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Fantasy football owners are debating whether to use early-round draft picks on the oft-injured likes of Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley as both running backs return from injuries that cut short their 2021 seasons.

The Panthers’ McCaffrey injured his shoulder and was largely ineffective for the second straight season, while the Giants’ Barkley suffered a high ankle sprain that doomed his season.

McCaffrey is still considered a top fantasy pick and is going No. 2 overall on average in PPR leagues. Owners have less faith in Barkley, who is falling into the second and even the third rounds after two injury-plagued seasons. Barkley averaged 24.1 fantasy points per game during his 2018 rookie campaign and became the arguable, if not consensus, overall fantasy pick in 2019.

If either returns to form, the fantasy owners who took a gamble could get huge dividends.

But other players are returning from injuries who are also expected to return to fantasy relevance this season and will be worth a gamble for team owners in the middle and late rounds of fantasy drafts.

Aaron Rodgers welcomes back a familiar target in TE Robert Tonyan

Aaron Rodgers and Robert Tonyan celebrate a touchdown during a Packers-Lions matchup in September 2021
Robert Tonyan and Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers celebrate a touchdown against the Detroit Lions during the second half at Lambeau Field on September 20, 2021 | Quinn Harris/Getty Images

The Green Bay Packers activated Robert Tonyan from the PUP list Sunday, clearing the way for the fifth-year tight end to play in the Packers’ season opener against the Minnesota Vikings.

That’s good news for Aaron Rodgers, who is looking for familiar faces among eligible receivers with the departure of leading receiver Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders.

Tonyan suffered a torn ACL in Week 8 of last season against the Arizona Cardinals after a breakout season in 2020. 

In 2020, the former undrafted free agent out of Indiana State became one of Rodgers’ trusted receivers, catching 52 passes on 59 targets for 586 yards. He became a red-zone favorite and caught 11 touchdown passes. Tonyan averaged 11 fantasy points per game and joined a second tier of elite fantasy tight ends behind Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, San Francisco’s George Kittle, and Baltimore’s Mark Andrews.

Those impressive 2020 numbers trended down last season even before the injury – 18 receptions on 29 targets for 204 yards and two touchdowns – as Adams dominated the Packers’ passing game.

With Adams gone, Tonyan could return to his 2020 form and target share as Rodgers looks for veteran help among his receivers. 

If that’s the case, he could be a fantasy steal if you miss out on the top two tight-end tiers and figure to be streaming at the position during the season. Tonyan is currently on only 12% of rosters with an ADP at the end of the 12th round in fantasy drafts.

Jameis Winston and the Saints are hoping for the Michael Thomas of old

New Orleans Saints Pro Bowl wideout Michael Thomas was among the top receivers in fantasy before ankle surgery last summer ended up sidelining him for the entire 2021 season.

After entering the NFL in 2016, Thomas strung together four straight 1,000-yard seasons. He recorded 92 catches as a rookie and then turned in three consecutive seasons with over 100 receptions each, including career highs in catches (149), targets (185), and yards (1,725) in 2019. He scored 32 touchdowns over his first four seasons.

Ankle injuries cut short his 2020 season, and the Saints’ undisputed No. 1 receiver played in seven games and had 40 catches with no touchdowns before shutting down his season.

With Jameis Winston tabbed as the successor for the retired Drew Brees, Thomas will be catching passes regularly from someone other than the future Hall of Famer for the first time in his NFL career, but that may not be all bad for Thomas or fantasy owners.

Before a knee injury ended Winston’s season after seven games last year, he was pushing the ball down the field in a way Brees was unable to late in his career.

If Thomas comes back at full strength, a new-look vertical passing game could open up his patented slant routes. More room created underneath by the deep pass should create space for Thomas, who averaged 23.4 fantasy points per game in 2019.

As if the ankle questions weren’t enough, however, a preseason hamstring injury has made fantasy owners more tentative when it comes to drafting Thomas. He currently has an ADP in the early fifth round, which comes with the potential for much more reward than risk as a WR2 or Flex at that point in the draft.

J.K. Dobbins battling back to Baltimore backfield


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The prospect of J.K. Dobbins suiting up with the Baltimore Ravens for his sophomore NFL season had fantasy owners salivating. He was a second-round lock as an RB1, particularly in non-PPR leagues, until a devastating preseason knee injury sidelined him for the entire 2021 season.

It was only the beginning of an injury-plagued season for the Ravens.

The team placed veteran RB Gus Edwards on the PUP list this week, hinting that they will be counting on well-traveled veteran Mike Davis and Dobbins to anchor the running game from the first week of the regular season.

How much work Dobbins will be getting early on as he tests the knee in the Ravens’ run-heavy offense has yet to be seen. Still, fantasy owners are betting that when Dobbins returns to his role as the undisputed lead back, his fantasy production will mirror that of his rookie season in 2020.

Dobbins rushed for 805 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie, scoring 150.5 fantasy points.

Dobbins scored 98.7 of his 150.5 fantasy points over the final six weeks of the regular season, averaging 16.45 fantasy points per game for those six contests.

Because he was a non-factor in the Ravens’ passing game, his numbers for PPR and standard-scoring fantasy leagues are virtually the same.

Dobbins’ ADP currently sits in the early fourth round, so fantasy owners are counting on him as an RB 2 while understanding his early production could be limited by a limited workload.

Given the carries Dobbins should get if healthy, his ADP seems spot on – but a handcuff with Davis is a good idea, particularly in the early season.

Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference

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