Each season, handfuls of NFL players develop into superstars. Some unexpected and maybe some which are simpler to project. One of the best ways to separate from the pack in fantasy football is to identify high-upside situations to evaluate heading into the season. Each NFL player has a specific range of outcomes; some with higher ceilings and others with higher floors. The list below includes players that fit the upside criteria.
Let's dive into it.
1. Denver Broncos RB Javonte Williams: RB13 (26.7 ADP)
Williams is a second-year player entering arguably the most interesting situation on this list. He's expected to take over lead-back duties for a Broncos team that suddenly has Super Bowl aspirations since the addition of quarterback Russell Wilson, and with good reason — no running back broke more tackles (35) or more tackles per attempt (0.17) with 80-plus rushing attempts, according to Sports Info Solutions (SiS).
The Broncos nearly had an exact 50/50 split deployed between Williams and Melvin Gordon II last year. Williams had a 50.97% snap share and Gordon sported a 47.55% snap share in one fewer game played. Maybe somewhat surprisingly, Williams actually out-snapped Gordon in passing snaps (281 to 255), while Gordon led the way in rushing snaps (210 to 207). In fact, the two were very comparable in most metrics this past season (per PFF):
You might be wondering, why would I draft Williams at his current ADP when Gordon is currently the RB33 (104.2 ADP)?
Well, that's a good question and one worth answering. As of now, it seems the Broncos are intent on giving Williams more work, though nothing is certain and it'd be silly to expect Gordon to be fully phased out of the offense. That simply won't be the case. But, Williams was such a hyper-efficient and talented player that any increase in usage will cause a seismic shift in fantasy football production among players at his position. It's also fair to expect the Broncos to be a more productive offense this season, in the redzone with more frequency, and should see fewer stacked boxes in the run game because of their quarterback improvement.
As it stands, Williams may disappoint when we consider his ADP in comparison to other players, but maybe he won't. The Broncos are not likely going to deploy a workhorse-style backfield; newly appointed Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett had a similar situation this past season in Green Bay with Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon. Jones sported a 51.8% snap share and Dillon a 42.7% snap share.
Denver is likely to emit something similar, unfortunately. But, that doesn't mean Williams isn't worth his current ADP. He's surrounded by names like Nick Chubb, Alvin Kamara (possible suspension), James Conner, Ezekiel Elliott, and Travis Etienne. None of these players are full-time workhorse backs outside of maybe Conner and it's arguable none of them are more talented than Williams, though Chubb definitely has a strong case (not counting Kamara).
Not to mention, Gordon has a history of sustaining injuries but he's been fairly healthy the past few seasons. The veteran has played a full season just once in his career (2017). In the event that he misses any significant time, Williams has the three-down ability and efficiency to produce a top-5 player at the position, and that upside needs to be baked into his range of outcomes.
2. San Francisco 49ers QB Trey Lance: QB11 (86.4 ADP)
Ahh yes, another second-year player that oozes immense talent and incredible efficiency. Lance is very likely going to be the day one starter for the 49ers this season, regardless of what happens with Jimmy Garoppolo.
Looking back to last season, when given the chance to play, Lance was a certified weapon. No, his real-life performances were not perfect and there are plenty of areas to improve; but, his fantasy football upside is hardly rivaled in the sport. In the three games Lance played more than 50% of the offense's snaps, he scored 20.38 (QB14), 15.58 (QB20), and 20.06 (QB10) fantasy points. He was a QB1 in nearly two of those games, one of which he played in just 51% of the 49ers' snaps and still put together a top-20 week in a game in which he threw for under 200 passing yards, scored zero touchdowns, and had an interception. Incredible.
The talent and ability Lance possesses are crazy and there's a reason he's being drafted so incredibly high, even with the lack of playing time and definitive role. He seems like the second player with immense upside on this list — getting the theme yet?
There is a projection to be made here but probably less than some of the other names that occupy this list. Lance has such a high rushing floor and that allows him to score fantasy points in a hurry while also prioritizing pushing the ball to the deep parts of the field. Both are attractive options when analyzing quarterbacks. According to PFF, Lance's 10.3 average depth of target (aDOT) ranked second among all quarterbacks with 50-plus passing attempts last season. He had 168 rushing yards on the season on just 38 carries, averaging out to 4.42 yards per carry.
As a team, the 49ers had just 62 rushing attempts in the red zone last season. That figure was good for 25th in the NFL. It shouldn't come as a surprise, but the 49ers had the fourth-most non-RB rushing attempts with 150 last season. Sure, a lot of those came from Deebo Samuel but it's important to note. Kyle Shanahan's willingness to innovate and utilize players in various roles suggests he'll likely be willing to do the same with his quarterbacks, and Lance has the ability to double-down as a potent threat in the red zone as a rushing option.
3. Los Angeles Rams RB Cam Akers: RB18 (44.2 ADP)
Akers is an interesting player to break down. One of the main reasons for his inclusion on this list is Sean McVay's willingness to devote the majority of his run-game work to one player. Looking at the historical data, McVay allowed a running back 18-plus rushing attempts eight times this past season. Diving into past years:
2020: 5 times
2019: 5 times
2018: 9 times
He's been a coach that has steadily rode with the hot hand, and that's typically been his RB1. Going into this season, Akers will be given every chance to prove he is or isn't the team's franchise runner. Of course, there are reasons to be concerned. Akers tore his Achilles in training camp right before the kickoff of last season and returned in the playoffs where he rushed the ball 17, 24, 13, and 13 times and did not look impressive. He averaged just 2.57 yards per carry, albeit against some stout run defenses and fumbled the ball twice in an intense NFC Divisional Game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that nearly lost the Rams the game.
But, even with that being said, Akers played in just 53%, 81%, 39%, and 57% of the offense's snaps in each of those games, six (!) months recovered from an injury that is typically a 12-month recovery timeline, and still received a ton of work as a runner.
Another reason why Akers has a huge upside is Los Angeles' offense as a whole. According to SiS, the Rams had the fourth-most snaps in the red zone with 204 and the fifth-most snaps inside the 10-yard line last season. This is an offense that will get into scoring position often, is willing to use their RB1 in a workhorse-like manner, and Akers will be 12-plus months recovered from a serious injury the next time he takes the field.
There are reasons to be concerned with how much running backs have struggled to return from Achilles injuries, but there is so much upside to just avoid this situation entirely. Akers has an uncanny upside at the position.
4. Baltimore Ravens WR Rashod Bateman: WR25 (53.3 ADP)
Bateman's situation could be the one with the most variance going from 2021 to 2022. Looking back to last season, the Ravens lost 185 targets of the 317 in their receiver room. Baltimore freed up 58.4% of the WR targets going into this season and added no notable or impactful players at the position. Bateman is now the WR1 with no clear challenger — he's certainly going to see an uptick in opportunities and production this season.
But the question is, how high of an upside does a WR have in a Ravens offense that many consider "run-first"?
Well, right off the bat, defacto WR1 Marquise "Hollywood" Brown had 139, 110, and 76 targets over the past three seasons. While Hollywood and Bateman are nothing alike as players and will be utilized differently, there is clearly enough volume to support a potential WR1 season.
Looking at quarterback data, per PFF, Lamar Jackson ranked fifth, 14th, and seventh in aDOT over the past three seasons. While aDOT isn't the be-all-end-all statistic for quarterbacks, it does suggest Jackson — who plays for an offense that systematically throws the ball less than other offenses — is willing to push the ball deep downfield. It's important to note because at least the Ravens are willing to prioritize chunk plays and downfield opportunities, and that can help offset sheer volume, which the team doesn't really have.
Baltimore, as an offense, isn't fair to entirely evaluate on 2021 alone because of how many injuries the team sustained. Jackson played in just 12 games and the team was without many star players across the board. Yet still, they ranked 16th in snaps inside the 10-yard line with 77. In 2020, the Ravens had the sixth-most snaps (92) and in 2019 the fourth-most snaps (85) inside the 10-yard line.
It's so clear the Ravens are a candidate for major regression to the mean this upcoming season. This is a team you should be targeting based on historical performance. They've proven the can get in the red zone very often, are able to support a WR1 alongside one of the most dominant tight ends in the NFL in Mark Andrews, and Bateman enters the season with a clean bill of health this time.
It's conceivable that Bateman is moved around the formation more, including the slot, where he lined up just 18.3% of the time compared to 31.4% for Hollywood this past season. In addition, he should improve his 1.26 yards per route run metric (third-highest among BAL WRs).
The one area for historical concern is that the Ravens just haven't targeted receivers much inside the 10-yard line:
2021: 15 targets (20th)
2020: 16 targets (19th)
2019: 13 targets (20th)
This is typically an area of the field where the Ravens are able to run the ball effectively or utilize Andrews, but they've never had a player with the size and route-running ability Bateman has available to them. While Bateman is not likely to stack up with the elite in this category (Cooper Kupp with 18, Stefon Diggs and Davante Adams with 14), he can flirt with double-digit targets inside the 10-yard line and is likely to play in an offense that will at least get into the red zone quite often.
5. Los Angeles Chargers TE Gerald Everett: TE18 (158.1 ADP)
The final player on the list is a free agent who joined a new — and exciting — team. Everett has the talent to be among the most dangerous tight ends in the game but still hasn't developed into that. While he probably won't this late into his playing career, there is still untapped upside, especially when we consider his pairing with one of the bright stars in the league in Justin Herbert.
Going back this past season, Herbie ranked fifth in passing attempts (136) and ninth in intended air yards (874) on passes to tight ends. In 2019, Herbert ranked seventh in both metrics. It's fairly evident that this is a quarterback willing to target the middle of the field often, but not just that, he's also a player who is going to push the ball downfield in hopes of creating big plays.
Everett has a history of fairly efficient and somewhat productive play. Here are his stats ranging from 2018-2021 among tight ends with 15-plus targets per PFF:
Despite never having a high aDOT, Everett has been productive by creating yardage after the catch (YAC). Now, you could say there is some correlation there because shorter passes should typically lead to more YAC, but some players are just bigger threats with the ball in their hands and Everett is one of them.
There are reasons to believe his aDOT should reach a career-high this season. This past season, Jared Cook led the way among the team's tight ends with an 8.9 aDOT, and both Donald Parham (9.9) and Hunter Henry (8.5) had solid marks the year prior.
Even in the late stages of his career, Cook was a productive and streamable tight end in fantasy leagues. He was the TE19 this past season (15 games played) and the TE18 the year prior in full-point PPR formats. Everett has a lot more juice and ability at this stage in his career when compared to Cook, and that should provide at least a TE19 floor for Everett heading into this campaign. If he can reach a peak we have yet to see from him and is utilized more downfield, he could settle into a top-15 season and potentially a TE1 finish.