Most fantasy drafts follow a script. In standard-scoring leagues, the first three picks should be running backs — most likely David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliott. Then the trio of top wide receivers, Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones, will likely come off the board. In a points-per-reception, or PPR, league, one or two of those wideouts might crack the top three picks. And you can bet the top 10 receivers will all be gone by the end of the second round.
But sometime after the first seven rounds, the draft starts to go rogue.
Last season, players being drafted in the seventh round of ESPN fantasy football leagues had ownership rates ranging from 82 to 91 percent, but one round later that widened to 42 to 84 percent. And the trend continued from there, a sure signal that once teams had their starting roster, they turned their attention to backups, handcuffs and players with high upside, formerly known as sleepers. I say formerly known as sleepers because it is tougher to find a player no one knows about with all the information that is available.
That’s especially true for the following five players, who are being drafted in the eighth round or later yet their Draft Score — a metric that compares players at their respective position, earning them a rating from 1 to 100, with higher numbers indicating better fantasy football players — is well above average for players selected at that point. So if you want them on your roster, it is okay to reach a bit to get them.
Randall Cobb, WR, Green Bay Packers, ADP: 8.08, Draft Score: 72
Cobb didn’t have his most productive season in 2016, but he did catch 60 of 84 targets for 610 yards and four touchdowns, prompting Packers Coach Mike McCarthy to figure out ways to get his 5-foot-10 wideout more touches.
Jordy Nelson’s return and Davante Adams’s rise up the depth chart was a factor in Cobb’s reduced role in the offense, but his role as the primary slot receiver gives him the opportunity to grab short to intermediate passes in high volume, adding to his value in PPR leagues.
And it is also worth noting that the Packers targeted their slot receiver more in 2016 (155 targets) than they have in the past decade.
Matt Forte, RB, New York Jets, ADP: 9.07, Draft Score: 57
Forte had 218 carries for 813 yards and seven touchdowns in his first season with the New York Jets, adding 30 catches for 263 yards and one touchdown. Knee issues limited him to 14 games in 2016, but when healthy he was a consistent fantasy producer.
He’ll have to contend with Bilal Powell taking away touches, but despite Powell’s ascension on the depth chart last season, Forte still got more red-zone carries (31 to 19) and was the more productive back when facing seven or more defenders in the box, outscoring Powell 7 to 2 in these situations, per Sharp Football Stats.
Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia Eagles, ADP: 10.05, Draft Score: 74
Ertz was the second-most targeted receiver by rookie quarterback Carson Wentz last season, seeing nine fewer passes than the top wideout on the depth chart, Jordan Matthews. He tied with Nelson Agholor for the most targets on the team in the red zone (14), catching 3 of 6 passes in the end zone.
Wentz also wasn’t afraid to target Ertz downfield, calling his number on 11 passes 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage, the fourth most among tight ends last season, per TruMedia.
Now that he and Wentz have a season under their belts, the chemistry between them should only improve in 2017 — even though the Eagles added a pair of wide receivers in free agency in Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith.
Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions, ADP: 11.02, Draft Score: 54
Stafford completed 65 percent of his passes for 4,327 yards and a 24-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio, finishing with the eighth-highest Total Quarterback Rating per ESPN (70.5) last season.
He’s poised under pressure (78.2 passer rating per Pro Football Focus, seventh highest in 2016) and faces some easy defenses at the end of the season when most leagues are having their playoffs.
Mike Wallace, WR, Baltimore Ravens, ADP: 11.08, Draft Score: 51
Wallace showed he is capable of being the team’s top receiver in 2016 after catching 72 of 116 targets for 1,017 yards and four touchdowns. And now that Steve Smith retired and Kamar Aiken moved on to the Indianapolis Colts, his target share could improve in 2017.
And yes, that’s despite having veteran Jeremy Maclin and third-year receiver Breshad Perriman also in the mix. Maclin will likely inherit Smith and Aiken’s role in the slot leaving Perriman and Wallace to work outside, where Wallace saw almost twice as many targets (116 to 66) last season.
Wallace also averaged 2.73 yards of separation from the defender covering them when their quarterback threw them the ball, fifth most among No. 2 wideouts last season but good enough to rank third among No. 1 wide receivers, classified as any receiver who saw at least 100 targets when lined up out wide.