Fantasy football players are always looking to “free” the next big thing. Travis Kelce was a part-time player to start his career, David Johnson languished behind the corpse of Chris Johnson, Aaron Jones frustratingly failed to emerge from Jamaal Williams’ shadow until late last year, and Patrick Mahomes sat behind Alex Smith for a year. The list goes on and on.
As we head into the 2019 NFL season, it’s important to understand which players are ticketed for a big boost in role. It typically comes via scenery change or removal of a high-usage player from the offense. Here are this year’s top “new starters.”
1. Chris Godwin, WR, BucsI’ve been trying to free Godwin ever since he was drafted. Among all the wideouts in the 2017 class, Godwin had the measurables most in line with an elite fantasy wideout. He’s produced in almost every opportunity. At Penn State, he rung up 128 catches, 2,083 yards and 16 touchdowns during his final two seasons. As a rookie in 2017, Godwin was 13th among 107 qualifying WRs in yards per route run and in 2018 he was 28th. Now that the Bucs have let both DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries go, Godwin is staring an every-down role in the face. As Bruce Arians installs his vertically-minded, pass-centric offense, which will mesh nicely with Jameis Winston’s reckless aggression, Godwin’s ceiling is sky-high. Unfortunately the cat is firmly out of the bag as Godwin will likely be a fourth-round pick by the time most people have their season-long draft.
2. Mike Williams, WR, ChargersIt may have felt like Williams was a full-time player last year because he finished with 10 touchdowns and racked up 15.4 yards per reception. But the reality is that Williams was the third wheel behind Tyrell Williams and Keenan Allen. He only averaged 4.1 targets per game and only went over 70% of the snaps twice. In those two high-opportunity games, Mike Williams posted a combined 11-101-4 line. Of course Williams’ outlandish 15.2 touchdown rate on the season will regress, but that can be mitigated easily by the increased opportunity coming his way now that The Gazelle is in Oakland via a $44 million deal. The 120-target season Tyrell racked up in 2016 is a realistic ceiling.
3. Tevin Coleman, RB, 49ersThe Falcons never wanted to use Coleman as a featured back. He averaged just 9.4 carries per game during his four years in Atlanta despite racking up 4.43 YPC. Perhaps most surprisingly, Coleman only received 10.4 carries per contest last season even though Devonta Freeman missed 14 games. Still, Kyle Shanahan saw enough in Coleman to give him a two-year, $8.5 million contract in free agency. And with the health of Jerick McKinnon (ACL) and Matt Breida (pectoral) up in the air, Coleman enters camp with his head in front of the pack. Although the Niners are highly unlikely to load up Coleman for a three-down plus goal-line role, the starting job in the offense is exciting. Shanahan showed his talent-maximizing schemes last season as he squeezed 17.4 DraftKings points per game out of Nick Mullens in eight starts. The Niners were a respectable 14th in yards per play on the season despite having Mullens, CJ Beathard, Alf Morris and Kendrick Bourne playing huge roles. Now they’ll get Jimmy Garoppolo back and surround him with Coleman, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Dante Pettis and Marquise Goodwin. It’s an offense I want to invest in.
4. Curtis Samuel, WR, PanthersI mentioned Samuel in last week’s Minicamp Takeaways article but I have to hit on him again here. Because similar to Godwin and Williams, this is the exact kind of situation I’m on the lookout for: A young, talented player who has shown serious flashes and is now being handed a full-time role with his original team. With Devin Funchess gone, Samuel is ticketed for the every-down role opposite YAC machine DJ Moore. When Funchess faded to the background over the final five games of last season, Samuel averaged 8.0 targets per game. The production on that volume was disappointing, but Cam Newton’s shoulder was hanging on by a thread and then Carolina went with Kyle Allen/Taylor Heinicke. The talent gap between Samuel and Moore isn’t enough to warrant their current average draft position gap.
5. Vance McDonald, TE, SteelersMcDonald played on more than 70% of the snaps just once in all of 2018, playing behind Jesse James and in the shadow of target hog Antonio Brown. That’s all about to change. James is now a Lion and Brown a Raider, opening up a whopping 207 targets from last season. With Juju Smith-Schuster already about maxed at a 24.1% target share, McDonald is a major candidate for an increased role. Last season, McDonald ran just 423 routes but still finished as fantasy’s No. 14 tight end in PPR points per game. With only blocker Xavier Grimble behind him, McDonald is a threat to run closer to 600 routes and bump his target share this season.
6. Darren Waller, TE, RaidersAfter letting Jared Cook walk in free agency, the Raiders have a huge gap in the middle of the field – right between attention-hogging wideouts Brown and Tyrell Williams. Jon Gruden and the front office has relentlessly been hyping up Darren Waller all spring/summer, virtually handing him the starting tight end job without even putting it up for competition. There are many reasons to be skeptical on Waller, who has caught just 18 balls since being drafted in 2015. But the former college wide receiver is a freak athlete at the tight end position with 4.46 speed and a 37-inch vertical at 6’6″, 238 lbs. Anytime an unusual athlete has the support of his coach and a massive opportunity bump, I’m at least monitoring the situation.
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I am a promoter at DraftKings and am also an avid fan and user (my username is adamlevitan) and may sometimes play on my personal account in the games that I offer advice on. Although I have expressed my personal view on the games and strategies above, they do not necessarily reflect the view(s) of DraftKings and I may also deploy different players and strategies than what I recommend above. I am not an employee of DraftKings and do not have access to any non-public information.