7 Undervalued Players
Fantasy football drafting, at its core, is about buying players for less than they’re actually worth. In other words, you win your fantasy draft by picking undervalued players.
Last year in this space, we identified Tom Brady, Cam Akers, Robert Woods, Will Fuller, Tyler Lockett and Marvin Jones. Now, let’s get to the 2021 crew…
Kirk Cousins, QB, Vikings
DS Rank: QB15
Cousins finished QB11 last year. He set career highs in TDs (35) and TD rate (6.8%) while posting strong marks in completion rate (67.6%) and yards per attempt (8.3).
Call it the Justin Jefferson Effect.
And, after a relatively minor scare, Jefferson should be 100% for Week 1. Only 22, it’s possible he takes a small step forward this fall. Jefferson and Adam Thielen already form one of the league’s top pass catching duos.
We also forecast an increased role for rising 3rd-year TE Irv Smith. Last year, he ranked 12th among 34 TEs in Pro Football Focus receiving grade (min. 40 targets).
The bonus here is Cousins’ early-season schedule. His first 8 opponents bring favorable outlooks via defensive performance, offensive pace (equaling added play volume) and/or shootout potential…
If there’s a downside here, it’s that we know Cousins is unvaccinated. And that simply puts him at a greater risk of missing games.
Still, at a QB2 price, he makes for a strong pairing with potential early-season backups Trey Lance or Justin Fields. We fully expect both rookies to be under center by mid-season.
Joe Mixon, RB, Bengals
DS Rank: RB9
OC Brian Callahan has called Mixon a 3-down RB at least twice this offseason.
With Gio Bernard’s 59 targets out of town, this is Mixon’s best opportunity to enter said role. And that's not often found in the middle of Round 2.
Mixon’s supporting cast — which now includes 1st-round WR Ja’Marr Chase — should take pressure off the ground game. Mixon already saw 8+ man boxes on only 8.4% of his 2020 rushes — 4th fewest among 55 RBs (min. 85 attempts, per Next Gen Stats). Cincy will certainly remain a heavy '11' personnel team.
So we don’t see a subpar O-line as a hurdle. Mixon’s never run behind even an above-average unit, and he has 2 seasons of top-13 production to his name.
A return to mid-range RB1 glory is all about staying healthy.
Miles Sanders, RB, Eagles
DS Rank: RB19
2020 turned up a toxic fantasy environment for the entire Eagles offense. Philly ranked 28th in yards per play, 24th in yards per game and 26th in scoring. Sitting 28th in 3rd-down conversion rate, the Eagles really struggled to sustain drives.
Now, some of that certainly trickled down to Sanders, who tallied an ugly 8 drops.
However, he also busted off 5.3 yards per carry, boosted by 3 rushes of 70+ yards. Impressive work considering Philly’s O-line used 14 different starting lineups due to injuries.
Remember that Sanders, only 24, is an ultra-athletic back. And he brings a clear path to ~250 touches.
Top backfield competition figures to come from receiving backs Boston Scott and Kenneth Gainwell. Sure, they’ll prevent Sanders from posting huge receiving numbers. Their body types (and draft capital) simply don't put them in line for significant early-down work. And look back at Sanders’ rookie year receiving line (50-509-3) to see the upside there. It’s all about limiting the drops.
His early-season schedule looks like an ally. Per our projected Strength of Schedule numbers, Sanders will face just 1 difficult matchup over the first 10 weeks.
Also of note: Sanders sits just 4 points behind our RB17 J.K. Dobbins; 1 point behind RB18 David Montgomery. So even though our rank matches Sanders' ADP, he's a nice value in the 4th round of fantasy drafts.
Tyler Lockett, WR, Seahawks
DS Rank: WR16
You might have a love/hate relationship with Lockett.
He’s coming off a WR9 finish in PPR. He even posted top-3 numbers 3 times.
On the flip side, Lockett finished outside the top-36 in 9 of 16 games. His late-season slump coincided with Russell Wilson’s regression. The belief is that OC Brian Schottenheimer never adjusted to defenses playing 2-deep looks and taking away the deep ball.
Enter new OC Shane Waldron. He hasn’t called plays at the NFL level, but he’s worked under Bill Belichick and — most recently — Sean McVay. (Waldron was McVay’s QB coach/passing game coordinator.)
Lockett sounds excited about the hire.
"I think with the offense Shane brings in, it gives us more freedom. More freedom to be able to be the receivers that we can be. We got free range to do a lot of stuff," Lockett said, via the Seattle Times. "Not saying that we can just go out and do whatever we want, but the more sophisticated that you become in this offense, the more you're able to understand how to switch your feet, how not to switch your feet, how to add an extra step, how not to add an extra step, rather than always just having to get to a certain point in a certain amount of time, you kind of have free range to play with it a little bit.”
Lockett also pointed to an increased tempo and more pre-snap motion as new tweaks. Per Football Outsiders, Seattle ranked 22nd in situation-neutral pace last year; 28th in pace when trailing by 7+points.
We fully believe Wilson, 32, rebounds this year. And even after the signing of Gerald Everett, the target tree here looks concentrated. Current projections have Lockett for 129 targets — and clear-cut WR2 value.
Mike Williams, WR, Chargers
DS Rank: WR40
Williams was fine last year. Factoring in Justin Herbert’s early breakout, though, the season seemed disappointing.
The Clemson product totaled 48-756-5 in 15 games. He remained a downfield asset with 15.8 yards per catch but disappeared too often with 6 games under 6 PPR points.
One huge reason why: bad luck in the TD department. His 16 end zone targets ranked top-10 league-wide. Yet he converted on only 3 of those opportunities.
Williams saw 7 end zone targets in 2019, but that team attempted 30 fewer passes — and was quarterbacked by 38-year-old Philip Rivers. A healthy Williams should be busy in the red zone (and all over the field) under 1st-year OC Joe Lombardi.
Herbert’s already talked about getting Williams the ball more, including in the “short game.” If so, that’ll cut down on some of the WR’s volatility.
Overall, 2021 sets up as Williams’ finest situation to date. Barring injury, he’s a great bet for WR3+ value.
T.J. Hockenson, TE, Lions
DS Rank: TE4
The Lions lost over 300 targets in offseason departures. Hockenson already saw 100 targets last year, and there’s no doubt his role is locked in entering year 3.
Check the supporting cast. Tyrell Williams missed all of 2020 with a shoulder injury. Breshad Perriman can pass as a situational deep threat but brings injury issues of his own. The 28-year-old hasn’t played a full season since 2016.
Amon-Ra St. Brown looks promising; just remember he’s a 4th-round rookie. Only eight 4th-round rookie WRs in league history have cleared 600 yards.
Plus, Hockenson’s adapted well to new QB Jared Goff. While HC Sean McVay’s scheme propped up Goff, the Cal product still delivered strong marks as a short-to-intermediate passer. PFF graded his 2020 throws top-12 in both areas.
Mix in Hockenson’s pedigree as a high 1st-rounder, and it’s easy to see the 24-year-old taking another step forward in 2021.
Tyler Higbee, TE, Rams
DS Rank: TE9
After an elite end to 2019, Higbee fell flat last season. He finished TE18 while splitting targets with Gerald Everett (60 vs. 61). Encouragingly, Higbee ranked 8th among 34 TEs in yards per route run (per PFF).
He just ran 322 routes — 21st at the position.
Everett’s now in Seattle, so there’s hope that Higbee handles a larger role.
Rookie TE Jacob Harris has garnered buzz throughout training camp. He’s a guy to watch for sure — but more long term. A Round 4 rookie, Harris comes from UCF as a converted WR. And at 24, he exits school with only 49 career catches.
WRs Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp are the clear top-2 options in this passing game. But the depth chart doesn’t look too crowded beyond those guys.
DeSean Jackson’s injury history is well known. He won’t play close to a full-time role.
Tutu Atwell doesn’t have the size (5’8, 155) to hold up in a full-time role.
Van Jefferson, meanwhile, is coming off a rookie year with 19 catches in 16 games.
And did I mention the QB upgrade from Jared Goff to Matt Stafford? Stafford's ability to push the ball downfield should have the Rams back near the top of the league in scoring. Recall that McVay’s offenses ranked 1st, 2nd and 11th in scoring before dropping to 22nd in 2020.
It all adds up to a “buy” signal on Higbee.