A solid draft strategy is to focus on floor in the early rounds but upside middle and late. After you’ve made your first six or seven picks, it’s important to focus more on what can go right rather than what can go wrong.
So let’s pick the upside plays with a quarterback, two running backs, two receivers, and a tight end relative to cost and the potential for them to not just contribute to your team but become championship-level starters.
Starting at quarterback, I’ve covered my argument for Kirk Cousins (QB12, ADP 98) as a fantasy stud. He’s my first choice but Philip Rivers (QB 14, ADP 111) is another quarterback who I think is likely to be a real difference-maker. Rivers has an elite receiving corps if Keenan Allen can stay healthy. The Chargers’ defense is overrated by many as they were 25th in play success rate allowed, the most important defensive stat. Of course, a great defense is a fantasy quarterback’s enemy.
Their running game should be expected to struggle until the revamped offensive line proves otherwise. Last year, Los Angeles (strange saying that) was 27th in rushing success rate, which translates into more expected pass attempts. Rivers slumped last year especially in interceptions but he’s looked like a declining player in the past (2012) and bounced back with a vengeance (32 TDs, 11 picks in 2013).
I generally think rookies are overhyped. But I always select the cheap rookie running backs with a path to starting by October. Sometimes David Johnson pops but other times, Bishop Sankey is what you come away with. The top target this year at current prices is Kareem Hunt (ADP 121), who has a decent but not great runner ahead of him in Spencer Ware, who really wore down last year (3.7 yards per carry after October).
Given Hunt was picked in the third round where team’s are still projecting starters and Ware’s history of wearing down, peg Hunt’s floor at 125 carries. His ceiling of 225 is probably a 75th percentile projection, but well worth a 10th-round pick. Remember also that the Chiefs traded up for Hunt. A key is his weight, which was 216 pounds at the combine but was previously reported as low as 201. It has to be near the former for him to be a bell cow, otherwise he may be stuck in a change-of-pace role.
Jeremy McNichols (unlisted in Yahoo ADP) is so cheap he’s practically free. Tampa Bay’s options at the position are poor. Doug Martin is terrible, averaging just 1.15 yards before contact last year and journeyman Jacquizz Rodgers came in and did over a yard better in that stat, a huge difference. Rodgers was good after contact, too (7th). But the bottom line on Rodgers is a terrible 3.8 per carry for his career (three teams).
The Bucs are likely to be a good offense with wide receivers (especially newcomer DeSean Jackson) who will keep safeties far out of the box. McNichols will be spotted during Martin’s three-game suspension and could seize the job with a few big runs. The ex-Boise St. back ran a sub-4.50 at the combine (speed is the best predictor of success at the position). And he had five catches last year of 25-plus yards and 10 receiving TDs the past two years. He added 43 on the ground so should be a solid goal-line option, too.
We forget that Marvin Jones (ADP 129) was one of the top fantasy players last year in the first four or five weeks of the season. Then, he cratered. But it was mostly because he just did not capitalize on even deeper targets as the season wore on. Research by Josh Hermsmeyer at Rotoviz shows that air yards (depth of target) is very sticky an also highly predictive of success. The only receivers with at least 95 targets and a higher average depth than Jones (12.6) were Dez Bryant (13.1) and DeSean Jackson (12.9). Jones has much better red-zone skills than Jackson. That’s outstanding company at this silly-low ADP.
Why doesn’t Tyrell Williams (ADP 106) get more love? Keenan Allen is back, I get it. But Rivers isn’t going to just forget about Williams, clearly the No. 2 wideout but more like 1A to me. Williams can make things happen after the catch, with an average YAC trailing only Jarvis Landry and Golden Tate among wideouts with more than 100 targets. And he should be able to take the top of the defense, too, given his timed 4.48 speed at 6-foot-3.
I’ll go last-year-bum at tight end for $100, Alex. Coby Fleener (ADP 133) is still just 28 and was just six points away from being a top 12 scoring tight end last year. That’s the floor. The projectable ceiling is 70 catches and eight touchdowns in a Drew Brees offense (doubling last year’s TD total). The only tight ends with a higher average target depth last year than Fleener were Greg Olsen, Cameron Brate and Jimmy Graham. And look how Graham struggled in his first year in new system before exploding in Year 2 for Seattle.
Fleener officially dropped just three passes last year. Eric Ebron dropped seven but is this year’s fantasy darling at the position. Last year, Fleener was hyped and the sixth tight end off the board. His ceiling still is TE3 and with Brees making that a lot more possible than Fleener’s ADP suggests. All the reasons we liked him then are still operative now, plus he has more targets available with Brandin Cooks gone.