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The Most Exciting Team Fake Money Can Buy

How to build this season’s most fun fantasy football roster

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Finding fantasy football inefficiencies is next to impossible these days. Predraft analysis isn’t limited to Labor Day weekend the way it was in years past, and research resources are virtually endless. Lucking into a running back with a clear path to playing time just doesn’t happen anymore. But as the obsession over players’ fantasy value grows, one inefficiency remains largely untapped: the chance to eschew prudent drafting in favor of building the most enjoyable roster available.

Every year, fantasy drafts are full of names that excite absolutely no one. Sometimes, that lack of excitement can make for a steal (see: Marshall, Brandon), but I’m not here to bargain hunt. The purpose of this exercise is to take $200 in imaginary money, use the auction values at FantasyPros (set to a 10-team league), and assemble the roster that will make Sunday your favorite day of the week. There will be risks, sure. And there may be some epic flameouts. But here’s what I can promise above all: There will be fun.

Tyrod Taylor, QB, Bills: $8

A year ago, Bills fans were staring at a season full of Matt Cassel and misery. Buffalo’s quarterback competition had all the makings of a mind-numbingly boring choice, but by late August, more imaginative minds had prevailed. The Bills named Taylor — a former sixth-round draft pick who they signed the previous March for $883,333 — as their starter, and the results were about as good as they could have hoped for.

His tasks in Buffalo’s scheme were heavily tailored to his strengths. The Bills’ passing game was predicated on him chucking the ball downfield, and in ways both designed and improvised, Taylor’s feet were a consistent weapon. Among quarterbacks, only Cam Newton added more value as a runner, and on a per-game basis, their yardage totals were neck and neck.

For our purposes, though, it’s more important Taylor can do things like this:

Newton runs like a bigger Earl Campbell, and Russell Wilson could probably escape from Houdini’s aquarium while wearing full pads. But Taylor’s running style is all his own. No fantasy quarterback worth having right now can simultaneously snap every lower-body joint of a cornerback the way Taylor does to Coty Sensabaugh on the play above. Take those ankle disintegrations and add a few weekly deep shots to Sammy Watkins, and you get plenty of fantasy excitement at a pretty steep discount.

Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys: $39

Team-building strategies and fantasy-positional value be damned — Elliott can flat-out play, and he just got dropped behind the NFL’s best offensive line two years running. Darren McFadden averaged 4.56 yards per carry in Dallas last season, prompting some to ask, “Well, how much better can Elliott be?”

My answer: I don’t know, but I’d sure as hell like to find out.

Lamar Miller, RB, Texans: $40

This year’s trendy fantasy strategy involves paying for two high-price running backs because the drop-off after the top tier is so steep. We’ll see how that works as far as maximizing fantasy points is concerned, but as far maximizing enjoyment, it’s clearly the way to go. The middle class of backs this season is a seemingly never-ending stream of meh. I don’t ever want to have a conversation with the person who’s thrilled to grab Mark Ingram for $28, or the guy who celebrates snagging C.J. Anderson for $21.

I want another back with a chance to go off, and Miller just might be that guy. Miami’s offensive line has been equal parts hurt and ineffective over the past two years, and all Miller did was run for 1,971 yards and 16 touchdowns while getting far less work than he should have. That won’t be a problem in coach Bill O’Brien’s offense. When Arian Foster was healthy last fall, O’Brien employed a smoke-em-if-you’ve-got-em workload philosophy, and now he has a back who can demoralize a defense on any single play.

A.J. Green, WR, Bengals: $31

Relying on Green can occasionally be frustrating (hello, one catch for 37 yards against the 49ers in Week 15), but the type of game he posted in Baltimore last September — 10 grabs for 227 yards and two scores — isn’t even a pipe dream for most receivers in the league.

Entering his age-28 season, he can still ruin games, and he still has the type of talent that makes defensive coordinators reach for the NyQuil. Green is so scary that fades to him near the goal line are a good idea. That’s the highest praise I can give a receiver, not to mention one whose auction value is nearly half the price of Antonio Brown.

Allen Robinson, WR, Jaguars: $29

Considering that Robinson is only the second player in league history to record an 80-catch, 1,400-yard, 14-touchdown campaign by his second NFL season (take a guess as to the other), the balls he catches put him in elite company. What amazes me most, though, are the plays he doesn’t make.

There were plenty of instances last year when he had a cornerback draped all over him, or when a Blake Bortles pass came up short, and Robinson just didn’t seem to care. He believes any ball in the air belongs to him, and more often than not, he’s right. The Jags built their passing game on Bortles hurling the ball in Robinson’s general vicinity and the 6-foot-3 albatross coming down with it. His numbers last season were gaudy, but I don’t think that necessarily means he’s due for much regression. He’s only 22, and he showed consistent flashes last year of developing into much more than a deep-ball monster. By the end of 2016, I might start running out of fantasy receivers I’d rather have.

Sammy Watkins, WR, Bills: $24

Any fun-centric fantasy roster has to include the double-points, quarterback-receiver handcuff; by the end of last season, the Taylor-to-Watkins connection was displaying plenty of promise. Sammy’s overall production is always going to be limited by the Bills’ run-first offense, but good things happen when Buffalo decides to feed him.

Watkins led the league in yards per target last year (10.9), and from Week 9 onward he averaged 8.7 targets and 100 yards per contest with seven touchdowns. Few receivers in the league — whether it’s through subtle separation or the ability to teleport — are better at making late plays on deep balls, and any heave his way instantly becomes one of the most exciting plays in football. Watkins’s foot surgery this spring might be a cause for concern, but if he misses time in camp, it could also make him a bargain thanks to the more risk-averse wimps in your league.

Ladarius Green, TE, Steelers: $5

I’ll admit that Green’s ability has long tantalized me, but this year it really seems like the fantasy stars have aligned for him. Finally out of Antonio Gates’s considerable shadow in San Diego, Green is the now the man at tight end in Pittsburgh. Even with Martavis Bryant in the offensive fold last year, Heath Miller still tied for 13th in targets among tight ends. In a Bryant-less offense, there will likely be more opportunities to go around, and I expect Green to do more damage with them than Miller did a year ago.

Vikings’ defense: $1

Right now, Minnesota has the defense you’d build in a Madden fantasy draft: a bunch of young, cheap assets with a potential grade of “A” and the chance to turn into a band of superheroes at any minute. The best version of the 2016 Vikings’ D — the one in which Danielle Hunter becomes a terror opposite Everson Griffen, the two young cornerbacks develop into reliable starters, and Anthony Barr becomes a first-team All Pro — isn’t that hard to imagine. If it does work out in Minnesota, it would make for a fantasy defense that dismantles quarterbacks on a weekly basis.

Sebastian Janikowski, K, Raiders: $1

Seabass will kick for this team until the day he decides he doesn’t want to anymore.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Titans: $1

Being in Tampa last September for Mariota’s Week 1 decimation of the Bucs may skew my expectations, but even in an awful 2015 situation, the QB gave the Titans reasons for optimism. Tennessee spent big to improve its offensive line and running game this offseason, and selfishly, I hope that means a lot more Mariota highlights in year two.

Tyler Lockett, WR, Seahawks: $7

I’ll just leave this here:

Duke Johnson, RB, Browns: $9

Johnson managed to haul in 61 receptions as a rookie while catching passes from Josh McCown, Johnny Manziel, and Austin Davis. There isn’t much else to say. The 5-foot-9, 210-pounder is a genuine threat out of the backfield, and it seems like there’s a good chance he can supplant Isaiah Crowell as the Browns’ most reliable fantasy option.

Kenyan Drake, RB, Dolphins: $1

Remind me again why this job is being handed to Jay Ajayi (and why we should expect newly signed Arian Foster to bounce back).

Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Bucs: $1

This is a potential-based pick in every way, but for a buck, who cares? Seferian-Jenkins had 21 catches for 338 yards and four touchdowns in seven games last season, and in 2016 he has the following things working in his favor: Jameis Winston has a full year of experience under his belt; the Bucs’ line should be improved; and he’s built like the Mountain in Game of Thrones. If the former second-round pick can stop getting kicked out of practice and stick with the starters, he’s going to have fantasy value.

Sterling Shepard, WR, Giants: $1

In Odell Beckham Jr., the Giants already have the vice president of the Always-Open Club. (Antonio Brown is the president, chancellor, king, and emperor.) In rookie Sterling Shepard, they could have also have the secretary by season’s end. Shepard should be a starter in New York’s pass-happy offense from day one, and he has an opportunity to emerge as the best no. 2 threat the Giants have had since 2011.