Fantasy players are always looking to “free” the next big thing. Eric Bledsoe freed himself when he left Chris Paul’s shadow and signed with the Suns in 2013. The Packers were finally forced to free Jeff Janis in the playoff game against the Cardinals last year. David Johnson was freed as a result of Chris Johnson’s injury.
As we head into the 2016 season, it’s important to understand which players are ticketed for a big boost in role. It typically comes via a change of scenery or removal of a high-usage player from the offense. Here are the top-12 “new starters.” Rookies are not included, although I discussed them shortly after the draft here.
1. Coby Fleener, TE, Saints
Fleener and his salon-quality hair were often stunted in Indy by the presence of Dwayne Allen. Note that in six games without Allen over the last two seasons, Fleener averaged 5.1 catches for 72.1 yards and 1.0 TDs. So we shouldn’t be surprised the Saints made a $36M investment in Fleener as they look to replace a key part of their offense – the pass-catching tight end. Jimmy Graham averaged 8.7 targets per game from 2011-14 and 34-year-old Ben Watson somehow went off for 74-825-6 last year. Fleener is in the ideal scheme for his skill set.
2. Matt Jones, RB, Redskins
Jones is the unquestioned starting running back on a team that ranked 10th in points per game last year. Yet much of the fantasy community is down on him because there are questions about how good he really is at football (Jones fumbled five times last year and averaged just 3.4 YPC). That hesitation is understandable in Dynasty circles, but the DFS community should be extremely bullish on the opportunity. The Redskins let Alfred Morris go and only added seventh-rounder Keith Marshall in the draft. They’re optimistic on Jones’ chances of improving as an NFL sophomore, which is understandable as he’s just 23 years old.
3. DeVante Parker, WR, Dolphins
Rishard Matthews, who played 80.7 percent of the snaps in his 11 games, has moved on to Tennessee. The Dolphins are adamant about playing faster under Adam Gase after ranking 16th in neutral-situation pace last year. So we have a nice spot for Parker, the 6-foot-3 No. 14 overall pick in 2015, to rise up. Expect him to line up opposite possession machine Jarvis Landry in most two-wide sets. Note that in the six games following Matthews’ injury last year, Parker averaged 3.6 catches, 74.1 yards and 0.5 TDs while playing 90.5 percent of the snaps. There’s a lot of room for improvement on those numbers in Year 2.
4. Devin Funchess, WR, Panthers
Funchess played on just 44.7 percent of the Panthers’ snaps as a rookie (including playoffs), seeing a meager 3.8 targets per game. He still scored six TDs, which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise considering what we know about how size correlates with WR touchdown production. Funchess, who just turned 22 in May, goes 6’4/225. Note that in the three 2015 games Funchess played at least 80 percent of the snaps, his lines were 4-64-1, 2-19-0, 7-120-1. With only drop-prone one-trick pony Ted Ginn ahead of him for the No. 2 WR job, Funchess is going way too late in re-draft leagues right now. He was the unquestioned star of the Panthers’ offseason.
5. Zach Miller, TE, Bears
When Martellus Bennett signed a free-agent deal with the Patriots, my immediate thoughts turned to Zach Miller. That’s because he stepped up in a big way last year, averaging 5.0 catches, 55.2 yards and 0.5 TDs on 6.7 targets in the four games Martellus missed. Miller is 31 with a long injury history, so there is reason for caution, but a quiet Heath Miller-esque season is well within reach.
6. Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Titans
We saw flashes of Green-Beckham’s freakish natural ability down the stretch last year, when he put 5-119-1 on Jacksonville in Week 13 and 6-113-0 on New England in Week 15. Keep in mind that prior to last season, DGB hadn’t played competitive football since 2013 due to off-field issues in college. But also remember that he was the nation’s No. 1 recruit out of high school and measured 6’5/237 with 4.49 speed as he left college. So as DGB gets more acclimated to the NFL in his second season (just like high-ceiling QB Marcus Mariota), the upside is massive. He just has to put it together – DGB has surprisingly been outplayed by fifth-round rookie Tajae Sharp this spring.
7. Jeremy Langford, Bears
The Langford situation is extremely similar to the Matt Jones situation. He’s a second-year back with an unquestioned path to the starting job, yet questions remain about just how good he is. The key is that the team has shown faith, letting Matt Forte go just like the Redskins let Alf Morris go. The Bears only used a fifth-round pick on a running back (power back Jordan Howard) much like the Redskins only used a seventh-round pick at the position (Keith Marshall). Bears coach John Fox prefers to use committees at running back, but Langford will get the first crack to prove his shaky rookie campaign was a small-sample outlier.
8. Jay Ajayi, RB, Dolphins
I discussed Ajayi in the Draft Winners article. Yes, the Dolphins tried to sign guys like C.J. Anderson and Chris Johnson. But they didn’t, leaving Ajayi as the unquestioned starter in an Adam Gase offense with an improving offensive line. That’s a very big chance for a talented guy who slipped to the fifth-round of the 2015 draft due to long-term concerns about his knee. In the short-term, the thunder to Kenyan Drake’s lightning projects for 13-16 touches per game.
9. Ameer Abdullah, RB, Lions – Joique Bell needlessly took 8.6 touches and 18.8 snaps per game last season. With Bell out of the picture, the Lions are counting on the explosive Abdullah to be their lead back. He just needs to shake his shoulder injury.
10. Dwayne Allen, TE, Colts – Allen has always been a starter, but I expect his pass-game role to expand for a variety of reasons. Rob Chudzinski’s presence, Andrew Luck’s health, and a poor running game. I talked more about Allen here.
11. Markus Wheaton, WR, Steelers – Wheaton will almost certainly play around 85-90 percent of the snaps thanks to Martavis Bryant’s suspension. Production is another story, as we’ve seen before when Martavis has been sidelined.
12. Ryan Mathews, RB, Eagles – Not buying talk that Kenjon Barner or Wendell Smallwood are better options than Mathews. As I discussed here, Mathews will be productive if health allows now that DeMarco Murray is gone.