It’s only May, but the NFL Draft has already come and gone, giving us a blueprint for what each NFL team is aiming to do during the 2018-2019 season. It’s really never too early to begin doing your fantasy football research; the earlier you start, the more time you have to build your cadre of information and start working towards a winning strategy. After all, best ball drafts are in full force over at DRAFT and fanball.com.
The NFL Draft specifically provides a microscope into how teams view their current roster and, also, the style in which they’d like to play. Whether it’s the Bills clearly trying to pinpoint their new franchise quarterback, the Packers trying to get faster and more athletic on both sides of the ball, or the Bears trying to put weapons around their young quarterback, teams often tip their hands with what they’re trying to do. This article will also incorporate skill position additions and subtractions made by teams in free agency. Let’s take a look at the consequences of the Draft through a fantasy lens and see whose situations improved and which ones took a dive.
Two quick author’s notes. This article will try to avoid discussing obvious winners, such as Saquon Barkley, as well as clear losers, like Payton Barber. Hopefully, you haven’t read as much about these guys. Also, it’s pretty long. Over 4,000 words. Don’t be scared, just thought you should know.
You can follow me on Twitter @eweiner_bball – if you disagree with anything in here, let’s discuss it!
Trubisky was already an offseason winner after the Bears fired prehistoric John Fox and replaced him with Matt Nagy, the architect behind Kansas City’s explosive 2017 offense. He won again when Chicago spent big in free agency, bringing in a true number-one receiver in Allen Robinson, the speedy Taylor Gabriel, and a versatile, athletic tight end in Trey Burton. Bears GM Ryan Pace wasn’t done there. Interior lineman James Daniels fell into their laps in the second round, then Pace traded up to draft WR Anthony Miller out of Memphis. Miller is a wonderful complement to Robinson, a speedy receiver who can win big despite playing in the slot, and a potential steal who likely fell due to a history of foot injuries.
Trubisky was considered a semi-raw prospect coming out of UNC, and last year’s weapons and playcalling left a lot to be desired. Nagy will undoubtedly incorporate a ton of RPO’s to cater to Trubisky’s strengths and comforts, especially when you consider the Chiefs led the league in RPO play percentage last year with the similarly athletic Alex Smith running the show. In 2017, Kansas City tied for second in the league in shotgun play percentage (72%), a full 14% above league average. With vastly improved weapons and playcalling, Trubisky has legitimate top-15 appeal with a basement-level price tag.
Ok, I get that you’re not rushing out to draft Eli Manning, and neither am I. But his situation has improved significantly with the addition of Saquon Barkley, considered to be one of the best and most well-rounded running back prospects of the last 20 years. Eli also gets the return of All-Pro receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who only played four games last season, and expected steps forward from young playmakers Evan Engram and Sterling Shepard. Adding mauling guard Will Hernandez and prized left tackle Nate Solder should help solidify an offensive line that received Pro Football Focus’ seventh-worst grade in 2017. Similar to Matt Ryan below, Eli’s 2017 TD% was 1.3% below his career average, a number we’d expect to regress closer to his career mean. Pat Shurmur’s presence should help, too. Manning’s current ADP is QB25, basically free. He’s a great late-round target in two-quarterback leagues.
Even before the draft, Ryan was one of my favorite quarterback targets heading into this season. His current ADP (courtesy of fantastfootballcalculator.com) is QB15, exactly where he finished at the end of last season. That’s essentially his floor. Ryan has finished as a top-8 QB in five of the last eight seasons, with an average seasonal finish of QB10. Coming off a historic season with a 7.1 TD%, the former MVP was an obvious touchdown regression candidate heading into 2017. Sure enough, his TD% cratered to 3.8% last year, almost a full percent lower than his career average.
Ryan’s a winner because the Falcons drafted wide receiver Calvin Ridley out of Alabama with their first-round selection. Ridley is great after the catch, can play inside and on the perimeter, and will make it harder for defenses to key in on Julio Jones. Atlanta also lost blocking tight end Levine Toilolo (Detroit) in free agency, which should mean more offensive snaps for athletic third-year tight end Austin Hooper, a former third-round pick. Ryan is a safe-floor option who plays at least nine games each season in a dome, and he has one of the best receivers of all-time to help raise his ceiling. With the addition of Ridley, more snaps for Hooper and positive touchdown regression, he will be a QB1 that you can have for the price of a QB2.
We need to tread lightly with Luck, of course. There are no guarantees here. But if we operate – for the purposes of this article – under the assumption that Luck will play in 2018, then the arrow of his situation is undoubtedly pointing up. When healthy, Luck has played behind one of the worst offensive lines in football. The Colts subsequently made the wise decision of drafting mauling guard Quenton Nelson sixth overall, then following up with OG Braden Smith in the third round, a guard who, per Rotoworld’s Evan Silva, dominated the SEC and posted elite SPARQ athletes among this year’s interior lineman class.
The Colts then used Day 3 picks on two running backs and two receivers, at least one of which (Nyheim Hines) projects as a versatile offensive starter. Don’t laugh, but the Colts also signed a reliable receiver in Ryan Grant and the athletic Eric Ebron, who is still just three months older than Ravens first-round tight end Hayden Hurst. If he can get on the field, Luck will have improved weapons and the best protection of his career.
Football Outsiders graded the Bengals with the 9th-worst run blocking grade last season, while the unit graded fifth-worst according to Pro Football Focus. Cincinnati clearly made upgrading the offensive line a priority, grabbing massive LT Cordy Glenn as a reward for trading back in the first round, then scooping up Ohio State C/G Billy Price with the 21st pick. If Glenn can stay reasonably healthy, the line should be much improved, not only opening up more running lanes for Mixon but also helping the offense sustain longer drives. Another boon for Mixon could be the presence of second-year lid-lifting receiver John Ross, who hardly played last year despite being a top-ten selection.
Even with Gio Bernard present, Mixon’s skillset screams three-down back, which is exactly the type of running back you should be targeting in drafts. And it’s important to remember Cincinnati spent second-round draft capital on Mixon just last year, despite blatant off-field and PR concerns. Once Bill Lazor became the offensive coordinator in Week 3, Mixon averaged 16.55 touches per game (among all games he finished). If we use that as a baseline, and conservatively pencil Mixon in to absorb Jeremy Hill‘s 37 carries and four targets, he’s staring at over 300 potential touches. With a second-year leap and improved offensive line, Mixon is an ideal RB2 target or a solid RB1 target for those attacking the receiver position early in drafts.
Third-Year Running Backs
Kenyan Drake has never been a workhorse, but he’s averaging a sterling 5.0 YPC through his first 166 career carries. When finally given more touches last season following the Jay Ajayi trade and Damien Williams‘ injury, Drake combined explosive runs with measured efficiency, scoring as the RB8 over the final six weeks of the year. Miami did bring in 35-year-old Frank Gore and raw fourth-round rookie Kalen Ballage, but neither possess the talent or versatility of Drake at the respective stages of their career. Adam Gase has a history of elevating his running backs to fantasy success, all of which makes Drake feel like a high-reward proposition at RB20.
As a two-down grinder, Jordan Howard isn’t someone I’d necessarily consider a glaring value at his current RB15 ADP, which is around the 2/3 turn. But he was a clear draft winner, with Chicago’s new regime drafting the aforementioned James Daniels while not hand-picking Howard’s successor. Howard will, and should, lose passing-down work to Tarik Cohen, but he should still be fed plenty of touches. Amazingly, he already has two top-ten finishes on his resume despite much worse surrounding talent and coaching, so his ADP may already be below market value. Remember, Matt Nagy is the same coach who helped Kareem Hunt explode onto the scene last year. Howard’s stock is probably at an all-time high, yet he’s hardly getting any buzz.
Despite not starting for the Ravens until Week 4 last year, Alex Collins compiled 1160 yards from scrimmage in his first season as a starter, finishing as the RB16. Per Rotoworld’s Rich Hribar, Collins averaged a bellcow-like 19.5 touches per game after Baltimore’s bye last season. He came away a big winner from draft night, as Baltimore didn’t draft a running back with any of its 12 picks. With alleged confidence from John Harbaugh and a bruising, effective running style, Collins feels like a safe pick at his current RB21 ADP, which is already lower than last year’s seasonal finish. Getting All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda back would be a huge boost for Collins and the entire offense.
First- and Second-Year Running Backs
Royce Freeman enjoyed an extremely productive career at Oregon, and he stepped into one of the higher-opportunity backfields in the league. CJ Anderson was the RB17 in this role last year, and with a more versatile skillset, GM John Elway views Freeman as a “bell-cow type.” The Broncos have the most unclaimed backfield touches of any team from 2017.
Ronald Jones has field-tilting skills and also steps into a decent situation, but his ADP is two rounds higher than Freeman despite playing in a backfield with more mouths to feed. While this difference likely has to do with the higher draft capital the Bucs spent, I’m all for targeting the lower cost with young, generally unproven players. Charles Sims is still around to soak up some passing game work, while Dirk Koetter pet Jacquizz Rodgers is there, too. If given the choice between Jones (RB33) and, for example, Jamaal Williams (RB34), I much prefer the second-year running back to the rookie, especially in a more explosive offense.
The Colts backfield is more crowded now, but Marlon Mack has enough talent and veteran status to give him first dibs at the lion’s share of the targets. Frank Gore is leaving behind almost 60% of the running back opportunity in Indy, one of the largest numbers in the league. If Luck plays, Mack will smash his RB37 ADP, though we’re not holding our breath (It’s worth noting Mack’s ADP has started to creep up towards RB30).
Sony Michel is a winner simply by getting drafted to the Patriots, and it’s undoubtedly significant the notoriously thrifty Pats used first-round draft capital on him. I still prefer Rex Burkhead by virtue of ADP, experience and versatility, but if Michel steps directly into the Dion Lewis role, then he’ll be a value at RB30 around the 6/7 turn. We’ll need to see if he’s an ADP riser throughout the summer, something I expect. FantasyPros actually has his ADP as RB25 in best ball and RB27 in season-long leagues. While still a ‘winner,’ the higher Michel’s price rises, the more Burkhead stock I’ll be buying for reasons already stated.
The Texans didn’t draft a running back, which is a win for both Lamar Miller and D’Onta Foreman. Foreman has much higher upside and a cheaper draft cost due to last year’s Week 11 Achilles tear (a 13-touch, multi-touchdown game in which he appeared to pass Miller in the pecking order), while Miller has the safer floor and easier route to early-season touches. Foreman makes for a great best ball pick, and he has appealing season-long upside, especially in keeper leagues. I have a feeling this will be his backfield before long, something we’ll want a connection to with Deshaun Watson running the show. Miller averaged 15.3 points per game in Watson’s starts, which would have ranked as the RB11 in per-game PPR scoring last year.
Similar to Royce Freeman above, Michael Gallup is a talented third-round rookie stepping into a mountain of opportunity. At this point, he is a serious candidate to lead the Cowboys in targets. It’s important not to get too carried away with rookies, but Gallup is basically free at his 14th-round ADP. Follow the volume.
Some viewed Josh Rosen as the most NFL-ready passer in the draft, so he might already be an upgrade for Larry Fitzgerald. Until then, we know Sam Bradford loves to target his slot receivers, the spot where L Fitz does most of his damage these days. Coming off three consecutive seasons with at least 107 receptions, Fitzgerald is an excellent value at WR17. Last year’s per-game WR5 (!!!), Fitz is a perennial value.
It’s early, but Doug Baldwin is currently my favorite ADP value at wide receiver. Always follow the Evan Silva breadcrumbs where you can.
Not only did Seattle neglect to draft a receiver in the draft, but Jimmy Graham and Paul Richardson left behind 176 targets in free agency. That’s 34% of the team’s targets! Baldwin is staring at massive volume and should get a significant boost in red zone targets, where Graham and P Rich did most of their damage. He seems like a lock to lead Seattle in targets, something that’s not a guarantee for Adam Thielen and Tyreek Hill, both going ahead of him in drafts.
Tyler Lockett should also soak up a ton of those targets and is another screaming value, going off the board as the WR69 (nice) in round 14. Seattle’s defense has lost Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Richard Sherman and already showed signs of cracking last year, which should only enhance the volume for Baldwin, Lockett and Russell Wilson.
You’ve already heard about JuJu Smith-Schuster as a winner ad nauseum, so now it’s just a matter of seeing how the market adjusts to his current WR24 ADP. One receiving group I think we’re overlooking is the Titans. Tennessee didn’t draft any receivers and opted not to re-sign Eric Decker. Corey Davis has elite receiver potential, and he can be had at the 6/7 turn as the WR28, a great target for those who like to load up on running backs early in drafts. Gone are Decker’s 83 targets from last year’s roster. While fellow second-year receiver Taywan Taylor (a solid late-round best ball target) should absorb some of those, there is plenty of opportunity for Davis to step into.
Remember, Davis was the fifth-overall pick in the 2017 draft and possesses the ideal combination of freak athleticism, crisp routes and pristine hands. He flashed when healthy last year but was held back by injuries in the preseason and regular season, not to mention vanilla playcalling. Now he has a chance to win the #1 job in an offense coordinated by Matt LaFleur. If you follow the breadcrumbs, you’ll see that LaFleur was the quarterbacks coach under Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta, where Matt Ryan had the best season of his career, and then spent 2017 as the offensive coordinator for the Rams under Sean McVay.
I’m salivating to see what LaFleur can do while designing his own offense. Similar to Ryan and Eli Manning above, Marcus Mariota is one of the strongest candidates for positive touchdown regression; his 2017 2.9 TD% is significantly below his career 4.6% rate. Rishard Matthews is definitely worth a stab at his WR57 ADP as well.
I mentioned JuJu above, but Vance Mcdonald came away a very sneaky winner from the draft as well. McDonald wasn’t traded to the Steelers until August 29th last year, essentially after the offseason had already ended. It’s a pretty tall order to ask anyone to learn an advanced playbook in such a short time, let alone a tight end, which helps explain why he didn’t have record his first Steeler reception until Week 6. Towards the end of the season, when healthy and given more opportunity, McDonald flashed, recording two 4/52 lines, then exploding for a 10/112 (on 16 targets) in the playoffs. It’s that last monster number that I just can’t shake.
McDonald has a monstrous athletic profile, with an 85th-percentile Speed Score and 93rd-percentile SPARQ results. Martavis Bryant leaves behind 84 targets, and it’s reasonable that McDonald could steal 10-15 from Jesse James‘ 63 if given more snaps. It feels safer to bet on McDonald than rookie James Washington to soak up some of Martavis’ targets; if he soaks up 40 of them, plus 15 from James, he could be staring at around 80 targets, a top-twelve number among tight ends last year. He’s currently the TE25 despite NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal penciling him in as the team’s starter.
There weren’t any tight ends drafted into fantasy-rich situations, and, due to the complex nuances of blocking and route running, tight ends are notoriously slow starters anyway. If you’re truly looking to draft a rookie tight end, then Mike Gesicki is your guy. He’s probably the best pure pass catcher in this tight end class and should start immediately, though we haven’t ever seen Ryan Tannehill support a fantasy-relevant tight end. Don’t let recency bias trick you into thinking the rookie seasons of Evan Engram and Hunter Henry are anything but outliers.
Ricky Seals-Jones is a decent bet to finish third on the Cardinals in targets; the wide receiver depth chart is a mess behind Larry Fitz and his only tight end competition is a nine-year veteran recovering from a Week 17 Achilles tear. Arizona brought in zero tight end competition through the draft, and, as mentioned above, likely improved its quarterback situation. The best part? No matter where you look for ADP data, RSJ isn’t even in the top 25 tight ends drafted. A supreme athlete and converted wide receiver, RSJ has received nothing but praise this offseason.
Since we’re already deep into the position, here is one other potential breakout tight end without ADP data on fantasyfootballcalculator.com: Michael Roberts. A fourth-round rookie last year, Roberts hauled in 16 (!) touchdowns in his final season at Toledo. Detroit neglected to re-sign Eric Ebron and Darren Fells, leaving behind 112 targets and 7 touchdowns. Detroit did bring in blocking tight end Levine Toiliolo and career under-achiever Luke Willson, but Roberts projects as the best red zone weapon. Stafford’s 2017 TD% was .6% lower than his career average, giving Roberts legit sleeper appeal. If you’re more into established veterans, the Saints brought in Ben Watson and quietly released Coby Fleener. Watson was the per-game PPR TE8 in New Orleans in 2015.
It’s typically hard to pinpoint quarterbacks that ‘lost’ the draft, but Dak undoubtedly qualifies. While Michael Gallup may well have a bright future, he’s still an unproven commodity, someone who started his career in junior college before transferring to Colorado State. It’s not often we expect big things off the bat from the ninth receiver taken off the board. Not only did Dak lose his best red zone threat in Dez Bryant, but Jason Witten’s sudden retirement hurts from both a protection and safety blanket perspective. Even as a dad runner, Witten caught 63 passes and five touchdowns last season, with a sterling 72.4% Catch Rate. Dez was tied for ninth in the NFC with 44 receptions going for first downs, while Witten caught seven red zone receptions, top-ten amongst tight ends.
The Cowboys waited until the fifth round to draft tight end Dalton Schultz out of Stanford, someone who profiles as a blocker more than a receiver. Per Scott Barrett of PFF, Schultz’s passing game grade was 62nd among all draft-eligible tight ends. Dallas did bring in Allen Hurns, who has a 1000-yard season on his resume, but he’s a complementary receiver who’s struggled to stay on the field over the last two years. Dak should have good protection again, and his QB17 draft cost is palatable, but his weapons are sorely lacking and last year’s second-half decline is tough to forget. Here’s to hoping Rico Gathers gets an opportunity to start at tight end.
LeSean McCoy might be the biggest fantasy football-related loser of the offseason. The Bills have arguably the worst starting quarterback situation in the league, and one of the least-talented receiver groups as well. He lost dual-threat quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who’s running nature helped open lanes for McCoy, and arguably the team’s two best offensive linemen departed via trade and retirement. Shady’s volume and talent are unquestioned, but teams will be strictly game planning to shut him down. It could be a very long season in Buffalo.
The Detroit Lions backfield is an absolute mess. GM Bob Quinn traded up in the second round to nab Kerryon Johnson out of Auburn, a curious choice with Derrius Guice still on the board. Johnson will get touches given the draft capital, but LeGarrette Blount should still get the short yardage and goal line work, while Theo Riddick has an established passing game role. Oh, and the corpse of Ameer Abdullah is still on the roster. I’m avoiding this backfield at all costs, other than maybe Riddick given his PPR floor and price (RB46).
Poor Chris Carson, man. An easy guy to root for, Carson surprised us all when he went from seventh-round pick to starting running back for the Seahawks last year. After finally earning the starting job in Week 4, he suffered a gruesome ankle injury that shelved him for the rest of the season. Then, Seattle went and shocked the world, drafting exciting San Diego State product Rashaad Penny with the 27th overall pick in the draft. Penny is an elusive runner who struggles in pass protection, though Seattle wants him to be a three-down workhorse. I’m avoiding this backfield as well.
Both Wayne Gallman and Samaje Perine had fantasy-relevant moments as rookies, with Gallman out-producing passing-game expectations and Perine finding relevance by virtue of injury-fueled opportunity. With both of their teams investing high draft capital into Saquon Barkley and Derrius Guice, respectively, neither Perine or Gallman should be on your draft radar. You should not be wasting your time and draft picks on handcuffs, but it’s worth pointing out Gallman would likely take over passing-down work should Barkley suffer an injury.
Devin Funchess broke out to the tune of 63/840/13.3/8, finishing as the WR21, 26th in per-game PPR scoring. While Funchess can clearly play, and improvement in his third season made sense, there was a confluence of events that equated to the perfect storm of opportunity. Kelvin Benjamin struggled with a knee injury, then got traded to the Buffalo Bills before Week 9. Greg Olsen suffered a broken foot in Week 2, then re-tweaked the same injury in Week 11.
Funchess averaged a respectable seven targets per game last season, but in games that either Benjamin or Olsen started and finished, he saw just 4.6 looks on average. That’s not nearly enough volume to justify his WR27 price tag, especially when Olsen is back healthy and the Panthers used a first-round pick on DJ Moore, making him the first wide receiver off the board. Moore can win in all phases of the game, and Olsen averaged 118.2 targets per season over the five years prior to his injury-shortened 2017 (about 7.4 per game). Funchess has scoring upside, but he may end up fourth on his own team in targets.
Martavis Bryant finished as the per-game WR59 last year, and that was with Ben Roethlisberger as his quarterback. Derek Carr is no slouch, but Big Ben’s career TD% (5.1%) and YPA (7.9) are far superior to Carr’s respective numbers (4.6% TD%, 6.5 YPA). Martavis steps into a situation where he will again be fighting for targets with proven commodities in Amari Cooper and Jordy Nelson, and he’s now playing in an offense that Jon Gruden wants to ‘throw back to 1998.’ Allen Hurns, Marqise Lee, Rishard Matthews and Kenny Stills all have lower ADPs despite safer target floors.
Jacksonville may have gotten better as a team this offseason, but projecting individual targets among its receiving corps is a nightmare. Allen Robinson is gone, but he missed essentially the entire 2017 season after tearing his ACL in the first quarter of Week 1. No targets out the door there. Allen Hurns only leaves behind 56. The Jags already had Marqise Lee, Keelan Cole, and Dede Westbrook, added red zone producer Donte Moncrief and talented tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, then drafted speedy deep threat DJ Chark in the second round. With all the capital invested in Moncrief (1 year, $9.6 million fully guaranteed), ASJ ($4.5 million guaranteed) and Chark, they all figure to earn chunks of playing time. Nobody has an expensive price tag right now – the leaders are Lee as WR49, ASJ TE17 – but that’s a given with all the target murkiness.
No tight ends stand out as big losers from the draft and/or free agency. Besides, it’s not nice to call people losers, especially tight ends. So that’ll do it for now; tune back this summer when we leverage this information to identify undervalued and overvalued draft targets based on rich ADP data.
Statistics and research courtesy of pro-football-reference.com, profootballfocus.com, rotoworld.com, footballguys.com, numberfire.com, fantasypros.com, fantasyfootballcalculator.com and sharpfootballstats.com