Fantasy Football Blueprint: Step-by-Step Guide to Winning Your League in 2020

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystAugust 28, 2020

Fantasy Football Blueprint: Step-by-Step Guide to Winning Your League in 2020

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    D. Ross Cameron/Associated Press

    Go time is almost here.

    With the season opener for the 2020 NFL season just two short weeks away, another year of fantasy football is upon us.

    It will most assuredly be a welcome diversion in 2020.

    The last two weekends before the season opener are the busiest of draft season—for good reason. By waiting, fantasy managers afford themselves extra time to research and the ability to avoid as many camp injuries as possible.

    But again, go time is almost here.

    As the day that will define your fantasy season nears, every manager is searching for the right path to a championship. For a guide that will show them which positions to target at what point in the draft. For a blueprint that will help lay the foundation for a title in 2020.

    As it happens, that's just what this is.

    It must be kismet.

QB Draft Strategy: The Value Lies with Waiting

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    In each of the past two seasons, a second-year quarterback came from low-end starter or backup draft status to post a record-setting season and finish as the No. 1 fantasy option at the position by a massive margin.

    As a result of those breakout seasons, Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens aren't making it out of the second round of most fantasy drafts. Both will likely go on to have big seasons in 2020.

    But they aren't the best use of draft capital for fantasy managers.

    A player's value in fantasy football isn't tied to how many points they score. It's tied to how many points that player scores relative to the other players at that position. And the difference in scoring between the No. 1 quarterback and the No. 12 quarterback isn't as significant as the gap between the No. 1 weekly starter and the No. 24 starter at running back. Or the No. 1 wide receiver and No. 24 (or No. 36) wide receiver.

    The smart play isn't in drafting Mahomes or Jackson. Or in spending a sixth-round pick chasing a breakout from the Arizona Cardinals' Kyler Murray.

    The wise move at the quarterback position is to exercise patience. Grab a steady starter in the back half of the top 10. Grab an upside option being drafted outside the top 12 altogether.

    In fact, there are plenty of fantasy managers who either "platoon" a pair of late-round quarterbacks based on matchup or take that one step further and "stream" the position by first drafting a quarterback late and then playing options off the waiver wire.

    There's more than one approach to drafting quarterbacks that can work out, but reaching under center isn't an especially good one.

Quarterbacks to Target (and Avoid)

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    GO GET HIM!

    Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons (ADP: QB8, 83.8)

    Ryan has long been something of a poster dude for a value pick at the quarterback position. He's posted top-six fantasy finishes each of the past two seasons and has passed for at least 4,400 yards in seven of the past eight seasons. Ryan is a proven veteran quarterback with a long track record of production who is annually available outside the top five on draft day. If you're risk-averse but don't want to overspend under center, Ryan is a fine target.

       

    Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions (ADP: 111.3, QB13)

    This may well be my last chance to bang the drum for Stafford as one of this season's top values at quarterback. Yes, the 32-year-old missed half of last season with a back injury. But that was the first time he had missed games since 2010, and at the time of the injury, Stafford was on pace for 5,000 passing yards, 38 touchdowns and a top-five fantasy finish. As recently as 2017, Stafford threw for over 4,400 yards and 29 scores and finished fifth among quarterbacks in fantasy points.

        

    Gardner Minshew II, Jacksonville Jaguars (ADP: 163.3, QB26)

    As a rookie, Minshew threw for 3,271 yards with 21 touchdowns against just six interceptions and finished just outside the top 20 in fantasy points under center. This year, Minshew is the unquestioned starter for a Jaguars team that will more than likely spend Sunday afternoons playing catchup. Garbage-time fantasy points count the same as all the others, and Minshew's a cheap source of them as a platoon option or a streamer.

       

    STEER CLEAR!

    Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals (ADP: 63.5, QB5)

    Murray's a talented young quarterback at the helm of a stacked offense who should be primed for a step forward in Year 2 of his NFL career. But there's a difference between Murray in 2020 and Jackson and Mahomes the past couple of years. The latter pair were drafted as either low-end weekly starters or high-end backups. Murray is being drafted as a top-five starter. He essentially has to break out to justify that asking price.

        

    Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (ADP: 93.0, QB10)

    There was a time when Rodgers was the unquestioned king of fantasy quarterbacks. But Father Time is undefeated, and it hasn't spared Rodgers either. Last year, he finished the season 18th in fantasy points, and it's hard to see how that's going to drastically improve given that the offense in Green Bay is essentially unchanged in 2020. Don't fall into one of the most common traps in fantasy football: chasing ghosts.

RB Draft Strategy: Long Live the King

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Running backs have long been the kings of fantasy football. And after a stretch in which their grip on the throne loosened a bit, the king has returned—with a vengeance.

    Per the ADP data at Fantasy Football Calculator, 10 of the first 12 picks (and 15 of the first 24) in drafts this season are running backs. To say that the position is being hit hard early is an understatement.

    In the 20-plus drafts I have participated in (I need help), there hasn't been a single one where at least nine backs weren't taken in Round 1.

    There are still those who adhere to the "Zero RB" theory of fantasy drafting (waiting at the position while blasting away at wide receiver), but if that idea intrigues, you know going in that scramble mode doesn't begin to describe what you'll be doing in the middle rounds.

    Frankly, the safest play in fantasy drafts this year is focusing early capital on "workhorse" backs who are a good bet for 320-plus touches this season. That's a relatively shallow talent pool, one that will be drained quickly.

    However, spending a first-round pick on a wide receiver like Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints or a second-round pick on a tight end like the Chiefs' Travis Kelce doesn't have to be the proverbial kiss of death.

    There are running backs available in the third round and beyond who have the potential to develop into viable weekly starters, and it may well be that those mid-round backs will determine who hoists the trophy in 2020.

        

    A Note on Handcuffs

    With the pool of talent at running back the weakest of all the positions in fantasy football and the added uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, an argument can be made that adding depth by "handcuffing" running backs is more valuable than ever this year.

    If you invest a high pick in Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys or Dalvin Cook of the Minnesota Vikings, a strong case can be made for purchasing insurance in the form of Tony Pollard and Alexander Mattison, respectively. Both have shown they can carry the load for teams that like to run the ball.

    However, as the handcuffs become more speculative, the case for adding them weakens.

Running Backs to Target (and Avoid)

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    GO GET HIM!

    Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars (ADP: 33.5, RB20)

    Despite averaging over 100 total yards a game, catching a career-high 76 passes and finishing seventh in PPR fantasy points at the position last year, Fournette is being drafted as a low-end RB this season. The Jags may have spent a good portion of the offseason trying to move him, but player and team have reportedly mended fences, and the fourth-year veteran should be a good bet to clear 300 touches again this season.

         

    Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills (ADP: 47.6, RB25)

    Singletary didn't exactly light up the stat sheet as a rookie, finishing his first season as the No. 33 fantasy running back in PPR formats. But he did average over five yards a carry in his first season and is now the lead back for one of the NFL's more run-heavy teams. He's also reportedly made quite the positive impression on the Bills with his offseason work. Not bad for a young back being drafted as an RB3.

        

    Ronald Jones II, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (ADP: 56.7, RB28)

    After a pair of mostly unimpressive seasons in the NFL, Jones inspires about as much enthusiasm from most fantasy drafters as a root canal. But he did top 1,000 total yards last season, finished as a top-25 PPR fantasy back and has been anointed the runner who will "carry the load" for the Buccaneers this season. There aren't many lead backs available that late on draft day.

           

    STEER CLEAR!

    Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs (ADP: 6.5, RB6)

    Edwards-Helaire is admittedly a talented running back, the Chiefs are as good offensively as any team in the NFL, and the youngster has impressed in his first NFL training camp. But the Chiefs ranked 23rd or lower last year in both rushing yards and rush attempts. Forecasting a top-10 season for the rookie is drafting much closer to his ceiling than his floor. That's generally not a wise move.

        

    Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team (ADP: 82.7, RB35)

    Ever since Derrius Guice was released, Gibson's ADP has steadily climbed, to the point it has now climbed too far. But while Gibson is no doubt an explosive player, the reality is he's also a raw young prospect who carried the ball all of 33 times last year at Memphis. He's unlikely to lead Washington's running backs in touches in 2020.

WR Draft Strategy: Use the Depth

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    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    In 2019, 14 of the NFL's 32 teams passed the ball at least 60 percent of the time. Given all that passing, it should come as no surprise that there are more fantasy-relevant receivers than ever before. There were 25 wideouts who topped 1,000 receiving yards in 2019—enough for every manager in a 12-team fantasy league to field two with one to spare.

    And that's without taking into consideration players like Davante Adams of the Green Bay Packers and Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals, who caught at least 75 passes but came up short of 1,000 yards.

    It can be tempting to stack a couple elite wide receivers early on draft day, to anchor a team with Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons and Chris Godwin of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And that's not an invalid strategy.

    But it's a lot easier to find startable receivers later in drafts than their counterparts in the backfield. Despite a breakout season in 2019, the Denver Broncos' Courtland Sutton is lasting late into the fifth round. Due to his recent injury issues, A.J. Green of the Cincinnati Bengals is available in Round 6, and batterymate Tyler Boyd isn't coming off the board until Round 7.

    Old school is the best school in 2020. Lock up a solid stable of running backs early, and add an elite tight end if the mood strikes you.

    There will be wide receivers with upside available later on.

    That's the keyword at wide receiver (and every other position, for that matter): upside.

    Fitzgerald has had a fantastic professional NFL career that will one day land him in the Hall of Fame. But when the late rounds roll around, the better use of draft picks is on younger players whose best days may still be ahead of them.

Wide Receivers to Target (and Avoid)

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    GO GET HIM!

    DeVante Parker, Miami Dolphins (ADP: 68.4, WR29)

    Parker finally had his breakout season in 2019, tallying 72 catches for over 1,200 yards and nine scores. That was good for a WR11 finish—WR1 territory in 12-team leagues. However, in spite of that big year and Parker's unquestioned status as the Dolphins' No. 1 target in the passing game, he's being drafted as a mid-range third starter. What's not to like about that?

        

    Michael Gallup, Dallas Cowboys (ADP: 74.4, WR31)

    Not only did Gallup top 1,100 receiving yards, score six touchdowns and finish the season as a top-25 PPR wide receiver, but he actually had more targets per game (8.1) and receiving yards per game (79.1) than Amari Cooper (7.4 and 74.3). If Gallup can better last year's 58.4 percent catch rate in his third season, a breakout campaign is a real possibility.

        

    Anthony Miller, Chicago Bears (ADP: 129.3, WR51)

    Miller is the definition of one of those late-round upside plays I mentioned earlier. Miller's 52 catches for 656 yards and two touchdowns in 2019 isn't especially impressive. But his stretch-run stats are another story. From Week 11 on, Miller was quietly a top-20 fantasy option in PPR leagues last year. The Bears need a second wide receiver to step up opposite Allen Robinson, and Miller is the best bet to do so.

       

    STEER CLEAR!

    Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (ADP: 27.0, WR8)

    Over the first six seasons of his NFL career, Evans has never failed to eclipse 1,000 yards—a feat only Randy Moss has duplicated in league history. But Evans also had just 67 catches a year ago and finished 2019 outside the top 15 fantasy options. If Rob Gronkowski siphons some red-zone looks from Evans, another disappointing fantasy finish could be in the offing.

        

    A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans (ADP: 43.9, WR18)

    Brown was fantastic as a rookie. He averaged 20.2 yards per reception, crossed the 1,000-yard threshold and found the end zone eight times. But he did all that damage last year on just 84 targets. That kind of per-target production is not sustainable, and it's difficult to imagine Brown getting a huge spike in targets on the run-heavy Titans in 2020.

TE Draft Strategy: Go Big or Go Home

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    Steve Luciano/Associated Press

    In recent years, there were essentially two paths that could be taken in fantasy drafts at the tight end position: You could spend big on an elite option, or wait and throw a dart in the hopes of hitting on a late-round pickup.

    However, the emergence of players like Darren Waller of the Las Vegas Raiders and Tyler Higbee of the Los Angeles Rams has created a third option for fantasy drafters.

    You can still go big at the position, but it will cost you. The Chiefs' Travis Kelce and the 49ers' George Kittle are gone by the end of Round 2. By the time Round 5 is in the books, Zach Ertz of the Philadelphia Eagles, Mark Andrews of the Baltimore Ravens and (maybe) Waller have joined them.

    You can still wait and throw a late dart at a player like the Indianapolis Colts' Jack Doyle. There are no sure things to be had in the double-digit rounds, but if you miss on a late-round tight end, it's hardly a draft-breaker.

    There's a middle ground in 2020. Tight ends like Austin Hooper of the Cleveland Browns and the Chargers' Hunter Henry carry question marks to be sure. But the middle tier of tight ends in 2020 carries upside that could potentially be available at a discount.

    It's good to have options on draft day. But all things being equal, the edge that can be gained by investing in a top-five tight end is worth the cost.

Tight Ends to Target (and Avoid)

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    GO GET HIM!

    Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles (ADP: 51.4, TE4)

    If you're looking for elite fantasy upside at tight end without an elite fantasy price tag, then Ertz is probably your best bet. The eighth-year veteran was second in receptions among tight ends in 2019, third in targets and fourth in fantasy points. If you do draft Ertz, grabbing backup Dallas Goedert in the late rounds isn't a bad idea. That's right—handcuffing a tight end.

         

    Tyler Higbee, Los Angeles Rams (ADP: 89.8, TE9)

    Among the "in-between" tight ends, Higbee might well be the best target of the lot. He blew up in 2019, setting career highs with 69 catches for 734 yards. For the season, Higbee ranked sixth in PPR fantasy points. But over the last few weeks of the season, he was even better; from Week 12 on, only George Kittle had more PPR fantasy points than Higbee.

        

    Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins (ADP: 147.2, TE15)

    Gesicki is a favorite of the fantasy community among the late-round options at the tight end position. The Dolphins need someone to step up as a secondary option behind DeVante Parker, and last year, Gesicki filled that role nicely. From Week 12 on, Gesicki was sixth in PPR fantasy points at the position, outscoring the likes of Waller and Andrews over that span.

          

    STEER CLEAR!

    Rob Gronkowski, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (ADP: 70.6, TE6)

    Back in 2011, Gronkowski posted maybe the best fantasy season we have ever seen from a tight end. But that was a long time ago. Now, Gronkowski is 31, has a lengthy injury history and hasn't played in an NFL game since Super Bowl LIII—yet he's being drafted as if a rebound after that long layoff is any kind of sure thing.

        

    Jared Cook, New Orleans Saints (ADP: 114.0, TE11)

    Cook's first season with the Saints was a successful one from a fantasy perspective; he finished the year seventh in PPR fantasy points at his position. But that respectable fantasy finish was buoyed by an unsustainable nine touchdowns on just 43 catches and 65 targets. Unless that latter number spikes in 2020, Cook is a prime regression candidate—and with Emmanuel Sanders now in town, that target spike probably isn't coming.

Team Defense and Kicker Strategy: It's Nap Time

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    In every other position in fantasy football, there's more than one way to build a winning roster. Every drafter has their own personal preferences—I have long been a proponent of hitting running back early and often.

    But you can choose two wide receivers to start the draft and come through fine. Take a tight end early. Even go quarterback in the first couple rounds.

    I don't advise that last one, but that doesn't mean it never works.

    However, when it comes to kickers and defenses, there is only one correct course of action.

    Wait. And then wait some more. Take a nap. Make a sandwich. Catch up on Ozark. Whatever.

    There are way too many variables on defense from year to year to be able to use past results to gauge future performance. Last year's top fantasy defense, the New England Patriots, not only lost a fistful of starters from the 2019 squad, but even as last season progressed, the team's big-play (and fantasy) production tailed off.

    And the team most consider the best defense in the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers? They were fourth in fantasy points a year ago. Fantasy production on defense is mostly based on sacks and turnovers—two of the most high-variance stats in the game.

    The ninth-round pick needed on average to draft the No. 1 defense in 2020 (the 49ers) is better spent on depth at running back. Or an upside flier at wide receiver. Target a defense with a good matchup or two to open the season, and then when the matchups dry up, grab another defense with a good one that week from the waiver wire.

    Where kickers are concerned, outside of a few elite options, there are too many unknowns from season to season. And even those elite kickers only score a couple more fantasy points per game than the low-end starters.

    Wait until the last round to draft a kicker—always.

Tem Defenses and Kickers to Target (and Avoid)

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    GO GET THEM!

    Philadelphia Eagles Defense/Special Teams

    The Eagles aren't the defensive football team they were even a few years ago—the secondary and linebacker spots are both areas of concern. The addition of veteran cornerback Darius Slay should help the former, and in any event, this is all about the Week 1 matchup on the road against a Washington team that might sport the league's worst offense.

         

    Indianapolis Colts Defense/Special Teams

    The Colts have quietly put together what could be an excellent defense, with talent on the defensive line (DeForest Buckner and Justin Houston), at linebacker (Darius Leonard) and on the back end (Kenny Moore). The Colts also open the season against a Jacksonville Jaguars team that isn't scaring anyone this year. Again, matchups.

        

    Matt Gay, PK, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Despite failing to hit on even 80 percent of his field-goal attempts last year, Gay was still a top-five fantasy option in 2019. The arrival of Tom Brady could mean a more efficient Tampa offense and fewer field-goal attempts, but Gay should be able to compensate for that if he can just up his kicking efficiency a bit.

         

    STEER CLEAR!

    New England Patriots Defense/Special Teams

    For part of last year, the Patriots defense scored like no other fantasy defense in recent memory. But after blowing every other defense out of the water over the first half of last season, the Patriots finished outside the top 15 in fantasy points over the season's second half. Add in all the personnel losses in the offseason, and the Patriots are being overdrafted by people who can't get past the hot start in 2019.

       

    Justin Tucker, PK, Baltimore Ravens

    Tucker and Harrison Butker are both excellent kickers who play on offenses that marched up and down the field seemingly at will last season. But the pair is also being drafted multiple rounds ahead of other kickers who will end the 2020 campaign within 20 total fantasy points or so. It's a pick better used on upside fliers and "handcuff" backs.

        

    Average draft positions courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator. Unless otherwise noted, fantasy scoring data courtesy of FFToday.

    Gary Davenport is a two-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association Football Writer of the Year.

    Looking for updated fantasy football rankings? You can find Gary's latest Fantasy Football Big Board here.