The easy answer number one is Najee Harris for the Pittsburgh Steelers, I’m all in. The quote came out after asking the GM (Kevin Colbert) if Najee Harris is going to be a three down running back and they said ‘we will be disappointed if he is not’, that is the plan. Mike Tomlin likes a three down running back. Najee Harris is built for it, his pass-catching ability is underrated by a lot of people. Offensive line is an issue but the volume is going to be incredible for Najee Harris.
“When it comes to the rookie wide receivers the guy I’m most interested in is actually DeVonta Smith. He got drafted by the Eagles and it feels like the fantasy football community has been kind of sleeping on him where he goes into a situation where the jury is out on Jalen Hurts, but Smith might immediately be the number one target in this offense.
“I talk about Michael Pittman where it’s nebulous, you don’t know who their number one guy is. Jalen Reagor their first round pick last year was a disappointment, Zach Ertz is back. Who is the go to guy? We don’t know. When you want volume, DeVonta Smith might see a whole bunch of that and he’s going in the later rounds. I’m interested in what he’s bringing to the table. I think for fantasy football people are underrating what he could do as a rookie.”
Running backs galore
Such is the evolution of the modern day running back the league’s elite dual-threats offer a two-for-one package too good to resist when it comes to guaranteed fantasy production. At the same time, a growing trend of running backs being taken in the late rounds of the draft means there is unsung capital to exploit…
Wright: “You have guys like Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook, they’re two players in one spot, you could take away all their rushing production and just use their receiving production and they would be very useful for your team. Add on top of that these guys are putting up 1,200 rushing yards and 8-10 rushing touchdowns. Don’t overreach in the back of the first, if you’re early first you take that shot.
“Javonte Williams is incredibly interesting. He was my second favourite rookie prospect going into the Draft, I liked him more than Travis Etienne. Najee Harris is my number one guy. The situation on the surface feels like it’s not great but it is, the Denver Broncos are a strong team and decent quarterback play away from being a playoff team and it’s nice to have a running back on a good team.
Javonte Williams at North Carolina (2018-2020)
“Look at what the team did, Javonte Williams this year was a high second round pick and the team traded up to get Javonte Williams and historically speaking when a team trades up for a running back on day one or two that’s a great sign. It means this team has a plan for this player, they are not just going to use extra picks to get a running back and go ‘we’re not going to play you’.
“Melvin Gordon was fine last year, but he’s hitting that age right now and that carry count where things fall off very quickly for a running back. You already have whispers out of the beat reporters, they’re already talking about that Javonte Williams might be the day one starter for this team and a starting running back where he’s going right now in the sixth round is unbelievable value. This team is good and wants to be built on defense, ball control. The identity of the team, it wouldn’t shock me to see Javonte Williams turn into a three-down running back that you don’t have to draft in the first round.”
Damien Harris drum beat
Meanwhile in Foxborough it is not a bad time to be a New England Patriots running back – the only question being who will shoulder the bulk of the workload?
Wright: “Another running back I like in the later rounds is Damien Harris for the New England Patriots. His story is interesting where you have to go back to last year. This time last year, we refer to it as the drum beat and listening to the drum beat, does it get louder and keep in time with story about a player? That’s what was happening for Damien Harris last year where he was turning into the starting running back for a run-heavy team.
“Unfortunately in training camp he got injured but he was out until week four and what does he do on his debut? Right off the injury, 100+ rushing yards. They feed Damien Harris. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see a full season from Damien Harris but that drum beat is starting to grow yet again.
Damien Harris 2020 season
“Last year Rex Burkhead was actually taking carries away, that’s part of the Patriots problem with running backs, you never know who it’s going to be, but Rex Burkhead is a very versatile running back. He’s no longer on the team and now you have Damien Harris, James White, his role is secure as a pass-catching running back, Sony Michel, who we weren’t even sure he would be on this team heading into 2021, and Rhamondre Stevenson.
“That drum beat for Damien Harris is getting louder and louder. He’s capped for fantasy because once you get to the goalline, if Cam Newton is the quarterback he’s also the running back, he’s excellent at getting it done on the ground so that can cap some of his upside. But, we might see a transition to Mac Jones sooner rather than later and that changes things at the goalline.”