Your draft is this week and you need an edge. Anybody can Google “Fantasy Football Ranks” and stumble upon your sleeper, as there is no such thing as a true sleeper in this era of social media. At least one owner in your league is well aware of every player on your sleeper list and is probably willing to draft him a round earlier than you. Sorry, but that’s the way it is. So where can you gain an edge?
That’s right … the early rounds.
Owners who reach to get the elite talent are going to be the owners who are managing late into the winter. Value is nice, but at the end of the day, production is rewarded, not value. Here are some bold predictions regarding players that are worth going the extra mile to draft … or avoid in some cases.
Claim: A NFC North receiver will lead all receivers in Fantasy points … and it won’t be Calvin Johnson.
Rationale: Let’s make this a process of elimination exercise, starting with your list of Top 15 receivers. First, you must cross out all players who don’t stand at least 6’3” tall, the most common height in recent history of the receivers that have finished in the Top 5 among receivers. Subtract all the 30-plus year old receivers; this is a young man’s game that rewards top notch athleticism, something that declines a bit, if even very slowly, with age. Let’s then rid our list of players that that failed to record an aDOT (average depth of target) of at least 13.3 last season, the average since 2011 for the top ranked Fantasy receiver. Last, but not least, I want a pass catcher I can count on to catch a high percentage of passes. Reasonable, right? Let’s eliminate any remaining receiver that has never ranked among the 15 most reliable in terms of catch rate. One name likely remains on your list … Alshon Jeffery.
Claim: Shonn Greene will score more touchdowns than Bishop Sankey … and Reggie Bush.
Rationale: I like Andre Ellington a lot this season, a player who I view as very talented and one that could take the next step this season. Shonn Green? He’s not that. He’s not talented and I don’t think that is going to change. But I always preach that “opportunity drives Fantasy success” and that is my argument for Greene. Bishop Sankey is the more talented running back, but would it surprise you if the rookie struggled to gain the ugly yard or two when the entire stadium knows a run is coming? Greene has been good at falling forward throughout his career and has reached pay dirt on nearly 28 percent of his career carries inside the 10-yard line. At the worst, I’ve got Greene as a change of pace back that gets the goal line work, but he has the potential to make this a timeshare, as it is no given that the 21-year-old Sankey is ready for a bell cow’s workload. As for Bush, I think he has a chance to be the Dwyane Wade of the NFL this season. He’s a dynamic playmaker that fits this offense well, but with his 30th birthday approaching, the Lions may relegate him to a Darren Sproles type role, one that will save his legs a bit and still play into his skill set. The Lions have plenty of targets when Matthew Stafford gets them close to the goal line (not to mention that Bush totaled one yard on 10 carries inside the 10-yard line last season), which means Bush is only going to score from distance. He is capable of recording a few highlight runs that go the distance, but the seven scores from a year ago might serve as a ceiling and I am projecting a regression to five.
Claim: Le’Veon Bell will lead the league in touches … and score more touchdowns than Jamaal Charles.
Rationale: NFL teams are not calling plays with Fantasy owners in mind; they do what produces results on the field. Once Bell got his game legs under him, Pittsburgh was comfortable putting their faith in the youngster, as he finished the season with nine straight 20-plus touch efforts. The consistent involvement was there and the wins followed, as the Steelers won all four games in which the rookie got his hands on the rock at least 25 times. He ranked third on the team in targets per game last season (trailing only Antonio Brown and the departed Emmanuel Sanders) and had only 62 percent of the Steelers carries last season (in large part due to missing three games). I’m looking for 5-6 targets in the passing game and 20-25 carries per game, a workload that few second year backs assume and one that should come with significant Fantasy production.
I don’t want to say Charles’ 19 touchdowns a year ago were fluky, but when a player scores once every 17.3 touches after managing a score once every 39 touches during his first five professional seasons, questions about an encore performance beg to be asked. This Andy Reid system is an effective one, but given the personnel of the Chiefs, are you really ready to say they finish with the sixth most points scored in the NFL again this season? It is also worth noting that all 12 of Charles’ rushing touchdowns came on first down last season. Do you think defenses might adjust and stack the box early? I think Bell does more to catch Charles than Charles does to fall back, but there is no way we don’t see at least some regression (if you split the difference between his career TD rate and last season’s, Charles scores 10-11 touchdowns in a 300 touch season).
Claim: Victor Cruz, going one round later, will out produce Keenan Allen … and the Giants will score more points than the Chargers this season after scoring 102 fewer points in 2013.
Philip Rivers completed 378 of his 511 passes for 4,478 yards, 32 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions.
Eli Manning completed 317 of his 551 passes for 3,818 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 27 interceptions.
Keenan Allen caught 71 passes for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns.
Victor Cruz caught 73 passes for 998 yards and four touchdowns.
Let’s have some fun with numbers:
Manning had completed 61.3 percent of his passes over the previous five seasons. If he just matched that number last season, you’d be looking at another 21 completions (not to mention more pass plays called due to the increased efficiency). Adjust Cruz’s catch count accordingly (he was responsible for 23 percent of Manning’s completions last season) and that results in five more catches for another 69 yards, putting him 21 yards ahead of Allen.
Take that one step further and assume that Cruz simply matches his career TD per catch rate, and he would have scored 8-9 touchdowns (mathematically it comes to 8.8) on those 78 catches, which are reasonable adjustments if Eli Manning has an average season. This projection (78-1,067-9) is a step up from 2013, but it’s still six catches and 247 yards shy of Cruz’s average season from 2011-2012, indicating that there is upside for even more improvement if Manning has a reasonably effective season.
Let’s go to San Diego and play the same numbers game. Rivers attempted 39 more passes than he has averaged since becoming the starter in 2006. He also completed 69.5 percent of his passes, quite the jump from the 63.7 percent he averaged over the previous seven seasons.
If he regresses to the mean in those two categories, you’re looking at a season with 56 fewer completions, which would play out as a 10-11 catch decrease for Allen given the percentage of completions he was responsible for. At 14.7 yards per reception and a touchdown every nine catches, that would mean a decrease of about 150 receiving yards and one score. Playing the game of averages, that would make a season of 61 catches 896 yards and seven scores a reasonable projection if you assume that this offense won’t function at the most efficient rate in all of football again.
In short, regression to the mean for both of these squads is in order, and the Giants are in a division where I’m told defense is optional. Both teams open up on Monday Night Football this season and I expect the Giants to hold the statistical edge from that point forward, with the Salsa Man leading the charge.
Claim: DeAndre Hopkins will finish behind Andre Johnson in Standard Fantasy points but … ahead of the receiver currently sitting atop of more than half of the depth charts in the AFC.
Rationale: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Ryan Fitzpatrick is not a bad thing (in Fantasy terms). He is willing to take chances down the field and places a lot of trust in his receivers, something I expect to favor the ultra-talented Hopkins, as he plays alongside an elite receiver in an offense being run by the “quarterback whisperer” Bill O’Brien. Let’s not forget that this is the same receiver who just less than 18 months ago left the NFL Combine with a higher grade than A.J. Green. Hopkins produced a very reasonable stat line for a rookie playing in a system that featured a historically bad quarterback season (52-802-2), and there is room for significant growth considering the fact that he caught just eight balls all season long on the opponents’ half of the field. Eight! In 16 games. Eight stinkin’ passes from Matt freakin’ Shaub. I’ll go out on a limb and say that improves in a big way this season, and the Texans second option out-produces the top WR on the Jets, Dolphins, Bills, Ravens, Browns, Jaguars, Chiefs, and Raiders. Yes, that means I think he exits 2014 as the best receiver from Clemson.
Claim: Ray Rice will total more Fantasy points than DeSean Jackson … and not just on a per game basis.
Rationale: Jackson doesn’t project as a player who is system-proof and I’m not crazy about the often conservative ‘Skins offensive game plan for the home run hitting wide out. Jackson is talented and a great receiver in the right offense, but this Washington offense is run-heavy, and has a strong possession receiver (Pierre Garcon) and an emerging tight end (Jordan Reed). Robert Griffin III ranked 20th in football (behind the likes of Mike Glennon and Geno Smith) in total number of yards tallied in the air on pass attempts, a potentially damning statistic for those hoping for a repeat season from Jackson.
Ray Rice, on the other hand, has looked good this preseason and was an elite Fantasy running back in two consecutive seasons (3,689 total yards and 25 touchdowns) before struggling last year. It is easy to forget that he is still just 27 years of age, essentially putting him in his physical prime. Joe Flacco has been awfully underwhelming of late and the addition of Steve Smith could well have just as great an impact on the running game as the passing game. Fantasy football is a cold hearted sport (just ask those who took a flier on Mike Vick in 2010), and drafting Rice doesn’t mean you have to make him the poster boy for your child; you play to win the game, and he could help you do that from Week 3 moving forward.
Claim: Randall Cobb will lead his team in receiver Fantasy points … and the NFL in receptions.
Rationale: Over his last 17 regular season games, Cobb has 12 games with at least 80 receiving yards and/or a touchdown. Jordy Nelson and Jarrett Boykin are physically imposing players, thus giving Cobb a well defined niche in one of (if not the) top offenses in all of football. I like his potential to fill a Wes Welker type of role in Green Bay, but with the ability to make defenses pay down the field, as he had a 20-plus yard reception in 14 of his last 17 games. Eddie Lacy gives the Packers the ability to maintain a balanced offense and if Rodgers is healthy for 16 games, there is no reason to think that the 24-year-old receiver can’t emerge as a WR1 in all formats and potentially a Top 5 option in PPR formats.
Claim: Andrew Luck is the only quarterback who will rush for 300 yards and finish the season among the Top 10 Fantasy quarterbacks.
Rationale: Much is being made of the mobile quarterback and the value they add with their ability to scramble, but given the change in rule enforcement and the spike in injuries, is it really safe to bet on a running signal caller? Luck is an elite passer that has the ability to move around; the ideal combination for a Fantasy owner, as it is a skill set that produces results and keeps him on the field. Cam Newton has been an elite rusher in his career, but offseason ankle surgery and now a fractured rib make him a long shot to run at his past rate and/or play 16 games. Aaron Rodgers’ injury last season cost the Packers valuable wins, and with Eddie Lacy running downhill behind him, what is the motivation for him to run with consistency? Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin are the other two options to make this prediction false, but the more they rush, the more their odds dip when it comes to making it through an entire season, and I don’t have a ton of faith in them being able to finish among the Top 10 if they are not as much of a threat to run. Both Kaep and RG3 play in run-oriented offenses that will stress ball control and ball security, two traits that are rarely found in an offense that produces a Top 10 quarterback. Luck is my fourth overall QB this season, and possesses the type of skill set that satisfies Fantasy owners AND gives his team the best chance to win, a combination that is rare among the athletic signal callers today.
Claim: This will be the last season in which Michael Crabtree is not considered a WR1.
Rationale: The 49ers aren’t going to pass the ball a ton, but Kaepernick is comfortable with Crabtree and given his physical skills, that is all I need to declare the pride of Texas Tech a future WR1 in the Fantasy world. He displayed the willingness to go across the middle and earn the tough yards in 2012 (85 catches and a 7.6 aDOT), something that makes him nearly impossible to defend given Kaepernick’s ability to produce down the field (he ranked second in aDOT last season and fifth in deep ball accuracy). The run-first nature of this offense is going to keep defenses honest and there are very few corners in the league that can hang with this “mediocre” receiver. Opportunity and talent are all I care about, two things that I believe the Niners’ top receiver has plenty of, and the fact that he is going as a fringe WR2 is a travesty. Grab him now and thank me later.
Claim: Markus Wheaton will outscore every rookie WR this season.
Rationale: How often do we hype a prospect and then move onto the next hot topic without giving him much thought after an underwhelming first year? I’ve already made the case for one such player in DeAndre Hopkins and I think the post-hype label fits Wheaton as well. Did you know that the Steelers threw more passes than the Colts last season? This offense is slowly becoming a pass first unit, one that produced three viable WR seasons last year (Antonio Brown caught 110 passes, Emmanuel Sanders totaled 740 receiving yards with six scores, and Jericho Cotchery reached the end zone 10 times). Well, two of those receivers are no longer in Pittsburgh and it is very possible that Wheaton possesses more upside than either one of them, giving him a ceiling that is far above his current ADP (135th overall player and 55th receiver). He is a capable possession receiver that has the speed and athleticism to also be the Steelers primary field stretcher, a unique blend of physical tools that could land Wheaton as a WR3 this season.
It is very possible that Brandin Cooks, Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Jordan Matthews, or Kelvin Benjamin have more skill and/or upside than Wheaton, but don’t overlook the adjustment period that takes place when transitioning from college to the pros. The 12 games of experience gained last year could well be a difference maker when discussing 2014 Fantasy numbers for the top young players in the league, as it could lead to more consistent production. The hype is always around the “next big thing”, but don’t overlook a player who was “the next big thing” just 12 months ago, especially when you consider that he is going some 70 picks later.
One for the road … the Seattle Seahawks defense will not rank as the top D/ST and even if they do, it won’t be by nearly enough to justify their current draft position. I’ll go ahead and say that they are challenged less by opposing offenses and therefore have fewer opportunities to earn big time Fantasy points. This defense (any defense for that matter) is more likely to finish outside of the Top 5 than to run away with the top spot, something doesn’t justify their current eighth or ninth round ADP.