Zachariason: 10 Players You Should Be Targeting in Fantasy Football Drafts
Post-draft, your fantasy football lineup isn't going to be perfect.
By the end of the season, your hope is that it is.
The draft is only a piece to your season-long championship dream. There's free agency, trades, start-sit decisions -- a lot of things go into building a powerhouse in fantasy football.
But starting off on the right foot is important. It can only help. And these 10 players, given where they're currently being drafted, should makes things easier on you throughout the 2019 season.
Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens
Quarterback is a replaceable position in fantasy football. So when you're ready to choose one (preferably a late-round one) in your single-quarterback league draft, ignore the negatives. Go with the player who has real, genuine top-five upside at the position.
Lamar Jackson has that.
In each one of Jackson's seven regular season starts in 2018, he failed to score fewer than 15.7 standard fantasy points. And the majority of you know why: he's one of the best quarterback rushers we've ever seen.
Across his stretch of starts, Jackson averaged 17 runs per game. He was adding 11.4 fantasy points per contest with his legs alone. He was like using Michael Vick in Madden '04, except it was real life. And in the fake football world, that type of rushing production from a quarterback is a cheat code.
Since the turn of the century, we've seen eight instances where a quarterback rushed for 700 or more yards in a single season. For context, Lamar Jackson had 695 rushing yards last season despite starting less than half the season. Of those eight occurrences, though, seven saw the quarterback finish as a top-five option in fantasy football that year.
Lamar Jackson does need to improve as a passer in order to help hit a high fantasy ceiling. Otherwise, his rushing numbers will mostly just provide a high floor. The good news is that there's some juice in the Baltimore offense now with Miles Boykin and Marquise Brown, and second-year tight end Mark Andrews is coming off one of the most efficient rookie tight end campaigns in NFL history.
Perhaps more importantly, the Ravens now have Greg Roman coordinating the offense. Roman has a strong history of taking athletic quarterbacks with questionable throwing and helping them produce their most efficient seasons as passers.
We'll start with Colin Kaepernick:
|Colin Kaepernick||Yards/Attempt||Pass Yards/Game||Rush Yards/Game|
Kaepernick started under Roman for two-and-a-half seasons, where he averaged about 215 passing yards per game and a yards per attempt rate north of 7.5. Those numbers -- and even his rushing numbers -- dropped fairly significantly when Roman left the 49ers.
And then there's Tyrod Taylor:
|Tyrod Taylor||Yards/Attempt||Pass Yards/Game||Rush Yards/Game|
Efficiency-wise, Taylor was nearly a full yard per attempt better under Roman (29 games started) than without him (17). And, like Kaepernick, Taylor ran for more rushing yards per game with Roman as offensive coordinator.
Coordinator data isn't everything -- there are plenty of other factors that go into measuring the effectiveness of a quarterback. But if there's one offensive mind to turn Lamar Jackson into a more competent passer, Roman might be the one you'd want.
Jackson's average draft position makes him an ideal late-round quarterback target.
Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
There's certainly some risk in drafting Cam Newton. He's coming off shoulder surgery, and that shoulder cause his fantasy football numbers to take a nosedive towards the end of last season.
Well, sort of.
There seems to be a misrepresentation of Newton's 2018 season out there. Because he was good. No, scratch that, he was very good.
Newton first showed up on the injury report last season for his shoulder after a big comeback victory against the Eagles in Week 7. That was his sixth game of the year, and up to that point, Newton was averaging 23.5 fantasy points per contest, a top-five number across the league.
After two more strong performances -- he scored 28 and 21 fantasy points, respectively, in his next two contests -- Newton played in a blowout loss to Pittsburgh. During that game, T.J. Watt had a crushing hit to Newton's throwing shoulder. We can't pinpoint that single play and say it's the sole reason Newton's season was derailed, but it's hard to ignore given what happened throughout the rest of the season.
Including that Pittsburgh game and through Week 15 -- Newton's last game of the season -- Carolina's passer saw his per-game average fall by over eight fantasy points. He went from being a plug-and-play starter in fantasy to one you hesitated throwing into your lineup each week.
Newton evidently still isn't 100%, but to reiterate what was said above, you've got to forget about any downside when taking passers in single-quarterback leagues. And if you're focused on upside, Newton clearly has it. He's averaged over eight goal-line carries per season since he entered the league -- over the last three years, no quarterback has as many rushes within the opponent's five-yard line as Newton. And, over this time, only Dak Prescott has more rushing touchdowns. The difference is that Prescott has about 700 fewer rushing yards than Newton since 2016.
So, like Lamar Jackson, there's rushing upside with Newton. What about his arm?
This is where it's easy to see room for growth. The Panthers currently have Christian McCaffrey coming out of the backfield as arguably the best receiving back in football. Among the 16 running backs with 50 or more catches last year, McCaffrey ranked first in numberFire's expected points model on a per-target basis.
There's also the duo of D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel. Moore was one of the best college wide receiver prospects my prospect model has ever seen, and Samuel was charted by Yahoo! Sports' Matt Harmon as a very strong route runner last season.
With veteran tight end Greg Olsen feeling 100% entering the season, there's an easy argument to make that Newton has the best weapons he's ever had. That may not be saying much, but given what he's done throughout his career, that tells us that he has plenty of potential in 2019.
Kerryon Johnson, RB, Detroit Lions
With Theo Riddick no longer on the Lions, Kerryon Johnson should be on your radar at the Round 2 to 3 turn in PPR drafts. You can generally get him in the middle to latter parts of Round 3, though, making him a value.
There is a big red flag surrounding Johnson as we enter the season: goal-line work. Last year, Johnson only carried the ball twice at the goal line, while the now-departed LeGarrette Blount toted the rock 12 times within the opponent's five.
The goal-line piece will be key for Johnson's higher-end outlook this year because the Lions are likely to be a more run-heavy team. They hired Darrell Bevell to be offensive coordinator this offseason, and as the leader of the Seahawks offense from 2011 through 2017, Seattle ranked 24th or lower in neutral script pass-to-rush ratio five times. When games were close, they were a run-friendly team.
There's some correlation (an R-Squared of 0.21 over the last eight years) between pass-to-rush attempt ratio and pass-to-rush touchdown ratio. So, if the Lions are more run-heavy, they'll likely run for more touchdowns. (Thanks, genius.) Johnson needs those goal-line rushes to reach top-10 running back territory.
That's the negative to his 2019 profile. Fortunately, there are plenty of positives.
Efficiency numbers don't really correlate well year over year, so we won't even mention that, last season, Johnson's yards per carry average was over two yards better than his running back teammate's rate. That was the best difference in the league. We'll ignore his absurd efficiency, though. Forget about it. Please, don't focus on that. Really. (He's a good runner.)
The receiving production should be there for Johnson this year, and that's the main reason to be bullish. The aforementioned Riddick saw 74 targets last year, accounting for about 13% of Detroit's pass attempts. The main beneficiary of those vacated looks is likely to be Johnson, who finished 2018 with 39 targets in 10 games, or a prorated target share of about 11%. Even if the Lions are more run-heavy, Johnson's target share increase can easily make up for any lost volume. And more.
That's why Kerryon Johnson is so intriguing. He should provide a nice fantasy total each week in PPR formats considering he'll see the most carries and have the highest target share -- by far now that Riddick is elsewhere -- in the Lions' backfield. If the goal-line work goes his way, watch out.
Miles Sanders, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
Last offseason, yours truly put together a study on spotting breakout running backs in fantasy football. The conclusion found a set of attributes that breakout running backs -- backs who were drafted late and had big seasons -- shared. The majority of the come-out-of-nowhere rushers were rarely handcuffs, they were part of ambiguous backfields, they were pass-catchers, and they were on good teams.
Miles Sanders fits the bill.
When it comes to the rookie, the hesitation for most is that Doug Pederson's Eagles teams have seen split backfields during the three seasons that he's been head coach. And that's not wrong. Under Pederson, the highest rushing share (percentage of team rushes) any running back has been able to capture in the Philly backfield has been 36.6%, which was done by LeGarrette Blount in 2017. For some context, in 2018, 27 running backs hit that mark. Across these three Pederson seasons, the Eagles are tied for 26th in the number of games where a running back saw 15 or more attempts (excludes Week 17). That's not exactly a ringing endorsement.
But it's not all bad.
|Average Team RB Finish||13th|
|Number of 10+ Point Games||12th|
What the Pederson Eagles have shown us is that they can, at the very least, produce a nice baseline at the running back position. They've been a top half team in points scored at the position in each of the last three seasons, and only 11 teams have had more double-digit individual running back performances. Now, 29 teams have had more 20-plus point performances, but that plays into the point: Philadelphia has been a destination for high-floor, low-ceiling fantasy running backs.
Can Sanders change that? There's definitely an argument to be made that he can.
Over these three seasons with Pederson, the most relevant Eagles running backs have been LeGarrette Blount, Ryan Mathews, Josh Adams, Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement, and Jay Ajayi. Is it fair to ask who wouldn't want to force a committee with those backs?
Miles Sanders has a legitimate chance to be better than each of those players. A lot better. He enters the league with an elite athletic profile, and after serving as Saquon Barkley's backup at Penn State, Sanders showed that he can be a do-it-all back during his final collegiate season. Compared to other runners in the class, his rushing production was fairly average, but only four backs in the 2019 class had a higher final-season reception share, or percentage of team receptions.
That strong all-around production combined with his top-notch athleticism is what helped drive his Round 2 draft cost.
In fantasy drafts going on today, you're not really paying any sort of premium for Sanders. Over the last week on DRAFT, he's been selected at RB35. Considering the type of foundation that the Eagles offense is likely to provide, drafting him there and hoping he's the back who can buck the committee trend makes plenty of sense.
Matt Breida, RB, San Francisco 49ers
Let's revisit the criteria that helps define a potential breakout running back.
Breakout running backs usually aren't handcuffs. (49ers' running back Matt Breida isn't a handcuff.) Breakout running backs generally come from ambiguous backfields. (The likely starter in San Francisco is Tevin Coleman, but there's no projected workhorse on the team.) Breakout running backs are typically pass-catchers. (Breida has about 50 catches over his first two NFL seasons despite being a part-time player.) And breakout running backs are almost always part of good offenses. (San Francisco gets Jimmy Garoppolo back this year, and they have one of the best offensive coaches leading them.)
Matt Breida's kind of a perfect later-round dart throw.
And it's not because Tevin Coleman is a bad selection, either. Coleman's totally fine -- we should expect him to lead the 49ers' backfield in touches this year. But Coleman's never been a bell-cow back at the NFL level, and the situation in San Francisco is low-key great. It's underrated.
Even though the 49ers were starting a carousel of backup quarterbacks without a ton of weapons on offense last year, the team's running backs still compiled the fifth-highest yards from scrimmage total. The reason they weren't more fantasy relevant was because they scored just nine times, the fourth-lowest tally in the league. That'll happen when your offense turns the ball over more than any other team not named the Buccaneers.
Scheme has plenty to do with it. Over Kyle Shanahan's last four seasons as a coordinator (with the Falcons) and head coach (49ers), his running backs have ranked in the top-10 in yards from scrimmage.
|Year||Yards From Scrimmage||Rank|
Even if you go back to 2008 when Shanahan first became an offensive coordinator in the NFL -- and he's been coaching every season since -- only one of his offenses has ranked worse than 20th in running back yards from scrimmage. That came in 2014 with the Browns. The Brian Hoyer-led Browns.
Positive regression should be hitting the 49ers offense this year. In 2018, NFL offenses scored a touchdown for every 140.2 yards. San Francisco was the third-worst at converting touchdowns, scoring on every 174.8 yards. That'll likely rebound, as it's done so historically.
Julian Edelman, WR, New England Patriots
If you recall, Julian Edelman missed the first four games of last season due to a suspension, but from Week 5 through Week 16 -- every fantasy-relevant game Edelman played in -- he averaged the 12th-most PPR points per game at wide receiver. In each of his last five seasons, Edelman's averaged at least 6.1 receptions per game. Only Michael Thomas, Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and Odell Beckham have caught more passes per contest over the last five seasons.
Edelman's never been much of a touchdown scorer, but the loss of Rob Gronkowski could allow him to continue to see more looks in the red zone. Last season, when Gronk was a shell of himself, the tight end saw just eight red-zone targets. Only two of those came from within the 10-yard line. Edelman, meanwhile, had the second-highest red zone targets per game rate of his career while hitting a high in targets from within the 10. And, remember, he played in just 12 games. Without as much competition there, perhaps there's more touchdown potential than usual.
At the very least, we should see a pretty consistent target share for Edelman. Without Gronk on the field last year, Edelman's target share rose nearly seven percentage points. In 2016 (Edelman was out for the entirety of the 2017 season), his target share without Gronk went up about five percentage points.
So even if the touchdowns don't come at a more significant rate this season, Edelman will still have some of the most predictable production in the game. That's even truer with such little competition for targets. He should be a top-12 wide receiver selection in PPR formats, but on most sites that track average draft position, like Fantasy Football Calculator, he's in mid-range WR2 territory.
Christian Kirk, WR, Arizona Cardinals
We don't know the exact impact Kliff Kingsbury's system will have on fantasy football, but evidence points to it being -- and you should most definitely say this in Borat's voice -- very nice.
Volume drives this game about a game. Attempts and targets are everything at running back, wide receiver, and tight end. And there's a chance a lot of volume could be there for the Cardinals and their weapons this season.
Kingsbury runs an air raid offense, which essentially spreads an offense out and features a lot of quick passes. All the while, it's generally run at a quick pace.
|Year at Texas Tech||Pass-to-Rush Ratio Rank||Pass and Rush Attempts Per Game Rank|
As the head coach at Texas Tech, Kingsbury's offenses ranked in the top-10 among all FBS schools in pass-to-rush attempt ratio during each of his six seasons. To go along with that, they finished outside the top 10 in total pass and rush attempts per game just once.
This is why it's easy to fall in love with Kyler Murray's fantasy upside, or why it's easy to foresee a bounce-back year from David Johnson. And it's an added reason to love Christian Kirk, someone who's got experience with the air raid O.
It's no secret that Arizona's offense was a mess last season. numberFire's expected points model actually saw it as the worst NFL offense since...the 2012 Arizona Cardinals.
Even with that situation, Kirk showed up as a rookie. He missed Arizona's final four games with a broken foot, but through the team's first 12 games, he had seen 18.4% of Arizona's pass attempts go his way. That's a number that roughly 30 wide receivers may see per season. He also ranked in the top-40 among all NFL wideouts in yards per route run (according to Pro Football Focus), and his yards per route run rate was the best on Arizona.
And, again, Kirk did this as a first-year player.
It didn't result in a ton of fantasy production because Arizona ran so few plays -- only Miami ran fewer plays last year. The Cardinals ran the second-most offensive plays while trailing in 2018, yet their pass-to-rush ratio ranked 15th. Generally speaking, teams that are trailing tend to throw the ball more. Arizona didn't. And since the offense was so inefficient, they ranked 29th in pass attempts.
That's a recipe for disaster for any fantasy pass-catcher.
With Kingsbury's offense, Arizona will likely jump to being one of the more pass-friendly, fast-paced offenses in football. That means an 18% target share in this new-look offense is going to be much, much more valuable than one in last year's Cardinals' offense. And considering Kirk was able to post strong peripheral numbers as a rookie, we should feel confident that a target share that high is achievable.
Larry Fitzgerald makes for a good value pick in this year's fantasy drafts as well, but Kirk, as a second-year player who's not on the wrong side of his career, presents more upside.
Allen Robinson, WR, Chicago Bears
Allen Robinson is a boring pick this year. Once flashy, he's now just another veteran wideout being picked in the sixth round of fantasy drafts.
Wait, what's that? Allen Robinson's still just 25 years old? And he was actually not bad last season?
Viewing Robinson as an uninteresting pick is understandable. He's yet to come close to producing a season like he did during his Sophomore year in the league, where he hit the 1,400-yard mark while catching 14 touchdowns. In 29 games since that season ended, he's barely over 1,600 receiving yards, and he's scored just 10 times.
To make things worse, the Bears aren't exactly a pass-heavy team. They ranked 25th in pass attempts last year, and their pass-to-rush ratio was 27th. That's not what you want for your fantasy wideout.
Robinson missed three games in 2018, so his cumulative numbers took a hit. On a points per game basis, though, he ranked 33rd at wide receiver in PPR formats. And that was during a season where he was coming off a torn ACL on a new run-heavy team. When you look at things from that perspective, it wasn't really that bad.
His secondary numbers were a lot better than you'd probably expect, too. In active games last year, 21.6% of Chicago's attempts were directed at Robinson. When you consider games where he was off the injury report, that share of targets jumped to 23.0%. That's a mark only 12 wide receivers were able to hit last season. He was the best wide receiver on Chicago in yards per route run, and according to AirYards.com, Robinson led the team in average depth of target, weighted opportunity rating, and air yards market share.
Another plus: heading into 2019, there's a chance we see more passes from the Bears offense.
A key reason the Bears didn't throw the ball much last year was because they didn't have to. They ran just 313 offensive plays while trailing, the second-fewest in the league. That was definitely due to strong defensive play, but team defense, as a whole, isn't very sticky year over year. The metrics we use here at numberFire have historically seen fluctuations in how well a defense plays one season versus the next. Part of that is due to natural regression, but it's also just difficult to repeat high-end feats in the NFL.
Are you starting to see Robinson's upside? He's now got a year under his belt with the Bears, he's not coming off a major injury, his usage is already great, and Chicago should throw the ball more than they did last year. Don't be surprised if A-Rob far exceeds his average draft position this season.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
Has Sammy Watkins burned you in the past? Then congratulations, you're just like every other fantasy football manager on the planet.
Like some of the other players on this list, Watkins' 2018 campaign seems to be a little misunderstood. He, as usual, dealt with injuries. That's always the downside with Watkins. But after being relatively bullish on his move to Kansas City last year, the entire fantasy football world may have just been a year early.
In 2018, Watkins played 75% or more of Kansas City's snaps in eight regular season games and two playoff games. Take a look at how his numbers stacked up against teammate Tyreek Hill in those contests:
Closer than you thought? Yeah, me too.
Watkins and Hill had nearly identical target shares last season when the two were active together. Watkins actually averaged more receptions per game. The key difference was that Hill found the end zone more, and he was more efficient.
That last point likely won't change -- Hill is unlike any receiver we've seen efficiency-wise -- but the touchdown piece could swing into Watkins' favor a little more this season. According to ESPN's Mike Clay, Hill's oTD, or opportunity-adjusted touchdowns, was 8.2 last year. He scored 13 times, meaning he really outperformed in the touchdown column. Per Clay's metric, only Antonio Brown, Tyler Lockett, and Calvin Ridley saw a larger difference in touchdowns scored and oTD.
Hill will likely be an outlier within a lot of metrics because that's the type of player he is, but Watkins had the same number of regular season red-zone targets per game, and he had roughly the same number of targets within the 10-yard line per game last year. It's not like Sammy Watkins wasn't used at all when the Chiefs were close to scoring.
This isn't to say that Tyreek Hill is overvalued. He's not. Sammy Watkins just has a lot more going for him than many probably realize. Just because he's crushed your hopes in dreams in the past doesn't mean he will in 2019. Especially since his average draft position has dropped since Hill rejoined the Chiefs. You can get him comfortably as a low-end WR3, when, in that offense, he should be closer to a high-end one.
O.J. Howard, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
But this year -- not to get all qualitative on you -- feels a little different.
In the past, the middle rounds of fantasy drafts have been littered with the high-volume geriatric tight ends. The Delanie Walkers and the Greg Olsens of the world, if you will. Tight ends who've been solid, but they're rarely elite difference-makers at the position.
That's made it easy to target the young, ultra-athletic breakout tight ends late in drafts.
Not this year.
In 2019, players like Howard, Evan Engram, and Hunter Henry have seen their average draft positions rise. The three of them comprise a clear tier after the early-round tight ends drop off the board. But, really, you could make the case that Howard belongs in a tier of his own.
Howard's only been in the NFL for two seasons, and in each of those campaigns, he's been able to hit a yards per target rate north of 11. Efficiency metrics were discussed earlier -- they typically don't matter a whole lot from a predictiveness standpoint. At the extremes, though? You've got to at least pay attention.
Because over the last eight seasons -- since 2011, which was a year where passing offenses really started to boom in the NFL -- we've had five separate instances where a tight end saw 30 or more targets while maintaining a yards per target rate of 11-plus yards. Howard owns two of those five seasons.
Is that relevant? Well, at a high level, it certainly isn't irrelevant. But consider this: there've only been two tight ends during this timeframe to have multiple seasons with a 10 yards per target rate, so a rate that's more than a full yard lower than what Howard's averaged. Those players? Vernon Davis and Rob Gronkowski.
Howard might be special. Genuinely special. And that's not something you should be OK missing out on.
A big difference between this year and last season for Howard is that, aside from having more experience at a difficult-to-learn position, there's less competition for targets in the Tampa Bay offense. In 2018, Howard was fighting Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, DeSean Jackson, and Adam Humphries for looks through the air. This year, Jackson and Humphries -- who totaled 179 targets a season ago -- aren't around.
Humphries, primarily a slot guy, was especially impacted by Howard last season. After Howard's final game in Week 11, Humphries saw his target share increase by nearly 10% through the end of the season. Considering where the two players line up on the field, it's logical to think the loss of Humphries will only benefit Howard's volume potential given the experience elsewhere on the roster.
There's also a new coaching regime in Tampa Bay. Bruce Arians brings his vertical passing attack, which has seen his starting quarterbacks reach career highs in average depth of target.
Under Arians from 2007 through 2011, Ben Roethlisberger had an average depth of target that was well over nine yards. He's hit that mark just twice in the seven seasons since.
Arians then went on and coached Andrew Luck during his rookie season. That year, Luck had a career high 10.3 average depth of target.
After Indy, Arians coached Arizona for five years. Carson Palmer's numbers had the same impact, and he was an MVP candidate in 2015.
Tight ends haven't thrived in Arians' offenses, but Arians also hasn't had anyone like O.J. Howard before. With less competition and an offensive-minded head coach who likes to throw the ball down the field, Howard has a legitimate shot to join the elite tier of tight ends this season.
Players who almost made the list: Dalvin Cook, Latavius Murray, Dante Pettis, Curtis Samuel, Darren Waller, Jordan Reed, Greg Olsen