The 15 Best Fantasy Values According To The NFL Salary Cap
Creating and managing a championship team in fantasy football usually comes down to getting great value on your investments. Whether it is a snake draft or an auction, grabbing Josh Gordon in Round 11 or for $9 in an auction is an example of getting an incredible return on your investment.
The NFL is constructed with a strict salary cap that teams may not go over in any given season. Much like fantasy football, NFL management teams must assemble a team that consists of contracts constructed in a way that returns overall value for each given player they invest in. With only around $126 million in salary cap to spend on 53 players, this job can become quite difficult.
In this piece, I am going to break down the 15 best values in fantasy football of the 2013 season based on their salary cap number in 2013 — how much of their salary for that year counted against their team’s total salary cap. After, I will take a look into what their 2014 salary cap number is and breakdown how and for what teams these players might compete with going forward.
In the next installment, I will pinpoint the worst values from 2013.
*All scoring is based on a standard scoring format with an additional 0.5 points awarded per reception.
*All salary cap information comes from www.overthecap.com.
1. Josh Gordon
2013 Cap Number: $1,139,565
2014 Cap Number: $1,456,813
Josh Gordon can be categorized by the following fantasy football lingo in 2013: the biggest sleeper, the best value pick, the breakout player of the year. Gordon likely made it into the double-digit rounds in snake drafts and cost around the single digits in auctions. Gordon made my list of wide receivers to target in auction drafts, but his production in the 14 games he was active for in 2013 was hard for anyone to see.
Gordon finished second-best in our YPRR statistics, 2.68 behind only Calvin Johnson. YPRR stands for yards per route run and it takes into account the number of snaps a player went into a pattern, providing a better indicator of production than yards per reception or even yards per target. From a fantasy perspective, Gordon finished as the second-best wide receiver in fantasy football and the fifth-best skill position player.
How He Got Here: Gordon was a 2012 second-round supplemental draft pick. He signed a four-year contract and becomes a free agent in 2016.
2014 Outlook: His cap number rises just slightly from 2013, so he should return great value again. More importantly, there is a chance that he puts together an even better 2014. There are aspects of Gordon’s game that stand to improve. Gordon finished 16th-worst of 43 qualifying receivers, who played in at least 50% of their team’s snaps, in drop rate. His drop rate for the season was 9.38. The drop rate statistic goes beyond just tallied drops and signifies the percentage of drops a receiver makes relative to the the number of catchable balls thrown their way. With another year in the league, he should be able to improve that aspect of his game. The Browns have multiple first-round draft picks and will look to upgrade the talent around Gordon including, but not limited to, the quarterback position.
2. Jimmy Graham
2013 Cap Number: $1,489,285
2014 Cap Number: Free Agent
After a disappointing 2012 season temporarily staggered Graham’s value, he was back to his old ways in 2013. Graham finished as the highest-scoring tight end in fantasy football, and he averaged more than four fantasy points per game than the next best at his position. Graham also finished as the eighth-best skill position player overall. A midseason injury that was reported to be turf toe slowed Graham down from finishing even stronger, as originally he was on pace to finish in the top three overall.
Get ready to put on your shock face: Graham finished as our highest-graded tight end (+13.4). He finished even stronger in “pass grade” (+19.8), which doesn’t account for blocking. The next highest tight end had a pass grade of (+12.9) and only two players other than Graham reached double digits. Graham also finished with the best YPRR at tight end (+2.26). Position scarcity plays a big role in fantasy football strategy, and it catapulted Graham to No. 2 in these rankings — he might be No. 1 if it weren’t for a pair of young tight ends who broke out in 2013.
How He Got Here: Graham was a 2010 third-round draft pick. He played out the last year of his rookie contract this season.
2014 Outlook: Although Graham is an unrestricted free agent, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis made it clear that if they cannot figure out a long-term contract then Graham would be hit with the franchise tag. This could create a temporarily ugly mess if Graham wants to be paid like a wide receiver. However, Graham’s value in 2014 should not be hindered, even if he demonstrates a holdout. He is far too talented, has far too productive of a quarterback and plays under one of the best offensive minds in the NFL in Sean Payton.
3. Demaryius Thomas
2013 Cap Number: $2,592,750
2014 Cap Number: $2,750,000
Figuring out what to make of the Denver wide receiver corps turned out to be a lot simpler than originally expected. Instead of there being too many mouths to feed, every receiver on Denver got their own piece of the pie — the Peyton Manning 5,477 yards passing and 55 touchdown-kind of pie. There was enough to go around to a fourth target, which will be mentioned later. While my overall value on Decker and Welker was on target, I will admit that I vastly undervalued Thomas’ outlook this past season. Thomas is a big, strong and fast target and most importantly he ran the right routes in this offense. Thomas was featured on screens, fades, and red zone plays like deep and intermediate posts.
This was all reflected in Thomas’ overall rating, where he finished as our fifth-best wide receiver overall (+21.3). Peyton Manning had the second-highest QB rating of all quarterbacks in the league when he was targeting Thomas. The talent around him likely only helped him, diverting the defense’s attention away. From a fantasy perspective, Thomas finished as the best overall wide receiver in 2013 and fourth-best skill position player.
How He Got Here: Thomas was a 2010 first-round pick. Because Thomas was selected in the first round, under the old collective bargaining agreement (CBA), he was signed to a five-year contract and does not become a free agent until 2015.
2014 Outlook: In a potential contract season, Thomas stands a chance to remain as one of the best receivers in real life and fantasy football at a small percentage of his team’s salary cap. Of course, often some of the best-managed teams choose to extend their young talent before the final year of their contract. Fellow receiver Eric Decker is set to become a free agent. This could put a hinder on Thomas’ value if Decker leaves because he will draw more double-coverage; however, he may also receive more total targets.
4. DeMarco Murray
2013 Cap Number: $810,938
2014 Cap Number: $1,554,625
DeMarco Murray proved, for the first time in his brief career, what he is capable of when healthy. Of course, Murray still managed to miss two games, but that didn’t stop him from compiling career highs in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns all while averaging 5.2 yards per carry. In a sense, Murray was your classic post-hype sleeper in 2013, just a year after being touted as a high-upside pick in the top 12 of some drafts. He fell to the middle rounds of last summer’s drafts and proved to not only be a great value for his football team but also for your fantasy football team.
Murray finished as our eighth-best running back overall (+15.5) and our sixth-best in run grade alone (+10.0). More impressive to me was his elusive rating (+53.2). Elusive rating attempts to distill the impact of a running back with the ball independently of the blocking in front of him. He had the fourth-best elusive rating of any running back and before this year most people pigeon-holed him as a straight-line and up-right runner. From a fantasy perspective, he finished as the sixth-best running back in fantasy and 16th-best skill position player.
How He Got Here: Murray was a 2011 third-round pick. Murray signed a four-year contract and is set to become a free agent in 2015.
2014 Outlook: Considering that Murray might be playing for a new contract and that the Cowboys are 11-0 when he has gotten at least 20 carries in a game, Murray could become the backbone of the Cowboys offense in 2014. Other factors such as the injury concern of Tony Romo will play their part as well. Of course, as always with Murray, his running style and build makes him prone to injury at any time.
5. Eddie Lacy
2013 Cap Number: $616,802
2014 Cap Number: $771,003
After both fumbling and going down to a concussion in his first NFL appearance, Lacy surged through the 2013 season for his fantasy owners. A broken collarbone that kept Aaron Rodgers sidelined led to some of Lacy’s best fantasy performances when the Packers leaned on him.
Quite possibly the most impressive feat in Lacy’s rookie season, however, was his pass blocking. Lacy graded out as our third-best running back in all of football in our pass-blocking efficiency rating (+98.0). PBE measures overall pressure allowed on a per-snap basis, including sacks, hits and hurries. From a fantasy perspective, he finished as the seventh-best running back and 19th-best skill position player.
How He Got Here: Concerns about his injury history and passion for football caused Lacy to plummet in the draft. Once assumed to be the consensus best at his position, Lacy fell to the end of Round 2 of the 2013 NFL Draft. Lacy signed a four-year contract and is set to become a free agent in 2017.
2014 Outlook: Lacy will again represent one of the best bargains at his position. He will play out year two in his contract at just $771,003 against the cap. In 2014, however, he will no longer be a mid-round value pick and is likely to be drafted in the first round in fantasy football.
6. Alshon Jeffery
2013 Cap Number: $1,033,598
2014 Cap Number: $1,240,317
Alshon Jeffery turned out to be one of the best value picks in fantasy football last season. Hyped as a late-round flier, Jeffery made every owner who drafted him a few rounds higher than his ADP feel like a fantasy god. All of his potential upside came to fruition: Jeffrey’s size, jumping ability and ball location, his hands and of course his fit in Marc Trestman’s efficient and attacking offense.
Jeffery graded out as our eighth-best receiver overall (+18.7). He finished with the third-highest catch rate (45.2%) on deep passes. This stat measures the percentage of receptions compared to targets on balls thrown 20 yards downfield or more. As an added bonus, he finished with the sixth-best drop rate, which factors in the percentage of drops on catchable balls thrown. He dropped just five total passes on 94 catchable targets. From a fantasy perspective, he finished as the eighth-best wide receiver and 14th-best skill position player.
How He Got Here: Concerns about Jeffery’s weight and production in his final season at South Carolina proved to be unfounded and a direct correlation to an injury he attempted to play through. He was drafted in the second round of the 2012 draft and is set to become a free agent in 2016.
2014 Outlook: There is every reason to believe that Jeffery will build on his 2013 campaign. He will have the opportunity to improve his chemistry with Jay Cutler and his knowledge of the offense, plus he should be playing behind a more cohesive offensive line.
7. Eric Decker
2013 Cap Number: $1,506,039
2014 Cap Number: Free Agent
Eric Decker’s 2013 fantasy season was a roller-coaster ride that had its ups and downs. In his case, the great games were much greater than the duds. More importantly, he may have single-handedly gotten you to the playoffs with his Week 13 performance that featured eight catches for 174 yards and four touchdowns, which prompted a friend to change his team name to “quadruple decker.” If you made it to your fantasy championship game, Decker came through again with 30.1 fantasy points. Like Gordon, Decker made my list of wide receivers to target in auction drafts, and likely provided value in any draft format.
The stat that jumps off the page with Decker was his efficiency catching deep passes. He lapped the field in catch rate (60%), coming up with 15 receptions on 25 catchable passes of 20 yards or more.
How He Got Here: Decker entered the 2010 NFL Draft coming off a senior season cut short due to a left foot injury, which rendered him unable to participate in his pro day or the NFL combine. The Broncos drafted him in the third round.
2014 Outlook: Decker is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. With Wes Welker set to count a whopping $8 million against the cap and Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas already on the roster, the Broncos may let Decker walk. Some destinations, such as New England, stand out as great opportunities for him to build on his success. However, one thing we do know for sure, after Mike Wallace’s contract from last offseason it would be foolish to expect Decker to make this top values list in 2014.
8. Knowshon Moreno
2013 Cap Number: $3,287,000
2014 Cap Number: Free Agent
Moreno would likely rank first if this list was based strictly on preseason value versus actual value in 2013. However, Moreno earns more than anyone listed above and therefore eighth seemed like a good spot for him. Everyone, including myself, who had written off Moreno’s career, learned a valuable lesson this season. The running back that can best protect Peyton Manning has the best chance to play. Moreno got the first opportunity and he ran with it — often right into six- and sometimes five-man boxes, with safeties and cornerbacks so committed to defending the pass.
Although Moreno was not the most elusive runner and didn’t have many breakaway runs, his contribution in the pass game was impressive. He finished as the 10th-best running back in pass-blocking efficiency, yard per route run and in our overall “pass” grade. From a fantasy perspective, Moreno finished as the fourth-best running back and the sixth-best skill position player.
How He Got Here: After an incredibly successful college career at Georgia, Moreno was drafted 12th overall in the 2009 NFL Draft. He signed a five-year contract. Until this season, he was labeled one of the biggest draft busts in recent Broncos history — crap, wait, sorry I almost forgot that they drafted Tim Tebow in the first round two years later.
2014 Outlook: Moreno is a free agent, but based on his injury history and lack of production pre-Peyton Manning he is likely to sign a contract that will result in a smaller cap number in 2014. Of course, Moreno is even more likely to struggle to produce the same fantasy numbers if he does not re-sign with the Broncos.
9. Jamaal Charles
2013 Cap Number: $4,333,333
2014 Cap Number: $5,233,333
Charles comes in not only as the largest cap number to make this list but also as the only player in the top nine to have played out his rookie contract. That fact alone should confirm just how important it is to connect on your draft picks. Having said all that, it would be foolish not to include Charles on this list.
Charles finished as our second-best running back overall (+22.4), behind only LeSean McCoy. He finished with the fifth-best yards per route run and he was the only running back in the top eight of that statistic who operated as the feature back on his team. Charles was not only the best running back in 2013 but he also the best overall skill position player, edging out the next highest by almost 40 fantasy points. His 2013 cap hit might not be the best bargain, but his contract overall, which I will touch on below, might be one of the biggest steals in the entire NFL at any position.
How He Got Here: Charles was drafted by the Chiefs in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft. He signed a six-year, $27.97 million contract in 2010 and is not set to become a free agent until 2016.
2014 Outlook: Charles’ talent, role in the offense and understated durability give him a great chance to be a great value for his NFL team even if this offseason it is a lock that he will be one of the first players drafted.
10. Antonio Brown
2013 Cap Number: $3,120,000
2014 Cap Number: $8,470,000
Brown broke out in 2013 and I am glad to say that he also made my list of wide receivers to target in auction drafts. Brown’s talent finally stood out when he was able to get out of the shadows of former No. 1 receiver, Mike Wallace. Brown’s extra offseason to learn the Steelers offense sure didn’t hurt either.
When evaluating Brown, I found the most surprising statistic to be his overall grade; he graded out as the third-best receiver (+23.2) in the entire NFL. In all four of our signature stats, including WR ratings, drop rate, deep passing and YPRR, he finished at minimum in the top 15. From a fantasy perspective, he finished as the fourth-best wide receiver and the ninth-best skill position player.
How He Got Here: Brown fell all the way to the sixth round of the 2010 NFL Draft based on his disappointing NFL combine measurables: 5’10, 186 lbs and a 4.56 40-yd dash. Oops. Last season, the Steelers opted to extend him before his rookie contract was through.
2014 Outlook: Brown is the first example of the NFL’s sometimes-unique contract structure. In order to get under the salary cap in 2013, the Steelers pushed a portion of Brown’s cap hit into 2014 and later. Set to count $8,470,000 against the cap in 2014, Brown is unlikely to make this list again next season.
11. Dez Bryant
2013 Cap Number: $2,926,000
2014 Cap Number: $3,148,500
Bryant was projected by many to finish as the second-best wide receiver and he most likely didn’t make it past the first five receivers drafted in any league. Bryant didn’t quite meet expectations, finishing as the seventh-best wide receiver and 13th-best skill position player. He was still productive, however, and returned great value on his 2013 cap number.
Bryant finished with the 14th-best YPRR (+2.05), but 21 receivers finished with a higher overall grade than Bryant. His fantasy season was much better than what he contributed to the Cowboys.
How He Got Here: Off-field concerns about Bryant’s character that included a season-long suspension from the NCAA propelled Bryant to slip to the end of the first round in the 2010 NFL Draft, where the Cowboys drafted him. Bryant, like Thomas above, signed a five-year contract, which has since been made illegal by the new CBA. Bryant is set to become a free agent in 2015.
2014 Outlook: Bryant will only say a modest bump in his cap number for 2014. As long as Tony Romo stays healthy, Bryant is likely to perform as good if not better than he did in 2013.
12. Reggie Bush
2013 Cap Number: $2,000,000
2014 Cap Number: $4,500,000
Reggie Bush and the Lions offense proved to be the perfect match that many fantasy owners had hoped for and predicted. Of course, Bush’s return to a home stadium that uses a turf surface caused him to miss two full games and play limited snaps in a few additional games.
Bush finished as the ninth-best running back in breakaway percentage (31.0%), which factors in which rushers earn the highest percentage of their yardage on plays of 15+ yards. He also finished with the ninth-best YPRR of all backs (+1.67). Even with the games lost to injury, in fantasy football Bush finished as the 10th-best running back and 24th-best overall skill position player. Because he is a running back, the most scarce position in fantasy football, he ranks ahead of some cheaper options seen below.
How He Got Here: This past offseason, after a stint with the Dolphins and before that the Saints, Bush signed a four-year $16 million contract. He is not set to become a free agent until 2017.
2014 Outlook: Bush is likely to repeat on his strong 2013 campaign, but the addition of Jim Caldwell to install his offense at the very least adds some questions. During Caldwell’s greatest stretch of success, calling plays during the Ravens 2012 postseason run, he featured Ray Rice heavily. If he makes Bush the focal point of the Lions’ offense in 2014, Bush could return similar value even with his cap number set to jump to $4,500,000.
13. Nick Foles
2013 Cap Number: $655,880
2014 Cap Number: $770,880
Foles gives Moreno a run for his money as the most surprising fantasy star in 2013. Foles was even better in real life. He finished with the highest PFF QB Rating in the entire NFL. He also finished in the top seven of all quarterbacks in PFF’s accuracy %, deep passing, and throws under pressure. Foles started just 10 games and played in just 12 in 2013. One of those games was in a snowstorm and he attempted just 22 passes in that game. None of this stopped Foles from finishing as the 11th-best fantasy quarterback overall and the third-best in average fantasy points per game.
How He Got Here: Foles was an unheralded quarterback prospect out of the Pac-12. The Eagles drafted Foles in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft. He signed a four-year contract and will become a free agent in 2016.
2014 Outlook: Foles is set to make just $770,880 against the salary cap in 2014, and there is a clause in the new CBA that prevents the Eagles from extending his contract until the end of the 2014 season. As long as the Eagles re-sign one of Jeremy Maclin or Riley Cooper, Foles is a lock to move even higher on this list in 2014.
14. Zac Stacy
2013 Cap Number: $449,125
2014 Cap Number: $539,125
Zac Stacy was quite likely a piece to many championship teams in 2013. Stacy proved to be the best free agent pickup of the season. Stacy’s fantasy stock went on a wild roller-coaster ride before that happened. Stacy was not drafted until the fourth round. Draft experts were quick to jump on his bandwagon and his fantasy stock rose before the preseason got underway and people believed he would become the Rams’ starting running back. After the preseason, it seemed like Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead had carved out the only roles in the Rams’ backfield and Stacy went undrafted in most late-August drafts.
Stacy finished with the eighth-best pass blocking efficiency. Surprisingly, Stacy finished with the 17th-best breakaway percentage as he strung together 10 runs of 15+ yards. From a fantasy perspective, Stacy finished as the 20th-best running back overall and the 13th-best running back in average fantasy points per game.
How He Got Here: Stacy’s speed limitations allowed him to fall all the way into the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft where the Rams selected him. Stacy is not set to become a free agent until 2017.
2014 Outlook: Stacy is set to count just $539,125 against the cap in 2014. His 2013 campaign has to leave owners confident that he has carved out a feature role in this offense going forward.
15. Julian Edelman
2013 Cap Number: $765,000
2014 Cap Number: Free Agent
With injuries and other outside factors limiting the playing time of the Patriots’ two best pass catchers, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, other players were expected to step up. Originally, free agent signing Danny Amendola was expected to take over that role. Of course, Amendola suffered a similar fate to his past history and went down with a nagging injury in Week 1. Edelman stepped up admirably for the entire season and became Brady’s most-trusted go-to receiver. In the process, he also became one of the best free agent pickups of the season and a true value for your fantasy squad.
Edelman finished with the fourth-best catch rate (74%) of all receivers when they ran routes out of the slot. From a fantasy perspective, he finished as the 16th-best wide receiver.
How He Got Here: Edelman was originally selected by the Patriots in the seventh round in the 2007 NFL Draft. He re-signed last April with the Patriots on a one-year contract.
2014 Outlook: Edelman’s 2014 value will depend largely on where he signs and for how big his 2014 cap number will be. He proved in 2013 that he can serve as a possession receiver with sure hands, wiggle and deceptive speed. It would not surprise me to see him listed here again next season.
Julius Thomas (651,000), Russell Wilson ($681, 085), Jordan Cameron ($674,350), Keenan Allen ($558,450), Fred Jackson ($3,700,000), Danny Woodhead ($1,250,000), Alfred Morris ($510,775), Torrey Smith ($924,336), Joique Bell ($630,000), Vincent Jackson ($3,272,000),
As always, all comments, complaints and questions are encouraged. Feel free to post them in the comments section or find me on Twitter @PFF_DanSc