Forecasting individual performance within a league that's as complicated and violent as the NFL is...well, it's messy. It's scattershot. It ain't easy.
But fantasy experts are supposed to be good at it — that's the job. And when a case arises where we aren't good at it (which is basically inevitable), readers are supposed to pound us with comments about what lousy hacks we are, about how we could never compete in their leagues, blah-blah-OMG-this-[profane]-tool-gives-the-worst-advice-ever-blah.
That's just the circle of life. The Yahoo! experts actually have a pretty stellar track record in terms of rankings accuracy, but that won't mean a thing to you if we make the wrong call on your Donald Brown vs. James Starks dilemma in Week 2. I get it. I know my role, and I'm here for you. Scott is here for you, too. And Brad and Brandon, they're here for you. We're in this thing together.
Over the next three months — before the first regular season game is even played — we're going to deliver a mountain of NFL content, loaded with specifics, with granular analysis, with historical comps, discussions of schemes, team previews sprinkled with jargon. Each of us will talk about "draft value" and "profit" as if we'd already seen the answer key to the 2012 season.
Then Week 1 will come and go, and most of our thoughtful preseason constructions will be reduced to smouldering ruins. Reliable fantasy assets will break, obvious bust candidates with rush for 150 yards and multiple scores. We'll need to rethink and re-rank the league. (This is when the real hacks will reveal themselves, because they'll point to the one thing out of 30 they got right and say, "Hope you listened to my advice on [whoever]!" There's a special circle of fantasy hell for those folks).
The NFL really has an annoying way of not conforming to anyone's expectations. Again, this is a messy game we're tangled up in. If you're going to win a competitive fantasy league, you'll need to be active and open-minded all season. Every year, some undrafted fantasy asset emerges in the final three weeks — during your league's playoffs — and absolutely beasts during the most important stretch on the calendar. It was CJ Spiller last season, Tim Tebow the year before, Jerome Harrison in '09, Tyler Thigpen in '08...it's always someone.
But end-of-season management is a topic for another day, another Tip Drill.
Today, we're going to discuss the late stages of your fantasy draft — let's say pick No. 120 and beyond, after the first ten rounds are finished. When dealing with a game that defies easy prediction, you can always find a few ridiculous steals near the end of a draft. Many owners will use their late picks to address bye-week coverage — as if planning for Week 8 in August was somehow sensible — but I always prefer to spend those final selections on lottery tickets, understanding that many (if not all) of my tickets won't hit.
There really are no hard-and-fast rules about drafting in fantasy football, at least none that stand up to scrutiny, but one of my personal guiding principles is to chase the players I believe have the highest ceilings during the late rounds. In the Yahoo! Friends & Family draft last year, for example, the following names were selected beyond the 120th pick (not by me): Rob Gronkowski (135), Aaron Hernandez (143), Cam Newton (158), Donald Brown (160) and Antonio Brown (190). The list of guys who only narrowly missed the cutoff is equally impressive: Jordy Nelson (101), Roy Helu (104), AJ Green (106), DeMarco Murray (115), Ben Tate (118).
Of course I don't mean to imply that the bottom third of the F&F draft was just a big pile of gems. There were dozens of late duds, too, from Delone Carter (122) to Lance Kendricks (168). My point is simply that elite talent is available with those final selections; you can win a league with early-rounders or late-rounders.
Below you'll find a list of 10 players who are typically drafted outside the top 120 picks, according to ADP data at Fantasy Football Calculator.* There's no way to guarantee that these guys will be similarly priced during peak draft season — some may jump 50 spots, others will endure a flaming nosedive due to injury — but, as of right now, you can get 'em all after Round 10. These players aren't exactly sleepers, because everyone already knows the names. Instead, these are simply persons of interest for fantasy purposes, available deep in drafts.
(* ADPs are all over the place at various sites, especially in May and June. There's really no perfect source. If you scan the ADPs of any major fantasy provider, you'll find they're tied closely to pre-ranks and often influenced by auto-pick logic. Your leaguemates will no doubt sort the player pool differently, perhaps more efficiently. I can't promise that any of the dudes below will be available in your league at the current retail prices).
QB Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals (ADP 126.5)
That's Dalton pictured above at the Pro Bowl, flanked by Bengals teammates AJ Green and Jermaine Gresham. That trio, along with first-year receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, forms an excellent young core for Cincinnati's passing game. (These guys are all 24 and under). Don't sleep on this offense in 2012, as if it were 2008 all over again. Last year, Dalton became just the fourth quarterback in NFL history to pass for at least 3000 yards and 20 TDs in his rookie season — and the other three were Peyton Manning, Jim Kelly and Cam Newton, so he's in impressive company. Dalton is just the 17th QB off the board in early mocks, a slot he could easily outperform.
WR Brian Quick, St. Louis Rams (ADP 125.3)
Nobody needs to buy multiple shares of the Rams' offense, nor does anyone need to invest early in this team in a fantasy draft. Just target Quick as a late upside play, someone who can open the year on your fake team's bench. He'll be making a serious quality-of-competition adjustment coming from Appalachian State, but he has a No. 1 receiver's skill set, with great leaping ability, size (6-foot-4) and wingspan (81 inches). And c'mon, someone has to lead St. Louis in receiving. If you're looking for more Brian Quick propaganda, I'll refer you first to these comments from Greg Cosell:
Watch any college wide receiver, especially one that played in a spread, and you will see limited routes. Justin Blackmon went to Oklahoma State, and he has no greater route running experience that Quick. They both played in spread offenses. In fact, studying both extensively on film, you can make the argument that Quick, who's significantly bigger than Blackmon, is more naturally athletic. Quick is a very fluid and smooth athlete with excellent lateral quickness and deceptive vertical speed due to stride length.
Of course the Rams' offense could very well average 11.0 points per game this season, making it a fantasy wasteland. But it's only June, so we should stay hopeful.
TE Brent Celek, Philadelphia Eagles (ADP 152.0)
This seems like the appropriate time to remind you that this is not a list of draft day sleepers. Celek would hardly qualify if that were the case. The man had his breakout season in '09 (and his breakout performance in the NFC title game the year before). But Celek's current draft price should tell you a little something about the depth at tight end. He was fantastic after the Eagles' Week 7 bye last year, gaining 696 receiving yards over the final 10 games. Celek was actually the top-scoring fantasy TE over the final three weeks of 2011, outproducing both Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham. Investing in this guy is a cheap way to grab a share of an explosive offense. He's healthy, productive, proven, and attached to a fantasy juggernaut.
WR Vincent Brown, San Diego Chargers (ADP 128.7)
You remember this catch from the Raiders game last season, right? How 'bout this tipped pass grab from Week 16? Brown is legit talent, connected to a high-yield passing game. Yes, newcomers Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal complicate the receiving hierarchy in San Diego. And yes, based on the OTA buzz, it sounds as if Ryan Mathews is going to see approximately 9000 touches this year. But with an 11th round ADP, there's little risk attached to Brown.
RB Shane Vereen, New England Patriots (ADP 133.4)
In the first version of our preseason ranks, the Yahoo! analysts all rated Stevan Ridley as the back to own in New England (if you absolutely have to own one). But this ignores a pair of important facts: 1) Ridley was benched in the playoffs last year due to fumbling issues, and 2) Vereen has seen plenty of work with the Pats' first-team during OTAs. Also, for what it's worth (almost nothing), Vereen was actually drafted ahead of Ridley in 2011. The Patriots no doubt plan to utilize a committee of rushers in the season ahead, but we've learned in prior years that when the bulk of the New England carries fall to one guy, that player can be a hugely valuable commodity in fantasy.
RB Jacquizz Rodgers, Atlanta Falcons (ADP 141.8)
Just so we're clear, I'm not going to write a Michael Turner obituary. The Burner has been one of the most reliable running backs in the game during his Atlanta years, always reaching double-digits in touchdowns. He's coming off a season in which he averaged 4.5 yards per carry, rushing for 172 yards in Week 17. You guys can keep betting against him if you like; I'll happily take him in Round 3 (ADP 28.1) and deal with the abuse in draft chat.
But it's possible to feel OK about both Turner and Rodgers this season. That's allowed. I'm not buying the idea that Atlanta will throw the ball with greater frequency this year — the team ranked fourth in pass attempts in 2011 — but I'm sure they'd like to be less predictable, and they'll make better use of Rodgers as a receiving threat. He should be a useful PPR option at worst, with a chance to carve out a substantial role in the Falcons' offense. A classic handcuff with benefits.
TE Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers (ADP 153.9)
Olsen and Jeremy Shockey combined for 82 catches, 995 yards and 9 TDs in Carolina's TE-friendly passing attack last season ... and this year, Shockey is gone. It's not hard to build a case for Olsen as a top-10 fantasy option at his position. (Note: If this were a sleeper post, which it isn't, we'd tout Gary Barnidge as a tight end with potential).
WR Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears (ADP 147.5)
Perhaps you've heard me hype this kid before, so I'll keep it brief here. Jeffery has a clear shot to be the top-scoring rookie receiver in fantasy. He's one of the few first-year wideouts in line to see a steady volume of targets from an exceptional quarterback. Jeffery has great hands, great size (6-foot-3), great highlights, and a great situation. I'm prepared to take him well ahead of pick No. 148.
WR Rueben Randle, New York Giants (ADP 136.3)
Randle's situation is similar to Jeffery's, as both are talented play-making receivers who've found excellent NFL landing spots. Randle should be considered the overwhelming favorite to open the year as the No. 3 receiver in an offense that averaged 308.3 passing yards per game last season. In 2011, Mario Manningham averaged 6.4 targets per game for New York, but he departed to San Francisco during the off-season. Randle figures to get most of those looks in the year ahead. If Hakeem Nicks' foot issues should unexpectedly remain a problem into September, Randle's role could be even greater in the opening weeks.
QB Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts (ADP 132.7)
Fantasy experts across multiple sites are engaged in a skirmish to see who can be the most recklessly enthusiastic propagandist for Robert Griffin III. (I'm betting on Evans, but there are many contenders). If you want RGIII in his first NFL season, you'll need to draft him as a top-12 quarterback — that's where he's going right now, ahead of Jay Cutler, ahead of Ben Roethlisberger.
Meanwhile, the fantasy community seems to be ignoring the top pick from April's draft. Luck is going 43 picks later than Griffin, barely within the top-20 at his position. Never mind that he's perhaps as NFL-ready as any rookie quarterback in the fantasy era. This is a precision passer, advanced in his development, and he'll be at the controls of an offense that will be playing catch-up all year — the Colts defense ranked 25th in the NFL in yards-allowed in 2011 and 20th in 2010. Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie remain in town, plus Indy used seven of 10 draft picks on offensive skill players (one of whom, TE Coby Fleener, was a teammate of Luck's at Stanford). It's not at all difficult to imagine Luck emerging as a respectable platoon QB for fantasy purposes in his rookie campaign.