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Fantasy Friday: Ranking the Big Ten schools by NFL fantasy football impact

Photo by Dallas Cowboys: Ezekiel Elliott

Our Fantasy Friday column will appear each Friday throughout the NFL season. It will focus primarily on Penn State alums in the NFL, Steelers players and other players of interest to fans in central PA.

By Jason Dambach

In honor of this weekend’s long-awaited kickoff to the 2020 Big Ten football season, I thought it would be fun to rank the 14 conference schools by the fantasy football appeal of their former players through the first six weeks of this NFL season.

Just like fantasy football itself, the rankings are going to be focused on the offensive skill positions — QB, RB, WR and TE — while also giving some love to the kickers (hello Robbie Gould and Sam Ficken!).

How do the likes of Miles Sanders, Chris Godwin and Allen Robinson help Penn State stack up to their Big Ten rivals? Check out the rankings below.

1. Ohio State

To no one’s surprise, the Buckeyes’ NFL fantasy football talent paces the other Big Ten schools, though not by as much as previous seasons.

Part of the reason is due to the absence of wide receiver Michael Thomas from the New Orleans Saints’ lineup. Thomas set an NFL record with 149 catches last season and was the unanimous top fantasy receiver during draft season. In  some cases, he was the No. 2 or 3 overall pick in drafts, but injuries and an unusual suspension for reportedly  punching a teammate have sidelined him for most of the season. Thomas will return soon and likely make a lot of noise over the second half of the fantasy season — just like he does every year.

Ezekiel Elliott is coming off one of the worst performances of his five-year NFL career last Monday against Arizona, but he is still a fantasy superstar. There is some concern about his upside with Andy Dalton at QB and a heavily-regressed Dallas offensive line, but he is one of the few true three-down running backs left in the NFL.

Terry McLaurin (Washington) is an under-the-radar fantasy starter and would be much more consistent and dynamic with a better quarterback situation.

Speaking of QB, considering he only tossed two of his 78 career TD passes at Ohio State, the Buckeyes can’t claim Bengals rookie Joe Burrow. They can’t really even claim Dwayne Haskins at this point either. Haskins lost his starting gig in Washington, but was never fantasy relevant in the first place.

J.K. Dobbins (Ravens) is more of a role player in 2020, but he should be Baltimore’s lead running back next season. In Greg Roman’s run-first offense, that makes him a potential fantasy superstar as early as 2021.

Be sure to check your waiver wire for Colts’ wide receiver Parris Campbell. He was expected to be Phillip Rivers’ top target before suffering a torn PCL in Week 1. He is expected to return later in the season and is worth stashing on your bench or IR slot in the meantime.

2. Wisconsin

Russell Wilson. Enough said.

The same rationale that has resulted in Russ not receiving a single MVP vote has crept into fantasy circles throughout his career. Wilson’s pure passing statistics have never been overwhelming — it’s been his amazing consistency and efficiency that have defined his future Hall of Fame resume.

But this season has been different for Wilson. Not only is the consistency and efficiency still there, but now he’s added passing volume like we have never seen before.

The results have put Russ on pace to set the NFL record for TD passes — he currently has 19 over his first five games — and his average of over 30 pass attempts per game have bucked the Seahawks’ run-first reputation.

What’s been so great for Wilson fantasy owners is the fact that they didn’t have to overpay for him back in draft season. While Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson were first or second round fantasy picks, Wilson was snagged starting in the fourth or fifth round.

The Badgers have always boasted top-end fantasy running backs, and their latest addition is Jonathan Taylor in Indianapolis. The rookie hasn’t been as productive as expected given his role, but I fully expect Taylor to explode over the second half of the fantasy regular season and into the playoffs.

Melvin Gordon was a fantasy stud a few years ago with the Chargers, and while he is still the main man in Denver most weeks, his fantasy shine is no longer what it was.

James White is the only New England running back that owners can reasonably project on a weekly basis, but that entirely comes from his consistent pass-catching work.

3. Penn State

If Saquon Barkley was on the field for the Giants and Chris Godwin was fully healthy in Tampa, I’m confident the Nittany Lions would rank second ahead of Wisconsin on this list — and could possibly have given Ohio State a run for the top spot.

Unfortunately, we won’t see Saquon again this season, but once Godwin overcomes the hamstring injury that has ailed him thus far in 2020, he will start to produce as Tom Brady’s top target.

Allen Robinson (Bears) is a target machine, leading the NFL through six weeks with 66 passes thrown his way. With a game-manager QB in Nick Foles, he is bound to have a dud of a fantasy performance like he had in Week 6 at Carolina, but the target volume he receives is a fantasy owner’s dream.

Miles Sanders Week 6 injury in the Eagles’ loss to Baltimore was unfortunate and cost him a chance to play Thursday night against the Giants. Assuming the injury isn’t too significant, Sanders is going to be a fantasy stud for teams down the stretch, especially considering the fact that the Eagles schedule lightens considerably.

Mike Gesicki (Dolphins) had a chance for a splash game against the lowly Jets in Week 6 and came up with a goose egg performance, but the third-year tight end is worthy of a roster spot at a very thin position across the board.

How about some kicker love? Robbie Gould (49ers) and Sam Ficken (Jets) are enjoying good seasons, though Ficken can’t be used because  of the Jets’ deplorable offense. Gould is a viable starter most weeks.

Going deeper, KJ Hamler (Broncos) could have some fantasy relevance as the main slot receiver in Denver, while Jesse James (Lions) could be a spot play for really desperate fantasy rosters.

Overall, this is a high point in recent memory  in terms of the impact of former Penn State skill position players in the NFL.

4. Iowa

Iowa is the new undisputed “Tight End U,” boasting a true superstar in George Kittle (49ers) and a pair of fantasy starters in T.J. Hockenson (Lions) and Noah Fant (Broncos).

If Kittle continues on his current pace and stays healthy — not a sure thing based on his history — he could become a Hall of Famer. I had the misfortune of being on the wrong end of his 15-catch, 183 yard performance in Week 4 against the Eagles.

Hockenson and Fant are only in their second year in the league, and will only get more consistent as their career goes forward. When 2021 draft season comes along, it’s not crazy to predict that three of the top five tight ends on fantasy draft boards will be Hawkeyes.

Unfortunately, the Hawkeyes don’t have any former players of note at any of the other skill positions, but George Kittle alone vaults Iowa into the top four in these rankings.

5. Maryland

Thanks to a pair of every week starting fantasy receivers, Maryland surprisingly finds the top five on this list.

Stefon Diggs (Bills) and D.J. Moore (Panthers) are “set and forget” options for any fantasy team, though Moore has surprisingly played second fiddle to Robby Anderson in Carolina’s passing attack so far with Teddy Bridgewater under center.

Diggs has forged a fast bond with Josh Allen in the Bills’ pass offense and has a legitimate shot to finish as a Top 5 fantasy wide receiver at season’s end.

Anthony McFarland (RB/Steelers) might be on some deeper fantasy rosters as a handcuff to James Conner and would become a hot commodity on waivers if there are injuries in the Steelers backfield.

6. Purdue

Drew Brees (Saints) is not a weekly starting option at QB this season, but fantasy players have learned many lessons in the past about writing off one of the all-time greats. Once his star receiver Michael Thomas returns, the former Boilermaker could have a second-half surge in production. For now, he’s just a matchup play/streaming option, which is rare territory for Brees.

Purdue boasts one of the more dynamic fantasy running backs in the 49ers’ Raheem Mostert. The 28-year old leads the Niners’ backfield by committee, and is a must start when healthy. Unfortunately, he has been in and out of the lineup so far this season and will likely miss this weekend’s game against New England. Still, Mostert is a guy you want on your fantasy roster.

7. Michigan State

Michigan State’s fantasy football pride and joy a half decade ago, Le’Veon Bell, is still on fantasy football rosters, but his release from the Jets and subsequent acquisition by Kansas City will have him on benches for the time being. If he can somehow wrestle carries away from rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire he might work his way back into weekly flex consideration. Nevertheless, we are long past Bell’s time as a fantasy superstar.

Kirk Cousins (Vikings) stature as a high-profile NFL starting QB has never really translated to fantasy football consistency. He is nothing more than bye week filler for fantasy teams at this point, and that isn’t likely to change any time soon.

8. Michigan

Jim Harbaugh haters will draw enjoyment out of the fact that not a single offensive player from his coaching tenure in Ann Arbor — or Rich Rodriguez or Brady Hoke’s tenure for that matter — is fantasy worthy at the moment.

That leaves the Wolverines with only Tom Brady (Buccaneers), who hasn’t played college football in the Big Ten for more than two decades. TB12 hasn’t been a fantasy star for the last few years, but he is the one and only former Michigan player of relevance to fantasy football players in 2020.

9. Northwestern

Two weeks ago, Northwestern likely would have been a few notches lower in the rankings, but now they can claim a viable fantasy starting RB in Justin Jackson (Chargers) — at least for the short term.

Big Ten fans will remember Jackson as a highly-productive, 5,000-yard running back for the Wildcats from 2014-17. As an NFL back, he has never gotten a chance to start behind fantasy stars Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler, but with Gordon now in Denver and Ekeler currently on the shelf for several weeks with an injury, Jackson is worth starting this week against the Jaguars. A solid performance could raise his profile higher than it has ever been over his first three pro seasons.

10. Indiana

The Hoosiers have found fantasy football relevance in recent years through running backs Jordan Howard (Dolphins) and Tevin Coleman (49ers), though neither should be on rosters at the moment.

Howard was a fantasy breakout star during his rookie 2016 season when he finished second in the NFL in rushing with the Bears. Since then, he was fazed out by a new coach in Chicago, landed in a committee backfield in Philadelphia and is now spending his Sundays as a healthy scratch for the surprisingly-competitive Dolphins.

Tevin Coleman has been a popular preseason fantasy breakout candidate for his entire six-year career with the Falcons and now the 49ers. Kyle Shanahan has a lot of mouths to feed in the Niners backfield when everyone is healthy and available — which Coleman has not been enough this season.

11. Nebraska

Veteran fantasy football players have known for years to approach New England Patriots running backs with caution for fantasy purposes. Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are masters at never having the same game script two weeks in a row, which makes the Huskers’ lone NFL fantasy contributor, Rex Burkhead, unusable on a consistent basis.

The veteran did post one of the better single-week performances of the season back in Week 3, when he scored three TDs and caught seven passes on 10 targets against the Raiders. True to form, in the Pats’ next game against Denver, he saw just five carries for 14 yards and found his way back to the waiver wire in most leagues.

12. Rutgers

Ravens’ running back Gus Edwards is the only former Scarlet Knight with a chance at fantasy relevance at the midpoint of the 2020 fantasy football season. Mark Ingram was injured in Week 6 so there’s a chance he will be a waiver wire add possibility after Baltimore’s Week 7 bye week. Edwards has always managed to be productive when he gets carries, but between Ingram, rookie J.K. Dobbins and a running quarterback in Lamar Jackson, Edwards is hard to justify on a fantasy roster most weeks.

13. Minnesota

Rookie receiver Tyler Johnson (Buccaneers) is carrying the fantasy flag for former Golden Gophers all by himself in 2020. The fifth rounder is currently on the waiver wire in the majority of leagues, but he is worth monitoring and would be worth a speculative add to rosters in the event star wideouts Mike Evans or Chris Godwin miss any action. Tom Brady reportedly has taken a liking to Johnson, which could be notable moving forward.

14. Illinois

When Lions WR Geronimo Allison and Patriots TE Matt LaCosse both opted out of the 2020 NFL season, the Illini’s chances at producing a fantasy worthy offensive player vanished. Even if they were playing, neither Allison or LaCosse would have been worth a roster spot in fantasy.  Interestingly, the Illini haven’t produced a fantasy-relevant player since Rashard Mendenhall with the Steelers a decade ago.

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