A.J. Green Is Going Overlooked in Fantasy Football Drafts
Make no mistake about it: 2017 was a rough year for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Despite entering the season looking to recover from a disappointing 2016 campaign, the team struggled to an 0-3 start and never really regained any traction, finishing under .500 for the second straight year. In spite of firing coordinator Ken Zampese after Week 2, the offense remained in the tank, finishing 24th by our opponent-adjusted metrics.
It was a year to forget in the Queen City, and Bengals fans and fantasy players alike felt the disappointment.
However, some of that frustration has lingered in to 2018. So much so, that it's starting to affect the average draft position (ADP) of A.J. Green. While it's true that Green's 2017 season was far from his best, he still racked up 75 catches for 1,078 yards and 8 touchdowns and finished as the WR10 in fantasy.
In the process, he earned his seventh straight Pro Bowl nod and further solidified a potential Hall of Fame resume.
And yet, the fantasy community seems less than impressed. At this very moment, Green has a late-second round ADP in early fantasy drafts, and you can roster him for the cost of the 22nd overall selection. This is a prime example of market inefficiency.
Currently, 14 running backs and 7 other receivers are all being taken ahead of him. It doesn't make much sense to me, but alas, this is where we find ourselves as the offseason rolls along.
But it shouldn't be this way. Green as the WR8 is a prime example of recency bias driving down a player's ranking, and as such, the former Georgia standout is one of the more undervalued players of the season.
By the Numbers
In order to contextualize any argument in favor of Green, we need to take a look at his career performance.
Here at numberFire, we have an in-house metric known as Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP employs historical down-and-distance data to determine what is expected of a player on a per-play basis and how many points his contributions add to his team's expected total. For more information on NEP, feel free to check out our glossary.
For the purposes of our study here, we will analyze not only Green's counting statistics, but his NEP performance against league averages and past years of his career. So here's Green's resume, at a glance:
|Season||Games||Rec||Yards||TDs||Rec NEP/Tar||League Avg.||Finish|
While we've already established that the 2017 season was arguably his worst, the above table illustrates that it wasn't nearly as bad as it's been made out to be. Even as the Bengals' offense struggled horribly, he was still productive, and his Reception NEP per target of 0.61 was pretty much right in line with the league average of 0.65.
In fact, he wasn't even appreciably worse on a per-play basis than he was during his breakout sophomore campaign (0.67 Reception NEP per target), which is generally regarded as the second-best season of his remarkable career. Clearly, even at his worst, Green remains one of the better players at his position.
Green has played in 16 games four times in his career, and each time, he's been a top-10 fantasy wideout. That's including last year (although technically, he missed the second half of a Week 9 contest against the Jacksonville Jaguars after he and cornerback Jalen Ramsey were ejected for fighting). If not for a hamstring injury that caused him to miss six games during a 2016 in which he was playing some of his best football, he would have seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
So why is he suddenly viewed as a less desirable fantasy option? Why is he ranked behind so many players who have questions about versatility (Jordan Howard), durability (Keenan Allen, Dalvin Cook), inexperience (a plethora of other rookie and sophomore running backs) and wear-and-tear (LeSean McCoy)? After all, Green was a first-round lock last year at this time. Should another top-10 season have diminished his perceived value in the manner it has? Of course not.
The fact is, fantasy football is narrative-driven, and there are many reasons why people are shying away from him in 2018. I'm here to tell you that you shouldn't do the same.
Dalton and the Line
Andy Dalton has never received much credit for his accomplishments. In spite of grading out as an above-average NFL starter (per our metrics) in three of the last five seasons, people generally look at him as an impediment to Green's success.
Never mind the fact that his 0.35 Passing NEP per drop back tally in 2015 was tops among all qualifying quarterbacks. Forget about his QB5 finish in 2013. The fact is, the majority of football fans think he's keeping the offense from reaching its true potential, which is actually quite unfair.
Now, I won't deny that he had a nightmare 2017 season.
In fact, of the 29 signal callers who dropped back to pass 300 or more times, his -0.02 Passing NEP per drop back figure ranked ninth-worst. It was a terrible season no doubt, but there's a little more to the story.
The Bengals had let top offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler walk in free agency, and as a result, the line struggled badly at the start of the season. While things improved a little bit as the year went on, per Pro Football Focus, they still yielded the fifth-worst blocking unit in the league.
Having said that, the franchise has gone all-out to address the problem during the offseason, acquiring left tackle Cordy Glenn from the Buffalo Bills and drafting center Billy Price with 21st overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft. These moves should go a long way toward both bolstering Dalton's pass protection and opening up running lanes for Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard.
With improvements along the offensive line and a potentially dynamic two-back rotation, Dalton should be in a much better position to succeed in 2018. The fact is that he doesn't need to start playing like Aaron Rodgers for Green to produce like a stud. Dalton has been a capable player for much of his career. All he needs to do is play to the best of his own abilities, and there's years of precedent to prove that's more than enough to support Green's numbers.
In late July, Green will turn 30. Yes, 30. The number that fantasy drafters usually run screaming for the hills at the very thought of. Look, I get it. The NFL is a young man's game at pretty much every position other than quarterback and kicker, but abandoning ship on a generational player at this age is a mistake. There's a huge difference between a 30-year-old running back and a 30-year-old receiver, and pass-catchers can have long and successful careers if they learn to adapt their game as they age.
Green has always been a master technician. Silky smooth with great hands, excellent body control, and precise route-running, he has the ability to offset any eventual loss of speed that he might endure as time goes by. Frankly, it was never a big part of his game to begin with. While his 4.48-second 40-yard dash is plenty solid, he certainly lacks the explosion of his 2011 draft peer Julio Jones. When Green loses a step, he will have more than enough to fall back on to compensate for it.
A lot of people began to shy away from wideouts in this age range after the abrupt 2016 retirement of Calvin Johnson at age 30, but the situations are completely different. Green's style of play hasn't taken the same toll on his body as the styles of more physical wideouts do on theirs. There has been no indication of physical decline on game tape. It's time to put all these narratives behind us and look at reality.
Let's close this out with a little bit of trivia. What do you call a season in which Green failed to make the Pro Bowl? The answer is "imaginary." It's never happened in his entire career. Not once. I like to call him a "silent Hall of Famer." Over the course of his NFL tenure, there have always been other receivers who have gotten more hype, but he has always been up there with the best of the best.
Green has never reached 100 catches, 1,500 yards, or 12 touchdowns in a single season. While his numbers are almost always elite, they're seldom eye-popping. A quiet player in a reasonably small market, he isn't flashy or boisterous: just steady. For this reason, he tends to be overlooked, and that's a mistake that needs to be corrected.
When you draft Green, you know what you're getting. If healthy, he's a guaranteed top-10 fantasy receiver with upside for much more. On draft day, a lot of your league mates will swing for the fences and draft younger players with higher perceived upside.
Let them do so because you can swoop in and snare a potential top-five wideout at the back end of the second round. Don't let the unpleasant memories of 2017 linger into your draft room. The down year is over. A.J. Green is ready to show you why he's still at the top of his game.