Brandon LaFell is a Screaming Value in Fantasy Football
With such lengthy down-time filled with plenty of lulls, very few NFL off-season moves go by without being scrutinized ad nauseum, especially from a fantasy football perspective. People talk themselves into believing that fifth-round rookies will become starters, that their favorite prospect who hasn't caught a pass since 2013 will be relevant again, and just about anything else to fill the void.
One thing people don't do is devote mental energy to a player they've written off as "bad". The problem is, the vast majority of us really don't have the time or knowledge to have an accurate read on just how good a player is and end up writing off players with great opportunity just because we've already formed an opinion on them.
Brandon LaFell is one of those players this year. His signing with the Cincinnati Bengals didn't draw much fanfare, which is hardly surprising based on how he's always been perceived. He disappointed last season while dropping a number of passes in nationally-televised games, which seems to have people writing him off completely. "He has bad hands." "He sucks." "He only ever produced because he had Tom Brady throwing to him."
Missing from that story is that, per SportingCharts.com, LaFell dropped only 2 of 119 targets in 2014. And that his two most efficient seasons came in 2011 and 2012, long before he ever got to benefit from the New England Patriots' offense. That he has largely been average over his career. He's not an outstanding player, but he's not someone to write off, either.
If you want to find the best value in fantasy football, you can't let yourself be fooled by the easily-available mental shortcuts that cause you to ignore players, and LaFell is a prime example of that. Per MyFantasyLeague's Average Draft Position (ADP) data, he is currently being drafted as the 73rd receiver off the board with an ADP of 191.49.
Let's take a look at why you should be all over him at that price.
Being the Bengals wide receiver across from A.J. Green should immediately have a player at least on your fantasy radar. Looking at the past five seasons, here is how non-Green Bengals receivers have produced (numbers courtesy of FantasyData.com):
|Season||Player||Targets||Fantasy Points||Fantasy WR Rank|
A few things that jump out immediately: Only once in that span have the Bengals failed to produce a second top-50 fantasy receiver. Three times they have come in as a top-36 receiver (Marvin Jones in 2013 and 2015 and Mohamed Sanu in 2014). And in 2013, both Sanu and Jones finished above that wide receiver 73 mark where LaFell currently sits.
Also working in favor of Bengals wide receivers this year is that the passing offense as a whole may finally be hitting its stride. Andy Dalton is coming off of a 2015 season that saw him post career-highs in both Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per dropback (0.35, the best mark of any quarterback with at least 100 dropbacks) and fantasy points per game (18.8).
Even after exploring the opportunity, there are still a couple of obvious questions. Why bet on LaFell as the starter opposite Green, and if he does start, is he good enough to produce like those past receivers?
There is so little wide receiver competition on the Bengals' depth chart right now that LaFell becomes the starter almost by default. Expectations are already that LaFell will start, and with Tyler Boyd, Brandon Tate, and James Wright as his competition, there's little reason to believe that will change.
Boyd was a second-round pick, but he is woefully unathletic, and according to NFL.com's Matt Harmon's Reception Perception numbers, Boyd was one of the worst prospects he charted, both against man and zone coverage. He may have a future in the NFL, but there's little reason to believe he'll step in and command a sizable role right away.
Wright was a seventh-round pick in 2014 and has 5 career receptions while Tate is a return man with 34 receptions in 4 seasons with the Bengals, and neither poses any threat to LaFell's role. So how well should we expect LaFell to fare in this role?
Turning back to our NEP metric, which measures how many points a player contributes to his team compared to expectation level, LaFell actually stacks up as one of the best non-A.J. Green receivers the Bengals have had over the past five years.
|Player||Targets||Reception NEP||per Target|
Andy Dalton turned Jerome Simpson, the least efficient receiver in the group, into a top-50 fantasy receiver in 2012, even though our numbers have 2012 as the second-worst year of Dalton's career.
With Dalton playing the best football of his career and LaFell being one of the best receivers in this bunch, the upside here is huge.
What Does it all Mean?
It means that people aren't thinking hard enough about the Cincinnati wide receiver situation.
LaFell is basically being drafted at (or even below) his floor right now as wide receiver 73. He's the clear-cut starter in a role that has always finished 58th or better among wide receivers with Dalton at the helm. Additionally, LaFell is one of the best players to step into said role.
Barring injury, which exists as a caveat for all players, it's a huge stretch to envision a scenario in which he doesn't finish well above his current draft slot. He combines that value floor with solid upside as a more efficient wide receiver in a similar situation to the one that allowed Mohamed Sanu to finish as a top-35 wideout.
LaFell's cost is so low relative to both his floor and his upside that there is no reason you should be letting him fall to the 191st pick in your fantasy football drafts.