There are more ways to examine fantasy football than ever before. The number of stats-based resources and analysis sites has exploded in recent years, and as a professed fantasy geek whose relationship with his keeper league is among the longest and most important in his life, I love it.
All that information can come with a drawback, though. Namely, boiling fantasy football down to opportunity-based thinking can sometimes feel like a chore. It’s good to head into your draft with a strategy—stockpiling players with a massive target share is wise; there’s sneaky-good value in players who’ve been relevant for so long that they’re no longer exciting—but the real purpose of fantasy football is simple: It’s supposed to be fun.
At its core, fantasy is about using a small bit of emotional investment to make fall Sundays that much more exciting. The best way to enhance your excitement is by assembling the most entertaining team imaginable. So for the fourth straight year (!), I’m providing a resource for those in leagues with auction drafts: I’m using the standard $200 in imaginary money and the average auction values listed by FantasyPros (set to 10-team league settings) to assemble the roster that will maximize the joy you can derive from fantasy football every week.
This isn’t about prudence, upside, or even winning. It’s about having one hell of a good time.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers: $29
When I’ve put together this list in years past, I’ve tended to skimp on my quarterback. The mind-numbing efficiency of the league’s best passers goes against the spirit of the exercise, and the guys who carry small price tags and can inflict damage with their feet have been better fits. Not this year.
Rodgers is the top-rated quarterback in virtually every preseason fantasy ranking; he’s also the one most likely to perform a borderline supernatural act every Sunday. That stretch early last season when everyone pretended like Rodgers might be on the decline was fun, but if November and December were any indication, his sorcery is more potent than ever.
Rodgers lacks Russell Wilson’s Houdini-dangling-above-a-shark-tank level of elusiveness and Cam Newton’s ability to moonlight as a piece of human demolition equipment, but no quarterback makes the use of a DVR more essential. At least once per game, Rodgers will rip off a throw that warrants a Wait … what? and sends you scrambling for the remote. That rate tripled during last year’s playoffs, when no. 12 decided to grow wings and start flying around the field. His throw to Jared Cook in Green Bay’s divisional-round victory over the Cowboys still makes no sense given our understanding of space and time. Here’s rare footage of that play:
LeSean McCoy, RB, Bills: $46
The 2016 version of Shady may have been the most entertaining one to date, and I don’t say that lightly. His knack for turning defenders’ joints into damp, off-brand paper towels has long been something to behold, as McCoy’s inimitable style of play has routinely elicited And1-mixtape-tour reactions. Last season he introduced an element of tape-measure power to his game, combining that with his ability to jump-cut dudes into a different dimension. The results were hardly fair.
McCoy recorded 22 carries of 15 yards or more, tied with Ezekiel Elliott for the most in the league and good for an average of nearly 1.4 per game. Shady was a virtual lock to go scalding through an opposing secondary every Sunday, racking up 1,267 rushing yards at a clip of 5.4 yards per carry—the highest mark of his career. And he did it all while leaving his calling card of crumbled defenders strewn helplessly across the field.
Mike Gillislee, RB, Patriots: $9
While we’re celebrating the 2016 Bills offense, let’s toss McCoy’s old backfield mate into the mix. After missing the entire 2014 season with a hamstring injury, Gillislee was ruthless as Buffalo’s secondary option over the past two years. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry in both 2015 and 2016, and was the leader in Football Outsiders’ running back DVOA by an absurd margin last fall. The guy is a big play waiting to happen: Despite tallying only 101 carries last season, he racked up 10 rushes of at least 20 yards.
Gillislee likely won’t be available for nine bucks in any league that features reasonable people, but if you happen to be surrounded by friends who hate the Pats and/or worry about how many touches he’ll get in New England, pounce as quickly as you can. LeGarrette Blount finished last season with 18 touchdowns and 299 carries; now that Blount is in Philadelphia, Gillislee has a chance to emerge as the Patriots’ newest scoring machine.
Julio Jones, WR, Falcons: $59
I have a small suggestion for the Falcons coaching staff. Whether it’s via hypnosis or other elaborate means, it’s worth at least trying to convince Julio that every game is the NFC championship. The playoffs somehow took him to a higher level of consciousness, as if all the destructive power of a sentient Skynet were channeled into one 6-foot-3, 220-pound human.
Antonio Brown remains the emperor, king, and overlord of the Always Open Club, but Julio remains the perfect wide receiver. No pass catcher is the more likely subject of a “Are you watching what _______ is doing?” text message thread between friends. Before anyone could blink, Jones had totaled 300 receiving yards in last October’s 48–33 win over the Panthers, and the most incredible part was that he made it look easy.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans: $24
No one deserves the fate bestowed on the Texans’ wide receivers last year, but Hopkins deserved it least of all. Most of the players on this team are listed because their speed and strength make them capable of feats we otherwise could not comprehend. For example, Jones stiff-arming three Packers into the ether en route to a 50-yard touchdown barely feels tethered to reality.
The beauty of Hopkins’s game, by contrast, doesn’t lie in its power, but in its grace. He navigates the sideline better than any receiver in the game, to the point that I question whether his feet possess autonomy. Outfitted with Mr. Fantastic arms and Aquaman hands, Hopkins routinely turns errant throws into simple-looking snags. He survives on nuance, and watching Brock Osweiler and the sputtering Houston offense choke that out of him last season was tough to stomach.
The single benefit of last year’s godawful Texans quarterback situation is that Hopkins can be had on the cheap in 2017. An average of 12 receivers have been coming off the board before Nuk in fantasy drafts, according to FantasyPros. That shouldn’t happen. Never has more Holy Shit potential been available for $24.
DeSean Jackson, WR, Buccaneers: $6
Jackson is another guy who will likely cost more than his listed price in a fantasy league with owners who’ve ever watched football. If you’re playing with people worried about Jackson’s 2016 production, though, take full advantage. Since 2000, there have been 18 receiver seasons in which a player has finished with fewer than 65 catches and at least 1,000 yards. Jackson has four of them. (No one else has more than two.) Entering his 10th season, he’s still one of the most jaw-dropping deep threats in the league, and he’s stepping into an offense that absolutely loves chucking it.
Only Cam Newton had a deeper average depth of target last year than Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston (10.48), and only Ryan Fitzpatrick devoted a higher percentage of his throws to passes that traveled between 16 and 20 yards, according to Cian Fahey’s Pre-Snap Reads quarterback catalog. Jackson was built for this offense, and he should see more targets now that he’s no longer flanked by the bevvy of pass-catching options in Washington.
Martellus Bennett, TE, Packers: $5
As a Bears fan, I can confirm that slotting Bennett in as my tight end feels akin to punching myself in the face. But there just aren’t many fun options at the position this year. By now, we know the established (read: expensive) mainstays, and the incoming rookies are all too risky to be enticing Week 1 plays. Bennett represents the ideal middle ground: He offers legitimate entertainment value for a bargain price.
It’s been years since Rodgers has had a tight end with Bennett’s kind of talent, and the 6-foot-6 275-pounder should flourish as an after-the-catch demon in Green Bay’s offense. If you follow this list completely and also draft Rodgers on your fantasy team, you’ll get another fun benefit: the unparalleled joy of quarterback-receiver double points.
Texans D/ST: $1
Sacks are the first facet of fantasy defense that I chase, and the Texans should get plenty over the course of this season. There are Blumhouse movies less terrifying than the thought of Whitney Mercilus, Jadeveon Clowney, and J.J. Watt patrolling the same defensive line.
Justin Tucker, K, Ravens: $1
Your team needs a kicker, so you might as well have the best one. I am contractually prevented from writing any more about this.
Carson Palmer, QB, Cardinals: $1
Arizona head coach Bruce Arians’s “Fuck it, we’re going deep” offensive philosophy makes for a spectacle when it’s clicking, and Palmer rebounded from a shaky first half of last season to put up good numbers down the stretch. He’s worth rolling the dice on for $1, if only to dream about the Cardinals offense returning to 2015 form.
John Ross, WR, Bengals: $1
I’ve gone on record as saying that Ross’s fantasy outlook this season doesn’t stack up to that of many of his draft mates, but factors like opportunity, fit, and infrastructure have no bearing on this list. You know what does? This:
DeVante Parker, WR, Dolphins: $4
This is the year that Parker will be unleashed. There just aren’t guys who can bully, outrun, and outleap corners available this late in fantasy drafts.
C.J. Prosise, RB, Seahawks: $1
Thomas Rawls and Eddie Lacy—both of whom are set to become free agents after this season—aren’t enough to scare me away from Prosise. The last time we saw the Notre Dame product was in Week 11 of last fall, when he scampered through the Eagles secondary and provided Seattle’s offense with a dimension it’d lack for the rest of the 2016 campaign. Prosise, who has also shown his chops as a receiving threat, is a potential fantasy terror.
Evan Engram, TE, Giants: $1
Have you seen Engram play?
I have no idea if he’s built to be an in-line NFL tight end, but he runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, makes plays at will, and should get every chance to contribute in a pass-happy offense. That’s enough for me.
Theo Riddick, RB, Lions: $5
No player is a better fit for his scheme than Riddick in the Lions offense. It’s easy to imagine coordinator Jim Bob Cooter cackling at night as he devises new and unusual ways to get Riddick open in space. As long as he stays healthy, Riddick should find the end zone far more often than the average pass-catching back.