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The Zone Read – Pounding the Table: Making a Case for Unreasonably Valued Players

The Zone Read

Pounding the Table: Making a Case for Unreasonably Valued Players

By: Dresdon Rohrer
06/07/2017

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For the fantasy value of NFL players, the offseason is very similar to the stock market.  A player can have a fairly steady ADP for weeks, then suddenly a transaction occurs that causes his value to either spike or plummet.  Other players find themselves on a constant roller coaster ride of peaks and valleys caused by the uncertainty of their standing on the depth chart and positional battles.  It can be exhausting to try and keep up with the values of players, making it almost not even worth the hassle for fantasy managers not in dynasty leagues.

The problem with ADP (besides its volatility) is that it is also based exclusively on where the general public is valuing a certain player at.  That’s right, Average Draft Position is determined solely by the public’s perception, nothing more and nothing less.  To trust ADP is to say “I agree with what everybody else thinks of this player” and that’s a dangerous train of thought in the world of fantasy football.  It’s true that public perception is founded off of tangible evidence, however there is a certain level of context that needs to be taken into account in regards to players and their values that the public can overlook.  

I’m here to lobby for and against some of the ADP data that I find to be egregious.  I will use hard evidence and data that I believe suggest that several players are being drastically over/undervalued at the present.  I will highlight facts that I hope could cast a player’s value into a new light.  My goal is not to persuade you to favor these players, only to highly suggest that you give them a closer look before casting final judgment come draft day.  Let’s begin.

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(Credit to FantasyPros for ADP data.  Format for all data is .5ppr)

 

Dez Bryant

ADP: 16th overall (WR#9)

“Wait, what?  How is a top 20 player being ‘grossly undervalued?’”  I can hear you now, and I will be more than happy to oblige with a response.  Between 2011 and 2014, here are Dez Bryant’s finishes in wide receiver ranks: 2011-19, 2012-3, 2013-5, 2014-3.  His 2015 and 2016 seasons saw him miss a combined 10 games due to a lingering foot injury, and last season he was also tasked with building a rapport with a rookie quarterback.  In every other season before that we saw Dez post incredible yardage and touchdown numbers.

“But he’s injury prone!” you might say, or “It’s been 3 years since he was productive!”, or even “The Cowboys are a run-heavy team now, his workload will be limited!”  I hate to be blunt, but all three of these comments are invalid.  To call Dez Bryant injury prone is hyperbole at its finest; before the foot issue that plagued him in his 2015 and 2016 seasons Dez Bryant missed one game in his previous four seasons. The rest of Bryant’s injury history is relatively clean, it’s just that foot issue that people get hung up on.  The good news is that another high profile wide receiver had the same type of injury that Dez had; Julio Jones also suffered a Jones fracture back in 2013.  I think since then he’s proven to be okay.  

It’s also a mistake to get hung up on the length of time that has passed since we’ve seen Dez in top 3 form; he’s still only 28 years old, the same age as AJ Green and Julio Jones.  As the 2016 season went on, we saw Dez build a stronger bond with Dak Prescott.  Besides a week 9 blowout at Cleveland that saw Dez only receive one target and a grotesquely low-scoring game against the Giants, Dez never had less than 70 yards in a game after the Cowboys week 7 bye (when he also returned from a knee fracture).  That connection can only strengthen, and with a full season of production it’s entirely reasonable to see Dez vault back over the 1,000 yard threshold, and he’s always a threat in the redzone.

Now for the final issue, the Cowboys’ run-heavy offense.  It’s fair to point out that the Cowboys were first in the league in rushing with 30.8 attempts per game.  Wanna know something fun?  The Bengals, Buccaneers, Falcons and Steelers were all among the top 15 teams in the league in terms of rushing attempts, with the Steelers being the lowest at 26.2 attempts per game.  I think all of those teams had a pretty good number one receiver last year too.

So what does all of this mean?  Why is a top 20 ranking such a gross undervaluing?  Let’s look at some of the players being drafted immediately ahead of Dez right now; Michael Thomas (ADP: 16), T.Y Hilton (ADP: 15), Jordan Howard (ADP: 14), Jordy Nelson (ADP: 11). Thomas has only one season under his belt, and while he is in line to be the next man up in New Orleans after Cooks has left it has yet to be seen if he is thoroughly capable of shouldering the #1 role.  Howard also only has one year’s worth of experience, and the Bears organization right now looks like quite a mess; a bad offense is hardly ever a positive situation for a runningback.  TY is a boom-or-bust big play threat, but his touchdown numbers are notorious for being low.  Jordy is the focal point of a high-octane offense, but he will be 33 this coming season; at some point a cliff is bound to come.  I would even argue for Dez over Mike Evans as the WR4 with all the additional weapons in Tampa Bay, but maybe that’s personal bias.

Maybe I’m nitpicking, I’ll leave that up to you to decide. If you’re telling me that I can get a potential top 3 receiver near the middle of the second round though, that’s a value that I will happily “settle for” as a wr1. With no surefire bets in this year’s draft, give me the young guy in a young upstart offense with a rebuilding defense who’s proven to be a top 3 asset in the past. You won’t be disappointed.

Brandin Cooks

ADP: 28th overall (WR:12)

There are two things in fantasy football that make an owner salivate; a flashy player and a high-octane offense.  Brandin Cooks combines both of those elements, as the speedy freak from New Orleans now finds himself a home with the New England Patriots, the godfather organization of the NFL.  This is a case however where I feel that Cooks is in a great position to disappoint a lot of owners.

“But it’s the Patriots!” you might say.  “With Tom Brady as his quarterback Cooks’ stock goes through the roof!”  This is an argument that I’m hearing a lot more than I should, and it makes absolutely NO sense.  You would think that Brandin Cooks came from one of the least effective offenses in the league, people seem to forget that he came from a pretty good situation in New Orleans with another Hall of Fame caliber quarterback in Drew Brees.  This new location is AT BEST a lateral move from one high powered offense to another, and I would vouch that it’s even a step back.

New Orleans’ has always boasted an offense where multiple wide receivers commanded a good portion of the workload.  How many prolific wide receivers has New England supported each year?  Last year alone Julian Edelman commanded 130 of Tom Brady’s 432 pass attempts, never seeing less than 7 targets per game.  Do we honestly believe that New England is going to drastically alter a formula that works in favor of forcing targets to Brandin Cooks?  His arrival won’t change the pecking order, it will still be Edelman and Gronk as the #1 and #2 options.

So why are people drafting the #3 option AT BEST over clear cut #1 options like Alshon Jeffrey, Demaryius Thomas, Allen Robinson and heck, even Julian Edelman?  They all have their warts for sure; Alshon is injury prone and entering a new offense, Demaryius still doesn’t have a quarterback, the Jaguars offense is questionable with Bortles under center and Julian Edelman is getting older.  We have to look at the context though; the Patriots aren’t notorious for having huge success with their wide receivers.  Besides their run with Randy Moss, the Patriots have had marginal at best results with the wide receiver position outside of the slot; what is it that makes us think Brandin Cooks who offers an incomplete route tree will buck that trend?  

It’s not that I expect Brandin Cooks to fall off the map, the Patriots traded for him and they will certainly use a player of his caliber as a piece of their offensive machine.  I just don’t think that we can really expect anything above what we’ve already seen from him, which is a speedy deep threat that might score twice with over 150 yards in one week and then not post a catch the next.  He’s a complimentary piece, not a focal point.

With my wide receiver 1 I’m looking for a strong and steady top end option to stabilize my core, I’ll take my upside home-run shots later in the draft.  When a player like Cooks goes to a team like New England people tend to view the move with rose-colored glasses, expecting the stars to align and all of the hiccups in his game to fade away.  Instead New England is going to do what they do best, and rather than try to force Cooks into a role as a true #1 they will play to his strengths as a situational deep threat.  He’s closer to Desean Jackson than he is to Demaryius Thomas, and I feel that he should be drafted accordingly.

Bilal Powell

ADP: 62nd overall (RB25)

There are certain players that seem to have a knack for consistently generating a lot of offseason hype; Bilal Powell is one of them.  At some point every year a buzz builds around the 6th year veteran and to be fair, when he’s on the field he typically backs it up with solid production.  Why then do I find his ranking in the top 30 to be out of place?  It’s not as much about Powell himself as it is the players that are being passed over for him, though I do have a few issues with his game.

I’ll start with the low-hanging fruit; in his six year career, the Jets have never once seemed entirely comfortable with Powell shouldering the full-time role.  He has never totaled more than 176 carries in a season although he has averaged over 4 yards per carry every year since 2012.  If we look back at his college career however, it’s not as if he were much of a bellcow then either; only in his senior season did Powell log over 200 carries, his previous high being 108 in his junior year.  Maybe the issue isn’t the Jets refusing to thrust Powell into a full-time role, maybe they realize that he is at his best in a rotation.  A rotation is exactly where Powell will find himself in 2017.  The general public has cast veteran Matt Forte aside due to his age, and with all of the Jets’ shocking offseason activity it would not be a complete shock to see Forte move on before the season.  In such a case, it is still easy to predict a rotational backfield for the Jets consisting of Powell, the forgotten Khiry Robinson and rookie Elijah McGuire.  Powell may earn a majority share in that instance, but that majority could be slight.

In addition to limited usage, it’s also important to take into account the setting that Powell finds himself in.  To say that the New York Jets organization is in shambles would be the same as calling the sun bright.  An offense without a reliable signal-caller is as functional as a sailboat without a rudder.  It’s still early, but there is very little encouraging news coming from the Big Apple, and the 2017 season has the look of a long one for its fans.  Poor offenses do little to help a runningback’s production, and while he could get by on “garbage time” production Powell could be hard-pressed for room to run behind an offensive line that lost its Pro-Bowl center.

One of the most daunting stats for Powell is his touchdown production, or lack thereof.  Dating back to his college days, Powell has provided only one season with double digit touchdowns.  Besides his career high of 14 in his senior year of college, Powell’s highest combined touchdown total in a given season is 5.  At just over 200 pounds, Powell is not what a team would typically profile as a red-zone back.  That’s more easy to dismiss in a ppr format where his catches should make up for the lack of scoring, but that will always be a cap to his upside.

For reference, here are a few names that are being drafted after Powell; Ameer Abdullah (RB28), Mike Gillislee (RB30), Danny Woodhead (RB34), Jamison Crowder (WR32), Stefon Diggs (WR33).  Personally I would prefer any one of these options over Powell.  Abdullah has been mislabeled as “injury prone” despite only losing last season to a foot injury, Mike Gillislee looks like the next man up in a runningback friendly Patriot offense, Danny Woodhead promises to see a healthy amount of targets in an unsettled Ravens’ passing game, Jamison Crowder is emerging as a top slot option in a pass-heavy option, and Stefon Diggs was a target machine when healthy last season for one of the most efficient passing offenses.  Players like Frank Gore and Doug Martin are also being drafted after Powell, though their roles seem more easily questioned.

I don’t mean to imply that Powell is a bad fantasy option, I actually like him quite a bit.  What I don’t like however is what he costs; I will happily “settle” for Ameer Abdullah a round later, a runningback that has the easiest path to a lead role out of all of the options listed above, Powell included.  If he were available even 2 rounds later the value would make more sense, but his price has been driven up by “what if’s” and “could be’s”.  Drafting a rotational back as your rb2 is fine if you’re a 0 rb player, many backfields are rotational now anyhow.  I do stand by the belief that it’s poor practice to invest in poor offenses, and the early signs indicate that the Jets could boast one of the worst starting lineups for the 2017 season.  

Ameer Abdullah

ADP: 73 (RB28)

I understand the skepticism that surrounds Ameer Abdullah.  In his rookie season he seemed unable to hold on to the football, then his sophomore campaign was cut short after just two games by a foot injury.  The sample size of quality play in the NFL from Abdullah has been small, however it’s what he’s done with that sample size that should give us cause for excitement, rather than a sour taste.

In 161 career carries Abdullah has logged a solid 4.3 yards per carry, a majority of that production coming from a timeshare with Joique Bell in 2015.  It wasn’t a lack of production that kept him off of the field then, rather it was the 5 fumbles that he coughed up that got him in the doghouse.  The team stuck by their 2nd rounder though, and in the first game of 2016 it looked like Abdullah was in line for a big season, posting 12 carries for 63 yards to go along with 5 catches for 57 yards in a score in week 1.  It wasn’t meant to be however, and a foot injury saw him only take one snap in week 2 before he was shut down for the season.  Coming into this season the team has once more stood behind Abdullah, talking him up as their bellcow back and backing that up by not making any big free agent moves.  

Abdullah’s lost season has seemingly given people the notion that he is injury prone, but when you look at his record that’s a silly claim.  Abdullah did not miss a game during his college career, playing through a mild MCL sprain his senior season.  He did have surgery for a labral tear after his rookie season, but that has not proven to be a recurring issue.  More than anything, his size is likely the biggest culprit for the “injury prone” label at 5’9” and just over 200 pounds, but that’s a weak claim that doesn’t match the facts.

Some people view Theo Riddick as a leech to Abdullah’s upside, but personally I think the two can co-exist quite well.  Riddick offers little between the tackles, but is at his best in the receiving game.  While that does take away targets that could be Abdullah’s, it solidifies his role as the primary ball carrier.  The Lions’ offense is also one that spreads the ball around, so there should be enough targets for Abdullah as well as Riddick to both have value.

As I highlighted above, Abdullah is being drafted after players like Bilal Powell, Tevin Coleman and Dalvin Cook, none of which can lay a claim to the primary role on their team.  Jim Caldwell has come out and said that Abdullah holds claim to the starting role, and in one of the league’s more potent offenses that’s a role that deserves a much higher valuation.  Getting a solid rb2 with the upside of an rb1 at the end of the 6th round in a 12 team league is an absolute steal, and once the season comes around I’d bet that a good many owners will be regretting having passed on him.

Kyle Rudolph

ADP: 91 (TE9)

Kyle Rudolph must watch a lot of Rodney Dangerfield routines, because this poor guy just can’t get no respect.  After years of having waited for some sort of breakout from Rudolph, the fantasy community was rewarded with an 83 catch, 840 yard season…and subsequently rewarded him by burying him in the ranks once more.  It’s true that he’s being taken among the top 10 tight ends, but I vouch that he should be going much higher than that.

Last season Rudolph finished 2nd among all tight ends in targets per game, behind only Greg Olsen.  He was also among the top 5 in total yards behind Olsen, Kelce and Graham.  What likely brings his valuation down is the offense that he plays in; the Vikings are far from an offensive juggernaut, averaging under 6 yards per completion.  What really matters however is the volume, and that’s where Rudolph stood out with over 130 targets.  Sam Bradford isn’t shy about leaning on his tight end, and that should continue in 2017.

So why is Rudolph going after tight ends like Tyler Eifert (78th overall), Martellus Bennett (84th overall), and Delanie Walker (68th overall)?  Eifert has shown to be a favorite red zone target of Andy Dalton’s, but he can’t seem to stay on the field and the Bengals offense is growing more crowded with talented young options.  Bennett landed in an explosive Packers offense, only the tight end position isn’t a historically prolific one there, and they are even more crowded with receiving talent than the Bengals.  Delanie Walker seemed to take a step back last year, and with all of the new pieces surrounding him and the Titans “exotic smashmouth” attack it’s fair to wonder how he can maintain top 8 production.

Rudolph finds himself in a great position to replicate his 2017 success.  Stefon Diggs has yet to prove staying power as the team’s number one option, but even if he emerges there are few other receiving threats to Rudolph’s workload.  Volume yields production, and few tight ends are likely to see more targets in 2017 than Kyle Rudolph.  Don’t be shocked if he has another year in the top 5.

Eric Ebron

ADP: 103 (TE11)

I don’t know what Eric Ebron did to earn himself such disrespect in the public opinion.  A former first round draft talent in one of the most potent passing offenses in the league who is coming off of a career year in terms of receptions and yardage should garner more excitement, yet Ebron seems like one of those picks that people make “just because”.  Let me tell you why you should be excited about Eric Ebron, and why he deserves to be regarded more highly than a back-end tight end 1.

Let’s rewind to last season, when Ebron posted a career high 61 catches for 711 yards on 86 targets.  He had the second highest reception total for the Lions on the third-highest target total despite missing 3 games.  He was the 9th-most targeted tight end in the league with just under 7 targets per game, and had the 7th-most yards per game, as well as the 8th-most total yards and receptions per game.  The glaring number that sticks out in his stat line is in the touchdown column, a solid one.

The problem seems to be that people held high aspirations for Ebron coming off of a strong sophomore season that saw him post 5 touchdowns, and he responded with only one score.  Look at it more closely however, and you will see that in almost every other category he did improve.  His receptions per game, yards per catch and targets all went up, the only number that faltered was his touchdown total.  Do you know who that reminds me of?  Travis Kelce.  Having worked himself into the overall TE1 conversation with Rob Gronkowski Travis Kelce has never scored more than 5 touchdowns in a season, it’s his yardage totals that boost his stock.  Eric Ebron is a highly athletic talent in a high octane offense, and I see no reason why he can’t have a similar impact for the Lions.  The touchdown totals will rebound, of that I have little doubt.  

I find it a little egregious that players like Martellus Bennett and Zach Ertz are being drafted ahead of him.  Eric Ebron only had one game with less than 5 targets while Ertz had five and Bennett had seven.  The argument for drafting Bennett seems to be focused on his new home in Green Bay, but the Packers don’t boast a great history of using their tight ends and he’s got a lot of competition for targets.  Zach Ertz seems to be the subject of offseason hype just about every season, yet he too now has to deal with an even more crowded receiving core in Philadelphia, and it’s not as if his production was ever consistent before.  For the most part, Ebron’s game by game production last season was fairly consistent, and the Lions didn’t bring in any big names besides rookie hype-man Kenny Golladay.  Ebron has a great chance to improve on his touchdown numbers, and he has a good shot at a finish in the top 8 at his position.

Andy  Dalton

ADP: 122 (QB18)

How does a quarterback pass for over 4,200 yards and end up as the 18th highest quarterback drafted the following year?  The red-headed stepchild of the NFL, Andy Dalton just can’t seem to garner much respect for his play on a Bengals team that has surrounded him with AJ Green and not much else for support.  The knock for Dalton’s play in 2016 season comes down to one thing; touchdowns.  Failing to cross the 20 touchdown threshold for the second time in his career Dalton still somehow managed to lead the Bengals to a record of 6-9-1, despite losing his #1 target for almost the entire second half of the season.

The optimism for Dalton is mostly based on the mentality that things can only get better.  Dalton should return this season with his receiving corps healthy and intact, with Green back as a top 5 receiver and Tyler Eifert returning to form as a strong threat in the redzone. Add in some of the dynamic pieces that the Bengals have added through the draft in runningback Joe Mixon and deep-field burner John Ross and a depleted Bengals offense suddenly bares much sharper fangs.  

Last season is not a fair portrait of the player Andy Dalton is.  He had a rail-thin supporting cast after losing his #2 and #3 receivers to free agency, and his injury-plagued backfield offered him little in the way of ground support.  He also saw his offensive coordinator leave to coach for the rival Browns.  Combine that with the second highest sack total in the league and it’s easy to see how the offense as a whole sputtered.  Go back to his 2015 season however and you see a quarterback with a passer rating of 106.2, and while that was a career high none of his other stats were drastically higher than his career average.  The key statistic then was a single-digit interception total for the first time in his career, a feat he repeated last season.

Andy Dalton certainly isn’t the most exciting name to que up on draft day, but look at some of the names going ahead of him; Tyrod Taylor (QB17), Eli Manning (QB16), Philip Rivers (QB14).  Taylor passed for under 200 yards nine times last season, averaging just over 200 passing yards per game for the entire season.  He now enters the 2017 season with a new coaching staff and questions about whether or not the Bills truly believe him to be their franchise player.  Manning posted a sickly passer rating of 86 last season, and while it’s easy to look at all of the shiny new toys in Big Blue’s offense and salivate it’s also fair to wonder if at 36 years old we’ve seen the beginning of his decline. Rivers had 6 games with multiple interceptions last season, and with Melvin Gordon emerging as one of the league’s star running backs the Chargers could look to turn to a more run-heavy attack.

I’m not going to jump on a soapbox and proclaim that Andy Dalton will be a league-winning quarterback, that’s not a hill that I’m willing to die on just yet.  What I am saying however is that if you look at Dalton’s young career he has been fairly consistent, and as of late he’s taken promising steps such as cutting down his turnovers and improving his completion percentage just about every year.  He may not have the ceiling of more volatile passers like Rivers, Roethlisberger or Manning, but if I’m taking a late round quarterback then I’m looking for stability, someone that won’t lose me my week with a 3 interception implosion.  With a touchdown total that’s bound to improve, Dalton is one of my favorite late round qb targets.

Tyrod Taylor

ADP: 117 (QB16)

Tyrod Taylor is just the latest example of the mobile quarterback craze.  Everybody loves a quarterback that wins with his legs; the rushing stats are fun for fantasy, and it’s just more fun to watch a guy with that type of playstyle.  The problem is that Tyrod Taylor just isn’t that great of a quarterback.  You read that right, I’m claiming that there’s a reason that Taylor spent the first four seasons of his career on the bench in Baltimore.  

Historically, when a quarterback has to rely heavily on their legs for production, their passing statistics have been lacking.  Looking back over the careers of some of the great rushing QB’s like Steve McNair, Fran Tarkenton, John Elway and of course Michael Vick, only two of them ever managed a passer rating above 100 (Vick-2010, McNair-2003).  Tyrod Taylor is not in the same breath as these greats in regard to his level of talent, nor does he play in an offense nearly as explosive as any of them ever had.  The game has also changed significantly since then; the novelty of the mobile quarterback has lost much of its shine, and NFL defenses are much more athletic and equipped to handle a dual-threat player.

It’s not to say that mobility means nothing to a quarterback; being able to use your feet as well as your arm is certainly a valuable tool.  What I’m saying is that it’s risky to consistently rely on rushing stats for production when the passing game is weak.  Not only is Taylor limited as a passer, but he also has one of the thinnest receiving platoons in the league, highlighted by a star receiver that can’t stay on the field.  Combine that with a new coaching staff and a management team that has been lukewarm at best in support of their “franchise” player and Taylor makes for a dangerous gamble.

It’s crazy to me to see quarterbacks like Andy Dalton (QB18), Carson Palmer (QB21), and even Joe Flacco (QB23) being drafted behind Tyrod Taylor.  As highlighted above, Dalton is a steady-if-unspectacular option who has a drastically improved supporting cast around him.  Palmer’s play last season was better than the numbers show, and in what could be his last season he could make a push for another great campaign in Arizona.  Flacco will never be exciting to the eyes, but he plays in one of the highest volume passing attacks in the league and with an underrated supporting cast a top 12 finish is not out of the realm of possibility.

Picking Tyrod Taylor for your fantasy team is to gamble on his sky-high upside and ignore his rock-bottom floor.  If I own Taylor on a fantasy roster (which I probably won’t), I want to have another solid quarterback waiting in the wings just in case.  I would sooner not waste the bench space, and would instead opt for a more steady option, but that’s just my personal opinion.

Parting Thoughts

Above I have highlighted eight names whose ADP’s I consider to be out of line.  There are certainly more players whose draft value I would call into question, but more than anything I hope this gives you a taste of why reliance on ADP is a dangerous game.  Know the context behind why a player is ranked where they are, then judge for yourself if you agree or disagree with that rationale.  It’s perfectly fine if you disagree with me on some or all of my thoughts because at the end of the day there really isn’t a “right” or “wrong” answer.  Fantasy football is a game based as much on luck and speculation as it is on fact and hard evidence, and the best (and most fun) way that you can play it successfully is to combine the two and create your own game-winning formula.

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