There are two sure things in life when summer rolls around: steaming hot weather, and incessant training camp reports about has-been veterans and middling prospects dropping jaws in practice while wearing shorts. The latter is the key, yet toxic ingredient in a potent, enticing elixir that even the most skilled fantasy football managers imbibe from time to time.
After so many months without football, we eagerly drink up every bit of news, throwing context and caution to the wind in our excitement for the sport’s glorious annual return. It’s easy to fall victim to confirmation bias about our favorite (and least favorite) prospects and players. It’s therefore key for each of us to keep an even keel: let’s not lose our minds over glowing reports, nor should we drop players too far down our boards and overreact to undesirable second-hand reports.
However, ignoring negative drumbeats about players who can’t shake the injury bug, have problems learning the playbook, look lost in pass protection, or fail to impress in general without even wearing pads? These are things we can’t ignore: they are some of the many red flags that might cause us to slap the dreaded “bust” label on a player.
What is a bust? For our purposes, we’ll assume it’s a player who fails to return the draft capital spent on a player at his ADP (Average Draft Position). explore five such players we’re not touching in drafts in the places they normally fly off the draft board. Follow Drew DeLuca on Twitter (@DrewDeLaware) for updates on players to target and avoid in fantasy leagues this season.
(The following analysis is intended for leagues with half-PPR scoring. All stats are per Pro Football Reference unless otherwise linked. ADP data provided comes from Fantasy Pros consensus rankings as of July 31, 2021.
Dak Prescott (Dallas Cowboys, ADP 40, QB5)
Our top choice will rub a lot of fantasy owners the wrong way, especially those who point to the eye-popping numbers Prescott put up before going down with a horrific ankle injury: through six weeks of the season, he was the NFL’s passing yards leader despite playing in only 4.5 games, finishing the season as the NFL’s leader in net yards per pass attempt (7.72) among quarterbacks who played 4 or more games.
We absolutely acknowledge and recognize Dak’s incredible upside as the leader of a potentially potent offense. However, when analyzing the spectrum of potential outcomes, we don’t believe his Top 40 ADP appropriately represents the risk inherent in taking a player who has yet to prove he’s anywhere near 100 percent after a gruesome injury that required immediate surgery.
Prescott has averaged over 300 yards rushing over the past three years and has racked up six rushing touchdowns in three of his last four full seasons. We anticipate a sizeable, but not major drop-off in those numbers, yet we are more concerned about the impact on his league-leading passing efficiency, which may be difficult to replicate for a quarterback so reliant on mobility to create plays both inside and outside of the pocket.
Prescott is already experiencing issues in his back and shoulder, which may or may not be compensatory injuries. Some have him ranked in the Top Four, ahead of either Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, or Lamar Jackson. Given our default position of injury pessimism, we think that’s a bit reckless: if we don’t snag one of the aforementioned four elite options at the position, we’d rather hold off a few rounds and take one of many talented signal callers who’ll be available a few rounds later.
My biggest draft tip – and this goes back 20 years – is to fade injury optimism. Let someone else chase the top of a hurt player's range. If you don't get a significant discount on a player already in physical jeopardy, take someone else. Injuries find you; don't seek them out.
— scott pianowski (@scott_pianowski) August 1, 2018
Amari Cooper (Dallas Cowboys, ADP 47, WR17)
“Ok, who is this clown Philadelphia Eagles fan fading two Dallas Cowboys with his first two selections?” That might be a fair question to ask, but as an owner of many shares of CeeDee Lamb and Ezekiel Elliott, I’ve earned the right to take this position: I have a combined total of zero Prescott and Cooper shares, and I almost certainly won’t be adding any before 2021 is over.
We’ve already explored the risks and concerns stemming from Dak’s injury, and we glossed over the fact that the offensive line no longer inspires confidence in the ability to protect him. Add in the emergence of CeeDee Lamb, who should relegate a less-than-100-percent Cooper to being the second-most targeted option on his own team, and what we have is a player that we want no parts of in the fourth round.
In May, Cooper began experiencing complications with the ankle he had surgically repaired in January. Things have not improved significantly in subsequent months, as evidenced by his recent placement on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list, and at last check, was unlikely to even log a full practice before the third preseason game. There are too many other talented, healthy wide receivers being drafted at the end of the fourth round for us to begin to consider taking Cooper there.
Diontae Johnson (Pittsburgh Steelers, ADP 63, WR25)
There are two types of people in this world: those who view Diontae Johnson as the best fantasy football wide receiver on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster, and those who understand that Chase Claypool is the superior option. An imposing physical specimen (6’4″, 238 pounds), Claypool led a historically deep rookie wide receiver class with 11 touchdowns last year; Brandon Aiyuk and Justin Jefferson finished a distant second (7), yet both are being drafted rounds ahead of Claypool, who racked up more receiving yards than Jerry Jeudy on fewer targets, and trailed only Justin Jefferson in yards per reception among rookie receivers with at least 60 catches.
But we digress; this isn’t about Chase Claypool. We’re just here to talk about why we’d much rather take him as WR 28 at ADP 71 than Johnson at WR25 at ADP 63…and why we’re not overly excited about either scenario.
For a moment, forget about the fact that we don’t see Diontae Johnson ending the season as the top-scoring wide receiver on his own team; that’s actually the least of our concerns. We’re more worried about the likelihood of the team adopting a heavier run/pass ratio with phenomenal rookie running back Najee Harris in the fold. Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger’s cannon doesn’t have the range that it once did as the grizzled veteran inches ever closer to 40 years of age.
Add it all up, and we’d much rather take Aiyuk, Tee Higgins, or opt for value at a different position. After all, odds are high that several wide receivers from the same tier will likely slip a couple of rounds and offer much better value.
Raheem Mostert (San Francisco 49ers, ADP 69, RB29)
Raheem Mostert took the league by storm in 2019, but his encore season was a dud thanks to two ankle injuries and a knee sprain that caused him to miss half of his team’s games. His injury history may be part of the reason why the team added dependable backup running back Wayne Gallman, who performed admirably in his efforts to fill the giant shoes left by Saquon Barkley’s season-ending knee injury.
During this year’s NFL Draft, the team then added Ohio State product Trey Sermon in Round 3, who rates as arguably the best running back in this year’s rookie class, according to Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Sermon, a prototypical running back who’s tailor-made for Kyle Shanahan’s offense, instantly became the player in this backfield with the highest ceiling.
The 49ers weren’t finished, however; they scooped up speedster Elijah Mitchell on Day 3. Mitchell is a natural fit in the role once filled by the oft-injured Matt Breida (now a member of the Buffalo Bills). Crowding the backfield even further, Jeff Wilson, Jr. is expected to return in midseason return from a torn meniscus (knee) suffered in May.
The crowded backfield and injury history are only two of the reasons why we’re fading Mostert this season. Tremendous uncertainty at the quarterback position, thanks to the selection of Trey Lance with the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, figures into the mix, as well.
Jimmy Garoppolo is the odds-on favorite to start under center for the 49ers in Week 1, but it’s only a matter of time before Lance takes the reins. Unlike Garoppolo, Lance is exceptionally dangerous out of the pocket, and a genuine threat to lead all NFC quarterbacks in rushing yards if he breaks camp as the starter.
Lance’s presence caps the expected touchdown totals of the entire 49ers backfield. Even in a best-case scenario in which Mostert stays healthy and wins the gig out of camp, the gig might not be his for long: 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan prefers to employ a “hot hand” approach, much to the chagrin of fantasy football managers over the past few years.
Add it all up, and we’ll pass on Raheem Mostert in Round 6. There are far too many solid, dependable players at other positions with guaranteed roles still on the board at that point in the draft.
Jonnu Smith (New England Patriots, ADP 131, TE15)
There are worse draft sins than taking Jonnu Smith as the 15th tight end in Round 11. After all, the Patriots should employ plenty of two-tight end sets, and we’re enamored by his talents and physical profile. However, the presence of Hunter Henry limits Smith’s upside, and frankly, we prefer Henry, a better route runner, and technician who tends to linger a bit longer in drafts.
Ryan Tannehill was quietly one of the leagues’ most efficient quarterbacks last season, and Smith was a beneficiary. He followed the money and left that gig behind to join a terribly inefficient offense led by touchdown vulture Cam Newton. The former NFL MVP, a shell of what he once was as a passer and champion of the huddle, depresses the value of both Patriots tight ends: we’re not convinced that he won’t continue to call his own number inside the five-yard line. Meanwhile, Cam Newton has thrown only eight touchdown passes in his last 17 starts. That’s less than one every other game!
It’s hard to get excited about a player who left one of the league’s most efficient offenses behind, only to join the most inefficient. For these reasons, we prefer other talented players with a clearer path to the target volume and red-zone production, including Adam Trautman, Jared Cook, and even Anthony Firkser, who is well-positioned to break out in the role Smith left behind.
(Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire)