Fitz on Fantasy: 2018 Player Rankings Explained
Fantasy football market behavior is fascinating, so this is a fun time of year even though it’s a dead zone on the NFL calendar. With the NFL Draft over, fantasy writers are posting their first sets of rankings, and more and more people are jumping into best-ball drafts, establishing the 2018 market.
Since my own POST-DRAFT RANKINGS are now posted here at TFG, let’s take a spin through the positions and examine some points of interest.
The QB position is as deep as ever. It’s deeper than the end of the pool where the diving boards are anchored. Deeper than Jeff Bezos’ pockets. Deeper than a conversation between two stoned philosophy majors. Supply is ample, yet we know that a lot of fantasy owners will violate the law of supply and demand, spending lavishly despite a glut in the market.
Overspending at quarterback is especially foolhardy this year, with the collision of two fronts creating a perfect storm of QB depth. On one front, old-timers Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger are still cranking out QB1 seasons at an age when the rest of us are wrenching our backs shoveling snow or picking up yard debris. On the other front, young bucks such as Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson and Jimmy Garoppolo appear to be on the cusp of becoming perennial top guns, with Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota and Jared Goff among the others bolstering the youth movement.
Some of the most egregious QB overspending is going to be done on Watson and Wentz, as fantasy owners tap into their inner Neil Armstrong and plant symbolic flags on these celestial young passers. Watson has a Fantasy Football Calculator ADP of QB2, even though he made only six starts last year. Granted, those six starts were mostly sensational and generated big numbers, but it’s a small sample, and Watson got away with a lot of YOLO balls that easily could have been interceptions. Watson enthusiasts clearly aren’t worried about his recovery from a torn ACL. Nor am I, necessarily, but the injury kept the sample size too small to be bankable.
Wentz is also coming off a significant knee injury. He tore his ACL and LCL in December, and it’s not a given that he’ll play in Week 1. He threw TD passes on 7.5% of his throws last year. To put that into perspective, Aaron Rodgers has a career TD percentage of 6.4%, Tom Brady’s is 5.5%, and Drew Brees’ is 5.3%. Wentz is probably going to be feeling gravity’s pull.
The young quarterback more interesting to me at current cost (QB18) is Patrick Mahomes. He has a bazooka arm, good wheels and a ridiculously well-stocked weapons cache (Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Kareem Hunt). Mahomes is still affordable (for now) because his only playing time so far was a Week 17 start last season.
One of my favorite values can be found in the generation gap between old and young, with 30-year-old Matthew Stafford carrying an ADP of QB15 after ranking in the top 10 in quarterback fantasy scoring in four of the last five years. Apparently people are just bored with Stafford. I’m happy to bet on a guy with a rocket arm and a WR corps featuring Marvin Jones, Golden Tate and Kenny Golladay.
It’s probably a mistake to embrace any quarterback with a shortage of high-quality pass catchers or to dismiss any quarterback with a full quiver of sharp arrows. At this time a year ago I was ready to start a cult for Dak Prescott worshippers, but I’m off Dak this year, partly because of his in-season nosedive last year but mostly because his pass-catching corps is awful. And though Eli Manning is pretty clearly in a downward spiral, the fact that he’s cheap (QB24) and will be throwing to Odell Beckham Jr., Saquon Barkley and Evan Engram makes him a worthy late-round target.
We’re all going to spend the summer debating first-round RB dilemmas. Todd Gurley or LeVeon Bell? Ezekiel Elliot or David Johnson? Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt or Saquon Barkley? I would never speak ill of Bell, who’s singlehandedly dragged a few of my otherwise mediocre teams to money finishes, but I prefer Gurley because of his sublime stretch run last season and his relatively low odometer reading. Zeke vs. D.J. is a tough call. For the moment I prefer Zeke simply because we haven’t seen D.J. operate in an offense run by anyone other than Bruce Arians.
As for Kamara, Hunt and Barkley, I’m all in on Barkley.
Me: “All in.” (shoves a big sloppy pile of chips across the felt)
Dealer: “Sir, this is a blackjack table.”
Barkley’s testing results from the NFL Scouting Combine show he might be the most athletic running back we’ve seen come into the league since Bo Jackson. You can make the case that it was unwise for the Giants to spend the No. 2 pick on a running back (I would agree), but the vast expenditure of draft capital suggests that Barkley will be handed a massive workload. Kamara’s per-touch efficiency was off the charts in his rookie season. Even with a drop in efficiency, he could still return first-round value. I just can’t take him ahead of Barkley knowing that Kamara will be sharing work with Mark Ingram again after Ingram serves his four-game suspension. Hunt, the 2017 rushing king, is a worthy first-round pick, but with Spencer Ware back from injury and Damien Williams added in free agency, the Chiefs aren’t as obligated to force-feed Hunt carries as they were last year.
Some of the other rookies are also worth considering if other people in the draft room turn up their noses at unproven assets and leave value on the table. This looks like an exceptional rookie RB class, and Derrius Guice, Sony Michel, Rashaad Penny and Royce Freeman all landed in good spots. I’m not quite as high on rookies Ronald Jones and Kerryon Johnson, but they too landed with teams that can give them carries right away.
When Bears general manager Ryan Pace drafted Tarik Cohen last year and handed him to John Fox, it was like handing an iPhone to Homo erectus. Fox and his staff of cave dwellers had no idea what to make of Cohen, so they cast him aside and continued to bash away at the enemy with the wooden club that is Jordan Howard. The Bears have since hired Matt Nagy to start fires with a Bic instead of with flint. He’ll have notions about how to use Cohen, which could mean a reduced role for Howard, who seems dangerously overpriced at his current ADP of RB10.
Some other quick RB takes. Derrick Henry’s top-20 ADP seems silly when he’s sharing a backfield with Dion Lewis. I think Aaron Jones, not Jamaal Williams is the running back to own in Green Bay. Marlon Mack might not be a lock to return significant fantasy value, but the buy-in is incredibly reasonable for a guy who’s almost surely going to be the Colts’ starter. Adam Gase is on record as saying that he wants to use multiple running backs in Miami, so the Methuselah of NFL running backs, Frank Gore, might continue to have value even though Kenyan Drake was terrific when forced to carry a big load late last year.
Antonio Brown is the near-consensus No. 1 receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones follow, and Michael Thomas, A.J. Green, Mike Evans, Keenan Allen, Doug Baldwin and Davante Adams round out a 10-man WR1 tier. That’s the order in which I rank them. Whichever way you want to order the Hopkins-OBJ-Julio and Green-Evans-Allen sub-tiers is fine by me – I find it hard to sort out those trios.
The WR2 tier is where things get messier. Apparently I’m bullish on Allen Robinson (WR11) relative to the market. He missed all but a few plays of 2017 with a torn ACL, he’s joining a new team, and he’s paired with a relatively green QB in Mitch Trubisky, so I suppose the trepidation is understandable. But Robinson had a 1,400-yard, 14-TD season with Blake Bortles as his quarterback, and he’s positioned to be a target hog in Chicago. I’ve been all over A-Rob in early drafts.
Once the WR1s are gone and I’m pushing my cart through the WR2 aisle, safe floors mean more to me than theoretically high ceilings. That’s why I find JuJu Smith-Schuster (WR16) appealing even though the presence of Antonio Brown caps JuJu’s upside. Smith-Schuster didn’t really get rolling until late October and still finished his rookie year with 58 catches for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. Those seem like baseline numbers for him in 2018.
Savvy drafters acknowledge target logjams. Tyreek Hill proved last year that he’s much more than just a sprinter in pads, but I can’t rank him higher than WR17 when he has to share targets with Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins.
And so much for the “Free Sammy” movement, by the way. Lured by a fat payday, Watkins went from a target bottleneck in L.A. to another in K.C. If Watkins had played in the ’70s, he would have wound up on the Steelers as a third wheel behind Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.
Brandin Cooks has replaced Watkins in the Rams’ WR menage-a-trois, which also includes Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. Like Watkins before him, Cooks is destined to be overdrafted by those who fail to see the target crunch coming.
On the flip side, some receivers stand to have their value pumped up by the ample target availability on their respective teams. Among the players in this category are Michael Crabtree, Kelvin Benjamin, Devante Parker (yes, him again), Kenny Stills and Michael Gallup.
We’ve been hearing that the TE position is deep this year. That might not be the case now that Hunter Henry is out for the year. Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce are established warlords, and we can probably include Zach Ertz in that class, too. Henry was my TE4 before his injury. Evan Engram was a revelation as a rookie, but his breakout came with Odell Bekham Jr. injured and targets readily available. Greg Olsen and Delanie Walker are getting old. So is Jimmy Graham.
I frankly have no idea what to make of Graham. He averaged 9.1 yards per catch last year and is no longer the remarkable athlete he was before rupturing his patellar tendon in 2015. Still, he scored 10 TDs last year and will now be paired with Aaron Rodgers. I’m hedging, slotting him at TE8.
Last year’s heralded rookie TE class probably will help provide greater positional depth at some point soon. Engram was the only one who popped in his first season, but others could break through in 2018. My favorite is David Njoku, an athletic marvel who churned out a stat line of 32-386-4 as a 21-year-old playing for an 0-16 team. Others fret about the Browns’ QB situation and the presence of WRs Josh Gordon and Jarvis Landry limiting Njoku’s ceiling. He’s my TE13, and I’ll be buying him everywhere I can, betting on his outlandish athleticism to trump the more unattractive elements of his situation.
Some people are projecting Jordan Reed for a 700-yard season, which seems to fly in the face of established physiology. I’m not sure Reed would be able to play a 16-game season if Tony Stark designed his pads and uniform. I ranked him TE10, but if Reed is the top available tight end when my pick comes up, I’m hitting a different position. Ditto for the oft-injured Tyler Eifert (TE14).