Fantasy Football Draft Advice: Projecting This Year's Later Round Sleepers
Before I left for vacation last week I attempted to identify three players that are consistently being picked in the top 10 of fantasy football drafts who could end up falling short of expectations. The idea, of course, is that each year there are highly ranked players who falter and end up not providing first round value. If we can somehow — based on historical trends and empirical evidence — figure out who these players will be before the draft, it is obviously a huge bonus. Having underperforming first round picks can kill owners, because while you cannot win fantasy championships with your first round pick, you can certainly put yourself on a destructive path towards losing if you grab a clunker that early.
The flip side, of course, is that there have to be players who are undervalued on draft day but who take a surprising a leap in production. Last year, for instance, I had the foresight (serendipity) to select Chris Johnson and Steve Slaton in the second half of the draft. Considering that I coupled them with solid first and second picks (Drew Brees, Larry Fitzgerald) is anyone surprised that I won that league?
Of course not.
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But while it’s easy to pat ourselves on the back after the fact when we identify these fortuitous diamonds in the rough, it’s much more difficult to step out on a limb and try to identify them before the draft. Yet, that it exactly what I am going to try to do today.
The format will be a little different from the bust column, where I rigidly stuck with three guys in most pre-draft top 10 lists who I think will not provide first round value. Today, I am going to try and identify guys slotted for the middle to later rounds who I think will significantly overperform their current values. This does not necessarily mean I think these guys are all first round picks by any means, just that you would be wise to start thinking about them a round or two before you might otherwise consider them; that way, you can unearth the diamond in the rough that provides great value and helps you on your way to the playoffs.
Now, keep this in mind: guys who are rated lower in pre-draft rankings typically have questions surrounding them. Perhaps they are a rookie or young player with no track record. Maybe their role is not yet defined. Perhaps they are currently in a timeshare so their touches appear limited. I could go on and on. They key to remember is that these players, like all players, carry risk, so you don’t want to reach for a player in the 3rd round who is a consensus 9th round guy. But you may want to think about him in the 6th or 7th round if you are sufficiently convinced that the pre-draft risk assessment is incorrect and that the potential reward is worth it. Make sense?
Either way, let’s get going. Enough bloviating by me.
[Note: I'm using Yahoo!'s O-Rank pre-draft rankings. Obviously, there will be differences depending on which rankings you use, but typically players are slotted and value similarly across all pre-draft rankings with only subtle differences.]
First of all, I will direct you to the column I did yesterday morning detailing my first fantasy football draft of the season. I discussed some potential sleepers in that article, so I won’t rehash those guys there. Among the players discussed: Felix Jones, Vernon Davis, LeSean McCoy, Torry Holt, Anthony Gonzalez, Shaun Hill, Chris Henry, Steve Smith (NYG), the Jets defense, and even Tom Brady and Donovan McNabb for good measure. So you can start there.
QB Trent Edwards, Buffalo Bills (O-Rank: 137, Position Rank: 20)
In case you didn’t hear, Terrell Owens is now a Buffalo Bill. And while T.O. is not the same explosive player that he once was, he still averaged 15.2 yards per catch and caught 10 touchdowns last year. Plus, as we all know, T.O. always seems to produce great seasons during his first full year with a team. Thus, his quarterbacks tend to have very good seasons in their first year with him.
- In T.O.’s first full season with Jeff Garcia (2000-2001), Garcia set career highs in QB rating (97.6) and passing yards (4,278), while throwing 31 TDs and only 10 INTs.
- In T.O.’s first full season with Donovan McNabb (2004-2005), McNabb set career highs in QB rating (104.7) and TDs (31), while throwing for 3,875 yards and only 8 picks.
- In T.O.’s first full season with Tony Romo (2007-08), Romo set career highs in in everything: 97.4 QB rating, 4,211 yards, 36 TDs. (To be fair, that season was the only time Romo’s brief career that he has started 16 games.)
Trent Edwards enters his third NFL season having shown a solid jump in efficiency from year one to year two (70.4 rating to 85.4). He is also the unquestioned starter and has had a great start to the preseason. While he is not getting the same Terrell Owens that Jeff Garcia or Donovan McNabb had, and probably not even the same T.O. that Tony Romo had, Edwards can still expect to see the addition of T.O. have a tremendously positive impact on opening up the field for the passing game. Plus, T.O. is usually on good behavior in the first season.
And here’s the thing: Edwards already had a solid trio of receivers without T.O. Lee Evans is a consistent contributor and a very good deep threat. Roscoe Parrish, though he lacks focus sometimes, is a game-breaker that the Bills appear more focused on getting the ball too this season. And last year’s first round pick James Hardy should be better in year two and has the potential to be an outstanding Plaxico-esque red zone target.
Add those guys on the outside to a solid stable of running backs (Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson, Dominic Rhodes) and the Bills have the skill players to be successful on offense. The main question mark about the Bills is on the offensive line, where they are basically starting from scratch with new starters at every position. If the Bills O-line wasn’t in such flux, I’d be even higher on Edwards.
Depending on the size of your league, Edwards could be a sneaky good value as a starting QB. He’s certainly a great value as a backup. Here are some players currently rated higher than Edwards that I see him outperforming from a fantasy standpoint this season: Matt Ryan, Matt Cassel, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Matt Hasselbeck, David Garrard, Kyle Orton, Jake Delhomme, and if Matt Schaub and Carson Palmer cannot stay healthy, he could be a better pick than those guys as well.
If your strategy is to wait on a QB, I think Edwards could provide solid value at the top of the third tier (after guys like Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, and Donovan McNabb). And though you may not win many preseason polls if you start Week 1 with Edwards as your starter, just remember that Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan weren’t rated that high last year either and ended up being starter-worthy as the season progressed.
Other QBs I like:
- Matt Schaub, if he stays healthy, has the potential to be a top-5 fantasy QB.
- Carson Palmer will be undervalued if he is healthy. If you feel good about his health prospects, remember that he was considered a first tier guy not long ago.
RB Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants (O-Rank: 110, Position Rank: 39)
Ahmad Bradshaw is the kind of guy who could end up being a really nice flex player for a contending fantasy team. Why? Let’s count the reasons why his value is improved this year:
- The Giants love to run and their philosophy is one that is committed to a consistent ground attack.
- Plaxico Burress is gone and there are no proven #1 or even #2 WRs on the roster. Who is Eli Manning going to throw too? (I like Steve Smith, but only as a possession-type guy in a PPR league.)
- Brandon Jacobs cannot stay healthy for a full season, meaning Bradshaw could very well see some time as the feature back; at a minimum, he will get more carries as the Giants try to keep Jacobs fresh.
- Derrick Ward is gone, meaning Bradshaw no longer plays third fiddle behind Jacobs and Ward in the Earth, Wind & Fire trio.
- Bradshaw, through 90 career carries, has a yard per carry average 6.1 and has scored twice. Yes, Jacobs will get the majority of the touches close to the goalline, but Bradshaw has the explosiveness to still score TDs because he can break long runs.
Now, there are reasons why Bradshaw is rated low and some of them are simple inverses of his positives; but it’s the NFL, so you never know how these things will play out over the course of a season. He’s a knucklehead and needs to prove he can stay out of trouble. Teams will undoubtedly be stacking the box against an offense without threats on the outside. He will not get any cheap, goalline TDs. He doesn’t have a history of catching many passes out of the backfield.
I don’t think you necessarily want to leave your draft with Bradshaw penciled in as a starter. At most, he should be a flex option for you as the season begins. But the potential is there for Bradshaw to be one of those guys who comes out of nowhere to be a top-15 back. Seriously. If Jacobs gets hurt, the Giants are not going to stop running the ball and Bradshaw will be the one getting the carries. Even if Jacobs doesn’t get hurt, Bradshaw will get a minimum of 10-12 touches per game and has Felix Jones-like game breaking ability to make those touches count.
Yahoo! currently has guys like Sammy Morris, Rashard Mendenhall, Cedric Benson, Julius Jones, and Willis McGahee above Bradshaw. I like Bradshaw more than those guys and others.
Other RBs I like:
- Darren Sproles, especially if your league is PPR and/or counts return yards.
- Le’Ron McClain, because the coaching staff trusts him and he gets the goalline carries.
- Knowshon Moreno, because he is the most talented back Denver has and this team will have to run the ball with Kyle Orton at QB.
- Joseph Addai, if he can stay healthy, because he’s in a great offense and has a proven track record of success.
- Pierre Thomas, because the Saints have to be sick of seeing Reggie Bush get 3.5 yards per carry and know they need to run the ball consistently; Thomas has proven he can do that.
WR Ted Ginn, Miami Dolphins (O-Rank: 123, Position Rank: 43)
Dolphins fans (and I am one of them) laughed (or was it cried?) when Cam Cameron picked Ginn in the top-10 a few years back. The thinking was the Ginn would never amount to much more than a really talented return man. Everyone questioned his long-term viability as a WR threat.
But an interesting thing has happened along the way as Ginn enters his third season. He has steadily improved as a route-runner and pass catcher, and he appears poised to make good on the oft-heard promise of third-year wide receivers. From his rookie year to his sophomore season in South Florida, Ted Ginn jumped from 34 catches to 56, 420 yards to 790, and 12.4 yards per catch to 14.1. His TD, however, stayed steady at two.
I like Ginn this year because it will be his second season with Chad Pennington at QB. Remember, Pennington came to the Dolphins late in the game last year and was thrust into a role as the starter without much time to build a rapport with his young receiving corps. Now that they have had the whole offseason together, their efficiency (which was already solid) cannot do anything but improve.
And I know what you’re thinking: Pennington has a rag arm and won’t be able to take advantage of Ginn’s deep speed. True, you probably won’t see many deep TDs that remind you of Brady to Moss. However, Ginn’s strength is getting the ball in the open field, making people miss, and quickly accelerating to daylight. There is perhaps no QB in the NFL more adept at making quick, accurate, short- to medium-length throws than Chad Pennington.
I see no reason, other than injury, that Ginn can’t approach 80 catches and 1100 yards. He also should see the endzone a bit more this year, I would say 5-6 times. The emergence of Davone Bess and Anthony Fasano last year, combined with a tremendous running game, also gives Pennington more targets to throw too and ensures that defenses can’t focus solely on Ginn. And if your league counts return yards, Ginn should provide an occasional bonus there, although I don’t know if he’ll be the full-time kick returner. As the Dolphins #1 receiving threat they know they have to keep Ginn fresh.
Among the receivers currently rated higher than Ginn that I like him more than: Chris Chambers, Deion Branch, Domenik Hixon, Derrick Mason, Michael Crabtree, Laveraneus Coles, Jerricho Cotchery. Leave the draft with Ginn as your 4th receiving option and you very well could end up with a guy who ends up producing numbers of a consistent #2 WR or flex player.
Other WRs I like:
- Devin Hester, because he’ll certainly get touches and has Cutler throwing to him.
- Donald Driver, because he’s not what he used to be, but the Packers will have a very good offense and have a young QB coming into his own.
- Lance Moore, because Marques Colston never seems to stay healthy and we know the Saints will throw the ball…a lot.
- Donnie Avery, because the Rams will probably be down a lot and he’s the #1 option.
- Hines Ward, because consistency and dependability counts for something — actually a lot — in fantasy football.
TE Kevin Boss, New York Giants (Current O-Rank: 180, Position Rank: 18)
I’m not sure that Boss is necessarily more talented than the TEs rated above him, but the circumstances of his team make him a good value. As mentioned above, the Giants are without proven WRs, especially guys who have proven that they can get into the endzone. But the Giants are a good team with a good defense and their offense is going to get the ball in good field position often with opportunities to score.
Last year Kevin Boss emerged as a guy with ability to get into the endzone, scoring 6 times on only 33 receptions. He had some clunkers in there, but it was also his first year starting full-time. With a season and an offseason to build rapport with Eli Manning, Boss could find himself as the go-to guy in the red zone. And let’s be honest: if tight ends aren’t scoring touchdowns, they probably aren’t giving you a whole lot of value if they aren’t named Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez, or Antonio Gates.
If you wait to take a tight end, you could do a lot worse than Boss. I like him better than Anthony Fasano, Brent Celek, Visanthe Shiancoe, Jeremy Shockey, John Carlson, Dustin Keller, and even the oft-injured and mouthy Kellen Winslow this season. Boss will sneak up on you with his TD production. And if he can get himself into the 50-60 catch range, I think 8-9 TDs is very possible because of how the Giants’ offense is constructed.
So there you have it. Hopefully this information helps you out as your drafts approach. Remember, everything in fantasy football drafts is about minimizing risk early and then getting value late. Get yourself proven players early who will (barring injury) anchor your team. That frees you to roll the dice a bit more late in the draft, where you can often find the diamonds in the rough the can propel you to a championship.
Remember, to get any and all fantasy questions answered in a quick and timely fashion, jump on over to the MSF Fantasy Football Discussion Forum, where we are waiting to help you out with your draft preparation.
* – Trent Edwards and Terrell Owens photo credit: Deadspin
* – Ahmad Bradshaw photo credit: GMenHQ.com
* – Ted Ginn photo credit: Heathcote/Getty via New York Daily News
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