8 Ways the NFL Draft Could Drastically Change the Fantasy Football Landscape
If you’re a football fan, you already know the NFL Draft starts on Thursday. And if you’re reading this article, I’m going to assume you’re a football fan. You know the draft is upcoming.
And as you know, with the draft comes change in the NFL. Gaps are being filled with young talent, starters are being pushed by newcomers and some players have the off chance of being moved in a draft day trade.
The fantasy football landscape is going to change (finally, something fantasy football related to write about!), regardless of what happens. The eight ways below seem most intriguing to me, especially when you consider the future implications they could have on certain star players.
1. Josh Gordon gets a new quarterback
Josh Gordon’s easily the best young wide receiver talent in the league, to the point where his early-career metrics look better than what we saw from Calvin Johnson. And Gordon's ridiculous 2013 campaign came with a carousel of below average quarterbacks, making it that much more special.
There’s a good chance that things change under center for Cleveland in the upcoming draft, which could mean good is ahead in fantasy football for Gordon. The one thing to remember though is that a better quarterback doesn’t necessarily mean better numbers. Less talented passers may have trouble understanding how to distribute the ball, meaning more volume goes the top wide receiver’s way. Gordon, for instance, saw the 18th-highest percentage of team targets last year at wide receiver, and he missed the first two games due to a suspension. And because of the team's general incompetence, they ended the year with more drop backs than any other NFL squad. That played a huge role into his monster campaign.
This isn’t to say Gordon will take a step back with a new quarterback, but rather for fantasy owners to not overestimate the potential change under center. Gordon will still be a top wide receiver option regardless of who’s throwing him passes because he's so talented, but there's a natural regression ahead for him in 2014. Remember to take that into consideration.
2. The Titans select a competent running back
As of today, Shonn Greene is the starting running back for the Tennessee Titans. Everyone go ahead and laugh. But while his numbers aren’t superstar-caliber, Greene’s actually put up positive Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) totals in all but one of his seasons in the NFL. (Click here to read about Net Expected Points.)
That doesn’t mean he’s going to start for Tennessee though. In fact, I’d say that the situation in Nashville is one of the more attractive ones from a rookie running back perspective because of Greene’s overall perception and plodding tendencies. And because the position inherently brings a lot of upside in fantasy football, it'll be important to keep an eye on who they end up selecting, because he may get enough opportunity to catapult himself into fantasy football relevancy as soon as 2014.
3. Carolina snags an early-round wide receiver
Around the time the free agency period started, the Carolina Panthers’ receiving situation was the butt of every fantasy football joke. No Steve Smith, no Ted Ginn Jr., no Brandon LaFell – aside from Greg Olsen, the Panthers’ best receiving option just a month and a half ago was Marvin McNutt. Who? Exactly.
They’ve since added some veterans to help, but they’ll need to snag some youth in this year’s draft if they want to continue to think more long-term. And that wide receiver, like the running back in Tennessee, could see opportunity.
Now, rookie wide receivers usually aren’t really helpful in fantasy, so don’t think that the receiver they inevitably draft will make an immediate impact. However, there’s a chance the wideout is Cam Newton’s best friend for years to come, making an interesting fantasy storyline.
4. The Ravens invest in a running back
Ray Rice has plenty of legal issues surrounding him, and Bernard Pierce is coming off shoulder surgery. Both running backs, too, finished dead last within our Rushing NEP metric a season ago. Sure, a lot of that had to do with offensive line woes, but they weren’t effective themselves, either.
Enter Gary Kubiak, the Ravens new offensive coordinator and lover of the zone blocking scheme. The Ravens could – and should – have a new identity offensively under Kubiak, and realistically, there’s a chance a rookie running back could impact that.
I wouldn’t put the opportunity for a rookie runner to succeed in Baltimore in 2014 as high as where I’d place it in Tennessee, but Kubiak has a long list of successful running backs – most recently, Arian Foster – who have run in his ZBS-oriented offense. It’s certainly worth monitoring though, as there are plenty of question marks surrounding the two backs currently wearing purple and black.
5. Houston takes Clowney (or another non-quarterback) first overall
If Houston decides to take the pass rusher above their need at signal-caller, things would get, as they say, "real." The Texans finished third-to-last a season ago within our Adjusted Passing NEP metric, which is Passing Net Expected Points adjusted for strength of schedule. The need is certainly there.
But if they go Clowney’s direction - the player most believe is the best talent in the draft - the dominos will fall. There will be an additional quarterback available for teams to evaluate and select as we move through the first round, and some squads in quarterback purgatory – like the Cincinnati Bengals – may be ready to take the gamble and pick a position they didn’t necessarily think they would select.
At this time, most “potential” for Houston in fantasy football is surrounded by the idea that they go with a quarterback in the first round. If that doesn’t happen, the long-term fantasy football potential will change in a lot of unexpected places.
6. The Cowboys draft a quarterback
Perhaps one of those teams that would start thinking quarterback if the Texans don’t is Dallas. Reports have swirled that the Cowboys are looking at Texas A&M passer Johnny Manziel, and while any quarterback would have to wait until Tony Romo is no more, a move at the position would drastically change the fantasy situation in Big D.
Tony Romo’s been one of the most polarizing quarterbacks in the NFL through the years, but analytically, very few passers can match his skill set. Since becoming a starter, Romo’s yet to have a season where he’s played below expectation from a Passing NEP standpoint, and has notched five seasons with a Passing NEP of 95 or higher. Typically, a score that high results in a top five or six quarterback season. Stop the hate, please.
He certainly doesn’t deserve the massive criticism he receives, but he is entering his age 34 season, so he’s getting up there in age. If the Cowboys end up trading up or just watching someone like Manziel somehow fall into their laps, things would certainly change in dynasty leagues for players like Terrance Williams and Dez Bryant.
7. The Lions select an early-round wide receiver
The Lions went out and got Golden Tate in the offseason, and while Tate can play on the outside, he can also slip into the slot. There’s a chance – a decent one, actually – that the Lions decide to go with a wide receiver early in the draft to compliment both Tate and Calvin Johnson. And anyone playing opposite of Megatron has a lot of potential.
Lions fans don’t want to think about getting another wide receiver in the draft though, I’m sure. In 2011, the team selected Titus Young in the second, who’s no longer in the league. Two years ago it was Ryan Broyles, who’s struggled to stay on the field for health reasons. And you can’t forget Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and (fat) Mike Williams from 2003 to 2005.
Wide receivers can be difficult to evaluate in fantasy, but if the team is committed and selects the right one, there’s a good shot he becomes fantasy relevant within a short period of time.
8. Sam Bradford gets traded
Rumors are going around that the Rams aren’t against shopping Sam Bradford. My natural response is, “Who wants him?”
I’ve been plenty vocal about my mostly hate relationship with Bradford (though I’m sure he’s a great guy), and while I can’t even comprehend why another team would want a four-year veteran who’s done nothing significant in the league, if he moves, a lot changes in fantasy football.
Of course, this all depends on where he goes. Minnesota is the top team being associated with him, which makes sense considering their Adjusted Passing NEP has reached “plus” territory just twice since 2004. I'm of the belief (and so are the numbers) that, if Bradford moves, that's probably only a good thing for St. Louis and their up-and-coming team.