Early Round Vetoes
August 24, 2016 | Scott Cedar
A few months before my son was born, my wife and I were discussing names:
Wife: How about Oliver? I love that name.
Me: Yuck, no.
Me: Umm… don’t hate that one.
Wife: Noah? Cooper? Sebastian?
Me: Too popular. Maybe. Like the crab?
And so on. I figured this was the first of many negotiations in the coming months.
A week later, a box shows up. Inside is a plush blanket, baby blue, with “Spencer” embroidered in big block letters. Ok then, I guess we’ve chosen a name. I didn’t exactly make the pick, but at least I vetoed some undesirable alternatives (sorry Olivers!).
I’m going to run through this same exercise for your fantasy teams. The focus here is on the early rounds, because after Round 6 or so the talent level thins out and the probability of hitting is low enough that it’s hard to make a “bad” pick. Typically, this would be labeled a list of busts, but that’s not really how I view it. All of these players are going in the early rounds because they’re good, and I’m not here to say they’re likely to bust in 2016. Rather, these are players I haven’t been drafting because I don’t think the price jives with the likely range of outcomes, or I prefer the available alternatives.
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You’re drafting a quarterback late, right? Wise choice, but it means missing out on Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson. If I were going early-round QB, the one I’d avoid is Drew Brees. His year-end numbers are always strong, but his longstanding home/road splits were amplified last year: Brees scored 25.53 points per game at home, compared to only 14.28 points per game and a top-12 finish on the road (QB9 at Tampa Bay in Week 14). I can’t justify the draft capital (5th round pick) at a low-value position for a player who isn’t an advantage half the year. (In case you’re wondering, the Saints will be on the road the first two weeks of the fantasy playoffs.)
Ben Roethlisberger is currently being drafted as QB6, but in four years with Todd Haley he’s finished as QB19, 12, 5, and 20. With Martavis Bryant suspended, Ladarius Green concussed, Heath Miller retired, Marcus Wheaton still himself, and Sammie Coates looking less dependable than Ryan Lochte, Roethlisberger has his shallowest receiving corps since… ever, really. Bryant’s absence is especially troubling. His big-play ability fits Roethlisberger’s game perfectly, and Roethlisberger has been more efficient throwing to Bryant (10.8 AY/A) than any other receiver over the past two years. He’s also scored nearly six more points per game with Bryant in the lineup. Roethlisberger’s 6th round ADP is optimistic.
Betting against Tom Brady is like going to a Chinese buffet—you know it’s a bad idea, and you always feel sick after. Against my better judgment, I have a few concerns. First, there’s a significant opportunity cost to carrying two quarterbacks through Brady’s 4-week suspension, when the waiver wire is hottest. Second, Brady scored 10 fewer points per game over the 2nd half of last year as the Patriots piled up injuries on offense, and this year isn’t off to a better start. Seriously. Third, at some point Brady is going to act his age. We really haven’t seen any warning signs from Brady outside of that false alarm to start 2014, but Brett Favre and Warren Moon are the only quarterbacks to put up usable numbers at age 39. There’s a lot of downside that isn’t baked into Brady’s 6th round ADP.
I think Carson Palmer will be fine. Just know that at age 36, Palmer finished with career-bests in AY/A (9.1), INT% (2.0%), and TD% (6.5%—since 2011, quarterbacks with ≥6.0 TD% have fallen on average 1.43% the following year). The last time he was remotely close to these numbers was 2005, two torn ACLs ago. Palmer was a great value at as the 17th QB off the board last year, but now that his ADP has risen to QB8, I’d rather search the bargain bin for this year’s Carson Palmer.
Todd Gurley is really good, but the Rams offense was 29th in DVOA last year and doesn’t figure to be any better with Case Keenum and Jared Goff under center. I expect the defense to take a step back as well, after losing several players and earning a C+ offseason grade from Pro Football Focus. That’s a problem, because Gurley showed massive splits in Rams wins and losses:
When the Rams are down Gurley will cede passing-down work to Benny Cunningham, a pedestrian player who fits right in with the Rams’ love of all things mediocre. Gurley’s ADP is #5 overall, but I’d move him behind Lamar Miller (0.77 fantasy points/touch last year, on par with Gurley’s 0.75), Ezekiel Elliott (also on a run-first team, but with much better quarterback and offensive line), and the lower-end of the elite receivers (A.J. Green, Dez Bryant, and Allen Robinson).
At #12 overall, Le’Veon Bell is too hi… he’s very risky, given his injury history (hurt to start 2013 and end 2014/2015) and off-field concerns.
Thomas Rawls fits pretty squarely in the bust profile J.J. Zachariason put together last year. On top of that, this offseason has been a gigantic subtweet against Rawls, with Seattle drafting three running backs and challenging me to look stupid by yet again buying into Christine Michael (challenge accepted!). Rawls’ ankle injury also took a strangely long time to heal, and while he’s off the PUP list, hasn’t yet played in the preseason. Love the player, but the risk-reward in Round 3 isn’t right.
(David Johnson fits this profile perfectly as well, which has me very nervous. You can re-jigger his stats around his monster 40-point game against the Eagles to look mediocre or worse, but Johnson’s upside is high enough that I’m ok with the risk.)
Last year Matt Forte finished 5th in points per game among running backs on the strength of 21.2 attempts+targets per game (5th among RBs). However, his 4.1 YPC (27th among running backs) and 8.84 YPR (23rd among running backs) hinted at a slowdown. Forte is still capable, but should continue to slow down in his age-31 season and won’t have the same volume with Bilal Powell mimicking his dual-threat capabilities. Forte’s fine as an RB2, but in Round 4 I’m still looking for guys who can win me weeks.
Fantasy football should be fun, so don’t torture yourself by drafting Jeremy Hill. In his career, Hill has scored 12.66 points per game in Bengals wins, but only 6.87 points per game in losses. Last year he scored 48 points (31% of his yearly total) from touchdowns inside the 5 yard line. With five games over 15 points, and five games under 5 points, Hill’s RB14 finish was a rollercoaster… literally, his 2015 looks like a rollercoaster ride that would scare the out of you:
Hill’s a situation dependent player, and I’m worried the Bengals offense takes a massive step back with Eifert injured and Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Hue Jackson gone. He may finish with a third straight top-15 RB year, but he’ll do half his damage while on your bench and drive you crazy trying to figure out when to start him.
Jonathan Stewart scored 11.3 points per game and finished as RB16 overall in a year where Carolina had favorable game scripts and lead the league in scoring. His six touchdowns were actually his best since Cam Newton was drafted, and are unlikely to repeat given Stewart received only 34.6% of the Panthers’ carries inside the 5 and 39.1% inside the 10. If 2015 was the best-case scenario, I’m not all that excited about investing a 4th round pick.
DeAngelo Williams and Frank Gore finished as RB4 and RB12 last year, so the 33-year-olds seem like bargains as the 27th and 29th running backs off the board this year. Historically, however, there’s been a massive drop-off in running back production between age 32 and 33. Since 2000, the only successful age-33+ running back seasons are two Emmitt Smith years where he was woefully inefficient but earned heavy workloads thanks to name recognition, and two years of modest production from pass-catching backs (Warrick Dunn and Fred Jackson). Gore and Williams both have a path to heavy volume and are capable receivers, but drafting them is banking on a historical anomaly. There are better things to do with a 6th round pick.
DeAndre Hopkins was WR6 last year, both in total points and points per game, but he was far more productive the first half of the season, when the Texans were often playing from behind and throwing like a Big-12 school:
Hopkins’ yards per target last year (7.92) also indicate volume was key, as he lagged behind the other elite wide receivers (Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., and A.J. Green, were all above 9.0 yards per target, as was Dez Bryant in 2014). The other thing no one’s talking about is the quarterback situation. Brian Hoyer started last year by losing his job to Ryan Mallett (!) before the end of Week 1(!), and ended it with a 4 interception, 2 fumble debacle in the Divisional Round. Anyone would be better than Hoyer, right? Good assumption, but if anything, Brock Osweiler is actually a downgrade. Playing with better receivers, here’s how Osweiler stacked up:
Hopkins is a great player and worthy of a late-first round pick, but of the elite receivers he should be the last one drafted.
Amari Cooper was really good for a 21-year-old, so this one could make me look stupid. Here it goes… Oakland spent most of 2015 trailing and finished with the 4th fewest rushing attempts. With a head coach and offensive coordinator who have traditionally been run-heavy and an improved defense, I think there’s major regression coming in Oakland’s run/pass splits. Less volume will be a problem because Oakland’s passing offense was inefficient in 2015. Derek Carr finished 23 in completion percentage and 20th in AY/A, while both Cooper and Crabtree finished with low catch percentages (90th and 77th among qualifying wide receivers) and Y/TGT (45th and 111th). They overcame this by dominating Oakland’s target share (combined 45.8%), but I think this flattens a bit in 2016. Cooper’s a top 5 WR next year, and the decade to follow, but I’m sitting out this year.
Kelvin Benjamin is literally (i.e., figuratively) on every bust list this year, so this one’s not exactly original, but it’s valid. Among top 24 receivers in 2014, Benjamin’s 6.95 yards/target and 50.34% catch rate were by far the lowest. He overcame inefficiency with volume (26.6% of Carolina’s targets) and junk time production (averaging 11.87 points per game in losses compared to only 6.86 points per game in wins). Already 25 years old, there’s less room for growth than you’d think.
I love Travis Kelce, but don’t expect a breakout as long as he’s stuck with Alex Smith. Last year Kelce received 21.2% of Kansas City’s targets—a very good market share for a tight end—but the Chiefs have finished just 29th in passing attempts (after finishing 28th and 20th the prior two years). Kelce was productive with his targets, finishing with 72catches (tied with Rob Gronkowski for 8th among TEs) for 875 yards (6th among TEs), but even doubling his 5 TDs from last season would’ve moved him up just one spot in the tight end rankings.
Delanie Walker led all tight ends with 133 targets last year, but among the elite TEs he was lowest on fantasy points, touchdowns and yards per target.
He’s had better yardage years and better touchdown years, but his 1.13 points/target is actually his highest since getting full-time run in Tennessee. In other words, he’s a good player, but at 32 years old, last year’s probably the high water mark. His targets should also be siphoned off with the seemingly competent Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe now starting next to Walker—Harry Douglas’s 72 targets were by far the lowest any team gave to its top wide receiver in 2015. I’m not paying a premium for Walker when so many good players at more important positions are still on the board.