Fantasy Football: Julian Edelman Could Be a Draft Day Steal

Facing a four-game suspension to start the season, the Patriots wideout makes for a puzzling case for fantasy owners. But has his slide down draft boards gone too far?

As the NFL continues to evolve toward a heavier and heavier pass-first attack, fantasy football owners should bring their attention to an offense like the New England Patriots.

In 2017, the Pats ranked at the top of the league in numberFire's Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) per play (0.17) metric and Adjusted Passing NEP per play (0.24) metric (0.24). For those of you unfamiliar, NEP is a metric used to track efficiency for teams and players, with the team side adjusted for strength of opponent, and accounts for down and distance. For a more detail breakdown, you can head over to our glossary.

What those numbers mean is that New England is a really strong, high-efficiency offense, and with Tom Brady back under center, there's high expectations for this offensive unit yet again. But it doesn't stop at efficiency. This is also a team that ranked seventh in total drop backs (621) in 2017, so there's a lot of passing volume to go around here.

Julian Edelman, a big part of this offensive scheme in recent years, will return after missing the 2017 campaign with a torn ACL. But after you account for the fact that the wide receiver will miss the first four games of 2018 due to suspension, we have seen a precipitous decline in his average draft position (ADP, data provided from Fantasy Football Calculator) this offseason:

Edelman ADP MovementNow going in the 8th round and as the 31st wide receiver off the board (6th round, WR30 in PPR) in standard leagues, is that the right value for Edelman? Where should he be drafted given the question marks around his suspension and comeback from injury?

Let's dig in.

Plenty of Opportunities

Make no bones about it -- a player that's missing a quarter of the NFL season needs to be properly valued. Similar to when Le'Veon Bell missed the first three games of the 2015 due to suspension, fantasy owners are faced with the task of understanding where to feel comfortable drafting Edelman.

Assuming you can stomach him sitting the bench and cover with a lesser receiver until the quarter pole, fantasy owners should expect more of the same, at least in the area of volume. After all, plenty of opportunities should be available, as two -- Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola -- of the Patriots' top five targeted pass catchers are no longer with the team.

Brandin Cooks114
Rob Gronkowski106
Danny Amendola86
James White72
Chris Hogan59

Along with Cooks and Amendola, 200 of the team's 621 drop backs (32.2%) from a season ago are gone with them. And the additions of Kenny Britt and Phillip Dorsett won't likely eat into Edelman's snaps when he does come back. Malcolm Mitchell, who has shown flashes of talent, recently underwent knee surgery and may miss the entire season, so competition will be thin for the veteran receiver.

So it's reasonable to assume that Edelman will receive a healthy workload come Week 5.

Time to Eat

Previous seasons have shown that in the past, even with a healthy Rob Gronkowski in the fold, there's been a lot of passing work available for both players. In fact, during the 2014 season -- when the tight end garnered a career-high 131 targets over 15 games, Edelman actually bested him in that regard.

Season Games Target Receptions Rec Yards TDs Fantasy Points PPG
2013 16 151 105 1,056 6 247.7 15.5
2014 14 134 92 972 4 222.6 15.9
2015 9 88 61 692 7 172.5 19.2
2016 16 159 98 1,106 3 230.3 14.4
Averages 13.8 133.0 89.0 956.5 5.0 218.3 15.9

There's a lot to digest here, so let's see what we can take away. From 2013-2016, Edelman averaged 9.67 targets per game, including two years where he over 150 targets. He also eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving club twice, and narrowly missed it a third time in 2014. The connection and rapport with Brady is obvious.

As shown above, he's been a highly effective weapon in point-per-reception (PPR) leagues. Over those four seasons, he has averaged 15.9 fantasy points per game in this format.

Here's where that would've placed him among 2017's top finishers at the position:

Rank Name PPG
1 Antonio Brown 22.2
2 DeAndre Hopkins 20.7
3 Odell Beckham 18.5
4 Keenan Allen 17.8
5 Larry Fitzgerald 16.3
6 Jarvis Landry 16.3
7 Michael Thomas 16.2
8 Julian Edelman 15.9

Those are some true fantasy monsters, and they're all going in the first five rounds (Jarvis Landry is the only one outside the third round) of average 12-team PPR drafts.

Is Edelman a lock to return to this type of lofty status coming off of a major injury? Certainly not. Last season's WR31 (Edelman's current wide receiver ADP) in PPR formats, Marquise Goodwin, averaged 10.5 fantasy points. And in 2016, when he averaged 14.4 fantasy points -- his lowest of the above four seasons -- he was WR15 at season's end.

All of Edelman's numbers point to him being among the league's elite fantasy receivers, especially in this type of setting.

Positive Regression Looms

Last season, 27 wide receivers received 100 or more targets. Among that group, they scored 167 touchdowns on 3,456 targets, or roughly one score per 20.7 targets. In 2016, Edelman found the end zone only 3 times on 159 targets, or 1 score per 59.0 looks.

If we even adjusted Edelman's scoring rate to reflect his average from 2013 to 2016, it's 1 receiving touchdown for every 26.6 targets, so positive touchdown regression should be coming coming in the form of roughly 3 touchdowns. Those 18 points are a big deal, as they would have pushed Edelman from WR15 to WR9 in PPR formats, which would have been just ahead of Davante Adams and right after Doug Baldwin.

Our projections have Edelman down for 87.4 targets, 66.1 receptions, 696.1 receiving yards, and 3.50 receiving touchdowns, all of which seem pretty reasonable for a guy missing the first four games and returning after knee surgery. The upside potential given his past performance, team offense, and involvement in the Patriots' attack is still there. And the best part about targeting Edelman is that he won't cost you what he did prior to his injury, when he was the 55th overall pick in the 5th round of average drafts.

If Edelman can return to form, assume his ole role and capitalize on his rapport with his Hall of Fame-bound quarterback, we could be looking at a finish in the WR15 to WR20 range, and at a fraction of the cost.