One of the luckiest breaks I’ve ever caught in fantasy was having Doug Baldwin as one of my highest-owned players in best-ball leagues in 2015. He finished 11th among wide receivers that season, but if you had asked me what his upside was earlier in the year, I would have guessed only in the low-end WR3 range. I was drafting him solely based on the fact that his ADP (WR63) was 20 spots lower than his 2014 finish (WR43). I knew it’d be hard not to profit off of that based on his prior season’s numbers, but I never would have guessed it would have paid off as well as it did.
Larry Fitzgerald might be another example of this. He finished as the WR7 in PPR leagues two seasons ago, but had an ADP of WR30 in 2016. Last year, he finished 11th at his position. This was due to a few different factors, but primarily, excitement regarding the potential of Michael Floyd and John Brown and fantasy experts continually harping on his advanced age (33).
In hopes of uncovering the next Baldwin or Fitzgerald, each season I like to look at different players we may be too bearish on in contrast to their fantasy finish in the previous season, as a means of identifying undervalued players.
Notes: The numbers in parentheses are a player’s 2017 ADP vs. their 2016 positional PPR-point-per-game fantasy finish.
Kyle Rudolph, TE, Minnesota Vikings (ADP: TE8; 2016 finish: TE4)
Among tight ends, Rudolph finished 2016 second in targets per game, third in targets inside the 10-yard line per game, and first in targets inside the 20-yard line per game. In terms of target market share, he ranked first among all receivers in end-zone targets and targets inside the 10- and 20-yard lines. Minnesota posted the NFL’s fourth-worst red-zone touchdown rate last season, and due to some natural regression, he should get a little bit luckier in the touchdown department next season. Rudolph should also continue to be one of Sam Bradford’s favorite check-down targets, and rack up easy points in PPR leagues. Though he’s an unsexy pick, he remains a strong value.
Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys (QB15 vs. QB9)
Last season, Prescott finished ninth among quarterbacks on a per-game basis, and sixth overall. As I’ve written elsewhere, at this point it seems a sophomore slump for Prescott is a foregone conclusion among the drafting public, but to me it’s just as realistic he takes another step forward following his historic rookie season. Proving yet again there’s value in waiting on quarterbacks in your fantasy drafts, Prescott is one of my few must-draft players this season.
Randall Cobb, WR, Green Bay Packers (WR39 vs. WR32)
Over the past five years, Cobb has ranked 16th, 10th, eighth, 32nd, and 34th among wide receivers in fantasy points per game. That’s two WR1 seasons, one WR2 season, and two WR3 seasons, and yet, this year he’s being drafted as a WR4. It’s true he hasn’t looked like the same player over the last two seasons, but he’s also dealt with shoulder, hamstring, and ankle injuries over this stretch. Green Bay WR coach Luke Getsy made injury-related excuses for Cobb’s last two down years, and head coach Mike McCarthy stated a desire to “get [Cobb] the ball a couple more times per game” this year. If fully healthy, Cobb’s fantasy potential likely lies among the wide receivers being drafted five rounds earlier. Even if he’s the same player he was last year, and Davante Adams isn’t the player we thought he was two seasons ago, Cobb remains a strong value.
Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia Eagles (TE10 vs. TE3)
Last season, Ertz finished third at the position on a point-per-game basis, and only 0.67 fantasy points per game less than the year’s top-scoring tight end, Travis Kelce — who is currently being drafted five rounds earlier. Ertz was an obvious regression candidate following the offseason signings of wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, but feels, at the very least, appropriately priced this season.
Adam Thielen, WR, Minnesota Vikings (WR47 vs. WR36)
Though he did have a historically soft cornerback schedule last season, Thielen’s 2016 season was hyper-efficient. He posted the ninth-best wide receiver season of the past decade (min. 75 targets) in depth-adjusted yards per target. He was also our 14th-highest-graded wide receiver last season. Proving their commitment to him, the team signed Thielen to a three-year, $17 million contract (with an additional $10 million in performance-related bonuses) this past offseason. Thielen may be somewhat frustrating to own a week-to-week basis, but he’s a safe bet to return value.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals (WR24 vs. WR12)
As I mentioned in our introduction, Fitzgerald was a screaming value last season, and appears to be one again this year – especially with increased uncertainty surrounding all other Arizona receivers. Historically, Bruce Arians has targeted his tight ends at a much lower rate than all other active play-callers. When asked about his receiving corps, last week, Arians stated he wasn’t “very pleased” and added he felt he has only two NFL-caliber receivers on the team — Fitzgerald and Jaron Brown. Fitzgerald is being drafted as the WR24, but has finished 10th and 12th the last two seasons. Though his advanced age is a concern, it’s not prohibiting me from drafting him. Rather, I’d look to move him in a trade early in the second half of the season. Fitzgerald has ranked third in fantasy points among wide receivers from Weeks 1-8 in each of the past two seasons, but 21st and 29th in Weeks 9-17.
Cameron Meredith, WR, Chicago Bears (WR41 vs. WR27)
In Meredith’s breakout sophomore season, we saw him rank top-20 in yards per target and yards per route run. From when first named the starter (Week 5) until the end of the season, Meredith averaged 13.9 fantasy points per game, which would have ranked 21st at the position. Unlike with most receivers on this list, there’s been little reason to suspect a significant decline in performance. Alshon Jeffery has since left for Philadelphia, and, hopefully, either one of Mitch Trubisky or Mike Glennon will be an improvement on Matt Barkley and Brian Hoyer.
Frank Gore, RB, Indianapolis Colts (RB34 vs. RB19)
Just due to being able to stay healthy, Gore has finished as a RB1 or RB2 in each of his past 11 seasons. In the past two seasons, he’s finished 14th and 12th. The difference between Gore’s finish last season and the running back who finished 34th (Gore’s current ADP) was 80 fantasy points. Essentially, if Gore repeated what he did last season, only rushing for 320 fewer yards and scoring zero touchdowns (instead of eight), he’d at the very least return value. It seems we’ve been prematurely predicting Gore’s decline for a few years, and one day it will come, but at his current ADP, it’s worth betting against.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Denver Broncos (WR34 vs. WR18)
Last season, Sanders ranked 20th in fantasy points per game (one spot behind Demaryius Thomas) and 13th in targets per game (one spot behind Thomas), yet 18 wide receivers separate them by ADP. In total points, Sanders has finished fifth, 18th, and 20th in fantasy points over the past three seasons. Quarterback play is a concern with Sanders, but it has been the last two seasons as well. Sanders’ ADP makes no sense, and I’m drafting him everywhere I can.
Darren Sproles, RB, Philadelphia Eagles (RB50 vs. RB32)
Over the course of a full season (rather than in terms of points per game), Sproles has finished among the top-30 fantasy running backs in every season since 2008. His role as pass-catching specialist in the Philadelphia backfield is firmly entrenched, though even with reports that LeGarrette Blount is at risk of getting cut, Sproles lacks upside. He likely isn’t relevant outside of best-ball leagues and zero-RB teams desperate for a bye-week fill-in or a dependable floor. Still, he’s a much better pick than many of the names currently going around him in drafts.
Mike Wallace, WR, Baltimore Ravens (WR50 vs. WR30)
Wallace has finished among the top-36 fantasy wide receivers on a points-per-game-basis in six of his past seven seasons, and yet, he’s being drafted four rounds behind the 36th wide receiver off the board. It’s as of yet unknown, and not looking pretty, who the starting tight end in Baltimore might be. Breshad Perriman has not practiced at all this offseason, and has dealt with multiple injuries throughout his career. Jeremy Maclin was recently cut from Kansas City and ranked 11th-worst in adjusted wide receiver rating last season. With a massive number of targets leaving in free agency or due to retirement and injury, Baltimore — the pass-happiest team in the NFL over the past two seasons — should get Wallace the target-volume he’d need to well exceed his current ADP.
Tyrell Williams, WR, Los Angeles Chargers (WR42 vs. WR22)
Prior to last season, Williams was a formerly UDFA with only two career NFL catches to his name. Now, he’s coming off of a 2016 season where he ranked 19th-best in depth-adjusted yards per target and finished 22nd in fantasy points per game (13th if we exclude his two games against Denver). Keenan Allen will certainly steal some targets away, but with rookie Mike Williams missing all of camp and out for at least the first month of the season, I’d bet Williams finishes well above his current ADP.
Kenny Britt, WR, Cleveland Browns (WR48 vs. WR24)
Britt is likely again saddled with poor quarterback play, after rising above it last season. When Rams passers targeted Britt last season, they averaged a passer rating of 96.2. When targeting all other Rams receivers, they averaged a passer rating of 63.9. This was the largest positive differential for all wide receivers last season. He also had, arguably, the toughest cornerback schedule of any wide receiver, but he exceeded expectations here too. What Britt will benefit from is limited target competition, as the Browns have only one wide receiver or tight end on their active roster to record at least 20 receptions in their entire career (Corey Coleman). Although it won’t always be pretty, I’m confident the targets will be there to make Britt one of the steals of your draft.
Theo Riddick, RB, Detroit Lions (RB32 vs. RB8)
Following Ameer Abdullah’s Week 2 injury, Riddick was forced into a massively valuable and productive role. On a per-game basis, Riddick ranked seventh in Actual Opportunity and eighth in fantasy points. Although this was likely entirely due to a lack of depth at the position following Abdullah’s injury, in 2015, Riddick did finish 19th among running backs over the course of the season. Riddick likely isn’t in-play outside of best-ball leagues, but could provide a dependable weekly floor for running back-needy zero-RB teams.
Matt Forte, RB, New York Jets (RB49 vs. RB20)
During the winter, Bilal Powell was one of my favorite targets in drafts, but after Jets offensive coordinator John Morton announced plans for a committee approach in 2017, I’ve since soured on Powell’s fantasy prospects and boosted Forte in my rankings. Although Forte clearly lacks the every-week upside Powell offers, he’s about as safe of a pick as it gets when looking for potential fringe-flex and bye week fill-in running backs.