By: Jackson Kane (Twitter: @TheJacksonKane)
Updated: 7/19/2017

Unexpected League Winners

There are a handful of guys that you want on your fantasy team any time you can get them; the David Johnsons or Le’Veon Bells of the world. Or perhaps, you’re more of a receiver in Round 1 type of guy, so you take Antonio Brown instead. Regardless, the top notch guys will do their thing from week-to-week to carry your team. But successful fantasy teams, teams that contend for championships, are built with solid foundations. They aren’t just one-man shows. They have guys that contribute almost every week at almost every position. Did you luck out last year by drafting DeMarco Murray, Marcus Mariota or Davante Adams? Well, these are guys I think are capable of pulling off similar rises to fantasy prominence in 2017. So if you’re unable to land a top notch player at their position like a Tom Brady or a Julio Jones, just look for these guys to fill the void. The following players will ball out in 2017 and make you look like a genius for drafting them.

QB – Eli Manning
When you think of top-tier quarterbacks for fantasy, rarely do you think of the youngest Manning brother, Eli. When you dive deeper into the stats, you’ll realize that he has been one of the most consistent quarterbacks in recent years. Manning has thrown 26 or more touchdown passes in seven of the last eight seasons. He finished 22nd in fantasy scoring for QBs last season, but here’s my rationale for that:

The Giants lacked a significant rushing threat in 2016. Their leading rusher, Rashad Jennings, rushed for 593 yards last season, which is far from intimidating if you’re an opposing defensive coordinator. The last time New York had a worse rushing attack was 2013, when Andre Brown (who?) led the team in rushing yards with 492. Manning’s stats that season? 18 touchdowns and a league-leading 27 interceptions. Jennings is now gone, which opens the door for Paul Perkins and a healthy Shane Vereen. Perkins showed flashes of potential in 2016, averaging 4.1 yards per carry and 11.6 yards per catch.

New York also upgraded their Samsung to an iPhone with the additions of Brandon Marshall and Evan Engram. Marshall was a disappointment in 2016, but you would be too if you had the combination of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Bryce Petty throwing you the ball. Marshall’s presence on the field alone will make Manning’s life that much easier. Engram is a lanky and fast tight end that will give Eli an additional weapon in the red zone. I’m high on Manning and this entire offense in 2017.

RB – Mike Gillislee
I’ve been singing this guy’s praises for a long time, but 2017 will finally be the year that he breaks out. LeGarrette Blount’s departure leaves 18 touchdowns on the table to be scooped up by someone in a Patriots uniform. That someone is Mike Gillislee. Although New England’s backfield is more crowded than Buffalo Wild Wings on a Thursday night, you shouldn’t worry. Gillislee fits the build of Blount more than any other back left in the Pats’ backfield. Both Dion Lewis and James White are undoubtedly elusive and quick, but they lack the power to take on goal-line responsibilities. Both are under 200 pounds. Rex Burkhead could be a threat to Gillislee’s goal-line workload considering that he stands at 5-foot-10, 214 pounds, while Gillislee stands at 5-foot-11, 218 pounds. Regardless, I’m a believer in the former Florida Gator. He’s being drafted currently as the 78th overall pick on ESPN, but should he be going higher or lower? In a relatively respectable sample size of 154 career carries, Gillislee has averaged 5.6 YPC. This guy is going to do big things in 2017. Trust me.

RB – Ameer Abdullah
He’s shown flashes of brilliance during his short time in the NFL, but can Ameer Abdullah stay on the field in 2017? The Nebraska product, much like my last guy Gillislee, hasn’t been given the reigns to his own backfield yet. You’ve got to believe that Detroit will give him every opportunity to prove himself this year. The Lions did not bring in any competition via free agency or the Draft, so Abdullah is undoubtedly the guy. Theo Riddick had surgery on both his wrists this offseason, but he should be back in action in August at some point. Will this hinder Mr. Riddick in any way? Who knows, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

The Lions still possess one of the stronger passing attacks in the NFC, if not the entire league. Matthew Stafford has finished in the top-8 in passing yards in each of the last two seasons. If Stafford can continue to progress as a passer, that will only complement Abdullah and vice-versa. The third-year back averaged 4.3 yards per carry across his first two seasons. Can he elevate his game even more in 2017? If Abdullah can stay on the field, he will surpass 750 yards on the ground and 400 yards receiving out of the backfield. Guaranteed.

WR – Doug Baldwin
Can you guess how many touchdowns and receptions Doug Baldwin has totaled over the course of his last two seasons? Take a minute. Okay, the answer would be 21 touchdowns and 172 receptions. The receiver out of Stanford is entering his seventh season as a pro and would definitely be considered a late bloomer by many in terms of fantasy production. Baldwin hauled in at least five passes in nine of 16 games in 2016, but what can we expect from him in 2017? According to FantasyPros, he’ll face the easiest schedule of any wide receiver for the upcoming season. He saw 126 targets in 2016, which ranked 21st among wideouts. But Baldwin managed to haul in 94 of those targets, which amounted to the eighth-most catches in the league.

It was no secret that Russell Wilson was hampered by injuries in 2016. He posted his lowest total for rushing yards in his career with 259 yards on 72 attempts. It was his worst rushing season since his rookie year when he rushed for 489 yards. The last time we saw a healthy Wilson was in 2015, when Baldwin went for 14 touchdowns and over 1,000 yards. Ciara’s husband’s ability to escape the pocket and extend plays was nearly unmatched when healthy. When combined with Baldwin’s ability to evade defensive backs and find openings, it’s a nearly unstoppable combination. Expect Baldwin to reach or exceed a double-digit touchdown total in 2017.

WR – Jamison Crowder
Jamison Crowder is entering his third season as an NFL receiver. In Year 1, the Duke product hauled in 59 passes for 604 yards and found the end zone twice. Crowder progressed nicely in his second season of pro ball, posting a line of 67 grabs, 847 yards and seven touchdowns. What are realistic expectations heading into his third season? The ‘Skins parted ways with DeSean Jackson this offseason, a guy who corralled 56 of his 100 targets in 2016, for 1,005 yards and four touchdowns. They’ll welcome a healthy Josh Doctson back into the lineup as well, but what does Jackson’s departure mean for Crowder? Let’s say Crowder sees at least a third of those targets that Jackson is leaving behind; it could be a coming out party for the former fourth-round draft pick.

Washington did bring in Terrelle Pryor to help with the loss of Jackson, but that might not be a huge threat to Crowder’s production. CSN Mid-Atlantic’s Rich Tandler recently reported that Jamison Crowder will most likely be targeted more than the quarterback-turned-wideout, Pryor. One would imagine that Pryor will be primarily a deep threat in this offense, with Jordan Reed and Crowder moving the chains, but it’s the NFL. Nobody truly knows what’s going to happen. The eye test is telling me that Crowder is going to be a beast in 2017.

TE – Coby Fleener
There’s no hiding it; Coby Fleener was most definitely a disappointment in 2016. But how disappointing was he really? The former Stanford star caught just three touchdown passes and totaled 631 receiving yards. What you probably didn’t know is that he did catch 50 passes for the fourth straight season. Maybe expectations were set just a bit too high, even for the 6-foot-6 tight end. Maybe we overestimated the effect of having Drew Brees as your quarterback. Regardless, Fleener has shown in the past that he can put up monster fantasy numbers. In 2014, while playing in Indianapolis, he amassed 774 yards, two 100-yard games and eight touchdown receptions. Fleener stated earlier this year that he believes he’ll be more effective in 2017 after having a year to learn the Saints offense.

Another positive for his outlook would be the improved running game. Bringing Adrian Peterson to the Big Easy should create more opportunity for Fleener. A better running game results in even more effective play-action opportunities. Fleener is in position for a fine bounce-back season.

You can thank me later.