Why you should care
For years, fantasy values have been one step behind NFL reality. That’s starting to flip.
Being as patient and intelligent as you are, you waited to conduct your annual fantasy football draft this week. Good move. The preseason gamut has run its course, and now you’re ready to rip. Besides offering protection from the always devastating preseason injury (R.I.P., Marqise Lee), early September is a fantasy nerd’s dream thanks to the totality of data available. Determined to keep their secrets, NFL coaches don’t reveal everything during preseason, but we’ve seen enough football to know our educated guesses just got smarter.
How are new coaches utilizing new players? Which schemes favor slot receivers? And which underrated running backs are soaring toward early-season production? The drones in your fantasy league might be content to draft a quarterback early and load up on high-end wide receivers with diminishing returns, but we know better. Football is changing — understanding the new rules is key to gaining an edge in fantasy, in any format.
Rule 1: At Wide Receiver, There’s Value Down the Board
As the league embraces pass-heavy spread schemes that put more of the decision-making power in quarterbacks’ hands, the importance of quality wideouts will only increase. But not all big-name receivers are worth a fantasy pick. New breeds of pass catchers — speedy slot receivers, pass-catching scatbacks, modern tight ends — are picking up steam. “The Antonio Browns, the Odell Beckham Jrs., these fast, freak athletes who can line up all over the field are gaining value,” says former NFL wideout–turned–CBS analyst Nate Burleson.
This is hardly a revelation. But the concept to keep front of mind is finding value down the draft board. Yes, if you are in a position to draft Brown or Beckham Jr. at the right price, do it. After that, go bargain hunting.
Avoid the tall, traditional deep threats who depend on red-zone targets. Instead, target players such as Robby Anderson (New York Jets, WR No. 36 on ESPN), Emmanuel Sanders (Denver Broncos, WR No. 26), Will Fuller V (Houston Texans, WR No. 38) or Jamison Crowder (Washington Redskins, WR No. 33) for that second wideout spot. These guys are the clear first or second option in their offenses, and they excel via speed and athleticism. As spread offenses use an onslaught of quick slants to open up big home runs, they’ll take advantage. After that, target Michael Gallup (Dallas Cowboys, WR No. 56), Kenny Golladay (Detroit Lions, WR No. 53) and John Brown (Baltimore Ravens, WR No. 63). With two or three receiver spots per team, you’ll have at least one starting hole to fill. Stay ahead of the curve, and keep your opponents guessing.
Rule 2: GMs Are Loading Up on Young Running Backs. You Should Too
Over the course of the past decade, running backs became devalued — falling on NFL and fantasy draft boards alike. But NFL teams are realizing no club worth its salt can get by without a capable tailback. Even Tom Brady’s New England Patriots and the Super Bowl–winning Philadelphia Eagles relied heavily on young running backs (Dion Lewis, Jay Ajayi) to open the field.
For NFL general managers, the thought process is simple: Running backs reach peak performance at a younger age than most players, and the most efficient way to build a roster is using quality backs on affordable rookie contracts. As the NFL remains a fast-paced passing league, know that young running backs are one of the hottest commodities in football. As we saw with New Orleans Saints tailback Alvin Kamara last season, the most dangerous fantasy options are backs with pass-catching abilities.
As with the wideouts, the biggest names are no surprise. But some backs might slip past the less prepared team owners in your league. Alex Collins (Baltimore Ravens, RB No. 18) has solidified himself as the team’s starting tailback moving forward. Royce Freeman (Denver Broncos, RB No. 17) is losing sleeper value by the day thanks to thoroughly outplaying Devontae Booker this preseason.
In Detroit’s crowded backfield, go for Kerryon Johnson (Lions, RB No. 37). None of LeGarrette Blount, Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick boast a complete skill set like the rookie from Auburn. Aaron Jones (Green Bay Packers, RB No. 43) could be this year’s steal of the draft when he returns from a two-game suspension. Jones only had 81 carries as a rookie last season, but eight of those went for at least 15 yards.
Rule 3: Study the Playbook; Hit Home Runs
Or at least do some light studying week to week. Understanding which teams attempt the most deep chances downfield or which defenses are the worst at stopping play-action could win you weekly matchups. This can be harder to take advantage of in season-long fantasy, where rosters are set at the beginning of the year, but there are still opportunities to drop/add certain players the rest of your league has overlooked.
With regard to daily fantasy football, daily fantasy sports expert Jon Bales, co-founder of FantasyLabs, says that the most important tool in finding an edge is understanding how NFL teams operate. “With the amount of tools and data available today, real football knowledge is almost a prerequisite [to success],” says Bales. “Players that understand play-calling trends can find an edge.”
So, while Minnesota Vikings QB Kirk Cousins might be priced high in DFS, understanding that Cousins is one of the best play-action passers in football could be a sign to take a chance on one of the Vikings’ cheaper receivers. In weeks the Vikings go against a poor run defense, Minnesota’s No. 3 receiver, Laquon Treadwell, is a smart play.