What’s valuable in the NFL? A great quarterback? Always—unless you’re the Eagles and can win with a backup. A great running back? Not usually—unless you’re the Rams and have Todd Gurley. A treasure chest of future second-round picks? Now you’re speaking Bill Belichick’s language. Welcome to Value Week, when we’ll be looking at what moves the needle for NFL teams—and what doesn’t.
The popularity of fantasy football has exploded during the past decade, and the quality and sheer quantity of analysis around the game has taken a parallel track. With a veritable mountain of information at our fingertips, fantasy has changed. Everyone in your league already knows all about that rookie running back, or that third-year wide receiver, or that long-shot tight end. And even if they don’t, a quick mouse click or two can produce those players’ projected volume share, their SPARQ score, their athletic comps, their favorite color, their bank account user ID and password, or any number of potentially applicable metrics. “Sleepers” are a thing of the past.
But in the post-sleeper world, it’s still possible to find value. The best way to get a fantasy edge is no longer just knowing which players to draft—it’s knowing when to take them. With the help of some of the sharpest fantasy analysts in the game, I put together a field guide to squeezing the most value out of your fantasy football draft in 2018.
Don’t get cute in the early rounds
Strategically, it’s tough to really go wrong in the first few rounds of the draft. Just stick by one of those widely available ADP (average draft position) charts. “I tend to not stray from ADP all that severely [in the first couple rounds],” numberFire editor-in-chief JJ Zachariason told me. “I’ll pick a guy a few picks higher or lower [than their ADP], but generally speaking I don’t stray that far from it because if you’re wrong, the opportunity cost is a lot more significant in the early rounds than in the later rounds.”
The first few picks you make in a draft should build the foundation of your team; if you reach for a player early and miss, you’re going to lose out on a massive amount of fantasy point potential. Players like Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, Todd Gurley, DeAndre Hopkins, and Odell Beckham Jr. are high on every ADP list for a reason: When healthy, these über-talented superstars are going to be focal points in their respective offenses, and their paths toward top-tier fantasy production is clear. Resist the urge to reach too much with your picks in the early going.
Take preseason hype with a grain of salt
OK, we’re out of the first few rounds. Now what?
Coachspeak, beat writer reports, and preseason highlights can heavily influence when some players come off the board in fantasy drafts … but going along with all that hype isn’t always the smart play. Volume is, and always will be, the most important variable. “It’s not exactly reinventing the wheel, but the no. 1 thing to look for is opportunity,” said Daniel Kelley, an editor at Pro Football Focus. “Everyone loves [Buccaneers receiver] Chris Godwin, but as long as all the other guys [like Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Adam Humphries, O.J. Howard, and Cameron Brate] are there, there’s only so many targets Godwin can get.”
Finding value isn’t always about identifying talent; it’s about finding players with the clearest avenue to playing time and production. “[Cowboys rookie receiver] Michael Gallup might not be phenomenal,” said Kelley. “But who else is Dak Prescott going to throw to? I might not think Brice Butler is as good as other receivers, but in Arizona he’s going to have a chance for a lot of looks.” The departures of pass catchers Jaron Brown, John Brown, Andre Ellington, Troy Niklas, and Brittan Golden leave a total of 206 targets, 101 receptions, 1,275 yards, and eight touchdowns of last year’s Cardinals’ passing game up for grabs. Butler could be a prime beneficiary.
Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills “could easily finish as a top-25 fantasy [receiver] this year, and he’s being drafted as [WR47],” said Evan Silva, senior football editor at Rotoworld. “I mean, he was top-30 last year, and they lost Jarvis Landry; they lost 290 targets from last season—that’s the second-most targets missing from any team.” It’s easy to see Stills pick up some of Landry’s volume and post bigger numbers, and while he’ll have competition for targets from free-agent newcomers Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson, taking Stills a round earlier than his ADP suggests could still provide plenty of value in return.
Projecting volume share is rarely straightforward, and when rookie players are involved, it adds an increased element of uncertainty. Some drafters lean on what coaches are saying in training camp pressers; for others, actions speak louder than words, as the distribution of first-team snaps during preseason action can often tell you more than anything a coach says.
“One example where coachspeak and beat-writer hype does make sense right now is with Peyton Barber in Tampa Bay,” said Fantasy Guru’s Graham Barfield. “All offseason, they’ve pumped up that Barber is going to get a bigger role than expected, and in the first game, in the preseason, Barber played 14 of the Bucs’ 15 first-team snaps with Ryan Fitzpatrick.” (After two preseason games, Barber has played 25 of those 34 first-team snaps.)
Meanwhile, rookie second-rounder Ronald Jones II, who came out of the draft with plenty of hype, has struggled in camp per beat reports, particularly in pass-blocking and receiving drills, and doesn’t look ready for a full workload. Barber’s the lead back in that offense, at least until Jones acclimates to the pro game. And that could take a while; perhaps all year.
Take preseason negativity with a grain of salt, too
Sometimes, even with proven fantasy producers, an unfavorable narrative can push players who are still due for major volume down draft boards. Identifying those guys offers the potential for value.
“A lot of the flashier names don’t have ‘sleeper’ ADPs anymore,” said Scott Barrett, a senior fantasy analyst at Pro Football Focus. “But you know who does? Really unsexy, gross names, who have historical production behind them. So I will always [avoid] guys who are priced based entirely on hype, and always grab those easy producers.
“Blake Bortles is just a gross name because he’s not good at actual football,” said Barrett. “But he’s still good at fantasy football, and finished 13th, eighth, and third in fantasy points in the past three seasons, respectively.” Bortles is listed as the QB28 on FantasyPros consensus ADP.
“Frank Gore’s another one,” said Barrett. “He’s not flashy or sexy, but he might be immortal. Every year, it’s like, let’s draft Gore as an RB59, because he’s old—but he finished 20th last year, 12th the year before that, 11th the year before that. As much as I love Kenyan Drake—and I love Kenyan Drake—the team is saying it might be a committee. Gore might start; we have no idea.” Gore’s currently ranked at RB67, representing the potential for enormous value as a late-round flier.
Even a player like Alex Smith, who produced career-high numbers for the Chiefs last year, has struggled to shake a game-manager label, and his value may be depressed heading into 2018 with a new team. “Smith is [QB19 right now],” said Barrett. “He finished third among quarterbacks in fantasy points per game last year, and people are overreacting to the change in scenery from Kansas City to Washington. I don’t think that’s smart. I mean, look at what Jay Gruden’s done: As an offensive coordinator and head coach, Gruden’s quarterbacks have finished fourth, fifth, ninth, there’s a committee, and then third in total fantasy points in the last five years, respectively.”
Entire teams can carry that same type of negative stigma, and this offseason, the Bills are one of them. But while Buffalo’s offense may struggle, there’s still a baseline level of fantasy production to squeeze out of the highest-volume players. “Another guy I like is Kelvin Benjamin,” said Barrett. “Right now he’s [WR43]. [In 2016 and 2015], he ranked 25th and 15th in fantasy points, respectively. He wasn’t very good last year, but he was hurt most of the season [with a knee injury]. There’s not much competition at all for targets there.”
Players can be dragged down in the draft by the weight of overanalysis, too. “More than ever, I think we obsess about little things,” said NBC Sports’ Pat Daugherty. “One of the only places where you can find an edge now is by focusing on what players are while everyone else is focused on what they’re not.”
“[Some fantasy managers] might obsess about what Jordan Howard and Lamar Miller are not: Howard isn’t a pass catcher, and Miller isn’t, uh, good, necessarily. But when you get so hung up on Howard not being a pass catcher, you really underrate the fact that he’s a secure, two-down, locked-in goal-line back in a Bears offense that should be better this year.” Miller, meanwhile, is the Texans’ unquestioned starter and workhorse, and could see a boost in production with the return of Deshaun Watson.
Don’t forget about injuries
Taking in and processing every fantasy variable can be like trying to drink out of a firehose. There’s just so much information that people often miss important clues. For instance, players who struggled last year due to nagging injuries have bounce-back potential.
“One way to take advantage in fantasy drafts is knowing which players weren’t necessarily hurt so badly that they missed time last year, but that had their performance hampered by that injury,” said Sigmund Bloom, co-owner at Football Guys, “Now, observers are saying ‘they’re back to their old selves.’ [Seahawks receiver] Tyler Lockett would be a good example.”
Lockett suffered a compound fracture of his fibula and tibia in Week 16 of the 2016 season, and struggled to get back to full speed for most of last year. He’s now reportedly looking as fast as he was pre-injury. Oh, and Lockett’s in an offense that lost a key starter in Paul Richardson during the offseason, too.
Knowing that context is key. “A down point in someone’s career isn’t necessarily based on decline,” said Bloom. “Jamison Crowder was hurt for half the year. Emmanuel Sanders was playing hurt a lot last year, too.”
My thought here was that Emmanuel Sanders' 2017 success rates decreased primarily due to injuries. It's worth noting that he was also faster in 2016, according to @friscojosh's game speed research using #NextGenStats tracking data. pic.twitter.com/lx27JY24Tx— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) August 22, 2018
“The washing machine of the NFL news cycle can make that stuff feel like ancient history,” said Bloom. “That’s information that isn’t always absorbed into the conventional wisdom about players. There’s just so much. And a lot of the time, it doesn’t come out until after the season.”
Target players on teams with prolific offenses … or bad defenses
This may seem intuitive, but it can get overlooked in the fantasy chaos: Skill players on teams that gain a lot of yards and score a lot of points are drawing from a deeper well of potential fantasy points. “I’ve done content on and research on how to spot breakout running backs and wide receivers, and the one constant is that a lot of these players are just coming from good offenses,” said Zachariason. “I mean, it’s such a simple concept, but realistically the reason why these breakout guys are coming from good offenses is that the field is still undervaluing [a player’s] situation.”
“Most of my late-round picks are guys that are in, at least, above-average offenses,” he said. “I just drafted [Eagles running back] Corey Clement in a draft; you’re playing probability here—I fully believe that Jay Ajayi is going to be the lead runner in that offense, but at the same time there’s a chance that Clement emerges, given the usage that he saw last season, even when they traded for Ajayi.
“I’m drafting a lot of [49ers running back] Matt Breida too,” said Zachariason. “Again, he’s in an offense that should score points, they should move the ball—they were first in yards per drive after Jimmy Garoppolo took over last year—[and] at the same time, we don’t know what to expect with Jerick McKinnon. There’s a lot of volume to be had even in that second running back spot. We’ve seen that historically in Kyle Shanahan offenses.”
The best recent example is when Shanahan coordinated the Falcons’ record-setting offense in 2016. That year Tevin Coleman, in a complementary role to starter Devonta Freeman, rushed for 520 yards and eight touchdowns and caught an additional 31 passes and three scores.
Conversely, said Greg Smith, a fantasy analyst at TwoQBs, “If you’re playing PPR [point per reception], you have to target running backs who catch passes [in the late rounds], and you probably want to look for guys who are playing on a team with a bad defense. We know that a lot of teams are playing committees to some extent with their backfield, so going after a pass-catching running back in theory is good—so long as that player is used a lot.”
Your best bet is to target guys who are going to be on teams who are playing from behind a lot, because teams spread out, hurry up, and pass the rock more often when they’re trailing.
Take shots on players in murky depth charts
By the time you get into the middle and late rounds of your draft, most of the players left on the board will either be stuck behind a star or have an ill-defined role in their offense. If you’re taking a player who fits into the former category, your guy isn’t likely to be a factor except in the case of injury. The players who fall into the latter category, though, can sometimes return incredible value—and sooner than you might think.
“With receivers specifically,” said Zachariason, “I tend to look at situations that are ambiguous; if there’s no clear-cut guy who’s going to see 25 to 30 percent of the team’s targets—there’s no A.J. Green, there’s no Antonio Brown on that team—and you see [one team’s receiver group all has] their ADPs all squished together,” that could be a good time to take a shot in the dark on your favorite of the bunch.
“A good example of this would be Tennessee,” he said. “We don’t know anything about Corey Davis yet. I mean, I love Davis as a prospect, but I’m also playing probability here; I’m trying to be cognizant of the idea that Taywan Taylor could emerge, especially now that Rishard Matthews’s [status is unclear]. Taylor becomes one of my favorite late-round dart throws. He’s in a good offense, or what we think might be a good offense, there’s positive regression coming in that offense because Marcus Mariota’s touchdown rate was so low last year, and on top of that, you have some question marks on what exactly Corey Davis is at that WR no. 1 spot.”
“When there is a situation that’s more nebulus,” said Smith, “and you’re not really sure who’s going to be the guy, whether that’s wide receiver or running back corps, it’s usually best to go after the guy who’s cheaper.”
“The guy who’s being drafted first is the sucker bet,” he said. “Not always, but often enough that it’s worth just taking the discount and finding [another player] somewhere else.”
Another example is Patriots running back Jeremy Hill: “The last time we saw him in Cincinnati,” said Bloom, “it looked like he had lost his confidence. But we know that any competent running back can harvest value in the Patriots backfield; Sony Michel’s knee already had to be drained. Rex Burkhead is great, but he played about half the year last year. James White’s application is limited.” Jeremy Hill’s ADP right now is that of an undrafted free agent: Overall 240, RB70. A late-round flier might be worthwhile.
Here’s one more: “I know that people hate [Broncos running back] Devontae Booker,” said Silva, “but he’s the best pass-blocking back on the Broncos, and coaches love that. He’s their best receiving back; he’s averaged 8.9 yards per reception in his career. He’s not been an efficient runner, but they’ve had terrible offensive lines and things have not gone together for their running game as a unit.
“[Rookie Royce Freeman] is a decent prospect, but I think that a lot of coaching staffs just value reliability. I think Booker can give them that. I don’t think Booker’s going to get embarrassed by Freeman, where they need to get Freeman on the field. I think that Booker can stay involved at least to the extent that he gets nine to 14 touches a game, and if he holds off Freeman, he could even approach 16 to 19 touches a game. And you can get him every time in the 12th round.”
Take advantage of recency bias
When entire teams have a down year, it can drive the fantasy values of their top players down. “Another way to look for value or sleepers is to go after the guys who disappointed people last year,” said Smith. “The Raiders are a good example. That’s one of the reasons I like Amari Cooper so much [at his current ADP]: Just based on the type of player he is, based upon the type of players around him, it’s easy to project him as a target hog.”
“Cooper burned people last year, and people are afraid of Jon Gruden,” said Smith. “And hey, maybe rightfully so—but that fear is creating [a value opportunity] on Cooper. And Derek Carr, and Marshawn Lynch, too.”
That could apply to a few of the Giants’ key playmakers, as well. As Bloom pointed out, “Getting out from under the weight of Ben McAdoo” could bring about improvement on offense—maybe not to the same magnitude—but in a similar way that Sean McVay helped the Rams go from worst to first in scoring last season. “McVay did a lot of things for the Rams, but they were also just trudging through life under Jeff Fisher for that last year. Teams are going to be different than the last one we saw.”
Learn the meaning of arbitrage
For every early-to-mid-round player you really like, identify a “poor man’s” version of that player a little later in the draft. That way, you give yourself some flexibility—and if you miss on the first, higher-ranked player you’ve got a backup option a round or two later.
“When you have players that are similar in terms of the type of player they are, the archetype, and the real difference is just their team, or something like that, a lot of times you can find these [arbitrage] situations,” explained Chris Raybon, an analyst with ESPN+ and the Action Network.
Here’s one example: “If they’re a risky player, somebody like Robby Anderson, who [typically] goes before Kenny Stills,” said Raybon. “Obviously, there’s a lot of risk with deep-ball receivers in general, just because they’re harder to predict, they’re [somewhat reliant on] getting chunk plays. … With somebody like that, you might say, hey, I’m going to pass on Anderson and there’s this guy Kenny Stills who I can get two or three rounds after him. [Anderson’s ADP is 95, while Stills is at 119.] That’s literally going to give me the same type of upside, in the same type of situation: An underwhelming offense, underwhelming [or unclear] quarterback situation, similar target depth, all that stuff.”
In other words, Anderson may be better, but Stills could end up being a better value two rounds later. It’s all about maximizing opportunity cost.
Another example of a potential arbitrage scenario that Raybon threw out was Brandin Cooks and Marquise Goodwin. “They’re both in offenses where they’re not solidified as the top receiver, but they could still put up very good numbers because their coordinators are still going to know how to use them,” said Raybon. “They could be highly efficient, go get deep balls and chunk plays, they both have these no. 1 receiver skill sets even though they’re not really the archetype of the [traditional] no. 1 receiver.
“Brandin Cooks can lead his team in receiving if need be, and the Niners are talking about how Goodwin is clearly the no. 1 wide receiver right now.” But right now, Cooks’s ADP is 43rd overall, WR20, while Goodwin’s going 67th overall on average, WR29.
Here’s one more: “[Jets running back] Isaiah Crowell is an arbitrage version of pretty much any of those two-down backs in the RB2 tier,” said Raybon, in reference to other running backs not known for catching many passes. “He’s going to get 12 to 15 carries, he’s going to catch maybe two balls a game, but it’s just that his offense sucks compared to the other guys ahead of him.” At least, that’s the perception, but as Raybon notes: “We don’t know that for sure.” Crowell might end up providing more for less.
Have a plan for your last few roster spots
Some fantasy managers will use their final two or three skill-player picks on handcuffs—guys who will factor only because of injury to the starter—or maybe even a talented but raw player who could end up working his way onto the field late in the season. Bloom likes to take a different tack.
“One of the things that I like to do with late-round picks,” he said, “is target players that will have an early reveal. Players that, within the first two weeks, they’re going to show us that they’re going to be able to stick around on your roster and contribute—or that their risks are overwhelming their value, and you can move on.
“The key being: You know when to move on,” said Bloom. “Because when you can move on early, those first two or three waiver-wire runs are massively important. Often the biggest hits from the waiver wire emerge in those first few weeks.”
If you’re holding on to two or three longer-term projects, you could be wasting those roster spots you could use on immediate contributors. “With Jeremy Hill, we’ll see—it could be in the first week he’s not even active, or he could score three touchdowns. [Ravens receiver] John Brown could make it through the first game against Buffalo and look like [his old] self, and you’ve got something there. Or maybe he pulls up lame or they only use him for half the snaps, and you can move on.”
And finally, catch a ride on the sharps’ coattails
Ultimately, most of us don’t have time to spend hours and hours running hundreds of mocks in order to master the art of decision-making on draft day. But a few of the fantasy analysts I spoke to offered up the same shortcut to all of that: Study the right ADP lists.
“There are different levels of ADP charts,” said Silva. Some of the most commonly used ADP lists aggregate from a variety of free mock drafts, which can cloud the reliability of player values, especially in the middle and late rounds. A lot of people might leave in the eighth round of those drafts and not even finish. So, to get a better idea of which players have value late, said Silva, find ADP lists of pay-to-play drafts. “With Best Ball ADP, you’re having a better blend, people with skin in the game, even if it’s $3 and $5 drafts—no one’s taking off in Round 8. Just adding a little bit of skin in the game is big for reliability or dependability of ADP.”
“It’s not sexy or anything, [but using those higher-quality ADP lists] are almost like a cheat code,” said Pat Thorman, a fantasy analyst at Pro Football Focus. “With everyone getting so much better [at fantasy football], ADP is getting a lot sharper. With MFL10 ADP (based on pay-to-play best ball leagues), for instance, [hard-core fantasy players] have been hammering those drafts for the past six months. [Those guys] are mostly just fantasy analysts and real, real diehards who are studying ADP starting in February. As the offseason goes on, you’ve got people—they might not be the smartest, but they’re the most dedicated—they’re smoothing out all the edges on ADP.” Those lists, in other words, give you a better idea of the real value each player is projected to have this year in fantasy. And you can use that information to maximize the worth of each pick in your draft.
So, if you don’t have time to study depth charts, put together statistical spreadsheets, and get a feel for where the best values are in this year’s draft, you can just copy the people who do.
“Take that ADP list, bring it to your draft, and see who’s falling,” said Thorman. “Then you draft off of that. You’re going to soak up a lot of value using a sharp set of ADP results, and win rates have shown to positively correlate with draft value accumulation.”