Fantasy Football Blueprint: Positions, Players to Target and Avoid

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystAugust 4, 2020

Fantasy Football Blueprint: Positions, Players to Target and Avoid

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    The summer of 2020 has been many things. Normal is not one of them.

    It's been no different in the NFL. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the cancellation of minicamps. And OTAs. And the entire preseason. Several players (including Super Bowl hero Damien Williams of the Kansas City Chiefs) have opted against playing this year.

    But training camps are just about to open. The regular season is still slated to start Sept. 10 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.

    And that means draft season is ramping up in earnest for fantasy football enthusiasts.

    A good draft is a key component of a successful fantasy campaign. And a big part of having a good draft is preparation, developing a strategy that will produce a balanced and talented roster.

    That's what we're here to do—to offer you a one-stop shop for winning strategies at each of fantasy football's positions, with players to target and avoid at each spot.

    This is a winning fantasy blueprint for the 2020 season.

    Now what did I do with those crayons?            

                      

    Average-draft-position data courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator.

    Fantasy scoring data courtesy of FFToday.

QB Draft Strategy: Patience Is a Virtue

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Over the past couple of seasons, we've seen two young quarterbacks—Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes in 2018 and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens in 2019—post record-setting seasons, win the league's MVP award and take fantasy football by storm. It's hardly a surprise that Mahomes and Jackson are the first two signal-callers off the board in 2020.

    Per Fantasy Football Calculator, both are taken by the end of Round 2. Jackson and Mahomes will (barring injury) likely both have big years, but drafting a quarterback that early is asking for trouble.

    There is an important concept in fantasy football called positional scarcity. In a nutshell, positional scarcity dictates that the relative value of a position isn't determined by how many total fantasy points a player scores. It's measured by how many points the top starters score compared to low-end starters at the same position.

    According to FF Today, the No. 1 quarterback (Jackson) in PPR leagues in 2019 outscored the No. 12 quarterback (Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers) by 10.4 fantasy points per game.

    But even with Jackson's ridiculous season (3,127 passing yards, 1,206 rushing yards, 43 total touchdowns), that number is smaller than the difference between the "best" and "worst" weekly starter at running back (18.4 FPPG) and wide receiver (12.7 FPPG).

    With most leagues starting at least two running backs and three wide receivers per week, drafting a quarterback early digs a hole at those positions that isn't justified. Never mind that Mahomes and Jackson both had ADPs outside of the top 10 at the position before their big years.

    The smart play at quarterback is patience. Unless all the quarterbacks fall (which happens sometimes), let the biggest names go. There will be viable weekly starters with considerable upside later on. 

    And you'll have a strong cadre of backs and receivers to boot.     

Quarterbacks to Target (and Avoid)

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    John Hefti/Associated Press

    TARGET HIM!

    Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions (ADP: 108.4, QB13)

    Stafford missed half of the 2019 season with a back injury, but that injury has apparently given fantasy managers amnesia. When he got hurt, Stafford was on pace for almost 5,000 passing yards, 38 touchdowns and a top-five fantasy season in most scoring systems. It was also the first game action the 32-year-old had missed since 2010.

                     

    Daniel Jones, New York Giants (ADP: 123.3, QB15)

    Jones was inconsistent as a rookie and draws a brutal three-game stretch (vs. Pittsburgh, at Chicago, vs. San Francisco) to open the season. But the second-year pro has also flashed considerable upside with both his arm and his legs, has a solid array of passing-game weaponry and should be playing catch-up quite a bit. He's a high-upside platoon option.

                                

    Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers (ADP: 129.4, QB16)

    Yes, Roethlisberger is 38 years old. Yes, he missed almost the entire 2019 season with an elbow injury. But as recently as two years ago, Big Ben peeled off a league-leading 5,129 passing yards and finished the season as a top-three fantasy option in most scoring systems. Even if his numbers regress to 2017 levels, Roethlisberger would be a top-eight fantasy quarterback and a steal at his ADP.

                           

    STAY AWAY!

    Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals (ADP: 58.2, QB4)

    After the Cardinals traded for wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in the offseason, it didn't take long for Murray to be pegged as the next second-year quarterback set to break out for fantasy managers. Maybe that breakout will come. But the fantasy hype surrounding Murray will make it difficult for him to justify his draft-day asking price. There's no value there.  

                                            

    Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (ADP: 93.2, QB10)

    There was a time when Aaron Rodgers was the king of the mountain among fantasy quarterbacks. But those days are over. After the Packers did little to upgrade the weaponry around Rodgers in the offseason, there's little reason to think that the two-time MVP will improve markedly over his 12th-place fantasy finish from a season ago. Let someone else chase the past.      

RB Draft Strategy: No Such Thing as Too Many

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    The NFL may be more pass-heavy than ever before, but running backs remain the kings of fantasy football. According to Fantasy Football Calculator, 10 of the first 12 picks (and 15 of the first 24 selections) in fantasy football drafts this summer (on average) are running backs.

    There are those who eschew the position early. And in fairness, the "Zero RB" draft strategy can work, just as any strategy can. But as Michael Salfino reported for The Athletic, the notion that running backs bust at a higher rate than wide receivers has been something of a misnomer in recent years.

    What can't be disputed is that your season will be sunk without a capable fantasy backfield.

    After becoming just the third player in league history to top 1,000 yards receiving and rushing in the same season last year, Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers is the consensus No. 1 pick in fantasy leagues. But he also touched the ball over 400 times in 2019—a number that could put him at risk of regression thanks to the Curse of 370.

    There's a flip side, though. As more teams turn to committee attacks and two-headed backfields, the number of true workhorse backs continues to dwindle. Only two running backs (Tennessee's Derrick Henry and Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys) cleared 300 carries in 2019.

    Attack the position. Target clear-cut No. 1 backs who don't face a lot of competition for touches. There's much more depth at the wide receiver position than in the backfield.

    Use that depth to your advantage.

                                                                   

    A Note on 'Handcuffs'

    In this most uncertain of seasons—with the possibility of players missing multiple games if they test positive for COVID-19—having a viable Plan B at fantasy's most important position is critical.

    Purchasing some insurance by "handcuffing" backups or drafting both sides of a committee could be a season-saver later on, as there are cases in which reserve backs have shown the ability to produce (Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison of the Minnesota Vikings) or could muddy backfields (Melvin Gordon III and Phillip Lindsay of the Denver Broncos).    

Running Backs to Target (and Avoid)

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    TARGET HIM!

    Todd Gurley, Atlanta Falcons (ADP: 23.2, RB15)

    Given Gurley's injury issues over the past couple of years, investing a Round 2 pick in him isn't for the faint of heart. But even in last year's miserable campaign, Gurley finished 14th in PPR fantasy points. The two years before that, Gurley checked in third and first, respectively, among running backs. He's also the unquestioned No. 1 running back in Atlanta.

                      

    Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills (ADP: 46.2, RB25)

    Singletary failed to gain 1,000 yards from scrimmage in 2019, but he averaged a solid 5.1 yards per carry and posted top-25 fantasy numbers down the stretch. With Frank Gore no longer in the picture in Buffalo, Singletary should be set to receive a significant bump in usage for a team that checked in sixth in the NFL in rushing attempts last year.

                         

    Jordan Howard, Miami Dolphins (ADP: 81.0, RB35)

    Howard's lone season in Philadelphia was a major disappointment, and he's admittedly not much of a factor in the passing game. But in three of his four professional seasons, Howard has topped 1,000 yards from scrimmage. He has averaged a respectable 4.3 yards per carry for his career and has 32 total touchdowns. Two years ago with the Chicago Bears, Howard was a top-20 PPR running back.

                                                                

    STAY AWAY!

    Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns (ADP: 11.0, RB9)

    Chubb is a fantastic player and an ascending talent who finished second in the NFL in rushing yards last year. But the impact of Kareem Hunt on Chubb's fantasy production is cause for real concern. During Hunt's eight-game suspension for violating the league's personal-conduct policy, Chubb was fourth in PPR fantasy points per game at his position. From Week 9 on, that number fell outside of the top 20.

                                                 

    Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs (ADP: 6.1, RB5)

    This isn't about Edwards-Helaire as a player. The rookie is an immensely talented young back with a skill set that appears to be tailor-made for what the Chiefs do offensively. But from the moment Damien Williams opted out of the 2020 season, Edwards-Helaire's ADP took off like a rocket. He's not worth the first-round pick some are spending on him.   

WR Draft Strategy: Depth Is Your Friend

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    James Kenney/Associated Press

    More than ever, the NFL is about slinging the rock. In 2019, there were 15 running backs who recorded 1,000-plus rushing yards and 25 wide receivers who had at least 1,000 yards through the air.

    Nine players caught at least 90 passes—led by the New Orleans Saints' Michael Thomas, who had an NFL-record 149 grabs. Twenty-three wide receivers who played all 16 regular-season games were targeted at least six times per contest.

    All of those fantasy-relevant wideouts give drafters options.

    Thomas and the other elite fantasy players at the position certainly have value. After the top three or four running backs are off the board, Thomas merits a long look. Both Davante Adams of the Green Bay Packers and Tyreek Hill of the Chiefs are being taken in Round 1 on average.

    But it's possible to pass on a wide receiver in each of the first two rounds and still build a group that's capable of propelling your fantasy squad to the playoffs. Kenny Golladay of the Detroit Lions, Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Allen Robinson of the Chicago Bears all have top-10 upside in Round 3 or later.

    Similarly, that depth extends into the middle or even late rounds.

    Want a proven veteran who has shown the ability to post WR1 numbers? Stefon Diggs of the Buffalo Bills is being drafted early in Round 6. How about a PPR vacuum with a long resume? Julian Edelman of the New England Patriots is falling into Round 7. Want to swing for the fences in the 10th round? That's when Mecole Hardman of the Chiefs is being taken on average.

    Build up a strong stable of running backs. Lock up a reliable weekly starter at tight end. There will be wide receivers available who will help your team.

    The later the round, the wiser it often is to prioritize youth and upside. Low-ceiling veterans won't help you win a title as much as a lottery-ticket type (if he hits).     

Wide Receivers to Target (and Avoid)

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    TARGET HIM!

    Robert Woods, Los Angeles Rams (ADP: 42.9, WR17)

    Woods caught 90 passes, topped 1,100 yards and finished 2019 as a top-10 PPR receiver. More importantly, when the Rams ran more 12 personnel late in the season, it was Cooper Kupp (and not Woods) who watched from the sidelines. It's a tactical mistake to take Kupp a handful of picks before Woods comes off the board.

                                          

    Diontae Johnson, Pittsburgh Steelers (ADP: 87.8, WR36)

    From Week 12 to 16 last year, Johnson was quietly a top-25 fantasy option in PPR scoring systems—despite a steaming pile of poo at the quarterback position. Now, Ben Roethlisberger is back under center. With JuJu Smith-Schuster drawing coverage away from Johnson and improved quarterback play, Johnson is a quality breakout candidate.

                             

    Emmanuel Sanders, New Orleans Saints (ADP: 99.5, WR39)

    Sanders is the exception to the rule about prioritizing youth and upside over experience late in drafts. Sanders was a top-35 receiver last year in a season split between Denver and San Francisco. Now he's that much more removed from his Achilles injury and will be playing in the high-octane passing game of the New Orleans Saints. He's a dirt-cheap second fantasy starter waiting to happen.

                                       

    STAY AWAY!

    Amari Cooper, Dallas Cowboys (ADP: 38.4, WR14)

    Down the stretch last year, it was Michael Gallup (and not Cooper) who emerged as the fantasy receiver to roster in Dallas. That was partly due to injury, but Cooper has long had a penchant for vanishing from time to time, and his splits away from AT&T Stadium since joining the Cowboys are not good (last year, he recorded 549 fewer yards on the road). It's a lot of downside for a top-15 receiver.

                                                

    A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans (ADP: 43.2, WR18)

    Brown was nothing short of amazing for the Titans as a rookie, averaging over 20 yards per catch, topping 1,000 yards and scoring eight touchdowns on just 52 receptions and 84 targets. But that kind of per-target production is equal parts otherworldly and unsustainable. Unless Brown sees a sizable bump in targets in his second NFL season, he's a prime candidate to regress in 2020.         

Tight End Draft Strategy: Fork in the Road

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    There's good news and bad news for fantasy managers at the tight end position.

    The good news is that fantasy football's shallowest position talent-wise has gotten a tad deeper with the emergence of players like Baltimore's Mark Andrews. It's not as feast-or-famine as in recent years.

    The bad news is that in 12-team leagues, there are still more teams than proven options. That leaves fantasy managers at a crossroads when addressing the position.

    The first route is the aggressive approach. The upside is landing a reliable weekly starter who will all but certainly finish at the top of the position. But there are downsides as well. The first is cost. Kansas City's Travis Kelce and San Francisco's George Kittle likely won't make it out of Round 2. Andrews will be gone by the end of the third.

    It's a steep price to pay—especially when you consider that the difference between the No. 1 tight end in 2019 (Kelce) and the No. 12 option (Mike Gesicki of the Dolphins) is fewer than seven points per game.

    Then there's the second potential route of targeting a second- or third-tier option like Tyler Higbee of the Rams or Hunter Henry of the Chargers a handful of rounds later. It allows managers to rack up talent at running back and wide receiver, and if that later-round tight end hits, the edge at those other positions could pave the way to a title.

    Unless you're confident in your ability to hit the jackpot late at wideout, the second route is likely the safer play. Kelce and Kittle are great players to be sure. But the fantasy advantage they offer (much like at quarterback) just isn't worth their price tags.           

Tight Ends to Target (and Avoid)

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    TARGET HIM!

    Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders (ADP: 58.2, TE5)

    If there's a "best of both worlds" option at the tight end position in 2020, it's probably Waller. The fifth-year pro caught 90 passes, topped 1,000 yards and finished as a top-three fantasy option in most scoring systems a year ago. But he doesn't carry the lofty asking price of Kittle or Kelce. Waller is coming off draft boards at the beginning of Round 5.

                                           

    Hayden Hurst, Atlanta Falcons (ADP: 79.6, TE8)

    After failing to live up to his draft slot during his time with the Baltimore Ravens, Hurst was traded to the Atlanta Falcons in the offseason as a replacement for the departed Austin Hooper, who finished sixth among tight ends in PPR fantasy points last year. It's not difficult to imagine Hurst putting up similar production in his first season in Atlanta.

                          

    Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins (ADP: 150.9, TE15)

    You'll be hard-pressed to find a better target than Gesicki among late-draft dart throws at the position. From Week 12 on last season, Gesicki was quietly seventh among tight ends in PPR fantasy points and tied with Andrews for seventh in points per game. That's attractive upside for a pick in Round 13.

           

    STAY AWAY!

    Rob Gronkowski, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (ADP: 67.4, TE6)

    It's tempting to imagine Gronkowski turning back the clock and having one more huge season with Tom Brady. But Gronkowski didn't play at all in 2019 and struggled with injuries the season before that. Were his ADP a few slots lower, his ceiling would make him an attractive target. But as things stand, he's being overvalued by drafters living in the past.

                                                      

    Jared Cook, New Orleans Saints (ADP: 110.1, TE11)

    Cook finished the 2019 campaign seventh in PPR fantasy points after his first year in New Orleans, thanks in large part to nine touchdowns. But those scores came on just 43 receptions, and that touchdown rate is not sustainable. With Emmanuel Sanders now in New Orleans, Cook isn't going to see a big target bump. And he is going to regress.    

Team Defense and Kicker Strategy: WAIT!

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    OK, so you've built a formidable fantasy roster. You exercised patience and got value at quarterback. Your group of running backs would make Vince Lombardi blush. Your wideouts and tight ends ooze upside.

    Now it's time to address the defense and the kicker.

    In the vast majority of fantasy leagues, these positions are an afterthought. And they should be treated as such.

    It may be tempting to invest a mid-round pick in an "elite" defense like the San Francisco 49ers. But there are a ton of moving pieces from year to year, whether it's personnel, scheme or coaching. Never mind that most of the stats that generate fantasy production (sacks, takeaways) are high-variance by nature.

    Ask managers who invested in the Chicago Bears in 2019 how that worked out for them.

    The smart play is "streaming," finding a defense with a favorable matchup or two to open the season and then swapping it out later for another team with a similarly offensively challenged opponent.

    Wash, rinse, repeat—all the way to a title.

    At kicker, the only strategy worth employing is an even easier one. Wait until the last round to pick one. Always. Without fail.

    Kickers like Justin Tucker of the Ravens are supremely skilled at what they do. But the position sees a ton of turnover every year, and the difference between the No. 1 kicker of 2019 (Kansas City's Harrison Butker) and the No. 12 kicker (Jason Myers of the Seahawks) is roughly two fantasy points per game.    

Defenses and Kickers to Target (and Avoid)

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    TARGET HIM!

    Philadelphia Eagles Defense/Special Teams (ADP: 168.8, DEF14)

    The Philadelphia Eagles are being drafted right around where they finished the 2019 season—just inside the top 15. They bolstered the back end of the defense in the offseason with veteran cornerback Darius Slay, but this recommendation has a lot more to do with a matchup against Washington's anemic offense in Week 1 than any personnel additions.

               

    Zane Gonzalez, PK, Arizona Cardinals (ADP: 167.7, K7)

    In many respects, Gonzalez, is something of a best-case scenario. As a top-five option in NFL.com fantasy scoring last year, he's shown his ability to produce. The Cardinals should field a potent offense in 2020. But as often as not, the 25-year-old will be available in the final round of your draft.

                                                                            

    STAY AWAY!

    New England Patriots Defense/Special Teams (ADP: 129.1, DEF5)

    In 2019, the Patriots had arguably the best fantasy season ever by a defense. For much of the year, the Pats were a top-10 fantasy option across all positions thanks to a flood of big plays. But this offseason, there has been a flood of personnel losses and player opt-outs.

    At some point, even the mighty Patriots are going to feel the sting of all that attrition. Even though New England will have six AFC East matchups, the cost is too high for a defense that will feature a handful of new starters in 2020.     

                                       

    Justin Tucker, PK, Baltimore Ravens (ADP: 147.4, K1)

    Again, this has nothing to do with Tucker as a player. He's one of the best kickers to ever play the game, and the Ravens should have no trouble scoring points. But a 13th-round pick is better spent on depth or a handcuff at running back. Or a flier on a young wide receiver. Don't waste it on a kicker who finished the 2019 season third in fantasy points.

                                              

    Gary Davenport is the 2019 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Football Writer of the Year.