As human beings innately programmed to survive, risk is something we are constantly forced to calculate when we make decisions. “Should I go bungee jumping with my friends this weekend? Should I get into this Uber with a person I’ve never met before? Is it safe to eat that Cheeto I just dropped on the floor?” It’s such a common, automatic part of the decision making formula that we don’t often realize we’re even doing it.

In fantasy football, we must consciously assess the risk involved each and every time we make a draft and roster decision. One wrong move early in your draft can have dire effects down the line. If you drafted Jamaal Charles in the second round last year (a player I had strictly on my “Do Not Draft” list), you lost out on a potential RB1 or WR1 at that draft spot and had to waste a roster spot with Charles as he recovered from injury. At the same time, if you were willing to risk that Jordy Nelson’s knee was fully recovered, you hit an absolute home run in the second round that may have carried your team to glory. The reason these players are coveted is due to their massive upside; it’s why we fall victim and avoid their red flags and also why they can sometimes be worth the risk. In the end, it comes down to how you as an owner weigh risk on a case-by-case basis, in order to find the fantasy points reward everyone is shooting for.

With that in mind, I’ve identified several players with ADPs (Average Draft Positions) in the first four rounds with serious risk/reward potential that can make or break your season. Buyers beware.

Click here to find wide receivers I believe are undervalued at their ADP.
Click here to find running backs I believe are undervalued at their ADP.
Click here to find tight ends I believe are undervalued at their ADP.
Click here to find quarterbacks I believe are undervalued at their ADP. 

Risky early round picks with huge upside

*Note: All ADP data is from Fantasy Football Calculator and is based on 12-team PPR leagues unless otherwise noted.

Todd Gurley (PPR ADP: 20, RB10; Standard ADP: 17, RB10)

Gurley is one of the more peculiar fantasy players heading into the 2017 NFL season. Based purely on last year’s performance, I was shocked to see Gurley consistently going in the middle of the second round, even in PPR drafts. Many will point to his end of year RB15 finish and assume third-year progression will account for the five spot jump, but in per-game scoring (which is more important for ranking players) Gurley was the RB23 last year, barely even starter worthy. Even those numbers were buoyed by the surprising emergence of a pass-catching floor as Gurley doubled his reception total from his rookie year (21 to 43), but that number is deceiving as half his catches came in the seven games pass-catching back Benny Cunningham missed with injury. Though Cunningham is gone, the Rams added another pass-specialist in Lance Dunbar who is probably an improvement on Cunningham and will likely take the third-down/two-minute role in the Rams offense.

So why the optimism surrounding Gurley’s ADP? For one, we’re talking about players with upside, and anyone who owned Gurley his rookie season knows he’s capable of changing a game (and a fantasy week) in an instant. Gurley was an Adrian Peterson-esque home run hitter his rookie year, placing second in the league in rushes of 20 or more yards despite only starting in 12 games. The only other reasons for optimism are a slightly improved offensive line with the addition of stud tackle Andrew Whitworth, and new head coach Sean McVay who helped unleash Kirk Cousins’ potential and a top-ten offense in Washington. It’s still important to note the offensive line is below average, Jared Goff is not Kirk Cousins which means Gurley will continue to face stacked boxes, and the team’s best receiver is now Robert Woods. Gurley’s ADP is troubling without a strong pass-catching floor in a low-ceiling offense that likely won’t provide much positive game script to feed off. Feel free to swing for his upside but be prepared to deal with another frustrating season akin to 2016.

DeAndre Hopkins (PPR ADP: 27, WR13) and Allen Robinson (PPR ADP: 33, WR16)

Both Hopkins and Robinson are in similar offensive situations and in a similar WR2 ADP range that means you’re investing a high-round pick into either player. Both are supremely talented target leaders on defense-first teams with below average talent at quarterback and offensive line. As target volume is arguably the most important stat correlated to wide receiver production, there is cause for concern that the Jaguars plan to pass less after running more under midseason offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, drafting bruiser Leonard Fournette with the fourth overall pick and adding several fullbacks to the roster this offseason. Though Bortles was undeniably bad last year, Robinson’s volume remained constant from his incredible 2015 and he too deserves some blame. Per Rotoworld’s Evan Silva, Robinson struggled to create separation on routes, didn’t effectively produce yards after the catch and was fourth in the league in drops.

Many point to Brock Osweiler being the issue behind Hopkins’ disappointing 2016 season (similar to Bortles) and will say “the quarterback play can’t get any worse,” but keep in mind everyone said the exact same thing last preseason regarding Houston’s quarterbacks from two years ago. Hopkins will either catch passes from Tom Savage, who has shown next to nothing in his pro starts and/or rookie quarterback DeShaun Watson, who has a weak arm, struggles with turnovers and will need to adjust to pro-level reads. Hopkins was the WR37 in standard leagues last year, so even a jump in quarterback play and a little positive touchdown regression isn’t likely to catapult him back into borderline WR1 numbers.

If you think Jacksonville will still struggle and provide the offense with more garbage time opportunities, then I’d pick Robinson if investing in one of the two. While both players are elite receiver talents and have the upside to post gaudy numbers on the strength of long catches and touchdown dominance, the nature of their fantasy situations renders both extreme boom/bust picks. Only risky fantasy drafters should be targeting them in the second and third round. I’d prefer someone with a safer floor like Demaryius Thomas or even Travis Kelce at similar ADPs.

Sammy Watkins (PPR ADP: 36, WR18; Standard ADP: 34, WR16) and Keenan Allen (PPR ADP: 31, WR15; Standard ADP: 43, WR20)

The upside is undeniable here. Watkins was the standard WR15 in 2015 despite only appearing in 13 games and had improved his numbers across the board from his rookie year. If we count last year as a lost season, Watkins path to WR1 numbers is obvious as a premium downfield talent and the unquestioned market share hog who helps lift the entire ceiling of the Bills offense. Even though the target competition is more crowded in Los Angeles, the expected passing volume and higher-efficiency looks Keenan receives puts him in a similar situation. Per Evan Silva, Keenan’s numbers from his last 16 healthy games would have made him the WR5 in PPR leagues last year. He’s one of the best route technicians in the game and the go-to receiver for a top-ten quarterback. Unlike Hopkins and Robinson, the situations are ripe for the picking. Here, however, the major downside red flag comes in the form of injury risk. Watkins has played in 37 of 48 possible games as a pro (which is probably more than you’d guess) while Keenan has only appeared in 23 of his last 48 possible games, though some of that is due to bad luck after missing eight games to a lacerated kidney in 2015. While the floor of these boom/bust players is much lower due to the obvious injury risk, I find myself more comfortable drafting them than Hopkins or Robinson because they present much higher ceilings in better offensive situations. As a caveat, I did draft both in the same league last year and would not recommend that strategy for the faint of heart.

Marshawn Lynch (PPR ADP: 23, RB11: Standard ADP: 20, RB12)

Although Beast Mode was a top-five running back throughout his prime and is generally just an awesome dude, I have serious questions about his ADP that has now crept into the late second round. It’s likely his draft slot is this high due to his long-standing reign as a sure-fire RB1 and the elite offensive line he’ll play behind in Oakland. But it’s important to remember 2017 Marshawn Lynch is likely nowhere near the pile-driving force that 2010-2014 Lynch was. Marshawn spent 2016 traveling the world and making Skittles commercials after only appearing in seven games in 2015 while producing an ugly 3.8 YPC alongside a dual-threat quarterback. Lynch offers basically zero pass-game floor and the possibility remains Oakland will try and limit his in-season reps to keep him healthy and fresh for a potential playoff run. Both of his young, talented backups (DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard) averaged over 5 YPC as rookies last season while combining for 170 carries, 46 receptions and five touchdowns with room for more usage in 2017. It’s very possible Lynch doesn’t even surpass 180 carries this year, blasphemous for someone being drafted as a low-end RB1. While it’s likely Marshawn will have a fantasy-relevant season and potentially score double digit touchdowns, his floor is extremely low and an in-season retirement is not out of the question if his body has moved on. I have a tough time buying anytime before the fifth round yet he’s consistently going as a third round pick in most drafts. Lamar Miller and Isaiah Crowell have higher floors with much larger volume projections.

Brandin Cooks (PPR ADP: 25, WR12) and Alshon Jeffery (PPR ADP: 40, WR19)

Both Cooks and Alshon are former team market share leaders entering a new offensive system with considerably deeper target competition. Cooks is going at a similar draft spot to last season despite now playing in a completely different situation. Aside from having to compete with Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski for targets, the overall pie is smaller in New England than it is in New Orleans, where Sean Payton’s offenses consistently finish top-five in passing attempts. The speedy Cooks’ best skill is going deep, which was accentuated by playing with the most accurate deep thrower in the league. Brady doesn’t throw deep like he used to, and it’s possible Belichick sometimes uses Cooks as a decoy to take the top off the defense and open things up even more underneath for Gronk and Edelman. None of this even accounts for the targets Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Dwayne Allen, Danny Amendola, Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead and James White are all set to receive. While Cooks will certainly have some splash weeks due to his big-play skill set, he may be a better reality than fantasy player in an offense that purposely attacks the opposing team’s weakness on a week-by-week basis.

Alshon will likely be the market share leader in Philadelphia, although it’s worth pointing out Jordan Matthews only received roughly 20% of the team targets as the market share leader in the past. Though certainly the team’s number 1 receiver, Jeffery will have to compete with Matthews and Zach Ertz, both incumbents who know the system, have developed chemistry with Carson Wentz and should receiver higher-percentage targets in the middle of the field. Philadelphia suddenly has a deep pass-catching corps when you also factor in deep threat Torrey Smith, safety valve Darren Sproles and other sub-package players like Nelson Agholor and Trey Burton. Jeffery will likely face the opposing team’s best cornerback and now has a concerning history of soft-tissue injuries, none of which seems factored into his fourth round ADP (third in some drafts). It often goes overlooked, but the only years Jeffery performed as a borderline WR1 (2013 and 2014) he had Brandon Marshall to match up with the team’s best corner and attract more attention from defenses. While I think Jeffery will be startable given his projected volume on a solid team with an improving quarterback, he will need plenty to go right to return value on his lofty draft slot.

Leonard Fournette (PPR ADP: 24, RB12), Joe Mixon (PPR ADP: 37, RB15) and Christian McCaffrey (PPR ADP: 39, RB17)

Ezekiel Elliott has spoiled the masses and it’s going to kill some fantasy owners this year. Zeke enjoyed a historically-good rookie season behind the league’s best offensive line while enjoying tons of positive game script and essentially zero carry competition. All three of these rookies will play behind average to below average offensive lines and none of their teams are locks to make the playoffs. Fournette will likely lose some passing game duties to incumbent TJ Yeldon – who caught 50 passes last year – and still has to contend with Chris Ivory who runs with a similar style to Fournette. Gio Bernard is entrenched as the Bengals pass-catching back and it’s very likely Jeremy Hill will siphon some crucial goal line carries away from Mixon. McCaffrey will have to fight Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart for goal line and short-yardage carries, while Cam has never been prone to throwing to backs and hasn’t even been efficient when doing so. While the talent is obvious for all three players, projecting their all-important volume seems difficult at best. I would feel awfully worried having any of them as my team’s first running back considering the likely boom/bust nature of their situations. Fournette is likely projected for the most carries, though it remains to be seen if the Jaguars will be able to commit to running the ball more behind a mediocre offensive line. While it’s obviously fun to predict the next big running back star, it seems Zeke may have spoiled us to the point that these ADPs are in extremely risky territory. Draft at your own risk.

Think I’m wrong? Feel free to tweet your disagreements to @eweiner_bball.

Statistics courtesy of rotoworld.com, pro-football-reference.com, nfl.com, fantasypros.com and footballguys.com.

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