videoFantasy football owners sure didn’t seem too interested in Chargers running back Melvin Gordon last season. Many running backs, five tight ends and even a defense were selected earlier in ESPN ADP, and the reason is because his rookie year (2015) didn’t go well. Gordon starred in college at Wisconsin but entered Year 2 in the NFL with an undeserved reputation that he couldn’t score touchdowns, couldn’t be an effective pass-catcher and couldn’t stay healthy. Then he went and proved everyone wrong -- breaking out into a star -- and now he’s a top-10 running back in ESPN ADP. Gordon’s story reminds us of several important factors when trying to determine potential breakout players. First, we know that pretty much everyone in the NFL has starred in this sport at some point, so anyone with opportunity can prove they belong and show their upside. Some were first-round selections like Gordon and Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, others were later-round choices like Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard -- perhaps a bit forgotten. But Gordon, Elliott and Howard all broke out as stars during the 2017 season. We knew they had skills, but when opportunity knocks, some players step up, even those who have struggled in the past. Others need another year or three. We covered the quarterback breakouts and now it’s time for running back, a position chock-full of talent, but certainly a tad lacking in reliable options to build fantasy rosters around. Oh, there are certainly 10 or so running backs we know and mostly love, and then a bunch of rookies regarded as RB2 choices and then, well, take your chances. Some will break out, but most will not. Gordon was mentioned prominently in this space a year ago and yeah, that went well! Miami’s Jay Ajayi was also mentioned and that went well, but then again, Washington’s Matt Jones and Seattle’s Thomas Rawls, eh, not so much. The unwritten rules of these annual breakout blog entries state -- in my mind, at least -- that anyone who hasn’t broken out yet to one of the levels below is technically in play, and there are different standards of statistical prowess. In addition, we don’t consider rookies here. They get plenty of coverage in other blog entries! I happen to like quite a few of the rookie running backs this season, especially compared with other positions, but rookies have neither succeeded nor failed at this highest level yet, so using the term breakout for them doesn't really apply. This is all based on value and expectations, and in some cases there are no expectations, which make the breakouts even better.
videoFantasy football owners should be conditioned to be wary of rookie quarterbacks by this point, but when passers chosen with the highest of real-life draft picks get to Year 2, things change. We saw it in the interest level of Tampa Bay Buccaneers star Jameis Winston and Tennessee Titans icon Marcus Mariota, the first two picks in the 2015 draft. They were actually solid as rookies, and while only Mariota improved for fantasy purposes his second season, fantasy owners were obviously intrigued by them and their bright futures. A year later, the top two picks in the NFL draft were Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, and each is expected to make strides this season, but only one of them appears intriguing for impatient fantasy rosters, and that’s for formats deeper than 10-team leagues. Then again, what if each of them took strides to greater fantasy relevance? We’ll take a deeper look in this space, because for some the term “breaking out” can mean dreaming, too. As with sleepers and busts and the rarely-understood-for-context term of “do not draft,” this can be interpreted myriad ways.

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videoA pair of intriguing young Pittsburgh Steelers absent from the team’s preseason opener participated in the second game, a 17-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday afternoon, and it will be interesting to see if and how fantasy owners react. Rookie running back James Conner turned his 21 touches into 101 total yards, while wide receiver Martavis Bryant caught two passes for 23 yards. Most fantasy owners know about Bryant, a terrific but troubled talent, while Conner is the potential handcuff for superstar Le’Veon Bell. Conner, who starred locally at the University of Pittsburgh and has overcome Hodgkin lymphoma and a major knee injury, was a third-round pick by the Steelers in the spring and is battling veterans Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis for the No. 2 running back role. On this team, that’s obviously important. Bell is awesome and going first overall in ESPN average live drafts -- I’d take Bell second -- but with each week he continues his holdout, fantasy owners get concerned. Plus, Bell has missed considerable action due to injury and suspension. DeAngelo Williams, currently looking for employment, was the beneficiary of Bell’s September absence last season, averaging nearly 30 PPR points the first two weeks on a huge Bell-like workload at age 33. Conner, 22, is fighting for the opportunity to do the same should Bell somehow not be available when games start in September. That seems unlikely, but injuries happen. Bell’s contract situation should get worked out soon, and as of now he’s healthy. Perhaps Bell just doesn’t feel like practicing. Conner’s heavy workload Sunday might mean nothing, but Toussaint handled only two rushing attempts. This could be the important hierarchy, and if so, those who select Bell really should target Conner as a handcuff after round 10 as well. As for Bryant, seeking likely reinstatement to the NFL after missing the 2016 season for another violation of the league’s substance abuse policy, few question his dynamic, on-field talent. He’s scored 15 touchdowns in 21 career games. Eight scores came in his rookie season of 2014, as he averaged more than 21 yards per reception. The touchdown rate will be difficult to sustain and he’s not likely to pile on the receptions since Antonio Brown and Bell do. We’re also likely to never have complete confidence that Bryant can avoid future suspensions. Presuming he’s deemed eligible to play Week 1, he could surely be a top-30 wide receiver, so keep abreast of the news. QB thoughts from the weekend: The top quarterbacks either aren’t participating in games or are playing sparingly. For example, the Steelers didn’t use Ben Roethlisberger. There’s no need. However, the Jacksonville Jaguars need to use their “top” guys. Blake Bortles continues to struggle, though it’s worth pointing out that the organization doesn’t have some hotshot rookie awaiting opportunity. It’s veteran Chad Henne. Why does this matter? Well, to be fair, Bortles has ended up a top-10 fantasy quarterback the past two seasons. He’s currently ranked outside the staff top 20. And a switch to Henne could actually aid wide receiver Allen Robinson. … Buffalo Bills starter Tyrod Taylor continues to struggle, but it would be more surprising if he lost the role to rookie Nathan Peterman. Taylor threw two interceptions at Philadelphia on Thursday. … Game No. 2 for Houston Texans rookie Deshaun Watson was a struggle and veteran Tom Savage was 8-of-9, so that should quiet talk of Watson starting Week 1. He’s still enticing in dynasty formats, though. RB thoughts from the weekend: The Kansas City Chiefs are likely to go with veteran Spencer Ware to start Week 1, even as rookie Kareem Hunt flashes his considerable skills. On Saturday, Hunt ran eight times for 40 yards and caught three passes for 23 yards. Hunt could take the starting role soon, so be prepared. Charcandrick West had the big statistical performance, breaking a 50-yard run and rushing for 113 yards, but he did so late in the game with backups. … C.J. Anderson figures to start for the Broncos in September, but rookie De’Angelo Henderson -- an overlooked sixth-round pick from Coastal Carolina -- continues to impress and could vault to the No. 2 spot on the depth chart over injured Devontae Booker and Jamaal Charles, who might not even make the team. Henderson had 50 total yards against the 49ers on Saturday and had a touchdown called back. … There’s been nowhere to run for Philadelphia Eagles starter LeGarrette Blount, and his 17 rushing yards on nine carries has some speculating he could get cut. That seems unlikely at this point. The Eagles haven’t played yet with the full complement of their offensive line and Blount doesn’t have a long history of big statistical preseasons. … DeMarco Murray did not suit up for the Tennessee Titans, but second-year man Derrick Henry scored two touchdowns, though he turned his 16 carries into a mere 36 yards. Murray owners shouldn’t be worried about this, though Henry is a wise handcuff. David Fluellen, who has been around for years but with nary a rushing attempt, totaled 91 yards from scrimmage on 12 chances and could be the team’s No. 3 running back. WR/TE thoughts from the weekend: Veteran receiver Anquan Boldin decided he wanted no part of the rebuilding Buffalo Bills, so he simply announced his retirement Sunday night. A logical fantasy reaction to this news is to move rookie Zay Jones up in the rankings and perhaps Jordan Matthews as well. Preseason game No. 3 could be interesting to see whether Andre Holmes or Rod Streater can establish himself on the outside as well. Don’t ignore this passing offense. … Speaking of, perhaps we’re all underestimating the Los Angeles Rams offense. Second-year quarterback Jared Goff was 16-for-20 and his main target was rookie wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who scored a touchdown on the first drive and had 70 receiving yards overall. Newcomer Sammy Watkins did play and obviously attracts defensive attention. It’s too early to consider Kupp a must-own in a standard league, but it’s also too early to simply dismiss Goff and this offense simply because of last season. … Veteran receiver Bruce Ellington worked well with Texans starter Savage, turning four catches into 93 yards. Jaelen Strong caught a short touchdown pass and continues to battle Braxton Miller, who did not suit up, to start opposite DeAndre Hopkins. … Washington second-year man Josh Doctson is recovered from his hamstring injury and caught one pass for 12 yards. If Doctson plays well next week, he could earn a starting role. Finally, tight end Jordan Reed did not play this weekend but was activated off the PUP list, so he can join team practices. Reed is going as fantasy’s No. 3 tight end, having fallen behind the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce in ESPN ADP this weekend.

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videoNew England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is one of the signature football players of this era, having topped 1,000 receiving yards three times in his seven seasons and reaching double-digit touchdowns in five of them. He has finished as fantasy’s top tight end in three of those seasons. But other than 2011, when Gronkowski emerged as one of the best players in fantasy and did so as a mid-round draft choice, he has never been a value pick, even for the healthy seasons. And as we all know by now, every season is certainly not a healthy season. As a result, Gronkowski is an annual staple of my “Do Not Draft” list, which of course hardly means I wouldn’t draft the player, but rather that I wouldn’t draft him at the spot I would need to in order to secure him -- which remains in the second round. It’s an important distinction, but obviously all people will presume that I don’t like the players discussed below, which is far from the truth. After all, who could find fault with Gronkowski? He’s awesome and a blast at parties! Well, I like to load up on running backs and wide receivers in the first four or five rounds, and that doesn’t leave room for a tight end or, as you’ll see, a quarterback early on.

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Benny Sieu-USA TODAY SportsNothing says "straight-up fantasy novice" like drafting LeGarrette Blount early in a PPR league.
There’s really no “right” way to win a fantasy league so the first bit of advice I tend to share with prospective owners is to feel free to ignore every last bit of information passed on by my excellent colleagues in the ESPN Fantasy group -- and me. It might sound ridiculously counterintuitive, but the strategies and approaches I favor might not be so comfortable for you. It’s simply advice that I (mostly) follow and that’s about it, so I share with all. Entertain and inform. Inform and entertain. Rinse and repeat. Some owners want to prove they can draft a quarterback in the top 10 and still win, and I certainly can’t deny it happens. Hey, draft a defense in Round 5 and it can happen. Leave your draft sans a tight end or with only two running backs and yes, it still can happen. There are myriad ways to secure a fantasy championship and most start on draft day. That said, although I prefer certain strategies and themes in drafting my team, it would be foolish to insist it’s the only way. So as we approach the 2017 season, whether your drafts are piling up or you’re waiting on only one -- the most important draft ever in your lone league -- it seems a wise time to share thoughts not necessarily on individual players but the hows, whys and some basic philosophies. Some of these won’t jibe with your thoughts and hey, that’s OK.

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Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsShould Deshaun Watson and other rookie quarterbacks be considered on draft day?
Fantasy football owners are reminded annually not only to ignore performances by rookie quarterbacks in the preseason, but also to take little notice of rookie quarterbacks in re-draft formats in general. Perhaps this is a new era. After all, the Dallas Cowboys were forced to turn to Dak Prescott last August and that went pretty well for all, as the fourth-round pick from Mississippi State filled in for injured Tony Romo. He raised hopes in August, moved up in average live drafts ahead of Kirk Cousins and Matt Ryan, among others, and actually ended up as a top-10 fantasy quarterback. One year prior, it was Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston and Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota -- the first picks in real life and instant starters -- who aided fantasy owners, even in standard formats. As a result, it’s hardly a surprise that fantasy owners with an insatiable desire to overrate any preseason numbers they can are again looking for the latest first-year options to emerge. After one preseason weekend, the three passers to watch are Houston’s Deshaun Watson, Cleveland’s DeShone Kizer and Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky, each showing off their arm and legs over the past few days and making fans of those teams believe their draft-day investments were certainly worth it.

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AP Photo/Elise AmendolaBrandin Cooks remains a hot commodity after leaving Drew Brees and the Saints and going to Tom Brady and the Patriots.
A year ago at this time, wide receiver was the hot fantasy football position, with high-end options to draft before any running backs and enough depth that it was pretty much assumed one’s flex spot wouldn’t be a running back. Oh, how things change! Sure, wide receiver remains a strong fantasy position, of course, but several high-end options have become question marks, and by the middle rounds, it just doesn’t feel the same as last year, creating more balance with the never-forgotten running backs. As a result, a tiered system for wide receivers seems even more relevant than a year ago, when one could do little wrong and end up with usable options no matter what. Perhaps that’s still the case to some degree, but with the many rookie running backs and several new veterans likely finding immediate opportunity, it’s more of a mix. Regardless, one might notice more drop-off from tier to tier at wide receiver. I certainly did. We’ve covered quarterback and running back and we continue now with wide receiver.

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AP Photo/Jeffrey T. BarnesZay Jones moves up the Buffalo depth chart with Sammy Watkins on his way to the West Coast.
Several big-name wide receivers in the final year of their rookie contracts were traded Friday afternoon, with the Buffalo Bills sending a top-20 option to the Los Angeles Rams and acquiring a lesser choice from the Philadelphia Eagles, and of course there were draft picks and defensive players and other stuff involved. For fantasy owners, however, more than Sammy Watkins and Jordan Matthews were affected.

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video Fantasy football owners with Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott already on their teams, whether they had already drafted for 2017 or had him secured in a dynasty or keeper format, were dealt a jolt Friday afternoon when the second-year player was levied a six-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Elliott is expected to appeal, but for now we must assume the talented player who finished his rookie season second in season scoring at his position and fifth overall won’t be eligible to play until Week 8, since the Dallas bye falls in that span.

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Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY SportsAt which point in fantasy drafts should you aim to select the risky potential of players like Todd Gurley?
Unlike the quarterback position, which has a useful strategy all to itself, fantasy owners are rarely going to look at the running backs from their draft and claim they’re tangibly set at the position. In fact, halfway through the average draft, most owners will look at their running backs -- and the many problematic options lurking -- and come away unimpressed. That’s how things tend to work these days at running back, as injuries, timeshares and so much general uncertainty make constructing a team virtual guesswork. Fantasy owners are no longer directed into coveting the position in early rounds, though it’s best to get a decent balance at the position. Hopefully this blog entry on following a tiered system can help. Obviously, we cannot know who your early running backs are, so once one hits the middle rounds, owners should be prepared to follow their own instincts, get a proper mix of reasonable options and, as always, avoid reaching. Value is key. Draft six running backs and hope three can be weekly plays. Sure, we’d all hope for more, but this is running back, so realism is warranted. With quarterback tiers in the rear-view mirror and wide receivers pending later this week, here is a look at my running back tiers.

Tier 1: Top of Round 1


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CousinsJames Lang-USA TODAY SportsShould fantasy players spend big on a top QB, or wait for a player like Kirk Cousins?
Fantasy owners are always going to have their biases, and those tend to show the most in a draft or auction when an owner has about 12 seconds to decide on a player. We’ve all been there, right? It’s round 3, the top player in your queue has just been stolen from you at the last second -- the sound that makes can lead to nightmares -- and an expeditious choice needs to be made. We all know it’s likely to be the wrong one. If only you came extra, super prepared and knew which players were still available, as well as their relative value in relation to the player you didn’t acquire!

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Samuel Stringer/Icon SportswireMarshawn Lynch returns to the NFL -- and to fantasy drafts -- as the lead back for the Raiders.
The big story in the AFC West surrounds the San Diego -- oh, sorry, they’ve moved to Los Angeles. Yep, the Chargers have moved up the coast in California for financial reasons, leaving that excellent city bereft of a football team for the first time since John F. Kennedy was president of the United States. While the Chargers last won double-digit games in 2009, for fantasy purposes this is certainly a relevant team, with a top-10 running back, a productive quarterback and a rookie wide receiver expected to -- wait, what? There’s a back injury? Oh, the news never seems to end with the Chargers. We’ll delve into the big stories surrounding the intriguing AFC West as we finish up our summer divisional series. After all, next week is August! The NFC East, NFC North, NFC South, NFC West, AFC East, AFC North and AFC South have already been covered, so check ‘em out and thanks for reading!

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Marcus MariotaScott Winters/Icon SportswireMarcus Mariota has been impressive in his first two seasons, and now has much better weapons to work with.

It might be tough to believe today, but at this time a year ago the AFC South boasted two of the top-six wide receivers in ESPN average live drafts, and few thought the notion was ridiculous. Houston Texans star DeAndre Hopkins was coming off a fantastic 2015 season with 111 receptions for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns, and while there were concerns about incoming quarterback Brock Osweiler, well, how bad could he be? As for the Jacksonville Jaguars, quarterback Blake Bortles and wide receiver Allen Robinson were breakout stars in their second NFL seasons, and the future looked bright. A year later, after neither Hopkins nor Robinson came remotely close to providing value (each finished outside the top-20 wide receiver scorers), fantasy owners must decide which of the past two seasons accurately reflects the future, and it’s not an easy question to answer. After all, while most believe Hopkins and Robinson remain stellar athletes and capable of big things, the Texans still lack a sure thing at quarterback and Bortles remains somewhat of an enigma, especially when attempting to find Robinson downfield. While the latter two mystifyingly couldn’t connect in 2016, Bortles still squeaked into the top-10 scorers at quarterback last season. The plight of these star wide receivers (and many others) will be analyzed as we continue our summer divisional series with the intriguing AFC South. The NFC East, NFC North, NFC South, NFC West, AFC East and AFC North have already been covered, so check ‘em out!

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Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY SportsWide receiver John Ross set a record in the 40-yard dash before being drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Cincinnati Bengals seem to be at somewhat of a crossroads, as they’re coming off the worst season in the Andy Dalton era. The Bengals made the playoffs in each of Dalton’s first five NFL seasons, though each and every appearance ended pretty quickly with a wild-card round loss. Still, the Bengals won more than they lost for five seasons. Dalton was certainly competent, A.J. Green was certainly great, and the defense was certainly good enough to get the team into January. Last season’s Bengals won only six games, and whether one chooses to blame Dalton’s inconsistency, Green’s injury, the struggling running game, the undisciplined defense or longtime coach Marvin Lewis, the fact is the organization isn’t at all like the other squads in the AFC North. Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have won Super Bowls with their current quarterbacks. The Cleveland Browns won one game last season and don’t have much at quarterback. The Bengals are lurking somewhere in between, and there could be changes looming. Is this a playoff team, or will it struggle again in 2017? As we continue our summer divisional series by looking at the AFC North, the intriguing Bengals -- along with the Steelers, Ravens and Browns -- merit further examination for fantasy purposes. The NFC East, NFC North, NFC South, NFC West, and AFC East have already been covered, so check ‘em out! Top three AFC North changes for fantasy purposes

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Someone new to the fantasy football world could believe the only relevant team in the AFC East is the New England Patriots because of quarterback Tom Brady, last seen engineering a stunning Super Bowl comeback in February. But that’s not entirely true! There’s so much more from other teams, including a top running quarterback who is annually overlooked and underrated, the rare running back to rush for 200 or more yards three times in a season, and the Jets … well, that Josh McCown-to-Quincy Enunwa combination should be fantastic! OK, so the Patriots win this division every year and there’s little reason to expect that to change in the upcoming season, but the point is even the Jets – yes, the Jets! – have a player or two fantasy owners should be intrigued by. The Dolphins actually made the playoffs last season, though they were quickly blown out by the Steelers. However, Miami expects to contend for a January berth again, the Bills boast new leadership and figure their 18-year stretch sans a playoff appearance could end soon, and the Jets … well, have some patience. Anyway, let’s continue with our summer divisional series and check out the AFC East, where one team is really good, one team is really not and the other two squads should be interesting. The NFC East, NFC North, NFC South and NFC West have already been covered, so check ‘em out! Top three AFC East changes for fantasy purposes

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