Fantasy Football: 10 Values in Early Best-Ball Drafts
June may not seem early for true die-hard best-ball drafters -- who have been making picks since Draft.com opened their offerings in February -- but by the standards of most fantasy football leagues, we're still way ahead of the curve right now, and best-ball leagues are some of the only drafts you'll be able to sink your teeth into until we get closer to the season.
These early drafts have a different set of challenges than we see in August, but that means they also carry a different set of opportunities as well.
Uncertainty may not be as high now as it was before the NFL Draft, but there are still a ton of question marks. There are plenty of proven veterans who are still free agents that could come in and shake up a depth chart. Guys like Jay Ajayi and Michael Crabtree may not be exciting, but they can certainly cut into the volume available in whatever offense they land in. There's also elevated risk of injury, as players still need to make it through a healthy training camp and preseason before being able to contribute for our fantasy teams. And that's saying nothing of the uncertainty in depth charts, which often don't settle until the preseason and is typically in flux right up until the season starts.
All of that uncertainty is part of where we can find some opportunity, though. In addition to the usual ways we can find draft value -- where fantasy drafters are misvaluing the appeal of various players and situations -- we can also find spots that people are either under- or over-estimating how much uncertainty there is in a given situation.
With fewer eyes on rankings and lower volume going on in these drafts, the average draft position (ADP) market still hasn't sorted itself out yet, either. Every year there are big-time values early in the summer that end up climbing the rankings, possibly even becoming over-drafted once fantasy football fever picks up and everyone's Twitter timelines are filled up with discussions of the most popular sleepers.
Using the last month of ADP data, lets get right into it and examine the best values available in early best-ball drafts.
Quarterback: Cam Newton (ADP: 117.8, QB13)
Cam Newton is going as the 13th quarterback off the board after finishing as the fantasy QB12 in an injury-plagued 2018 campaign. That drop-off was one year removed from his QB2 finish in 2017, and drafters seem to be scared off by the injury even though he's already been cleared to throw.
Yes, Newton has shown a shaky floor, with a QB16 finish in 2016, but that also came one year after he finished as the top-scoring player at the position in 2015. The weapons at his disposal in the 2016 Carolina Panthers' offense certainly didn't help matters in that down year, either. The team's leader in targets was tight end Greg Olsen, while the top wideout was now-free agent Kelvin Benjamin, and even Philly Brown saw 53 targets.
This year, Newton gets D.J. Moore, coming off a terrific rookie season, Curtis Samuel, who showed flashes as a sophomore last year, and Christian McCaffrey, who is coming off a historically great receiving season out of the backfield.
I took a look earlier this offseason at the value offered by rushing quarterbacks and found them to be under-drafted in general. Combining this with the injury news and recency bias of Newton's late-2018 struggles makes it a safe bet that the market is just too low on him with this cost. He's shown more than once that he has the upside to be a top fantasy quarterback, and he's an absolute steal right now.
Get Newton on your teams before his clean bill of health and positive reports from training camp start driving up the price.
Quarterback: Lamar Jackson (ADP: 132.3, QB16)
Keeping with the rushing quarterback trend, Lamar Jackson is being taken as the 16th quarterback off the board despite averaging 18.6 fantasy points per game after taking over as the Baltimore Ravens' starting quarterback in Week 11 last year. Extrapolated to 16 games, that would be good for 297.6 fantasy points or a QB10 performance. Yes, the injury risk with a rushing quarterback is likely going to be higher since they're taking more punishment, but you're generally not drafting a quarterback in the double-digit rounds because of their floor.
That study on the value offered by rushing quarterbacks didn't adjust for health, either, so even with the potential injury risk baked in, people still tend to be too low on them.
Jackson definitely carries some additional layers of risk, namely that he was not very good at throwing the ball last year. Among the 43 passers that recorded at least 100 drop backs in 2018, his 0.00 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back ranked only 32nd. That's still five spots better than Josh Allen, though, who is going off the board about five picks higher than Jackson.
It definitely makes sense that he's not the 10th quarterback off the board, since that level of production came over a small sample, and there's a real chance that he's forced to throw the ball more as teams come into the matchup better prepared this season. Quarterback's tend to improve the most from year one to year two, though, so there's certainly still hope for Jackson's passing prowess, and his unique rushing volume gives him great upside relative to his draft spot, as well.
Our projections have both of these passers as steals, too. We project Jackson to finish 11th and Newton to finish 6th in fantasy scoring among quarterbacks this season.
Running Back: James White (ADP: 53.2, RB26)
James White does not fit the mold of a typical top fantasy football running back. He has never run the ball even 100 times in any of his five NFL seasons, and 2018 was the first time he eclipsed even 45 carries or 175 rushing yards.
Last year also saw him finish among the top 26 fantasy running backs for the second time in the last three years, turning in an outstanding RB7 finish in point-per-reception (PPR) scoring.
White was the RB26 in 2016, when he saw only 86 targets and 39 carries, compared to the 123 targets and 94 carries he saw in 2018. He played 53.6% of the offensive snaps for the New England Patriots last season, averaging 12.7 more snaps per game than Sony Michel, who ranked second in the group. With fewer snaps, Michel finished as the fantasy football RB35 but is going off the board at RB21, over a full round ahead of White.
With Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan and potentially Josh Gordon all gone from the Patriots' offense this year, the team vacates about 35% of their targets from 2018. Rookie N'Keal Harry should pick up some of the slack, but considering the dwindling weapons in the passing game, it's a pretty safe assumption that White, their most-targeted player from last year, is going to keep a huge role in the receiving game.
White may not fit the archetype of a top-end fantasy football running back, which is driving his cost way down, but targets are worth more than carries in fantasy football, and that gives White a terrific outlook for 2019.
Running Back: Kenyan Drake, Miami Dolphins (ADP: 51.4, RB25)
Going one draft spot ahead of White, Kenyan Drake doesn't have the top-10 fantasy numbers from 2018 to back up his ADP, but he came in at a very quiet RB14 -- still well ahead of where he's being drafted this year.
I had assumed his ADP was going to get a bump after the Miami Dolphins held off on selecting a running back until the seventh round of this year's draft, but from April 1 to April 25 he was going as the RB27 with an ADP of 58.7, so the lack of new competition has barely moved the needle.
Frank Gore commanded a ton of work in the Miami backfield last year, and in the spring I highlighted the Dolphins as one of the backfields with the most volume available for 2019. Gore accounted for 42.1% of the team's running back carries last year, but he's off in Buffalo now, and the Dolphins have not brought in anybody to pick up the slack.
Kalen Ballage did show some promise last year, and with an ADP of 142.9, he's also someone worth taking a look at taking a flyer on, but he was only a 4th-round pick last year himself, and Gore vacates enough volume that Drake should see an increase, as well. Having already crushed his ADP last year, picking up additional volume just makes Drake even more of a value now.
Running Back: Lamar Miller, Houston Texans (ADP: 67.2, RB31)
Lamar Miller proved to be slightly over-drafted last year, finishing as the RB23 after being drafted as the RB17, and in 2017 he ended up with an ADP of the RB12 before finishing as the RB16. Again, a slight disappointment.
These two seasons seem to be weighing heavily on people's minds, though, because he hasn't finished any worse than RB19 since joining the Houston Texans, and the last time he finished outside the top-20 was his 2013 sophomore campaign.
Those fantasy finishes are backed up by some serious volume, as Miller has notched at least 200 carries and at least 35 targets in each of his three seasons in Houston. He is fourth in the NFL in carries (716) and is one of only six players with at least 600 carries and 115 targets over the last three years.
The Texans haven't brought in any competition at running back, and only D'Onta Foreman, a third-round pick with 85 carries in two NFL seasons, seems to be threatening his workload. Unlikely to see a significant hit to his volume, Miller is a safe bet to continue posting the kind of fantasy numbers he has over the past few years -- not necessarily giving him a great ceiling, but still offering terrific value on this price.
Wide Receiver: Marvin Jones (ADP: 85.2, WR33)
Marvin Jones played only nine games last season, but when he did see the field he averaged 6.9 targets and 12.9 fantasy points per game -- putting him on a 16-game pace for 110 targets and 206.4 fantasy points, which would have been more than all but 22 other wideouts in 2018.
That would have been right in line with his 103 and 107 targets in his first two seasons with the Detroit Lions, and in those seasons he averaged 198.7 fantasy points.
He also played seven of those 2018 games alongside Golden Tate, who accounted for a team-high 27% of the Lions' targets before being traded after Week 8. In two games without Tate, we saw Jones' targets jump from 6.7 to 7.5 per game -- increasing his 16-game pace to 120.
This looks to be a textbook case of an injury discount for Jones, as even on an unexciting Lions team that has an over/under for 2019 wins set at 6.5 (with some juice on the over), triple-digit targets give him plenty of upside. His current draft cost does not at all reflect the way he has produced over the last couple years.
Wide Receiver: Golden Tate, New York Giants (ADP: 105.8, WR45)
The Giants don't project to be an effective team through the air, with either Eli Manning or Daniel Jones at the helm, but that doesn't leave me as concerned about Tate as it would for most players. Tate finished 2018 with the sixth-lowest average depth of target (aDOT) among wideouts with 50-plus targets on the year, which was similar to 2017 when he finished with the lowest aDOT in the group. In that sample, he finished with the second (61.1% in 2017) and sixth (53.2% 2018) highest percentages of receiving yards coming from yards after the catch (YAC) in the group. Only 14 of the 77 receiving seasons in that sample saw players crack even 50%.
Carrying so much of his value in what he's capable of doing after the catch -- which tends to happen on shorter, more high-percentage throws than most players get -- a downgrade at the quarterback position isn't too scary a proposition.
Tate hasn't finished outside the top-30 fantasy wideouts in any of the last five seasons, cracking the top-20 in three of those five, and the change in scenery should not be driving his price down this far.
Wide Receiver: Kenny Stills, Miami Dolphins (ADP: 154.3, WR59)
Much the opposite of Tate, Kenny Stills had the 3rd-highest aDOT for any wideout with at least 50 targets in 2018, the 10th-highest in 2017, 10th-highest in 2016, and the 2nd-highest in 2015. Deep targets like that are volatile, but they're full of fantasy upside. Despite averaging only 83.3 targets per season over the last three years, he's still notched fantasy finishes of WR46, WR28 and WR52.
Like with Lamar Miller, this looks to be a case of drafters overreacting to getting burned on Stills last year. In 2016 he out-produced his ADP by 33 spots, in 2017 it was 41 spots, then last year he finished 15 spots below where he was drafted. Even in that worst season of the three, though, he would have out-performed this year's ADP by seven spots.
Getting Josh Rosen at quarterback could also be causing some concern for Stills, though Rosen's 8.4-yard aDOT ranked 11th among the 31 passers with at least 200 drop backs last year, while Ryan Fitzpatrick and his second-ranked 10.4-yard aDOT could also see some time under center.
The Miami Dolphins do have a crowded receiving corps, with Albert Wilson and perennial "breakout candidate" DeVante Parker still in town, but the nature of Stills' targets mean that we don't need to be as concerned about target volume, since a heavy dose of air yards can carry him to big fantasy upside anyway.
Our models also have Stills as a screaming value, projecting him to finish as the 34th wideout in fantasy scoring, which would absolutely blow away this ADP.
Tight End: Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings (ADP: 133.3, TE15)
What do Bucky Hodges, MyCole Pruitt and Irv Smith Jr. have in common?
They've all been drafted as Kyle Rudolph backups.
Smith is athletic and young and full of hype, but even if you're high on him as a prospect or an asset in dynasty leagues, his selection in the second round of the NFL Draft should not have soured you on Rudolph for this year.
Rudolph played 695 more snaps than any other Vikings tight end in 2018, 529 in 2017 and 711 more in 2016. Second in snaps at the position in that time? None of the hyped-up prospects they've drafted, but instead David Morgan, who owns a whopping 19 career targets.
He's finished among the top-eight fantasy tight ends in each of the last three seasons (seventh in 2018, eighth in 2017 and second in 2016), and drafters seem to be calling for a precipitous drop-off caused by a second-round draft pick.
I'm not going to believe stories of Rudolph's demise until I see it, and he's a great bargain in a year that has three tight ends being drafted inside the first two rounds.
Tight End: Jimmy Graham, Green Bay Packers (ADP: 153.3, TE21)
If you're wondering when the last time Jimmy Graham was this close to free was, you have to go all the way back to his 2010 rookie campaign.
There's certainly been a steep decline in his production, and age looks like it's catching up with him. A steep decline from his lofty standards has meant finishing as the TE4 in 2016, TE6 in 2017 and TE12 in 2018, though. The only time he hasn't been a top-12 fantasy tight end since his rookie season (TE28) was in 2015, when injuries limited him to 11 games, but even then he was on a 16-game pace for a TE8 finish.
He's still attached to Aaron Rodgers and a Green Bay Packers offense that has a win total over/under set at 9.0 games (with the over a heavy favorite), and like with Rudolph, the discount seems to be coming from the team's addition of a rookie at the position. Rookie tight ends rarely produce as is, but a third-round rookie tight end like Jace Sternberger is not a concern for Graham's 2019 outlook -- no matter your thoughts on the long-term implications of the selection.
For our purposes, it doesn't even matter if Graham is still playing football in the 2020 season, so we can happily scoop up a yearly top-12 tight end at a huge discount.
Our projections do expect some further decline for Graham, but even then we still have him finishing 14th among tight ends, again representing some serious value.