B/R App Community 2021 Fantasy Football Mailbag: Top Early Preseason Questions

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystAugust 13, 2021

B/R App Community 2021 Fantasy Football Mailbag: Top Early Preseason Questions

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Can you feel it? The excitement in the air? The electricity?

    It is fantasy draft season, folks!

    There isn't a better time of year for fantasy football enthusiasts. Last year's disappointments are relegated to the dustbin of history. Every team is undefeated and looking toward a championship. Hope and anticipation fill the air.

    Of course, with all that excitement comes more than a little stress. There's the matter of what to do with the all-important first-round pick. What mid-round values to target. Which busts to avoid. The optimal round to target the different positions. When to take a kicker.

    OK, that last one really shouldn't worry anyone.

    We're here to alleviate some of that stress. Throughout fantasy draft season, I'll be combing through questions on the Bleacher Report app and offering insights that will help you construct a winning roster.

    Let's get started, beginning with the eternal debate of "hero" versus "zero." 

Zero RB vs. Hero RB

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    With a deep WR pool is it smart to target RBs at the top of the draft? — @JAMintheHam

    How do you feel about drafting WRs in the first 3 rounds while everyone fights for RBs? — Blktone25


    These are essentially the same question, just asked in a different way.

    To be honest, I have always been an advocate of targeting running backs early. In leagues with a "flex" spot, it's not that unusual for my first three picks to be backs. It's a matter of scarcity; there's just a lot more depth available at wide receiver than in the backfield.

    With that said, there are also fantasy analysts I respect who swear by the "Zero RB" strategy—fading the position for at least the first few rounds while assembling a cadre of high-end pass-catchers.

    There are fewer of them in 2021, though.

    To say that running backs are being hit hard early doesn't begin to describe the situation this season. Nine of the first 12 picks on average are running backs. And 14 of the first 24. And 19 of the first 36. There are drafts where the numbers are that much higher.

    By the end of the third round, the backs who reasonably be called "reliable" are gone. All of them.

    Last year, Matt Dunleavy of Player Profiler studied the fantasy "bust rate" of backs and receivers. While the bust rate percentages for running backs and wide receivers are similar in the first few rounds and almost identical in the late rounds, from Rounds 5-8, the bust rate at running back is almost 12 points higher.

    That four-round window is where the smart play is to target receivers over running back.

    This isn't to say that rostering an elite wideout like Calvin Ridley of the Atlanta Falcons isn't a good idea. But if you don't have at least a couple of viable running backs rostered by the end of Round 4 (or even Round 3), you're going to have to hope to hit on a "lottery ticket" pick late to avoid being in real trouble.

    Hope is not a strategy. 

Patience Is a Virtue

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    In a six-point passing TD league, are you drafting a QB earlier? If so, how much earlier? — @PhyliisVance


    One of the most common pitfalls for fantasy managers is drafting a quarterback too early. And it really doesn't matter whether passing touchdowns are worth four points or six.

    Yes, quarterbacks score that many more points if passing touchdowns are worth six points. But how many points a QB scores isn't what determines his value—it's how many he scores relative to the other quarterbacks.

    The problem with taking a quarterback early is that it creates a hole at another position, a hole that is often bigger than any edge you are gaining under center. In CBS.com default scoring (which awards six points for passing scores), the difference in scoring between the top quarterback (No. 1) in 2020 and the last weekly starter (No. 12) was nine fantasy points per game.

    At running back, the difference between No. 1 and No. 24 in PPR leagues ballooned to 13.1 fantasy points per game. At wide receiver, the gap between that "best" and "worst" weekly starter (assuming three weekly starters, the most common setup) was 11.2 points per game. At tight end, it was 10.5 points per game.

    Quarterback is easily the deepest position in fantasy. You can wait until a half-dozen are off the board and still (per ADP data at Fantasy Football Calculator) land the Seahawks' Russell Wilson or the Packers' Aaron Rodgers. Or wait until 10 have been taken and land Tennessee's Ryan Tannehill or Atlanta's Matt Ryan.

    If everyone in your draft fades quarterbacks and Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs is sitting there in Round 5, it's another story.

    But for the most part, patience is the way to go at quarterback, regardless of how many points a passing touchdown is worth.

Four on the Floor

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    I have the No. 4 pick in my fantasy league. How should I go about my pick? — @Bigedmar40


    In many respects, the fourth overall pick is the trickiest one in the top five. The first three picks in the overwhelming majority of leagues will be Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers, Dalvin Cook of the Minnesota Vikings and Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans—in that order.

    The next two picks will usually be some combination of the Saints' Alvin Kamara and the Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott. If you pick fifth, it's simply a matter of taking whoever is left.

    But at No. 4, there's a decision to make.

    Last year, Kamara scored a ridiculous 21 total touchdowns and finished the season as the top running back in PPR leagues. But per Jackson Sparks of the Sporting News, between the likelihood of touchdown regression and the changing Saints offense, there's risk involved with a hefty investment in Kamara this year.

    "There will be a ton of change in the New Orleans offense in 2021. With Michael Thomas out indefinitely with an ankle injury (in addition to publicly feuding with the team), Kamara could reasonably lead the Saints in receptions and receiving yards. He could also join the 1,000/1,000 club with rushing and receiving. Or, the Saints' offense could stink. Yes, he's set to be even more of a focal point this season, but if the offense is stagnant, his fantasy production could be, too. A bad offense means fewer scoring opportunities and more loaded boxes."

    Elliott struggled a year ago, failing to hit 1,000 rushing yards while averaging a career-low 4.0 yards per carry. However, as Max Staley wrote at FanDuel, the return of Dak Prescott could portend a rebound for Elliott in 2021.

    "The return of Dak Prescott, who missed the majority of the 2020 campaign, should theoretically boost the sixth-year back's efficiency. He was averaging 108.0 yards from scrimmage per outing over his first four games, adding 4 total TDs during that span. That's a lot more in line with what fantasy managers have come to expect, as he was the RB4 in PPR leagues in that time."

    This is a close enough call that it really comes down to tolerance for risk. If you want a higher floor, stay away from the uncertainty in the Big Easy and roll with Elliott. If you want a higher ceiling, roll the dice that the Saints will be at least average on offense and take Kamara.

Working the Turn

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    What should I do with my first pick even though I have the last pick in the round? — @JA1108letsgo


    Actually, having the last pick in the round ain't so bad. I don't love the No. 12 spot as much in 2021 as in years past, but there is still something to be said for having back-to-back picks. It can allow you to be aggressive in the draft.

    Now, a lot depends on who is drafted before you, because of course it does. But you're essentially looking at three potential options.

    The first is the easiest. If for whatever reason Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce is still on the board, then, assuming you have to start a tight end, make with the taking. Kelce has been the No. 1 player at his position in each of the past five seasons. He offers a sizable edge at a shallow position. Take Kelce and the highest-ranked running back on your board and smile with contentment.

    That said, Kelce will more likely than not already be gone, leaving you two choices.

    The safer play, given how hard running backs are being hit early in drafts this year, is to go RB/RB. Per the ADP info at Fantasy Football Calculator, you could land a combo platter of Jonathan Taylor of the Indianapolis Colts (a top-10 pick a couple of weeks ago) and Najee Harris of the Pittsburgh Steelers or Kansas City's Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The Chargers' Austin Ekeler or even the Giants' Saquon Barkley might even fall to you.

    You can circle back for a wide receiver in Round 3 and conceivably land Chicago's Allen Robinson, Robert Woods of the Los Angeles Rams or the Cowboys' CeeDee Lamb.

    The other option is to pair one of those backs I mentioned with an elite wide receiver like the Chiefs' Tyreek Hill or Stefon Diggs of the Buffalo Bills. Just know that your RB2 options in that event will be guys like Miles Sanders of the Philadelphia Eagles or Miami's Myles Gaskin.

    What you don't want to do is go WR/WR with your first two picks. It's not worth the hit you'll take in the backfield.

RBBC: Duval County-Style

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Who is the Jaguars RB to draft and count on—[Travis] Etienne or [James] Robinson? — @kmiz


    As ESPN's Michael DiRocco reported, Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell believes the team's three-headed backfield of James Robinson, Travis Etienne and Carlos Hyde will pay big dividends in 2021.

    "That's what we need [running back depth]," Bevell said. "You know, I feel like this game is built that way. I know Coach [Urban] Meyer believes that—that you run the ball first and that we want to able to kind of exert our will on the opponent. It helps us do other things in the pass game and get big plays in the pass game—those kinds of things are what we're looking to do. To have a number of backs back there—I think there are a lot of guys that are looking really good and it's just better for us."

    Cue fantasy managers hurling tomatoes and cabbages.

    Robinson was fantasy's favorite son last year, going from waiver-wire add to the fourth UDFA rookie back in league history to top 1,000 rushing yards. He was seventh in PPR fantasy points among running backs. But when the Jags used their second of two first-round picks on the ACC's career rushing leader in Etienne, much of the fantasy shine came off both backs.

    Prevailing wisdom is that Robinson will be the team's primary between-the-tackles option to open the season, while Etienne will be the team's receiving back and play substantial snaps in the slot. The fantasy community appears torn on the situation—both backs are coming off the board in nearly identical spots on average early in Round 5.

    There's actually a scenario where both backs stay fantasy-relevant, a la Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara with the New Orleans Saints in 2017. But if there's one back who is more likely to fade as the season wears on, it's Robinson, especially with Carlos Hyde potentially stealing some carries.

    Counting on either to be more than a low-end RB2 or "flex" option is a risky proposition. But if forced to pick between the two, Etienne's upside wins out.

What Can Brown Do for You?

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    How good can Antonio Brown be this year? — @joelwilliams1287


    Fantasy managers are investing a significant amount of draft capital in Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin in 2021. Both wideouts are off the board by the end of Round 4 on average.

    However, batterymate Antonio Brown is going much later—in the eighth round as a high-end fantasy WR4.

    And there's potential for quite a bit of value there.

    Brown's 45 receptions for 483 yards and four scores in his first season with the Bucs wasn't especially impressive, but it's worth noting that the 33-year-old didn't play until Week 9 and was learning a new offense. Even then, from Week 10 on, Brown was quietly a top-20 fantasy option in PPR formats.

    Now, Brown is healthy and settled in with the Buccaneers. And as Carmen Vitali reported for the team's website, Tampa head coach Bruce Arians indicated that Brown "is playing at a speed he was at 4-5 years ago."

    In case you were wondering, four or five years ago, Brown was in the midst of a six-year stretch where he eclipsed 100 receptions and 1,200 receiving yards each and every year.

    Now, it's not reasonable to expect that kind of statistical explosion in 2021 unless Evans or Godwin gets hurt. The target volume just won't be there.

    But as ESPN's Mike Clay pointed out, Brown's target share last year wasn't that much lower than Evans and Godwin in the games they played together.

    There's an excellent chance that Brown will at least be a solid third fantasy starter. And a finish inside the top 25 isn't out of the question.

It's a Hard Knocks Life

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    Michael Owen Baker/Associated Press

    CeeDee Lamb is going in the 3rd/4th round, while Amari Cooper is going in the 4th/5th round. Who do you think has better value? — @ibust001


    Per the ADP data at Fantasy Football Calculator, CeeDee Lamb's ADP has climbed into WR1 territory: He's being selected 33rd overall. Teammate Amari Cooper is coming off draft boards just over one full round later at No. 46.

    It was Cooper who had the better season in 2020, parlaying 130 targets into a 92/1,114/5 stat line and top-15 PPR finish. But with Dak Prescott under center over the season's first month, Lamb came screaming out of the gate as a rookie, and his 74/935/5 line and WR24 finish wasn't that far behind Cooper.

    As Rob Phillips wrote for the team's website, Lamb has consistently stood out in training camps, making big plays on a daily basis.

    "If you've been at all the practices, you'd see the consistency," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "I don't think there has been a day where he hasn't made a big play. He's been very consistent this camp."

    Cooper spent some time on the PUP list, but he's rounding into shape and told Brianna Dix of D210 Sports that he has his sights set on a career year in 2021.

    "I've been rehabbing so hard," Cooper said. "Just trying to be the best Amari Cooper that I can be, trying to be better than I've ever been. I've been talking to myself a lot lately about how I want this year to be different than any year that I've played football."

    Frankly, both Cowboys wideouts are reasonably priced in fantasy drafts and a good target for teams who hit running back in the first two rounds. But the best value at wide receiver for the Cowboys is a guy who wasn't even mentioned here—despite topping 1,100 receiving yards just two years ago, Michael Gallup is an afterthought in drafts with an ADP of WR53 in Round 11.

Ranking the Rookie QBs

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    Nam Huh/Associated Press

    In a dynasty league, which QB has the most fantasy upside? — @BattlehawksSTL


    The 2021 draft was a big one for quarterbacks—five came off the board in the first 15 picks. All of those young signal-callers have at least some potential for fantasy production. However, there are a couple who stand out as having the most, especially from a dynasty perspective.


    5. Zach Wilson, New York Jets: Wilson parlayed a phenomenal 2020 season at BYU into becoming the second overall pick in the 2021 draft, and he'll start for the Jets from Day 1. But Wilson and new Jets OC Mike LaFleur have their work cut out for them—no team in the NFL averaged fewer yards and points per game than the Jets in 2020.


    4. Mac Jones, New England Patriots: Jones was the last quarterback drafted in Round 1, but he may well be the most accurate passer of the lot. The problem with Jones is twofold: He is probably the least athletic player of the lot, and with Cam Newton ahead of him on the depth chart, he's unlikely to be fantasy-relevant until 2022.


    3. Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers: There's plenty to like about Lance's potential in fantasy football leagues, whether it's his cannon of a right arm or his scrambling ability. But Lance is a relatively inexperienced quarterback who played at the FCS level and has a QB ahead of him on the depth chart who led the 49ers to a Super Bowl just two years ago.


    2. Justin Fields, Chicago Bears: In some respects, Fields is similar to Lance—both offer the potential to rack up yards (and fantasy points) both on the ground and through the air. But Fields has more experience and more arm talent, not to mention a veteran ahead of him in Andy Dalton who is obviously no more than a short-term stopgap.


    1. Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars: Lawrence was the first overall pick in this year's draft and is widely regarded as a generational prospect under center. He also has quite a bit of offensive weaponry at his disposal and will start right away. If Urban Meyer is even a marginally competent head coach, Lawrence could be a top-12 fantasy option as a rookie.

Rapid Fire: Keeper League Edition

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    If this week's questions on the Bleacher Report app are any indication, this weekend's drafts will lean heavily toward keeper leagues.

    As such, we're going to roll out a keeper-centric edition of Rapid Fire this time.


    [Saquon] Barkley, [Darren] Waller, [Calvin] Ridley, [DK] Metcalf. Pick 2 — @rammer46

    Yikes. That's quite the quartet. Darren Waller's missed practices of late are a concern, but he's still the No. 2 option overall at a thin tight end position. With New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley back at practice, he'd likely get my second spot. If Barkley's injury issues are too worrisome for you, Atlanta's Calvin Ridley gets the edge over Seattle's DK Metcalf—the former should get a massive target share with the Falcons in 2021.


    In a keeper league, I'm debating between Waller and giving up my 5th round pick or [Darrell] Henderson Jr. and giving up my 11th. — @wamunoz90

    It's understandable that getting a starting running back outside the top 10 rounds would be tempting. But Rams head coach Sean McVay has already talked about a "pitch count" for Henderson in the hopes of keeping him healthy, and he just doesn't have the fantasy ceiling to justify keeping him over a top-two tight end at a more-than-reasonable cost.


    Who do I keep? Jonathan Taylor (3rd round), Darren Waller (4th round) or CeeDee Lamb (9th round)? — cwiz63

    More Waller? Popular guy. This time, however, he's going back. So is Taylor, although the third round isn't a bad price for the Colts running back. The best value here is easily Lamb. Getting a potential top-10 fantasy wideout for a ninth-round pick is borderline felonious.


    League is 2 keepers, must forfeit round ahead of player's draft round. Took Antonio Brown in 15th round (in 2020). Worth a 14th? Also, Jonnu Smith worth a 12? — @deelzle604

    As has already been mentioned, Brown has quite a bit of fantasy potential in 2021, certainly enough to justify a late-round pick. Jonnu Smith of the New England Patriots is a trickier call. A 12th round pick is pretty minimal cost for the tight end, but with Hunter Henry also on the team and Cam Newton running the offense (at least for now), Smith's fantasy ceiling isn't especially high.


    Get 2 keepers PPR league. DK [Metcalf] Round 5, [Antonio] Gibson Round 6, Kyler [Murray] Round 12. Who ya got? — @bRadley83

    Usually, in keeper leagues it's all about bargain hunting—targeting the players who will give you the most production for the lowest price. Here that's Kyler Murray of the Cardinals, a top-five QB available outside Round 10. But Washington's Antonio Gibson is a top-15 running back and Seattle's DK Metcalf is potentially a top-five wide receiver. Both can be kept at a very reasonable price. You can find another QB easily enough.


    10 team .5 PPR Superflex. Pick 2 for keeper league—[Laviska] Shenault, [Chase] Claypool, Damien Harris or Logan Thomas? -- @DaMoose716

    Um, none of the above? This is a pretty ugly set of keepers. Pittsburgh's Chase Claypool is likely the best of this bunch after an impressive rookie season, but even he's no more than a middling WR3. As much value as running backs have, there may not be a more low-ceiling starter in the league than New England's Damien Harris. Laviska Shenault of the Jaguars has some upside, but he's more late dart throw than keeper. That leaves Washington tight end Logan Thomas, who is at least a decent weekly starter.


    Gary Davenport is a two-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association Football Writer of the Year, Follow him on Twitter at @IDPSharks