By Evan Silva, Establish the Run
Special to Yahoo Sports
Team stacking is a high-ceiling strategy in Best Ball, larger-field season-long tournaments, and of course DFS, where the concept originally gained traction and has become an almost weekly necessity. But team stacks are far less popular in the former two fantasy formats, creating opportunities for us to carve out competitive advantages on common folk who believe value-based drafting is the only way.
I’m not here to tell you to stack the Chiefs, Cowboys, or Ravens. That’s what you should’ve done over the past few years when those offenses were undervalued. Stacking established juggernaut offenses becomes unreasonable because the ADPs of players on those teams rise too high.
Last year’s Sneaky Stacks column identified Baltimore, Tampa Bay, and San Francisco, and we hope to have similar 2020 success.
But to do so, we need to hunt for value and late-round sleepers to round off our stacks. And we want to identify offense-friendly environments where players can substantially outscore expectations. Given Yahoo’s Best Ball roster size, a suggested number of players to stack from the same team is three to four.
Stack Candidates: QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB James Conner, WRs JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, James Washington, and Chase Claypool, TEs Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald, RBs Jaylen Samuels and Anthony McFarland Jr.
I wrote the Steelers into last year’s Sneaky Stacks and monumentally whiffed, for no greater reason than Ben Roethlisberger’s Week 2 season-ending elbow injury. As Ben is 38 years old and required surgery to reattach three throwing-arm tendons, revisiting this well carries all kinds of risk. But the genesis for any team-stack strategy is playing for first and not trying to stay out of last.
So, for better or worse, I’m doubling down on last year’s mistake.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is one of just two Steelers carrying an ADP inside the top three rounds. I still believe he is an essential team-stack target as a fringe 2019 first-round fantasy pick whose stock crashed due to recency bias caused by Ben’s injury and Smith-Schuster’s own multitude of maladies. But JuJu is just one star-crossed season removed from ranking sixth in the NFL in catches (111) and fifth in receiving yards (1,426). At his depressed ADP, I have no doubt Smith-Schuster will be one of my most-rostered 2020 players.
Despite encountering nearly as many injuries as JuJu, James Conner ranked 16th among 50 qualified backs in PFF’s Elusive Rating and was on pace for 1,408 total yards, 66 catches, and 14 all-purpose TDs through seven games. Conner touched the ball just 24 times after that. Another fringe first-round pick last year, Conner’s ADP has sunk into the third round. Yet his in-house competition barely changed beyond Steelers’ mid-fourth-round draft pick, Anthony McFarland Jr.
Diontae Johnson turned in a promising initial NFL campaign, somehow surviving Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges and outplaying James Washington en route to a 59-reception season, the league’s 19th most by a rookie receiver over the last decade. Entrenched as Pittsburgh’s most dynamic perimeter wideout, Johnson is a prime middle-round breakout candidate with Ben back to uplift the entire offense.
Jaylen Samuels’ team-stack appeal hinges on his unique versatility, pass-catching acumen, and Conner’s injury history. At third receiver, inconsistent Washington versus Vincent Jackson clone Chase Claypool will be a camp battle to watch. Signed to a two-year, $12 million deal, Eric Ebron should have the clear upper hand on Vance McDonald for receiving tight end duties and comes very cheaply in drafts.
Pittsburgh’s stack appeal is furthered by the likelihood Roethlisberger’s return will dramatically spike their play volume and pass frequency, creating more opportunities to light up box scores. Per ETR pace specialist Pat Thorman, the Steelers logged the NFL’s highest situation-neutral pass rate (65%) in 2018, Ben’s last full season as starter. That 2018 team ranked fifth in plays per game, averaged the NFL’s sixth-most yards per snap, and scored the seventh-most points.
The Steelers’ stack obviously, desperately needs Ben to stay healthy. We’re popping bottles if he does.
Stack Candidates: QB Teddy Bridgewater, RB Christian McCaffrey, WRs DJ Moore, Curtis Samuel, and Robby Anderson, TE Ian Thomas, RB Reggie Bonnafon
Before examining Carolina’s individual skill players, let’s discuss their offensive environment.
Sean Payton disciple Joe Brady will run the show after engineering a 2019 LSU offense that led the nation in first-down plays, averaged 72 offensive snaps per game (Philadelphia led the NFL with 69), and emphasized an up-tempo attack whenever games were in doubt. Complementing Brady’s offense is a defense that lost top CB James Bradberry (Giants), superstar MLB Luke Kuechly (retirement), sack leader Mario Addison (Bills), 8 ½-sack speed rusher Bruce Irvin (Seahawks), and leading tackler SS Eric Reid.
The Panthers used all seven of their draft picks on defensive players and will trot out a starting 11 chock full of rookies. Over time, teams that play fast on offense yet allow lots of points tend to dwell in high-scoring, fantasy-friendly shootouts. This year’s Panthers look poised to lose lots of games 37-27, and that’s quite alright with us.
Christian McCaffrey is this stack’s Michael Jordan. But that’s no different from last year when McCaffrey scored nearly nine more PPR points per game than overall fantasy RB2 Dalvin Cook. Brady’s LSU backfield featured Clyde Edwards-Helaire, whose 55 receptions set a single-season school record for a running back. Edwards-Helaire also rushed for 1,414 yards, third-most in LSU’s annals.
Teddy Bridgewater is B.J. Armstrong/Ron Harper, the point guard of this stack. Across five starts for last year’s Saints, Bridgewater went an undefeated 5-0 with a 9:2 TD-to-INT ratio and 69.7% completion rate as part of a low-aDOT, risk-averse passing game with Drew Brees on the shelf. Teddy was the NFL’s 13th-quickest passer among 37 qualifiers in Pro Football Focus’ Time to Throw metric, and his passer rating jumped from 87.6 to 108.4 whenever Bridgewater released the ball in 2.5 seconds or less.
In Carolina, Bridgewater can be elevated by a dynamic supporting cast while being forced to play with fast-tempo urgency to compensate for a rookie-laden, points-hemorrhaging defense. You can get Bridgewater near the end of any fantasy draft. In many, he isn’t being drafted at all.
DJ Moore’s ADP provides minimal value, but he’s our Scottie Pippen. A successful Panthers stack just isn’t happening without him. Only eight players since the 1970 merger have banked more receiving yards than Moore before the age of 23, and positive-touchdown regression is forthcoming after Moore managed six TDs over his first two seasons.
Role players Robby Anderson (Dennis Rodman) and Curtis Samuel (Horace Grant) can be included in deeper versions of a Carolina stack, offering ADP-beating potential should Moore miss time. I’ve come to prioritize Samuel in my own drafts, betting Anderson will inherit the low-percentage clear-out routes Samuel ran all last season, and that Brady will prioritize higher-percentage means of getting Samuel the ball.
But Ian Thomas (Toni Kukoc) is my personal favorite role-player member of this stack as an obvious breakout candidate following Greg Olsen’s departure.
It can’t hurt that Carolina projects to face 2020’s sixth-toughest schedule based on opponents’ Vegas Win Totals, foreshadowing week-in and week-out deficits Bridgewater & Co. will be forced to address through the air.
New York Giants
Stack Candidates: QB Daniel Jones, RB Saquon Barkley, WRs Golden Tate, Sterling Shepard, and Darius Slayton, TE Evan Engram, RB Dion Lewis, TE Kaden Smith
Albeit in much-maligned fashion, Dave Gettleman largely successfully cobbled together a promising skill-player corps during his first two years as Giants GM. Gettleman’s 2018 and 2019 first rounds netted Saquon Barkley and Daniel Jones, and last year’s free agency landed trusty slot man Golden Tate. Gettleman stole 4.39 burner Darius Slayton in 2019’s fifth round before overlooked waiver claim Kaden Smith gave the G-Men high-quality late-season snaps.
Gettleman followed up with a meat-and-potatoes 2020 approach, using the fourth overall pick on stud Georgia OT Andrew Thomas and drafting three offensive linemen in the first five rounds. Headlined by Thomas, RG Kevin Zeitler, LG Will Hernandez, and LT Nate Solder, the Giants should trot out their best offensive line in a very long time. Those up-front investments bode promisingly for Gettleman’s skill-talent collection.
Barkley is a top-three pick in virtually every draft but represents this stack’s indispensable leadoff hitter. He’s the Rickey Henderson of any Giants stack.
Jones is Jose Canseco. Danny Dimes’ fumbling problems are barely felt in fantasy, and his combination of high-end athleticism and spiked scoring ability gives Jones homerun potential each week. After Jones averaged 36.8 rushing yards per game at Duke, only six NFL quarterbacks ran for more yards in 2019. Since the 1970’s merger, just three rookie QBs (Baker Mayfield, Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson) have thrown more touchdown passes than Jones’ 24. And Jones made fewer first-year starts (13) than all three.
Evan Engram can be this stack’s Mark McGwire. There aren’t five more talented receiving tight ends in football, but hard-luck injuries stalled Engram’s early career development. Nearing age 26, Engram has still caught 79 passes over his last 16 appearances and is a home-run hitter when healthy.
Tate, Slayton, and Sterling Shepard are affordable Giants-stack components with Slayton offering the highest ceiling and Tate and Shepard higher floors. As a big believer in quarterback-wideout chemistry, I found it notable that Tate banked team highs in targets (76), catches (47), yards (614), touchdowns (5), and first-down conversions (28) on Jones’ 2019 passes. I included Smith as a longshot stack piece due to his impressive late-season surge and (so-far dormant) trade rumors surrounding Engram.
This stack’s outlook is enhanced by the Giants drawing 2020’s second-toughest schedule based on the combined average of their opponents’ Vegas Win Totals. The G-Men are going to spend much of the season trying to throw themselves out of holes.
But it does face two potential roadblocks. First is the hire of OC Jason Garrett, who ran one of the league’s slowest, grossest, run-first-est offenses in recent league history as head coach of the Cowboys. Second is the possibility Jones flops as a sophomore, regressing into the NFL dud most projected him to be coming out of Duke.
Stack Candidates: QB Joe Burrow, RB Joe Mixon, WRs A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, John Ross, Tee Higgins, and Auden Tate, TEs C.J. Uzomah and Drew Sample, RB Giovani Bernard
There are two obstacles in the way of Cincinnati’s team stack hitting. First is this year’s absence of offseason workouts and likely abbreviated training camp, forcing rookie Joe Burrow to primarily learn Zac Taylor’s offense via Zoom and FaceTime. Another is division play; the Bengals face the imposing defenses of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Baltimore twice apiece.
But Burrow’s pinpoint accuracy, Tony Romo-esque pocket navigation, anticipation passing, and downfield aggressiveness are traits that foreshadow teammate elevation, a quality predecessor Andy Dalton lacked. And the Bengals’ stack is undervalued; Joe Mixon is the lone member with an ADP inside the opening four rounds. Burrow’s addition, an underrated skill-player corps, and the return of 2019 first-round OT Jonah Williams set up Cincinnati’s offense for a quick turnaround in Taylor’s second year as coach.
Even as he oversaw an injury-ravaged offense in Year One, Taylor showed a willingness to put his foot on the gas. The 2019 Bengals ranked No. 9 in offensive plays per game and No. 7 in situation-neutral pace.
Just as importantly, this stack needs a reversal of injury fortunes to hit. Ankle, toe, and hamstring ailments cost A.J. Green 29 games over the past four seasons. After undergoing multiple knee and shoulder surgeries in college, John Ross has missed 24-of-48 NFL games due to continued knee woes, a sprained sternum, and soft-tissue injuries. Ross also risks losing snaps to No. 33 overall pick Tee Higgins.
But Bengals stacks don’t realistically come into play unless drafters select contract-year RB Mixon in the late-first or early second round. We haven’t seen peak Mixon yet; he somehow averaged 96.3 total yards per game and scored 17 TDs over the past two seasons despite one of the NFL’s worst supporting casts.
Stack Candidates: QB Matthew Stafford, RB D’Andre Swift, RB Kerryon Johnson, WRs Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Danny Amendola, TE T.J. Hockenson
Eight games into 2019, the Lions were quietly playing elite offense in Darrell Bevell’s first year as OC. They were averaging 25.5 points and 391.3 yards per game, which would’ve ranked eighth and fourth in the league at season’s end. Matthew Stafford was on pace for career highs in passer rating (106.0), yards per attempt (9.1), yards per completion (13.4), and touchdown rate (6.5%) to go with a 38:10 TD-to-INT ratio.
Then, in Week 9, Stafford broke his back.
But Stafford is fully expected to be ready for Week 1, and Detroit’s offensive continuity may provide a competitive advantage in an offseason-less year. Every key skill component of Bevell’s explosive offense returns. The Lions added third-round OG Jonah Jackson and $45 million RT Halapoulivaati Vaitai up front. They play ten games indoors and three outdoors down south (Carolina, Tennessee, Jacksonville). And down-south native Stafford’s pass-catcher corps is great.
Even as Kenny Golladay’s ADP allows for minimal value, there aren’t 15 more talented wideouts across the league. And teammate Marvin Jones is severely undervalued. Jones was on absolute fire pre-Stafford injury, pacing for a career-best 84/1,070/12 receiving line through eight games. Even including starts with David Blough and Jeff Driskel, Jones’ stat line over his last 16 is 78/1,017/11. T.J. Hockenson’s quiet rookie year was entirely unsurprising. College football’s Mackey Award winner in 2018 and 2019’s No. 8 overall pick, Hockenson offers serious sophomore-leap potential.
35th overall pick D’Andre Swift muddies Detroit’s backfield clarity, but Swift’s pre-draft comparisons to Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook were warranted. Swift was a better back than Sony Michel at Georgia and played a significant role in the Bulldogs’ Nick Chubb-dominated attack as a freshman in 2017. Talented but knee-hobbled Kerryon Johnson should stay involved and has a low ADP.
A Stafford eruption remains the most critical component of any Lions stack, and he was on pace for that halfway through 2019. In 2020, Stafford is one of my favorite bets for Comeback Player of the Year.
Stack Candidates: QB Drew Lock, RB Melvin Gordon, WRs Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, and K.J. Hamler, TE Noah Fant, RB Phillip Lindsay
The Broncos are easily my least confident team-stack suggestion, so let’s identify those concerns first. Their head coach is Vic Fangio, an old-school defensive mind who might tap the breaks on any signs of offensive aggressiveness. Early this offseason, Fangio swapped out promising 48-year-old Kyle Shanahan disciple OC Rich Scangarello for 55-year-old journeyman Pat Shurmur. Fellow Shanahan protégé T.C. McCartney, Denver’s 31-year-old quarterbacks coach, was fired in favor of 55-year-old has-been Mike Shula.
Another concern is inexperience, especially in a year of no offseason workouts and potentially nonexistent preseason. Rapping 23-year-old QB Drew Lock has made five NFL starts. His projected Nos. 2 and 3 wide receivers are rookies, and Lock’s No. 1 tight end is a second-year player. Exacerbated by offensive staff changes, 2020’s reduced practice, and prep time figure to affect this unit more than most.
Yet this stack remains undervalued and exciting. Despite catching passes from three different quarterbacks, Courtland Sutton turned in a monster 2019 breakout (72/1,112/6) in which he ranked fourth among NFL wide receivers in missed tackles forced and was robbed of gobs of yardage as secondaries keyed up with close coverage to stop him. Sutton capitalized by drawing a league-high 13 penalties, including eight pass-interference flags. He also banked more targets (40), catches (22), yards (280), and touchdowns (2) than any other Bronco on passes from Lock. I’m lower on Sutton than consensus from a rankings standpoint, but I don’t think this stack is hitting without him going off. He is a crucial component.
As is Noah Fant, whose NFL debut was rocky yet productive. Fant’s 562 yards were fourth-most by any rookie tight end in the last decade. Rookie WRs Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler are at greatest risk of adverse effects from this year’s quarantine. But if this stack is going to severely outkick expectations, one of them probably hits.
One compelling reason to buy into this stack is likely offensive line improvement. Renowned position coach Mike Munchak enters his second season overseeing Denver’s front five with an infusion of talent. $51 million RT Ja’Wuan James is back after missing all but three games with a torn MCL and meniscus. The Broncos signed steady, versatile veteran G/C Graham Glasgow to a four-year, $44 million deal, then drafted National Champion LSU center Lloyd Cushenberry in Round Three. 2019 second-round LG Dalton Risner is coming off an impressive rookie campaign.
Running behind Denver’s revamped, coached-up line will be Melvin Gordon in the lead back role with Phillip Lindsay changing the pace. Neither has a too-high ADP, while the rest of the AFC West run defenses are entirely unimposing.
The NFL schedule release revealed that Denver projects to face 2020’s fifth-toughest slate, perhaps forcing the Broncos to embrace a pass-heavier approach than Fangio prefers due to in-game deficits brought on by difficult opponents.
Evan Silva is a Co-founder and Senior NFL Analyst at Establish The Run. He oversees the ETR Fantasy Draft Kit and authors the popular 'Matchups Column' during the NFL regular season.
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