Veteran Winners (And Losers) Of The NFL Draft

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Veterans who didn't look half bad before the NFL Draft suddenly look worlds worse. Guys who hardly raised an eyebrow among fantasy drafters before the draft now look pretty good -- even appealing.

Below is a look at veterans whose fantasy prospects improved with their teams' draft picks, and players who appear less draftable -- or not draftable at all -- following the chaos of the NFL Draft.

Winners

James Conner (ARI)
Conner emerged from the draft without any new competition for touches in an Arizona backfield that has proven incredibly valuable for fantasy purposes. Eno Benjamin truthers might take exception to this as they adjust their tinfoil hats. So be it.

With the Cardinals passing on early-round backs and Chase Edmonds in Miami, Conner is set up for a healthy workload, just as he had during some heady stretches in 2021. Conner, with Edmonds sidelined from Week 9-14, led all NFL backs in team share of high-value touches (touches inside the 10-yard line plus receptions). Conner notched a 95 percent high-value target rate with Edmonds out. Jonathan Taylor was the only running back to score more fantasy points than Conner during that glorious run.

Conner and Edmonds combined for 328 expected fantasy points in 2021, with Conner notching the third-most fantasy points over expected among running backs. Kyler Murray’s backfield is one to target for fantasy managers who enjoy maximizing fantasy points.

Zach Wilson (NYJ)
The Jets front office did that thing where they converted six tons of draft capital into impact players that will leave no excuse for Zach Wilson in his all-important sophomore year. Getting the superb Garrett Wilson in the first round and the explosive Breece Hall in the third round -- to go along with TE Jeremy Ruckert -- loads up a Gang Green offense that will also feature Elijah Moore, Corey Davis, and the weirdly dominant Braxton Berrios.

I only put Wilson in the “winners” category because his offense got a needed influx of talented playmakers. There is, however, no reason to believe Wilson can make the most of that talent injection. He showed absolutely nothing as a rookie, and the Jets’ only success in 2021 came when Wilson was sidelined or when the team could hide their overwhelmed QB with a heavy dose of the run game.

No quarterback in 2021 had a lower composite expected points added (EPA) per play and completion rate over expected (CPOE) than Wilson. Even Sam Darnold was markedly better. Wilson’s dismal 38.6 percent success rate was the lowest in the league, well below fellow rookie Trevor Lawrence, who was also objectively awful.

The Jets will probably be content to operate a grinding, conservative offense designed to win games 17-14 rather than let Wilson loose with his new cast of big-time pass catchers. If you don’t believe me, consider the Jets had a 42 percent pass rate in their two late-season wins with Wilson at the helm (against Houston in Week 12 and Jacksonville in Week 16). Their pass rate fell to 37 percent when they had the lead in those games. Bleak, I know.

Wilson is only a draft winner in a technical sense.

Jameis Winston (NO)
The hope, with the Saints using a first rounder on Ohio State WR Chris Olave, is that the team is willing to let Winston run something more fantasy friendly than the hyper-conservative short-area passing game they operated in 2021.

Olave’s presence opposite a (hopefully) healthy Michael Thomas will give Winston far superior options than what he had last season, which was one of the league’s worst wide receiver groups.

Here’s to hoping the Saints know how good Winston was last season on his rare downfield opportunities. The team’s lone downfield burner, Deonte Harty -- the wideout formerly known as Deonte Harris -- caught 12 of his 16 targets from Winston for 14.9 yards per pop, per Sharp Football Analysis’ Rich Hribar.

Winston since 2018 has the league’s fifth-highest expected points added (EPA) per pass attempt of more than 30 yards. The selection of Olave and the return of Thomas should open up more fantasy-friendly chances for the former gunslinger.

Michael Pittman (IND)
The Colts’ second-round selection of Alec Pierce -- an expert field stretcher and downfield weapon for Desmond Ridder at Cincinnati -- is a decidedly positive development for Pittman, the Colts’ unquestioned alpha receiver headed into 2022.

Pierce’s explosive downfield ability should (mostly) prevent opposing secondaries from clamping down on Pittman as the team’s lone threatening pass catcher. Pierce’s speed pushing safeties deeper and (maybe) stopping teams from shading coverage toward Pittman should allow Pittman to exploit more favorable matchups. Pierce, in other words, is a massive upgrade on T.Y. Hilton, who didn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of opposing defenders last season.

From Week 8-18 last season, Pittman commanded a target on 27 percent of his pass routes, the 16th highest rate in the NFL over the stretch. He should be able to convert that sort of opportunity into more efficient fantasy production with Indy’s QB upgrade and Pierce’s addition to the lineup.

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Losers

Rashaad Penny (SEA)
I was willing to bet on Penny’s sheer talent if Chris Carson was his only roadblock to an every-down role in what will be a wretched Seattle offense (by design). That the Seabags proved they're a bottom-five NFL franchise and took Kenneth Walker in the second round of the draft pushes me all the way out on the entire Seattle backfield.

The Athletic’s Michael-Shawn Dugar envisioned a (realistic) scenario in which Walker climbs the team’s depth chart during the summer and starts “multiple games” for Pete Carroll’s run-establishing offense in 2022.

Fantasy’s top running back over the 2021 season’s final six weeks -- delivering on the promise he had teased us with for four years -- Penny will now compete with a tried-and-true early-down banger in Walker. Penny’s best-case scenario is taking on the Seahawks’ passing down role and the team being forced into a bunch of pass-heavy game scripts in 2022. But Carson’s presence and the draft capital the team hilariously spent on Walker means Penny won’t see anything close to a full workload in 2022.

He had a nice run. A legendary run, actually.

Michael Carter (NYJ)
Any daydreams of Carter seizing the Jets backfield as an every-down guy were effectively bashed into ten thousand pieces by a truck-sized sledgehammer when New York drafted back-to-back Big 12 Player of the Year Breece Hall in the second round of the NFL Draft.

Everything about Hall’s profile says he’ll be a fine and dandy every-down back for what will probably be a (very) run-heavy Jets offense (see above for how the team ran its offense in the rare occasion in which it won in 2021).

I don’t completely buy The Athletic’s Connor Hughes saying the Jets "will deploy a running back by committee as long as Mike LaFleur is their offensive coordinator." Even if Hall won’t see a Derrick Henry-like workload, the Jets didn’t use a second-round pick so he could evenly split backfield snaps with a guy like Carter, who in 2021 didn’t exactly make a compelling case to be the team’s unquestioned starter going forward. Carter is nothing more than a decent Zero RB draft target for those who drink the Kool-Aid.

DeVonta Smith (PHI)
The insertion of a target-eating alpha wideout into a run-first offense will never be great news for the previous year's WR1 in said offense. So it goes with Smith, who acquitted himself well as a rookie but was hamstrung as a fantasy producer in an offense with the league's lowest pass rate over expected.

With A.J. Brown's arrival in Philadelphia, Smith's team-leading 23 percent target share is sure to be gashed by a good five percent in 2022 -- maybe more. Smith, after all, had just four games of more than seven targets in 2021 despite his 23 percent target share. Brown has commanded targets any time he's been healthy during his pro career. That's not going to change with a shift in scenery. The only hope for Smith maintaining high-end WR3 value in 2022 is for the Eagles to get more balanced on offense -- not an impossibility with another year of maturation for Jalen Hurts and Brown's acquisition.

Marlon Mack (HOU)
If one could convince oneself that the Texans would consider using a running back besides Rex Burkhead in 2022, Mack would be the clear choice.

Before he was a healthy scratch behind the dominant Jonathan Taylor, Mack was a productive starter for the Colts. In 2019, his final campaign as the team’s lead back, Mack ran for 1,091 yards and scored eight touchdowns.

Houston’s fourth-round selection of Florida RB Dameon Pierce ended any thought of Mack emerging as the Texans’ top back in 2022. Though he never took on a big role in the Gators’ backfield, he turned 119 touches into 790 yards (6.64 yards per touch) and 16 touchdowns in 2021. That’s something. It’s certainly nothing. Pierce is the clear frontrunner to take on lead-back duties. Old-school head coach Lovie Smith could always throw a wrench in things and start an inferior player to prove a point … or something.

DeVante Parker and Nelson Agholor (NE)
Parker and Agholor were not going to be anything resembling a reliable fantasy option in the conservative New England offense coached by head coach flunkies Joe Judge and Matt Patricia. With the Patriots using a second-round pick on the blazing-fast Tyquan Thornton, there’s little to no chance Parker can fill any sort of role in the team’s passing offense.

Flashing mind-bending deep speed with impressive ball skills as Baylor’s top wideout, Thornton profiles as the Patriots’ main (lone) downfield threat -- someone who can create separation and bring something to a boring New England offense that desperately missed a deep ball game changer in 2021.

Parker is now a fantasy afterthought who could be New England’s WR4 or WR5 entering the season. While Agholor will have some splash plays, it’s Thornton who should be treated as Mac Jones’ main downfield target in 2022. I see no reason to draft Parker or Agholor in 12-team formats.