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There are a few reasons why a player would take a step forward in fantasy football:

  1. Past performance showed flashes and talent, combined with expected increase in opportunity.
  2. Early-in-career player increased knowledge – learned the full playbook, learned the system, game got slower, learning the NFL.
  3. Better team around them.

Those are basically the only reasons why a player would take a step forward. If the player you expect to take a step forward doesn’t fall into one of those categories, it will be tough to argue that they will. Just because they are talented, and they are more talented than the guys they are competing with it, doesn’t mean they will do what you think they will do. They have to get the opportunity, that’s the key. The clearer the path to opportunity, the clearer the result, and that’s what we need to bet on come draft time.

Isaiah Crowell

If we asked Santa for fantasy RBs, Crowell is on many people’s wishlists this year. Don’t know where that analogy came from, but I do know that a lot of people are high on him, and I think for good reason. Crowell averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season on 198 carries, and he was the only running back to finish in the top 20 in rushing yards with less than 200 carries. Hue Jackson likes to run the ball, but the Browns weren’t in much of a position to run the ball last year because of game scripts. The Browns go down, they have to resort to the pass, and Duke Johnson would take most of that work. But how is that different than this upcoming season?

The Browns’ offensive line is one of the best on paper for 2017. With that line, not only can Crowell do more damage on each run, and if the Browns are more successful on the ground, they will have the ball longer, sustain longer drives, slow games down, and maybe even score some more points to stay competitive. That is why having a successful run game is key, and why Hue Jackson would love to establish the run. He has the offensive line now, and will run Crowell right through it. His workload because of that should increase, and if he can get 250 carries, he can end up being a RB1. Here’s another fun fact: Crowell had 40 receptions to Duke’s 53 last year. Duke did more with it, but 40 catches for someone who isn’t considered the passing back is pretty damn good. Also, draft Duke later so you lock up that backfield. Anyone running behind that line can be successful, and Duke can potentially get all three downs and be on the field A LOT if Crowell were to go down with an injury.

Jamison Crowder

216 targets. That’s the number of targets that are up for grab after the Redskins lost Pierre Garcon and Desean Jackson. Terrelle Pryor and Josh Doctson are the two receivers who will be taking over those roles, but neither have much of a rapport with Kirk Cousins as of right now. The only receiver who does have a rapport with Cousins is Jamison Crowder. He already had 99 targets last year, grabbing 67 of them for 847 yards. He was the third most targeted receiver, and there is a real chance Crowder becomes Cousins’ favorite target outside of Jordan Reed. That’s the potential, but we have to also keep in mind that Crowder had a bunch of games with sub-par yardage totals and was not dependable for some stretches. In PPR, it was much easier to start him. We also have to keep in mind of the possibility that Terrelle Pryor or Josh Doctston can step into the offense in a big way. With that said, the path to immediate production is clearer for Crowder. In 2017, I think he can be a low-end WR2 to mid-WR3 in PPR. In this offense, the QB’s favorite WR target can be very valuable. If his targets go up to 120 or so, and his catch rate goes up a bit, we can be looking at a 1000 yard receiver who also has a nose for the end zone.

Stefon Diggs

Minnesota ranked in the bottom third of the league in points scored. They made a last-minute QB change before the season started and Sam Bradford did a decent job for his first year. I expect this offense to take a step forward for a few reasons, one being Bradford’s second year with the team. Bradford set a record for the most accurate season in NFL history last year, and will also have his first full offseason with the team. Not only that, but the Vikings terrible offensive line got a little better this year, and Bradford shouldn’t have to dink and dunk as much as he did last year. The player who would benefit most would be Stefon Diggs, their most explosive and dependable player on that offense last year.

He had 84 receptions for 903 yards and only had about 11 yards per receptions because of the dink and dunk, but if Bradford has a little bit more time to throw, Diggs can run more developed routes and let his playmaking ability shine. Diggs can rack up even more receptions with more yards and take a couple of those to the house. When an offense as a whole takes a step forward, the #1 receiver is usually a big part of that. The running game should improve as well with the improved offensive line and a good tandem of running backs in Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook; that should open up the pass.

Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota

I’m going to combine these two for a simple reason. Weapons. They’re both coming into their third years, and two seasons of playing time can do wonders for a QB. Jameis Winston has a new weapon in one of the biggest field stretchers in the game in Desean Jackson. No longer can the defense only worry about Mike Evans. With Winston not having to force it to Evans on every play, both Evans and Winston can become more efficient, while keeping the deep pass alive with Jackson stretching the field. Winston loves throwing it deep, and it will keep defenses honest. Having Jackson is very fruitful to a team; going back to his time with the Eagles, offenses do way better with him on the field. We’re talking average yards per play, passing play, and even rushing yards per attempt. With the offense expected to take a step forward, I expect Winston to reap the benefits. Keep in mind that the Bucs defense played well towards the end of the year, which kept Winston’s attempts lower than usual. Keep that in mind, but I think he’s a great wait to draft QB this year.

Marcus Mariota has had it good since coming into the NFL. An excellent offensive line, a great running game, not much more you can ask for.. actually the one thing he could ask for he got this year, and that’s wide receivers to throw to. Eric Decker is as reliable as they come and will become one of Mariota’s favorite targets, especially on third down. Rishard Matthews has become one of Mariota’s guys, and will give him some continuity and stay as his more intermediate to deep receiver. You have Corey Davis, who has the opportunity to become an elite receiver in this league, and can come in and make an immediate impact. Tajae Sharpe was disappointing last year, but he has the ability to grow and become a great role player for this team; he doesn’t need to be more than that. Not to mention Demarco Murray coming out of the backfield, Mariota has all the weapons he needs to put up a great statistical season. I expect them to pass just slightly more than last year, but maintain that ground and pound system. It’s good for Mariota and that offense, but when Mariota has to throw the ball he’ll have some talented guys catching the ball and making plays – only makes a better fantasy season for Mariota.

Lamar Miller

Lamar Miller had a great workload last year, but there were many factors that caused his sub-par 4 yards per carry. One was the offense led by Brock Osweiler, which couldn’t get anything going. It was an all-time bad offense, and teams were just stacking the box daring them to run. And they did, giving Miller 268 carries. In 2015 with the Dolphins, Miller had 194 carries, but had 4.5 yards per carry, and in 2014, had 216 attempts for 5.1 yards per carry. He had only 5 touchdowns this past year compared to 8 the two years prior. The Texans 5th in total rushing attempts in the entire league. Something doesn’t add up, and I think they addressed it.

First, they got rid of Osweiler. Don’t worry about who’s coming in, it’s not Osweiler. Second, they drafted D’onta Foreman in the third round. He’s an in-between the tackle, productive running back, exactly the type that can complement Miller. But, wouldn’t this take opportunity away from Miller? I don’t think so. I think Miller might not get 268 carries, but he can get 220-230 carries and perform better because he’s not taking such a beating, and the running lanes open up because of the change in style. Not only that, but Miller can bring in another part of his game that he does really well, and that’s making plays in the passing game. In 2014 and 2015, he averaged 43 catches per year and had some explosive plays. Miller needed a complement, and can be more productive in this offense with one. That combined with the fact that the Texans love to run the ball, Miller is due for a bounceback season.