10 Underrated Fantasy Football Players From the 2014 Season
In case you missed it, I already looked at 10 overrated players from a fantasy perspective, and it's only fitting that I examine the other side of things.
The basic premise is that fantasy points don't always reflect accurately what's happening on the field. A 10-yard rush is a 10-yard rush, whether it leads to a punt or a first down on the five-yard line. But in terms of our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, that's not the case, and players who continually put their teams in scoring positions get rewarded for doing so, even if they were unlucky when it came to scoring the touchdowns.
For this reason, examining which players had better NEP ranks than fantasy ranks can shed some insight as to which players might end up with better luck scoring touchdowns next year or seeing an increased role as a result of efficient play.
Here are 10 such players.
Fantasy Points Rank: 11 | Total NEP Rank: 4
This year, Romo was vastly underrated as a passer, and that becomes clear when looking at his NEP production. Among the 37 quarterbacks who attempted at least 200 drop backs, Romo was the fourth-most productive. Sure, he added just 0.18 points on the ground, but his Passing NEP of 145.10 was fourth in the league. Better yet, his Passing NEP per drop back (0.31) was second-best in the league behind Aaron Rodgers' 0.34, and Romo's Success Rate (the rate of drop backs that added positively to his team's NEP) of 54.84 percent topped the league.
Romo ranked just 22nd in the NFL in drop backs (465). Health will always be a concern, but his efficiency indicates he might be able to improve upon his fantasy ranks, as he really played good football this year.
Fantasy Points Rank: 19 | Total NEP Rank 14
Smith's Passing NEP per drop back (0.10) ranked 14th among the 37 quarterbacks with at least 200 drop backs this year, as did his Total NEP (61.33). Smith's Passing NEP (50.66) actually ranked 13th. I know it's hard to believe -- on account of his not throwing a touchdown to a receiver all year -- but Smith's passing wasn't as bad as that anecdote would make it seem. Nobody is going to draft him next year, but if the Chiefs can give him any help at receiver, he could find himself inside the top 15 by the end of 2015.
Fantasy Points Rank: 23 | Total NEP Rank: 7
You couldn't really trust Sproles this year, and I'm not saying that you should have. Due to LeSean McCoy's volume, Sproles will always have a limited fantasy impact. However, Sproles had a Success Rate of 50.00 percent, sixth out of the 68 running backs with at least 60 opportunities (rushes plus targets). His Rushing NEP per carry of 0.21 was tops in that subset, though he did so on just 56 carries.
Sproles benefited from the passing game, and McCoy did not. Sproles posted a Reception NEP of 24.74, eighth out of the 68 backs (McCoy ranked just 61st).
Fantasy Points Rank: 25 | Total NEP Rank: 11
It's tough to slap the underrated tag on an injured player, but Bradshaw, who missed the final six games of the year, really was. Despite missing significant time, Bradshaw still managed to be the 11th-best overall back in the NFL. His Reception NEP of 32.85 ranked fourth among the 68 qualified backs, thanks to his 6 receiving touchdowns. Only one back topped Bradshaw's 0.70 Reception NEP per target: Robert Turbin (0.79). Turbin saw just 20 targets. Bradshaw saw 47.
If Bradshaw re-signs with the Colts, he has a good chance of being a useful fantasy commodity again in 2015.
Fantasy Points Rank: 22 | Total NEP Rank: 9
The trend continues. Pass-catching backs benefit from the much more efficient approach of moving the football compared to their run-first peers. Vereen ranked fifth in Reception NEP among the 68 backs with a score of 32.69. Vereen ranked just 31st in Rushing NEP (-3.08) and 32nd in Rushing NEP per carry (-0.03). Vereen is an average rusher but an elite pass catcher, and that should help keep his fantasy value respectable in 2015 if he re-signs with New England or not.
Fantasy Points Rank: 37 | Total NEP Rank: 22
This season, Stills led all receivers with 60-plus targets in Reception NEP per target (1.05). He was the only player to top 1.00 in Reception NEP per target in the group. On 50 targets last year, Stills posted a Reception NEP per target of 1.16, best among 40-plus target players. Repeating elite Reception NEP per target scores is very uncommon, but he has been the best per-target receiver in the NFL in the last two years. Stills tallied just three touchdowns this year, but with the big-play ability evidenced in his metrics, he might be able to improve on that mark in 2015.
Fantasy Points Rank: 36 | Total NEP Rank: 24
The Buccaneers boasted an Adjusted Passing NEP that ranked 31st in the league, which means that, adjusted for schedule strength, they were a better passing team than only the Jaguars. Jackson himself finished just 60th in Reception NEP per target out of 81 receivers with at least 60 targets. His Catch Rate (49.30 percent) ranked worse: 76th out of 81.
So how the heck was he underrated? Well, Jackson has earned a living making plays even with bad quarterback play. He finished 24th in Reception NEP (82.04) based on attrition. Jackson's 142 targets ranked 10th in the league among receivers, and with five more targets, he'd have been fifth in the NFL, despite the emergence of Mike Evans, who saw 123 targets of his own.
Fantasy Points Rank: 27 | Total NEP Rank: 19
Watkins ended up being a bit of a forgotten commodity up in Buffalo this year as a result of all the rookie wideouts going off, but Watkins' production in fantasy football wasn't as significant as it was on the actual field. Watkins was targeted 128 times, 19th among receivers, and posted the 18th-best Reception NEP (89.99) among receivers as a result.
Fantasy Points Rank: 10 | Total NEP Rank: 4
Evidenced by Romo at the top of the list, the Cowboys had an underrated passing attack. This year, Witten saw his lowest reception (64) and target (90) totals since 2006, when his numbers were, coincidentally, identical. Still, Witten managed to rank fourth in Reception NEP (73.78) out of the 44 tight ends with at least 30 targets despite seeing just the 12th-most targets of all tight ends.
Witten's Reception NEP per target (0.82) ranked sixth among those qualified tight ends. His volume may not be at elite levels in 2015, but his 2014 evidenced that he is taking advantage of the new-look Cowboys approach. If things stay the same, you should feel safe banking on Witten despite his final rank of just TE10.
Fantasy Points Rank: 13 | Total NEP Rank: 9
Actually, Scott Chandler had a bigger difference in NEP and fantasy points, (ranking 14th and 20th, respectively), but Ertz had the next-biggest jump among top-15 tight ends. Ertz ranked 10th in Reception NEP per target (0.72). His Reception NEP (63.72) ranked ninth among tight ends. Ertz's production was sporadic this year, but he evidenced a high ceiling and top-10 NEP marks, which should make him a viable late-round option again this year.