5 of the Riskiest Players in Fantasy Football

Sometimes risk can produce a big reward, but not always. Who are some of the riskier players in fantasy football this year?

Fantasy football is a lot like playing craps. There are safe bets that could pay out small steady return, and there are risky bets that can result in a huge return.

The goal is to maximize the return on investment, and that sometimes involves taking risks.

Knowing the risk and reward for a bet in craps gives the bettor an advantage over the casual player that walks aimlessly up to a table and throws in all of his chips on a random number.

The same can be said for fantasy football.

Quantifying the amount of risk involved in each player can increase the chances of successful season. Here at numberFire, we measure this using our Confidence Interval (CI), which estimates each player’s most likely range of outcomes. These can be found as part of our player projections for the upcoming season.

To find the riskiest players for the upcoming season, I looked at who had the largest gap in between their CI floor and CI ceiling and took into account how far much of a difference this would make in terms of their position ranking.

For example, Jamaal Charles and Marshawn Lynch were both among the top-five players in terms of CI range. However, their floors would still rank them as the sixth best running back, so there really isn’t much risk involved with them. 

The riskiest players can be the key piece to a championship run, or leave an owner wishing they never drafted them.

C.J. Anderson, RB, Denver Broncos

The player with the biggest difference between his projected floor and ceiling only started seven games last year and finished as the 11th best running back in fantasy football. Our projections say C.J. Anderson can be even better this year, as his top-end CI numbers would rank him sixth among all running backs. That would match his 2014 ranking in Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play (which measures the value added on each play), where he was tied with Lynch and Justin Forsett.

Speaking of Forsett, his offensive coordinator from last year, Gary Kubiak, is now the Broncos head coach. Before Forsett, Arian Foster thrived in Kubiak’s one-cut running system, and Anderson is enthusiastic about continuing the tradition.

Of course, Kubiak has never had a quarterback like Peyton Manning running his offense, so it will be interesting to see how much that changes his game plan.

Anderson will need to prove that he can handle being a starting NFL running back over an entire season since he only had seven carries on his NFL resumé prior to 2014. If he misses games, he may end up near his CI floor as the 20th best running back behind Joique Bell and Latavius Murray.

The risk is big, but the reward of getting a top six running back outside of the first round could be well worth it. 

Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Returning from his rookie season where he ranked 11th among all wide receivers in fantasy football, Mike Evans is looking to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.

The 59.82-point range in his CI is the difference between the 7th best wide receiver and the 22nd.

The upside is not hard to find for this 21-year-old, as he tied Calvin Johnson for 12th best in Reception Net Expected Points per target (among wide receivers with 50 or more catches) last season, 30 spots ahead of his counterpart Vincent Jackson.

Only Dez Bryant, Antonio Brown, and Jordy Nelson had more touchdown catches than Evans' 12, and he did that with quarterbacks Mike Glennon and Josh McCown.

He was a part of one of the best rookie wide receiver classes we have witnessed in recent years, but rookie success doesn't always carry over to year two. 

Our own Joe Redemann dove into the idea of a sophomore slump for Evans and the other second-year receivers, and noted that on average a receiver’s production decreases in their sophomore season. A common factor among receivers who did improve was a significant increase in targets.

Evans targets will now be coming from number one overall draft pick Jameis Winston. Both of them will have to learn the new offense quickly in order for Evans to have another big year.

A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

A.J. Green
is currently being taken at an ADP of 21 according to Fantasy Football Calculator, and the 8th wide receiver off the board. So let’s face it: owners drafting him in the second round are counting on him to be elite and most likely their WR1.

There’s no question Green has the talent to be one of the top receivers in fantasy football, as he ranked fifth in 2013. Our CI has that as his ceiling for the upcoming season, and his floor would see him fall all way to the the 16th wide receiver. The doubts arise from whether or not he can stay healthy, and how much the Bengals will throw the ball.

Last year, he missed three games and still finished as the 22nd best fantasy receiver, but owners aren’t drafting him in the second round to be a back-end WR2. Tied with teammate Mohamed Sanu for 27th in terms of Reception NEP per target, he wasn’t the game changing force that owners needed him to be in the games that he did play.

In Hugh Jackson’s first year as offensive coordinator, Jeremy Hill emerged as the Bengals top running back and Andy Dalton attempted less passes than in any other season of his career. He threw 105 less passes last year than in 2013.

With Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert returning from injuries to compete for targets, Green will need to remain healthy for all 16 games this season to warrant being taken in the second round.

Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants

There's no room for a third quarterback on a standard fantasy football roster. In fact I usually only carry one.

So the 57.16 point CI range from eighth to 26th ranked quarterback puts Eli Manning anywhere from a mid-level starter to a fantasy free agent.

Last year he was tied for 13th in terms of Passing NEP per drop back along with Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford, and Alex Smith. One year prior, he led the league in interceptions and his Passing NEP per drop back was tied with Chad Henne for 33rd.

Manning has the pleasure of throwing to the arguably the best young receiver in the game in Odell Beckham, who caught 12 touchdowns despite playing in just 12 games last season. He also has Victor Cruz, who had over 900 receiving yards in each of the previous three seasons before suffering a season ending injury in week six last year. And there's his tight end Larry Donnell, who contributed six touchdowns in his breakout 2014 season.

However, there is some risk involved with the Giants receiving core.

Beckham missed the first four games with a hamstring injury and has already spent the first few days of training camp this year nursing his hamstring as well. Cruz is recovering from the aforementioned knee injury, and Donnell has been dealing with Achilles’ tendinitis this offseason.

Manning and his receivers could be in for a big year if everyone is healthy. But if the receivers start missing games, Manning could revert to throwing a lot of passes to opposing defenses. 

Jordan Cameron, TE, Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins decided to risk $15 million over the next two years for the former Browns tight end, and owners will have to decide whether he is worth the risk in fantasy football as well.

Our own Joe Juan revealed that Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill could be in line for a big year and will be a significant upgrade over every quarterback Jordan Cameron played with in Cleveland. Charles Clay saw 84 and 109 targets over the past two seasons, respectively, as the Dolphins number-one tight end option. If Cameron can stay on the field, and Tannehill gives him close to that many targets, he could come close to matching his 2013 numbers when he finished third in Reception NEP among tight ends.

So where’s the risk?

After that breakout 2013 season, he spent last year battling through injuries and inconsistent play, finishing as the 26th ranked tight end in fantasy football. Even with his big 2013 season, his Reception Success Rate (which measures the percentage of receptions that contributed positively toward NEP) has increasingly declined over the past three seasons.

Our CI numbers predict Cameron finishing between 10th and 30th among tight ends, which is the difference between a possible every week starter and a forgotten name. Everything will have to go right this season for him to live up to his current ninth round ADP.