Continuing our early 2018 fantasy football PPR mock draft, we dig into the third round. Which players offer the best value and which ones are potential busts? Keep reading to find out.
Note: This is the third round of what eventually will be a full four-round mock draft. These rankings are not final and will change as the season draws closer. View the first round and the second round.
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3.01. Joe Mixon – RB – Cincinnati Bengals
Mixon disappointed fantasy owners who spent a premium price on him in 2017 after the Bengals opted to ease their rookie running back in rather than give him a full workload right from the start. Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard dominated the touches in the early portion of the season, and Mixon totaled just 178 touches in 2017.
Heading into his second NFL season, the Oklahoma University product is in line for an expanded role after a full offseason under his belt and the departure of Hill. Bernard is still there to steal some touches (especially third-down looks) and the Bengals drafted Mark Walton in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft, but Mixon’s draft capital and obvious talent make him the favorite to lead the Bengals’ backfield.
Although Mixon averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in 2017, he graded out as an above average running back in 2017 according to Pro Football Focus, in large part due to his skills as a pass-catcher. Per PFF, yards per route run is one of the most predictive stats for future running back success, and Mixon finished ninth among all backs in 2017 in yards per route run (1.83).
Mixon’s rushing numbers were pedestrian, but Cincinnati’s offensive line woes can be blamed for that, as the Bengals’ line was 26th in run blocking efficiency in 2017. However, the Bengals traded for offensive tackle Cordy Glenn, formerly of the Buffalo Bills, and drafted Ohio State center Billy Price in the first round of the NFL Draft, meaning the offensive line should be significantly improved in 2018.
If Mixon can win beat out Bernard and become a workhorse in Cincinnati’s offense, he has a very good chance to be a fantasy RB1 in 2018. Between his receiving capabilities, the Bengals’ improved offensive line, and his projected rushing volume, Mixon is a high-upside option in the third round of fantasy football drafts.
3.02. Larry Fitzgerald – WR – Arizona Cardinals
Fitz now has three consecutive seasons with at least 107 catches and 1,023 yards and hasn’t finished lower than WR11 since 2014. Heading into his age 35 season, Fitzgerald has held off Father Time for three straight years, and there’s no reason he can’t do it a fourth time.
The Cardinals brought in Sam Bradford from free agency and drafted UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Both 2018 quarterback options are better than the quarterback carousel of Carson Palmer, Drew Stanton, and Blaine Gabbert that the Cardinals had to deal with in 2017.
Fitz might not have the 4.5 speed he once had, but his game has become more technical and refined as the years have gone by, allowing him to be successful against NFL secondaries despite diminished athleticism. He doesn’t have the upside of an Antonio Brown or Odell Beckham, but his steady floor lands him in the third round of 2018 fantasy football PPR drafts.
3.03. Jerick McKinnon – RB – San Francisco 49ers
While McKinnon hasn’t seized the opportunity to take control of an NFL backfield thus far in his career, he now joins one of the league’s most exciting young offenses in San Francisco. The 49ers made McKinnon one of the most highest-paid running backs in the league in free agency, shelling out thirty million dollars over four years to secure the former Viking’s services. Behind McKinnon, the 49ers don’t have much to be excited about at the running back position, with only Matt Breida and Joe Williams joining McKinnon on the depth chart. McKinnon is an able pass-catcher out of the backfield (94 receptions on a 78 percent catch rate the last two years) and an athletic freak, with a SPARQ-x score in the hundredth percentile.
While there’s a lot to like, McKinnon does come with a few question marks; namely, the fact that he’s never been a workhorse despite having numerous opportunities. During his four years in Minnesota, McKinnon was never utilized as a bellcow despite having a clear path to carries after Adrian Peterson and Dalvin Cook were unavailable due to either suspension or injury. Instead, McKinnon split carries with Matt Asiata and Latavius Murray.
Still, McKinnon walks into one of the best situations in the league under a head coach that historically has loved throwing to running backs. Despite the concerns, McKinnon’s pass-catching ability gives him a safe floor in the third round, and the upside is tremendous if he can put it together as a runner.
3.04. Travis Kelce – TE – Kansas City Chiefs
No one had truly challenged Gronkowski for the top tight end spot in fantasy football since Jimmy Graham left New Orleans, but that changed in 2017 when Travis Kelce exploded for 83 catches, 1,038 yards, and eight touchdowns. While Gronkowski still bested Kelce in points per game, the latter hasn’t missed a game due to injury since 2013, while Gronkowski has struggled with injuries his entire career.
However, Alex Smith’s exit and Patrick Mahomes’ ascension to the top of Kansas City’s quarterback depth chart raises some questions about Kelce’s fantasy value for 2018. Perhaps the oldest adage in the book says that a tight end is a young quarterback’s best friend, but there isn’t much evidence to support that claim.
Still, Kelce has topped 1,000 yards in consecutive years while ranking near the top in almost every efficiency metric. We don’t know how Mahomes will distribute the targets in Kansas City, but Kelce’s obvious talent and consistency make him the #1 tight end in this mock draft.
3.05. Rob Gronkowski – TE – New England Patriots
When Rob Gronkowski is on the field, he is arguably the most unstoppable weapon in football. However, as they say, the best ability is availability, and Gronk hasn’t been able to stay on the field for much of his career. Gronk has played 15+ games just four times in eight seasons (although he did play 14 games in 2017).
Still, when healthy, Gronkowski offers one of the best values over a replacement player in fantasy football. He scored more than two points more per game than the next-best tight end in 2017. Since 2011, he has finished in the top five in fantasy scoring among tight ends in every season that he has played at least 11 games, including three overall TE1 seasons in PPR. Gronk’s stats speak for themselves and his upside is limitless, but health concerns make him a risky pick in round three of fantasy drafts.
3.06. Jordan Howard – RB – Chicago Bears
Perhaps the lone bright spot for Chicago’s offense in the last two years has been the emergence of Jordan Howard, a fifth-round pick out of Indiana who stole the job from Jeremy Langford in 2016 and ran with it – literally – en route to two consecutive 1,000+ yard seasons.
However, there are reasons to be concerned about Howard going forward; specifically, his inadequacy in the passing game. Howard graded out as below average as a receiver in both 2016 and 2017 according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA stat and has dropped 21.21 percent of all targets during his career. In 2016 and 2017, the Bears’ offense didn’t have much to get excited about outside of Howard, but now they look like one of the NFL’s up-and-coming offenses following the arrivals of head coach Matt Nagy and wide receiver Allen Robinson. The Bears were last in the NFL in pass plays and in the bottom ten in pass/run ratio in 2017, but upgrades in the passing attack and a new coaching regime should bring both of those numbers closer to league average. That’s bad news for a two-down thumper who is a liability in the passing game.
Furthermore, Howard’s rushing efficiency has only been slightly above average, as Pro Football Focus rated him as the 21st best runner in the league in 2017. The rushing volume should still be there in 2018 despite the expectation that the Bears let quarterback Mitchell Trubisky air it out more in his second season, but Howard’s lack of receiving ability caps his ceiling. Still, Howard is a safe middle-of-the-pack RB2 in PPR formats for 2018.
3.07. Golden Tate – WR – Detroit Lions
Similar to Fitzgerald, Tate lacks the upside of other similarly-ranked wide receivers, but he has one of the highest floors in all of fantasy football. In fact, Tate is one of just two players (along with Antonio Brown) to record 90+ catches and 4+ touchdowns in each of the last four seasons. While fellow Detroit wideout Kenny Golladay is garnering some hype heading into his second season in the NFL, Golladay profiles as a field-stretcher in the mold of Marvin Jones, meaning Tate’s role in the offense remains unchanged.
Tate is one of the NFL’s best receivers after the catch, and he has finished in the top ten in total yards after catch (YAC) in each of the last four years, including three years in which he led all WRs in YAC. While YAC normally isn’t sticky year-to-year, there is an exception to every rule, and Tate’s elusiveness after the catch makes him one of the most dangerous weapons in the underneath passing game.
The Lions’ selections of center Frank Ragnow in the first round and running back Kerryon Johnson in the second round of the NFL Draft could signal a change in philosophy from one of the league’s most pass-heavy schemes to a more balanced offense, but it will also force opposing defenses to respect the run game more, thus decreasing the defensive attention focused on the passing attack. As Matthew Stafford’s number one target in a high-octane offense, Tate is a surefire high-end WR2 in PPR formats.
3.08. Demaryius Thomas – WR – Denver Broncos
Thomas is the only player in the NFL to have an active streak of six or more seasons with 140+ targets. During that stretch, Thomas has finished no lower than WR16 in PPR formats, including four top 12 finishes. Furthermore, the Broncos upgraded their quarterback situation from Trevor Siemian to Case Keenum during the offseason, meaning Thomas should be in line for higher quality targets in 2018 than he saw the previous two seasons.
Yet, for whatever reason, Thomas’s ADP is the lowest it’s been in recent memory, and that means you should be targeting the 31-year-old consistency machine at the end of the third round of PPR mock drafts. While Thomas’ athleticism isn’t what it used to be, his guaranteed volume and yearly consistency make him a value at his current average draft position.
3.09. Rashaad Penny – RB – Seattle Seahawks
Despite glaring needs at offensive line, the Seahawks selected San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny with the 27th overall pick in the NFL Draft. While it may not have been the smartest investment for the Seahawks as a franchise, it shows their belief in Penny as a talent to take him so early despite many draft analysts giving him a second- or third-round grade.
Penny was an analytics darling during his time at San Diego State, leading the 2018 draft class in elusive rating and broken tackles. Penny also led all incoming rookie running backs in yards per attempt when hit at or behind the line of scrimmage with 3.32, a skill he’ll use often running behind a Seahawks offensive line that ranked 27th in the NFL in 2017. Penny is a capable receiver out of the backfield, as his college target share of 10.3 percent placed him in the 72nd percentile among running backs. Perhaps the only area where Penny doesn’t excel is pass blocking, as he graded out near the bottom of draft-eligible running backs in 2017.
However, the Seahawks saw enough in Penny’s rushing excellence and pass-catching adequacy to spend a first-round pick on the 2017 Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year. In Seattle, Penny will see some competition for touches from Chris Carson, who displayed above average efficiency in 2017 before a leg injury ended his rookie campaign. Still, Penny is one of the best running back prospects in the 2018 class and Seattle’s willingness to pay a premium price for him in the NFL Draft leads me to believe that he’ll be on the field a lot for the Seahawks in 2018. While the offensive line situation is not ideal, to say the least, Penny’s combination of draft capital, projected volume, and college production make him a strong option in the third round of fantasy football drafts.
3.10. Zach Ertz – TE – Philadelphia Eagles
After a couple years of average TE1 production, Ertz finally ascended to elite fantasy football territory in 2017, finishing as the TE3 behind Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski. Ertz actually had similar totals in targets, receptions, and yards in 2017 as he did in 2015 and 2016, but an increase in touchdowns propelled him into the top three tight ends.
With three straight years of 100+ targets, 70+ catches, and 800+ yards, Ertz is a dependable tight end option at the back end of the third. The Eagles did draft tight end Dallas Goedert in the second round of the NFL Draft, but Goedert will likely take Trey Burton’s role on the Philadelphia offense after Burton left for Chicago in free agency.
While offensive coordinator Frank Reich’s departure is a concern given his history of heavily targeting tight ends in both San Diego (Antonio Gates) and Philadelphia, Ertz’s statistical consistency and the strength of the Philadelphia offense land him in the back end of the third round in 2018 fantasy football PPR drafts.
3.11. Stefon Diggs – WR – Minnesota Vikings
On the complete opposite end of the dependability spectrum lies Stefon Diggs, who has flashed major talent during his first three years in the NFL, but injuries and inconsistency have kept him from blossoming into a true fantasy football WR1. Diggs has never played all 16 games in a season, so his volume stats are uninspiring, but his efficiency ranks near the top of the league.
His production and target premium stats were nothing short of elite in 2017 (12th and 10th among wide receivers, respectively), and Pro Football Focus ranked the former fifth-round pick as the eighth-best wide receiver in all of football last season. While Diggs’s target numbers may not approach those of similarly-ranked wide receivers due to the plethora of capable receiving options in Minnesota, his elite efficiency allows him to be productive despite relatively low volume.
If not for the soft tissue injuries that have plagued Diggs thus far in his career, he would likely be viewed as one of the league’s best WRs. Picking Diggs in the third round is a risk due to his injury history, but he is one of only a few receivers that have a legitimate chance to catapult into the top tier of fantasy football WRs. Make sure you stock up on wideout depth later in the draft if you pick Diggs at the end of the third because it’s a risky proposition to count on him to play all 16 games.
3.12. Amari Cooper – WR – Oakland Raiders
One year removed from being a first-round dynasty startup pick and second-round fantasy football redraft pick, Amari Cooper’s fantasy stock is tumbling after a disappointing 2017 campaign in which he caught just 48 passes for 680 yards.
In his third NFL season – a season in which many wideouts have seen breakthroughs in production – Cooper had the worst season of his career, finishing in the WR4 conversation in fantasy football after many fantasy football gamers picked him to be their WR1. However, Cooper’s first two seasons in the NFL were historic – in fact, he’s one of three receivers all-time to record 70+ receptions and 1,000+ yards in each of his first two seasons in the league – and Derek Carr reported that the ankle injury Cooper struggled with in 2017 was worse than the public thought during the year.
Newly-hired head coach Jon Gruden has publicly stated that Cooper will be the focal point of Oakland’s offense in 2018, meaning Cooper should see more than the 6.9 targets per game he saw in 2017. One of Cooper’s most common criticisms in 2017 was his drop rate (10.4%), but Pro Football Focus has found that drop rate is typically not sticky year-to-year. Given that Cooper already has the endorsement of his head coach, it’s safe to assume that he returns to WR2 production in 2018 with massive upside. Although many fantasy owners were burned last year, it’s important to not let your emotions get in the way of a potential value. Treat Cooper as a middle-of-the-pack WR2 with upside as Oakland’s clear-cut No. 1 wideout.