Fantasy Football 2016: Who Are This Year's Most Underrated Prospects?

Richard Janvrin@@RichardJanvrinFeatured ColumnistAugust 10, 2016

Fantasy Football 2016: Who Are This Year's Most Underrated Prospects?

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    I'll cut to the chase—there are players from the San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns in this slideshow. The reason I'm jumping down your throat is that you should not avoid players in your fantasy football draft based solely off the team they play for. When we discriminate based on the team a player plays for, it causes us to underrate and undervalue players on those respective teams.

    Yeah, the Browns and 49ers stink in real football, but hey, last time I checked this isn't real football. We don't really care how the 49ers or Browns do as a team at the end of the day (unless you're a fan)—we care about the players we draft and if they help us win that week in our leagues. Sorry to throw you under the bus.

    Anyways, there seems to be players each season, whether it be the team or lack of national attention, who slide under the radar and a savvy, or even lucky, owner gets his paws on a valuable asset.

    No, this list of 10 players doesn't include the elite players like Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, but it includes players who are getting little love throughout the world of fantasy football and going later in drafts based on preconceived, knee-jerk notions. There are also players whose ADP isn't exactly bad, but they are sliding under the radar.

    To get us started, we're going to head over to San Diego and kick the first two slides off with wide receivers from the same team.

Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego Chargers

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    Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

    Let's be real—atop the wide receiver rankings are some of the most incredible talents at the position we've ever seen. As a result, it makes it tough for a "new guy" to crack inside the top five.

    San Diego Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen has that potential ability to do just that.

    While Allen's average draft position is far from egregious—WR10 in points-per-reception formats—there are a few players above him who can be considered to be dethroned.

    Right now, Brandon Marshall and Jordy Nelson of the New York Jets and Green Bay Packers, respectively, are going ahead of Allen. It's totally possible he finishes the year better than them.

    That puts him in the WR8 discussion.

    Next up are Allen Robinson and Dez Bryant of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Dallas Cowboys, respectively. This one is tough, especially if we consider recency bias. Although Bryant was hurt last year, we know what he is capable of with a healthy quarterback in Tony Romo and Robinson lit up the league last with 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns. While these two will be tough, it is still possible.

    Why? Allen gets a ridiculous amount of targets.

    In eight games last year, Allen saw 86 targets. Of course, there are 16 games in an NFL season, so by doubling 86 you end up with 172.

    Though that is kind of a flawed thought process, bear with me.

    At 172 targets, that puts Allen fourth in the league last season in that department. 

    The addition of fellow wide receiver Travis Benjamin will also assist Allen. Benjamin is good enough to draw enough coverage when he flies down the field to open up the middle more for Allen.

    Remember—this isn't a slideshow about undervalued players, but rather underrated.

    When we talk about the top-tier receivers in fantasy football, Allen's name tends to be left out.

    With the addition of Benjamin and the targets Allen will receive, he has a chance to make a run as a top-five fantasy wide receiver in PPR leagues.

Travis Benjamin, WR, San Diego Chargers

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Here's the second San Diego Chargers wide receiver that was promised to you.

    Accompanied by fellow wide receivers Keenan Allen, newly signed James Jones and Stevie Johnson (when he comes back from injury), running backs Danny Woodhead and Melvin Gordon and tight ends Antonio Gates and rookie Hunter Henry, Benjamin will be looking for targets all over the place.

    This could be why we are underrating the former Cleveland Brown.

    Last season with the Browns, Benjamin saw 125 targets. However, he was the No. 1 wide receiver.

    When we think of Benjamin, we think of his deep-threat prowess. Yet, when you look at Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception on Benjamin, he ran four types of routes (nine, post, curl and slant) more than 10 percent of the time.

    What sticks out is Harmon’s SRVC (success rate vs. coverage) statistic on the nine route—65.7 percent. That is, in Harmon’s words, "pristine execution."

    Agreed.

    Bottom line: Benjamin is more than a deep threat, though he executes at a high level when asked to blow the cover off the top of the secondary.

    This is a skill set that had laid dormant until last season.

    No matter, though, Benjamin will most likely be third in the pecking order behind Allen and Gates.

    And, of course, the other players will get their fair share, including Woodhead, who is one of the premier pass-catching running backs in the NFL. 

    Since Benjamin will be the team's primary deep-threat option, let's examine the Chargers and quarterback Philip Rivers' attempts downfield.

    Over the past two seasons (2015 and 2014), the Chargers have chucked the ball 20-plus yards 59 and 77 times, respectively. 

    Of those, 49.1 and 41.5 percent of those went to now retired wide receiver Malcom Floyd.

    It's pretty clear that Benjamin will get a fair amount of opportunities to create big plays.

    While there are a fair amount of options in San Diego, Rivers threw an astonishingly high 661 times

    One would think Gordon figures it out to some degree and contributes more this season, thus dropping the attempt total, but with all the weapons, he'll still chuck it probably around 600 times.

    Even with the other mouths to feed, Benjamin should still receive somewhere in the neighborhood of 80-100 targets.

    According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Benjamin is going as the WR47 in PPR formats.

    We're drastically underrating Benjamin's ability and probably considering him as "just another deep threat." We're wrong. Don't let the fellow skill-position players scare you out of drafting Benjamin.

    Benjamin is a candidate for 80-100 targets, 55-plus receptions and 800-plus yards. And that's likely his floor.

    Enjoy a solid WR3 at a low WR4 price.

Michael Crabtree, WR, Oakland Raiders

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Believe it or not, I'm old enough to remember when Oakland Raiders wide receiver Michael Crabtree finished ninth in the league in targets in 2015.

    It's downright bizarre to me how fellow wide receiver Amari Cooper is going as the WR13, whereas Crabtree is going as the WR36.

    In 2015, Crabtree finished as the WR16 and Cooper as the WR21 in PPR leagues.

    Another thing Crabtree had on Cooper was his red-zone targets, seeing 15 of them as opposed to Cooper's eight. Though that isn't exactly drastic, Crabtree could have finished with much more fantasy points than Cooper had more of those red-zone targets connected. Would that have ultimately changed Crabtree's average draft position? Maybe. 

    Also in 2015, Crabtree had 10 games in which he recorded five or more receptions, thus making him a nice PPR format commodity.

    Heading into 2016, we can expect Cooper to be a larger focal point of the offense and his 18 drops to, uh, drop (no pun intended), but outside of Cooper, Crabtree really has no other real competition for targets. 

    Crabtree is a legitimate WR2, but he's currently being drafted as a fringe WR3.

    Taking into account how Crabtree was used in 2015, combined with not a whole lot changing on offense, Crabtree should still see enough targets to make him a viable WR2 option.

    Enjoy stealing him.

Isaiah Crowell, RB, Cleveland Browns

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    It seems as though the Cleveland Browns have moved on from the Instagram posts that put running back Isaiah Crowell in the bad spotlight.

    Assuming all of that is completely out of the way and he's on a clean slate, Crowell is an extremely sneaky, underrated fantasy running back in 2016 and is almost exactly what you'll look for if you employ the Zero-RB strategy.

    Last season, Crowell ran the ball for the Browns 185 times. What a quiet 185 carries it was.

    A lot has changed since last year for the Browns (like most seasons). The team has hired new head coach Hue Jackson, fellow running back Duke Johnson is in his second season, wide receiver Josh Gordon is set to take the field after a four-game suspension, the Browns selected wide receiver Corey Coleman in the first round of the NFL draft and the team signed quarterback Robert Griffin III.

    Phew.

    Tell me if you've heard this before—the Browns were bad in 2015.

    The reason I bring up the obvious is to transition to the offensive line, which Football Outsiders ranked as the fourth-worst in the entire NFL.

    Offensive line play has been brought up to address Crowell's yards-per-carry average of 3.8. Though it's not totally all on the offensive line, it's also not totally all on Crowell.

    However, Crowell finished pretty well in a few of Pro Football Focus' advanced analytics. These include elusive rating, breakaway percentage and pass-blocking efficiency, where Crowell finished (minimum 50 percent of team attempts) 19th, fifth and 15th, respectively.

    As of right now, Crowell is going in the low 40s in both standard and PPR formats.

    Although fellow running back Johnson should be a bit more involved, the team around Crowell is set up to (hopefully) put him in a better spot.

    If Crowell sees even a close resemblance to his carries from 2015 and he is allowed for more scoring opportunities, we could see Crowell fly up the total fantasy points charts among running backs.

Eric Decker, WR, New York Jets

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    It seems like for his entire career, New York Jets wide receiver Eric Decker has been underrated in fantasy football.

    From the 2012 season through 2015, Decker has scored 41 touchdowns in his last 62 games played. That's slightly over an average of one touchdown in 66 percent of his games (please be accurate, math).

    That's unreal.

    You have to remember the days with Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning. Now, Decker has Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

    Fortunately for Decker, he has another wide receiver opposite him in Brandon Marshall that has kept defenses honest.

    Right now, Decker is going as the WR25 in PPR leagues. Though his ADP isn't bad, he has top-20 wide receiver upside each season considering he finished as the WR14 last year.

    In 2015, Decker also saw double-digit targets in six games, so he is getting a fair amount of looks.

    According to Rich Cimini of ESPN.com, Decker has said he wants to be used more downfield this season.

    If that comes to fruition, that should only help Decker.

    Even with running back Matt Forte coming to town, this offense is based around Decker and Marshall. If you're a wide receiver on the Jets and your name is anything else, good luck.

    Continue to draft Decker in your leagues. You won't be sorry. Enjoy the touchdowns.

Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit Lions

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Unlike the previous slide with Eric Decker, there aren't many hard-hitting statistics to prove my point here, but rather a gut instinct.

    Yeah, that's probably a terrible way to sell this one, but since you're already here, might as well read it, right?

    As the old axiom goes, it usually takes until the third season for tight ends to really break out. I've never understood any rookie tight end hype. Tight ends have a tough task when they come to the NFL. Not only do they need to learn the playbook, but there is also a huge emphasis on learning correct blocking assignments.

    This, of course, applies to the guy in the picture above, Detroit Lions tight end Eric Ebron.

    After almost suffering what many thought could have been a serious Achilles injury, Ebron appears to have avoided anything season-threatening. However, it looks like Ebron is dealing with a "pretty decent (right) ankle sprain," as Adam Caplan of ESPN.com put it.

    The talent is there undoubtedly with Ebron as we've seen what he is capable of, especially coming out of college.

    I'm never one to draft a tight end high. In fact, it will be a miracle for me to own New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Therefore, I try to locate and pounce on late-round tight ends with upside.

    Right now, Ebron is going in the 13th round of 12-team leagues and as the TE17.

    We're underrating the situation Ebron is in. While there are wide receivers Golden Tate, Anquan Boldin, Marvin Jones and running back Theo Riddick, Ebron has literally zero competition for snaps at the tight end position.

    With Calvin Johnson retiring, that has opened up a ton of targets, including 20 in the red zone.

    Due to Ebron's size and athletic ability, it's fair to peg him as a red-zone threat.

    As we saw after the Lions' Week 9 bye in 2015, the offense and quarterback Matthew Stafford were much more consistent under newly hired offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter.

    We've seen other tight ends like the Cincinnati Bengals' Tyler Eifert produce top-tier fantasy with fewer targets than the norm, and Ebron could fit that mold. You know, the guy who doesn't get a ton of targets but makes up for it with touchdowns.

    Also, Stafford throws the ball a fair amount—that's no secret.

    Look for Ebron to put himself on the map in 2016.

Jordan Howard, RB, Chicago Bears

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    Nam Huh/Associated Press

    A rookie? Underrated? How can this be?

    Yes, Chicago Bears rookie running back Jordan Howard is the exception.

    How, you might ask?

    Well allow me to introduce you to Bears head coach John Fox and his philosophy on running backs, brought to you by Dan Durkin of the Athletic.

    As Durkin points out, there has been just one occasion during Fox's head coaching career in which a running back received 60 percent or more of the team's total carries.

    Once.

    And I'll be the first to tell you—Fox is not going to break that philosophy for one of the worst advanced metrics running backs in football in Jeremy Langford.

    After looking at Howard, it won't take long for you to assign the superlative "Touchdown Vulture" to him and slap it across his forehead. However, I don't recommend slapping him anywhere, as he weighs in at around 230 pounds.

    According to Michal Dwojak of the Chicago Tribune, Bears running back coach Stan Drayton has all but confirmed that superlative, with Drayton admiring Howard's "short space quickness." He even revealed he was surprised at Howard given his size, saying: "You're talking about a guy who's over 230 pounds. I didn't realize he was that quick, I'm going to be honest. I'm excited about that."

    So, keeping in mind Fox's philosophy and Howard's likely ability to steal goal-line work, Howard makes for an underrated rookie and makes his ADP of RB56 laughable.

Torrey Smith, WR, San Francisco 49ers

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    I'm not sure I've ever been so excited about a San Francisco 49ers wide receiver or Torrey Smith in my life until now.

    On the surface, I get it—the 49ers stink and who the heck is the quarterback?

    Teams such as the 49ers and the Cleveland Browns offer a fair amount of cheap upside as you saw in the Isaiah Crowell slide. That same rule applies to Smith.

    According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Smith is going as the WR44 in PPR leagues.

    That's like borderline WR4 status.

    Though the 49ers offense is set to be pretty bad in 2016, quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert combined for 526 attempts last season.

    With the departure of wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the Detroit Lions, that leaves the 49ers with pass-catchers like Smith, wide receiver Bruce Ellington, tight end Vance McDonald and running back Shaun Draughn.

    Wait, who?

    Yeah, talk about the land of misfit toys—no offense, guys.

    Before last season, Smith had never seen less than 99 targets in a season. Whether it be the main weapon for the Baltimore Ravens or alongside Boldin, Smith reached it other than last season.

    I've stared at the depth chart of the 49ers, the leftover targets and the quarterbacks' attempts and it's fair to assume that Smith, the only real, legitimate, proven receiving option, will get a fair amount of targets.

    Let's play a game here.

    Suppose Smith sees 130 targets in 2016. This is not unreasonable—he had 128 and 127 in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

    Now, let's use his lifetime catch rate percentage of 52.1—that's nearly 68 receptions.

    Lastly, we'll use his lifetime yards-per-catch rate of 17.5—that's nearly 1,200 yards.

    I'm not a fool—it's definitely easier for me to just throw random numbers at you and compute them, but don't look at the situation and math that's right in front of you and scoff at it. Don't avoid Smith because he plays for the 49ers.

    When you're drafting, consider these numbers as well as head coach Chip Kelly's uptempo-style offense.

    In a PPR format, Smith's 68 receptions and 1,200 yards total 188 fantasy points. That's good enough for the WR31 in 2015.

    Oh yeah, that's before you factor in a single touchdown.

    Jokes aside, Smith has a chance to be a legitimate WR2 in fantasy football this season.

    Book it. 

Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    It's amazing to me that people don't wait on quarterbacks in drafts when you have someone like Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford waiting. 

    Going as the QB17, Stafford is equipped with perhaps more weapons than most other teams in the NFL and possesses an arm that throws. A lot.

    At wide receiver, Stafford has Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin. At tight end, Stafford has Eric Ebron, who we talked about early. And at running back there's Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, Stevan Ridley, Dwayne Washington and Ameer Abdullah.

    Whew.

    Even though Stafford lost Calvin Johnson to retirement, that is a ton of firepower on offense.

    With the addition of Boldin, this should allow Tate to play the outside, increasing his average depth of target (aDOT), thus resulting in more yards for Stafford.

    Also, Stafford was markedly better after offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter took over (as discussed on the Ebron slide).

    In fact, from Weeks 10-17, Stafford was sixth in the league in attempts (293), second in completion percentage (70 percent) and tied for third in passing touchdowns (19), while throwing just two interceptions.

    While those numbers are on Nick Foles' 2013 level, it illustrates just how much of an impact Cooter's offense had after a miserable first nine weeks of the season for Stafford and the Lions.

    Not only are Stafford and Ebron a nice late-round pairing in fantasy drafts, but they could make for a contrarian play most weeks in daily fantasy.

Tyrod Taylor, QB, Buffalo Bills

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    Here we have another quarterback who is not getting the credit he deserves.

    Before we go any further, let me just say that Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor could end up being a top-10 player at his position.

    The one under-the-radar thing Taylor has going for him is that he doesn't really need to worry about regression. Though we could see some slightly in his rushing attempts, the Bills and Taylor finished 2015 with the second-least pass attempts per game, according to Team Rankings. This means that the attempts can only go up.

    On a per-game basis, Taylor did fairly well, finishing sixth among quarterbacks (minimum 14 games) in fantasy points per game with 19.4, according to Sporting Charts.

    Now it's no secret—wide receiver Sammy Watkins is pretty darn good. That same logic applies to running back LeSean McCoy.

    In fact, when the triumvirate of Taylor, McCoy and Watkins competed on the gridiron together the Bills averaged over 26 points per game.

    While you may know Taylor for his ability to scramble, do not discount his ability as a passer. Not only did Taylor finish eighth (minimum 50 percent of team pass attempts) in passes sailing 20 or more yards, but on the 27 that connected, 11 ended with six points on the board.

    With Watkins back to full strength, McCoy being ready to go and another year under Taylor's belt, not only will Taylor be in the driver's seat for a new contract, he will prove he belongs inside the top-10 quarterbacks in fantasy land.

           

    Stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference, Pro Football Focus, Sporting Charts, Football Outsiders, FootballGuys and Team Rankings. All ADP references courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator and Fantasy Pros

    Follow me on Twitter @RichardJanvrin.