Late-round picks are some of the most exciting in fantasy football drafts. They are also some of the most polarizing.
According to data from ESPN leagues, the average ownership rate of a pick selected in the first eight rounds is 98.8 percent. In the ninth round that drops to 87.2 percent, with a free fall to 9.7 percent by Round 14. The minimum ownership rate sees a similar decline, illustrating just how differently fantasy owners feel about the last players selected for their roster.
Thomas Rawls, Seattle Seahawks, RB, 9.03 ADP, 54.7 percent ownership
One player fantasy owners can’t seem to get a consensus on is Seattle Seahawks Thomas Rawls, who has been getting first-team reps in practice, started the preseason opener and is listed as the No. 1 running back on the Seattle Seahawks’ current depth chart before a “minor” ankle issue had him yield starting duties to Eddie Lacy on Friday night.
Rawls, a rookie in 2015, carried the ball 109 times for the Seahawks last season producing 349 yards and three touchdowns. He ended the season ranked 29th out of 58 running backs by the game charters at Pro Football Focus and has seen his 2017 average draft position, or ADP, go as high as a fourth-round pick with a low of a late 11th-round selection. According to our Draft Score metric, a formula that rates a player from 0 to 100 based on 2017 point projections, strength of schedule and injury risk, with higher scores indicating better fantasy football players, he should be more of a 13th round pick (28 draft score).
Even if he does beat out Lacy for the top spot on the team, the strength of schedule using Sharp Football Stats‘ projections looks daunting, especially toward the end of the season. The Seahawks play the Philadelphia Eagles, Jacksonville Jaguars, Los Angeles Rams, Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals during the last five weeks of the season, teams that were ranked No. 13 or better per Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average against the run in 2016.
Zay Jones, Buffalo Bills, WR, 12.02 ADP, 47.8 percent ownership
Jones led the nation with 216 targets in 2016, averaging 10.7 catches and 118.5 yards per game at Eastern Carolina with a drop rate of just 3.7 percent, second in the FBS among receivers with at least 100 targets and less than half the league average (8.3 percent), per Pro Football Focus.
Then fantasy owners got a double dose of good news on Jones this weekend. The rookie wideout caught three of his six targets for 42 yards Thursday night, playing primarily as an outside receiver. His role got more clarification after Anquan Boldin decided to retire from the Buffalo Bills. And with Rod Streater (toe) and Jordan Matthews (sternum) both working through injuries, Jones could ascend to the No. 1 spot on the depth chart, making him a fourth- or fifth-round pick rather than one going early in the 12th round.
#Bills HC Sean McDermott says primarily rookie WR Zay Jones will be used outside. Sometimes in the slot.
— Joe Buscaglia (@JoeBuscaglia) August 15, 2017
Rex Burkhead, New England Patriots, 12.11 ADP, 9.3 percent ownership
Burkhead signed a one-year deal with the Patriots this offseason and has been impressive in the preseason. The fifth-year pro rushed seven times for 20 yards and caught all three of his targets for 50 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots’ second preseason game, a 22-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tom Brady over the middle.
Running back Mike Gillislee, another offseason signing, is the most likely to take over LeGarrette Blount’s role on first and second down, but look for Burkhead to still see passes out of the backfield. When Brady returned during Week 5 of 2016, James White, who is still on the roster, saw the second-most targets (67) after receiver Julian Edelman (131). The gap narrowed even more on third downs (20 for White versus 39 for Edelman).
Burkhead, however, provided the Bengals a success rate that was 4.3 percent above average last season, whereas White was just barely over average, perhaps giving Burkhead an edge once the 2017 season starts for real.
Either way, a Patriots running back playing against the easiest schedule in the league is worth much more than just a 12th-round pick.
Coby Fleener, New Orleans Saints, TE, 13.09 ADP, 13.9 percent ownership
Fleener struggled with a new playbook last season, catching just 50 passes for 631 yards with three touchdowns, but he remains in a Saints offense that loves to throw the ball. Only the Baltimore Ravens (679 pass attempts) threw the ball more than New Orleans (674) last season, and if Fleener gets just a target or two more per game in 2017 than he did in 2016, he could be poised for a breakout.
Fleener saw target shares of 12 and 16 percent, respectively, during his first two seasons in New Orleans, but now that one of Brees’ main targets, Brandin Cooks (117 targets), is with the Patriots, Fleener has an opportunity to see an uptick in volume. If he gets just 20 more targets, that would be enough to push his end-of-season ranking into the top 10. If he gets an additional 40 or more, it could mean a top-3 finish.
And if those targets are downfield, the upside could be even greater. Fleener caught 13 of his 21 targets traveling 15 or more yards in the air, giving him the fourth-highest catch rate among tight ends seeing at least 10 deep targets. His 102 yards after the catch on these passes was the third-highest after Greg Olsen and Rob Gronkowski, two tight ends being selected in the fifth and second rounds, respectively.
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