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!
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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Carlos HydeAP Photo/Jae C. HongCarlos Hyde scored nine of his 16 career touchdowns in 2016, but he has missed 14 games in three seasons.
Four franchises at some level of a crossroads inhabit the NFC West, as half the division’s teams changed head coaches and key coordinators, three new kickers were brought in -- always a sure sign of turmoil! -- and all four teams figure they can improve from 2016, which might actually be true. After all, this was the league’s worst division with only 23 combined wins. The Seattle Seahawks were the lone team to win more than it lost, but the defense underachieved, internal strife wasn’t a secret and if things don’t improve, more significant changes could be pending. And that’s the division winner. Meanwhile, the Arizona Cardinals seem to be running out of time with the current and still capable quarterback-wide receiver combination, while the Los Angeles Rams really don’t know if their quarterback is good enough and the San Francisco 49ers simply got rid of their passers from 2016, and might do so again next offseason. Plus, the Rams and 49ers have offense-minded head coaches now running things, one of them younger than some of the team’s players. Should be interesting! So let’s delve deeper into the interesting NFC West, where change was a common theme and more should be coming. The NFC East, NFC North and NFC South have been covered and next week we head to the AFC!

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Adrian PetersonDerick E. Hingle-USA TODAY SportsThe Saints running back situation got even more difficult to handicap with the arrival of Adrian Peterson.
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had achieved several seasons as a top-10 fantasy scorer at his position before 2016 and established a fantasy baseline of sorts, but last season Ryan emerged as far more. Ryan went from borderline 10-team fantasy starter at best to among the best in the sport, and now, coming off a Super Bowl appearance that shouldn’t affect Ryan’s fantasy standing one bit, it’s been rather interesting to see how fantasy owners view the nine-year veteran. After all, for all the great numbers Ryan produced for fantasy owners last season -- only Arizona running back David Johnson and Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers outscored him -- our final memories of him are, unfortunately, negative ones, and it’s tough to find projections expecting a repeat of his fantastic regular season. It can’t be because Tom Brady and the New England Patriots found a way to make a historic comeback to win the February game, but many still see Ryan as an average statistical provider likely to revert to his old ways. After all, fantasy owners tend to overthink everything. We’ll delve a bit more into the defending NFC champion Falcons later as we tackle our third summer division report, with the NFC East and NFC North having been covered. For now we investigate the division featuring the past two quarterbacks to lose a Super Bowl, and by the way, Cam Newton didn’t struggle in 2017 because of what happened in his February loss to Denver. Ryan won’t either!

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Dalvin CookJim Mone/AP PhotoRookie Dalvin Cook will look to win the Vikings' running back job over Latavius Murray in camp.
As soon as the Minnesota Vikings made running back Adrian Peterson the seventh overall draft selection in 2007, the fortunes of the franchise changed for the better. Peterson rushed for more than 11,000 yards for the Vikings. While the Oklahoma product didn’t help the team or fantasy owners in two of the past three seasons due to injuries, it’s only now that he’s officially moved on that the Vikings can as well. The organization did precisely that, adding two signature running backs, which of course brings little clarity for fantasy owners seeking precisely that.

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Carson WentzGavin Baker/Icon SportswireCarson Wentz gained valuable experience by starting all 16 games as a rookie, so many expect a solid step forward in Year 2.
No NFC East offense will look as different this season as the Philadelphia Eagles, for team management made it a wise priority to surround franchise quarterback Carson Wentz with reasonable weapons for his sophomore season. Some in the fantasy world might simply dismiss Wentz as statistically viable since his rookie campaign was inconsistent and he rarely threw downfield, but the truth is it’s tough to succeed with Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham starting at wide receiver and an offensive line in flux. Quarterbacks tend to make measurable strides in Year 2, so perhaps Wentz can duplicate the improvement shown by Oakland Raiders starter Derek Carr in his second season.

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Kirk CousinsAP Photo/Nick WassKirk Cousins had at least 260 yards passing in 14 of 16 games last season.
A total of 25 players reached 1,000 receiving yards last season. Included in that impressive group were four sets of teammates from the Saints, Broncos, Raiders and Redskins. Each of the Broncos and Raiders are back with their teams, and one of the Saints is off to New England. In Washington, well, quarterback Kirk Cousins is going to be relying on some new weapons. To me this isn’t that big of a deal, but after reading a recent NFL Insiders article in which Washington’s offense was mentioned by four of six writers as getting measurably worse this offseason, perhaps I am missing something.

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Eric EbronAaron Doster-USA TODAY SportsEric Ebron has scored just seven touchdowns in three seasons, including only one in 2016.
Tight ends don’t tend to be popular first-round NFL draft picks, so when the Detroit Lions used the No. 10 overall selection in 2014 to secure North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron, the post-draft reaction in the fantasy world was a bit startling. Ebron was joining a pass-happy organization, and with his size and skill he instantly became recognized as a potential top-10 tight end for fantasy purposes. It was as if Detroit’s lofty investment was used as reason to expect immediate statistical relevance, when in reality that argument often has little basis.

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videoWelcome back to ESPN’s fantasy football for the 2017 season! Are you ready for some football? Of course you are, and even though it’s merely May when I’m writing this, we know there’s an insatiable year-round following for fantasy football, and we’re honored, as always, to bring you the best game, analysts and app. And just because it’s May hardly means we can’t discuss the latest news, notes and trends to get everyone prepared. You’ll find our staff rankings and individual ones (here are mine for PPR) already posted and updated up until opening night, for both PPR and non-PPR, and I’ll be blogging all summer as well. Regardless of your scoring preference, one thing that hasn’t changed is how quarterbacks should be valued. Every year we see the top fantasy passers from the year prior chosen way too early in drafts and wonder what people are thinking. There are, of course, myriad reasons this occurs, but here are two for now. While quarterbacks do tend to score the most points, there’s incredible depth at the position, meaning one doesn’t need to invest an early-round selection to secure a reliable option. Second, fantasy owners simply might not like what’s available at running back and wide receiver and figure they can wait on those positions, so they panic and decide to choose last year’s scoring champ in Round 2. That’s not the way I choose to build fantasy football squads, be it in PPR or traditional scoring, so I tend to ignore the quarterbacks until just the right spot, which could be different depending on the day and tends to be when I finally feel the urge to choose one. This usually happens in the vicinity of rounds 8-11, I figure. In my thinking, there are clearly more than 10 quarterbacks worthy of starting for a fantasy football team, so it makes far more sense to select as many running backs and wide receivers as possible, presuming a strong weekly and healthy lineup can be formed from this crew, and still secure the quarterback later. There are always reasonable fantasy quarterbacks in Round 8 and beyond. So how about Round … 16? For years, I and other fantasy analysts at ESPN have been preaching how football owners should wait on quarterbacks, and in the first mock draft of 2017 I took that premise to the ultimate limit. In other words, I waited until the point I literally could not wait any longer! Hey, mock me all you like, but at some point in said mock I decided I’d wait until the final round to select a quarterback, and because I still ended up with a top-10 option, I’d call the decision a success. Yep, I even selected a defense and kicker first. That’s a first for me. Here’s how it went down: After our two days of summit meetings in the bucolic Bristol, Connecticut, offices, our final task was to round up 10 drafters to fill rosters, gauge values and see whether any unexpected trends emerged. We could do it again with a different draft order and the results might be vastly different, but for me and nine others on this fine May afternoon, these were the results. Some might wonder whether I’d be willing to push the theme in a league that we play out, one with something riding on it, and my answer is yes. Whether one agrees with my choice of quarterback or not, or even the flex-eligible choices from earlier on, I still ended up with the No. 6 overall scorer (No. 5 at QB) from the 2016 campaign. The result was a rather odd final round in which Washington’s Kirk Cousins is nestled between kickers and defenses at pick No. 156. It could also have been Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger. I went with the younger, more durable choice, but the point is I didn’t end up with underwhelming Alex Smith or Sam Bradford as my starter. Cousins and Roethlisberger might not be in your top 10, but they must be close. Cousins, incidentally, is one of a select few passers to end up among the top eight in fantasy scoring both of the past two seasons. Washington lost a few wide receivers, but I believe he can make it three consecutive seasons. While every mock draft could vary, here are the tiers of quarterback selections in this mock, just to be thorough: Top tier Aaron Rodgers, Packers (pick No. 39) Tom Brady, Patriots (No. 48) Drew Brees, Saints (No. 49) No surprises here, though I suspect in most leagues the first quarterback will be chosen quite a bit earlier. Don’t let it be you! Choosing Rodgers as the first quarterback late in Round 4 makes perfect sense. Choosing him in Round 1 or 2 does not make perfect sense. Tier 2 Andrew Luck, Colts (No. 70) Dak Prescott, Cowboys (No. 77) Cam Newton, Panthers (No. 78) Russell Wilson, Seahawks (No. 86) Matt Ryan, Falcons (No. 87) I would rank these quarterbacks in a different order, but it’s tough to argue the inclusion of any. For the third time there were consecutive quarterback selections, which isn’t unusual. By Round 8, owners start to get a bit worried about which quarterback they’ll land, and they don’t want to be more patient, so when one goes, another one soon follows. Again, in the next mock, who knows, Wilson and Ryan could go before Luck. Also note that eight quarterbacks have been chosen by this point in a 10-team format, and if you’re one of the owners with no QB, and you see more than two passers with similar value remaining, why not wait? Tier 3 Derek Carr, Raiders (No. 101) Jameis Winston, Buccaneers (No. 121) What I found interesting about these picks that the same owner, colleague Field Yates, made them, and I’m totally onboard with the strategy. In fact, in past seasons, if I might question the eventual choice of my starting QB, I wouldn’t wait long before securing another option and playing the weekly matchup game, especially if one of them is recovering from a broken leg. And waiting for the final round to choose a quarterback doesn’t alter that one bit. I can always drop a running back or wide receiver and still add Roethlisberger or someone else. What’s also notable is that only one owner has selected a backup; this is smart for 10-team leagues, especially when there are no bye weeks until Week 5 in October. There’s plenty of time to add a second quarterback in September. If several owners had opted to eschew reasonable upside options at running back and receiver for a second quarterback, which I knew in this setting they would likely not, that probably would have altered my strategy. Cousins might have been a 13th-rounder instead. Tier 4 Matthew Stafford, Lions (pick No. 139) Kirk Cousins, Redskins (pick No. 156) And that’s it. Several ESPN colleagues not participating in the mock draft -- and a few who were in it -- noticed my plan and asked whether Stafford would have been my pick. Nope. Not that anything’s wrong with him, but I personally have Cousins at No. 9. I almost wish we were playing this league out, but even though we’re not, it gave me a story to tell. This isn’t to say you should wait until the kickers in the final round to choose your first quarterback, but it might suit you after all.

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Tom BradyJuan Salas/Icon SportswireMany feel that Tom Brady and the Patriots have the clearest path to the Super Bowl, especially when you consider the quality of depth in the NFC.
Fantasy football fun doesn’t have to end when the league’s regular season does, but veteran postseason players know the main difference come January is in valuing the top quarterbacks. Sure, the wise move back in August drafts was to wait on the passers, for there was depth and surprises and, well … this isn’t the case now. Ask anyone about to peruse the Texans-Raiders clash this weekend about that one. Twelve teams made the playoffs, but there aren’t 12 quarterbacks a fantasy owner wants to rely on. Plus, a third of the teams will be out by the time the weekend ends. In postseason fantasy football, it’s still about production, but by February, only two teams will be supplying it, so volume of games is also important. So let’s get right to one man’s tiered positional rankings and remind you that, if you really think Tom Brady and the Patriots, for example, will be headed to Houston for the Super Bowl, then aim to invest in several Patriots. You need games, but don’t solely go with teams getting first-round byes, either. If the Steelers or Packers go the distance, for example, they’d play one more game than the top-seeded Patriots and Cowboys. So drafting in the postseason also requires the fantasy owner to project which teams will be advancing through the playoffs. Rankings are based on a 12-team format and standard scoring. Good luck!

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NFC fantasy lessons from 2016 

January, 2, 2017
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AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyEagles quarterback Carson Wentz showed promise as a rookie. What is his fantasy ceiling going forward?
That’s all for the 2016 fantasy football season, and while we hope you won all your leagues, if everyone who claimed to be winning all their leagues actually did, there would be a lot more leagues than there really are. That’s something we’ve learned over the years. What did we learn during this 2016 season for fantasy purposes? Well, there was plenty, actually! Let’s go team by team to investigate, and with the AFC posted here, let's look at the NFC. What we learned about the Dallas Cowboys: That a great offensive line can really take a team far. We knew the rookie running back would be great, but the fourth-round quarterback too? Take care of the football and anything is possible! Fantasy owners don’t spend much time thinking about the 300-pounders who don’t accrue fantasy stats, but they matter so much. Perhaps fantasy owners learned a great O-line doesn’t merely add value to running backs. Still, Ezekiel Elliott isn’t as likely to

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Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY SportsDolphins running back Jay Ajayi had some huge games in 2016, but should fantasy owners believe in him for 2017?
That’s all for the 2016 fantasy football season, and while we hope you won all your leagues, if everyone who claimed to be winning all their leagues actually did so, there would be a lot more leagues than there really are. That’s something we’ve learned during the years! What did we learn during this 2016 season for fantasy purposes? Well, there was plenty, actually! Let’s go team by team to investigate, working through the NFC here and the AFC below: What we learned about the New England Patriots: That Tom Brady

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Erik KramerUSA TODAY SportsThe Lions haven't won a division title since 1993, when Erik Kramer was their quarterback.
The 256th and final game of the 2016 regular season will decide the NFC North and perhaps even a few (million) fantasy championships. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers enters the final weekend well on his way to his fourth season as the leader in fantasy scoring at his position. Unless Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson scores a ton of points, Rodgers will end up the top overall scorer in ESPN Fantasy as well. Of course, we know Rodgers is great and has been for a long time. How the Detroit Lions and their veteran quarterback perform at home might end up being more interesting.

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Week 17 flex rankings: Top RB, WR, TE 

December, 29, 2016
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T.Y. HiltonRich Graessle/Icon SportswireBelieve it or not, T.Y. Hilton is the NFL's current leader in receiving yardage through Week 16. Where does he rank as an overall option for Week 17?
The final flex rankings of the fantasy season are generally a little bit different than all the ones preceding it -- for obvious reasons. Some of the best players in the league will not be used either to their full capacity this weekend or at all, and that means some new names -- names we haven’t dealt with the prior 16 weeks -- could become relevant. In general, however, the top of the flex rankings show the same names we’re used to seeing, but tell that to Le'Veon Bell owners. Regardless, whether you’re still playing for something or simply interested one last time, thanks for checking out the standard flex rankings this season. Best of luck this weekend and Happy New Year!

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