10 Players You Should Target in Fantasy Football Drafts This Year
Let's get the obvious out of the way: It's not going to be a normal NFL season.
Things are going to be unpredictable. Players are likely going to miss more time than they usually do, not just because of the coronavirus, but because of the ramp up (or lack thereof) into the regular season.
That means fantasy football analysts are going to have a tougher time forecasting. That's just the truth. But remember: you just have to be better than your leaguemates en route to a fantasy football title. You don't have to be better than you were last season when there was cleaner information and less risk.
Targeting and selecting these players -- players who appear to be values in fantasy football drafts right now -- should help you get a leg up on your competition.
Jared Goff, QB, Los Angeles Rams
There are two clear ways for quarterbacks to be difference-making players in fantasy football.
The first way is through rushing.
We've seen 23 seasons since 2011 where a quarterback ran for 500 or more yards. Nearly half of those instances -- 11 of them -- resulted in a top-five fantasy finish at the position, while 16 of them ended in a top-10 finish. Quarterbacks who aren't the strongest throwing the rock (I'm looking at you, Josh Allen) can make up for that via the ground game in fantasy football. After all, 500 rushing yards equals an additional 12.5 passing touchdowns.
The other way is through a higher-than-normal touchdown rate.
There've been 27 instances where a quarterback finished as a top-5 option in fantasy football while running for fewer than 300 yards over the last 9 seasons. In other words, those top-five passers were getting there largely with their arm. Of those quarterbacks, only one had a touchdown rate (touchdowns divided by attempts) south of 5.0%, while the average touchdown rate was 6.3%. For context, over this time period, the average touchdown rate league-wide has been 4.4%.
If the quarterback you're targeting isn't much of a rusher -- which Jared Goff isn't -- then he better have passing touchdown upside.
Goff has that.
A huge reason for his low cost this season (he's being drafted as the QB18 over the last month on BestBall10s.com) is the result of a low passing touchdown total last year.
|Year||Touchdowns||Touchdown Rate||QB Finish (PPG)|
After two strong seasons as a QB1, Goff fell on his face last year thanks to a touchdown rate that was far below what he had done previously under Sean McVay. The Rams did score fewer touchdowns last year than the two seasons prior, but on top of that, the team had a pass-to-rush touchdown ratio of 1.10. That was the second-lowest mark in the league. That ratio tends to regress to the mean, which would result in a stronger proportion of touchdowns coming via the air for the Rams this season.
Goff also has multiple pass-catching teammates being drafted in the first five rounds of fantasy drafts. And that might matter.
There have been 60 occasions where a team has had two or more wide receivers and tight ends drafted in the first five rounds (top-60) of drafts since 2011 according to MyFantasyLeague.com's average draft position (ADP) data. (That was a mouthful. My apologies.) The average quarterback finish for those teams? QB11. Moreover, of the seven quarterbacks in that sample that were drafted after QB15 -- Jared Goff's range -- all but one ended the season with a higher finish than where they were being drafted.
Perhaps you don't see a super high ceiling for Goff, but he's got a lot working in his favor. If the Rams end up being a little more pass-friendly when they get close to the end zone now that Todd Gurley is out of town, Goff could benefit greatly.
Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers
Goff certainly fits the criteria of being a late-round quarterback, but if you're thinking about entering your season with streaming on your mind, Jimmy Garoppolo is your dude. And there's always the appeal that he could end up as more of a weekly starter, too.
It's unlikely that we're going to see San Francisco be as run-heavy as they were last year. Even with the injury to Deebo Samuel (he's likely to miss the first part of the season), teams with a pass rate as low as the 49ers' rate in 2019 almost always have a higher pass rate the following season. It's not easy to field a 13-win team year in and year out, so they're likely to see more negative game scripts than a season ago.
That'll help Jimmy G, but so will his early-season schedule. That's probably the main reason you'd want to target him this season. To open up the year, the 49ers get the Cardinals. In his two contests against Arizona last season, Garoppolo scored 28.9 and 29.7 fantasy points. Yes, please.
After Arizona comes the Jamal Adams-less Jets, followed by the Giants, Eagles, and Dolphins. Pro Football Focus' secondary rankings peg none of those teams as a top-10 pass defense, with the Jets and Giants ranking in the bottom six.
FanDuel Sportsbook already has the 49ers as 8.5-point favorites in Week 1, and the game has a 46.5-point over/under. That's prime streaming territory.
Miles Sanders, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
Miles Sanders is an early-round pick. I get it. But plenty of fantasy managers are going to have to make a choice in his tier of guys like Kenyan Drake, Austin Ekeler, Nick Chubb, and potentially even Joe Mixon. And I'm all-in on Sanders having a monster season.
The biggest knock on Sanders is volume-related. Well, really, it's Doug Pederson-related. Pederson's been Philadelphia's head coach for four years now, and during that time, the highest single-season running back rush share -- the percentage of running back attempts seen by a player -- has been 46.4%. For a comparison, 26 different running backs hit that mark last year alone.
Philly hasn't handed the ball off to the same guy very frequently under Pederson, but it's also no coincidence that Sanders, a rookie, was the player who hit that 46% mark last year. If you look back at Philadelphia running backs during Pederson's tenure, it's not exactly a list of Pro Bowlers. The player with the most rushing yards under Pederson is Wendell freaking Smallwood.
We caught a glimpse of what Sanders is capable of down the stretch last season when teammate Jordan Howard was sidelined.
|Split||Games||Avg RB Rush Share||Avg Target Share||PPR PPG|
Without Howard in the lineup last year, Sanders averaged RB1 numbers, and that includes a game that he was in and out of due to leg cramps. (And we won't talk about what those cramps did to my team in my home league's fantasy football playoff.)
But if this is a Doug Pederson thing -- if Doug Pederson wants a committee -- then why did Sanders see such an uptick over the typical Pederson running back?
Yes, for the most part, there was a lack of alternatives in the offense. But there's still a lack of alternatives. The Eagles did nothing this offseason to give that backfield a significant boost, paving a path to Sanders being a potential workhorse back.
We should always be shooting for upside. Even in the late first or early second round, you want to be selecting players who can pay off big and not simply meet expectation. You want league-winning players. And Sanders is walking into a situation where meeting expectation should be fairly easy. He'll be getting some sort of workload, he's a second-year player with potential, and the Eagles have a win total of 9.5 over on FanDuel Sportsbook, providing plenty of positive game scripts.
Miles Sanders could have a monster year. At the very least, he'll have a fine one.
Darrell Henderson, RB, Los Angeles Rams
Fantasy football isn't just a game where you draft your favorite players and move on. Cost matters. Analyzing the market and what average draft position is telling you matters.
There are some things working against Darrell Henderson this year. His lack of Year 1 production means that the probability of him becoming a super relevant fantasy back down the line is fairly slim. And after a rookie season where he barely saw the field, his team went out and spent a Day 2 pick on another running back.
But, again, finding fantasy football value is about weighing the probability that a player is going to hit with his cost. And, right now, Henderson's way too cheap.
We don't even know how that Rams backfield is going to be split. Is Cam Akers the best bet to lead it? For sure. He's a really strong prospect that I was high on pre- and post-draft. But head coach Sean McVay has said, "What does that mean in terms of the distribution of carries? I think that's to be determined based on how things play themselves out and when we get a chance to actually compete in practice and in those live opportunities."
We can't take McVay's word for it, but we also can't just assume a Day 2 pick will see a significant amount of carries given how the Rams used Darrell Henderson, also a Day 2 pick, last year.
More importantly, the difference between Akers' cost and Henderson's cost in fantasy football is pretty massive. If you want Akers -- and I can't fault you for that -- then you're going to be spending a top-five round pick. With Henderson, you're getting him in the double-digit rounds.
And Henderson loosely fits the mold of a breakout running back. According to the study I did earlier this offseason on spotting breakout running backs in your fantasy drafts, most breakout backs come from ambiguous backfields where the starter -- the first running back drafted from the breakout back's team -- gets selected at the end of Round 5 and into Round 6.
It's not like Henderson was some scrub prospect, either. One of the more predictive metrics in my running back prospect model is total yards per team play. Over the last two years, the only running back with a higher number in that category has been Jonathan Taylor. There's a reason the Rams traded up to get Henderson in the third round last year.
This is the type of offense you'd want to invest in, too. Say what you want about how the LA offense performed in 2019. Just know that they still ranked 13th in total touchdowns and 7th in total yards. And since Sean McVay took over as head coach three seasons ago, only the Saints and Chiefs have scored more offensive touchdowns than the Rams.
This is simply a cost-benefit analysis. Akers should be ranked ahead of Henderson. Straight up, you should take Akers. When cost is thrown into the equation, though, Henderson becomes really, really appealing.
Ke'Shawn Vaughn, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Ke'Shawn Vaughn's a rookie, so there's immediate concern surrounding what he'll be able to learn and pick up on before the pandemic season begins. On top of that, Vaughn was placed on the COVID-19 list, so he may not get a ton of reps with the Buccaneers' offense before the season begins. The Bucs also recently signed LeSean McCoy, perhaps as a result of that. All of this could allow starter Ronald Jones to grab hold of the alpha role in the Tampa Bay O and never look back.
That's also why we've seen Vaughn's ADP drop over the last couple of months, though. After Vaughn was drafted, according to BestBall10's ADP, he was getting selected around Pick 80. That's dropped to roughly 110 over the last week, and it'll likely continue to fall with the signing of McCoy.
Opportunity cost isn't very high at that point in the draft, so you might as well ignore the risk and shoot for upside. And Vaughn has that.
Prior to this year's NFL Combine, Bucs' head coach Bruce Arians said the following:
"You can see them all run; I want to see them catch," said Arians of the upcoming running back workout. "In college football they don't do a lot of pass-blocking, so that's always a big step for them. Can they be a receiver? That separates guys from having to come off the field. I had Christian Okoye who led the league but he never played on third down. Edgerrin James never came off the field. Marshall Faulk never came off the field. For me, I'm looking for that type of guy."
Last season, Ronald Jones came off the field. His highest single-game snap share was just 53.2%, when we had 18 different running backs with a better snap share average across the 2019 season. Jones, too, has struggled as a pass-catcher dating back to college. He had a final-season reception share at USC of 4.2%, a number well below the typical average for a running back entering the league. Across his first two years as a pro, Jones' top target share across a season has been 6.8%, which is nothing special. Pro Football Focus also gave Jones a below-average pass-blocking grade last year.
What did Tampa Bay do after Arians made that quote? They spent a third-round pick on Vaughn, a do-it-all back from Vanderbilt.
During his 2019 season at Vandy, Vaughn averaged 1.75 total yards per team play (the average among combine running backs this past year was 1.35), all while ranking second in the class in both final-season touchdown share and final-season reception share. That last data point is important -- Vaughn has the pass-catching ability to take on that type of role in the Bucs' offense. Considering that's what Arians was looking for pre-draft, shouldn't it at least mean something? Shouldn't we think that Vaughn's range of outcomes includes being an every-down guy for the Buccaneers, like Arians described?
The match with Tom Brady is intriguing, too. It's a new offense with different personnel, sure, but the last time the Patriots -- Brady's old team -- ranked outside the top-eight in running back target share was 2014. Over the last five years, the Pats finished fourth, first, fifth, fourth, and eighth in running back target share.
Maybe Ronald Jones takes on that receiving work. Maybe Dare Ogunbowale does a little bit, too. Maybe LeSean McCoy has a come-back-from-the-dead type of season. But is it that farfetched to think that Vaughn could grow into that role? That Vaughn -- the player Arians and company took after openly talking about wanting an every-down running back -- could end up with a decent-sized workload?
It's fine to have Jones ranked ahead of Vaughn (you should at this point), but with the way their costs are trending, Vaughn's become a worthwhile risk-reward bet in the late rounds, similar to the aforementioned Darrell Henderson.
Diontae Johnson, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Diontae Johnson hype is very real, but there's reason for it. Last year's rookie wide receiver class was great, and despite playing with a circus of quarterbacks, Johnson led all of those rookies in receptions. His 18.9% target share was only worse than studs D.K. Metcalf, Terry McLaurin, and A.J. Brown.
As you know, the Steelers were a mess offensively last year. They tied the Jets with the lowest offensive touchdown total in the league, and New York was the only team with a lower yards per play average.
This is all to say that Johnson had a really good rookie year, all things considered.
Why buy in 2020? For one, Ben Roethlisberger is back and healthy. Without Big Ben, Pittsburgh's offensive play-calling was a whole lot different.
|Year||Plays||Pass-to-Rush Ratio||Rank||Neutral Script Ratio||Rank|
Last year, we watched Pittsburgh run the 22nd-most pass-heavy offense, and that became even less pass-friendly when games were within six points (neutral game scripts). The offense also ran far fewer plays. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh ranked in the top-10 in neutral script pass-to-rush attempt ratio in each of the four seasons leading up to last year's Roethlisberger-less campaign.
We may not see as much volume through the air from Pittsburgh as we saw in 2018. The defense is really good (more positive game scripts may lead to more running), and Roethlisberger's coming off an injury. But the team's single-season low in pass attempts -- pushing last season aside -- is 574 since 2012. In terms of targeted attempts, it's 563.
|Projected Target Share||Projected Targets|
Using that 563 number, you can see that if Diontae Johnson simply maintains his target share year over year, he'll walk into 100-plus targets. That's key, because of all top-12, WR1 seasons since 2011 (108 of them), only one was able to finish that high without 100 targets (Jordy Nelson in 2011).
You may think that there's a chance he doesn't hit that 19% target share again in 2020, especially since JuJu Smith-Schuster is healthy. For what it's worth (it should be worth something), of the rookie wide receivers since 2011 who had a target share at or above 15% during their rookie seasons, 77% of them ended up increasing their per-game target share numbers in Year 2. Among the handful that reached Johnson's rookie year share, 80% saw an increase year over year.
And there's upside here, too. The Steelers have plenty of question marks at pass-catcher throughout the roster, and that even includes Smith-Schuster, who's coming off a down year. Johnson has an opportunity to grab hold of a larger target share and build off of what he did as a rookie in 2019. If that share climbs to 23% or 24% -- which is certainly a possible outcome -- then you're all of a sudden talking about a wide receiver with a top-15 or -20 target total in all of football.
And should we assume a second-year player just keeps up his rookie-year pace? That he just maintains it? According to a study yours truly did this offseason, breakout wide receivers are most impactful when they're young. Specifically, when they're playing in their second season.
Of the wideouts who exceeded expectation by 100 or more points while being drafted after Pick 60 since 2011 -- which is how a "breakout wide receiver" was defined -- the largest points over expectation difference came from the second-year guys. Sophomore wide receivers who broke out did so at a more significant rate than other wideouts did.
When we're targeting non-early-round players, there needs to be a legitimate path to upside. Or a legitimate path to volume.
Does that not exist here? You've got a second-year wide receiver coming off a strong season with horrific quarterback play. That wideout will be playing with a far more efficient quarterback in 2020 versus what he saw in 2019 on a team that's consistently ranked favorably in the passing department over the last six or seven years. And that wide receiver has a chance to see an increase in target share given his Year 1 performance and the competition around him.
Even if he just keeps up his rookie-season pace, Johnson could meet expectation at his current ADP. But there's clear upside if he ends up building off of last season.
Marquise Brown, WR, Baltimore Ravens
We didn't see a fully healthy Marquise Brown last year. Still, in 14 games as a rookie, Brown posted a 16.8% target share, finding the end zone 7 times on 46 catches.
There's a lot to like heading into his Sophomore campaign.
It's true that a high target share for the Ravens isn't exactly the same thing as a high target share for, say, the Falcons. Baltimore threw the ball just 440 times last year, the eighth-lowest total we've seen over the last nine years. They also finished the year with a pass-to-rush attempt ratio of 0.74, the lowest mark over that timeframe.
These aren't ideal conditions for a wide receiver. We want volume in fantasy football, not some run-heavy offense.
The good news is that the Ravens aren't likely to be as run-first in 2020 as they were in 2019. Typically, teams that ran the ball a lot one year did so partially because they were in advantageous game scripts. They were winning. That's the case for Baltimore, where they only ran 21.6% of their offensive plays while trailing last year, easily the lowest rate in the NFL.
Among the teams with a pass-to-rush ratio of 0.90 or lower since 2011 -- 10 teams in total -- every single one ended up seeing a higher rate of passing the following season, with an average increase in ratio of 0.22.
So let's assume (mathematically, of course) that Baltimore's going to see more pass attempts this year. Is it possible for Brown to get to the 100-target mark? That's really what we're looking for because, again, top-12 wide receivers almost always hit that tally.
It's tough to say if the Ravens will get to a pass attempt number that will allow Brown to reach 100 targets. It's in his range of outcomes, though. My projections have Baltimore at about 467 targeted attempts. Brown would have to reach a 21% target share to get to 100 targets, which is more than reasonable considering his prorated, 16-game share last year -- a season where he was a banged-up rookie -- was 19.2%.
And we know those targets are likely to be efficient ones. Incredibly efficient ones. In 2019, not only did Brown ranked above-average in average depth of target and percentage of targets that travelled 15 or more air yards, but he saw nine end-zone targets. Only 14 wide receivers had more targets in the end zone.
There's some chance that Brown is special. We saw him with a couple of top-10 performances last year. With a late sixth-round ADP and some of the things working in his favor, it's a lower-risk area of the draft to buy into that upside.
Preston Williams, WR, Miami Dolphins
There are four things to look for when spotting breakout wide receivers: they come from ambiguous situations, they don't always have great fantasy quarterbacks throwing them the ball, they're typically young, and they generally don't come from nowhere.
Preston Williams fits all four pieces of criteria. The wide receiver ranked above him isn't being drafted super high, Miami quarterbacks don't have high costs, Williams is a second-year player, and he was seeing a ton of volume last year before his season-ending ACL tear.
Players can see volume due to lack of competition, but a wide receiver needs to get open in order to see a target. It's a skill statistic -- it's why the same wide receivers see volume each year. As a first-year player in 2019, Williams was pacing towards a really good season in the volume department.
We all rightfully remember the second half of last season for DeVante Parker, but Williams was out-targeting him up until Week 9 when he tore his ACL. Had he maintained his target share pace, Williams would've finished the year first in rookie wide receiver target share and overall targets. Like I mentioned earlier, players with high rookie-season target shares tend to have good numbers the following year, too.
It all seems pretty crazy for an undrafted rookie -- and it is -- but Williams went undrafted largely because of off-the-field issues. His analytical prospect profile was actually pretty sweet. My wide receiver prospect model looks at three main production metrics (along with other factors) while attempting to solve which players will produce in fantasy football at the NFL level: best-season receptions per game, best-season yards per team attempt, and best-season touchdown share. In the 2019 class, Williams ranked second, ninth, and third in each of those categories, respectively.
There's definitely some worry about his returning from ACL surgery, but that's all baked into his WR53 pricetag. If he's on the field, he shouldn't have trouble getting the volume needed to exceed his ADP. If things hit right, he'll really exceed it.
Will Fuller, WR, Houston Texans
Plenty of you are rolling your eyes at the recommendation of drafting Will Fuller this year. Every time he seems to be on the right track, there's an injury, and his season is derailed.
Continuing with the theme of this entire article, though, you're drafting Fuller because of upside. Over the last five seasons, among the many, many wide receivers who've played more than one season in the league, Fuller's rate of finishing as a WR1, top-12 wide receiver in weekly scoring has been 23rd-best in football. All of the players ahead of him on that list are legitimate studs, like Antonio Brown, Steve Smith, and Jordy Nelson. And there are some serious options below him on that list, like Amari Cooper and T.Y. Hilton.
Looking at all 100-plus target receivers during that same timeframe -- so all wideouts who've had 100 or more total targets across the last five years -- shows Will Fuller with a 91st percentile average depth of target and a 73rd percentile end zone targets per game rate. Fuller gets the type of targets that you want a wide receiver to get: ones that are down the field, and ones that will give a player a higher chance to find the end zone.
This has all happened with an alpha wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, on his team. Hopkins has seen at least 26% of Houston's targets in each of the last six seasons, but he's now out of the picture. He's been replaced by Brandin Cooks, who's been great throughout his career, but not DeAndre Hopkins great.
Targets are earned, so we can't just assume Fuller is going to jump up into some elite target share tier. With that being said, a Texans offense without Hopkins does bring some intrigue in terms of the type of target share Fuller could hit.
|Year||Games||Target Share||Prorated Share|
Let's not brush over the fact that, had Fuller been healthy over the last two years, he would've been in the 20% to 21% target share range. Getting that big of a pie piece in a Deshaun Watson-led offense, seeing those targets in high-leverage situations, and now getting an opportunity for an increased target share? That's precisely the type of upside you should be chasing.
Of course, we can't bank on Fuller staying healthy. Fortunately, we've seen players in the past go through a similar journey to eventually being super fantasy relevant (Keenan Allen comes to mind), and after offseason groin surgery, things seem to be looking up for Fuller.
As a baseline, even if Fuller gives you just 10 games this year, you know you're getting 10 games with a high top-12 finish rate. You're not taking a zero if and when he gets hurt, too -- you can fill your lineup with someone else. Like the other players on this list, it's the type of risk-reward bet you should make since there's a very, very obvious path to huge numbers in a Hopkins-less offense.
Irv Smith Jr., TE, Minnesota Vikings
Irv Smith Jr. shouldn't be ranked as a top-10 tight end entering fantasy drafts or anything, but if there's one super late player at the position to target this year, it should be him.
He's had an ADP of TE23 over the last few weeks, so he's mostly an afterthought, but I'm not sure why that's the case. Last season, Smith finished with nearly as many targets as teammate Kyle Rudolph, he was just as effective, and according to Pro Football Focus, he ran just 33 fewer routes. That was as a rookie playing a position that's historically seen a slower transition to NFL success.
As you know, the Vikings lost Stefon Diggs last offseason. Diggs' targets aren't "up for grabs" per se (remember when I said that targets are earned?), but without his presence in the offense, his 21% target share -- not his overall targets -- have to go somewhere. Rookie Justin Jefferson will benefit, but we have to be cautious in handing over that much responsibility to a rookie in our projections during a wacky pre-season experience.
Who else could benefit? Adam Thielen will likely get a bump in target share over last year, but why not Smith, too? The Vikings were second in the NFL last season in running 12 personnel, where multiple tight ends are on the field, and Smith himself is a good play. Not only did he compete directly with Kyle Rudolph as a receiver, but he has the athleticism and draft capital to back up his skillset.
And those are two things that correlate to breakout seasons at tight end. Breakout tight ends usually don't come from nowhere, and the average Speed Score (weight-adjusted 40 time) among breakout tight ends over the last nine seasons was 108, an 86th percentile score. Smith was a second-round pick in 2019, and his Speed Score was just below that 108 mark.
He's a good target late in your drafts.