I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to write about football professionally, to spend the vast majority of my days nerding out over NFL players, teams, schemes, and strategies. But despite the ridiculous amount of time I dedicate to thinking about the sport, any knowledge I’ve gained has yet to translate to where it really matters: fantasy football.
Last year, in a family league — which included one novice player I won’t name selecting Dan Orlovsky second overall — I placed fifth. In my much more competitive friends’ auction-style league (Orlovsky went undrafted in that one), I set a new record for most money left over at the end of the day … then finished sixth. As the season wrapped up, it finally dawned on me that fantasy football is not at all similar to the NFL — it is an entity unto its own. Sure, it helps to have some vague knowledge on which players and teams are good, but the strategy has nothing to do with actual-football smarts.
I decided to go back to school. Drawing on the prodigious knowledge of a handful of the smartest fantasy experts in the industry, I built a road map — from rankings to key stats and sleepers — that I hope will help me (and you) nail the fantasy football draft this season.
It’s About Volume, Not Talent
The first step for anyone hoping to master fantasy football is to stifle any biases you might have about the real-life talent that players possess. Before I even asked Pro Football Focus senior fantasy analyst Scott Barrett an opening question, he interrupted with a prognosis.
“I already know what you’re doing wrong,” he said with a laugh. “You’re trying to take good players.”
For fantasy football, volume should always trump talent. “I’m always that guy who’s just drafting gross players that get a ton of targets and carries,” he said.
That was a common refrain. “The reality is there’s not a direct correlation between quality football and quality fantasy,” said ESPN’s Field Yates. “I mean, [Jaguars quarterback] Blake Bortles was a top-10 quarterback last year in fantasy football [scoring]. He was probably a bottom-five starter in quote-unquote ‘real football.’”
“You have to learn to separate skill in fantasy from skill in real football,” said the awesomely named Daniel Kelley, a fantasy editor at Pro Football Focus. “A guy might be the 45th-best running back, but if he’s his team’s only running back, he’s going to get a lot more touches than some backup on another team who’s way better than him. [Saints running back] Mark Ingram is probably more skilled right now than [Giants running back] Paul Perkins. But if Adrian Peterson takes the starting job in New Orleans, Paul Perkins is gonna be the better fantasy option.”
The 34-year-old Frank Gore was another oft-cited example. Natural talent has never been a question with Gore, but age has clearly caught up with the Colts back, who had a paltry 3.8 yard per carry average over the past two years. But he keeps getting the volume necessary to stand out in the fantasy realm — with 967 yards in 2015 and 1,025 in 2016. He looks like the clear bell cow in Indianapolis again this season, with only veteran journeyman Robert Turbin and rookie Marlon Mack competing for snaps behind him. Gore is “just money in the bank, a very low-yield but profitable stock,” said Barrett. “He’s not a blue chip, but every year he returns that nice, attractive dividend of low-end to midrange RB2 numbers.”
Once you reorient your thinking away from talent and toward volume, fantasy performance becomes easier to project. That’s because it’s easier to predict carries and targets than it is to evaluate how much the level of a player’s talent will translate to the fantasy scoreboard. As Rotoworld’s Evan Silva said, “Our idea of a guy’s talent can change in the extreme from year to year. I thought that DeMarco Murray had become a bum in Philadelphia [Murray rushed for 702 yards and six touchdowns in Chip Kelly’s offense in 2015, a year after a monster 1,845-yard, 13-touchdown season in Dallas]. I leaned my analysis and evaluation of him last year in that direction — instead of focusing on the fact that he had clear opportunity in an offense [in Tennessee] that made it very clear that they wanted to run the ball a lot.” Murray ran for 1,287 yards (third in the NFL) and nine touchdowns (tied for eighth) in his first season with the Titans.
“I’m just always trying to weigh opportunity over my takes on a guy’s talent,” said Silva.
And once that mental reset is out of the way, the next step is to do a little bit of research.
Dig Into the Right Stats
Anyone can master the first round (it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to draft David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, Julio Jones, or Antonio Brown over Dan Orlovsky) but once the most obvious “sure things” are off the board, the real fun begins. That’s where identifying potential value picks becomes key to winning your league. A lot of the time, though, uncovering those guys is like finding a needle in a haystack. You need to know how to narrow down the list, and a few less-frequently-cited stats can help. Red zone opportunities — i.e., the number of carries and targets a player gets when their team’s offense is inside the 20-yard line — is a good place to start.
“For running backs, [the most important stat] is often red zone touches,” said Yates. “That’s where you get the best shot of scoring six points.” LeGarrette Blount led the NFL in red zone carries last year (68), and despite a subpar 3.9-yards-per - carry average (which ranked 27th in the NFL), he had an NFL-best 18 touchdowns — 16 of which came from inside the 20. Blount left New England for Philly, but the Pats offense is still bound to make a lot of red zone trips — meaning some combination of Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, and James White could inherit a huge number of his scoring opportunities.
Scoring chances were in the front of Barrett’s mind this offseason, but he went deeper than simply tracking red zone touches and targets. He invented a metric he calls Actual Opportunity, a stat that tallies targets and carries and weights targets and carries in terms of expected fantasy points based on a 10-year data sample of play-by-play data (deeper targets are worth more expected fantasy points than targets at the line of scrimmage; similarly, rushing attempts from inside the 5 are worth far more than carries on the 50). He then collected the data on every skill-position player in the league.
The results? The usual suspects litter the top 10 at the running back spot — Bell, Johnson, Murray, Melvin Gordon, and Ezekiel Elliott — but two runners stand out: Detroit’s Theo Riddick, and Denver’s C.J. Anderson. Riddick’s Actual Opportunity number could take a hit this season with Ameer Abdullah coming back from injury, but if Anderson can beat out Jamaal Charles for the Broncos’ starting gig, he could have the potential to score a lot of touchdowns. And after a meniscus injury shortened Anderson’s season to just seven games last year, it looks like fantasy players are sleeping on him: He’s just 84th in ESPN’s average draft position. There are similar examples to be found in the Actual Opportunity numbers for tight ends and receivers, too.
So what about quarterbacks? “Touchdown rate is big when projecting quarterbacks,” said Pro Football Focus’s Pat Thorman. Silva agreed. “J.J. Zachariason of numberFire has done really good work on regression and touchdown rates and looked at how quarterbacks typically bounce back toward — or often even above or below — their career averages after having especially low or high touchdown rates the year prior.
“Matt Ryan was a great example last year,” said Silva. “He posted a career-worst 3.4 percent touchdown rate in 2015, and then he exploded for a career- and league-high 7.1 percent touchdown rate last year. Now, he becomes a guy to [avoid] with his higher draft cost this year.”
Silva has his eyes on a few guys coming off of career-low touchdown percentages. “Cam Newton posted a career- and league-high 7.1 percent touchdown rate in 2015,” he said. “Then, his touchdown rate dipped all the way to 3.7 percent in 2016; he was a huge fantasy bust, especially because people were taking him in the second round. This year, I’m targeting him. Russell Wilson and Andy Dalton are two other guys coming off of career-low touchdown rates who I think are great value picks this year.”
Another quarterback to target? “Kirk Cousins’s touchdown rate — 4.1 percent in 2016 — was down compared to his previous two years [5.3 percent and 4.9 percent],” said Thorman. A bounce back could be coming.
Silva also issued one important warning: Avoid skill-position players on teams with rookie quarterbacks. “Rich Hribar did a great article for us specific to [Texans receiver] DeAndre Hopkins, looking back at the history of how rookie quarterbacks have affected the production of the players around them — and it’s just completely brutal. I mean it’s even worse than you would expect; it’s so bad.”
That means Bears running back Jordan Howard could be a guy to avoid this year if Mitchell Trubisky parlays an excellent performance in Chicago’s first preseason game into a starter’s role. The same could be said about skill-position players in Houston (if and when Deshaun Watson wins the starting job), Cleveland (DeShone Kizer), and maybe even Kansas City (Patrick Mahomes II).
Think in Tiers, Not Rankings
In preparing for your draft, a few things came up with just about everyone I talked to. First, load up on receivers and running backs early on, and wait until later for tight ends and quarterbacks. “It’s mostly running backs and receivers for the first five, six, seven rounds,” said Thorman. “Sometimes I’ll sprinkle in a tight end, but never a quarterback unless Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers falls.”
Second, for snake drafts, brush up on your ADP. It’s not foolproof — someone in your league might jump in front of you and take a guy earlier than expected — but having a sense of the average draft position of players will give you an idea of which round you will need to target your guys. For auction drafts, it’s important to keep an eye on average draft value when planning out your strategy.
Third, ditch the rankings you’ll see at draft sites or on your league’s draft module. Instead, create tiers of players, grouped together by your projected value for them. Doing so will give you a multitude of options every time you pick, making it easier to find value.
“If you’re not doing it in tiers, you’re doing it wrong,” said Kelley.
As Barrett explained: “Say Drew Brees is your no. 3 quarterback, but your first tier of quarterbacks is like five deep all the way down to Matt Ryan or Andrew Luck. When you’re up in the draft, that’s where you’re like, ‘OK, I could take Brees here, but if I don’t have that much separating him from Luck, I could just wait another two rounds. It’s not gonna be that big of a falloff.’”
Plus, those Yahoo and ESPN rankings are designed around standard scoring and may not take into account your league’s custom scoring. “The single most important thing for a fantasy drafter is to know league settings like the back of their hand,” said Barrett.
For an Auction: Focus on Stars and Scrubs
Auction drafts are a different beast when it comes to planning out your roster, because you have the chance to draft any non-keeper player in the league. That’s where some skill in reading your opponents comes into play. “You have to know how to play the other people in the auction to a certain extent,” said NFL.com’s Alex Gelhar. “Almost like a poker game.” Some players will “bluff” their bids, looking to drive up the price while making sure you don’t land a certain player for too little.
As far as the best auction-draft strategy, every single analyst I talked to subscribed to the so-called “stars and scrubs” game plan. In other words, be willing to shell out big bucks for a few big-volume players — the stars. Then, use the remaining balance of your budget on cheaper players with some upside — the scrubs.
“It never feels good when you’re filling the back end of your roster with, like, Allen Hurns,” said NFL.com’s Matt Harmon. “Sorry, Allen Hurns. But leaving the draft with the most balanced roster is a good way to get fourth place, and in fantasy football, it’s like Ricky Bobby: ‘If you’re not first, you’re last.’”
“The suckers are the guys who are trying to go for value picks throughout the auction, and then oftentimes, once the draft is done, they’ll have money left,” said Silva. “They’re just complete suckers.”
Yeah, that was definitely me last year. No more.
Know Who to Avoid
OK, it’s draft time. You’ve reset your thinking. You’ve done your homework and formulated a plan of attack. That’s great! But, of course, in fantasy football, as Footballguys co-owner Sigmund Bloom told me, “Every strategy works if you take the right players.”
Easy! Just take the right players.
So, with that in mind, let’s start with players the experts are avoiding. Just about everyone I talked to warned of the dangers reaching in the draft for a player that overachieved last season, and a pair of signal-callers came up more than once in this category. “Derek Carr is going as the sixth or seventh quarterback,” said Rotoworld’s Patrick Daugherty. “That’s realistic, but I don’t think it’s the most likely outcome; he’s kind of overperformed his rate stats the past two years, but is still a 7.0-yards-per-attempt guy [which ranked 18th last year], and he’s had a flukily high touchdown rate [5.0 percent in 2016, tied for ninth].”
Matt Ryan was another regression candidate that might be coming off the board in drafts higher than he should.
“Ryan is somebody I’m avoiding,” said Gelhar. “He’s a phenomenal player, a great quarterback coming off an MVP season, but all of his efficiency stats were off the charts — and he’s gonna regress back to the mean.”
It’s also important to keep an eye on strength of schedule, because for some players, long stretches of tough opponents could have an outsize effect on performance. “I love Dak Prescott, but he scares me,” said Silva. “The Cowboys start the season against the Giants, at the Broncos, and at the Cardinals, and then they host the Rams. That’s leading off with three opponents who ranked top-four in pass DVOA last year, and then the Rams, who don’t quite have a pushover pass defense, and they just hired Wade Phillips. That’s a quarter of the season where you don’t know whether to start him.”
For some players, it’s less about strength of schedule and more about home vs. road splits. At the quarterback position in particular, it may not be worth investing in a player you can only confidently start half the time because of poor performance on the road. “I’ve been avoiding Roethlisberger,” said Kelley. “The reputation is kind of starting to catch up to him a little bit because of his struggles on the road. But people look at it and see Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and Martavis Bryant, and he’s going ninth in ADP at quarterback. I think I have him at 16th or 17th at quarterback. One of our articles last year did a comparison and his performance on the road the past three years is roughly equivalent to where Brock Osweiler was last year. You have half the season where he’s Brock Osweiler.” And that’s not even taking into account the fact that Roethlisberger seems to miss a few games every year.
Some players don’t fall into any specific bucket. But because they’re on a bad team, it might make sense to stay away. Bloom said he’s avoiding running back Leonard Fournette “just because he’s going in the second or the early third and I just don’t trust Jacksonville to be competent.”
Another thing to consider is which teams could change their style this season. That’s important because for teams going to a more run-heavy approach, receivers will simply see fewer targets.
“[Jaguars receiver] Allen Robinson’s a guy who I’ve just been trashing every single podcast and article I’ve gotten,” said Barrett. “He’s just super-cornerback-sensitive [and] Blake Bortles sucks — plus they’re going to go more run-heavy this year.”
“I’m not ending up with Mike Evans,” said Bloom. “He had a ton of targets in the first half of the year [103 over the first eight games]. Once the Bucs’ defense and the running game got going, Winston was only throwing the ball 35 times or less a game. Most games, Evans’s targets dropped down into the single digits [70 total targets over the final eight games, or 8.75 per game].”
… And Who to Target
As for sleepers to keep an eye on this year, the experts had plenty of thoughts. The first thing place to look is for the “positive” regression candidates, like Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer. “Palmer’s 2015 season was insane,” said Barrett (he threw for 4,671 yards, 35 touchdowns, and just 11 picks at a league-best 8.7 yards per attempt). “He [had] the second-highest-rated quarterback season of the past decade by PFF that year. But last season he just looked completely cooked … at first. But then he was the fifth-highest-graded quarterback [in the league] from Week 8 to Week 17.”
“Palmer is another guy whose touchdown rate dipped sharply last year,” said Silva. “He lost over 2 percentage points in touchdown rate from 2015 [6.5 to 4.4 percent],” meaning, he could be due for a bounce-back year.
You can also get some value from players that may have a less-than-stellar reputation, but play on good teams with the potential to surprise. “I think that Andy Dalton’s got a chance,” said Yates. “Cincinnati is a year removed from five straight playoff seasons, so it’s a good team. They just got destroyed by injuries last year, and they’ve got plenty of wide receivers for him to throw to, not the least of which is A.J. Green or John Ross.”
Daugherty agreed. “Dalton’s kind of always been a running joke, but he’s always been better in real life than the perception, and he’s definitely usually been better in fantasy than people would like to believe.”
Don’t be afraid to take a chance on a backup skills player that could earn a bigger role this year. Especially if that talented backup landed in a proven, productive system. “[Chiefs rookie] Kareem Hunt is my boy,” said Barrett. “For the past 13 seasons, Andy Reid’s lead running back has averaged 19.5 PPR fantasy points per game. I mean, part of that is Brian Westbrook, LeSean McCoy, and Jamaal Charles, but I think there’s a potential [Hunt] could supplant Spencer Ware at some point in the season.”
“Might be the most fun I’ve had watching a running back on tape in three or four years,” he continued. “Here’s my report on him: ‘Hunt has the balance of a tightrope breakdancer, the elusiveness of a greased-up deaf guy, and the unwillingness to go down of a weeble.’ He was our top-rated running back in college last season.”
Suspensions can create a lot of uncertainty in the fantasy landscape, but sometimes it’s a gamble worth taking, whether you’re betting on the suspended player or his backup. Silva highlighted Tampa Bay running back Jacquizz Rodgers as an underrated target. Rodgers should fill in for the suspended Doug Martin during the first three weeks of the season against the Dolphins, Bears, and Vikings. All three of those teams finished in the bottom half of Football Outsiders DVOA last season, as Silva pointed out. “Doug Martin was pretty ineffective last season, and maybe Rodgers starts really hot and puts the Bucs in a position where they can’t take him off the field.”
Conversely, Yates suggested using Martin’s three-game suspension for violating the NFL’s drug policy to your advantage. “Reports [on Martin] are strong so far in Tampa Bay, and you’re going to get him at a discount, because he’s going to miss three games. So I think there’s potential value there.”
And there’s always going to be players that straddle the “avoid” and “target” camps. Despite the fact he might be playing with a rookie quarterback, Harmon likes Bears receiver Cameron Meredith’s prospects this year. “I think he’s the favorite to lead the Bears in targets. I think he’s a damn good player. I think he has thousand-yard upside. I split up his Reception Perception sample from the games where he was primarily an outside receiver and the games where he was primarily a slot receiver and he was really successful on both. He’s just really good, and he’s an incredible athlete.”
Minnesota’s coming off a low-scoring (23rd in points), low-volume passing year (18th in yards, 21st in touchdowns), but that’s not keeping Harmon from going all in on Stefon Diggs. “I’m a huge, huge, huge Diggs fan,” said Harmon. “He’s a player that’s come out above the 70 percent success rate against man coverage both of his seasons for Reception Perception. I really like his game as an all-around wideout. I think he can win deep and I think he can win short, no matter how they decide to use him.”
Keep an eye on players whose teams have experienced a lot of year-to-year turnover.
“Jeremy Maclin, I mean, there’s a ton of targets available in that offense in Baltimore,” said Thorman. “Mike Wallace isn’t exactly a possession guy. Breshad Perriman is a projection. So I think Maclin can have like that Steve Smith–plus role, and he’s super cheap.”
Same goes for in the Redskins. “Jamison Crowder was quietly one of the most targeted receivers in the red zone last year,” said Daugherty. “He was 16th in the red zone [among receivers]. And now they’ve lost DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garçon. He’s ‘a pure slot guy’ who pretty quickly showed last year that he was going to be more than just a pure slot guy.”
Bloom recommended Ted Ginn Jr. for the same reason. “The Saints let [Brandin] Cooks go, they targeted Ginn right away in free agency, and they know Ginn’s game well — he’s in the division,” said Bloom. “I think they’ve got a plan for him and I think we shouldn’t underestimate what he can do statistically as one of the top-three receivers in this offense. The offense supports three fantasy-relevant wide receivers. It should again this year.”
As for the tight ends group, a pair of names kept coming up, as both find themselves in the position to inherit a sizable chunk of targets and red zone looks.
Barrett and Daugherty both mentioned Colts tight end Jack Doyle. “In the eight games Dwayne Allen missed over the past three seasons, Doyle or Coby Fleener averaged 17.3 fantasy points per game,” said Barrett. “The rest of the time, they only averaged 7.7.” With Allen now in New England, Doyle has a chance to make a big jump in production in 2017.
“People started taking Doyle seriously last year,” said Daugherty. “Andrew Luck always very heavily targets his tight end, and now Jack Doyle is the unquestioned no. 1 guy.”
Lions tight end Eric Ebron was another frequently cited target. “The Lions lost Anquan Boldin this offseason,” said Kelley, “which clears up a lot of end zone and red zone looks. I think he’s got a chance to be a big surprise this year.”
“Boldin was actually third in the NFL in red zone targets (22) last year,” said Silva, “So that’s leaving behind a lot of opportunity.” And, as Gelhar noted, “Boldin lined up in the slot and tight to the line of scrimmage all the time and was basically like a tight end last year, so with him gone there could be a lot of opportunity for Ebron.”
Aim for Fun
OK, yeah, there’s a lot here to digest. And even if you go off these principles, there’s plenty of room for error — that’s why finding a consensus on any one player in fantasy football is all but impossible. But if there was one overarching theme I heard from the various experts I talked to, it was to not lose sight of the point of playing fantasy football: to have fun.
The biggest mistake you can make in this year’s draft, is, per Daugherty, “Not getting ‘your guys.’ You won’t have any fun. Be bold and pull the trigger on your guys; what’s really the difference between taking a guy in the sixth or the eighth round? If you really want that player, you should go him. It’s just more fun.”
“If you take Rob Gronkowski in the first round or the second round,” said Bloom, “maybe there’s an injury risk that he’ll get hurt and your season will be lost because you’ll lose your top pick, but in the meantime, every time he spikes it in the end zone, you’re there with him. Maybe Marshawn Lynch is gonna be too old and broken down, but if you love Lynch, take him in the third round. Every time he jumps backwards into the end zone and grabs his crotch, it’s like you’re grabbing your crotch with him.”
“Fantasy is all about having fun at the end of the day,” said Gelhar. “Everybody wants to win, but it’s far more fun week-to-week having the players you believe in and want to root for on your roster, sinking or swimming with them, as opposed to watching your cousin Kyle or whomever have the player you wanted and racking up points. That just ruins the fantasy season more than anything.”
Thanks to Jordan Coley, Charlotte Goddu, Danny Heifetz, and Shaker Samman for transcription assistance.