Your draft is over, your roster is set and your path to (yet another) fantasy football championship is paved.
Not so fast.
Remember stud "running back" Cordarrelle Patterson? How about PPR revelation Hunter Renfrow or top tight ends Dalton Schultz and Zach Ertz? Know what they all had in common entering Week 1 last season? If you read the headline of this article and guessed "they were available on the waiver wire," give yourself a round of applause. That's the kind of keen attention to detail we're going to need to find the needles in the waiver wire haystack this NFL season.
Every journey to greatness begins with a grainy, unflattering picture in white gym shorts. Or at least Tom Brady's did. Our journey to greatness begins on the Week 1 waiver wire. Late depth-chart climbers, under-the-radar vets, talented rookies with opportunity -- it's a gold mine out here. Grab a pickaxe ... or a pan ... or whatever they strike gold with. We're going in.
(Rostered percentages are from NFL.com's fantasy football player trends.)
What if there was a pass-catching rookie running back taken in the second round of the NFL draft by the best team in the league with no clear-cut RB1 on the roster and an MVP favorite at quarterback? Spoiler alert: he happens to be Dalvin Cook’s younger brother and a Georgia product (see: Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb, D’Andre Swift, etc). James Cook has a shot at pass-catching work right out of the gate (smells like PPR value) on a Buffalo depth chart led by 5-foot-7 Devin Singletary and 5.7-second-40-yard-dash Zack Moss. If he were to impress early in the season, Cook could be the Bills’ (and your) RB1 faster than he ran his own 40 (an impressive 4.42 seconds).
Miles Sanders finally returned to practice last week after a multiple week absence to nurse a hamstring injury. Still, while talented, Sanders has missed nine games over the last two seasons and likely played several others at less than full strength. If Sanders misses time in 2022, Gainwell could gain well over a 30-spot bump in the rankings (sorry, I couldn’t resist) as the lead guy on a potentially explosive offense. And how’s this for a stat: Of the 55 running backs with 100+ touches in 2021, only Austin Ekeler averaged more fantasy points per touch (1.24) than Gainwell (1.22). Plus, the team names write themselves. NOTE: In much deeper leagues, both Boston Scott (0.6% rostered) and new acquisition Trey Sermon (0.4%) are worth a speculative add as well, just in case they manage to leapfrog up the depth chart.
We got to see four games of Herbert as the lead back in Chicago last season, when starter David Montgomery went out with a knee injury. The then-rookie out of Virginia Tech logged 18+ carries and 70+ rushing yards in all four games and finished as an RB1 in two of them. Recent rumblings out of Chicago suggest that Herbert might actually be a better fit for the new offense (under head coach Matt Eberflus) than Montgomery, and while it’s certainly stretch to demote Montgomery on the depth chart due to one report, he has not received an extension from new GM Ryan Poles (who did not draft Montgomery) entering his contract year. For now, Herbert is a very valuable handcuff -- with the emphasis on “very” -- but a surprise shift in Week 2 or 3 could turn him into a massive steal.
Jones is making a Week 1 Waiver Wire column. Is this the Upside Down? I mean, yes, Jones has missed 14 games over the last two seasons. And yes, he averaged only 43 receiving yards per game last year (at 32 years old), which is less than half his career average. OK ... I’m starting to understand. But hear me out. As odd as this may seem, Julio Jones has looked a little like ... Julio Jones in Bucs training camp. And he’s got Tom Brady at QB. And Chris Godwin is still not cleared for Week 1 (and won’t be 100% even if he is). And Randy Moss was the WR2 overall at 32 years old -- with Brady -- in 2009. And for that matter, Jerry Rice was the WR1 overall at 33 years old in 1995. I’m not saying Jones is going to be a Top 12 wideout in 2022 ... but he is unironically closer to Jerry Rice and Randy Moss than he is to Emmanuel Sanders or even A.J. Green.
The only thing longer than Marquez Valdes-Scantling’s name is his career yards per reception, which sits at a staggering 17.5 -- highest in the NFL since he was drafted in 2018 (min. 100 receptions). For context, the next six names on that list are Mike Williams, Kenny Golladay (oof), A.J. Brown, Mike Evans, Deebo Samuel and Justin Jefferson. Eyeballs emoji. MVS will be fighting to fill Tyreek Hill’s shoes in Kansas City with the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Mecole Hardman and rookie Skyy Moore (less than invincible competition). Patrick Mahomes is going to make at least one of these guys fantasy relevant. If it ends up being MVS, and you’ve rostered him, it’ll be you dancing on TikTok instead of Jackson.
While a lot of the Twitter hype this offseason has centered around Gabe Davis, McKenzie could sneakily be the bigger steal in the Bills wide receiver room (if healthy). McKenzie ran 48.2% of his routes out of the slot last year (per Next Gen Stats) -- second on the team only to the now-departed Cole Beasley -- and is currently slotted to start (tehe) ahead of Jamison Crowder. Rave reports on McKenzie have poured out of Orchard Park this summer and like James Cook above, he will be catching passes from Josh Allen … a pretty decent gig. Not sold yet? His nickname is Lil Dirty. You’re welcome.
Last season in his sophomore year, Kmet had 93 targets, 60 catches … and zero touchdowns. No scores. Zilch tuddies. Less than one tink-tink. You get the picture. Go ahead and guess how many other TEs in the entire league had 60+ receptions and failed to find the end zone. The answer is one … in NFL history. Vikings Pro Bowler Steve Jordan did it in 1985 -- the next season he scored six TDs and would have been the TE3 in fantasy if it existed. In 2022, Kmet should see improved QB play (second season for Justin Fields) and a likely increase in targets (Allen Robinson off to the Rams). Add in the mathematically-ensured rebound in touchdowns, and you’ve got a breakout tight end on your hands.
Hearken back with me to the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine, during which Missouri tight end Albert Okwuegbunam ran a 4.49 40-yard dash at 6-foot-5, 258 pounds and earned a 99 Next Gen Stats Athleticism Score (the maximum). Since then, sadly, “Albert O” has missed 18 of a possible 33 games and posted a grand total of two weeks as a top 12 tight end. So why the optimism for 2022? Because this is Broncos Country, let’s ride! No but seriously, Okwuegbunam is graduating from Drew Lock/Jeff Driskel/Brett Rypien to Russell Wilson, and tight ends typically take a few years to blossom into fantasy relevance anyway. If you’ve got room for a backup TE on your bench, there aren’t many with this much upside.
While Winston looked like an improved NFL quarterback in his seven starts last season -- 5-2 record, 14-3 TD-INT ratio and 102.8 passer rating were all career-bests -- he wasn’t exactly a fantasy superstar. Before injury, Winston averaged 16.8 fantasy PPG (QB15) and finished as a top 12 quarterback only twice. That said, he was also throwing to a cast of characters highlighted by Marquez Callaway, Tre’Quan Smith and Lil’Jordan Humphrey (no offense, guys). This season, Winston’s top wideouts are Michael Thomas, Jarvis Landry and rookie firecracker Chris Olave. According to gut feel, that might be the biggest season-over-season upgrade to a receiver room in recorded history. Don’t be surprised if we see the best Winston we’ve ever seen in 2022.
While we won’t be seeing him in Progressive Insurance commercials in 2022, we will be seeing Mayfield at the helm of the Panthers offense down in Charlotte. Armed with a chip on his shoulder, Christian McCaffrey on his hip, and the combo of DJ Moore and Robbie (with an “ie”) Anderson downfield, Mayfield could finally make the fantasy leap into QB1 territory this season. Remember, this guy set the single-season rookie passing TD record back in 2018 with 27 (before it was unceremoniously shattered by Justin Herbert in 2020). There is surprising upside here if the pieces fall into place.
And, because it's the brand, here are a few guys worth a speculative 'stache (see what I did there) if you've got the space.
Guys to 'Stache: Chiefs RB Isiah Pacheco, Lions RB Jamaal Williams, Falcons RB Tyler Allgeier, Panthers RB D'Onta Foreman, Cowboys WR Michael Gallup, Chiefs WR Skyy Moore, Packers WR Romeo Doubs, Texans WR Nico Collins, Texans TE Gerald Everett, Jaguars TE Evan Engram, Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence, Colts QB Matt Ryan, Titans QB Malik Willis.