Picking up a game changing player off the fantasy football waiver wire is a move that often wins fantasy championships. But who to grab? Doug Moore breaks the top 10 players who could be fantasy starters by mid-season. Keep an eye on them during your drafts or post-draft free agency pool.
Every year, we see players who don’t receive any attention during the offseason become fantasy football superstars by midseason. Dion Lewis, Gary Barnidge, Kamar Aiken, and Devonta Freeman are the most notable cases of this from the past season. Players like these can end up being the difference between missing your fantasy football playoffs and winning the championship. This article will look at players who may not have yet secured a role on their team, but could by the middle of the season and help you be a title contender.
Montgomery came into the league last season after he was drafted in the third round by the Packers. He only played in six games as he dealt with a recurring ankle injury that eventually caused him to have microfracture surgery on it. While the word microfracture might scare some fantasy owners, Montgomery recently came off the PUP (physically unable to perform) list and has resumed practicing. Head coach Mike McCarthy was impressed with him last season in the preseason, calling him, “Strong, very powerful, obviously gifted,” along with Jordy Nelson saying, “Taking away the athletic part of it, just his approach to understanding our playbook, asking questions, trying to be detailed as much as possible in a short amount of time.”
Montgomery is facing an uphill battle as he currently is buried behind Davante Adams, Jeff Janis, and even Trevor Davis on the depth chart. Now that he has resumed practicing, Montgomery has a chance to make up for lost time from last season. Plus, with Janis breaking a bone in his hand, having surgery, and expecting to miss 4-6 weeks, the opportunity is there for Montgomery not only to grab the No. 3 role at midseason, but perhaps even earlier.
Currently stuck in an unfathomable four-way competition for the starting running back spot with Justin Forsett, Javorius “Buck” Allen, and Terrance West (yes, THAT Terrance West), Dixon certainly has his work cut out for him. He had a knee injury earlier in camp but appears to be fully healed from it as he rushed for 44 yards on nine attempts on August 11 against the Panthers and another 22 on seven carries and a reception for 12 against the Colts on August 20. But as a highly prolific player from Louisiana Tech (87 total touchdowns in four seasons), Dixon has the pedigree to be a successful player in the NFL. When he may have his chance to shine at the next level, however, is another story.
When Baltimore drafted him in the fourth round, he was viewed as a potential replacement for the veteran Forsett as the three-down workhorse of the future. But that may be coming sooner than expected. Dixon arguably has the most upside out of the four competing running backs as Forsett will be 31 in October and West is inconsistent as a running back. Allen was a fourth-round pick in 2015 and could be Dixon’s main competition, but Dixon may be more talented than Allen despite his good performance in 2015. This will be a situation to watch, but Dixon could have the starting role locked up by midseason if he keeps up the good performances.
3) DeAndre Washington, Running Back, Oakland Raiders
A heavily-hyped handcuff and sleeper in Oakland, some would not be surprised if Washington wins the starting role at some point in 2016. Latavius Murray is coming off an up-and-down 2015 as he handled a lot of touches (307) but only finished with a 4.0 yards per carry and six total touchdowns. He was the subject of a lot of hype when Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie called him a “complete back” in May and has not looked back since. The Raiders have been inconsistent with their belief in Murray, as head coach Jack Del Rio wouldn’t name him the starter back in March but also saying he is “just scratching the surface” as a player as well.
While Del Rio did say that Murray will receive “more carries” in 2016, this could simply be coach-speak. Murray was inefficient despite a full workload last season while Washington is an extremely dynamic player who could excel on all three downs if he can learn to pass protect better. Murray better be on the look-out, because Washington has a lot of momentum going forward and could steal some carries. And with this Oakland Raiders team boasting one of the best offensive lines on paper, Murray could lose snaps if he can’t produce quickly.
4) Tyler Higbee, Tight End, Los Angeles Rams
Arguably the most talented tight end in the 2016 class, Higbee fell to the Rams in the fourth round because of major character concerns following an alleged “racially motivated” assault in April. By all accounts, Higbee has had a terrific training camp and is coming off a solid preseason debut (five receptions on six targets for 49 yards). Currently behind Lance Kendricks for the starting tight end role, Higbee could be on the fast track to winning the starting job away from him.
ESPN.com’s Steve Dilbeck said that, “Higbee appears headed for serious playing time,” along with Sports Illustrated’s Greg Bedard stating that Higbee is having a, “great camp.” If Higbee can stay out of trouble and keep working, he could easily finish the year as the team’s starting tight end and even possibly one of their best receiving targets. He’ll be someone to keep an eye on as we continue to the early part of the season.
5) Malcolm Mitchell, Wide Receiver, New England Patriots
A crisp route-running wide receiver out of Georgia, there is a lot of hype surrounding Mitchell and his role in the high-powered Patriots offense. He was having a good game in his NFL debut on August 11 before going down with a nasty elbow injury. The good news is that his MRI and X-ray results both came back negative and Mitchell was back on the practice field August 15 with a brace. This is a great sign that his injury shouldn’t keep him out for too long.
On a team where they are still looking for someone to take their X wide receiver spot opposite Z wide receiver Julian Edelman, Mitchell could eventually take that position away from someone like Chris Hogan or Aaron Dobson by midseason, if not sooner. Regardless, Mitchell has a lot of upside and may take a starting role earlier than expected. Don’t lose track of him, especially when quarterback (cheater) Tom Brady comes back.
A #DraftTwitter favorite, Zenner only competed in six games last year before missing the rest of the season with a rib injury and a punctured lung. He only received 19 touches in those six games, but is heading toward a larger role in 2016. He is coming off a preseason debut that saw Zenner accumulate 56 total yards on 10 touches and receive a good amount of praise from head coach Jim Caldwell. Caldwell complimented his ability to “run the ball” along with his “uncanny ability to catch out of the backfield”.
Zenner faces competition from both Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick for work, but Zenner is the favorite for the No. 3 running back job. Abdullah struggled for the most part last season after a good start and Riddick is a pass-catching specialist. If Zenner can consistently play as well as we’ve seen, he could start to steal snaps and touches in the backfield earlier than expected. If Abdullah struggles again, Zenner could be there to steal his job. There is no shortage of Zenner supporters and his arrow is trending upward at the moment.
Despite the amount of hype that Johnson has received this offseason after his solid rookie year, he is actually not the starting running back. That job belongs to Isaiah Crowell, who has had mixed success in his first two seasons (1,313 yards on 333 carries, 3.94 yards per carry). Johnson is coming off a rookie season where he had 61 receptions and with new head coach Hue Jackson at the helm, there is reason to believe he could surpass that total. Not only could Johnson’s reception total increase, the amount of carries he receives could too.
In 2015, Johnson had 104 rushing attempts for 379 yards (3.64 yards per carry), but has received a lot of praise from running backs coach Kirby Wilson and Jackson as well. Wilson called Johnson, “an ultimate weapon,” while Jackson said he, “does so many different things that gives your offense a boost.” Johnson has a lot of momentum going into 2016 and could be “the guy” in Cleveland if Crowell falters. Crowell doesn’t contribute much in the receiving game (28 receptions in two seasons) while Johnson has the tools to be a three-down back. Johnson may begin the season as the “new Giovani Bernard,” but he could be much more than that in this Cleveland offense if he continues to get better and/or Crowell continues to be pedestrian as a runner.
A second-round draft pick out of Pittsburgh, Boyd lands in a very good spot with the Bengals. He had a very successful college career with 254 receptions, 3,361 yards (13.2 yards per reception) and 21 touchdowns. The team lost both Mohamed Sanu (Falcons) and Marvin Jones (Lions) to free agency, and emerging star tight end Tyler Eifert may miss some games to start the season as he recovers from surgery. Boyd currently projects as the team’s main slot wide receiver, but there is reason to believe he could become their No. 2 wide receiver on the outside.
Brandon LaFell is currently slated to fill that role, but is coming off a disastrous 2015 with the Patriots marred by injury and inconsistent play. Also, LaFell is reportedly dealing with a torn ligament in his hand and may require surgery. If that is the case, Boyd may win the spot by default. But if LaFell opts against surgery and tries to play through it, Boyd’s chances of winning an outside wide receiver role are pretty high. LaFell is a major wild card and could flounder with his new team, while Boyd has “exceeded expectations” per head coach Marvin Lewis. Do not be surprised if we see Boyd opposite A.J. Green by the middle of the 2016 season.
A quarterback is finally mentioned on this list! Yes, there is a chance we could see a few quarterback changes throughout the course of the season, but Lynch would most likely provide the most fantasy relevance. Currently behind Mark Sanchez and Trevor Siemian (yikes, I know), Lynch was taken by the Broncos in the first round after they traded up to get him. While he has mostly been relegated to third string, Lynch has the physical tools to be a very solid quarterback.
He did have some nice plays during his preseason debut. With how unstable the quarterback position is in Denver, if Lynch keeps making great plays, he could be starting some games in 2016. That’s if he doesn’t just take the role that he is being groomed for early. Lynch has some great playmakers in Denver such as Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and C.J. Anderson that would only help him elevate his game if he was the starting quarterback. With how things are going between Sanchez and Siemian, keep an eye on Lynch.
10 (DEEP SLEEPER ALERT) Xavier Grimble, Tight End, Pittsburgh Steelers
This could be seen as a name out of left field and that is exactly what this is. With the mysterious and ominous news surrounding Ladarius Green and his headaches (along with his ankle), some have reported that Green could eventually be forced to retire because of what he is dealing with. This is an odd and somewhat disturbing discovery, but this could open the door for some of the Steelers’ young tight ends to have a chance. Jesse James is expected at this point to take over any starting role in the event Green misses time or retires.
But there is another name to keep in mind and that is Xavier Grimble. Originally an undrafted free agent out of USC, Grimble has bounced around from the Giants to the 49ers to the Patriots and now to the Steelers. In an article written back in early June by PennLive’s Jacob Klinger, Grimble has impressed his Steelers teammates for his athleticism and renewed focus. Players such as Landry Jones, Shamarko Thomas, Dustin Vaughan, and Matt Spaeth have all spoken highly of Grimble.
He has had the chance to slim down, show off his athleticism and also prove he is a red-zone threat. Grimble may not be close to starting right now, but he is doing everything right so far. If James struggles (assuming Green misses a lot of time/retires), Grimble would be the next man up and would jump into a very valuable fantasy football situation on the high-powered Steelers offense.