With preseason football underway and draft season officially upon us, it’s time for you to hit the books and study up. The single goal of your fantasy draft should be creating a team with the capability of outscoring your opponent on a week-by-week basis. That’s it. Ideally, you mix solid floors with stratospheric ceilings, avoid risk and don’t lose anyone to injury. Sounds pretty nice, right? In reality, however, almost nothing goes according to plan in the NFL due to injuries, mysterious coaches, in-season benchings, plain ‘ol bad luck and so much more. Even though drafting the first eight rounds or so is probably the most fun and important part of the draft, it’s that back half that can be crucial to a successful season.
ESPN fantasy analyst Matthew Berry has often said, “you can’t win your league in the first round, but you can lose it,” and I find the opposite to be true as well. With your starting lineup already filled out, it’s difficult for you to lose your league in the late rounds, but you can absolutely win it there. And that’s why late-round fliers are important.
This is the eighth installment in a series of articles focusing on important fantasy football information for upcoming drafts. As a refresher, the purpose of these articles is to find value relative to ADP, or average draft position. The goal of drafting in each round should be selecting the player that provides the most value at that draft position, not simply the player who will score the most points. This concept helps explain why owners are opting to draft quarterbacks later and later; the gap in point scoring is smaller for quarterbacks than it is at other skill positions. Often, these will not be sexy picks or players you are super excited about drafting. That’s probably why they’re valuable. There is typically something at play – whether a common misconception, recency bias or something of the like – that causes a player’s draft slot to fall unfairly low.
ADP can fluctuate wildly in the later rounds, so it’s important to remember the number is merely an average. It shouldn’t be shocking when someone else targets your favorite late-round pick three spots – or even an entire round – before you do. If there is a player you really believe in for valid fantasy reasons like projected volume, playing in a high-scoring offense or proven touchdown prowess, then it’s ok to take them in the 12th despite their 13th-round ADP. It is not ok to do this, however, if you want the player because they play on your favorite NFL team, you’ve enjoyed having them on your fantasy team in the past, or you think they seem like a cool dude. Don’t do that.
Before we get to the fliers, it’s important to note I’m typically chasing upside in the later rounds. Sure, you can draft Duke Johnson in the 11th round of your draft (current standard ADP of 11.07, 9.02 in PPR), but he’s a pass-catching backup running back on a bad team with a low offensive ceiling. How much upside is available there? He’ll likely have a few usable weeks this season, but will you be able to predict them? More than likely he’ll soak up an important bench spot for over half the season, as a guy you can’t start or trade, but is still arguably too valuable to send to the waiver wire. Do you like having that player on your team? Me neither. Last year Spencer Ware went in the 10th round, Jay Ajayi in the 13th and Jimmy Graham in the 14th. These are the type of upside stabs that can win you your league, or at the very least provide needed depth to help secure a playoff berth. They are especially pertinent in deep leagues or best ball drafts.
Click here to find wide receivers I believe are undervalued at their ADP.
Click here to find running backs I believe are undervalued at their ADP.
Click here to find tight ends I believe are undervalued at their ADP.
Click here to find quarterbacks I believe are undervalued at their ADP.
Click here to read my thoughts on risky boom/bust players.
Click here to find late-round fliers at wide receiver.
Late-round running back targets
*Note: All ADP data is from Fantasy Football Calculator and is based on 12-team PPR leagues unless otherwise noted. For the purposes of this article, I’ll only be focusing on players with an ADP after the 9th round. Fat Rob Kelley, Jacquizz Rodgers and Darren McFadden barely missed the cut, but all are good values for any Ezekiel Elliott investors needing early season running back points.
Jonathan Stewart (10.04, RB45)
Stewart’s depressed ADP is a classic example of drafters getting way too hyped on a shiny new rookie running back, who in this case is former Stanford Cardinal Christian McCaffrey (3.05, RB13). It’s downright silly McCaffrey is going seven rounds ahead of Stewart when it’s entirely possible, and maybe even likely, that Stewart leads the team in carries and acts as Carolina’s goal line back. Stewart finished as the PPR RB27 last year in points per game despite only catching eight measly passes. He has 30 lbs. on McCaffrey and is almost guaranteed to operate in a similar short yardage/goal line capacity in addition to handling a good chunk of the carries. Stewart has essentially zero passing game work he can lose to the rookie, and while McCaffrey is electrifying and definitely the better talent, Stewart knows the offense well and was paid by Carolina to stick around.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera admitted this offseason that Cam Newton will need to run less in order to preserve himself, and Carolina’s offseason personnel moves further indicate the team would like to maintain the health of its franchise quarterback by getting the ball out of his hands. If Cam is running less at the goal line – and bear in mind he’s already coming off career lows in carries and rushing yards per game – Stewart stands to benefit a ton. Carolina has ranked in the top eight in rushing attempts in each of the last four seasons, so having the carries leader from this backfield has plenty of value. Here’s betting it’s Stewart.
Jamaal Williams (10.12, RB48)
Williams’ endorsement comes with a huge caveat as his ADP continues to surge in light of recent reports from ESPN’s Rob Demovsky.
If he continues to rise into the ninth or even eighth rounds, then I’d pause here. But at the current 10th/11th turn asking price, Williams is palatable because of the tantalizing upside he potentially brings in Green Bay’s elite offense. Per Demovsky, Williams is the only rookie running back sharing first team reps with incumbent starter Ty Montgomery (3.11, RB16), and he’s had those snaps to himself the last few days as Montgomery deals with a soft tissue injury. Though he barely caught any passes at BYU and that will likely continue in the pros, Williams has several things working in his favor. He excels in pass protection, which is Montgomery’s biggest weakness as a running back and resulted in a few in-game benchings last season. He’s also an accomplished runner who isn’t transitioning from playing wide receiver.
This may seem contradictory after I pounded the table for Montgomery a few weeks ago, but that’s an incorrect interpretation of my thoughts on Williams. I’m still very high on Montgomery and explained in that article that last season’s low rushing volume was anomalous relative to the entire McCarthy/Rodgers era. An uptick in rushing volume could make both viable plays this year. Really though, you should be buying Williams if you don’t believe Montgomery can be a feature running back in the NFL. Because being the starting running back in the Green Bay offense offers immense fantasy value. Remember, the late rounds are the places to take a home run swing, which is exactly what Williams is. Are you really going to be excited about drafting Matt Forte here?
Rex Burkhead (13.07, RB56)
With a bargain-basement price, touchdown upside and potential opportunity in the league’s best offense, Burkhead is one of the ideal late-round fantasy picks across all positions this season. It’s probably overblown how ambiguous Bill Belichick is in regard to deploying his running backs, but it’s clear backfield competition is rendering Burkhead a 13th round pick. While he has to battle with Mike Gillislee (5.06, RB22), Dion Lewis (13.04, RB55) and James White (10.10, RB47) for touches, it’s easy to craft an argument Burkhead is the most versatile of the four. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season and has shown adept hands throughout his career.
Gillislee hasn’t practiced in several weeks with a potentially worrisome hamstring injury, allowing Burkhead to get more comfortable with the offense and soak up more first team reps. White is entrenched in the third down role, but Lewis played in the Patriots first preseason game in which almost every starter didn’t take a snap. Burkhead was one of those players, suggesting he’s a lock for the final roster and probably a chunk of playing time. Reports from training camp say he’s lined up outside as a receiver in addition to being the goal line back. It feels significant that Belichick reportedly studied Burkhead while still on the Bengals last season and then made him the first player he targeted in free agency. Fantasy football wizard Evan Silva of Rotoworld points out that Burkhead is actually bigger and more athletic than Gillislee. While it’s still likely Gillislee comes back healthy and takes over #1 duties in this offense, it’s still possible Burkhead becomes the most valuable player in this backfield. He’s the perfect dart throw before you draft your defense and kicker.
Darren Sproles (12.03, RB51), Shane Vereen (13.11, RB61), Chris Thompson (undrafted)
This part is simple. Though certainly lacking a league-winning ceiling like the Burkheads of the world, all of these guys offer massive PPR appeal and are going too low in drafts because of their offensive roles. I’ve already written about them being valuable this offseason, but let’s go ahead and throw James White and Gio Bernard (12.10, RB53) into this group as well. All of these players have incredibly secure pass catching roles in good-to-great offenses that are willing to throw to running backs.
While I don’t expect huge seasons from anyone here, I’d be willing to wager every single one will outscore their current ADPs. They’re the perfect complement to higher upside picks late in your draft. Sproles has been RB28 or better each season in Philadelphia, while Thompson has outproduced his ADP in both of his years in the league. Vereen actually does have more upside than appears on the surface if current starter Paul Perkins (7.01, RB31) flames out. It’s important to have at least one of these type of players on any PPR fantasy squad.
DeAndre Washington (13.12, RB63) and Jalen Richard (undrafted)
Similar to Williams below, Washington and Richard are unique in that both offer potential flex value in addition to being high upside handcuffs. As I wrote about here, Marshawn Lynch is a risky fantasy asset as a 32-year-old running back one year removed from NFL snaps and two from being effective. If he breaks down, Washington and Richard will likely form a two-headed committee full of value in a balanced offense, and it’s still possible both see enough weekly volume to help your team in bye weeks. Washington has been running ahead of Richard in training camp.
Jonathan Williams (13.08, RB59)
Williams steps into the role Mike Gillislee and Karlos Williams maintained the past two years, a role that has had standalone flex value on the run-heavy Bills. Both Gillislee and Williams scored as top-45 PPR backs in this backup role, each scoring nine total touchdowns in their respective years as LeSean McCoy’s backup. Williams was a stud feature back at Arkansas before a foot injury caused him to miss his entire senior season and subsequently fall to the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Based on his pedigree and the flashes he has already shown in the preseason, he should have no problem stepping into the touchdown-friendly flex value role previously occupied by Gillislee and Williams.
That alone merits a pick around the 12th round, but none if it includes his enormous upside as McCoy’s clear handcuff. Shady is coming off a relatively healthy 15-game season, but he’s only managed to reach that games played total in three out of the last five years. Williams value shoots up another few rounds if Shady misses even a handful of games this year, which is highly likely according to The Sports Injury Predictor. Williams is the unique backup who makes sense as a Shady handcuff with upside and someone who provides weekly flex value.
Lightning round. Devontae Booker (undrafted) was already eating into CJ Anderson’s (5.10, RB24) workload last season and projects as a better fit in Denver’s new gap-blocking run scheme. Do you really trust Anderson or Jamaal Charles’ (10.08, RB46) knees very much? It costs basically nothing to find out given Booker’s free ADP.
The hype train has understandably slowed down on Niners rookie Joe Williams (13.02, RB54), but it’s still true that Carlos Hyde (4.07, RB19) is rarely healthy and not a great fit in Kyle Shanahan’s offensive scheme. It’s conceivable Tim Hightower (undrafted) actually presents the most value relative to ADP. Much ado has been made over Shanahan ‘hand picking’ Williams, but he essentially did the same thing when the team brought Hightower in via free agency. Hightower is a seasoned veteran who maintained flex value in a crowded New Orleans backfield last year. He might just be the most talented pass catching back on a team with a bottom-five projected Vegas win total.
While everyone is excited about Darren McFadden (8.10, RB40 and rising), it’s likely his ADP will soar to an undraftable level. Savvy drafters can load up on other positions, then wait and select Alfred Morris (13.12, RB62) much later. Robert Turbin (13.08, RB58) siphoned off seven rushing touchdowns from Frank Gore (7.11, RB35) last year (and one receiving), and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski has discussed trying to get him more carries this year. Betting against Gore has been fruitless in the past, but he will slow down one season. Turbin will be a huge value if that happens this year.
Think I’m wrong? Feel free to yell at me on Twitter @eweiner_bball.
Statistics courtesy of rotoworld.com, fantasypros.com, pro-football-reference.com, fantasyfootballcalculator.com, and footballguys.com