Mid-round MFL10 upside plays
Two-plus weeks of free agent signings have given the fantasy landscape more clarity. Yet, in many areas more questions sprung up than were answered – the Jacksonville backfield comes to mind. With four months to go before training camps open, we are still navigating a sea of uncertainty and would be wise to acknowledge this with our early-round MFL10 draft approach.
Stressing assured workload, over upside shots with shakier touch projections, is a smart way to build the pillars of a roster. Low-risk is worth more at this stage of the offseason. However, in what is essentially a winner-take-all format, we will need to hit some home runs. Here are eight middle-round picks who have league-tilting upside relative to others drafted around them in MFL10s*.
Ryan Mathews – His current RB33 positional ADP would be roughly half that if we knew Mathews would enter the season as the lead back. It’s doubtful the Eagles leave the depth chart untouched, but as of now, there is nobody on the roster that would appreciably threaten Mathews’ workload – with all due respect to preseason DFS dynamo Kenjon Barner. Last year, Mathews accounted for 30.3 percent of the Eagles’ backfield fantasy points on 23.4 percent of backfield touches – the 10th-highest production versus backfield touch share difference among 179 running backs.
In an admittedly cherry-picked sample of eight 2015 games in which Mathews got at least nine touches, he averaged 11.1 fantasy points (12.9 PPR) while running for 5.6 yards per carry. The fantasy scoring pace isn’t eye-popping, but qualified as fringe-RB1 production in a down year for running backs — and he did it on only 12.9 touches per game. Now he will play in a Doug Peterson-led offense, which despite operating at a far slower pace than Chip Kelly’s, facilitated outsized lead running back statistics in Kansas City, even when Jamaal Charles was sidelined.
DeSean Jackson – Despite early-offseason chatter, Jackson is probably not getting cut. It also means that he’s playing out the final year of his contract. Whether elevated performance should be ascribed to contract-year status, or if Jackson anecdotally strikes us as someone who steps up to get paid — or tries to avoid injury like in 2011 before his big Eagles deal — is a narrative not easily relied upon. What is clear, however, is nobody has caught more 50-plus-yard touchdowns since 2008 than the 29-year-old Jackson (19). Jordy Nelson ranks second with 14.
Nobody has caught more 50-plus-yard scores than Jackson since he’s been in Washington either (Odell Beckham is tied), but it doesn’t make him and his balky hamstrings bankable on weekly basis. Yet, in a best ball league, much of that risk is mitigated – as are headaches associated with deciding when to start a volatile big play artist. Jackson only played 366 snaps last season, but on a per-target basis, his PFF passing game grade ranked 15th – well above teammates Jamison Crowder (37th) and Pierre Garcon (41st). Other than Jordan Reed, Jackson will get the lion’s share of targets from Kirk Cousins (QB16 ADP) and still doesn’t need many to pile up points.
Eric Ebron – Ebron is being highlighted over Arian Foster – who should see multiple-round ADP gains whenever and wherever he signs – because with the majority of fantasy tight ends heavily touchdown-reliant, the few who contribute when they don’t score take on increased value. Ebron, believe it or not, can be one of those assets.
In a Jim Bob Cooter-led offense — which reduced Matthew Stafford’s average depth of target (aDOT) from its customary eight-yard range to only 6.7 yards after Week 7 — Ebron will continue the quiet strides he began taking in 2015 after a typical-for-tight-ends slow rookie season.
Ebron, who won’t turn 23 until April, head-scratchingly sports the stink of a draft-bust despite improving his catch rate (72.3 percent versus 57.1), yards-per-reception (11.4 versus 9.6), yards-after-catch (6.4 versus 5.1) and drop rates (11.3 versus 13.8), as well as jumping from one to five touchdowns. Like with Stafford – whose 70.7-percent completion rate crushed previous career highs — when Cooter took over Detroit’s offense in Week 8, Ebron’s aDOT from 2014 (9.0) and early in 2015 (7.3), was reduced to 5.6 yards. More targets with Calvin Johnson gone, plus shorter, easier catches, equals a spike Ebron’s non-touchdown PPR output.
Carson Palmer – When elite quarterbacks don’t start going off the board until the middle of the fifth round, it means most everyone has finally caught onto the Late Round Quarterback message. While there are still several attractive passers getting drafted after the 10th round, Palmer represents something of a tier cliff. Last season’s fantasy QB5 has a positional ADP of QB9 so far this year. Rather than argue he should be going higher, a quick look at the passers picked immediately after him sheds light on why taking the plunge on Palmer’s upside might be a sharp move.
None of Jameis Winston, Derek Carr, Philip Rivers, Marcus Mariota, or Eli Manning came close to Palmer’s 10 games of QB1 production (top-12) or matched his four top-five positional scoring weeks. As part of a quarterback-by-committee group, those passers and several others can conceivably match Palmer’s output. But at this stage of the draft the opportunity cost of skipping other positions is greatly diminished, and selecting a potential top-five producer arguably outweighs the risk of missing out on your fifth running back. And if you do happen to miss out, just pick this next guy…
Jerick McKinnon – Rationale for grabbing McKinnon with a mid-draft selection goes beyond simply betting on an Adrian Peterson decline and/or injury – although, “superhuman” narratives aside, it isn’t as crazy as it seems. He just turned 31 years old and has shown subtle signs of decline since his age-27 season.
|Peterson||YPC||Missed Tackle per Touch||Rank / Qualifiers*||Rush Grade per Attempt||Rank / Qualifiers#||Carries per Fumble|
|2012||6.0||0.18||14th / 76||+0.072||3rd / 70||123.3|
|2013||4.5||0.22||9th / 76||+0.032||15th / 66||93.0|
|2015||4.5||0.16||34th / 68||+0.030||22nd / 68||58.3|
*50 touch minimum #50 attempt minimum
Peterson’s 2014 season, in which he only got 21 carries – and, more importantly, another year older – was omitted. And to be fair, after his incredible 2012 season, statistical regression was inevitable. But despite early-offseason sound bites to the contrary, his workload will be lightened in 2016.
Enter the uber-athletic McKinnon, who already carved out a significant third-down role late last season – including during a tightly-contested playoff game. Beyond pass-catching chops superior to Peterson’s, McKinnon’s +0.052 per-attempt rushing grade ranked 11th, he averaged 5.2 yards per carry, and registered the 10th-best missed tackle per touch rate (0.22) out of 68 qualifiers. In a PPR best ball, where we won’t have to anticipate his blow-up performances and negative game scripts, he profiles as an ideal “Zero-RB” style back. And yes, if Peterson gets injured, McKinnon is a league-winner.
Torrey Smith – Considering he only turned 27 in January, Smith probably owns the career mark for most fantasy fluff pieces per season. Given that his 2015 “production” consisted of 663 yards and four touchdowns on 33 catches while playing every game for the 49ers – a team still without a clue who their quarterback is – it seems especially aggressive to tout him now. Perhaps if he had combined his touchdown totals from 2012 (8) or 2014 (11) with his yards from 2013 (1,128), he wouldn’t be considered a perpetual tease? At least he’d have a fantasy WR1 season under his belt.
Since 2011, only five receivers have more 50-plus-yard receptions and 10 have more touchdown catches, but due to his reputation and last year’s debacle, Smith is dirt-cheap. He’s being drafted as the WR58, behind three yet-to-be-drafted rookies and a boatload of number two and three options on their teams’ target totem pole. From that volume angle, and with an eye on his league-leading 20.1 yards per reception rate from last year, there is hope. Chip Kelly’s offense ran 68.9 plays per game in 2015, one year after pumping out 70.4. Smith’s 49ers ran 60.6 last year. Over the course of a season, that totals a difference of more than two games.
Tyrod Taylor – Even if Taylor was something of a fluke last year – and judging by his ADP, many think he was – he shouldn’t be available this late. Currently the 18th quarterback drafted on average, Taylor scored the eighth-most fantasy points per game in his first season as a starter, and he registered the third-most points per dropback. He could take a significant step back from those paces and still pay off his draft cost. If he takes a step forward, he will crush more than just ADP.
While we are hunting for upside, it’s still worth noting his rushing prowess sets a steady floor. He averaged 7.4 rushing attempts per game and surpassed 40 rushing yards — equivalent to a touchdown pass – in 64 percent of his outings. If he indeed was a fluke, he was a well-rounded one. With a rushing grade second only to Cam Newton’s among quarterbacks, Taylor also ranked in the top-10 for yards-per-attempt, quarterback rating (both NFL and PFF’s), accuracy percentage while under pressure, and deep ball accuracy percentage.
Brandon Coleman – At this point, from the 14th round on, the few options with legitimate ceilings also come with cavernous floors. If we are looking to really shoot the moon, everyone’s favorite football-Twitter-flashpoint Jeff Janis (ADP of 174; WR66) is squarely in play. We saw his ceiling in last season’s playoffs, but a gander at Green Bay’s depth chart reveals a similar-to-2015 floor. Coleman will deal with a far less formidable receiver room, and if his snap percentage jump during his last five games of last year is an indication, he’s well on his way.
Seemingly tailor-made for the “Marques Colston role,” the 6-foot-6, 225-pound Coleman’s ADP has not caught up to the projection. While appearing more like he was hobbling towards the glue factory with a rock in his shoe than running routes, Colston still earned five targets per game one year removed from a WR3-level finish. He led Saints receivers in redzone targets in seven of the previous nine seasons, and taking a chance on New Orleans truly passing that torch to Coleman is a risk-reward proposition not commonly found after the 14th round begins.
*- ADP data courtesy of the RotoViz Best Ball App, using a one-week timeframe
Pat Thorman is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pat_Thorman