The waiver wire isn’t the only place where fantasy owners find difference makers at a pittance. Todd Gurley, Christian McCaffrey and Antonio Brown were among fantasy football’s MVP candidates this season, but they were all expected to be in that group. As such, securing their services required the investment of significant draft-day capital. That, however, was not the case for all players who were drafted and ended up as 2018 fantasy stars. Some of them came from the middle and late rounds, providing a huge return on investment to those fantasy GMs who believed in their potential.
Herein, we present to you the 2018 Return On Investment All-Star Team. In building the roster, we looked for who significantly outperformed their draft-day stock, using 4for4’s final average draft report of the season as our guide, and then followed the starting lineup parameters in a standard fantasy league: one quarterback, two running backs, three wide receivers, one tight end, and one flex.
Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
The slam-dunkiest of slam-dunk choices for any fantasy All-Star Team of any type that I’ve built in my time covering fantasy sports at SI.com. Patrick Mahomes was the 16th quarterback off the board in a typical draft, going in the middle of the 10th round in 12-team leagues. At his own position, he was a later pick on average than Jimmy Garoppolo, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan and Jared Goff. Among all players, he had a lower ADP than Ronald Jones, Sterling Shepard, David Njoku, the Jacksonville defense and, wait for it, Kelvin Benjamin.
All Mahomes did this year was become the second quarterback in NFL history with a 5,000-yard, 50-touchdown season, joining Peyton Manning in the record books. He added 272 yards and two scores on the ground, ending the year with 427.1 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues, the single greatest fantasy season ever by a quarterback, besting Manning by 7.1 points. Mahomes outscored fantasy’s No. 2 quarterback, Matt Ryan, by 76.7 points, or 4.79 points per game. That’s more than a touchdown better per game in standard-scoring leagues. His lowest output of the season came against the Jaguars in Week 5, when he threw for 313 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions, while running for 13 yards and a score, totaling 17.82 points. Not including the meaningless Week 17, he had 14 QB1 weeks, including nine in the top five, and four where he was the top-scoring quarterback. Again, 15 quarterbacks and 114 total players were taken ahead of Mahomes in typical drafts. No player came close to providing the return on investment that Mahomes did this season.
Nick Chubb, Browns
I considered Nick Chubb for our Waiver Wire All-Star Team given that he was available on many wires at midseason, but decided against it for two reasons. First, he was the 44th back off the board in a typical draft, going just behind Mahomes at the end of the 10th round in 12-team leagues. Second, once he did get added in those leagues where he was available, it was mostly as a free agent, given that the Browns traded Carlos Hyde on a Friday, once waiver processing had passed for that week. Those two factors helped make Chubb an ROI All-Star, rather than a Waiver Wire All-Star.
Chubb did not get double-digit carries until Week 7, the first game after Hyde’s departure. From that point through Week 16, a nine-game window, Chubb ran for 824 yards on 167 carries, caught 18 passes for 153 yards, and scored 10 touchdowns. That translates to monster per-game averages of 15.77 points in standard leagues, and 17.57 points in PPR formats. Including only his starts, Chubb ranked ninth among backs in points per game in both standard and PPR leagues. The backs ahead of him? Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, James Conner and Kareem Hunt. With the exception of Conner, all of them were off the board by the middle of the second round in 12-team leagues. Chubb will be among them at the top of drafts in 2019.
Chris Carson, Seahawks
When the Seahawks used the 27th overall pick of the draft to take Rashaad Penny out of San Diego State, it was widely believed that Chris Carson would be relegated to backup duty. And with good reason. On paper, running back didn’t seem to be a huge need for the Seahawks. If they were willing to use their first-round pick on a back who led the country in rushing in 2017, it seemed likely that he’d not only be the starter, but possibly a workhorse. Even as reports trickled out of Seattle that Penny might not be the guy right away, Carson was being drafted as a depth back more than anything. It wasn’t until Penny suffered a hand injury during training camp that Carson was viewed as a potential starter. Still, he ended the summer with a mid-eighth-round ADP in 12-team leagues.
Carson held off Penny all year, running for 1,151 yards and nine touchdowns on 247 carries. He was a force in the fantasy playoffs, totaling 325 yards and four touchdowns from Week 14 through Week 16, not only lifting many of his owners to the postseason, but then delivering championships to them once they were there. All told, Carson ranked 14th among backs in total points and 11th in points per game in standard leagues. He took a tiny step back in PPR leagues, but still finished 15th and 16th, respectively, in those formats. Not bad for a guy being selected after Chris Thompson, Carlos Hyde and Jamaal Williams in typical leagues.
Matt Breida, 49ers
Carson wasn’t the only back pushed down draft boards because of offseason personnel changes. Conventional wisdom held that Jerick McKinnon would handle a starter’s role in his first year with the 49ers, while Matt Breida would remain a complementary, change-of-pace back. We’ll never know if that would have proved true because of McKinnon’s ACL injury suffered just days before the start of the season. What we do know, however, is that fantasy owners who believed in Breida, even in a split backfield, were rewarded for their faith.
Breida was the 51st back selected by ADP, coming off the board in the middle of the 12th round in 12-team leagues. An incomprehensive list of players take ahead of him includes, Devontae Booker, Giovani Bernard, Ty Montgomery and Duke Johnson. He racked up 814 yards on 153 carries, 27 receptions for 261 yards and five touchdowns in 14 games this season. Breida ranked 24th at his position in standard leagues and 26th in PPR formats, significantly outpacing what he was expected to do in draft season.
James White, Patriots
The following running backs had at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns this season: Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, James Conner. Saquon Barkley, Kareem Hunt, Derrick Henry and James White.
White was the only one to do it primarily as a receiver, catching 87 passes for 751 yards and seven touchdowns, totals that ranked third, second and first, respectively, among running backs. White scored 204.1 fantasy points in PPR leagues through the air, which would have ranked 23rd among receivers, ahead of players like Emmanuel Sanders, Alshon Jeffery and Larry Fitzgerald. White had more catches than Mike Evans and Robert Woods, and more receiving touchdowns than T.Y. Hilton and Keenan Allen. And he did all this as a late-ninth-round pick on average, 41st among running backs in ADP.
Juju Smith-Schuster, Steelers
You’re going to see a few big names at receiver, the first of which is Juju Smith-Schuster. He didn’t come cheap on draft day with the 17th-highest ADP among receivers, coming off the board at the beginning of the fourth round in 12-team leagues. He exceeded those high expectations, though, catching 111 passes for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns. Smith-Schuster was fantasy’s No. 9 receiver in standard leagues and No. 8 receiver in PPR formats.
Smith-Schuster ended the year fifth among receivers in receptions and yards, and tied for 13th in touchdowns. On a points-per-game basis, he was within shouting distance of Julio Jones and Michael Thomas, and ahead of Odell Beckham and Mike Evans. In other words, Smith-Schuster played like a late-first or early-second rounder, yet he was going off the board more than two rounds later in typical drafts.
Consider this, as well. If you were in the market for a receiver in the fourth round and missed out on Smith-Schuster, here were the five receivers immediately behind him by ADP, all of whom had ADPs between the middle of the fourth round and beginning of the fifth round: Demaryius Thomas, Jarvis Landry, Golden Tate, Allen Robinson and Josh Gordon. Smith-Schuster was a superstar port in a storm.
Adam Thielen, Vikings
Much of what was just said of Schuster applies to Adam Thielen. His ADP was about half a round higher than Smith-Schuster’s, with the Vikings receiver coming off the board in the middle of the third round in a typical 12-team league, ranked 13th at his position by ADP. He outplayed that lofty price, ending the year as the No. 8 receiver in standard leagues and No. 7 receiver in PPR formats.
Thielen gets an ROI boost from the way he started the season, as well. He put up eight consecutive 100-yard games to kick off the year, heading into the Vikings’ ninth game of the season with 74 catches, 925 yards and six touchdowns, ranking first among receivers in scoring in standard and PPR leagues. Chances are strong that if you had Thielen, you were no worse than 5-3 to start the year, and almost certainly 6-2 or better. He slowed considerably from that pace in the second half of the year, ending the season with 113 receptions (tied for third among receivers) for 1,373 yards (eighth) and nine touchdowns (tied for eighth). Thielen was an early-second-round pick at a mid-third-round price.
Robert Woods, Rams
Our next two receivers are purer return-on-investment picks, in that they came at significant discounts from even Smith-Schuster and Thielen, and still put up huge numbers. The first is Robert Woods, who had an ADP in the early seventh round of 12-team leagues, ranking 31st among receivers. Woods was essentially Thielen Light over the first half of the season. While Thielen had his eight-game 100-yard streak, Woods put up eight straight contests with at least five receptions and 70 yards. By time Week 10 rolled around, he had 51 receptions for 743 yards and three touchdowns.
Woods was held back a bit by the egalitarian nature of the Rams’ passing attack, as well as by playing with one of the highest-volume running backs in the league, but he still eneded the year with 86 grabs for 1,219 yards and six scores. Woods ranked 10th among receivers in fantasy scoring in both standard and PPR leagues, besting his ADP by 21 spots. Woods ended up outscoring Stefon Diggs, Keenan Allen, T.Y. Hilton and teammate Brandin Cooks, all of whom went comfortably ahead of him in typical drafts.
Tyler Lockett, Seahawks
Here’s just a sampling of receivers who had higher ADPs than Tyler Lockett: Allen Hurns, DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills, Kelvin Benjamin, Sterling Shepard, Nelson Agholor, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, Jamison Crowder and Pierre Garcon. Not content to see how badly the fantasy community whiffed on Lockett by looking only at receivers? Good, neither am I. Some non-receivers who went ahead of him included Tyler Eifert, Bilal Powell, the Rams defense and Alex Smith. Lockett was the 49th receiver and 133rd player off the board in a typical draft, placing him at the start of the 12th round by ADP.
Lockett made the most of Russell Wilson’s 8.2% touchdown rate, which ranked eighth in NFL history. He caught 10 of Wilson’s 35 touchdown passes, to go along with 57 receptions and 965 yards. Thanks to all those touchdowns, Lockett was the 11th-ranked receiver in standard leagues. Even with just 57 catches, he ranked 16th at his position in PPR leagues. He was remarkably consistent, as well, giving his owners at least 12 PPR-league points in 11 of 16 games.
George Kittle, 49ers
We started this column with the easiest selection for the ROI All-Star Team. How about we end it with the second-easiest choice? Kittle was the 13th tight end off the board in typical drafts, behind Kyle Rudolph, Trey Burton, Jordan Reed, Jack Doyle and David Njoku. He was a late-10th-round selection on average, going behind Kelvin Benjamin, Kenny Stills and Ronald Jones. He made that look silly right away, catching five passes for 90 yards in Week 1. That was just the start of what was to be a historic season.
Kittle set a new NFL record for single-season receiving yards by a tight end, racking up 1,377 yards on 88 catches, breaking the record previously held by Rob Gronkowski (Travis Kelce also bested Gronk’s mark, but finished this year 41 yards behind Kittle). He hit paydirt five times, ending the year ranked second at his position in standard leagues—behind Kelce—and third in PPR formats behind Kelce and Zach Ertz, who set the single-season reception record for tight ends. Kittle had more PPR-league points than all but 12 receivers, and he did so as a tight end taken barely before the 11th round in typical drafts. He’ll be a mid-round pick in 2019.