Larry Fitzgerald, Cole Beasley and seven other players you should target early in PPR drafts

Larry Fitzgerald has had triple-digit catches each of the past three seasons. (AP)

Yahoo Fantasy Football has moved to make 0.5 points per reception the default option this year. Of course you can still change that in your league’s settings, but rewarding players who catch the ball often is emerging as a popular way to play.

If you’re playing this way, you need to alter how you think about and how you draft pass-catching options, and not only wide receivers. A stud third-down running back or oft-targeted tight end can be a PPR player’s best friend as well. Here are nine PPR specialists that should shoot up your draft board if you’re rewarding receptions.

Wide receiver

Cole BeasleyCowboys

Beasley makes this list for the second straight year, and this time he should be even more valuable in this format. The Cowboys decided against re-signing Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten retired. Those two combined for 219 of the team’s 485 targets last year — over 45 percent. Someone has to replace that, and Beasley is the best bet. He’s terrific in the slot, and the Cowboys simply don’t have that many other options. Dak Prescott doesn’t take many shots deep, and Beasley will emerge as a favorite target after a disappointing 2017. He’s just a year removed from a 75/833/6 campaign.

Larry Fitzgerald – Cardinals

Here’s a list of players who have had three 105-catch, 1,000-yard seasons after turning 30:

Jerry Rice
Larry Fitzgerald

That’s it. Ever. Fitzgerald, like Rice, has done it three years in a row. So when you see Fitzgerald’s name flash across your screen in your draft and think “Wow, he must be getting old,” you’re right, but it doesn’t matter. He’s been targeted at least 100 times in each of his 14 seasons, even with mediocre quarterback play at times. Only Tony Gonzalez (15 seasons) has seen that sort of opportunity. Oh, and Fitzgerald hasn’t missed a game in three years and has only missed six games ever. He’s quietly one of the greatest receivers ever.

Jamison Crowder – Redskins

Crowder struggled with injuries last year, which resulted in a disappointing statistical drop across the board. But when healthy, Crowder is one of the more gifted slot receivers in the league; quick in tight areas but also fast enough to get vertical. Most importantly, he simply knows how to get open: He posted the seventh-best target separation — a metric that measures how far away the nearest defender is when the ball arrives — in the league last season. The rapport between Crowder and new quarterback Alex Smith is very strong already, per Kareem Copeland of the Washington Post. Given Smith’s affinity for Tyreek Hill in Kansas City, Crowder is in for a breakout season.

Demaryius Thomas – Broncos

Thomas has quietly been one of the most consistent wide receivers over the course of his career, and he’s especially proficient in PPR leagues. In every season between 2012-2016, Thomas recorded at least 90 catches and over 1,000 yards. He was the only one to do so each of those five seasons. Last year he came just short (83/949).

But don’t think it’s because Thomas is slowing down. He posted a 64.5 percent contested catch rate, the seventh-best in the league, per Player Profiler. He’s been a top-12 most-targeted redzone receiver in four of the past five seasons. And he’s getting a significant upgrade with Case Keenum at quarterback. Expect Thomas to get back to his 90-catch, 1,000-yard norm this coming year.

Danny Amendola – Dolphins

The Dolphins sent Jarvis Landry to Cleveland this offseason and brought in Amendola essentially to be his replacement. That’s a huge boost for Amendola, because Landry just came off a season in which he led the league in both targets and receptions. Despite playing roughly half of the Patriots’ offensive snaps last year, Amendola finished 12th in the league in targets per snap, per Player Profiler, and recorded 61 catches. The early reports out of training camp are very positive. Amendola is going late in drafts right now, so cash in if you can.

If he stays healthy, Danny Amendola is a terrific late-round option in PPR leagues. (AP)

Tight end

Greg Olsen – Panthers

Olsen was among the league’s most consistent tight ends before an injury-plagued 2017. With new offensive coordinator Norv Turner in Carolina now, Olsen should get back to being among the most productive players in the league. Turner was a big part of Antonio Gates’ stardom in San Diego, and Olsen is an eve better option down the field. Turner loves tight ends — he also helped Kyle Rudolph to career years. The Panthers simply don’t have a ton of proven options outside of Olsen, so expect a top-five tight end year from the three-time Pro Bowler.

Luke Willson – Lions

The tight end with the highest hog rate — defined as targets per snap — in 2017 wasn’t Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce or Zach Ertz. It was former Lion Eric Ebron. So given Matthew Stafford’s penchant to look for tight ends, Willson could be a legitimate late-round tight end option. The former Seahawk turned down a multi-year offer from the Panthers to sign with Detroit, which is closer to his hometown of La Salle, Ontario, Canada. Yes, Willson’s a deep sleeper. He’s never caught more than 22 balls in a season and played second fiddle behind Jimmy Graham in Seattle. But he should get a significant opportunity share in Detroit as the No. 1 tight end.

Running back

Duke Johnson – Browns

Johnson finished 11th among running backs in PPR settings last year, and the Browns have made it very clear that short-throwing Tyrod Taylor will be their starting quarterback. Taylor finished 21st in adjusted air yards per attempt last season, per Player Profiler, and Taylor loved targeting running back LeSean McCoy in Buffalo. Add Taylor’s tendency to look for his running backs to Todd Haley’s running back-friendly system (he had Le’Veon Bell in Pittsburgh) and Johnson will see plenty of time lining up all over the formation and getting to ball in a variety of ways. Johnson is even seeing time at wide receiver in camp.

Dion Lewis – Titans

There’s a reason the Titans ponied up nearly $20 million for Lewis. He is an absolute stud in the passing game, a capable blocker despite his small stature and a shifty runner. He’s one of the most important moves of the offseason, and new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur is going to use him in all sorts of situations. Lewis is coming off a terrific 2017 in which he had 896 yards on the ground and  214 more through the air in his first fully healthy season. He will most certainly have the opportunity to be a major contributor in Tennessee. LaFleur loves incorporating running backs in the passing game, and Derrick Henry isn’t nearly as refined in that area as Lewis is. Lewis finished 15th among PPR running backs last year and could certainly crack the top dozen with a bigger role in Tennessee.