Football is simple at its very core but a very complex game to evaluate
and analyze well because 11 men are being asked to work in harmony
roughly 60 times per game, while 11 other men are being asked to
create chaos. Pro football is not pro basketball in that a team
can clear out one side of the court when things break down and the
offense can still score. Pro football is not pro baseball in that
one player can defeat a pitcher and eight fielders by timing his
swing just right. Even as great as Barry Sanders was, he never beat
a defense all by himself. In football, a player always needs help
from at least one teammate to accomplish his goal. That is part
of what makes football so great and part of what it makes it so
highly unpredictable. The violence of the game - even by the tamer
standards in this day and age - adds another element to the equation
that is difficult to account for quantifiably.
Regardless, it doesn't mean we shouldn't try. Over the last 1
1/2 weeks, I have evaluated the weekly matchups for 500 players
and assigned between five and seven grades for each player based
on the areas I believe are critical for fantasy success at their
respective positions. Analyzing matchups alone requires me to
make 7,500 "decisions". Grading each of those players
in at least five categories pushes the decision-making number
well over 10,000.
The preceding paragraph is not meant to be a brag of any kind.
Each year, my goal is to give those who put their faith in my
evaluations the confidence they have the best draft-day tool at
their disposal. I like to think that even if readers believe my
logic is flawed for whatever reason, they can count on the fact
that much thought has been put into that opinion.
Fantasy football is a stock market game, and our job as analysts
is identifying when stocks may be poised for an increase or ready
to tank. While last year's results help owners/analyst set the
table for the following season, they are merely a starting point.
Fantasy rankings and drafting need to be predictive, not reactive.
This is the approach I have taken for more than 10 years. While
some of the processes have changed in that time, the main goal
has not. I'm pretty certain I owe a great deal of my success to
it. Based on the feedback I receive from readers throughout the
year, it would seem many of them have enjoyed similar success.
At any rate …
I am still fine-tuning my updated Success Score Index
(SSI), which involves meticulously grading and assigning
certain weights to several attributes that I feel are critical
to fantasy success at that position. Having enjoyed the success
I did with it last year and not needing to reinvent the wheel
this year, I feel comfortable enough using it to rank the players
on the first set of Big Boards (unlike last year). It is the number
that allows me to compare apples to oranges across the positions.
For all of those unfamiliar with my Big Boards, allow me to explain
the color-coding system before we start:
Red – For lower-level players, a
red matchup is the most difficult one a player can face. For a
second- or third-tier player, drop your expectations for them
at least one grade that week (i.e. from WR2 to
WR3). For elite players, expect them to perform one level lower
than their usual status (i.e. RB1 performs like an RB2).
Yellow – For lower-level players,
he is a borderline start at best. For a second- or third-tier
player, the slight edge goes to the defense in what is essentially
a toss-up. For the elite players, expect slightly better than
White – This one can go either
way, but I favor the player over the matchup. In some cases, I
just don’t feel like I have a good feel yet for this matchup.
Generally speaking, these matchups are winnable for all levels
Green – For non-elite players,
the stage is set for a player to have a productive day. For the
elite player, this matchup could produce special numbers.
Note:Later this week,
I will set up the first non-PPR Big Board. Next week, I will release
my first Big Boards for 0.5 PPR leagues as well as The Fantasy
Championship (TFC) and FFPC Big Boards. In the final set of Big
Boards over the following two weeks, I will rank 200 players and
present my final rankings for kickers and defense/special teams.
Here is the scoring
system that I used to rank the players in the PPR format:
Every year I talk about how my rankings are unlikely to look
like any of the hundreds or thousands that exist online. My first
17 probably doesn't contain any surprises, but the order of them
will almost certainly draw criticism. Why do I say that? Because
I know there are going to be at least three players who look out
of place, especially for those readers who are just now getting
back into fantasy football mode. Let's discuss those players first:
There's a whole lot to love about Leonard Fournette this season.
I take many other factors into account than just upcoming opponents,
but he is tied with a handful of other running backs for second
in green-coded matchups with seven. After averaging more than
20 carries (and 23.4 touches) despite playing more than half of
the season with a bum ankle, the Jaguars released his only competition
for "big-back" carries (Chris Ivory) in the offseason.
Jacksonville then replaced the weak link on its offensive line
(OG Patrick Omameh) with All-Pro Andrew Norwell. Multiple reports
have suggested Fournette is down to 223 pounds after playing at
235 as a rookie - a promising development for a player who finished
14th in the AFC with 18 runs of 10 or more yards. Last but certainly
not least, the Jaguars' defense may be even more formidable than
it was in 2017, which should mean even more positive game scripts
for a team ran the ball 527 times a year ago.
Let me be clear about Le'Veon
Bell: if I have the good fortune of picking inside
the top four in a handful of drafts over the next month or so,
I will take him at least once because I want to have at least
one share of all the top backs if at possible. But I have laid
out the case against him multiple times over the last two months
and I don't imagine my opinion is going to change. His supporters
will claim Bell keeps himself in phenomenal shape and logged 400-plus
touches in 15 games last year despite missing the entire preseason,
so he can do it again this year. Some may even mention he should
be entering the prime of his career at age 26 and doesn't have
the wear-and-tear of other feature backs his age since he has
missed 18 regular-season games over the first five years of his
career due to suspension or injury.
Now the case against Bell: I have cited the
following multiple times in this space and in other publications,
but I'll expand a bit on it here. Since 2000, there have been
16 instances (Bell will make it 17) in which a back saw 400-plus
touches one year and played the next. Fifteen of the 16 failed
to match or exceed what they did the previous year and the average
drop-off was 110 touches, 796 total yards and 7.4 touchdowns!
For those that care about such things, those backs averaged 0.7
yards per carry less than the previous year. Think about that
for a second. If Bell experiences a similar decline, he will finish
with 296 touches, 1,152 total yards and four TDs. (That is comparable
to what C.J.
Anderson did last year as the overall RB18.) Let's say he
beats the odds and regresses only half as much as the average:
351 touches, 1,548 total yards and seven scores - almost the equivalent
of what LeSean
McCoy did on his way to an RB7 finish in 2017. Worthy of a
first-round pick in fantasy? Sure. No. 1 overall? No.
Of course, there's more. While he did average 4.5 yards per attempt
in December, he was at 3.9 YPC on 251 carries through the end
of November, leading to his most inefficient season (4.0 YPC)
since he was a rookie in 2013 (3.5). His longest run on 321 attempts
was 27 yards. The only play-caller he's ever known in Pittsburgh
(Todd Haley) now in Cleveland, leaving first-time NFL offensive
coordinator Randy Fichtner to call the shots. Bell is skipping
training camp and the preseason for the second straight season.
His team has declined to give him a long-term extension two times
in as many years. Owners can choose to see the positive in some
of the negatives I have pointed out, but I also have him down
for eight yellow matchups as well - many of which would be red
if not for his unique talents and heavy volume. I think I have
briefly touched on enough reasons for concern to give owners some
pause and make the case for Bell being the riskiest pick in the
first round this summer.
Alvin Kamara is a special case in that he averaged 6.1 yards
per carry on 120 carries - only the fourth back since 1997 to
do so on 100-plus attempts - and scored a touchdown once every
15.5 touches. Among running backs with at least 200 offensive
touches in a season, Kamara joined Curtis Dickey (1980) and John
Riggins (1981) as the only ones since the merger to maintain that
rate (all three scored 13 times on 201 combined rushes and receptions).
Dickey scored only 27 more times over the remainder of his seven-year
career, while Riggins scored only three times on 187 touches the
Natural regression isn't the only concern. Kamara was New Orleans'
third-leading slot receiver in 2017, finishing with 255 yards
- right behind second-place Ted Ginn Jr. (262). While he is certain
to see some time at the same spot in 2018, Cameron Meredith is
expected to occupy the "big slot" role for the Saints.
Ben Watson was also signed in free agency to give Drew Brees yet
another option in the short passing game. Both players are upgrades
on the men New Orleans had to fill those roles last year - Brandon Coleman and Coby Fleener, respectively. While it would be foolish
to suggest Kamara is going to see a huge drop-off in the passing
game just because the Saints upgraded both spots, it would be
equally foolish to believe it won't make some difference.
More running back talk
Take a second to look at the matchups for the projected early-down
running backs of the NFC East. None of them have more than three
green matchups or fewer than six yellows. I put a fair amount
of weight into player talent (and obviously his offensive line's
ability to create holes) when going through the matchup analysis
process, which explains why Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley and
Derrius Guice have a combined one red. While I don't keep track
of how many "borderline yellows" I assign. Suffice it
to say I was shaking my head multiple times as I was grading the
matchups for the division's running backs. Fortunately for the
aforementioned three backs, two of them run behind some of the
league's best lines. As for Barkley, I expect he'll be used much
like the Steelers use Bell.
I expect the cluster of Devonta Freeman, Alex Collins and Jordan Howard to raise an eyebrow or two as well. Before the critics
get too noisy, consider each player's "warts." The most
surprising ranking of the three - for everyone, including myself
- has to be Freeman, who typically goes in the mid-second round
of most drafts. Freeman has been a staple on several of my teams
over the last two seasons, so I've generally felt he was worthy
of the first- and second-round picks I've used on him over that
time. However, unless owners want to predict another multi-game
absence from Coleman that caused a bit of a perfect storm for
Freeman in 2015 or a return to the ridiculous efficiency the entire
Atlanta offense experienced during the 2016 campaign, we may have
seen what we can expect going forward from Freeman in 2017. The
former fourth-round pick got beat up last season (knee, concussion),
so it's fair to wonder if the clock is ticking on his 206-pound
body already. His involvement in the passing game has also dropped
off dramatically in each of the last two years. Another such decline
is unlikely to happen in 2018, but the upside that seemingly existed
with him as a receiver seems to be going away as Tevin Coleman
appears to be getting a similar amount of work in that area.
Of the aforementioned trio, Collins probably has the best chance
of busting through and being a first-round pick next season. It's
far from a given, however, as his physical running style makes
him as susceptible to injury as any back in the league. Ball security
has long been an issue for him too, as he fumbled 17 times (nine
lost) on 692 career offensive touches in college and has six fumbles
(three lost) on 279 career offensive touches as a pro. Competition
also exists in the form of Kenneth Dixon - a player the Ravens
have stuck with despite getting very little out of him two years
into his NFL career due mostly to multiple injuries and a suspension.
With that said, owners need to remember Collins was trusted to
be a workhorse over the second half of last season and averaged
4.6 yards per carry for the season on a team missing its best
offensive lineman (OG Marshal Yanda) and boasting little more
than Mike Wallace as a threat in the passing game. If we merely
extrapolate his production over the final nine games of last season
- he became the featured back in Week 8 - Collins' 16-game pace
stats were 282 carries, 1,103 rushing yards, 12 touchdowns, 44
receptions and 344 receiving yards - good for 260.7 PPR fantasy
points and an RB8 finish. This year, Baltimore is at least respectable
at receiver and has Yanda back.
Anyone who believes they have a good read on Howard this season
is most likely kidding themselves. Whether he becomes a better
pass-catcher or not, the odds of him being a two-down back are
very high. Backs like Michael Turner from a few years ago can
sometimes make the most of that role and be a low-end RB1 in all
leagues because they are in a good offense that is usually playing
with the lead and/or frequently in the red zone. While Chicago's
offense should be vastly improved, it's debatable if the Bears
will have a "good" offense in 2018. If we knew Howard
was going to see roughly a third of the snaps on passing downs
and finish with 35-plus catches, he'd be a fine selection in the
late second round. The fact of the matter is that we don't, so
owners have to hope his rushing workload doesn't take too big
of a hit (252 carries in 2016, 276 in 2017) now that he is no
longer the only offensive weapon in Chicago. Hoping for 1,300
yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground from any back in today's
NFL is a tall order, yet that is about what owners are going to
need from Howard unless his receiving skills have improved drastically
in the offseason.
Dude, you realize there are other fantasy
The degree to which the public is undervaluing Denver's receiver
tandem of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders is somewhat understandable
but strikes me as a bit shortsighted. While I would agree with
anyone who suggests Thomas' skill-set is not what it used to be,
we are talking about a player who hasn't finished fewer than 140
targets in six straight seasons. With the kind of quarterbacking
he had not seen since the days of Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton in
2011, Thomas still managed to end up as the 16th-highest scoring
receiver in PPR leagues last season. All indications from Broncos'
training camp have Case Keenum lighting it up, so if we can assume
Keenum will be more serviceable than the 2016 or 2017 versions
of Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch, then we should be able to
feel good about a target hog like Thomas who hasn't missed a game
since before Peyton Manning signed as a free agent.
Sanders' fall into the seventh round in drafts can easily be
explained by his WR60 finish last season. Casual observers will
point to his age (31) and likely say he lost a step or is about
to do so. While it wouldn't be wrong to say he appeared to lose
a step last year, I think it had a lot more to do with a receiver
trying to play through a high-ankle sprain and running routes
for a pair of quarterbacks who didn't belong on the field. With
average quarterbacking in 2015 and 2016, he was the WR19. The
year before that, he was the WR5. This season, Sanders should
spend as much time as he ever has in the slot while Thomas and
rookie Courtland Sutton soak up coverage on the perimeter, allowing
Sanders to take advantage of more advantageous matchups. Even
if we ignore the narrative that Keenum helped turn the last slot
receiver he played with (Adam Thielen) into a star in 2017, Denver
figures to have at least 500-plus targets to distribute just like
every other NFL team and not a lot of players besides Thomas and
Sanders worthy of seeing more than 50.
Two more players whose ranking will likely send the masses into
a frenzy are Tyreek Hill and Marvin Jones. All seven of Hill's
receiving touchdowns last season covered more than 30 yards, while
10 of his 13 career receiving scores have been from similar distances.
So it's safe to say Hill has established he is a big-play threat.
In theory, that should mean he is poised for even more production
with big-armed Patrick Mahomes under center. The problem is Kansas
City just paid Sammy Watkins like a No. 1 receiver and has arguably
the best tight end in the league. HC Andy Reid is asking Watkins
to play all of the different receiver spots (X, Y and Z) as well.
To this point in his career, Hill hasn't had a real threat opposite
him to steal targets. He does now. If his career catch rate -
an impressive 72.3 percent - takes even a slight hit with a quarterback
in Mahomes who figures to be less accurate than Alex Smith and
loses targets to Watkins on top of that, he has virtually no shot
of repeating as a top-10 or perhaps even as a top-15 wideout.
Jones' 2017 campaign wasn't so much an outlier in terms of his
ability to produce big plays - he has a career average of 15 yards
per catch - but his career-best 18 yards per reception combined
with an inordinate number of big-play scores - five of his nine
TDs came from at least 22 yards away (he had scored four such
touchdowns over the first five years of his career combined) -
conspired to make Jones a WR1 in fantasy last year. Consider three
of his four biggest fantasy efforts last season - and all of his
double-digit target games - came with Kenny Golladay out of the
Mark Ingram has a lot of the makings of being a value pick. (Believe
me, I enjoyed the value he provided me last year on my title-winning
high-stakes team.) He's a very good all-around back. He plays
in a great offense. He has touchdown upside. The problem with
him this year is his four-game suspension hasn't lowered his value
from last year. In fact, his current 4.12 ADP per Fantasy Football
Calculator is almost a full round higher than his ADP was last
summer. At that time, he was thought to be the co-lead back with
Adrian Peterson. This year, he is expected to be the 1B to Kamara's
1A. Last season, the Saints experienced historical efficiency
in the running game. Can we really count on that happening two
years in a row?
Not convinced? Fine. I have more. Take a look at Ingram's bye
week. That's right, for the cost of a fourth- or fifth-round pick,
owners will have the privilege of playing him once in the first
six weeks of the season. (The one game he will be eligible for
should be against a vastly improved Washington run defense.) When
New Orleans returns from its Week 6 bye, four of the first five
teams the Saints play figure to be top-10 rush defenses (Ravens,
Vikings, Rams and Eagles). While there is no question New Orleans
has one of the best offensive lines in the league, the Saints
cannot afford to experience any kind of drop-off up front or they
will struggle a bit in 2018. Considering the volume that has often
been Ingram's friend in recent years won't be working in his favor
this season, I will be passing on him until right about the point
where I have valued at - late in the sixth round of 12-team leagues.
Another criticism I expect to receive has to do with Russell Wilson. After all, even if everybody is saying to wait on a quarterback
this year, there's no way I can make a case that last year's QB1
is only the seventh-best option at his position in 2018, right?
Sure I can. At some point, Wilson's athleticism and improvisational
skills are going to begin to decline, although I'm not sure that
will be the case quite yet as he enters his age-30 season. The
offensive line should be somewhat improved over last year, but
the emphasis all offseason has been on running the ball more often,
so we should probably not expect a repeat of the 553 pass attempts
from a season ago.
The most worrisome point to be made against Wilson has to do
with his supporting cast. Doug Baldwin is unlikely to play the
preseason due to a knee injury. While he is expected back for
Week 1, will he hit the ground running? Tyler Lockett has only
officially missed only three of 48 games in his three-year career,
but it seems like he's played hurt in at least half of them. C.J. Prosise has a ton of upside as a mismatch weapon out of the backfield,
but he has yet to play more than six games or touch the ball more
than 41 times in a season. Jimmy Graham is gone. Does Brandon Marshall have anything left? Even if owners play up the "he'll
be passing all day long this season because his team will be trailing"
card, negative game script can often be as much of a curse for
fantasy quarterbacks as a blessing. More attempts mean more opportunities,
but more attempts in known passing situations with more men in
coverage also tends to lead to more forced throws and interceptions.
Staying in the Pacific Northwest, I haven't been able to understand
the utter fascination with Rashaad Penny in the fantasy community.
Draft capital is important, so I don't want to pretend as if I
don't understand the notion that NFL first-round picks will get
chance after chance to prove they deserve to start. I understand
Chris Carson isn't a sexy name and didn't come into the league
with the same fanfare. I also understand Penny will almost certainly,
at some point, overtake Carson. Still, while Penny's current ADP
of 5.05 is about a round lower than I remember it being the last
time I looked, he is still being drafted as if he is the clear
No.1 running back in Seattle. Do owners not remember how bad
the run-blocking was last year? Even if the Seahawks make significant
strides under respected new OL coach Mike Solari, they may end
up being a run-blocking average unit.
Let's not forget what I said the previous paragraph about the
expectation that Seattle will be facing negative game scripts
more often this year than at any other time in recent memory.
More negative game script means more pass attempts. Just about
anyone with access to the team says Carson has earned the trust
of the coaching staff in pass protection. Penny was reportedly
picking things up well in that regard during the offseason, but
his execution in those situations at San Diego State was horrendous
more often than not. And while Penny is a better receiver than
some draft analysts gave him credit for, he's not going to play
ahead of Prosise in known passing situations. So what we have
here is a player in Penny who is not guaranteed a starting job
and may not aspire to be more than a committee back as a rookie
with very little hope of boosting his value in the passing game
running behind a line that has a lot of work to do to be an average
unit and playing for a team that figures to be trailing in games
much more often than leading them. Got it.
Tight ends are people, too
There are two particularly fascinating names at tight end this
season: Trey Burton and Mike Gesicki. In case readers think I
might be new to the Burton bandwagon, here
is an article from 2016 singing his praises. As many have
heard by now, Burton is expected to assume the Travis Kelce role
in HC Matt Nagy's offense (and being paid like it). I fully expected
to fall inside my top-five tight ends prior to going through my
grading process, but his matchup schedule simply does not let
up. My confidence in his abilities led to a number of his 10 "yellows"
not being red, so unless Nagy features him near the goal line
in the same way the Patriots do with Rob Gronkowski, he is going
to have his work cut out for him.
Most of my loyal readers already know where I stand with Gesicki.
(Here's a small
sample.) Unless the Dolphins' front office completely tuned
out everyone - including their own scouts - during the draft process,
they knew they were selecting an insanely talented tight end who
needed a lot of help as a blocker because he wasn't asked to do
it much at Penn State. Even in the event he is merely a part-time
player in 2018 - an unlikely scenario - he will be featured in
the red zone because, well, it's kind of hard for linebackers
or safeties to cover a 6-6, 250-pound tight end with 34 1/8-inch
arms who can run 4.54 and possesses a 41 1/2-inch vertical jump
for more than a couple of seconds. In addition, Gesicki can hit
a vertical plane most defenders simply can't reach. I'm not sure
Gesicki will get the kind of opportunity Evan Engram had last
season in New York (thanks in large part to the season-ending
injury to Odell Beckham Jr.), but owners aren't crazy to believe
he could have a similar impact in fantasy.
Favorite late-round receivers
For the sake of simplicity, I'll talk about only those outside
of the top 100. I will be buying Cameron Meredith at his current
ADP (11.01) all month long. My only concern with him besides his
knee holding up is that I still have him ranked too low in the
last part of the ninth round. While Michael Thomas and Kamara
are almost guaranteed to be the most heavily targeted Saints,
Meredith is the best slot option New Orleans has employed since
Marques Colston. So while I don't expect Colston-like production
per se, I do expect Meredith to be a regular fantasy starter this
Kenny Stills is another player I have about one round higher
than current ADP, and he's a player I probably need to bump up
some more. Regardless of whether he can maintain his scoring efficiency,
the 26-year-old speedster has set a pretty nice floor by averaging
over 10 PPR points in three of his last four seasons. Even if
popular opinion is wrong and this is the year DeVante Parker finally
realizes his potential, I'm not sure it changes Stills' floor
all that much. Gesicki may end up stealing some of his touchdowns,
but Stills figures to pick up some of the leftover targets the
combination of Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson don't absorb following
the departure of Jarvis Landry.
It's a shame my algorithms didn't allow Kenny Golladay and Chris Godwin to sit by one another because I view them pretty much as
the same fantasy player. Both players are great picks to exceed
their current ADP. Even though he is only in his second season,
Golladay (12.12 ADP) is no stranger to summer hype. The 2017 third-round
pick begins the year as the clear No. 3 receiver behind Golden Tate and Marvin Jones, but I'm a firm believer he can make a Godwin-like
charge at Jones at some point. The attraction to Golladay is that
his path to targets isn't filled with as many obstacles as Godwin's,
especially after Detroit let Eric Ebron leave in the offseason.
The Lions essentially have three receivers and Theo Riddick to
soak up the majority of what figures to be about 550 targets.
If Tate or Jones are forced to miss multiple games in 2018, I
would expect there would be a minimal drop-off in production.
Regarding Godwin (undrafted in 12-team leagues per Fantasy Football
Calculator?!?!), it was only a matter of time before he became
a thing in fantasy. He obviously gets a slight boost following
the recent news he is either on equal footing with DeSean Jackson
or has moved ahead of him. Godwin made his first start at home
last season when Mike Evans was suspended and posted five catches
for 68 yards. When Jackson missed the final two games of the season
with an ankle injury, Godwin erupted for 10 catches, 209 yards
and a touchdown. His performance in training camp has reportedly
been so good that Tampa Bay is giving more reps to Jackson in
the slot. HC Dirk Koetter commended Godwin for being as good of
a blocker as the team has, which will only help his cause to stay
on the field over Jackson. While it's entirely possible owners
will end up being one year too early on the Penn State product,
he has the kind of upside owners should target in the double-digit
Doug Orth has written for FF
Today since 2006 and been featured in USA Today’s Fantasy
Football Preview magazine since 2010. He hosted USA Today’s
hour-long, pre-kickoff fantasy football internet chat every Sunday
in 2012-13 and appears as a guest analyst on a number of national
sports radio shows, including Sirius XM’s “Fantasy Drive”.
Doug is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.