News & Analysis

The top fantasy comeback candidates for 2018

Nov 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton (13) celebrates his touchdown during the first quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 fantasy football season was filled with a lot of broken-hearted owners after a high percentage of early-round picks suffered season-derailing injuries, but there was also heartbreak in the middle rounds. Plenty of post-hype sleepers and value picks fell short of their expectations.

Below, we’re going to look into all factors that could come into play to help us predict 2018’s group of fantasy options who are due for a comeback season. Some of the players you’ll find are veterans who will see their ADP plummet in 2018 drafts while others are breakout candidates who now have the right situations in place to make their mark.

Derek Carr, QB, Oakland Raiders

The arrival of Jon Gruden could have a similar effect as to when Jay Gruden arrived in Washington and turned Kirk Cousins into a consistent fantasy QB. Similar pieces are already in place on the offensive line and the skill positions, but it will require a leap forward from Carr, who finished right near the NFL average in adjusted completion rate (72.8 percent), just ahead of Blake Bortles and behind Jacoby Brissett. There has been talk the Raiders could look to move on from Michael Crabtree, and they will almost certainly use their valuable draft assets to improve a defense in desperate need, but Carr is just one year removed from a 28:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 15 games, and his 2017 play was greatly impacted by playing through three broken bones in his back that he suffered in Week 4 but continued to play through.

Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

Dalton had settled in as a valuable back-end QB1 asset you could always grab in the late rounds until 2017 when his top offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler departed. There was some chatter that it could all collapse for Dalton with a dropoff in offensive line play based on his numbers under pressure, and those concerns came true. The Bengals will refocus on fixing the line as their top priority this offseason, and with playmakers in John Ross and Joe Mixon taking the natural second-season leap, Dalton has sneaky upside heading into 2018.

Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants

Manning rose up some rankings last August as a borderline QB1 you could grab for a QB2 price as fantasy owners got carried away with his weapons. It turns out, no quarterback can be successful with an injured and ineffective offensive line (see: Dak Prescott) and Manning struggled. The Giants are committed to fixing his protection and Manning will benefit from the addition of offensive guru Pat Shurmur, who will lean on a balanced attack that stresses a heavy dosage of play-action passing and deep shots — the vertical and play-action passing game is what Manning thrived before Ben McAdoo arrived. Manning will be drafted in the back-end QB2 range, and sometimes even undrafted, but with an improved line and Shurmur, he could easily at least put up Case Keenum numbers.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans

Sometimes an offensive scheme change is all a talented but raw fantasy asset like Mariota needs. The addition of Matt LaFleur as offensive coordinator will change the Titans offense as we know it from “exotic smashmouth” to something like we saw from the Rams (LaFleur’s previous stop) in 2017. The new coordinator has already promised that he will prioritize chunk yardage plays to total yards and that bodes well for Mariota’s skill set as a passer. Throw in a fully healthy year from 2017 top-five draft pick and wide receiver Corey Davis and you could have the makings of the breakout fantasy season Mariota’s owners were banking in 2016. He’s a perfect post-hype sleeper.

Lamar Miller, RB, Houston Texans

When Miller arrived in Houston two years ago, some entered him into the RB1 overall discussion based on a small sample size of explosive runs with Miami, backed up by our advanced statistics that showed breakaway ability. The breakaway runs haven’t followed him in Houston through his first two seasons, but a post-post-hype breakout could be on its way if Miller gets to play a full season with Deshaun Watson as his quarterback. Miller upgrades from the likes of Brock Osweiler and Tom Savage to a quarterback whose rushing ability opens up lanes for the running back and an offense that functions at a much more efficient level overall. In six full games with Watson in 2017, Miller racked up 524 total yards and four touchdowns as an active contributor in the receiving game. D’onta Foreman struggled in his rookie season and is unlikely to put any serious pressure on Miller.

Bilal Powell, RB, New York Jets

The dropoff in Powell’s receiving numbers and the Jets’ insistence on playing Matt Forte led to a somewhat disappointing season for Powell’s fantasy owners. The rebuilding Jets seem unlikely to keep Forte in 2018, as releasing him will only lead to a minimal dead salary cap hit. Not a lot is known about new offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, who was out of football for four years before joining as the Jets quarterbacks coach in 2017, but the Jets are very likely to put an emphasis on upgrading the players around Powell. The addition of Kirk Cousins or a top rookie quarterback could have a major impact on Powell’s success as well.

Rex Burkhead, RB, New England Patriots

The biggest beneficiary of Dion Lewis entering the free agent market as the top running back after Le’Veon Bell is Burkhead. Before a late injury, Burkhead came on late in the year as a weapon for the Patriots in the passing game and red zone. This offseason, he is also a free agent, but given the smaller sample size of success and their history for managing the roster, the Patriots are likely to opt to re-sign Burkhead for cheaper. He doesn’t fit the traditional “comeback” billing, since you could argue that he was never there, but 2018 could be the year he lives up to the sleeper hype that consumed him before 2017 drafts.

T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts

Hilton owners took a risk last season with Andrew Luck’s recovery uncertain and it went south. He was never able to find consistent chemistry with Jacoby Brissett. Although Luck’s recovery timetable remains murky for 2018, all of that risk and more will be baked into Hilton’s price tag heading into drafts. Hilton showed no signs of dropping off from a physical standpoint in 2017, but recency bias relating to his raw numbers should allow you to snag WR1 upside in the middle rounds.

Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver Broncos

Both Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders could be on the chopping block if the Broncos clear cap space to make a run at Kirk Cousins, but it’s unlikely they get rid of both. With similar cap hits and dead cap money tied to their remaining contracts, the Broncos will likely opt to keep Thomas, who offers more on the boundary for defenses to game plan against. In 2018, Thomas will benefit from the Broncos finally having someone other than Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler, or a late-career Peyton Manning throwing him the ball. The Broncos have been heavily linked to both Cousins and the rookie quarterbacks.

Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers

Nelson is likely to get overlooked in 2018 fantasy drafts after his disastrous stretch with Brett Hundley at quarterback. Talk of Nelson losing a step (or two) and the recent contract extension for Davante Adams will only cause a greater dropoff in his ADP. However, Nelson has displayed an excellent chemistry with Aaron Rodgers throughout his career, specifically in the red zone. Operating as the top red-zone threat on a Rodgers offense will be enough to justify his plummeting ADP and anything else you’ll get is gravy.

Corey Davis, WR, Tennessee Titans

Davis entered 2017 as my favorite late-round target with the expectation that he would leverage a dominant collegiate career (as PFF’s No. 5 player on their 2017 big board) to become Marcus Mariota’s desperately needed No. 1 target. A hamstring injury he suffered in camp and then again in the regular season derailed his explosion. In year two, Davis will be paired with offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur who has already promised a more aggressive offense going forward. Mariota still needs a No. 1 wide receiver to emerge and Davis could easily take the leap many of us were projecting he would right away.

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