Football is simple at its very core but a very complex game to evaluate
and analyze because 11 men are asked to work in harmony approximately
60 times per game, while 11 other men are being asked to disrupt
that harmony. 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, every player needs some help
to accomplish his goal. That is part of what makes football so great
and part of what makes it so highly unpredictable. The violence
of the game - even by the tamer standards now - adds another element
to the equation that is difficult to quantify.
Regardless, it doesn't mean we should not try. Over the last
month, I have evaluated the weekly matchups for 500-plus players.
Analyzing matchups alone requires me to make 8,000 "decisions".
That is not a humble brag. 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. Even if my grading
process is only 70 percent accurate, that is still a significant
advantage over any analyst that does not consider it at all. I
like to believe that even if readers believe my process is flawed
for whatever reason, they can appreciate how much thought has
been put into that opinion.
How much thought, you ask?
For example, Allen Robinson lined up on the left side of the
formation 409 times, on the right side 298 times and in the slot
245 times last year. Since the majority of defensive coordinators
tend to have their cornerbacks stick to one side as opposed to
following a particular receiver, Robinson's ability to match up
and defeat each of the defensive backs in those spots should be
considered. I do that for each player who projects to stand inside
the top three of his team's depth chart, and all of that information
is factored into my projections. While how often Robinson lines
up in a certain spot will inevitably change from last year, it's
unlikely the way he is deployed will change all that much in this
fourth year under HC Matt Nagy.
Fantasy football is a stock market game, and the job of an analyst
is identifying when stocks may be poised to skyrocket or ready
to tank. While last year's results help fantasy managers/analysts
set the table for the following season, they are merely a starting
point. Fantasy rankings and drafting need to be predictive, not
reactive. I have taken this approach for more than 10 years. While
some of the processes have changed in that time, the main goal
The Success Score Index (SSI) below is powered
in large part by my target and carry predictions that have been
featured in this space over the last few weeks. As always, the
matchup grades are included in the algorithm. SSI allows me to
compare apples to oranges across positions. Perhaps just as importantly,
I have been able to eliminate most of the guesswork across different
scoring systems (PPR, standard, etc.).
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 average production.
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 of players.
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: Players with a
next to their name have some degree of injury/character/holdout
Over the next two weeks, I will release my first Big Boards for
Half-Point PPR and standard leagues as well as Superflex and FFPC
Big Boards. In the second and final round of Big Boards near the
end of the preseason, I will rank at least 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:
There is a degree of certainty at the top with McCaffrey and Elliott.
Both are virtually guaranteed 300-plus touches in good offenses
with heavy involvement in the passing game and more than sufficient
usage near the goal line. After that, it becomes a game of pick
your poison. Let's take a look:
Austin Ekeler - Forgetting for a second that
he dealt with a serious injury last season, Ekeler offers a relatively
safe floor with what most expect to be heavy usage in the passing
game. The offensive line may be the best the Chargers have fielded
since LaDainian Tomlinson was in his prime. The problem is there
is no guarantee he will see a lot of work near the goal line or
more than 10-12 carries per game.
Nick Chubb - As perhaps the best pure runner
in the league running behind perhaps the best offensive line in
the league, the only real question with Chubb is to what degree
Kareem Hunt will cut into his workload. If HC Kevin Stefanski
utilizes him as he did following Chubb's return from a knee injury
in Week 10 (when he was the RB5), fantasy managers will be thrilled.
Something to keep in mind with Chubb: in the nine games (including
playoffs) he finished and Cleveland won last year, Chubb averaged
20 fantasy points. In the five losses or non-finished games, he
averaged 12.2. Betting on Chubb this year is also a bet on an
improved Browns' defense.
Dalvin Cook - The two-time Pro Bowler should
be considered a lock to go No. 2 at worst, right? Not in my opinion.
There are reasons to doubt his situation. The offensive line took
a few hits this offseason, including but not limited to offensive
line coach Rick Dennison and the retirement of OC Gary Kubiak.
Presumptive starting LT Christian Darrisaw (groin) practiced with
the team for the first time as a pro just last week. Longtime
backup Rashod Hill is expected to start the season as a result.
The Vikings are expected to start another rookie (Wyatt Davis)
at right guard, while neither LG Ezra Cleveland nor C Garrett
Bradbury has done enough to be considered better than average
as run blockers. Perhaps the worst thing for Cook is he is coming
off a season in which he averaged 25.4 touches and has a lengthy
history of shoulder injuries. He is such a good runner that he
still has overall RB1 upside, but he comes with a lot more risk
than anyone wants to admit.
Alvin Kamara - Fantasy managers seem to be ignoring
how much is working against Kamara right now. No one knows who
his quarterback will be, and neither one (Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill) is likely to default to him nearly as often as Drew Brees
did. The No. 1 receiver (Michael Thomas) could miss half of the
season and the defense should be expected to take a small step
back in 2021. The fantasy industry as a whole seems to believe
that will lead to more touches and reliance on Kamara, but it
seems unlikely HC Sean Payton will ask Kamara to shoulder more
of the load when he has yet to average 13 carries per game in
any of his four seasons.
Saquon Barkley - This one won't take much time.
I believe Barkley will be entrusted to carry the load by Week
3 at the latest, but I can't ask each of you to accept the same
level of risk that I am. If you agree with that thinking and believe
he will ball out for the better part of the final 15 weeks, then
I would not hesitate taking him as early as No. 5.
Derrick Henry - Tractorcito's continued lack
of contributions in the passing game limits his upside to the
point where he almost needs to average about one touchdown per
game to make up for it. His other problems: the Titans lost OC
Arthur Smith to Atlanta AND the arrival of Julio Jones. While
Jones' arrival will make his job easier for the most part, it
would be foolish for new OC Todd Downing to ask Henry to run another
350 times when he has two of the top 15 or 20 receivers in the
league. Can Henry score 20 touchdowns in this offense? Sure. Can
we expect him to handle another 400-plus touches without incident
again? I am not so sure. Can we expect Downing to pick up where
Smith left off? That is another dangerous assumption to make.
An argument can be made that Darren Waller has the most going
for him among all tight ends. Entering his age-32 season, Travis Kelce is pushing the age limit
that tends to mark the beginning of the end for tight ends - even
for the elite ones. Despite turning 29 next month, Waller is only
entering his third year of true NFL service after having played
a bit role in 22 games from 2014-18. Derek Carr raves about his
work ethic and Las Vegas still lacks an alpha receiver that could
potentially ruin Waller's bid for a target share around 30 percent.
The main concern with him is the same as it is for any stud receiver
or tight end: will Waller be featured in the red zone as much
this year as he was in 2020? Last year, only Davante Adams (28)
saw more targets inside the 20 than Waller (22), while his 11
targets inside the 10 ranked seventh overall. In 2019, those target
totals were 11 and four, respectively. Those meaningful targets
are not in question with Kelce, and he plays in a much better
offense with a much better quarterback to boot. Waller's ranking
above is evidence I believe the Raiders will continue peppering
him in the red zone. If that happens, no one should be surprised
if he is the first tight end off draft boards in 2022.
Terry McLaurin somehow continues to fly under some radars despite
WR29 and WR20 finishes in his first two NFL seasons. He has managed
this despite catching passes from Alex Smith, Dwayne Haskins,
Kyle Allen, Taylor Heinicke, Case Keenum and Colt McCoy. (In case
you are wondering, all of those men are currently either backups
or out of the league.) Ryan Fitzpatrick may not be anyone's idea
of a significant upgrade, but he has consistently shown the ability
(or willingness) to turn one of his receivers into a star. Steve
Johnson, Brandon Marshall, DeVante Parker and Eric Decker are
among the wideouts who have benefited from a touch of Fitzmagic.
The 38-year-old called Washington "the best situation I’ve
ever been in or the best situation that I’ve ever gone into
as the guy" last month, and McLaurin is likely one of the
main reasons he felt compelled to make such a comment. In his
last four situations as "the guy" (2014, 2015, 2016
and 2019), five receivers have topped 112 targets and four have
tallied at least 125 (high of 156). If McLaurin was able to attract
134 targets in 15 games last year from conservative and/or questionable
quarterbacks like Smith, Haskins, Allen and Heinicke, it is scary
to think what he might be able to do with an aggressive quarterback
like Fitzpatrick who has experienced some recent success throwing
It is one thing if fantasy managers have boosted CeeDee Lamb up
and knocked Amari Cooper down their draft boards due to reports
about Cooper's offseason foot concerns. It is another thing entirely
if those same people have basically ignored Cooper's foot issues
and anointed Lamb as the new alpha dog in Dallas. In Dak Prescott's
four healthy games last year, Cooper was the overall WR1 (with
a league-high 51 targets) and Lamb (27 targets) was the overall
WR17. Even after accounting for small sample size and Lamb's growth
from Year 1 and Year 2, that is a significant gap for Lamb to
make up. Lamb's role (primary slot) isn't expected to change.
In fact, Michael Gallup is expected to work inside more often
in 2021. Lamb coming off the board as a potential fantasy back-end
WR1 in the third round is not a problem. What is a problem is
if managers take him a round earlier in the same range as players
like Calvin Ridley or Stefon Diggs. Dallas has three very good
receivers, so it would be a mistake to expect one of them to consistently
outshine the others.
Chase Claypool probably has not received quite as much attention
from fantasy managers as he deserves so far this summer. His rookie
resume suggests he was (and is) a somewhat inconsistent performer
with a high ceiling and low floor. The key word in the previous
sentence is "rookie." Last year, people were hyping
DK Metcalf as a potential second-year fantasy stud due in large
part to his size (6-3, 230) and speed (4.33). Claypool, who is
one inch taller, about 10 pounds heavier and a tenth of a second
slower than Metcalf, actually outperformed the Ole Miss product
when we compare their rookie years. Claypool finished as the WR22
despite occasionally sharing time with James Washington early
and getting some rest late in the season so he could - in HC Mike
Tomlin's words - avoid the rookie wall. Neither of those factors
appears to be an issue heading into 2021, leaving a heavier emphasis
on running the ball as the only legitimate excuse as to why he
won't be better as a sophomore. One thing to keep an eye on with
Claypool: attitude MAY be an issue. Bob Labriola of the team's
website noted that Claypool's "diva
quotient increased consistently over the course of his rookie
season" back in March. It is an interesting note in that
someone from the team website said it and suggests it was easy
for regular observers to notice. Other reporters have since hinted
his practice effort runs a bit hot-and-cold.
It makes me proud to see my SSI has James Robinson, Javonte Williams
and Damien Harris so close together because they are very similar
backs in similar situations. The one thing that separates the
three is Robinson's potential upside in the passing game, even
with Travis Etienne around. Overall, he probably has the least
amount of actual upside because Laviska Shenault would probably
fill the Etienne role if the rookie got hurt AND he could lose
his job to Etienne if the team falls in love with the first-round
pick's big-play ability. Williams should be serviceable in the
passing game and is the future at running back in Denver, but
it is asking a lot for him to overtake Melvin Gordon completely
at any point before November barring injury. Mike Boone could
also vulture a few opportunities. Harris is capable of much more
than he showed last year, but New England appears fixated on maintaining
a division of labor in its backfield even though Harris proved
he was a capable receiver in college. Harris has huge touchdown
upside if the Patriots defense returns to form (it should), the
line plays up to its talent level (it should) and Mac Jones replaces
Cam Newton fairly early (good luck with guessing when that will
Common sense would dictate that Robert Tonyan and his fantasy
managers should prepare for significant regression. After all,
there have only been 46 instances of tight ends scoring 10 touchdowns
in a season in league history. Only eight times has a tight end
caught as many or fewer passes as Tonyan did in 2020 (52), although
five have occurred in the last 10 years (zero times from 2016-19).
The fantasy industry seems to be stuck on Tonyan's sky-high catch
rate (88.1 percent) and TD rate (one per every 4.7 catches). OK?
Of course we should expect a decline; those are nearly impossible
numbers to maintain. However, are people so beholden to last year's
stats that they cannot imagine a world where that kind of reliability
(no drops on 81 targets over the last two seasons) leads to more
targets the following season? Maybe Aaron Rodgers doesn't play
at an MVP level again this year, but is he going to throw less
to Tonyan in the red zone this year after the former undrafted
free agent caught 10 of his 11 targets inside the 20 and all seven
of his targets inside the 10? If there is one mid-round tight
end worth betting on to vastly outperform his ADP, it would be
one tied to a quarterback like Rodgers with something to prove
again (like Rodgers). Rodgers defies logic in many ways, so it
is OK to expect another "unreasonable" season from Tonyan
this year - even if he falls short of last year's 11 TDs.
Trevor Lawrence may be the best quarterback prospect to come
out of the draft since Andrew Luck, but you would never know it
based on how often his name is mentioned in fantasy circles or
the media versus how often Trey Lance and Justin Fields are discussed.
Admittedly, Jacksonville isn't quite the media market that San
Francisco and Chicago are, but fantasy managers should not let
a lack of pub sway them away from the No. 1 overall pick. He will
start the opener, has more rushing upside than most believe and
has a stable full of legitimate weapons. Lance may have more upside
because he is a dual-threat in a Kyle Shanahan offense. Fields
may also have more upside considering how explosive he is as a
runner. Neither one has a starting job locked up and there is
no guarantee either player will start before November. I believe
Lance will be a league-winner type, but fantasy teams have to
get to the dance first to take advantage of that. Lawrence should
end up being a nice drive down the fairway that allows fantasy
managers to tap in for a birdie or par most weeks. That is worth
a lot in fantasy, especially for managers who wait until the 10th
round or after to take a quarterback.
Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006 and been featured
in USA TODAY's Fantasy Football Preview magazine since 2010. He
is also a high-stakes player who often appears as a guest analyst
on a number of national sports radio shows, such as Sirius XM's
"Fantasy Drive." Doug is also a member of the Fantasy
Sports Writers Association.