- Highlighting the mid- and late-round players who should be priorities in fantasy football leagues.
The next two weekends are the biggest fantasy football draft weekends of the year, and I go into every draft and auction with a wish list that includes some of my favorite big-name players, like Le’Veon Bell, Odell Beckham Jr. and Michael Thomas. However it’s impossible to guarantee that you’ll get every player of that high caliber in draft or auctions.
But later in drafts it’s easier for you to grab the players you love—not only are there greater differences of opinion, but also as each individual owners in your league starts to build his or her team, some paths will be closed off based on roster composition. Early in drafts, you have to target groups of players. Believe it or not, you aren’t the only person who likes Julio Jones. Later in the game, though, you can get precisely what your heart desires.
Here are the players who will, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, be on many of my teams when draft season is behind us. All ADPs referenced are courtesy of the 4for4 Multi-Site ADP tool.
Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons
This quarterback slot was initially going to belong to Matthew Stafford, in whom I’ll also own plenty of stock, but then I remembered that, somehow, Ryan is the 14th quarterback off the board in typical drafts. During a season in which everything went wrong for Ryan from a fantasy standpoint, he still completed nearly 65% of his passes for 4,095 yards, 7.74 yards per attempt and 20 touchdowns. The 3.8% touchdown rate was the third-lowest of his career, and a full percentage point worse than his career mark going into last season. Steve Sarkisian is going to have to reform his ways and start thinking a little more like Kyle Shanahan, but there’s almost no way for Ryan to throw so few touchdowns again this season. It’s worth noting, too, that the 4,095 yards were his fewest since 2010, despite the third-best YPA of his career. Ryan is an easy top-10 quarterback this season, and one you’ll be able to lean on as a starter almost every week.
Eli Manning, QB, Giants
Manning has been one of my hobby horses all summer, thanks to a stat I learned from my pal Rich Hribar of Rotoworld. I’ll admit, I’ve belabored this point over the last couple months, so bear with me as you read it one more time. Over the last 20 years, there have been 32 teams with an RB1, WR1 and TE1 in the same season. Just once did that team’s quarterback finish outside the top 14 at the position, and in 26 of the 32 years, the quarterback ranked eighth or better. Saquon Barkley, Odell Beckham and Evan Engram will be top-10 players at their respective positions, and Barkley and Beckham are more likely to be inside the top-five than outside it. And yet, Manning is the 23rd quarterback selected in a typical draft. He may be the most undervalued player in fantasy football at any position this season.
Lamar Miller, RB, Texans
Miller isn’t as inexpensive as he was earlier in the summer, with drafters finally catching on to the incredible role he owns in Houston. Still, with an ADP squarely on pick No. 51, he’s a guy you can plan to have if you target him aggressively. D’Onta Foreman will certainly miss time at the beginning of the season as he continues to rehab his ruptured Achilles, and there’s a good chance he ends up on the physically-unable-to-perform list to start the year, which would keep him out for at least eight weeks. The next back on the depth chart is the forever underwhelming Alfred Blue. Deshaun Watson is back and appears fully recovered from last year’s torn ACL. In six games started by Watson, including his first start which came on a Thursday night giving him three days to prepare, the Texans averaged 34.7 points and 394.8 yards per game. Miller is effectively the only show in town in the backfield, and that could ticket him for upwards of 350 touches this season. He’s an RB1 at a low-end RB2 price.
Carlos Hyde, RB, Browns
The Browns’ selection of Nick Chubb at 35th overall in this year’s draft was a head-scratcher, considering they signed Hyde about a month earlier. Despite the draft capital spent on Chubb, the Browns have been treating Hyde as the clear starter this preseason. The Browns’ first-team offense played 32 snaps in the team’s first two preseason games. Hyde was on the field for 19 of them. Chubb was out there for zero. That should tell you all you need to know about who will start the season as the team’s primary runner on early downs.
From there, turn a quick eye to what Hyde has done the last two seasons in generally bad conditions in San Francisco. He ran for 1,926 yards, caught 86 passes for 513 yards, and scored 17 touchdowns, finishing as a top-13 back by points per game in standard-scoring and PPR leagues both years. If Hyde holds off Chubb all season, he’ll push the RB1 class again, and his ADP, which places him just inside the top-100 picks overall, makes that easily a worthwhile gamble.
Matt Breida, RB, 49ers
Breida separated his shoulder in San Francisco’s first preseason game, but he will be ready for Week 1. Jerick McKinnon, on the other hand, is dealing with a more serious calf and knee injury, though he, too, is expected to be ready when the 49ers open the season against the Vikings. The injury to McKinnon further strengthens the view that he’s not suited to an every-down role. As explosive as he can be, there’s a reason why he never fully broke through in four years in Minnesota. Remember, that includes one year where Adrian Peterson was suspended for 15 games, and another where Dalvin Cook tore his ACL in Week 4. Yet McKinnon was always limited to a split-backfield role. That’s unlikely to change this season, and while Breida will also be splitting the workload, he’s priced as nothing more than a backup. Breida was effective in a limited role last year, running for 465 yards, hauling in 21 passes for 180 yards, and hitting paydirt three times. Kyle Shanahan understands how to use two backs in tandem to get the most out of both of them, as he proved with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in Atlanta two years ago. Breida’s nearly free in fantasy leagues, but should be, at worst, a valuable depth back in all formats.
Jonathan Williams, RB, Saints
With Mark Ingram suspended the first four games, the Saints are not going to force feed Alvin Kamara 30 touches per game. Instead, they’re expected to slot Williams into the Ingram role. Take that, add in an ADP so low that it doesn’t even register among the top-250 players in 4for4’s ADP too, and you get an easy late-round target. There’s also the possibility that Williams is good. He sat out last year after being cut by Buffalo, and didn’t get much of an opportunity in his rookie year. He missed his entire senior season at Arkansas after fracturing his foot in practice. In his last full season of football, he ran for 1,190 yards and 12 touchdowns on 13 carries for an Arkansas team that also featured Alex Collins and Hunter Henry. Williams, in fact, outgained Collins by 90 yards. Make sure you’ve got Williams on the brain late in your drafts.
Devin Funchess, WR, Panthers
You can have D.J. Moore and Greg Olsen. Give me Cam Newton’s real No. 1 target, Funchess, whose ADP has him barely inside the top-100 picks in a typical draft. Moore has been uneven in camp, and reports out of Carolina suggest he may be eased in at the start of the season. Olsen, meanwhile, is a 33-year-old coming off a broken foot that cost him nine games last year. Funchess finally got his opportunity atop Carolina’s depth chart last season after the Kelvin Benjamin trade and he did not disappoint, catching 30 passes for 483 yards and five touchdowns in eight games after the trade. What’s more, Funchess had a touchdown or at least 85 yards in six of those games, and Olsen was active for five of them.
Marvin Jones, WR, Lions
Like Lamar Miller, Jones is a bit more expensive than the rest of the players in this column. With an ADP of 57.8, you’re going to have some competition for his services. Still, Jones can be had with proper planning, and getting him would be a wise move. Since Jim Bob Cooter took over as the Lions offensive coordinator halfway through the 2015 season, the team has led the league in plays run from three-receiver sets. Even with Kenny Golladay ascending, Jones’ target share is likely safe. Eric Ebron left behind 86 targets, and the Lions top tight end is Luke Willson. This is going to be the truest three-receiver offense in the league. Jones broke out last year, catching 61 passes for 1,101 yards and nine touchdowns. Golladay may eat into his ownership of the deep ball, but his touchdown upside remains high thanks to his red-zone prowess. Jones had eight targets inside the 10-yard line last year, and five inside the 5-yard line, which tied him for 11th and sixth, respectively.
Kenny Stills, WR, Dolphins
Criminally underrated for the third straight season, Stills is likely to be available into the double-digit rounds in 12-team leagues. This one is pretty simple. Stills has 100 catches for 1,573 yards and 15 touchdowns the last two seasons. DeVante Parker has been an annual disappointment in his three years in the league, and Jarvis Landry’s departure means there are 161 targets from last year to go around in Miami’s offense. Stills could be looking at the first 1,000-yard season of his career.
John Brown, WR, Ravens
I recently covered Brown in our deep sleepers column, so I won’t repeat too much of what I said there. In short, he had 65 catches for 1,003 yards and seven touchdowns in his last full season. He’s as healthy now as he has been since that year, and is easily Baltimore’s top deep-ball threat, which should pair well with Joe Flacco’s big arm. His ADP, meanwhile, is outside the top 200. This is a zero-risk, high-reward play late in drafts.
George Kittle, TE, 49ers
Despite all the love Kittle is getting this summer, he’s still just the 13th tight end off the board in a typical draft. That’s a big mistake when you consider his upside individually, and the upside of a 49ers offense led by Jimmy Garoppolo all season collectively. Kittle had a 57% snap rate last season, which ranked 32nd among tight ends who played at least eight games. In the five games Garoppolo started, it was down at 42%. It took him a few weeks to get on the same page as his new quarterback, but once he did he took off. Over the final three weeks of the season, Kittle caught 11 passes for 194 yards and one touchdown. If Garoppolo is as good as expected, at least two of his pass-catchers will deliver as regular fantasy starters. Kittle is a strong bet to be one of those guys.
Trey Burton, TE, Bears
In an offseason filled with optimism for the Bears, no player has done more to justify the fantasy hype than Burton. Chicago is a chic pick to break out this year based on the aggressive, innovative offense installed by head coach Matt Nagy, and all the new personnel around Mitchell Trubisky. Burton, however, already knew much of the offense, from his time running the same Andy Reid-inspired scheme under Doug Pederson in Philadelphia. His familiarity is coming through in the preseason, during which he has been Trubisky’s favored target. With Adam Shaheen nursing what appears to be a serious ankle and foot injury, Burton is all alone on Chicago’s tight end depth chart. He’s climbing up draft boards, but his 92.8 ADP may still prove to be a steal.