Draft Strategy

When to Start Ignoring Your Rankings

By Matt Schauf 7:31am EDT 8/5/14

Fantasy football rankings are awesome ... until they're not.

We pride ourselves on putting forth the most accurate preseason numbers in the industry, but the fact is that you can't simply follow those numbers come draft time. Sure, they work great for ranking pretty much all the players in starter range. But if you draft strictly by the projected numbers, you'll leave a lot of upside on the table.

That's because accurate projections require taking the entire team into account. Increasing the numbers on 1 player means that you either need to take them from somewhere else or raise the totals for the whole team. So it's difficult to pump up, say, a high-value backup RB without downgrading the starter in front of him.

So this article will tell you when it's time to look past the rankings, stop taking the next guy on your list and start pursuing some potential difference-makers who could take you from playoff berth to championship.


QB -- after Tony Romo

Romo sits 11th in our default site rankings as a prime reason to wait on your starting QB -- especially now that he's sitting 13th among QBs in ADP. The order of our QBs looks good for draft purposes through Romo, but right behind him is where you should start changing up your strategy a bit.

Russell Wilson and Jay Cutler sit 12th and 13th, respectively, but good luck finding a DS staffer who's taking Wilson ahead of Cutler as a fantasy backup. The Bears QB has missed at least 1 game in 4 straight seasons, 13 total over that span. So you pretty much have to project Cutler to miss at least 1 game in 2014, which we did. Extrapolate our Cutler projections over 16 games, and he'd jump to #8.

Should we bump him higher? Perhaps. But the guys currently sitting in between -- Colin Kaepernick, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Romo and Wilson -- can all outperform their projections as well. And none has lost nearly as much recent time to injury as has Cutler.

If you value safety over upside and are drafting your league's 12th starter, then Wilson certainly makes sense. But at that point, we'd recommend gambling on Cutler's higher ceiling.

Backups

Cutler just begins the "ignore the projections" stretch. Drafting a backup QB depends quite a bit on how the bye weeks match up with your starter. Plus, the stronger your starting QB, the more sense it makes to bet on the upside at your #2 spot.

This position goes at least 20 deep in players who could finish among the top 12. Andy Dalton (#15 in our site rankings), Philip Rivers (#16), Ben Roethlisberger (#20) and Ryan Tannehill (#18) all ranked among the top 11 fantasy passers at the end of last season. So there's not much separating 15 from 20. And as you get farther down the list, Jake Locker, E.J. Manuel, Johnny Manziel and Geno Smith -- yep, Geno Smith -- stand as upside options. Especially if you're grabbing a 3rd QB at the end of the draft.


RB -- after Fred Jackson

The perennially undervalued Jackson deserves to be drafted at least in RB3 range, which is where he sits in our site rankings (33rd in non-PPR, 32nd in PPR). After all, the guy cracked the top 12 at his position last year. But behind him sits an interesting mix of downside and upside that can be tough to accurately reflect in honest projections.

Check out Bernard Pierce sitting behind both of the decrepit Oakland backs that nobody really wants to draft this year: Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew. Someone will get the ball for the Raiders, and nobody's likely to emerge as a workhorse there anytime soon. So we have to split the expected work between the top 2 options in what was the league's 11th most run-heavy offense last year.

Don't you find Pierce more intriguing than either McFadden or MJD? He's bound to start at least 2 games while Ray Rice serves his suspension. And who knows how big a role Pierce can keep even after Rice's return, under a new OC who has compared him to Arian Foster.

Or there's Jeremy Hill a few spots later. Cincinnati showed us last year that it can support fantasy value in both Gio Bernard and a 2nd back, and Hill could be a Bernard injury from truly strong value.

Hop a couple more spots down the list, and you'll find Terrance West -- who just might pass Ben Tate on the depth chart by the time the regular season arrives.

Similar deal with Ahmad Bradshaw, who will be starter-worthy in many a fantasy league should he replace the underwhelming Trent Richardson in the lineup at any point.

We like both Christine Michael (#56 in PPR) and Carlos Hyde (#57) much better than their rankings might indicate. But you can't project either for big numbers without also predicting an unpredictable amount of time lost to injury for Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore, the respective starters ahead of them.

So, once you've snagged 3 strong RBs to get you started, look further down the list for some of those upside plays.


WR -- after DeAndre Hopkins

Our top 36 projected PPR receivers will take you through Kenny Stills, with solid WR3 options behind him in Anquan Boldin, Sammy Watkins, Rueben Randle, Dwayne Bowe and DeAndre Hopkins.

If you wait and grab 1 of those guys as your final starting WR (good luck doing so with Watkins), you'll probably be just fine. Take any as your 4th, and you'll be in even better shape. But after that group, don't just pluck the rest of the guys in order.

Hakeem Nicks sits just behind Hopkins, though he seems to be trying really hard to get himself moved down. Then comes the injured Cecil Shorts and the wunderkind Brandin Cooks. Guess which makes for the better upside play at your 4th WR spot, if you have a choice.

Upside resides further down in players such as Marvin Jones, Markus Wheaton, Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin, Danny Amendola and Justin Hunter. And if you're picking a 5th or 6th WR, wouldn't you rather take an unproven player with a higher ceiling over the guy you can count on to finish 47th?

Malcom Floyd

San Diego's #2 WR is a bit like the Jay Cutler case mentioned above. If you project Floyd for 16 games, he'd probably challenge for a top 30 spot. But projecting a full slate doesn't make much sense for a 10-year vet who has played more than 13 games just twice. Over just the past 4 seasons, Floyd has lost 25 games to injury. So you shouldn't count on him as a fantasy starter, and our projections clearly don't. But -- as my colleague Jared Smola has pointed out a few times -- Floyd's strong 2-game start to last season followed 3 straight years of fantasy-starter value ... when he was on the field.

We might project that guy behind Steve Smith because of the missed games, but we're not drafting him that low.


TE -- after you get a starter

With TEs, it's a little simpler to figure out when to start looking past the projections: after you've secured a starter.

I just spent a lot of words talking about ignoring the projections, but this position shows a great benefit. While others might chase the big risk of Zach Ertz or Ladarius Green as a starter this year, you can relish the safe production of Martellus Bennett.

Once you grab a player like that, though, we certainly agree with the upside in Ertz, Green, Travis Kelce, Dwayne Allen and a few others. Even Levine Toilolo down at 25 could turn into a bigger TD resource than anyone's expecting.


IDP -- the stronger the initial starters, the easier to chase upside thereafter

This is similar to the TE strategy, except that you'll often need more than 1 starter either at each IDP position or among the collected IDP slots.

If you start your LB corps with Luke Kuechly and Jerrell Freeman, for example, it gets a lot easier to gamble on someone such as Jamie Collins, Ryan Shazier or Bruce Carter as your 3rd. All 3 are impressive athletes capable of well outperforming their projected starting points.

In the secondary, locking down Johnathan Cyprien or Bernard Pollard as your steady tackle collector can make for a nice pairing with the volatility of DeAngelo Hall or the unproven upside in rookies Deone Bucannon and Calvin Pryor.

Final thoughts

We produce our projections to give as accurate an outlook as possible for the NFL season and fantasy season. But there will be plenty of guys who outperform their draft position, and snagging a couple such players can make the difference in your fantasy season.

We'll be putting out our annual sleepers articles in the coming weeks, to go with some of the specific player advice we've already laid out. Beyond that, always keep an eye out for guys with upside beyond their projections. Check out the player profiles and the icons on your MVP Boards for such targets.

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