This offseason I’ve already written close to 50 different fantasy football articles.
And of course, this entire time, you’ve been asking for just one article in particular — this one.
How am I approaching 2021 drafts? Where are my rankings? Who are my top draft-day targets?
Without further ado, here’s the answer to all of those questions. And the one article you’ve all been waiting for.
Note1: This article will be continually updated throughout the remainder of the offseason.
Note2: PPR scoring is assumed throughout. When ADP is referenced it will be pulled from NFFC (here), a typically much sharper platform than ESPN, Yahoo!, or NFL.com.
Note3: It’s important to mention that, while we as a staff probably agree on 90% of the content we put out, it’s impossible for everyone to be completely on the same page. So, I want to make it clear that this is my unique draft plan, and the players to target here are, like the title illustrates, “my guys.”
Game Theory Optimal
If you want to be a Game Theory Optimal (GTO) fantasy player, you’ll want to read these articles:
3. Bell-Cow or Bust: The Optimal RB Strategy (2020)
True story: With a single e-mail I have helped multiple people – who have never watched a game of football before (Super Bowl excluded), let alone played fantasy football before – win (actually, dominate) their fantasy football leagues.
Here’s the e-mail I sent:
1) I’ve attached my rankings. Print those out. 2) Since you’re drafting on Yahoo!, I’ve also attached their ADP. Print that out as well.
3) As players are drafted, cross off names from both lists. Physically cross them off with a pen.
4) When drafting, consult both lists. The first list (my rankings) is basically ranking how good each player is. The second list tells you when you should expect those players to be drafted. If you only consult my list you’ll do alright, but try to look at both lists. If I have a guy really high, but he’s a lot lower on Yahoo!, you should draft him later. That way you get more value and give yourself an even bigger edge.
5) Don’t draft a QB too early. Try to be the last or second-to-last team to draft a QB. Load up on RBs and WRs early. Draft a K with your second-to-last pick, and a DEF with your last pick.
Once the season actually starts, be sure to read our Waiver Wire article every week to know who to add and who to drop. And when setting your lineup, use our rankings to know who to start and who to bench.
Really, that’s about all it takes. And this is basically how I draft as well, except I’ll do this all on Excel, rather than printing anything out.
For the savvier players (pretty much everyone reading this article), I’d go a step further. Contrast your two lists before the draft (my rankings, your draft site’s ADP). You can do that in Excel. Or you can do that manually. Find the biggest values, and plan your draft around them.
Of course, this is also what I’m going to be doing for you in today’s article.
In a 1-QB league, ‘Late-Round QB’ is king.
Or, at least, it has long reigned as king. Though in modern times, it appears the monarchy may be in jeopardy. 2020 was either a major outlier year, or a sign of things to come. And following the Konami Code uprising of 2020, we can see what appears to be at least five quarterbacks circling the castle, wheeling around a guillotine.
But yes, late-round QB had long reigned as king, and for good reason. And I’d wager accounts of its demise are a bit premature.
In a 1QB league, the QB position is fairly worthless. It is the deepest, least-scarce, and most-replaceable of the big four positions. It’s also the least-predictable of the four, meaning you’ll get the worst returns on cost (by ADP).
And even when you’ve hit an absolute home run – drafting 2018 Patrick Mahomes or 2019 Lamar Jackson in the double-digit rounds – it’s still not worth anywhere near as much as you think it is. In real terms, it’s not worth much more than owning the top team defense.
All of this is explained in more detail in Anatomy of a League-Winner.
What am I trying to say here?
Don’t sweat the QB position too much. Over the past six seasons, the difference between QB6 and QB12 is 1.8 fantasy points per game (FPG). In the broad scheme of things, 1.8 FPG is basically nothing — it’s the same difference between RB7 and RB9. Factor in the cost, and it’s easy to realize you’re paying a lot for very little. By ADP, QB6 is being drafted in Round 5 while QB12 is being drafted in Round 9. Even better yet, by streaming the position, it’s not unrealistic to yield mid-to-low-end QB1 production. Meaning, your true floor isn’t 0.0 fantasy points, it’s actually closer to the numbers Russell Wilson and Justin Herbert put up last year. This further hints at the edge in waiting at the position and then drafting for upside.
But, yes, the rise of the Konami Code QB changes things a bit. The Konami Code QBs need to be viewed similarly to the bell cows of the RB position and the oligarchs of the TE position. And, specifically, the Big 5 Konami Code QBs provide massive value in comparison to their in-position peers. Historically, ADP is pretty bad at predicting top-five finishes among the QBs, but I think these five QBs will buck that trend. As high-end hyper-mobile QBs, they offer the highest ceiling, the highest floor, the highest median projection, and the most consistency.
But all of that being said, the QB position still feels as deep as ever, with a lot of value available to you late in drafts. For that reason, I still prefer to adopt a “Late Round QB”-approach in 2021 drafts.
General Positional Strategy
In a typical year, I’m really looking to test the limits of the ‘Late Round QB’ strategy.
Although suboptimal, your league-mates will feel uncomfortable drafting bench players before addressing the QB position, so the first 11 QBs (assuming a 12-team league) will typically go off the board fairly quickly. Or, at least, more quickly than they should (as it relates to positional value).
And then there’s a lull. Teams will draft their starting QB before addressing much of their bench, but they know better than to draft a backup QB for at least a few more rounds.
This is usually where I’m drafting my QBs. In that lull, or soon after.
Sometimes I’ll take the 11th or 12th QB off the board. Usually, I’ll wait until one or two backup QBs are drafted, and so I’m taking the 14th or 15th QB.
This has historically been my strategy. But, really, it all depends on where the tiers fall in any given year. And this year seems fairly unique.
2021 Strategy / Whom to Target
Two years ago, in this exact article, I wrote:
“The single greatest fantasy value in current drafts (at any position) is Lamar Jackson (ADP QB15), my single-highest-owned player this year. Dak Prescott (QB18) is also grossly mispriced and one of my highest-owned quarterbacks, whether as my QB1 or QB2.”
So, everyone wants to know, who is my Lamar Jackson this year? Or even my Dak Prescott?
Good question! We’ll get to that in a minute.
To me, the tiers are pretty obvious. There’s the big first tier consisting of Mahomes, Josh Allen, Jackson, and Kyler Murray (note: Dak Prescott, who was previously mentioned within this tier, has since been demoted into his own tier). And then there’s everyone else. I don’t see any of the Big-4 QBs flopping; they’re all great options, with at least a little bit of Konami Code-upside as an added bonus. All are heavy favorites to finish top-5, but, at the end of the day they’re still just lowly QBs, and, as such, they probably aren’t going to be on many of my teams.
Notes: Upon further reflection, I’ve moved Dak Prescott into his own tier. There are concerns with his shoulder, and with Amari Cooper’s ankle. But mostly, I’m just not sure he has the rushing upside Jackson, Allen, and Mahomes have. Over the past two seasons, Jackson averages 10.2 rushing FPG, Murray averages 7.1, Allen averages 6.1. Prescott averages just 3.5.
But every now and then one of these QBs will fall, and I won’t be able to help myself. I probably won’t ever take one of these QBs at or before ADP, but if they fall a round or two I might not be able to pass. If I’m taking one of these QBs it’s probably going to be whoever is cheapest; whoever is still on the board after the first three QBs go. But, again, only at the right price. And I do think there’s more upside for your team in waiting at the position.
If I draft a top-four QB — which, again, isn’t very often — I’m not drafting a backup. If I pass on the top-five QBs, I’m targeting (in order):
- Jalen Hurts (ADP: QB11): Hurts is my bet for a Lamar-like breakout in 2021. I explained this all in great detail here. I think he carries some slight risk of losing the starting job at some point this season, but I think, even if he’s not great from a real-NFL-perspective, I don’t think there’s a chance he’s not great from a fantasy perspective.
- Trey Lance (ADP: QB14): In this article, I compared Hurts to Lamar (2019). But I also compared Lance to Mahomes (2018). I might have been first, but I’m no longer the only one. The Big 5 Konami Code QBs are all great bets to finish top-five, but Hurts and Lance — who both profile as Konami Code QBs — hold similar upside at a much cheaper cost.
- Justin Fields (ADP: QB15): Like Lance, Fields offers high-end Konami Code-upside. Again, like with Lance, there’s uncertainty over when he might start, but — because streaming can be so effective, and the final month of the season matters so much more than the first month of the season — that uncertainty is far outweighed by his potential upside.
Update: We had Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill both listed here before a starter was named, back when both were just about free by ADP. Winston has since been named the starter. He’s still a decent value and a strong QB2 to grab in the last rounds of your draft. Hill would have been the more-valuable fantasy commodity, of course, but Winston starting is better news for Alvin Kamara and the rest of New Orleans’ receivers. My rankings have since been updated to account for this.
If, for some reason, I missed out on all of these players, I’m still not too worried. It’s far from ideal, but I’d be okay drafting Ryan Fitzpatrick in the last rounds of my draft and possibly adopt a streaming-approach if needed. Again, in a 12-team 1QB league, it’s rare to see more than 15 or so QBs rostered, which leaves about 17 free agents for you to choose from. You can stream from that pool, but you might also be able to find a Herbert or Ryan Tannehill as a dependable every-week starter off waivers. Both players finished top-10 last year despite going undrafted in the majority of leagues. Remember, you have far better odds of finding a starter off waivers (and especially, a high-end starter) at the QB position than RB, WR, or TE.
If I draft Lance or Fields as my QB1 (which, hopefully, isn’t often), I’m going to need a dependable QB2 who is likely to start Week 1. I think there’s still a small chance one of those QBs starts Week 1, but probably not. With Lance, in an absolute worst-case scenario, you can always draft Jimmy Garoppolo (ADP: QB33). In Superflex leagues, the QB position becomes far more valuable. Essentially tied with RB as the most valuable position, with nothing else coming close. The big-5 QBs are all deserving of a Round 1 pick. But, personally, I might still be trying to push the limits of the LRQB-approach, like I did here, drafting Lance, Garoppolo, Winston, and Hill. I waited longer on QB than any other team, and yet, I still feel confident I have two QB1s on my squad.
Highest Owned / Priority: Jalen Hurts (QB1), Trey Lance / Justin Fields (QB2)
As explained in Anatomy of a League-Winner, and more thoroughly on this podcast with Adam Harstad, running back is the most important position in fantasy, and there isn’t a close second.
If you win or lose your league, it’s probably because you drafted the right or wrong running backs, more than anything else.
General Positional Strategy
What’s our running back strategy? It’s not Robust-RB. And it’s certainly not Zero-RB. It’s “Bell Cow or Bust.”
Ideally, I’m going RB-RB to start. Maybe even RB-RB-RB depending on who is there in Round 3. RB-RB means you probably need to draft one or two “Dead-Zone RBs,” but that might not be necessary with a RB-RB-RB start. And in either case, you can always draft a few handcuff-type running backs in the last rounds of the draft, but I’m also rarely ever drafting those types of running backs outside of the last rounds, nor am I ever expecting to rely on them for meaningful production.
2021 Strategy / Whom to Target
Who am I drafting in 2021? The running backs named in order in the Bell Cow Report.
Update: This is not somewhat obsolete. Please stick to my tiered rankings which you’ll find further down below. These will be continually updated throughout the remainder of the offseason.
Because that article includes exactly where I have each player ranked and why, it shouldn’t be too hard to build a draft strategy around the best values. For instance, on NFL.com, my No. 4, No. 6, and No. 7 running backs rank (respectively) 10th, 12th and 15th by ADP. That’s some insane value.
A lot of time and effort went into these tiered rankings (which you’ll find further down below). This is just about the exact order I’m drafting these RBs, and, again, I’m trying to go RB-RB to start the far majority of my drafts. Ideally, RB-RB-RB if a Tier 3 RB makes it back to me in Round 3.
If I go RB-RB-RB to start, I’m not wasting much more draft capital on the RB position — maybe only one or two more RBs in the last rounds of my draft. If I go RB-RB, I’ll draft one or two “Dead Zone RBs” at the right price and then only wait until the last rounds if I want to add another RB. I do intentionally lean more towards a quality-over-quantity-approach at the RB position. And I’ll always have fewer RBs on my bench than WRs.
For the first two rounds of your draft, I’m fine if you disagree with my rankings or defer to ADP to try and get someone I like more later at a better value. But do at least try to stay within tiers. And know that Tiers 1-3 are your priority adds. There’s a big value-cliff after Clyde Edwards-Helaire (Tier 3) and then a steeper cliff after David Montgomery (by himself in Tier 4).
By ADP, Antonio Gibson and Joe Mixon are both going in Round 3 in 12-team NFL.com leagues. Mixon goes Round 3 in 10-team ESPN and Yahoo! leagues. Either one would be fairly Exodia-ish if you can land them in Round 3. I made my case for both RBs here. If I’m saddled with a late pick in my draft, I’d be happy to draft Gibson and Mixon Round 1 / Round 2, but I understand if that’s unappealing to you and you’d rather go a different route.
I’m mostly neglecting the “Dead Zone RBs” (Tier 4 and beyond), personally, but I do have my favorites. Last year, we had Cam Akers and Antonio Gibson listed as “circle your draft” / “Exodia-caliber” plays. I think the process was good on both picks, though the results weren’t great thanks to injury. This year, no one stands out to the degree Akers and Gibson did — ADP is much stronger at the RB position this year — not even a little bit. Seriously, the “Dead Zone” is absolutely brutal this year. And this is a big reason why I recommend you go RB-RB to start.
Raheem Mostert and (then) Trey Sermon are both intriguing. I see San Francisco’s backfield as holding similar upside to that of Cleveland’s, though it comes at a considerable discount. Neither are likely to be bell cows, but I think Mostert has low-end RB1-upside should he remain healthy. And Sermon certainly has RB1-upside if that’s not the case. I significantly prefer Mostert, and he is also the cheaper of the two, but I discussed both RBs at greater lengths here.
Update: Yeah, the “Dead Zone” is absolutely gross and brutal this year, but I do feel really good about Mostert. He definitely seems to be the RB1. He and Kittle were the only San Francisco players to get “starter protection” all preseason… But depending on your league-type, there might be better “Dead Zone”-values. For instance, On Yahoo!, D'Andre Swift has fallen to RB21. And Javonte Williams is supposedly being drafted in Round 9 on Yahoo!, which makes absolutely no sense at all. Miles Sanders continues to fall to a far more attractive ADP-range on a number of sites. Gus Edwards’ ADP hasn’t really moved to the degree that it should have following J.K. Dobbins’ season-ending injury. Etc. This is why it’s so important you take the time before your draft to contrast site ADP with my rankings.
It’s fine if you want to take a shot on a Tier 4-11 RB. But I’m really trying to avoid all of the RBs in the later tiers altogether.
I typically avoid handcuff RBs, but a player like A.J. Dillon offers immense injury upside with at least a little bit of standalone value. Players like Devontae Booker and Samaje Perine have very little standalone value, but decent injury upside and they’re just about free at current ADP.
Per HC Sean Payton, former Notre Dame running back Tony Jones Jr. might actually be the RB2 behind Alvin Kamara and ahead of Latavius Murray. (Saints beat Jeff Duncan agrees.) He’s on no one’s radar, and there’s a really good chance this is B.S., but I still wouldn’t leave my draft without him. In fact, I suspect to have near-100% exposure throughout the remainder of my drafts. And, the fact that none of your league mates have ever even heard of him should help keep the cost very low.
Update: Latavius Murray has been released by the Saints. Hooray to all of us who added Jones in the last rounds of our draft.
Oh… And if you’re in an auction league, don’t leave your draft without Christian McCaffrey. Jeff Henderson explores this more in-depth here.
Highest Owned / Priority (RB-RB): Round 1 RB, Round 2 RB, Raheem Mostert or an ADP faller, maybe some other “Dead Zone” dart-throw (before or after Mostert), random handcuff-type(s) in last rounds is fine, Tony Jones Jr. in last rounds
Highest Owned / Priority (RB-RB-RB): Round 1 RB, Round 2 RB, Round 3 RB (Must be Tier 1-3), maybe Raheem Mostert or an ADP faller from the “Dead Zone” range if one presents itself to you, random handcuff-type(s) in last rounds is fine, Tony Jones Jr. in last rounds
For the most part, WR gets overrated in terms of positional value. But it’s still easily the second-most important position in fantasy. And it’s even more valuable (though still well behind RB) in leagues where you start a minimum of three wide receivers (rather than two) plus a flex.
ADP is pretty good at the WR position, but, because it’s so deep, it’s not uncommon to find a high-end starter off waivers early in the season. For instance, 2019 league-winners like D.J. Chark, A.J. Brown, Breshad Perriman, and DeVante Parker were all UDFAs in a number (if not the majority) of leagues. This is a big reason why we draft for upside. And that’s especially true with the WR position.
General Positional Strategy
When I’m not drafting RBs, I’m typically drafting WRs. It’s not uncommon for the entirety of my bench to be comprised of high-upside RBs and WRs. And I’ll always end up with more WRs than RBs, because it’s easier to take a “quantity over quality” approach there than RB. (The more early-round draft capital spent on RBs, the more WRs I’ll end up with on my team.)
With that in mind, in any given season my WR strategy is the same – and far less complex than with RB – I just try to grab the best values that I can.
2021 Strategy / Whom to Target
The top four wide receivers are obvious: Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, and Calvin Ridley. Then there’s a deeper tier ending with Allen Robinson. And then another deep tier that ends with Diontae Johnson. Because these tiers are so deep, I never feel forced into taking a WR.
In the earlier rounds, just sort of follow along with my rankings. It seems like not too many players really stand out too much by ADP, and everyone is sort of tightly packed together in big tiers. Well, except for Adam Thielen, who is mispriced by multiple rounds. I went in-depth on him here. With an ADP of WR22 (early Round 5), he’s winding up on a ton of my teams, and I don’t have much of a problem taking him in Round 4.
The final three Tier 2 WRs — who are all going in Round 3 — Terry McLaurin, Keenan Allen, and (then) Allen Robinson are also winding up on a lot of my teams.
Within the next few tiers, it appears I’m higher than most on Pittsburgh’s WR1 and WR2. As I discussed here — if excluding the games Diontae Johnson suffered an injury, he averaged 12.3 targets (most) and 19.4 FPG last year (fourth-most). With Ben Roethlisberger’s arm supposedly back to full strength, look for more volume and better efficiency for Chase Claypool (the deep threat), who seems ready for a Metcalf-like sophomore ascendance. I expect JuJu Smith-Schuster to see a drop in snap share with Pittsburgh increasing their rate of 12 personnel.
As I discussed here, Jerry Jeudy also seems destined for a breakout season in his sophomore year. And the decision to start Teddy Bridgewater — who supported three top-25 fantasy WRs last year — is a massive boon to his fantasy potential. I don’t like Courtland Sutton quite as much as Jeudy, but he’s still a top value on most sites.
Who is my Exodia in 2021 drafts? It’s the same guy it was in March and then all the way through to July — Elijah Moore. The good and bad news is beat writers keep hyping him up as the second-coming of Antonio Brown. So he’s no longer quite the value he was back in March, but we can also at least be a little more confident he’s as talented and NFL-ready as I had hoped. Truthfully, I’m a little worried about getting sucked into group-think. I’m worried I might be double-counting all of this positive news out of camp. I’m worried my undying love for Elijah Moore might be clouding my judgement — after all, there’s a price-point on any player that will be too rich. Still, I’m inclined to pay that price, whatever it ends up being. I might not ever be able to live with myself if Moore is who I think he is and he’s not on all of my teams. Update: Thanks to a “fortunate” well-timed but not at all serious quad injury, Moore remains one of the best values in fantasy drafts (ADP: WR54).
Marquez Callaway is still a tremendous value (ADP: WR42), though his ADP has skyrocketed following a stellar preseason (8-165-2 on 9 targets and 23 routes run). He’s a Greg Cosell-favorite, a training camp darling, and New Orleans’ likely No. 1 receiver with Michael Thomas out. A few weeks ago, I asked Saints beat writer Nick Underhill the following question. “Does Taysom Hill have a favorite target? If so, who? Does Jameis Winston have a favorite target? If so, who?” He responded, “Callaway and Callaway… There are no other choices.”
Jakobi Meyers in every single draft? Every single one of them. And luckily, he’s affordable, going Round
1511 or later in the majority of leagues (ADP: WR57). So, no need to draft him based on where he’s at in my rankings — 10-15 picks before his ADP will do just fine. I explained my reasoning in more detail in 96 Stats.
As I discussed here, Brandin Cooks is a strong value. He’s a great high-floor-play — which sometimes seems necessary if you, like me, neglected WR in the earliest rounds of your draft.
To me, Darnell Mooney is the sort of discount Elijah Moore (although he’s more expensive). With Anthony Miller no longer in the picture, look for a breakout sophomore season from the 4.38-speedster, and hope Justin Fields starts sooner rather than later. With his strong arm, and Mooney’s deep ball skills, that will be a determining factor. Right behind Mooney is Mike Williams, another likely breakout candidate. I went in deep on him here.
Even later dart-throws? I love Bryan Edwards, Terrace Marshall, and Rondale Moore (in that order though essentially tied) for reasons outlined in 96 Stats.
These are “My Guys” — the players I’m trying not to leave my draft without. My rankings were made with a slight deference to ADP, so don’t be surprised to see me move some of these names up if ADP starts to get sharper. But, as you can see, clearly there’s a lot of later-round WRs to like. That’s good, and helps with our strategy of going RB-RB or RB-RB-RB to start.
Digging deeper (for those of you in deeper leagues), in the last rounds of your draft, Sterling Shepard is an incredible value, and possibly New York’s No. 1 receiver.
Deeper yet, Tyrell Williams is a great pick as a sort of a discount Brandin Cooks, as the obvious WR1 on a bad but pass-heavy offense. Marquez Valdes-Scantling is going undrafted in nearly every league, though our sources have raved about him, as have a few other beat reporters.
Highest-Owned / Priority: Best Available Tier 2-5 WRs, Adam Thielen, Diontae Johnson, Jerry Jeudy, Chase Claypool, Courtland Sutton, Elijah Moore, Marquez Callaway, Jakobi Meyers, Brandin Cooks, Darnell Mooney, Mike Williams, Bryan Edwards, Terrace Marshall, Rondale Moore, etc.
Tight end is much closer to QB in terms of value than WR, but it is still more valuable than QB. Like QB, it is deep and replaceable. Just slightly less deep, and slightly less replaceable.
Over the past five seasons, the difference between the No. 2 and No. 13 TE was worth 6.6 FPG. Or, 1.7X the difference between the No. 2 and No. 13 QB. The difference between the No. 6 and the No. 18 TE was worth 3.6 FPG. Or, 1.5X the difference between the No. 6 and No. 18 QB. Do you see what I’m hinting at?
And streaming has been proven to be more effective with the QB position, where you can hope to cobble together mid-to-low-end QB1 production with whatever’s on waivers. But with the TE position, mid-range TE2 production might be most likely.
Basically, what I’m trying to say is if you’re going to spend valuable draft capital on a onesie position, make it TE and not QB. Oh, and chase upside. Like with QB, a low-end TE1 isn’t worth anything at all. Historically, the TE12 averages 10.0 FPG, which is less than a full point more than the TE16 (9.1). It’s not uncommon for the TE16 to be found on waivers, or for an owner to cobble together TE16-level production via streaming. And, better yet, it’s not uncommon for a high-end TE1 to start the season off on waivers. This is why high-risk / high-reward players like Robert Tonyan and Donald Parham are going to rank highly in our rankings despite a median projection much lower than what their ADP might imply.
But with that said, you’d certainly be better off being weak at tight end than at running back or wide receiver. And, full-on punting the position can be highly effective.
General Positional Strategy
You’ve heard me talk about Bell Cow RBs. You’ve heard me talk about Konami Code QBs. And there needs to be a similar distinction between the highest echelon of the TE position (those putting up numbers which would rank top-15 at the WR position) and everyone else.
Consider Travis Kelce, who posted the highest win-rate of any individual player in BestBall10s last year (24.4%). On a fantasy points per game (FPG) basis, Kelce was 90% more productive than the No. 5 highest-scoring TE. For perspective, Tyreek Hill (the No. 2 highest-scoring WR) was only 89% more productive than the No. 43 highest-scoring WR (Nelson Agholor). Relative (i.e. positional) value matters, and the TE position is ruled by a wealthy elite (2-4 TEs) while everyone else lives well below the poverty line.
Within that highest tier — what I’ve been referring to as the “oligarch TEs”, following the death of the middle class at the TE position — you’ll find two different archetypes. There’s the “move” TE archetype (think Kelce and Waller) — WRs masquerading as TEs. Neither Kelce or Waller are very effective blockers, or are asked to block very often, which is actually a big positive for fantasy – you don’t earn fantasy points per successful block, you can only earn fantasy points when running routes.
The other archetype would be the “Y” — or “in-line” — TE (think Rob Gronkowski and George Kittle at the highest end of that spectrum). They’re at a natural disadvantage in comparison to the move TEs, but can still produce like the move TEs, they’ll just need to be as hyper-efficient as Kittle and peak-Gronkowski to do so (a tall order, and maybe a near-impossibility for anyone not-named Kittle or Gronkowski — two all-time outliers).
Historically, your best bet has been drafting one of the oligarch TEs or punting the position outright.
In each of the past four seasons, and despite high draft capital, the TE1 (Kelce) and TE2 (Zach Ertz, Waller) were among the league leaders (at all positions) in win-rate. However, over the same period, there have been 10 different tight ends to be drafted after the top-12 tight ends and still finish top-six at the position. That’s 42% of all top-six finishers.
Last year it was Robert Tonyan and Logan Thomas. In 2019 it was Mark Andrews and Darren Waller. In 2018 it was George Kittle, Eric Ebron, O.J. Howard, and Jared Cook. In 2017 it was Evan Engram and Jack Doyle.
Again, historically, your best bet has been drafting one of the Big-3 TEs or punting the position outright. But each season is its own unique snowflake. It’s hard not to love the Big-3 TEs this year, but they’re pricey. And, I think, there is some unique value among the middle-tier TEs this year.
The Big-3 TEs this year — the guaranteed oligarchs — are Kelce, Waller, and Kittle (in that order). Kittle ranks third because of his disadvantage as an in-line TE, in addition to heighted injury-risk, the emergence of sophomore WR Brandon Aiyuk, and the threat of lesser pass-volume once Trey Lance (inevitably) takes over. Kyle Pitts may already be an oligarch — his ADP suggests he already is one. A few more later-round fliers might also have that upside, but we’ll talk about them in a minute.
But, yes, the Big-3 TEs are great picks. They provide immense value over their in-position peers. Outside of injury risk, it’s hard to imagine those three TEs don’t finish top-three at their position and rank highly in win-rate overall (at all positions). The only problem is, it’s still optimal to take running backs in the first two rounds of your draft, which is typically where these oligarchs are going. I’d rather take Kelce or Waller in comparison to a similarly priced WR, but I’d still prefer to grab a Tier 1-3 RB.
2021 Strategy / Whom to Target
Again, it’s really hard to go wrong with a Big-3 TE. In ESPN leagues (10 teams, Start: 2WR, 1 Flex), there’s a good chance Kelce beats all wide receivers in WAR, as he did in 2018 and 2020. Waller (17.4 FPG) was basically A.J. Brown with a TE-designation last year (17.7 FPG), which is a massive advantage in fantasy. And Kittle is maybe my favorite player in the NFL.
But I also won’t end up with a lot of the Big-3 TEs on my teams due to my preference for going RB-RB or RB-RB-RB to start my draft. But I will grab them in the right spots. I probably won’t be able to pass on Darren Waller when he falls to Round 3. Kelce is compelling if a RB tier just dried up. And though I don’t like George Kittle quite as much, he’s becoming more appealing as his ADP falls.
But, truthfully, I do like my teams a little bit more when I wait on the TE position. Or, at least, so long as my favorite TE is still available within his typical ADP-range.
In the next tier we have (in order) Mark Andrews, T.J. Hockenson, Kyle Pitts, Logan Thomas, and Noah Fant. But I also don’t know if I’m being completely honest with these rankings. Instead, I’m deferring to ADP at least a little bit. Because I might actually have Logan Thomas several spots higher. Truthfully, he feels sort of tied with Hockenson, Andrews, and Pitts at the top. He’s my priority target at the TE position this year. I discussed this at length here. And because he’s so cheap in comparison (ADP: TE7, Round 8), he’s winding up on nearly all of my teams. As a result, I have near-zero exposure to Kittle, Andrews, Hockenson, and Pitts.
I don’t know if I should call Thomas an Exodia, but at his price-point and given my heavy exposure, I might as well.
Although unideal, if I miss out on Thomas, I’m okay with Fant or, within the next tier, Robert Tonyan or Tyler Higbee as a consolation prize. (I discussed these TEs at greater length here.)
Jonnu Smith is often my Plan B if I fail to land Tonyan. Zach Ertz isn’t anywhere near as sexy as these other names but he’s a strong value as a high-floor TE2 if you missed out on Thomas or anyone within his range. Donald Parham is a solid sleeper for TE premium or especially deep leagues. He’s a probable bust, but I like his upside, and he’s going undrafted in nearly every league, so you can grab him in the last round of your draft. Earlier this offseason (here), I went in deep on Thomas, Higbee, Parham, Goedert, Fant, Tonyan, Evan Engram, Adam Trautman, Everett, and Ertz.
Highest Owned / Priority: Logan Thomas (TE1), Robert Tonyan / Jonnu Smith (TE2)
Kicker / Defense
In most leagues, I’m typically not even drafting a kicker or a defense. Instead, I’ll be drafting high-upside flex-eligible players. And then right before Week 1, I’ll drop the two worst players on my team, and pick up whichever K and DEF I like best on waivers.
If that isn’t an option, or if I’m drafting particularly late in the offseason, I’ll always draft a kicker and then a defense (in that order) with my last two picks.
Who am I taking? It really doesn’t matter. Usually whichever K ranks highest in our projections (or ADP) and whichever DEF has the best Week 1 matchup.
We’re really bad at predicting who the top kickers and defenses are going to be in a given season. K and DEF are also extremely deep, very replaceable, and not worth very much at all in terms of winning your league.
In real terms, you have a much better chance at returning top-three production by streaming DEFs than you do of drafting the first DEF off the board. All of this is explained in more detail here. (TLDR: The last time I wrote a “Streaming Defenses” column I — very easily — returned top-three production.)