We are many months from the heart of fantasy football season, I realize. I also realize fantasy football has become a no-offseason undertaking, with best-ball and Dynasty leagues rapidly increasing in popularity. I take part in four year-round Dynasty leagues and am an active best-ball player, having entered over 20 drafts on MyFantasyLeague.com and the Fantasy Football Players Championship website. With a solid dose of way-too-early fantasy investments under my belt, here are some thoughts a few weeks ahead of the real-life NFL draft.
Christian McCaffrey’s Conservative Pre-Draft ADP
In so far as any running back can be a sure thing, McCaffrey is one of the surest things from a skill-set standpoint in this year’s draft. He is the premier pass-catching and pass-protection back in this class, giving McCaffrey a bankable floor as a surefire immediate contributor. An NFL Network reporter recently claimed numerous front-office executives believe McCaffrey will be drafted in the top-ten picks. It’s not something I’m buying, but I’m also not ruling it out. The NFL draft is one of pro sports’ least predictable entities. An NFL team so falling in love with McCaffrey’s talent, versatility, and pedigree that they convince themselves he’s worth an early first-round investment is hardly unfathomable. Top ten or not, I think McCaffrey will be a first-round pick.
In the month of April, McCaffrey has an Average Draft Position of 4.10 in My Fantasy League best-ball drafts. In the drafts I personally have done, McCaffrey is usually there in the mid-fifth round. McCaffrey’s passing-game floor perfectly suits these leagues’ PPR scoring, and he is likely to experience a significant post-draft ADP bump, particularly if McCaffrey indeed goes in the real-life first round. If you want “shares” of McCaffrey in these leagues, now is the time to get them. An unfavorable landing spot could obviously change things, but a quick glance at the first-round NFL board reveals very few fantasy-unfriendly potential destinations. By the month of May, my guess is we’ll see McCaffrey going at or near the second- to third-round turn.
Sell Marshawn Lynch’s Comeback
Lynch’s return still feels like a publicity stunt. It became more believable when the Raiders hosted Lynch at team headquarters last week. Lynch reportedly informed GM Reggie McKenzie that he intends to un-retire, and that Oakland is the only place he is willing to play. The Raiders have a good offensive line and good offense as a whole, and Lynch was a good player in 2014. (Three years ago.) He struggled mightily in terms of effectiveness and durability in 2015, then spent the last year promoting himself a quasi-celebrity. Lynch started a Beast Mode clothing line. He went on Conan. He shot Skittles commercials. He went on Running Wild with Bear Grylls. He “starred” in a movie called A Hundred Blocks that premiered at the Oakland Film Festival last week. Perhaps Lynch has stayed in shape, but his schedule hasn’t seemed entirely conducive to training at the clip required to excel at the highest level of pro sports. Lynch turns 31 later this month.
There isn’t a big recent data set of running backs to take full years off with retirement intentions, then return. But there are a few examples. At ages 28 and 31, Ricky Williams returned from retirement- and suspension-induced years off to record rushing lines of 168-743-6 (4.4 YPC) in 12 games and six carries for 15 yards in one 2007 appearance. Albeit in the year after the year after he missed the 2006 season, Williams went off (241-1,121-11) in 2008 after rededicating himself to the sport. John Riggins held out for the entire 1980 season. He returned to post 195-714-13 (3.7 YPC) rushing the following year. Lesser-known backs Travis Henry, Onterrio Smith, Dominic Rhodes, Trey Watts, Tony Collins, and Silas Redd served year-long suspensions and never logged another NFL carry. At age 30 in 2015, Adrian Peterson led the NFL in rushing after missing all but one 2014 game, although Peterson spent the rest of 2014 conducting himself as an active NFL player anticipating an in-season return. Lynch, not so much.
Lynch stepped away on his own volition, of course, and we’re sure to hear “fresh legs” narratives and mentions of the fantasy-friendly situation Lynch would step into with the Raiders in the forthcoming months. Lynch is a popular personality, and people will want to view him through a best-case-scenario lens. When viewing Lynch as an actual investment, the floor is basement low. And it’s fair to question the ceiling of a 31-year-old running back who would likely return as a part-time role player in Oakland.
An Opportunity Vacuum in Los Angeles
Having parted ways with Kenny Britt (Browns), Brian Quick (Redskins), Lance Kendricks (Packers), and pass-catching back Benny Cunningham (Bears), the Rams lost a league-high 296 targets from last year’s roster. Los Angeles’ notable free agent pickups were career No. 2 receiver Robert Woods and ex-Dallas scatback Lance Dunbar. Following last year’s Jared Goff trade, the Rams lack a first-round pick and are scheduled to draft just twice in the top-110 selections. 2016 draft picks TE Tyler Higbee and WRs Pharoh Cooper and Mike Thomas are sneaky candidates for sophomore leaps. Woods and disappointing Tavon Austin offer target monster potential, and neither is going in the first 15 rounds of early fantasy drafts.
Woods was barely a fantasy factor in a run-first Buffalo offense with a dual-threat quarterback, but he’s long profiled as a high-volume, high-percentage pass catcher. Woods works at Z and slot receiver and caught 111 passes in 12 games as an 18-year-old sophomore at USC. Running the same routes Jamison Crowder and Pierre Garcon ran in Sean McVay’s Redskins offense, Woods should present a comfortable target for fledgling quarterback Goff. Higbee is a converted wideout who averaged nearly 15 yards per catch his final year at Western Kentucky. Austin has been a bust relative to his real-life NFL draft position, but he’s never lacked big-play ability, and his annual reception totals have risen in three straight years. Austin has also never had as big of a pass-catching opportunity as he’ll get this season.
The Rams are probably going to be a bad team that plays from behind frequently again, and Woods, Austin, and Higbee’s fantasy costs are cheap. That gives them value appeal in best ball and Dynasty.
It’s Time To Buy Sammy Watkins
Due to the defections of Robert Woods (Rams), Marquise Goodwin (49ers), Justin Hunter (Steelers), and a few others, the Bills are missing 198 targets from last year’s team. They are also likely to run a more functional offense in the post-Rex Ryan era under Kubiak-Shanahan disciple Rick Dennison. Watkins has had the worst of luck his first three years in the league, and it’s certainly fair to doubt his durability. He’s undergone two foot surgeries and a hip operation, missing 11-of-32 games over the past two years.
Weighing downside versus upside is important, and most fantasy drafters tend to be risk averse. There is also a segment of the fantasy population that is willing to embrace variance and risk with the understanding that it could backfire. Trading for Watkins in Dynasty could backfire. Stockpiling Watkins “shares” in best-ball leagues could backfire. He is not a sure thing. At the same time, few players are.
Still only 23, Watkins is literally one day older than ballyhooed draft prospect Cooper Kupp. (Imagine Watkins as a slot receiver in the Big Sky Conference last year.) Watkins’ career 8.97 yards-per-target average is superior to A.J. Green (8.95), Dez Bryant (8.52), Amari Cooper (8.51), DeAndre Hopkins (8.00), and Allen Robinson (7.39), all of whom are being selected ahead of Watkins in Dynasty start-up drafts.
Locked into an uncontested No. 1 wideout role with realistic potential to see the highest volume of his career at improved quality this season, Watkins is a no-brainer Dynasty trade target who can likely be acquired in exchange for a mid-first-round rookie pick. I plan to make Watkins one of my highest-owned third-round re-draft targets this season.
It’s Time to Buy Rob Gronkowski
A consensus top-15 fantasy pick in each of the past two seasons, Gronkowski’s ADP has dipped to the fringes of the top 25 due almost entirely to recency bias. Yes, Gronk got hurt last year. It’s fair to question his longevity, perhaps. Gronkowski fell to the second round of the 2010 real-life NFL draft due to concerns about his balky back. He is now recovering from his third known back surgery since 2009.
What isn’t fair to question is Gronk’s league-winning upside. Going on age 28, Gronkowski remains the NFL’s most dominant red-zone weapon and is in his athletic prime. He set personal bests in yards per reception (21.6) and yards per target (14.2) last season, and this year’s Patriots offense appears poised to be the best of Gronk’s career, enhancing his touchdown probability. Gronkowski inarguably carries injury risk, but his price is at a multi-year low entering what could conceivably amount to one of the fantasy-friendliest seasons of his career.
It’s Time to Buy Jerick McKinnon
We’ll get this out of the way first: One possible wrench into McKinnon’s 2017 outlook would be a premium draft selection used at running back, muddying a Minnesota backfield currently occupied by McKinnon and Latavius Murray with only Bishop Sankey and “C.J. Ham” behind them. The Vikings lack a first-round pick after last year’s Sam Bradford trade, however, and they don’t go on the clock until pick No. 48. The Vikings do have three second-day selections. It’s certainly conceivable one of them is devoted to running back, although they also need help at linebacker and offensive line.
While always intriguing from a size-speed standpoint, Murray’s career sample size is big enough at this point to understand he’s probably not a bankable NFL feature back. Running behind the AFC’s top offensive line last year, Murray managed 4.04 yards per carry while all other Oakland rushers averaged 4.74. Murray’s game tape reveals a tall, upright runner with minimal wiggle and disappointing power for a 6-foot-3, 228-pound player. It’s why Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie allowed Murray to walk in free agency without resistance, and why Murray’s inability to create yardage for himself makes him a poor fit behind the Vikings’ sub-replacement offensive line. The Vikings did sign LT Riley Reiff and RT Mike Remmers in free agency. Respectively, Reiff and Remmers earned Pro Football Focus’ Nos. 52 and 60 run-blocking grades among 76 offensive tackles last year. They’re not exactly running-game upgrades.
We’ve seen three years of McKinnon, and he may not be a legitimate NFL featured runner either. But he is a 99th-percentile SPARQ athlete with a defined pass-catching role in OC Pat Shurmur’s pass-first offense, which gives McKinnon a stable floor. And Murray represents a surmountable adversary for touches. Currently a double-digit-round re-draft fantasy pick, McKinnon’s ADP will deserve to rise at least two rounds if the draft comes and goes without Minnesota adding meaningful running back competition.
Get UTEP’s Aaron Jones on Your Dynasty Radar
Perhaps the premier sleeper in a class considered exceptionally strong at running back, Jones topped 1,300 yards rushing in two of his final three college seasons and caught 71 passes in his UTEP career, amassing over 2,000 yards from scrimmage as a 2016 redshirt junior. Neither Jones’ production nor his athleticism is in doubt after posting top-two SPARQ results among running backs at the Combine, including the second best three-cone time behind only Christian McCaffrey. I was pleasantly surprised to hear Rookie Scouting Portfolio’s Matt Waldman talk up Jones on a recent podcast. Waldman is a game-tape aficionado I immensely respect, and Jones is a back I’ve been intrigued by for a while.
CBS Sports currently projects Jones as a sixth-round pick. Jones is not particularly big (5’9/208) or straight-line fast (4.56/4.58), but he offers plus versatility and vision, which show up on his 2016 tape versus the University of Texas. Presently sporting an Average Draft Position of 4.07 in Dynasty Rookie drafts, Jones makes for an ideal fourth-round flier.