Five Dynasty Lottery Tickets
Players picked in the first 10 rounds of dynasty start-up drafts will tell the story of future seasons. This is a blunt reality that needs to be established in order to have a sound strategy. With that understood, let’s qualify any player beyond those first 10 rounds as a late-round pick.
A successful approach to late-round drafting would be similar to how investors view mortgage derivatives. Buy players in bulk and hope you find success with a few; it’s that simple.
In order to employ a “buy players by the pallet load” approach, deciding which trends and criteria are most successful in deciphering breakout players is crucial. For this exercise, let’s consider a breakout player someone who jumps into the top six rounds of average draft position (ADP) after being drafted in the later rounds the previous season.
After researching the last six years of ADP, the best connection between late-round dynasty selections and breakout candidates appears to be players drafted highly in the NFL draft that had yet to have a successful season – more specifically, top three round NFL draft selections entering years three through five of their careers. Some of the main examples are Jordy Nelson, Golden Tate, Mark Ingram, Vernon Davis and Knowshon Moreno.
With that understood, it’s time to take a look at five players who fit this criteria and appear to have the best chance of bringing positive returns.
Montee Ball, RB, Broncos (ADP: Round 13 or Later)
A lot went wrong for Ball in 2014. His performance was hindered by a late-offseason appendectomy, and after five games of ineffective play, he was put on season-ending injured reserve. Compounding Ball’s lost season, undrafted free agent (UDFA) C.J. Anderson emerged and stole the show. Anderson received 15-plus touches in each of the last eight games of the regular season, averaging an above-average 4.7 yards per carry and a robust 9.5 yards per reception.
With that considered, the general consensus is Anderson will be the workhorse back for, at the very least, the near future. While that’s certainly possible, there should be more doubt than his ADP is letting on.
There’s no debating Anderson’s productivity in 2014, and he could become the next Alfred Morris or Arian Foster, but, we can’t forget about players like Zac Stacy and LeGarrette Blount. Blount’s 2010 season is largely forgotten, but he ranked third overall in PFF’s run rating (cumulative grade of a player’s running ability), behind only Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles. The next year Blount inconspicuously fell out of favor in Tampa Bay and hasn’t received 200 or more rushing attempts since.
NFL history provides a number of examples that shows there’s no loyalty or role guarantees for players without high draft position or long-term contracts; Anderson has neither.
It’s easy to forget Ball was a second-round pick for the Broncos in 2013. It’s also easy to forget Ball was coming off an impressive rookie season, where he averaged the same 4.7 yards per carry that Anderson had in 2014. If Ball returns to rookie-season form and performs well in preseason and early regular season competition, there’s a reasonable chance the Broncos shift into a committee approach.
No one roots for injuries, but you can’t underestimate the upside of being an Anderson injury away from the lead-back role in a Peyton Manning offense. Even without injury, Ball is worth the cheap price.
Markus Wheaton, WR, Steelers (ADP: Round 17 or Later)
After an injury-riddled rookie campaign where he only received 13 targets, Wheaton found a niche role in the Steelers 2014 offense. Wheaton dropped only two of his 83 targets, which ties him for fifth among wide receivers who played 60 percent or more of their team’s snaps. He also snagged a very solid 63.9 percent of his targets. Wheaton proved he was a reliable target last season, and while Martavis Bryant has emerged as a solid deep threat, his role should be safe for the upcoming season.
Based on college production and early usage in his NFL career, Wheaton fits the slot receiver mold. This is very important to realize when evaluating player progression. Slot receivers generally take longer to develop into fantasy contributors than their outside counterparts. When you think of successful fantasy slot receivers over the years, names like Wes Welker, Randall Cobb, Golden Tate, Emmanuel Sanders and Julian Edelman come to mind.
None of those players had 1,000 receiving yards in their first two seasons, and Welker was the only one to achieve that mark in his third year. There’s a few reasons this specific role takes longer to progress – route tree and trust from the quarterback being main obstacles – but that’s a conversation for another day. The bigger point remains that slot receivers generally take longer to become fantasy relevant.
It may take leaving Pittsburgh for Wheaton to find fantasy football prominence, but in the 17th or later rounds, I like the idea of adding a young player with a significant role on a good offense.
Aaron Dobson, WR, Patriots (ADP: Round 17 or Later)
It’s amazing how quickly things change. Last year at this time, Dobson was going in the 8th-9th round range of start-ups and was expected to take a big step forward in year two of his Patriots career. An offseason foot surgery stunted most of Dobson’s sophomore campaign, missing most of the first 12 weeks of the season. Unfortunately, things got even worse in week 13, when he severely injured his hamstring in a game against the Packers. Dobson was put on I.R. and has since become an afterthought.
Brandon Lafell took the opportunity and ran with it, as he found himself playing on over 75 percent of the snaps while the Patriots went on their Super Bowl run. Lafell posted career-high volume across the board en route to his best season as a professional. It’s important to note, though, his efficiency per target didn’t change much, if at all, from his 2013 season with Carolina. He only went up .1 in YPR and stayed the same in touchdowns per target, at 5 percent.
Lafell is a serviceable wide receiver, but at this point in his career it’s become clear what he is. Based on his rookie year, Dobson has considerably more upside. With a full offseason to get healthy, this is a very important third season. If he can come into camp and prove himself, it would not be shocking to see the former second-round pick take significant targets away from Lafell in 2015, and potentially seize the role that was initially meant for him this time last year.
Tavon Austin, WR, Rams (ADP: Round 18 or Later)
Much like Markus Wheaton, Austin is a slot receiver with a glorified draft pedigree. When breaking down the first two years of Austin’s career, it becomes very clear that the Rams have been tinkering with where they want him on the field. In 2015, Austin received only 44 targets, as compared to his rookie year where he had 69. They lessened his role in the passing game to increase his role in the running game. His rushes jumped from nine his rookie year to 36 last season.
To put things in perspective, two wide receivers had over 12 rushing attempts in 2014, Austin and Percy Harvin. Harvin had 22. Austin was productive with his rushes, averaging 6.2 per attempt, and he also added two touchdowns.
If that wasn’t enough versatility, Austin was second in the league in punt returns (34) and third in punt return yardage (392). The fantasy football stats haven’t been there, but this is not a conventional receiver. If they continue to use Austin in a jack-of-all-trades type role, it might be difficult to ascend to fantasy football stardom.
There is hope, however. While Nick Foles isn’t what his stats portrayed two years ago, he’s assuredly better than the options the Rams have had recently. They also welcome in Todd Gurley, a running back they picked 10th overall in the 2015 draft. When healthy, Gurley is excellent in both the receiving and running game. If everything goes as planned with Gurley, it should give Austin more pure receiver snaps, which are better opportunities at fantasy points than rushes.
Gavin Escobar, TE, Cowboys (ADP: Round 18 or later)
Playing behind Jason Witten is a thankless job. In Witten’s 12-year career, he’s missed one game. Escobar, the Cowboys second-round pick in 2013, has seen a total of 26 targets in his first two seasons. In a normal situation this would be troubling, but because he’s behind a future Hall of Famer, it makes sense.
The good news is, in his few opportunities, Escobar has taken advantage. Of those 26 career targets, he’s hauled in 18 of them and scored six touchdowns. Clearly this would be an unsustainable pace if he were to get more volume, but it’s a positive sign nonetheless.
Another reason for optimism, Witten has held down fantasy-relevant and talented tight ends before. It’s wasn’t too long ago that Martellus Bennett was the second-round pick who was taking too long to develop. Obviously he had to leave Dallas to find fantasy success, but the point remains that it’s been difficult to find a role as the back-up tight end.
The big difference now is Witten is 33. Unless you’re Tony Gonzalez, that’s a red flag area for a tight end’s career arc. Escobar has displayed his playmaking ability, now all he needs is opportunity.