One thing we know about all fantasy football drafts is that there will be an element of unpredictability. All it takes is one or two rogue picks to send your draft hurtling in a direction that you did not expect. That’s why you have to head into any draft with a few strategies upon which you can rely. This week, we’ll take a look at certain strategies that can help you hoist the fantasy hardware in December. Some will pertain to specific draft slots, while others will apply regardless of where you fall in your draft. second installment falls into the latter category, discussing how targeting offenses is just as crucial as targeting players. Click here to read the first installment on the best course of action for owners with late first-round picks.
FANTASY FOOTBALL POSITION RANKINGS AND PROJECTIONS:
Whether you’re talking about real-life or fantasy football, environment matters. That is especially true for the positions that matter to fantasy owners. A running back can’t do anything if his line doesn’t open up holes. A receiver isn’t going to catch very many passes if his quarterback can’t get him the ball with any consistency. Despite these seemingly obvious facts, owners all too often overlook team environment and context on draft day.
Last year, one running back with an average draft position nearly outside the top 100 broke into the top five at the position. This same running back entered 2013 with just 2,430 career rushing yards and 22 total touchdowns in four seasons.
From a fantasy standpoint, his best year was when he scored 10.6 points per game in 2009, ranking No. 23 among running backs. He had essentially been written off as a bust for both real-life and fantasy purposes. And then, seemingly without warning, he posted career highs across the board, racking up 1,038 rushing yards, 548 receiving yards and 13 total touchdowns.
This running back who vaulted into fantasy stardom last year was Knowshon Moreno. The only facet of his game that really changed from the previous four seasons was environment and opportunity. Last season, Moreno owned the backfield for an offense that was arguably the best in league history. With Peyton Manning putting up the greatest statistical season ever for a quarterback, Moreno often saw nickel and dime defenses that attempted futilely to slow down Manning and the Denver passing game. Moreno was able to take advantage in a way that simply would not have been possible had he been playing for, say, the Raiders last season.
Moreno got a one-year, $3-million deal with the Dolphins during the offseason, a significant offensive downgrade from the Broncos. As such, a guy who just one season ago was a top-five running back in standard-scoring fantasy leagues is now outside the top-40 backs in ADP. Environment matters.
So what exactly does that mean for the purposes of this column? Fantasy owners should target offenses just as much as they target individual players.
Last year’s first-round running-back busts included C.J. Spiller, Doug Martin, Ray Rice, Trent Richardson and Arian Foster. All of them, except for Richardson, played for a team that was 22nd or worse in points per game last year. Only Foster was on a team that most fantasy owners would have expected to feature a strong offense in the 2013 season.
Just like environment can create an opportunity, as it did for Moreno last year, it can take opportunity away. Looking for the league’s best offenses in advance of your draft can help you zero in on players likely to turn a profit in fantasy leagues.
Few things are certain in the volatile world of the NFL, but we can say with a high degree of certainty that the Broncos, Packers, Bears, Saints, Eagles, Cowboys and Patriots will be among the highest-scoring teams in the league. By targeting these seven teams, fantasy owners can further insulate themselves against the busts that frequently ruin seasons. Even if two of these teams fall short of the offensive expectations, the other five should be able to carry through any owner who targeted players from these seven squads.
For the sake of this exercise, let’s add the 49ers, Falcons, Lions, Cardinals, Chargers and Bengals, six teams that all figure to have plenty of fantasy weapons this year. If you go into your draft targeting these 13 teams -- and these 13 teams alone -- you can build a strong fantasy roster, regardless of your draft pick.
Let’s take a look at how this strategy could play out in the first 10 rounds whether you’re drafting early in the first round, in the middle, or late in a 12-team league The following teams will reflect the best available selection from these 13 teams using current ADP data at Fantasy Football Calculator
Draft picks 1-4
Draft picks 5-8
Draft picks 9-12
There are plenty of other ways to fill your roster with players from these 13 teams no matter where you are picking in your draft. You can still incorporate other draft strategies (waiting on a quarterback, loading up on running backs, zero-RB theory, etc.) into this one, as well. The point here is to emphasize the obvious point that players in good offenses will have more chances to score and amass big yardage totals.
This strategy also offers you a lot of flexibility. You don’t have to be a complete zealot and stick to just the 13 teams listed. If you have the fourth pick and want to grab Adrian Peterson, go for it. If the later rounds present you an opportunity to grab a tight end like Dennis Pitta or Greg Olsen, have at it. And, of course, you can substitute in your own teams. The 13 teams highlighted here didn’t include Washington, Seattle, Indianapolis or Minnesota, all of which have fantasy assets of their own.
In short, you want to be invested in the league’s best offenses. The best way to do that is to target them as a whole, rather than specific players on those teams. You can take a lot of the guesswork out of projecting busts by trying to identify the teams likely to feature the most prolific offenses in 2014, then doing whatever you can to load up on players from those teams.
2014 Fantasy Football Sleepers
Knile Davis - RB, Kansas City Chiefs
Davis is about as important a handcuff as you’ll find in the league. Davis would impact fantasy standings if Jamaal Charles goes down at any point. Davis picked up 81 yards and two TDs on 27 carries when Charles was resting Week 17 last season.
Terrance West - RB, Cleveland Browns
The rookie will need to beat out veteran Ben Tate for touches, but his upside is enormous. Browns running back coach Wilbert Montgomery recently told reporters, ''He has that Ricky Watters, Walter Payton, lure-you-to-sleep-on-the-sideline move that I can accelerate or play like I’m going to accelerate and come back inside. Those are traits I haven’t seen in a while.''
Dri Archer - RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
It’s possible that the undersized third-round pick is restricted to kick return duty in his rookie year. It’s also possible that Archer emerges as a dynamic RB/WR who could score anytime he touches the ball.
Lache Seastrunk - RB, Washington Redskins
The Baylor product is behind Alfred Morris and Roy Helu on the depth chart and has developed a reputation for having awful hands. He actually dropped 10 balls and only caught nine during his two years in college. That said, Seastrunk’s running ability would make him a fantasy asset if Morris goes down with an injury.
Ka’Deem Carey - RB, Chicago Bears
Carey is an all-around running back who is capable of stepping in and producing for fantasy owners if Matt Forte gets hurt. He’s the type of rookie who would be a hot commodity if he were drafted by a team without an elite running back.
Devonta Freeman - RB, Atlanta Falcons
There is a legitimate chance that Freeman will eventually start over Steven Jackson; the rookie's average draft position will skyrocket with a dominant preseason. The former FSU back should see the field a lot if he can handle pass protection.
Christine Michael - RB, Seattle Seahawks
Michael is an instant stud if Marshawn Lynch goes down. Either way, the Seahawks have hinted at a committee approach and Lynch’s brief holdout may not have helped matters for the veteran running back. Michael has the skill set to provide RB1 numbers if he receives enough carries.
Carlos Hyde - RB, San Francisco 49ers
Anyone who saw Carlos Hyde at Ohio State knew he wouldn’t get buried in San Francisco, even with a crowded backfield. He’s arguably the most talented rookie RB and is one Frank Gore injury away from fantasy stardom.
Tre Mason - RB, St. Louis Rams
Many fantasy owners are high on Zac Stacy entering the season. But ask anyone who drafted Daryl Richardson in 2013 if Jeff Fisher is afraid to make a change at running back. The dynamic rookie Tre Mason is too talented to ride the pine forever and he’d turn into a nice fantasy option if given carries.
Chris Polk - RB, Philadelphia Eagles
Even with Darren Sproles in town, Polk would hold a ton of fantasy value if LeSean McCoy were to miss time at any point. Chip Kelly’s offense turns RBs into fantasy stars and Polk is the clear-cut backup to McCoy.
Charles Sims - RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The rookie from West Virginia is expected to be an immediate handcuff to Doug Martin for fantasy purposes. Smith should contribute in passing situations early, but could steal carries from Martin as the season progresses.
Markus Wheaton - WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Wheaton is expected to inherit a starting gig with Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders gone. The sophomore from Oregon State has big-play ability and could easily emerge as a must-start fantasy option on a weekly basis.
Marqise Lee - WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
Lee is a candidate to lead the Jaguars in receptions as a rookie, but his competition isn’t exactly elite. He should be able to rack up catches and yards with Jacksonville expected to be playing from behind more often than not.
Kenny Stills - WR, New Orleans Saints
Stills has a ton of breakout potential coming off a rookie season in which he posted 641 yards on 32 catches with five TDs. He’s a big-play threat on ever possession and should easily surpass the 46 targets he received last season. He might only need 50 catches to score double-digit TDs.
Kelvin Benjamin - WR, Carolina Panthers
The 6-foot-5, 240-pound, No. 28 overall pick is a perfect red-zone target and he could help the Panthers win games immediately. For fantasy purposes, he’s merely a WR3 or a WR4 until he proves he can be more than just a TD-dependent gamble on a weekly basis.
Tavon Austin - WR, St. Louis Rams
As a rookie in 2013, Austin only caught 40 passes for 418 yards and never really found a true role. He’s admitted that the adjustment from college to the NFL took a toll on him and he continuously dropped passes early in the season. If things click in his second year, Austin has the skillset to be a star.
Justin Hunter - WR, Tennessee Titans
The second-year receiver showed signs of his high ceiling last season with a few big games down the stretch. Hunter has the tools to develop into a WR1 in his prime and should play a prominent role on young Titans’ offense.
Jordan Matthews - WR, Philadelphia Eagles
DeSean Jackson’s departure opens the door for Matthews to step up. The 2014 season could turn into a perfect storm for Matthews to succeed with Jeremy Maclin coming off a torn ACL and Riley Cooper coming off a career season.
Eric Ebron - TE, Detroit Lions
The Lions turned heads when they selected Ebron No. 10 overall in May’s Draft. It might take a season or two for the UNC product to reach his potential, but Ebron is an elite fantasy TE in the making. He’s been compared to Jimmy Graham and has the skillset to live up to his lofty expectations.
Ladarius Green - TE, San Diego Chargers
The 6-6, 237-pound Green is an obvious red-zone target and has the tools to be an impact fantasy option if he receives ample targets. Antonio Gates, the incumbent TE in San Diego, is 34 and slowed significantly down the stretch in 2013. Green caught 17 passes for 376 yards and three TDs last season, highlighted by a three-game stretch in which he caught nine balls for 206 yards and two scores.
Fantasy football draft strategies:
Part 1: The best course of action for late first-round draft picks