I’m so excited that preseason football is back! Justin Fields is out here flourishing, Myles Gaskin got out-snapped by Malcolm Brown, and it’s safe to say that fantasy Twitter is restless at the moment!
Not only does the month. of August mark the beginning of the football season, but it is also THE month of fantasy football- this is the most frequent time, outside of Labor Day, for a league to hold their draft. If it feels like draft time came out of nowhere, don’t worry! Time goes by quickly when you’re having fun, and, now, it’s time to do some key preparation of the draft.
Maybe I can help! A lot of energy within the fantasy football community goes towards positional rankings, but this is only a minor piece of the puzzle. Really, what matters much more are the specific players that offer value at their current draft spots. By identifying those players, it becomes much easier to build an optimal draft strategy. What positions do you want to go after early? Which offers intriguing depth later on? These are key questions to answer ahead of your draft.
Today, let us go over 12 players that I believe offer value at their current draft position. However, rather than focusing on them specifically, let’s put them in specific categorical buckets. By doing this, we’re less worried about staking our claim in one player, but, rather, multiple players that you could look to target. There is a lot of “dead time” between different football seasons, which can often lead to players being over-analyzed. These 12, in my opinion, have fallen victim to this. Who are they? It’s time for the great reveal!
All Stats via Pro Football Focus. Average Draft Position (ADP) via NFC.com
This is a very deep year for quarterbacks, with players outside of the top ten profiling as above-average starters. With the “replacement-level” player at the position being of much higher quality than at other positions, there is a lot of logic behind “punting” on a quarterback earlier on in the draft.
Especially with Dak Prescott still dealing with a shoulder injury and coming back from an ankle injury, the top-eight players don’t offer much value compared to some of the other quarterbacks later on. Thus, for me, my interest in quarterbacks starts with Tom Brady. With the Bucs returning all of their starters and with a full offseason together, there are plenty of reasons to suggest that he’ll improve his passing efficiency this season, while his other underlying metrics (92.3 PFF passing grade, 7.1% big-time-throw rate) were quite strong. I wouldn’t expect Tampa Bay to once again drop 8.5% of their passes again, which is something I haven’t seen discussed enough with regards to Brady’s fantasy outlook for 2021. I get he provides little rushing value, but it is hard to imagine him not finishing as at least a top-ten quarterback.
Brady might not possess an elite ceiling, and while I think that is overblown, there is another player that might offer a higher pay-off for “boom-or-bust” drafters. Yet, if Jalen Hurts starts all 17 games, it’s very unlikely he busts. Erik Smith put I best in his quarterback rankings:
“There are certainly red flags with his 52% completion percentage across 148 NFL attempts, but for fantasy purposes, a poor man’s Lamar Jackson would be a valuable quarterback profile.”
This is precisely my point. Hurts doesn’t need to be a productive “real-life” quarterback to accumulate fantasy points. As he showed when given the starting job last year, rushing quarterbacks are the epitome of a cheat code in fantasy football, and this is something that is not exploited enough. Hurts’ 23.5 expected fantasy points per game in his three full games as a starter (Week 14-16) ranked fourth at the position. There are a lot of moving parts with a new offensive play-caller in head coach Nick Sirianni taking over, yet Hurts appears to be the clear victim of over-analysis.
Dealing with injuries is difficult in fantasy football. It generally takes a player a year to recover from a torn ACL, and for Joe Burrow, he’s recovering from both a torn ACL AND torn MCL. Nevertheless, when the injury is fully baked into a reduced price, it’s worth taking a shot. His 23 expected points per game ranked only behind Josh Allen for quarterbacks with at least eight games played, based in large part due to him leading the league in pass attempts. His production last season was strong in stable situations, such as when in a clean pocket, and his deep-passing success is due for positive regression, especially with college teammate Ja’Marr Chase rounding out a fantastic receiving corps. His stock may be dipping, but, as they say, BUY THE DIP!
These three quarterbacks all are starting-caliber players, but if you want an intriguing backup option that could turn out to be a viable starter, look towards Tua Tagovailoa. Yes, his rookie season didn’t go as expected, but there was a lot going against him. Coming back from a major hip injury, he was thrust into the starting role midway through the season, forcing a drastic change in the offensive scheme. Meanwhile, with the team struggling with injuries at the wide receiver position, he wasn’t supported well. That won’t be the case in 2021, though. The Dolphins added both Will Fuller V and Jaylen Waddle to add much-needed explosiveness to their receiving corps, while Tagovailoa should be significantly healthier this year. With Fuller and Waddle aboard, look him to throw the ball down the field more often; he performed well (82.3 PFF grade) on those throws yet wasn’t incentivized to be more aggressive. In SuperFlex drafts, he’s a perfect second quarterback at a very affordable ADP.
Late First-Round Running Backs
Let me first start off by saying: please stop with the “injury-prone” label. As dissected by Dr. Edwin Porras of Fantasy Points, simply being injured before does not mean you are going to get injured again; it’s much more nuanced than that. When the concern about a player’s health is a speculative injury that hasn’t happened nor is likely to happen, I’m going to not pay close attention to these types of labels. Actually, that’d be a lie; I’d always recommend looking towards any market inefficiency.
It’s a shame that Austin Ekeler missed almost half of the season last year, but don’t let a previous mistake affect your decision-making on an upcoming choice. His “real” 18.4 expected points per game (when taking out Week 4, where he played three snaps) would have ranked 4th at the position, and he’ll now benefit from an improved offensive line. Quarterback Justin Herbert was not afraid to supply any Chargers running back with a boatload of targets, and in PPR formats, that’s incredibly significant. As discussed in my first mock draft recap, I’m all-in on Ekeler at his current price.
I guess we’ve already addressed the injury-prone label, so I don’t have to spend too much time stating that Joe Mixon missing the last 10 games last year doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed to get injured again. Also, with there being such a clear correlation between touches and PPR finish, while rushing efficiency numbers are unstable, I believe we often tend to over-analyze running backs with poor offensive lines. Mixon and Najee Harris each aren’t likely to leave the field much this year and will be in position for around 300 touches. With touches being more critical for running back fantasy production than efficiency, why are we overlooking this due to concerns over offensive line play, which we have difficulty predicting anyways? I’d rather take my chances with running backs who I know will get plenty of opportunities at the top of the draft; Mixon and Harris are first-round caliber players currently going in the second round. How they accumulate points may not be pretty, but every fantasy point counts the same!
Low-End “RB2” Options
Based on the outlook of this year’s crop of players, attacking the running back position early, particularly the first two rounds, is a common strategy. However, should you be enamored with a player at a different position or play in a SuperFlex league, you might have to dig slightly farther down into the barrel to find your second running back. That’s where these two players come in, albeit at much different prices.
There’s something about Chris Carson’s reliability that I just love from a fantasy perspective. He’s finished as the 12th-best running back in PPR points per game in back-to-back seasons, yet his current ADP would suggest a noticeable decline in 2021. Before going down with an injury in Week 7, Carson was averaging 16.5 expected fantasy points per game, while he had three top-ten finishes in that five-week span. Now healthy and without much competition for an offense that might be more run-heavy this year, I’ll take my chances with such a talented running back; he’s averaged 3.38 yards after contact/carry in his four-year career thus far.
Who had money on Mike Davis finishing as the 12th-best running back in overall fantasy points last season? Well, that’s exactly what happened while filling in for the injured Christian McCaffrey. Do I believe Davis will replicate that performance? No. Is he a great value at his current ADP? Definitely! We’ve never seen Davis handle a major workload, but he may be in position to receive one in Atlanta without significant competitors for touches in their backfield. As a solid runner after contact (2.96 yards after contact/attempt in 202o), he should be a nice fit in head coach Arthur Smith’s zone-blocking scheme. He’ll likely finish as a top-24 running back simply based on the carries he’ll get combined with his receiving abilities. As someone you can draft as a FLEX player, he’s a fun player to invest in as a potential three-down back. One day, I’ll learn to not invest in the Falcons offense. Today, folks, is not that day!
High-End “WR2” Options
As the NFL has continued to be more and more of a passing league, there has been a massive influx of wide receiver talent. With the position filled with so many quality producers, attacking this value in the third round and fourth round may be a logical strategy. In the fourth round, all three of these receivers could easily finish as “WR1” players but are being priced at a potential discount.
Everyone wants in on the Cowboys offense, but amongst their receiver corps, CeeDee Lamb is the one getting drafting the soonest. Should that be the case, though? While Lamb’s outlook for 2021 requires projection, Amari Cooper is a proven #1 wide receiver who has been a top-15 receiver in back-to-back seasons and received nine targets in each of his four full games with Dak Prescott. Cooper greatly outpaced Lamb in actual and expected production last year, and comes with a much higher floor without a lower ceiling. I get that there is always excitement regarding more unknown commodities, but remember that Cooper is already producing at the level we hope Lamb will be at this season.
I still remember when the Panthers drafted DJ Moore with the 24th pick, allowing Steve Smith Sr. to anoint him as his replacement as the team’s top receiver on national television. Three years later, he’s averaged over two yards/route run for his career and has had back-to-back seasons with 1000 yards and a PFF receiving grade of 79 or higher. It’s not ideal that he’ll be catching passes from Sam Darnold, who has struggled with accuracy, but do keep in mind that Moore has managed to thrive despite consistently poor quarterback play throughout his career. He’s a great combination of upside with his big-play ability, in addition to the floor provided by his skillset and the targets he’ll command.
Then, there is Diontae Johnson. Did you know he ranked 8th in expected fantasy points per game, which looks even better when you look only at games where he ran over 10 routes in? This statistic is going to sound complicated, but in games in which he played from start to finish and caught passes from Ben Roethlisberger, he was on a 181-target pace over 16 games. Now, the targets likely go down with Najee Harris likely to command a lot of touches, yet Johnson still is likely to get his fair share of opportunities to thrive. With that in mind, look for massive positive regression with his 13.2% drop rate, in addition to him working more down the field. At the beginning of the fifth round? I don’t like it. I LOVE IT!
Hey, I Want That Guy As My “WR3”!
You’ve solidified your roster early, but you play in a league that either requires you start three wide receivers, or you simply need a strong FLEX option. In that case, these two players are perfect for you! While they have two completely different profiles, it’s hard for me to imagine them not outperforming their ADPs.
By now, you can tell I’m all-in on the Bengals offense for 2021 (I’m so sorry Erik, I know you tried to warn me!). While the team has three productive receivers, Tyler Boyd is the one that comes with the cheapest price, and by a noticeable amount. With Joe Burrow under center, Boyd ranked sixth in expected fantasy points, tied for third in receptions, and was receiving 8.6 targets per game. Yes, his numbers fell down the stretch, but he also was playing through an injury and the offense as a whole struggled without Burrow. Even with Ja’Marr Chase aboard, Boyd will continue to command a lot of targets out of the slot for a pass-heavy offense, something not being recognized enough with his current ADP. Sure, he’s not someone who is going to score an abundance of touchdowns. Yet, in PPR formats, we’ll take those padded volume stats anywhere we can get them.
Jaylen Waddle, meanwhile, is less of a sure thing when it comes to his fantasy outlook, yet that also works in his favor. The sixth overall pick in the 2021 draft, Waddle actually averaged more yards/route run (4.38) than DeVonta Smith at Alabama, showcasing the ability to work at different depths of target. With his prowess after the catch (9.8 yards after catch/reception) and ability to stretch the field vertically as well, there are a lot of different roles he could potentially fill for Miami this season. I think his yards/reception will be high enough for him not to need a massive target share, but even so, there’s no guarantee he finishes with fewer targets than either Will Fuller V or DeVante Parker. It’s rare for a top-ten pick to fall under the radar, yet that has happened with Waddle. With Tua Tagovailoa and Waddle thriving, the
Alabama Miami Dolphins offense could surprise some people this year!
Tight Ends Without Expensive ADPs
If you want an elite tight end, you’ll have to invest a significant draft pick on Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, or George Kittle. Instead of doing so or targeting a mid-tier tight end, it has become common practice to wait until the later rounds to target a tight end, especially since their production can be volatile on a year-to-year basis. Should you adopt this strategy, these two players are not only your best bet, but have the potential to be as productive of the mid-round tight ends that will get bumped up draft boards.
We are officially living in Tyler Higbee’s world. The 28-year-old’s overall numbers have never been “eye-popping”, but that’s mainly due to a limited amount of routes run splitting time with Gerald Everett. With Everett departing though, all signs point to Higbee finally getting the role that we’ve been waiting for him to get. Although he’s mainly worked in the short passing game, he might also get more chances to stretch the field vertically, while the addition of quarterback Matthew Stafford should also help his production. As someone who ranked 10th in yards/route run despite running some of his routes as a complementary tight end in two-tight end sets, it’s easy to be excited about what his numbers could look like in 2021. As they say, float like a butterfly, sting like a Higbee.
Maybe you want to really test the waters by waiting as long as possible, or are looking for a high-upside backup tight end. In that case, Adam Trautman is the perfect tight end for you! You won’t be able to find much NFL data on him after he ran just 146 routes in 2020, but remember this is a player who earned a 94.3 PFF receiving grade at a senior at Dayton and was considered by many to be the top tight end prospect in the 2020 draft. With the Saints’ receiving corps not in great shape, Trautman could command a lot of targets, especially in the red zone. What you’re really doing by draft him, though, is embracing variance rather than drafting someone who is locked into a mid-teens finish at the position. If you’re looking for this year’s breakout tight end, the Dayton product is the Trautman for you. See what I did there?
As a positive-minded person, nothing gives me greater joy in digging deep into some potentially undervalued players. With how much time we have to establish draft boards, it’s easy to overcomplicate our analysis on specific players, focusing on very small nits to pick as opposed to seeing the big picture at times. For those who can see it, though, they may be able to take advantage of the value provided by these players.
The major lesson here, though, isn’t that you HAVE to draft these players. Rather, during your draft preparation it is important to find players that you believe would be smart to draft at their respective ADPs. From there, you can formulate a specific strategy, allowing you to maximize every pick. Will it be with these players? I hope so! That being said, it’s your team. Draft the players you’re most confident producing, and go from there! As always, I wish you the best of luck ahead of your fantasy football draft(s)!
Photos by David Rosenblum & Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire | Feature Image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)