Like clockwork, after countless hours of creating the perfect fantasy football draft, the preseason changes everything.
Indianapolis starting quarterback Andrew Luck has yet to throw a pass this summer and remains on the PUP list. Fellow quarterback Ryan Tannehill, running back Spencer Ware plus receivers Julian Edelman, Cameron Meredith and Quincy Enunwa all had season-ending juries, changing the fantasy cheat-sheet landscape across all formats. Rookie Deshone Kizer was named the starting quarterback in Cleveland and running back Thomas Rawls, not Eddie Lacy or C.J. Prosise, is atop Seattle’s depth chart.
So yeah, a lot has changed since the first Perfect Draft was released. But don’t worry: I used every resource I have to come up with an even more perfect fantasy football draft for a 12-team league using a point-per-reception, or PPR, scoring format and the following starting lineup: one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, one flex player (RB/WR/TE), one defense, a kicker and six bench players.
A reminder on what our definition of “perfect” is for this exercise. Perfect means getting the optimal value at each draft spot. In other words, all the rosters in the draft below would deserve an “A” from any unbiased grader.
The methodology is simple. All skill player projections start at the team level, with each team’s targets and rushing plays estimated using a three-year weighted average, with performances from 2016 weighted three times as heavily as those from 2014. To use the New England Patriots as an example, they ran 1,032 plays in 2016, 1,012 in 2015 and 1,047 in 2014, giving us a projected 1,028 plays for 2017, with an almost 60/40 split between passing (586) and rushing plays (442).
|Patriots||Pass plays||Run plays||Total plays|
Those would then be split among the position players (QB, RB, WR and TE) before finally being converted to whole-season PPR point totals based on individual efficiencies. These are then adjusted for strength of schedule using Sharp Football Stats‘ projections — teams facing easier defenses can be counted on to score more points than those who are facing stiffer competition — and injury risk using Jake Davidow’s Sports Injury Predictor. I also used preseason data from TruMedia, giving extra weight for performance with the first-team offense and discounting production against third-string defenses. The end result allows draft picks to be compared to other players at the position on a 0 to 100 scale, a metric we’ve dubbed a player’s Draft Score, with higher scores indicating better players at that position.
One key consideration: This updated version is based off player health news and their projected roles as of Aug. 28. So if you’re reading this a few days from now, injuries or other developments may have shifted the board again.
Also important to note: This is more than just a best-player-available approach to the draft. Through Draft Score we can see where positional scarcity affords us the opportunity to go after a player that is among the top tier at their position rather than settle for a selection that occupies a lower grouping.
However, I will caution you that some players come off the board in the perfect draft at significantly different slots than their ADP suggests — this is a feature, not a bug. Remember, this is the perfect draft based on 2017 projections, so some players will have more or less value than the public perceives. Use this to your advantage — if you see a player with a 10.02 ADP selected in the fourth round of the perfect draft, that indicates a sleeper or undervalued player who could pay big dividends in 2017. The opposite illustrates a player with significant risk or who is being overvalued by drafters, such as rookie running back Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers.
McCaffrey rushed seven times for 21 yards and caught one pass for 12 yards in the Panthers’ third preseason game but that catch was his only target all summer playing with the first-team offense. He’s averaged just 1.71 yards per carry after contact per Pro Football Focus, placing him 41st out of 51 running backs getting at least half their team’s snaps. That rate also places him last among rookies. Compare that to Rob Kelley, the third-highest ranked rookie running back in 2016 who was on 61 percent of playoff rosters last season and consensus No. 1 overall pick in 2017 David Johnson, who was also the sixth-highest ranked rookie in 2015.
Plus, McCaffrey has just one run of 15 yards or more in the preseason (five rookie running backs have more) and won’t figure in the red zone too much with Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart getting the majority of those rushing opportunities, making him a very risky second-round pick.
Without further ado, here is the full draft board from this year’s perfect fantasy draft (click to enlarge). The players are color coded based on position:
The first round starts off as you would expect, with David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown occupying the first three picks, but then diverges with the selection of Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman before wideouts Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jordy Nelson. Historical trends put Chicago Bears’ running back Jordan Howard into the first round, right before receiver Demaryius Thomas of the Denver Broncos, running backs LeSean McCoy and Jay Ajayi and wideout T.Y. Hilton.
Before you scoff at Howard’s placement, consider he had 252 carries and 29 catches on 50 targets last season despite the Bears winning just three games all season. When a team loses, it has less opportunities to run the ball: Chicago ran the ball 188 times when leading or tied, accounting for almost half (47 percent) of their play selection, but they were only ahead on the scoreboard 41 percent of the time. Things should change for the better in 2017 — the Bears are projected to win seven games in 2017 and Howard gets to run behind the fifth-best offensive line per the game charters at Pro Football Focus. Add in two easy run defenses to start the season plus the sixth-easiest schedule from Weeks 13 to 16 and you have a dynamic, bell-cow running back who can help you win the championship trophy.
As for Thomas’s and Hilton’s appearance in the first round: remember, targets are critical to fantasy scoring, with more targets typically resulting in stronger fantasy football performances. Thomas accumulated 26 percent of his team’s targets last season, eighth-highest at the position with Hilton accounting for slightly over 27 percent (fifth most). Both deserve to be drafted higher than their ADP suggests.
Target volume is also why Corey Coleman of the Cleveland Browns has a perfect draft ADP (seventh round) that is significantly different from what is being seen in mock drafts.
Since 2012, 99 of the 120 (82.5 percent) wide receivers finishing in the top 24 at the position had 120 targets or more during the season, with the average top-24 wideout accumulating 147 targets per campaign. Over the past four seasons, Cleveland’s most-targeted wideout has received an average of 134 targets with a high of 150, more than enough volume to push Coleman into the position’s top echelon.
And Coleman also has talent. His ability to work downfield (13.9 air yards per target, significantly higher than the league average of 8.7) and gain separation from his defenders (2.75 yards on average) will help give rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer a safety net during the regular season. And chemistry between those two young players will translate into points, both on the scoreboard and your fantasy team.
Early and late picks offer a chance at tremendous value
Through the first seven rounds of the draft — enough time to get your starting roster filled out sans the kicker and defense — teams selecting in the top half of the draft have the chance at creating a lot of surplus value early on. And this makes perfect sense: if you see a run on a position you can immediately pivot to a different strategy, such as Zero RB or, conversely, Mike Hume’s now famous RB-pa-looza.
If the draft does hold true to form, with Johnson and Bell going with the first two picks, utilizing the Zero RB strategy with Brown at No. 3, and two (or more) wideouts after that, could put you in the driver’s seat in terms of early value. In the Perfect Draft, the No. 3 and No. 10 position created more points than any other roster drafted over the first seven rounds using this strategy. For Team 3, one or more of the running backs taken in the later rounds needs to pan out, but in PPR leagues it is tough to go wrong by establishing a strong receiving corps early in the draft. Team 10 will have solid starters at running back and wide receiver but might have some difficult decisions rostering the flex spot week to week.
|2017 Perfect Draft (First seven rounds)||2017 Proj. PPR Pts||Average Draft Score|
Another unorthodox early pick that could spark a championship is tight end Greg Olsen of the Carolina Panthers. Olsen caught 80 of 129 targets last season for 1,073 yards — his third consecutive season surpassing the 100-target and 1,000-yard mark — and three touchdowns. With quarterback Cam Newton on the mend, coupled with the Panthers’ easiest schedule in terms of pass defenses faced, Olsen should be going a lot higher than he is — possibly even ahead of Patriots tight end extraordinaire Rob Gronkowski.
However, all signs point to Gronkowski being healthy, so he remains the No. 1 option at the position until proven otherwise.
While PPR scoring enhances the value of wideouts, it has been easier to find a serviceable receiver later in the draft than it is to find a viable running back. The difference in point production from the No. 1 to No. 24 receiver was 106.5 PPR points in 2016, smaller than the drop from David Johnson (411.8 PPR points), the top running back, to DeMarco Murray (291.4), the fifth most-productive rusher in fantasy football last year.
The steeper drop has been experienced in the four previous years as well, so if you can get one or more solid running backs with your picks in the high-leverage rounds, you not only have a better chance at higher scores, you also develop tradable assets for later in the season.
Marvin Jones of the Detroit Lions is a good example of value available later in the draft. Jones caught 55 of his 103 targets last season for 930 yards and four touchdowns. Veteran owners will surely recall his sizzling start, but he fizzled down the stretch after he was limited by a series of leg issues. His 13.9 air yards per target — an indicator of receivers on the rise — ranked him 12th in the league among receivers in 2016, making his 2017 projected value more in line with what we see from fifth-round picks despite an ADP of 9.12. Talk about value!
Emphasize and anticipate future upside
With a 24/7 news cycle — where everything is discussed at length in print, on audio and video or on social media — sleepers, in the traditional sense, are harder than ever to find. Instead, one has to either be vigilant on the waiver wire, pouncing on players that could be put in opportunities to flourish, or anticipate their upcoming production and snag them in the draft’s later rounds.
By limiting your draft selections to one quarterback, one tight end, one kicker and one defense, you can maximize the chances you nab a future star, like Devontae Booker, running back of the Denver Broncos.
Booker is going undrafted in 2017 mock drafts but finished his rookie season with 612 yards and four touchdowns rushing while catching 31 passes for 265 yards and one touchdown. He struggled to move the chains (17 percent of his runs resulted in a first down, placing him 37th out of 42 qualified running backs) but part of that futility is on the offensive line — they allowed 21 percent of their rushers to be stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage (league average was 19 percent) and helped convert just 51 percent of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, into a first down or touchdown. If first-round pick Garett Bolles works out, Michael Renner of Pro Football Focus sees this offensive unit as “an above-average line with a Pro Bowl-caliber guard in Ronald Leary and Pro Bowl-caliber center in Matt Paradis.” Better rushing days may be ahead.
Booker’s lack of support in fantasy drafts is a function of falling third on the Broncos’ RB depth chart and a wrist injury that will keep him out into the regular season, but the two players ahead of him on the depth chart, C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles, each have their own injury concerns, giving Booker a chance at being the regular-season starter at some point.
Receiver Ted Ginn Jr. could also impress with the Saints. His 12.09 ADP makes him the 55th receiver taken in drafts but he found a nice landing spot in New Orleans after catching 54 of 95 passes for 752 yards and four touchdowns. And he could be the big-play threat quarterback Drew Brees needs now that Brandin Cooks is in New England.
In 2016, Cooks was targeted a team-high 25 times on passes traveling at least 20 yards in the air, while Michael Thomas and Willie Snead saw 11 and 7 targets, respectively. Ginn led the Carolina Panthers in deep targets (17) with a catch and touchdown rate superior to Cooks. If that holds, he’ll certainly repay a late, late-round investment.
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