Mike Clay's ultimate fantasy draft board
You know the feeling.
It’s the fourth round. Your buddy Dave is on the clock, which means just one more pick until you’re on the hot seat. You check your cheat sheet and there are only two realistic options – a pair of wide receivers. Matt Apple sits at No. 27 in your rankings. Kevin Orange at No. 32. Technically an easy decision … but one you don’t want to make. I mean, Apple is safer. And more proven. But you really love the youth and high ceiling of Orange. He’s more exciting. He’s fun. Your brain tells you to hope for Apple, but your heart loves it some Orange.
“C’mon, Dave! Take Apple! Do it! DO IT,” you scream to yourself.
“I’ll take Matt Apple!”
YES! *Internal fist pump*. An excuse to take your man crush. I mean, you have to. It’s the best guy on the board. And you always follow the board. Right? Sure.
You’ve seen my projections. You’ve reviewed my rankings. You’ve analyzed my player capsules.
Today, I’m allowing you into my head on draft day. Like all of you, I strive to follow my board on draft day, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a few names circled. Today I’m going to share those names, and tell you where I’ll be targeting each come draft day – from the first-round must-haves to the late-round steals.
As a general rule, I assumed a 12-team, 16-round draft. I leaned toward a non-PPR scoring format, but my top targets are generally the same regardless.
Le’Veon Bell – Round 1 Target
Okay, this one is more about availability than anything. Bell is often a Top 3 pick, so if you pick later in the first round, you’ll need a miracle to land his services. Still, some are afraid of the two-game suspension. You shouldn’t be. When Week 3 rolls around, those who passed on him are going to be kicking themselves. They now own an inferior product and handed you, their competition, fantasy’s most-valuable asset. Worried about starting 0-2? You shouldn’t be. The difference between what Bell and a replacement-level back figures to get you on a weekly basis is roughly 8.5 fantasy points in non-PPR. The odds are fairly slim that both your Week 1 and 2 matchups will be decided by nine points. And, unlike those who select a back who gets hurt or suspended after the draft, you’re aware of the missed time and can adjust your draft strategy accordingly (eg. targeting Tre Mason or Jonas Gray – more on him later).
If Bell is gone, don’t be afraid to pounce on an elite wide receiver. As we’ll see later, Rounds 3-5 are loaded with intriguing running backs.
The Best Available Wide Receiver – Round 2 Target
Regardless of who you select in the first round, it’s extremely likely that you’re going to be in position to get a strong – or possibly even an elite – wide receiver in the second round. Jordy Nelson’s season-ending torn ACL hurt the pot a bit, but those picking early in the round will usually be looking at Odell Beckham Jr., Calvin Johnson, and Randall Cobb. Those choosing a bit later will still have outstanding options, including A.J. Green, Alshon Jeffery, and Mike Evans. Meanwhile, the top running back options will be the likes of LeSean McCoy and Justin Forsett. That’s not quite as intriguing. Keep this in mind if you’re on the fence about taking a running back or wide receiver in the first round – you’re going to want a wideout the next time around.
Lamar Miller – Round 3 Target
Regardless of my first two picks, I’m generally going to be attacking running back in the third round. If a player like Evans or Jeffery (or possibly even T.Y. Hilton or Brandin Cooks) falls into your lap, feel free to pounce. Follow the board and don’t reach simply based on position. But, as mentioned, I’ve found that running backs generally stand out here. Miller is my ideal target. He paced the NFL in yards per carry against opposing base defenses last year. (Some guy named DeMarco Murray was tops in the category in 2013.) Miller is also in an offense that spreads out defenses, and is in for an expanded role in an improving offense. What’s not to like?
Mark Ingram – Round 3 Target
If I miss on Miller, I have no qualms snatching up Ingram. Though his reputation is damaged by persistent injuries, Ingram is actually a very productive player in a high-volume, high-scoring offense. Ingram will struggle to eclipse 25 receptions, but consider that he carried the ball 20 times inside the opponent’s 1-yard line last year. No other back had more than 17 and only three eclipsed 14.
Carlos Hyde – Round 4 Target
Hyde managed only 93 carries as a rookie, but boy did he impress. The rookie forced a whopping 25 missed tackles, which was only three behind starter Frank Gore (who had 255 carries). His tape backs up the numbers. Now in position to start, and with his ADP depressed a bit by the turmoil around him in San Francisco, Hyde is a value in the fourth round. He’s not going to get you a ton of receptions, but he will flirt with double digit touchdowns over 16 games. If you start with a pair of wide receivers and come away with Hyde as your No. 2 back, congratulations. That’s a job well done. If he falls, I also like Latavius Murray around this area.
T.J. Yeldon – Round 5 Target
Another running back? Another running back. I like Yeldon a lot. To me, he’s an ideal fit for what head coach Gus Bradley wants to do – build a team like the one he used to coach for in Seattle. That means live on your defense and power running game. Toby Gerhart didn’t get the job done in 2014, leaving the team to invest a second-round pick in 6-foot-1, 226-pound Yeldon. The big man may start slowly, making him a better option if he’s your No. 3 RB or Flex. Jacksonville’s porous offense is also a concern here, but the Jaguars are better on the defensive side of the ball, and figure to score more often with Blake Bortles in Year 2, Allen Robinson healthy, Julius Thomas in the picture, and, of course, with Yeldon solidifying the run game. Especially in non-PPR, I’m loving Yeldon here.
Keenan Allen – Round 5 Target
If not Yeldon, I’m heading back to the wide receiver well in the fifth. Allen gets a bad rap after his rookie-season touchdown total was cut in half last year, but it wasn’t for a lack of involvement. Allen missed over two games, but racked up 77 catches. Used more in a possession role in his sophomore campaign, Allen was the intended target on nearly one quarter of Philip Rivers’ throws and caught nearly 70 percent of those looks. A good bet for 80 catches and a half dozen touchdowns, Allen is an undervalued WR2 that you can get as your No. 3.
Amari Cooper – Round 5 Target
Cooper is a nice alternative if you miss on Allen in the fifth. Yes, he’s a rookie stuck with Derek Carr in low-scoring Oakland, but opportunity is king in fantasy football and that’s where Cooper stands out. The Raiders will try to run the ball, but they aren’t much better than the team forced to call pass an NFL-high 67 percent of the time because they trailed late so often last year. James Jones quietly racked up 73 receptions and six touchdowns as a result. Cooper is both significantly better than Jones and a sure bet to see a higher share of the targets. As sure a thing as rookies come, Cooper has a 90-plus catch ceiling.
Allen Robinson – Round 6 Target
Robinson is my Kevin Orange. I can’t justify ranking him inside my Top 20 wide receivers, but man, I want any excuse to pick him in the late fifth or sixth round. The mid-rounds are flush with intriguing wide receiver options, but Robinson certainly stands above most of the field. He has that WR1 ceiling you want in a player, and, even better, he’s already flirted with high-level production. Prior to suffering a season-ending foot injury as a 21-year-old rookie last season, Robinson sat 27th among wide receivers in fantasy points. And that was in a Jacksonville offense that finished dead last in offensive touchdowns. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds and only 22, Blake Bortles is all that can hold Robinson back from a breakout sophomore season.
Drew Brees – Round 6 Target
The demise of Drew Brees has been grossly exaggerated. Sure his numbers have progressively dipped over the past two seasons, but he was still easily the league’s most-accurate passer on his way to 4,952 yards and 33 touchdowns. That said, in a way, Brees is becoming my Matt Apple. There are so many tremendous quarterback values this year that I almost hate to take one here over a WR2, or even the occasional sliding RB2. Still, I feel Brees is closer to the Andrew Luck/Aaron Rodgers tier than many think. He’s a great value beyond the fifth round.
The Middle Rounds
Now that the stars of your fantasy team are in place, it’s time to fill out a few starting-lineup slots, while also eyeing some depth and potential breakout players.
Vincent Jackson – Round 7 Target
Eight wide receivers eclipsed Jackson’s 138 targets last season, yet he finished 37th at the position in fantasy points. Touchdowns were the obvious culprit – he scored twice despite 15 end zone targets. A victim of ugly quarterback play and Mike Evans’ unsustainable 12 scores on 68 receptions, Jackson is undervalued in 2015 drafts. Likely to provide WR2 numbers, at this point in your draft, you’ll be able to get Jackson as your third or fourth wide receiver. That’s a steal, my friend.
Devonta Freeman – Round 8 Target
This one is all about the combination of opportunity and availability. The Falcons selected Tevin Coleman in the third round of May’s draft and everyone automatically slotted him in atop the depth chart. Throughout the offseason, however, Freeman has been Atlanta’s lead back. I’ll admit I do prefer Coleman (barely) over the long-term, but this is a situation where it makes logical sense to hedge your bet. If Freeman, who flashed as a fourth-round rookie and who the team reportedly likes a lot, does, in fact, lead the Atlanta backfield in touches, he will surely be one of the top steals of 2015 drafts. Freeman is going to be busy as a receiver regardless, and a dozen or so carries per game in an offense led by Matt Ryan will certainly lead to scoring opportunities. Freeman doesn’t jump out as a guy with a RB1 ceiling, but there’s no excuse to pass on a potential starter in a good offense in the eighth round. It’s a no-brainer.
Bishop Sankey – Round 9 Target
Speaking of starting running backs available late in drafts, Sankey is a guy who has ended up on a ton of my teams throughout the offseason. Of course, a lot of that happened when I was being called a crazy person for wasting a 10th or 11th round pick on him in June and July. His ADP is on the rise as of late, however, as he continues to cement himself as Tennessee’s lead back. This was a very dysfunctional offense in 2014, but I’m on the Marcus Mariota bandwagon. If he’s even competent as a rookie, Sankey has the ability to produce RB2 numbers. Keep in mind that he was above average alluding tackles and producing after contact as a rookie. He’s an ideal post-hype flier. I mean, how often are you going to find a 22-year-old, second-round pick atop his team’s depth chart available in Round 9?
John Brown – Round 9 Target
Considering that only four teams managed three players among the Top 60 wide receivers in fantasy points last season, you should always hesitate when selecting a team’s No. 3 wide receiver in the middle rounds. Of course, Brown is a bit of an exception (or so we hope). Although he’s likely to play behind both Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, Brown will be on the field for most pass plays. In fact, when Carson Palmer was under center last year, Brown racked up 35 targets, which trailed only Fitzgerald (39) and Andre Ellington (36). Floyd had 28 and John Carlson 25. Often compared to T.Y. Hilton, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that Brown forces his way atop the target totem pole and explodes into a strong WR2 play this year. His breakout potential makes him a must-target in the ninth round.
Jason Witten – Round 9 Target
One of the most-disrespected players in fantasy this year, Witten finished 10th among tight ends in fantasy points last season – his worst finish since 2006! Yes, Witten is 33 now, but the Dallas offense isn’t particularly good defensively and lost 450-touch workhorse DeMarco Murray during the offseason. This means that they’re unlikely to operate the league’s run-heaviest offense again this year. Expect an uptick in target volume for Witten as a result, especially considering the team’s underwhelming offensive skill position depth. Unless Rob Gronkowski falls to you in the second round (an excuse to pounce), it makes sense to wait a long time at tight end. Witten is an ideal mid-round target, especially in PPR.
The All-Beat-Up-Rookie-WR Team – Devin Funchess (Round 8), Breshad Perriman (10), DeVante Parker (11), Kevin White (15), Devin Smith (18)
I’m getting ahead of myself here by listing a bunch of rookie wide receivers available across the entire second half of most drafts. Kelvin Benjamin tied Demaryius Thomas with 23 end zone targets last year and similarly-built Funchess (currently dealing with a hamstring injury) will play Benjamin’s split end role this year while the latter recovers from a torn ACL. Perriman’s ADP is falling as a result of a PCL strain, but he figures to return around Week 1. A bigger, better version of Torrey Smith (who scored 11 times in the same role last year), the rookie is well-worth your patience and thus your consideration in the late rounds. Parker’s foot has been problematic throughout the offseason and Miami has a ton of wide receiver depth, but he’s the most-talented and biggest player in the group. It’s only a matter of time until the first-round pick emerges.
You might raise an eyebrow at White (stress fracture surgery), but I love him as a target in the final round or two. Most have thrown in the towel on his rookie campaign, but remember that while he could miss the season, he also could return in October. He’s worth stashing until we learn more about his status. Why take a low-ceiling WR5 like Doug Baldwin, Kenny Britt, or Michael Crabtree when you can take a flier on a guy with WR2 upside? It’s a no brainer. Finally, Devin Smith (ribs) is only worthwhile in deeper leagues, but the Chan Gailey-led Jets have made it no secret that they will use a ton of three-wide/spread offensive sets. With Jeremy Kerley fading down the depth chart, Smith should have no trouble working his way into the starting lineup once he returns. He’s an overlooked flier.
Eric Decker – Round 10 Target
No one expected Decker to match his Peyton Manning-fueled production in New York, but 74 receptions, 902 yards, and five touchdowns was pretty formidable considering the team’s quarterback woes and run-heavy scheme last season. In Chan Gailey’s balanced, spread attack, Decker has an excellent shot at improving in each of those categories this season. Almost no one is discussing Decker this offseason, making him an incredible late-round steal.
Philip Rivers – Round 10 Target
I mentioned earlier that Drew Brees is a guy I like a lot at his going rate this year, but I almost don’t want to pick him because I know Rivers (or even Eli Manning) will be available after the ninth round. Since taking over as San Diego’s starter in 2006, Rivers has finished eighth, 16th, third, seventh, fifth, ninth, 21st, fourth, and 12th in fantasy points among quarterbacks. Inconsistent? Yes. But he’s been a QB1 each of Mike McCoy’s two seasons as head coach and we know he has Top 5 upside. Considering how late he’s available, Rivers is an ideal target for your starting quarterback slot. That’s especially the case in leagues that award six (not four) points for a passing touchdown.
The Late-Round Fliers
Your starting lineup is usually complete by now, which means it’s time to start aiming for breakout players to round out your bench.
Zach Ertz – Round 11 Target
An intriguing strategy to try out this year is to take a tight end upside flier before you pick your starter. If you miss on the likes of Gronkowski and Witten, don’t be afraid to grab a breakout candidate like Ertz, Tyler Eifert, Eric Ebron, or Austin Seferian-Jenkins, before locking in a veteran short-term solution (Heath Miller, Larry Donnell) later in the draft. Ertz is falling in drafts after undergoing groin surgery, but a lack of touchdowns was all that kept him from TE1 production last season. He’s extremely talented and operates in a strong, high-volume offense.
Dion Lewis – Round 12 Target
This was originally a nice place to target Jonas Gray, but his release confirms that Lewis will play a significant offensive role. An underrated talent and in position to take over Shane Vereen’s passing-down gig in a high-volume, high-scoring offense, Lewis’ only roadblock to a gigantic fantasy season will be his durability issues.
Teddy Bridgewater – Round 13 Target
My general strategy is to pick one quarterback and use my bench space on high-upside running backs and wide receivers. Although I don’t prefer him as my starter, Bridgewater’s breakout potential makes him worth consideration in the later rounds. Exceptionally efficient as a rookie (especially late in the year), Bridgewater trailed only Drew Brees and Matt Ryan in accuracy on throws 15-plus yards down field. Only Brees and Alex Smith were better 5-plus yards down field. With Adrian Peterson and Kyle Rudolph back and Mike Wallace in the mix, Bridgewater has the tools. Now it’s about overcoming the cold temperatures and turning positive drives into touchdowns. It’s possible he’s one year away from a full-on breakout, but I’m not doubting a guy who has and continues to play at a very high level.
Larry Donnell – Round 14 Target
I mentioned earlier the strategy of punting tight end, instead grabbing a high-ceiling flier in the mid-to-late rounds before grabbing a safe, short-term play as the draft is winding down. Criminally underrated Donnell is one of the late-round targets who should be on your radar. Fantasy’ No. 11 tight end last year, only Antonio Gates racked up more end zone targets. The Giants are going to score plenty of points and OC Ben McAdoo has made it a point to keep his tight end involved. Donnell costs almost nothing and can provide TE1 production.
Richard Rodgers – Round 14 Target
On the other hand, maybe you did land a decent tight end early, but you want to take a flier on a potential breakout tight end in the later rounds. Rodgers is a nice place to start. After playing a part-time role as a rookie, Rodgers has moved past Andrew Quarless and into a near-every-down role in Green Bay. Rodgers isn’t particularly big or fast, but especially with Jordy Nelson out for the year, Rodgers is sure to be plenty busy in one of the league’s best offenses. Opportunity is king and Rodgers has exactly that.
Khiry Robinson – Round 14 Target
This one makes even more sense if you selected Ingram earlier, but I’m targeting Robinson regardless of who makes up my running back stable. When predecessor Chris Ivory was rarely used, but terrific when called upon during his New Orleans days, there was somewhat of a “#FreeIvory” movement. Robinson doesn’t get that respect, but he’s just as good, if not better, than Ivory. Robinson’s day will come and considering Ingram’s durability resume, he’s an outstanding late-round flier.
Jeremy Langford – Round 16 Target
Matt Forte turns 30 in December and has paced the running back position in snaps each of the past two seasons. In today’s NFL, that should throw up all kinds of red flags. Enter 2015 fourth-round pick Langford, who sits third on the team’s depth chart, but would be the clear hot waiver add in the event of a Forte injury. Jacquizz Rodgers is a complementary back and Langford has already moved past 2013 fourth-round pick Ka’Deem Carey.
Notice that I didn’t mention a kicker or defense/special teams target. Unless forced to by league rules, never take either in your draft. Instead, grab high ceiling players who have a shot to rise significantly in value. That will never be the case with a kicker or a defense. But a handcuff like Robinson, Langford, Cameron Artis-Payne, Christine Michael, James Starks, Lorenzo Taliaferro, etc. would skyrocket in value in the event of an injury above them on the depth chart. Once Week 1 rolls around, simply drop your two least valuable players and grab the kicker and defense with the best matchup.
Did I miss someone you felt was a major value in 2015 drafts? Be sure to let me know on Twitter: @MikeClayNFL