The annual NFL draft is one of the most exciting events of the offseason for many fantasy football aficionados. Whether you are a fan of a team in full rebuild mode, one looking to add that missing piece to push the franchise into contention, or just enjoy the event as a whole, the draft has something for all football fans. However, the selections place “expectation traps” year-after-year that are tough to avoid. To compound the matter, non-injury related team chatter reported through the media acts as “fantasy bait” as well. Perceptions of value erupt from pure speculation to become a type of gospel “insider” tool taken directly into fantasy drafts.
Let’s just get it out of the way: if you’re reading the information on the web, it is far from “insider” knowledge. Everyone with a pulse is already well aware of it. But also keep this in mind — when the season rolls along, many of those glowing reports turn out to be quite far from reality.
But why would our beloved teams lie to us? With the draft behind us, teams aren’t looking to mislead their opponents through the press. Now if a coaching staff doesn’t want information passed along, they’ll simply keep it close to the vest. That said, some of the chatter can certainly be quite ambitious. Most of those views on a player’s role are from a best-case-scenario. But the majority of the news reported at this time, I’ve found, is actually quite authentic. The issue — a very common one in the realm of fantasy — is a small matter of time relevance. When a coach states he envisions a rookie contributing to several areas of his offense, we need to understand that it may take that youngster time before being trusted with the role.
A dynasty rookie’s value is intrinsically bound to time. We all want a roster littered with kids in their early 20s, but draft value is also implanted with playing-time expectations. If the anticipation stands that they will immediately find themselves with massive roles, those rare rookies will populate the top of the draft board. For the rookies that need time to develop, the upside remains, but a level of ownership patience is required. And dynasty owners, for the most part, are willing to devote a bench spot for their prized possession to mature.
However, in startups, that patience wanes far too much in favor of the fresh crop of rookies. The ADP for players who were just drafted the previous season will tumble down at an alarming rate. It’s precisely those players to look to for value. But we can also find additional value from the younger veterans that are also commonly, criminally overlooked.
Follow along as I dive into some of the significant value opportunities I’ve noticed in dynasty startups. The basis is PPR scoring with standard rosters (my personal dynasty rankings are listed in parenthesis).
James Robinson (56) vs. Travis Etienne (59)
Of all of the outlandish dynasty startup values at the moment, none can come close to Jacksonville’s backfield. Long considered a first-round worthy RB, it was a belief that became a reality for Travis Etienne when the new brass consisting of GM Trent Baalke and HC Urban Meyer selected him with the 25th pick. Back when Meyer took over at Ohio State, the immediate change he implemented was the introduction of the “H-back” into the Buckeyes’ offense. Many are likely familiar with the modern H-back. But that role traditionally employed by a TE positioned off the line of scrimmage, outside the tackle is not limited to TEs in Meyer’s offense. He uses the role to add another WR, or even a second RB option to the mix. He transplanted the idea from his days as the Florida HC where Percy Harvin gained national attention.
Curtis Samuel, Parris Campbell, and K.J. Hill were the most recent H-backs during Meyer’s final seasons in Columbus. It’s a role that evolved to adapt to the team's needs. The season following their 2015 CFP championship, Ezekiel Elliott declared early for the draft. Mike Weber still managed to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards, but he did not offer the dynamic playmaking of either Elliott or J.K. Dobbins. It fell on the H-back (Samuel) to step up as the second option out of the backfield. The following season, Dobbins took on a massive role as a true freshman. He split the carries with Weber, allowing the H-back (Campbell) to collect 90 receptions.
Everyone already knows that Etienne has been practicing at WR. And Meyer has stated that he envisions this backfield as having James Robinson and Carlos Hyde split the early-down work, with Etienne working as the third-down back. Hyde (138.3 in 2013) nearly matched Elliott’s average rushing yards/game (140.1) from his breakout season for Meyer in 2015. A reunion between the two surprised nobody. However, Hyde will turn 31 in September. He is not on the roster to become a focal point of the offense. We can look to his role with the Seahawks from last season as the expectation. He may end up spelling Robinson on every fourth-to-fifth series, but he is simply injury insurance.
The aspect that’s been mostly missed concerning Etienne practicing as a WR isn’t that he’s going to be the new slot WR. It’s that Etienne is simply learning to branch out from his backfield-only role. When Etienne is stationed in the backfield, he will do so in a two-back set with Robinson. The only time Robinson will come off the field is when he needs a breather. So let’s see if the present scenario makes any sense on your end. A kid is coming off the greatest UDFA rookie production in the history of the NFL — 1,070 rushing yards, 10 total TD, 49 receptions in 14 games, his only competition for snaps will be a 31-year-old part-timer, and his subsequent ADP falls off a cliff. Wait, what?
Etienne is being drafted at the end of the third round. That’s a bit too rich for my blood. That said, I totally understand the appeal given his upside as a receiver. But I’ve been scooping up Robinson in the eighth-to-ninth round of dynasty startups. Last time I checked the ledger, the number of RBs averaging at least 70 rushing yards, greater than one TD/game last season includes 10 names. Filter that same list to players under the age of 24: David Montgomery, Jonathan Taylor, Josh Jacobs, and Robinson.
AJ Dillon (94) vs. Aaron Jones (39)
Nobody knows how the Aaron Rodgers situation will unfold, not even Aaron Rodgers. He could always end up changing his mind, re-signing to lead a potent offense toward another chance at a Super Bowl. If he doesn’t, we will see a massive shift in Green Bay’s offensive scheme. And the passing offense will need to be downgraded. The coaching staff has already passed along that Jordan Love’s development is still a work in progress. During their impressive 2020 season, the Packers utilized a bottom-five rate of Spread personnel. However, that “Posse” rate jumped into the top-15 during run plays — a luxury only afforded by the presence of Rodgers forcing defenses to remain honest.
No matter what happens with Rodgers in Green Bay, Jamaal Williams is now a Detroit Lion. While his receiving efficiency could take a slight hit, Aaron Jones’ role and value should remain mostly intact. But that will also allow AJ Dillon to absorb Williams’ carry share. When Williams was in town, he split the RB2 role with Dillon late in the year. It rendered both without much value from a fantasy perspective. Even with a strict RB2 role, Dillon could see upwards of 35% of the carries. And don’t make the mistake of discounting Dillon’s receiving potential simply because he didn’t do much in that regard in Boston College’s run-heavy offense. You might be surprised to learn that Dillon actually caught more balls at BC than Williams — widely considered as a plus receiver — did with BYU.
You’ll need to make an intentional investment to secure Jones. He is rightfully coming off the board in the third round. But you can scoop up immense value from Dillon in the 12th round of some dynasty startups. For an athlete of Dillon’s caliber, he becomes a value selection as early as the eighth round. When Jones succumbs to an eventual injury, you’ll be thankful you made the sound investment.
2020 Draft WRs vs. 2021 Draft WRs
We all want Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, Kadarius Toney, Rashod Bateman, etc., to populate our rosters. Untapped upside always drives up those draft prices, interest. But that desire should not come at the expense of Jerry Jeudy, Jalen Reagor, Tee Higgins, Michael Pittman Jr., Chase Claypool, Denzel Mims, Laviska Shenault Jr., K.J. Hamler, or Van Jefferson Jr.. The values of Justin Jefferson and CeeDee Lamb have, unsurprisingly, been consistent toward the top of dynasty redrafts. But you can already find value for days from last year’s truly stacked WR class. It sure seems the understanding — one backed up by facts — that most WRs require two to three years to develop has been forgotten.
Jerry Jeudy (23) vs. DeVonta Smith (54)
I am left asking myself, yet again, what am I missing here? When Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith played together at Alabama, the separation in talent level was substantial. Jeudy was simply on another level. After languishing under the limitations of Drew Lock last season, Jeudy’s reputation somehow took a hit in dynasty startups. The addition of Teddy Bridgewater may not send shockwaves through the fantasy community, but it should. Not concerning Bridgewater’s value, but due to the drastic effect it’ll have for the potential results from Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, and Hamler.
Bridgewater is actually one of the top QBs in the NFL when attacking Man coverages. He’s not quite as good against Zone, nor is his arm strong enough to attack vertically beyond 40 yards. But Lock is a one-shell QB (Cover 3). Against every other scheme, Lock isn’t just average like Bridgewater — he is very, very bad. The one player that will take the biggest hit in value, should Bridgewater win the role, would be Noah Fant. The ultra-athletic TE is money opposed by the three-deep shell. The Broncos will surely take a slight drop in Fant’s production to field a serviceable QB able to properly utilize its talented WR group, opposite an underrated defense.
Jaylen Waddle (25) vs. DeVonta Smith (54)
I can promise you that I have no interest in trashing DeVonta Smith. My view of all players is on a level plane. If the tape and data inform me that “TE” Tim Tebow will help you win your league, I’ll let you know. As for Smith, the Eagles sure seem convinced after trading up to select him with the 10th-overall pick. “The Slim Reaper” will have every opportunity to prove that his third percentile BMI is a non-factor. What concerns me isn’t personally with Smith, it’s with where he is being targeted: alongside Jaylen Waddle. Coming off a brutal ankle injury, the last impression Waddle gave us showcased him badly limping in relief of Smith. DeVonta had just left during the first half of the CFP title game against Ohio State after posting 12 receptions, over 200 yards, and 3 TDs. The Waddle most remember was no better than 50% health.
Jumping back prior to the draft, reviewing the tape of the top receivers, I was instantly blown away by Ja’Marr Chase. Smith’s film showed he was clearly an athletic step down, but I definitely saw the potential for a solid career — just not the kind of talent I felt would become an instant NFL playmaker. As for Waddle, the “blown away” button was depressed, once again. Had Waddle been able to test at his Alabama Pro Day, the rest of the fantasy community would’ve been presented with functional measurables comparable to those of Chase. That’s his ceiling… just like Chase, the potential to emerge as a top-five WR. While Chase is deservedly being scooped up in the second round, Smith is being drafted in the fourth-to-sixth rounds. With that in mind, you may begin to understand why it’s such a pleasant surprise to see Waddle last until the fifth-to-sixth rounds.
Tee Higgins (63) & Tyler Boyd (75) vs. Ja’Marr Chase (9)
It should be crystal clear by now that I am very high on Ja’Marr Chase. Most of the fantasy world should be, as well. But don’t let those expectations get out of hand. Chase is not going to approach a 40% target share from Joe Burrow. Both Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd are going to eat. Take it to the bank. Don’t even be surprised at all to see a target share that settles around 25% apiece. But the dynasty startups are telling me we can wait until the sixth round to scoop up Higgins and a full two rounds later for Boyd. Boyd is obviously a few years older, so he should be the last off the board. Just make sure you keep an eye out on these “other two” Bengals’ WRs slipping in your drafts.
Marquise Brown (93) vs. Rashod Bateman (70)
Marquise Brown struggled to produce early last season without an outside complement to draw away safety attention. It forced Lamar Jackson to abandon the Ravens’ preseason desire to open up the passing game, instead reverting to carrying the ball at his 2019 rate. That adjustment did allow “Hollywood” to get back on track late in the season… at a cost. It severely limited the offense. In theory, the addition of Rashod Bateman will be exactly what Brown will need to show us his ceiling.
Opening up the passing offense will signal a slight reduction in Jackson’s rushing volume. That potentially allowing the team to push closer toward a Super Bowl is a fair trade. I’m consistently seeing Bateman being selected at least a full round ahead of Brown. And I actually think that’s appropriate given the nearly two years age difference. Just make sure — as I’m witnessing in several of my dynasty startups — that Brown doesn’t slip any further. Brown, Bateman, and Mark Andrews will be the 1A/1B/1C receiving options in what could be the most dynamic Baltimore offense in its short history.
Arthur Smith vs. Atlanta’s Passing Offense
We initially expected the Falcons to mirror the offensive style of the Titans when Arthur Smith was hired on as HC. It’s a belief that was further strengthened by the addition of Dave Ragone as his OC — the pair coached together in Tennessee for a couple seasons. But Atlanta failed to draft a bruising RB in the mold of Derrick Henry to complement the unique skills of Mike Davis. They did land a truly phenomenal talent in Kyle Pitts at 1.04. Their next move was to address a gaping hole at safety with Richie Grant in the second. But they missed their chance in the third to add the only remaining RB — Trey Sermon — that would have allowed them to avoid a massive shift in offensive approach. Short of adding an unknown RB in that mold from free agency, that ship has sailed. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Falcons’ Air Raid offense.
We need to consider the possibility that Julio Jones will be moved after being left out of the team’s 2021 media advertisements. If Jones is moved, it’s always possible that ATL could receive a RB as part of the return package. But, without Jones, Calvin Ridley and Pitts would simply blow up! To a lesser extent, Russell Gage will have every chance to improve on the solid numbers he generated last season. The steps I took to bring me to these conclusions were not elaborate. It should already be spreading through the industry. But I’ve seen Ridley consistently lasting until the third round, and I have no idea how far Pitts would slip since I’ve never allowed him to slip past the third round of any of my drafts. You can find Pitts as the eighth-best and Ridley the 13th-best player overall in my dynasty ranks. However many picks you can allow them to last past those points is purely value in the bank.