On the path to a fantasy football championship, some risks must be taken -- just make sure they're calculated risks.
Those who rolled the dice on Jimmy Graham in the 12th round last season, keeping in mind his track record from New Orleans while closely monitoring his health throughout training camp, were rewarded handsomely: He finished 2016 as the No. 4 tight end in non-PPR (124.3) and PPR (189.3) scoring formats.
Conversely, those who chased Jordan Reed's extraordinary 2015, selecting him in the third round on average last fall, wound up squeezing just 12 games out of him and noticeably fewer fantasy points in either format (102.60 and 168.60) than Graham.
That's not to say that any fantasy owner should've seen either outcome coming, nor that either was being selected in the incorrect place at the time. The point is that both players carried equal risk and reward, so deciding to select either had a bearing on your overall draft strategy. Picking both as tandem tight ends might've worked out -- we have the advantage of hindsight now -- but at the time could've left you in a precarious position.
Just the same, populating your roster with several such "make-or-break" players could give you a team with the potential to dominate in certain weeks but be virtually invisible in others. Balance is important, combining safe, known commodities with the kinds of risk/reward players you'll read in the list below. If you feel strongly about one or two, feel free to take the chance, but try to balance the picks out at other positions.
Entering 2017, the following players best fit the description of "make-or-break." How lucky are you feeling with each?
Each make-or-break player includes "Tristan's ADP take," with the player's ADP in ESPN leagues as of July 6, and my opinion on how worthy he is of the pick at that spot.
Brandin Cooks, WR, New England Patriots: Though he finished as a top-10 wide receiver in PPR formats last season (246.3, 10th), Cooks' season didn't have the feel of a player of that stature. He had three games of 30-plus fantasy points and another three beneath five, one of which was his inexplicable zero-target Week 12.
In New England, he's in position to make much better use of his skill set, as KC Joyner explains in greater detail here, but the Patriots do have competition for targets and don't have the best track record for producing elite fantasy wide receivers year over year. Cooks is plenty capable of a WR1 season, but if he's not thrust into a Randy Moss-like role, the chances he's more of a matchup-dependent flex play increase.
Tristan's ADP take: 29th overall (30.4 average) is simply too soon, and the fact that he's being selected that soon underscores his risk/reward status.
Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals: It's the second consecutive year he has made the list, and in his past two seasons, he has finished among the top three tight ends in terms of fantasy points per game in non-PPR formats (10.7 in 2015, third; 8.7 in 2016, second), among those with at least eight games played in the given year. The problem is that Eifert played that minimum -- eight games -- in 2016, after undergoing ankle surgery that May, and he had back surgery in December that leaves his status for training camp somewhat unclear.
As one of the most touchdown-reliant players in the game -- his 19 end zone targets the past two seasons combined was one shy of the position lead despite his missing 11 games during that time -- Eifert has that rare ability to lead his position in any given week, but he's also one who could leave you seeking a replacement more often than not.
Tristan's ADP take: 77th (76.9) seems about right, for those not adopting a streaming strategy at the position.
Mike Gillislee, RB, New England Patriots: Normally a Patriots running back would be classified as more risk than reward, considering coach Bill Belichick's unpredictable, sometimes week-by-week approach to the position. LeGarrette Blount's 2016, however, is difficult to ignore, after he managed the seventh-most fantasy points (225.9) in non-PPR leagues.
Gillislee, by all accounts, is the most likely individual to slide into Blount's vacated role, and keep in mind that after Gillislee began stealing goal-line carries from LeSean McCoy in Week 8 last season, Gillislee managed 82.3 non-PPR fantasy points (18th) despite having only 85 total touches. With greater opportunity, Gillislee could elevate his production to a weekly RB2.
Tristan's ADP take: 79th (79.4) seems about a round or two too soon, especially considering Blount himself -- still a goal-line threat now with the Philadelphia Eagles -- is being selected a few spots later.
Mark Ingram, RB, New Orleans Saints: One of the most consistent players in fantasy football in 2015, Ingram morphed into a boom-or-bust type last season and now faces competition for touches from free-agent signee Adrian Peterson. Ingram managed four games of at least 25 PPR fantasy points in 2016, tied for third most at the position, but he also had five games in single digits, often struggling to find opportunity while falling into coach Sean Payton's doghouse.
Peterson's arrival probably doesn't help Ingram's chances at goal-line carries, and it could render him a mere passing-down back. At the same time, Ingram is the more versatile player of the two and Peterson has an injury history, so there's a decent chance Ingram could maintain RB2 status.
Tristan's ADP take: 37th (42.8) is good value for Ingram, especially in PPR formats.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans: He's on the list mostly because of his recovery from a broken leg suffered in Week 16 of last season, but Mariota's tendency to play to the matchups does also play into it. Bear in mind that he was the top-scoring quarterback in fantasy for Weeks 5-12 (192.7), even outscoring Aaron Rodgers (192.1) in an equal number of games played.
Mariota did participate in OTAs, but we won't get a full read on his health until training camp. A glowing August would go a long way toward elevating his 2017 potential to the top-10 discussion.
Tristan's ADP take: 128th (124.1) represents good value, and it could be a steal for Mariota if everything continues positively in the coming weeks.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers He's the quintessential example of the risk/reward quarterback, exemplified in no greater way than that he was the eighth best at his position in terms of fantasy points per game (18.0) but only 16th best in terms of total fantasy points (252.1) in 2016.
The reason is Roethlisberger's injury history, as he has missed six games combined the past two seasons and a total of 15 in the past eight years. What's more, Roethlisberger joins Tom Brady as the only quarterbacks with at least five games apiece of at least 30 and of no greater than 10 fantasy points in a game in the past three seasons combined; and Brady had exactly five of each, while Roethlisberger had five of the former and nine of the latter.
Throwing to the game's top receiver (Antonio Brown) on an offense that has ranked among the top five in passing yards in each of the past three seasons grants Roethlisberger the kind of win-your-week-on-his-own fantasy potential we love. At the same time, he's 35 years old and has shown a tendency to fall prey to matchups (most notably his widening home/road split, which is now impossible to ignore). The smaller the league -- especially 10-team standard -- the easier it is to navigate owning him.
Tristan's ADP take: 92nd (96.1) is about right for Roethlisberger, though that's partly because I have a greater opinion of him than the masses, who have him going as QB10 on average. I consider him a definite top-10 option, if only because I think matchups play is smart at quarterback in a 10- or 12-team league and therefore rank risk/reward types with obvious matchup tilts better, and if he's being left for me as the No. 10 quarterback, I'll happily take him.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills: In his young NFL career, Watkins has delivered fantasy owners a 133-point rookie campaign in non-PPR leagues, a 12.2 per-game average in those formats (eighth best at his position) in his sophomore campaign, and a miserable 2016, during which he missed eight games and was outscored by 86 other wide receivers.
He was the top receiver off the board in the 2014 NFL draft and has long been advertised as a future superstar, but to this point in his career, Watkins has had a difficult time staying healthy. Now he's playing the final year of his rookie deal, fresh off January foot surgery. There's little doubt that, when he's 100 percent, Watkins is capable of near-WR1 fantasy production, but he's too risky to trust as a member of that group.
Tristan's ADP take: 36th (41.6) is a few spots too soon for my tastes, though he's also too good to let slide out of the WR2 tier.