Going Deep

Value Adjustment for 16-team leagues

I love 16-team leagues. Strategy and planning are more important when players are so scarce. In addition, deep leagues force you to think about certain players in a different way. For example, high floor, low ceiling type players such as Marques Colston should be ignored in 10 or even 12-team leagues. Colston finished 30th among receivers with 113 points in 2014. In a 10-team league, Colston isn't even flex worthy and shouldn't even be owned because teams are so stacked that there is no situation in which Colston is startable. In a shallow, 10-team league it's far better to roll the dice on high-risk, high-reward players such as Breshad Perriman or Brian Quick. They may give you absolutely nothing, but so what? At least they have a chance of breaking out and being usable. 

However, in a 16-team league, Colston becomes very, very valuable. The 30th wide receiver in a 16-team league is a solid WR2. That's absolutely startable and Colston is even more valuable because his floor is so high. Guys who are consistent and reliable should be treasured in deep leagues. Colston is ranked 93rd overall which is the end of the 6th round in a 16-team league. At that point, Colston becomes a great value pick. Given the choice between a relative unknown such as Allen Robinson (ranked 68 overall) versus the stable Colston (ranked 93 overall), it's a no-brainer; I'd take Colston in a heartbeat. Conversely, Robinson's unknown ceiling makes him more appealing in a shallower league. 

The following players should be considered more valuable in deeper leagues. 


Low Ceiling, High Floor Wide Receivers

These guys aren't startable in shallow leagues but provide reliable value in deeper leagues. In a 16-team league, there are 32 starting running backs and 48 starting wide receivers. In 10 or 12 team leagues, I wouldn't even draft any of these players. I would rather have high-ceiling, low-floor guys such as Allen Robinson, Charles Johnson, Martavis Bryant, Devante Parker, and Dorial Green-Beckham. But in deeper leagues, the reverse is true.

(overall rank/positional rank)

Colston has been Brees' most reliable target for almost a decade. 

Colston has been Brees' most reliable target for almost a decade. 

Michael Floyd (80/35)

The former 1st round pick finished 34th among wide receivers last year despite catching passes from the likes of Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley for 10 games. In a 16-team league, Floyd has WR2 potential just by virtue of Carson Palmer staying healthy for the majority of the season. Floyd is younger the declining Larry Fitzgerald and a more complete receiver than the diminutive John Brown. Coach Bruce Arians loves to dial up deep throws and the Cardinals trust Floyd to make players in that area- Floyd's average depth of target was 1st in the league in 2014. 

Marques Colston (93/39)

Unless I was thin at WR, I probably wouldn't draft Colston in a standard, 12-team league. The 34 year old is clearly on the decline which caps his upside. However, in a PPR and especially in deeper leagues, Colston is a reliable flex. He's likely to see an increase in targets from last year and has managed at least 70 receptions in 7 out of the 9 seasons in his career. He has eclipsed 1,000 yards in 6 out of the 9. I see his 2014 stats as his floor (902 yards, 5 touchdowns) and, due to the increased workload, he had the potential to bounce back with 100 more yards and a couple more touchdowns. The end will come eventually for Colston but I have enough confidence in Brees and the Saints offense to make him useful for fantasy in 2015. 

Kendall Wright (96/40)

Steve Smith Sr. retains value in deeper leagues by sheer volume of targets. 

Steve Smith Sr. retains value in deeper leagues by sheer volume of targets. 

Rookie Dorial Green-Beckham has the talent and the upside but Wright himself was a former first round pick and has been solid over the past two years. Despite poor quarterback play, Wright finished 35th among wide receivers in 2014 (high-end flex in 16-team leagues) and 30th the year before. Wright is the most reliable receiver on the Titans and I expect Mariota to increase his production significantly. While his touchdown total is likely to remain low, Wright has the potential to approach 100 catches and 1,000 yards like he did in 2013. 

Steve Smith Sr. (99/41)

I wouldn't touch him in standard leagues but Smith finished 20th among wide receivers in fantasy last year and with rookie Breshad Perriman still hurt, Joe Flacco has no one else to throw to. Smith may not be as fast as he used to be but the veteran is by far Flacco's most reliable target. Smith finished 14th among receivers in targets with 134 and has a chance to exceed that mark this season, especially with the pass-happy Marc Trestman calling the plays. 

Anquan Boldin (104/42)

He's 34 years old but speed has never been a part of Boldin's game. He is by far Kaepernick's most reliable target, averaging 84 receptions, 1,120 yards, and 6 touchdowns in the past 2 seasons. He finished 22nd among wide receivers last year and, even with a decline in production, should remain a high-end flex play at least. 


Startable Running Backs

A 16-team league means 32 running backs must be started each week. If you factor in bye weeks, you're really scraping the bottom of the barrel. I probably wouldn't bother with any of these guys in 10 or 12 team leagues but any running back with a significant role is valuable in a 16-teamer.

In deeper leagues, Mathews is more than just a handcuff, he's a viable starter. 

In deeper leagues, Mathews is more than just a handcuff, he's a viable starter. 

Ryan Mathews (74/32)

In a 16-team league, Mathews is much more than just a handcuff. Even without the injury-prone Murray getting hurt and missing time, I could see Mathews getting as much as 40% of the work which translates to 150-200 carries.  And, behind a great offensive line, Mathews will make the most out of limited playing time in the high-powered Eagles offense. Last season, 2nd string RB Darren Sproles scored 6 rushing touchdowns on 57 carries and third string running back Chris Polk scored 4 rushing touchdowns on 46 carries. Sproles finished 27th among running backs despite missing a couple games due to injury and getting only 97 touches. 

Danny Woodhead (94/41)

Woodhead missed almost the entire 2014 season due to a fractured leg but did you know that he actually finished 19th among running backs in 2013? In a 16-team league, that's a high-end RB2! Melvin Gordon is the bell-cow in San Diego but I think Woodhead will resume playing a significant role in Mike McCoy's offense. Bonus points if the league is PPR as Woodhead finished second in running back receptions in 2013 with 72 and, these days, QB Philip Rivers' game revolves around carving up defenses with short passes. 

Bishop Sankey (92/40) and David Cobb (103/47)

Ugh. It's almost not even worth dealing with this situation in a 16-team league because if these two split carries there's a very real chance that neither of them finish in the top 30. But a starting running back in the NFL is a starting running back in a 16-team league. 

David Johnson (121/52)

He was a better value before the Cardinals signed Chris Johnson but the big-bodied rookie still fits the role as the short-yardage back (read: touchdown maker). The Cardinals have greatly improved their offensive line and both Ellington and Johnson are somewhat injury prone.

Roy Helu (162/64)

This one is strictly for 16-team PPR leagues as Helu caught a respectable 42 passes in 2014 which would have placed him 31st among running backs. He has a chance to earn an expanded role in Oakland. 


Quarterbacks: The Best and the Rest

Unlike in 10 or 12 team leagues when you can wait and wait and wait and still grab a great QB like Eli Manning or Matthew Stafford at the end of the draft, 16-team leagues introduce scarcity into a position that has, for years, been notoriously deep. Even if you think the top 14 QBs are all serviceable (I do), there will be 2 teams left with a sub-optimal option at QB. And that's assuming that none of the other owners take a backup. It's much riskier to wait for a QB in a 16-teamer and streaming is more difficult with less QBs available on the waiver wire. Because of this, QBs are likely to be drafted much earlier than their suggested rank and teams that wait will be left with QBs that are, at best, unproven. 

Luck might be worth drafting in deeper leagues due to the uncertainty of QBs later on. 

Luck might be worth drafting in deeper leagues due to the uncertainty of QBs later on. 

The Best

Because lesser QBs are likely to be drafted much earlier than expected, this makes the top QB the best value of them all. 

Andrew Luck (25/2)

Every year he just gets better and better. Now the Colts have added future hall-of-fame WR Andre Johnson and spent a first round pick on slot receiver Phillip Dorsett. Additionally, Frank Gore is an upgrade at running back- he is a great pass blocker and was a great pass-catcher in his prime. Finally, the Colts also brought in a little offensive line help adding veteran Todd Herremans at left guard. Luck scored 336 points last season, just 8 points shy of Rodgers and 24 points more than the 3rd best QB. Him and Rodgers were a tier above the rest in 2014 and, now that Rodgers has lost his top receiver, Luck is the QB to own in 2015.

The Rest

Even if you miss out on the top QBs, there's still a few that could be serviceable. However, there's no guarantee that they will be good and you might have to draft and hold on to a few of them for streaming. 

Eagles QBs have been very valuable in fantasy under Chip Kelly's system and Bradford seems like a great fit.

Eagles QBs have been very valuable in fantasy under Chip Kelly's system and Bradford seems like a great fit.

Sam Bradford (178/16)

Eagles QBs last year combined for 245 points which would have made them the 14th best QB and putting them just 23 points away from the 7th best QB. Bradford is much more talented than either Foles or Sanchez and he's a great fit for Chip Kelly's highly effective offense. Health is an issue but even if Bradford gets hurt, Mark Sanchez is a proven, serviceable plan B.

Carson Palmer (180/17)

He has one of the best receiving corps in the league (Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, John Brown, and Andre Ellington), much improved offensive line, an easier schedule, and a coach who loves to throw deep. Plus, in the 6 games that he played last year, Palmer averaged almost 17 points per game which would have made him the 7th best QB in fantasy. 

Teddy Bridgewater (190/18)

Bridgewater scored 13 points per game in 2014. Projecting that average over a full season comes out to 208 fantasy points which would place him 19th among quarterbacks. Not bad for a rookie. With a little improvement, he could crack his way into the top 16. Plus, having Adrian Peterson in backfield will keep the pressure off of Bridgewater and greatly increase the efficacy of play-action passes. In addition, Bridgewater has good chemistry with WR Charles Johnson and the Vikings added WR Mike Wallace in the off-season. 

Jameis Winston (214/21)

I don't know if how good he's going to be but he can't be worse than Josh McCown and Mike Glennon were last year. Yet, even they managed to rack up 202 points which would have made them the 20th best QB in fantasy. Winston has the best wide receiver duo in the league in Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson and one of the friendliest schedules for QBs in 2015. Success is no guarantee but he sure has a lot of things going his way. 

Marcus Mariota (247/23)

You never know, he could be really good. Ken Wisenhunt has a knack for adjusting his offense to a QB's strengths and Mariota could very well pick up 30 yards a game with his legs. 


Lottery Ticket Tight Ends

At a certain point, there just aren't enough tight ends to go around in a 16-teamer. You might have to take a couple of these physically-gifted tight ends and hope one of them breaks out. It's not impossible. In fact, every year there are tight ends that come out of nowhere and finish in the top 10. Last year, it was Travis Kelce, Delanie Walker, and Dwayne Allen. In 2013, it was Julius Thomas, Jordan Cameron, and Charles Clay. Those are pretty good odds. All of those guys had been in the league a year or two and all of them were relatively unknown before their breakout.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins has the physical gifts to break out this season. 

Austin Seferian-Jenkins has the physical gifts to break out this season. 

Austin Seferian-Jenkins (196/15)

He's huge (6'5", 262 pounds), he's fast (4.56-40), he has a year of experience, and he has a big upgrade at QB.

Vernon Davis (242/20)

He's a former top-3 tight end in fantasy. Davis was awful last year but he's worth considering for the chance that he returns to being elite or at least startable. 

Tyler Eifert (250/21)

He's big (6'5", 250 pounds), he's pretty fast (4.65-40) and the former first-round pick has the job all to himself now that Jermaine Gresham is gone. 

Eric Ebron (277/24)

He was a top-10 overall pick in last year's NFL Draft and now he has a full season of experience.



PPR Value Adjustments

PPR changes the value of positions.

ESPN's Ken Daube actually wrote a pretty good article about PPR strategy. The main takeaways from the article are that the majority of players are not more valuable in PPR compared to others at the same position. However, wide receivers become significantly more valuable while running backs and especially quarterbacks become less valuable. Running backs ranked outside the top 20 are even less valuable because it's unlikely for a running back to outscore a wide receiver at the flex spot. For example, the 25th ranked running back (there are 24 RB1s and RB2s in a 12-team league), Jonathan Stewart, was outscored by the 53rd wide receiver, John Brown, in PPR last year. Conclusion: top running backs are still valuable but it's far more important to stock up on wide receivers in later rounds. It may have been obvious to you, but it's important to know just how much of an effect PPR has on each position group. 

15 Players More Valuable in PPR

The following players are more valuable in PPR leagues and should be drafted earlier accordingly. 

Bell was already at the top of many draft boards but his pass-catching skills seal the deal. 

Bell was already at the top of many draft boards but his pass-catching skills seal the deal. 

Le'Veon Bell (ranked 1st overall) 

Value Adjustment: Moves to 1st overall.

Bell is already ranked 1st overall in ESPN but a PPR format cements his status as the top player even with a two game suspension to start the season. With 83 receptions last year, Bell finished as 2014's top running back in fantasy. Although... Call me crazy, but I'd still pick Adrian Peterson (who I think will catch a lot of balls this year considering Asiata and McKinnon combined for 77 receptions in 2014).

Antonio Brown (ranked 6th overall)

Value Adjustment: Well worth the 1st round pick and should be considered above the back end of the tier 1 running backs such as Eddie Lacy, Marshawn Lynch, and Matt Forte.

In standard leagues, Brown outscored the next best receiver (Demaryius Thomas) by 28 points, a comfortable margin. In PPR, Brown pads the lead by an additional 18 points. Brown's dominance in PPR leagues makes him the only player I'd consider taking over a top running back, a position in which talent is much more scarce. 

Last season, Matt Forte broke the record for most receptions by a running back with 102.

Last season, Matt Forte broke the record for most receptions by a running back with 102.

Matt Forte (ranked 8th overall)

Value Adjustment: Moves up a tier among running backs.

Forte tallied an incredible 102 receptions last year. With the pass-happy coach Marc Trestman gone, that number seems sure to drop significantly. But let's not get carried away. Forte had earned his reputation as the best pass-catching running back in the league before Trestman ever set foot in Chicago. Even excluding 2013 and 2014 with Trestman as coach (during which Forte totaled 176 receptions in 2 seasons), Forte averaged 57 receptions per 16 games. He's guaranteed to finish top 5 among running backs in receptions and a PPR format pushes him from the front of the tier 2 running backs to the top. While Le'Veon Bell, Adrian Peterson, and Jamaal Charles are all still firmly ahead of him, you could make a case for taking Forte over Lacy or Lynch.

Rob Gronkowski (ranked 12th overall)

Value Adjustment: Might actually be worth his rank now.

I'm strictly against taking Gronkowksi in the first round of a standard league. However, there is a stronger case for Gronk in a PPR, especially in deeper leagues. In a PPR, the gap between Gronkowski and the next best tight end increases, as does the gap between Gronk and a replacement level tight end. Also, tight ends become slightly more valuable in general in PPR leagues. 

Brandin Cooks (ranked 30th overall)

Value Adjustment: Moves up a round.

Before getting injured, Cooks led the league in catch percentage and was on pace for 85 receptions on 112 targets. Due to the exodus of 4 of New Orleans' top 5 pass catchers this off-season, 315 targets are up for grabs (almost half of Brees' pass attempts in 2014). Cooks' target total is in line for a massive increase and if he can maintain a catch percentage even close to what he achieved in 2014, he'll catch over 100 balls, easy. 

Forsett will have a significant role as the best pass-catching running back in Marc Trestman's offense.

Forsett will have a significant role as the best pass-catching running back in Marc Trestman's offense.

Justin Forsett (ranked 34th overall)

Value Adjustment: Moves up a round and replaces Mark Ingram as the 11th best running back (24th overall).

Just as Forte's receptions are bound decrease due to Trestman's departure, Forett's are due for a bit of a boost as Trestman is the new offensive coordinator the Ravens. Forsett caught a respectable 44 balls in 2014 so it would not be a surprise to see him approach or even exceed 60 catches in 2015. 

Julian Edelman (ranked 35th overall) 

Value Adjustment: Overrated in standard leagues, he's worth his price in PPR.

I don't like Edelman in standard leagues but his rank is justified for PPR. In 2014, Edelman finished 25th among wide receivers in standard leagues while finishing 16th among receivers in PPR which corresponds well with his standard league rank (he's the 16th ranked wide receiver for 2015 drafts). Edelman's value is held back by the lack of touchdowns but he's a good bet for 90-100 catches. 

Andre Johnson (58th overall)

Value Adjustment: Moves at least 2 rounds. I would draft him ahead of DeAndre Hopkins (29th overall).

I already think Johnson is really underrated in standard leagues but his value is even higher in PPR. Since 2006 (9 seasons), Johnson exceeded or was on pace to exceed 100 receptions in every season except for 2011 and 2014. Johnson had 85 receptions last year (tied for 11th) despite the Houston Texans finishing 30th in pass attempts. Conversely, the Indianapolis Colts led the league in that category. And we haven't even considered that going from Dorsey/Grossman/Savage/Carr/Banks/Rosenfells/Yates/Delhomme/Leinart/Schaub/Keenum/Fitzpatrick/Mallet to Andrew Luck is like night and day. You think he's too old? 34-year old Reggie Wayne caught 106 balls from Andrew Luck in 2012, Luck's rookie year.

CJ Spiller (ranked 62nd overall)

Value Adjustment: Moves up at least a round. I would draft him ahead of TJ Yeldon (52nd overall).

I've already said a lot about Spiller's upside in a previous article. Suffice to say, 70 receptions is not out of the question for this talented player in an offense that has been at or near the top of the league in running back targets and receptions for years. However, on August 29th, it was reported that Spiller is likely to miss the first 2 weeks of the season in order to recover from off-season knee surgery. 

With just 758 yards on 84 receptions, Landry ranked dead last in average depth of target in 2014. 

With just 758 yards on 84 receptions, Landry ranked dead last in average depth of target in 2014. 

Jarvis Landry (ranked 65th overall)

Value Adjustment: Would not draft in standard leagues, becomes at least a high-end flex in PPR. 

With 84 receptions in his rookie year, Landry jumped from the 49th best receiver in standard leagues to the 34th best in PPR. While I don't understand why his rank is so high in standard leagues (managed just 758 yards on those 84 catches and Miami added Devante Parker, Greg Jennings, Kenny Stills, and Jordan Cameron this off-season), he'll provide solid, reliable production in PPR. 

Shane Vereen (ranked 78th overall)

Value Adjustment: Moves into being relevant as a low-end RB2. I would not draft Vereen in a standard league. 

Personally, I think there's too much uncertainty about Vereen's usage in this new offense for me to feel good about drafting him. But Vereen finished 20th among running backs in PPR (29th in standard leagues) so he's  definitely shown that he has the potential to be valuable in this format. Just don't reach too high, especially if you already have a couple serviceable running backs. Remember, a wide receiver in flex is much more valuable than a running back in a PPR. Even as the 20th ranked RB, Vereen was outscored by the 46th wide receiver, Michael Crabtree. Vereen ranks significantly higher among running backs but running backs in general (in this range) should be ranked lower in the overall rankings. 

Danny Woodhead (ranked 94th overall)

Woodhead missed almost the entire 2014 season due to a fractured leg but did you know that he actually finished 19th among running backs in 2013? Melvin Gordon is the bell-cow in San Diego but I think Woodhead will resume playing a significant role in Mike McCoy's offense. Woodhead finished second in running back receptions in 2013 with 72 and, these days, QB Philip Rivers' game revolves around carving up defenses with short passes. Additionally, the Chargers don't shy away from using Woodhead in the red zone. He'll score more touchdowns than you think. 

The sure-handed Bolden maintains relevance in PPR leagues.

The sure-handed Bolden maintains relevance in PPR leagues.

Anquan Boldin (ranked 104th overall)

Value Adjustment: Would not draft in standard leagues, solid flex in PPR. 

He's 34 years old but speed has never been a part of Boldin's game. He is by far Kaepernick's most reliable target, averaging 84 receptions in the past 2 seasons and he should be a nice flex play in PPR leagues. 

Devin Funchess (ranked 105 overall)

Value Adjustment: Moves up 2 rounds. Has potential to be a low-end WR2. 

Kelvin Benjamin is out for the year and Funchess is a very similar receiver to Benjamin. Cam Newton has to throw to someone. Benjamin had 144 targets last year. Funchess will catch a lot of balls due to sheer volume. 

Stevie Johnson (ranked 225 overall)

Value Adjustment: Would not draft in standard leagues. Potential WR3 in PPR.

Keenan Allen drawing top coverage, Malcolm Floyd declining, massive upgrade at QB compared to the ones he has played with in his career. From 2010-2012 Johnson averaged 79 receptions per season with Ryan Fitzpatrick at QB. Johnson will likely play as the slot receiver, replacing Eddie Royal who caught 62 passes last year. Very under-the-radar player that could have significant value in deep PPR leagues. 


10 Players Less Valuable in PPR

  1. Marshawn Lynch 
  2. Alfred Morris 
  3. Desean Jackson 
  4. LaGarrette Blount 
  5. Isaiah Crowell
  6. Chris Ivory
  7. Torrey Smith
  8. Martavis Bryant
  9. John Brown
  10. Dwayne Allen

 

 

Where should you draft Davante Adams?

Last night, following the news of Jordy Nelson's ACL tear, I participated in my first draft of the season. The news was so fresh that ESPN had not yet adjusted the ranking of either Nelson or Adams or even indicated that Nelson was hurt. One very unfortunate drafter took Nelson 18th overall while I leapt at the opportunity to take Davante Adams 61st overall. At first glance, that seems way too high. But consider that Davante Adams, even before the Jordy Nelson injury, was ranked 109th overall. I did not pick again until the 80s and I highly doubt Adams would still be there for me at that point. 

What kind of production can we expect out of Adams?

Why am I so high on the second-year receiver out of Fresno St.? It's simple: Aaron Rodgers.

Why am I so high on the second-year receiver out of Fresno St.? It's simple: Aaron Rodgers.

Honestly, a lot. Jordy Nelson had 98 receptions, 1,519 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 221 fantasy points on 151 targets. He finished 3rd among wide receivers in fantasy. Meanwhile, Adams proved himself as a reliable third option in his rookie year last season. And Aaron Rodgers is still the best QB in football. Rodgers will put up numbers and not all of it can go to Randall Cobb. 

So what's Adams' floor? Well, Adams generated 38 receptions, 446 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 58 fantasy points on 66 targets last year. The low-end estimate of the targets he'll see this year is about double: about 122 (this still leaves 85 of Nelson's 151 targets unclaimed). So even if Adams does not improve at all from his rookie year, we can expect his absolute floor to be about 116 points which would have been 29th among wide receivers last year. That's a decent floor but it's not enough to be worth the 61st pick overall. But Adams has considerable upside too. Nelson finished 3rd among wide receivers in fantasy last year (221 points) and Cobb finished 7th (191 points). With Aaron Rodgers throwing the ball, it is conceivable that Adams could have that kind of upside as well. But let's be a little more conservative and project a middle ground. I think Adams has a good chance at scoring around 150 points this year which would put him inside the top 15 wide receivers. The 15th ranked receiver right now is DeAndre Hopkins who is 32nd overall. While I wouldn't take Adams that high, I think he's definitely worth being drafted as a top 25 receiver which is 60th overall, which justifies my taking him at 61. So in a 12 team league, I'd advocate taking Adams as early as the 5th round. 

My personal wide receiver rankings:

Tier 1
1. Antonio Brown
2. Demaryius Thomas
3. Julio Jones
4. Dez Bryant
5. Randall Cobb
6. Odell Beckham Jr.
7. Calvin Johnson
8. A.J. Green

Tier 2
9. Mike Evans
10. Alshon Jeffery
11. T.Y. Hilton

Tier 3
12. Emmanuel Sanders
13. Brandin Cooks
14. Jordan Matthews

Tier 4
15. DeAndre Hopkins
16. Andre Johnson
17. Mike Wallace
18. Sammy Watkins
19. Davante Adams
20. Brandon Marshall
21. Jeremy Maclin
22. Vincent Jackson
23. DeSean Jackson
24. Keenan Allen
25. Nelson Agholor

 

2015 Best/Worst Value, Lottery Tickets


Lottery Tickets

Picks ranked outside of the first 10 rounds (121+ overall) that have chance of being usable in fantasy. 

125. Victor Cruz, WR

Cruz is no stranger to being Eli's second option. In fact, he's had his best seasons playing as the #2. 

Cruz is no stranger to being Eli's second option. In fact, he's had his best seasons playing as the #2. 

Cruz's fantasy point totals over his 4 year career: 205, 169, 121, and 37 (he completed just 5 games last season). Even at his worst in 2013, Cruz was at least a flex play and his current rank as the 52nd wide receiver is well outside of flex territory. Eli Manning is good enough to sustain two fantasy-relevant wide receivers and the schedule is favorable. To those that say Cruz is less valuable playing second fiddle to OBJ, I'd like to point out that Cruz was the #2 on the Giants in 2011 and 2012, his best years by a wide margin. 

135. Eddie Royal, WR

With rookie Kevin White possibly out for the season and Alshon Jeffery limping in camp, Eddie Royal might have lucked into a lucrative role. For all his faults, Jay Cutler has consistently gotten big numbers out of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Eddie Royal has a combined 15 touchdowns in the past two seasons. 

136. David Johnson, RB

Andre Ellington doesn't have the frame to handle feature back duties in Arizona. David Johnson does.  

Walker is really great value so late in the draft. 

Walker is really great value so late in the draft. 

145. Delanie Walker, TE

Finished 9th among TEs last season and gets a sizable upgrade at QB in Marcus Mariota. Why take Jason Witten at #81 when you can get Delanie Walker who outscored him in 2014 and will likely do so again in 2015? 

150. Eli Manning, QB

He finished as the 10th best QB in 2014. He gets Odell Beckham Jr. for a full season, a healthy Victor Cruz, and the newly acquired WR James Jones and pass-catching RB Shane Vereen. He's ranked as the 12th QB but it's really hard for me to see him fall outside the top 10 when the season comes to a close. 

165. Dorial Green-Beckham, WR

There's a chance that Marcus Mariota does really well this year and Dorial Green-Beckham is the most talented receiver on the Titans.

167. Cameron Artis-Payne

There's more than a chance that RB Jonathan Stewart misses time this season (he's missed 20 games in the last 3 seasons). 

171. Matthew Stafford, QB

Stafford was the 4th quarterback off the board in 2014. Now he's 14th. Last year he really slumped but we know he has top 5 upside. Plus, his offensive line is improved, he gets a healthy Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate proved himself as a high-end number 2, and Eric Ebron is likely to improve in year 2. 

It's hard to find #1 receivers this cheap. 

It's hard to find #1 receivers this cheap. 

174. Brian Quick, WR

Before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in week 8, Quick looked like the clear #1 receiver on the Rams. He was the #20 receiver in points per game over the first 6 games when he was healthy. Now he gets a substantial upgrade at QB from Austin Davis to Nick Foles who has been good enough to produce valuable receivers in Philadelphia (DeSean Jackson in 2013 and Jeremy Maclin in 2014). 

178. Sam Bradford, QB

Combine the 2 Eagles QBs last year, and you get the #13 QB in fantasy (just 23 points less than Matt Ryan, the #7 QB). Chip Kelly's offense produces big stats at the QB position and Bradford is potentially much better than either Foles or Sanchez. He's a potential top 10 QB. 

195. Devin Funchess, WR

Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL and is out for the season. Funchess will rise quickly through the ranks. His upside is about where Benjamin was last year. 

196. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE

He's a huge end zone target and Jameis Winston is an upgrade over the QBs they had last year. 

205. Chris Polk, RB

Arian Foster is out for the first half of the season and the Texans have one of the best offensive lines in the league along with one of the most favorable schedules in the league. Head coach Bill O'Brien wants to establish the run as the Texans led the league in rushing attempts in 2014 by a wide margin. Alfred Blue is, for now, the presumed starter but he's just not a good player. Whereas Arian Foster finished 5th in the NFL with 4.8 yards per carry, Alfred Blue finished dead last running behind the same line. I am reasonably confident that Polk will get a fair shot to take over at some point before Foster can get back on the field. 

Jameis has the weapons he needs to succeed.

Jameis has the weapons he needs to succeed.

214. Jameis Winston, QB

You never know. He has arguably the best wide receiver duo in the league and a great schedule as well. 

216. Chris Johnson, RB

I doubt it but you never know. That Arizona O-line got a lot better. 

221. Eagles D/ST

The Eagles D/ST finished as the 2nd best defense in fantasy last year. So why are they ranked as the 14th defense this year? Sure, the 11 touchdowns is sure to regress a bit but the Eagles do have one of the better special teams units in the league. In addition, their front 7 is elite, finishing 2nd in the league with 49 sacks. The main weakness of the defense last year was the paper secondary but that unit has been greatly improved now that the Eagles have added CB Byron Maxwell, CB Eric Rowe, and FS Walter Thurmond. 

225. Stevie Johnson, WR

He had 3 straight 1,000 yard seasons in Buffalo with Ryan Fitzpatrick at QB. Philip Rivers is by far the best QB Johnson has ever had and he could have a large role with Antonio Gates suspended for 4 games, Eddie Royal to Chicago, and Malcolm Floyd old. 

247. Marcus Mariota, QB

Hey, there's a chance for upside and he's a mobile QB which is valuable for fantasy.

After finishing 2nd among tight ends in 2013 with 

After finishing 2nd among tight ends in 2013 with 

272. Eric Ebron, TE

He was the 10th overall pick in 2014. Maybe he'll break out in year 2.

273. Tyler Eifert, TE

Former first rounder, tremendous size (6'5", 250 lbs), and Jermaine Gresham is gone. 

277. Vernon Davis, TE

Last year was bizarre. Davis was awful after finishing 2nd among tight ends in 2013. I don't know what happened last year, but he's worth considering for the chance that he returns to being elite or at least startable. 

2015 Best/Worst Value Round 7+


After Round 6, there's not really such a thing as a risky or safe pick. Everybody here comes with doubt. You need to aim for upside. There's no point drafting a guy that you know is reliable for 100 points. On a week to week basis, he's unusable. It's much better to draft somebody that has a 90% chance of completely busting just for that 10% chance that they blow up and become a fantasy stud. 


Round 7

High Upside Sleepers

Nelson Agholor, WR (75)

Jeremy Maclin had 182 fantasy points (9th among WRs) as the lead receiver in the high-octane Eagles offense. We assume that Matthews will take over as the WR1 but Agholor is more similar to Maclin. In fact, he's almost exactly the same height, weight, and speed as Maclin. Even if Matthews does inherit Maclin's role, you'd think that Agholor could get the 128 points that Matthews did last year. 

Now that everyone is off Martin's wagon, it might be time to hop back on. 

Now that everyone is off Martin's wagon, it might be time to hop back on. 

Doug Martin, RB (79)

You can't rely on Doug Martin for anything. But you wont have to because he's currently being drafted in the 7th round which is a reasonable place to pick him up as a lottery ticket. With the most favorable schedule in 2015, it's not impossible to see him approach the production of his rookie year. 

Tevin Coleman (82)

Out of all the rookie RBs, Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley, T.J. Yeldon, and Tevin Coleman, I'm most inclined to take a chance on Coleman. At the end of round 7, he is by far the best value:

  • Kyle Shanahan is the new offensive coordinator for the Falcons. Shanahan got his first job as offensive coordinator in 2008 with the Houston Texans. That year, rookie Steve Slaton ran for 1,282 yards and 9 touchdowns. In 2011, Shanahan took the Redskins from 30th worst in rushing to 25th with a hodge podge commitee consisting of Ryan Torain, Evan Royster, and Tim Hightower. Who? Exactly. Then, in 2012, the Redskins finished 1st in rushing with rookie Alfred Morris finishing 2nd in the league in yards (this was the year Adrian Peterson finished 1st with 2,097 yards). The next year, the Redskins finished 5th in rushing and Alfred Morris finished 4th among running backs. In 2014, his first year as the offensive coordinator in Cleveland, the Browns improved from 27th in rushing to 17th with rookie RBs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell as well as free agent signee Ben Tate who was released mid-season. Maybe Shanahan doesn't deserve all the credit but he's known for producing effective rushing offenses everywhere he has gone regardless of who the running back is, whether they are unknowns (Steve Slaton and Ryan Torain) or rookies (Steve Slaton, Alfred Morris, Isaiah Crowell, Terrance West).
  • Tevin Coleman was hand-picked by Shanahan and seems to be a good fit for his zone-blocking scheme as opposed to RB Devonta Freeman who is left over from the last regime. Coleman is blazing fast, hits the hole hard, and is a decisive north-south, one-cut runner- traits that Shanahan values for the running back in his offense.
  • The Atlanta Falcons' offensive line is considerably improved from last year and Shanahan even brought in 2 of the starting linemen (RG Chris Chester and RT Tyler Polumbus) that had career years running the zone-blocking scheme while he was in Washington.
  • Tevin Coleman has one the most favorable schedules for running backs this year.
  • Matt Ryan has had no problem moving the ball as the Falcons have been consistently above average since Ryan entered the league. This means that Coleman will receive less defensive attention and there will be plenty of scoring opportunities. 

Michael Floyd, WR (84)

Floyd scored 134 points in 2013. Everybody expected the former first round pick to take the next step in 2014. Alas, Floyd was limited by the QBs (Drew Stanton, Ryan Lindley, and Logan Thomas) that were throwing to him. With Carson Palmer back healthy (for now) and Larry Fitzgerald continuing to decline, Floyd has mid-WR2 upside. The ESPN rankers think that John Brown is the Arizona receiver to own because they are attracted to his big-play ability in an offense that likes to throw deep. But Floyd is a much bigger target compared to Brown (6'3", 225 pounds) and he's plenty fast (4.47-40) even if he's not quite as fast as Brown. Plus, the Cardinals showed a willingness to throw deep to Floyd as he led the league in average depth of target in 2014. 

Low Upside

Jason Witten, TE (81)

Don't draft a mid-round TE, particularly one who's upside is so low. He scored 93 points last year, 10th among TEs. You can guys with much higher upside for much cheaper. 


Round 8

High Upside Sleepers

"He's about as quick as Barry Sanders. I'm not saying he is Barry, be he's a good running back." Lions fans are getting excited. 

"He's about as quick as Barry Sanders. I'm not saying he is Barry, be he's a good running back." Lions fans are getting excited. 

Ameer Abdullah, RB (89)

Yahoo has this guy ranked all the way up at 48 (the end of the 4th round). That tells you all you need to know about this guy's upside. I feel Joique Bell is mediocre and Abdullah has a chance to take the starting job for himself considering how good he's looked in camp and in the preseason. He's an absolute steal at this price even for just the chance that he could be the lead back in Detroit. And if Joique Bell doesn't lose the starting job outright, he's had injury problems in the past that could give Bell the opportunity that he needs.

Devonta Freeman, RB (90)

I don't think Freeman is the starter in Atlanta. But if he is, that could be valuable. OC Kyle Shanahan has produced effective run games on every team he's been on. 

Arian Foster, RB (92)

Getting a top 10 running back in the 8th round is really valuable, even if it's only for half the season. Snap him up if he's still here. 

Duke Johnson, RB (94)

He's been limited in the preseason due to a hamstring injury so that hurts his chances but neither Crowell or West have cemented their position at the top of the depth chart. If Johnson can somehow win the starting job, he will be extremely valuable for fantasy behind one of the best offensive lines in the league on a team that will be forced to run often. 
 

Low Upside

Charles Johnson is better than Mike Wallace? I don't see it. 

Charles Johnson is better than Mike Wallace? I don't see it. 

Charles Johnson, WR (85)

The ESPN fantasy football analysts seem to love Charles Johnson but I have yet to hear a good argument for him. One writer even went so far as to say that he's a better receiver than Mike Wallace. I think he's letting his bias against Wallace distort his judgement. Johnson was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the 7th round of the 2013 NFL Draft but never made it onto the roster. The Browns signed him off the practice squad and then the Vikings signed him off the Browns' practice squad. The Browns aren't exactly flush with receiver talent, you know? And yet, he couldn't even make the team. So what about his performance last year is getting everybody so excited? One ranker keeps bringing up the fact that, from week 12-17 Johnson was a top 30 receiver. Ok. Not only is that a very small sample size but that's not even good. I just don't see him getting enough work to be valuable with Mike Wallace as the #1 receiver. 

Brandon Lafell, WR (93)

He's currently on the PUP list with a foot injury, has the toughest schedule in the league, and no Brady for the first 4 games. Plus, he was no better than a flex wide receiver last year. 


Round 9

High Upside Sleepers

Breshad Perriman, WR (104)

He could easily be a bust and he's missed large chunk of the preseason with knee injury but he is in, potentially, the most lucrative role of any receiver drafted in the first round. With a blazing fast sub-4.3 40, Perriman is a natural replacement for the departed Torrey Smith who scored 137 points last year (18th among wide receivers). WR Steve Smith Sr. is yet another year older and can no longer be relied on as the deep threat for big-armed Joe Flacco.

I like Woodhead as a player but the lack of upside means he's not worthy of a roster spot.

I like Woodhead as a player but the lack of upside means he's not worthy of a roster spot.

Ronnie Hillman, RB (102)

The starting job is Anderson's to lose but the role is lucrative enough that Ronnie Hillman is one of the most valuable handcuffs in fantasy. If Anderson gets hurt or if Hillman is a better fit for Kubiak's zone blocking scheme, we could see a surprise change at the position. Hillman has been one most productive running backs in the preseason.

Low Upside

Andre Williams (96)

He's third on the depth chart behind Jennings and Vereen and I just don't think he's that good. It'll take an injury to Jennings for him to be even relevant and, even then, don't expect big returns. 


Round 10

High Upside Sleepers

Aaron Rodgers' 3rd weapon is more valuable than the the #1 on some teams.

Aaron Rodgers' 3rd weapon is more valuable than the the #1 on some teams.

Pierre Garcon, WR (114)

In 2013, Garcon led the league in receptions with 113 and finished 13th among wide receivers in fantasy. Last year was terrible but at least we know he's capable of impressive heights.

Davante Adams, WR (118)

If Nelson or Cobb get injured, Adams is a top 15 WR.

Low Upside

Anquan Boldin, WR (113)

Still useful in real life, not in standard fantasy leagues. 

 

2015 Best/Worst Value Round 6


Round 6 (61-72)

61. Mike Wallace
62. LeGarrette Blount
63. Greg Olsen
64. Isaiah Crowell
65. Jeremy Maclin
66. Chris Ivory
67. Ryan Mathews
68. Jarvis Landry
69. Ben Roethlisberger
70. Travis Kelce
71. Allen Robinson
72. Eric Decker
73. Martavis Bryant
74. Shane Vereen

Wallace is a decent WR2 being drafted as a flex.

Wallace is a decent WR2 being drafted as a flex.

Best Value: Brandon Marshall (60) and Mike Wallace (61)

Brandon Marshall

  • People forget how good he is because he had a lackluster 2014 due to injury. At 31, he still has a couple good years left. While, he's no longer elite, I still consider him a top 10 receiver (only Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Dez Bryant, A.J. Green, Dez Bryant, Calvin Johnson, and Jordy Nelson are for sure ahead of him). 
  • I believe that Ryan Fitzpatrick reunited with Chan Gailey's spread offense can be good enough to deliver a solid season for Marshall. DeAndre Hopkins scored 146 points last season with Fitzpatrick under center in the league's most run-heavy offense.
  • Other than last season and his rookie season in 2006, Marshall has never had less than 1000 yards in a season. That includes 2 years in Miami catching passes from Chad Henne. From 2007 to 2013, Marshall had 5 seasons with over 100 catches and averaged about 8 touchdowns per season. 

Mike Wallace

  • He's currently ranked as the 27th wide receiver but he finished 18th last season. Why do people expect him to regress significantly?
  • Compared to Ryan Tannehill, Wallace's new QB, Teddy Bridgewater, is a better deep ball passer, a trait that plays to Wallace's strengths as a receiver. Bridgewater was tied for 8th in deep ball accuracy while Tannehill was 20th. 
  • Norv Turner, the offensive coordinator, likes to give the #1 receiver the ball. He made Vincent Jackson a star in San Diego and Josh Gordon a star in his year with the Browns. Mike Wallace is the clear #1.
  • Wallace is 13th in receiving yards and 4th in touchdowns since entering the league in 2009. He's been productive throughout his career.
  • Wallace's schedule is more favorable than last year. 
Great player, bad value.

Great player, bad value.

Worst Value: Travis Kelce (70)

I think Kelce is a fantastic player and I had him on most of my teams last year. But drafting a tight end in the middle rounds is a bad idea. Just look at the mid-round TEs from last year:

  • Vernon Davis: ranked 50th overall, finished 40th among TEs with 30 points
  • Jason Witten: ranked  75th overall, finished 10th among TEs with 93 points
  • Jordan Cameron: ranked 96 overall, finished 22nd among TEs with 51 points 

Other than the elite tight ends, you can get better for much cheaper. And it's not as if Kelce has amazing upside. He finished 8th among tight ends with 108 points and there's not that much reason to think that he will improve significantly. 

Crowell owes his lofty upside to his monstrous offensive line. 

Crowell owes his lofty upside to his monstrous offensive line. 

Risky Pick: Isaiah Crowell (64)

Isaiah Crowell has the highest upside of any player in this round. With C Alex Mack returning from injury the Browns offensive line has a chance to be the best in the league this year. Crowell, a 5-star recruit out of high school, was dismissed from Georgia after being arrested on felony weapons charges. For this reason, Crowell went undrafted. However, when given the chance last season, he shined. In fact, most say that he outplayed 3rd round draft pick Terrance West:

  • Isaiah Crowell: 148 carries, 607 yards, 4.1 YPC, 8 touchdowns
  • Terrance West: 171 carries, 673 yards, 3.9 YPC, 4 touchdowns

If nothing else, Crowell proved himself as the better goal line back. However, the Browns muddied the backfield situation even further by drafting RB Duke Johnson in the 3rd round of this year's draft. Personally, I think Crowell has the best chance at being the starter but the most likely scenario is similar to last year's frustrating time share. But if Crowell can gain some separation and carve out a consistent role for himself, he could end up being a top 15 running back by season's end. 

Intriguing Pick: Jeremy Maclin (65)

Smith TD pass to WR Dwayne Bowe. Granted, this was in 2013 but it HAS happened before guys!

Smith TD pass to WR Dwayne Bowe. Granted, this was in 2013 but it HAS happened before guys!

EVERYBODY knows that Maclin wont be nearly as productive as he was in 2014. But that expectation is already built into his rank so the real question is how much worse will he be? Maclin had 85 receptions, 1,318 yards, and 10 touchdowns, good 182 fantasy points. Considering that he finished 9th among receivers last year, his current rank as the 28th wide receiver is a massive downgrade. Certainly a considerably drop in the rankings was warranted: astonishingly, the Kansas City Chiefs did not record a single receiving touchdown by a wide receiver in 2014 and Alex Smith has long been known for being too conservative with the ball at times. The ground and pound, dink and dunk Chiefs offense will be in stark contrast to the high-octane machine that Maclin benefited from in Philadelphia. But a drop from 9th to 28th is about 60 points. Maclin has fallen so far through the ranks that I think he might actually represent decent value here at the end of the 6th round. That 0 touchdown stat in 2014 seems more fluky than anything. It's not as if Alex Smith can't throw touchdowns to wide receivers; in his first year with the Chiefs, Smith threw 9 touchdowns to receivers including 5 to Dwayne Bowe. Maclin is considerably better than Bowe and, more importantly, he's a better fit for Alex Smith who needs his receivers to gain separation, something Maclin is better at compared to Bowe. Additionally, Maclin is reunited with coach Andy Reid who selected him in the 2009 NFL Draft and under which he had quite a few productive seasons. For these reasons, I think that 1,000 yards and 5 touchdowns is reasonable for Maclin with potential for upside. 


2015 Best/Worst Value Round 5


Round 5 (49-60)

49. DeSean Jackson
50. Joseph Randle
51. Andre Ellington
52. T.J. Yeldon
53. Giovani Bernard
54. Rashad Jennings
55. C.J. Spiller
56. Vincent Jackson
57. Amari Cooper
58. Golden Tate
59. Andre Johnson
60. Brandon Marshall

Best Value: Andre Johnson (59)

One of the best receivers of the past decade, Andre Johnson begins his final chapter in Indianapolis. With a 1,000 yard season, Johnson will jump to 7th all-time in receiving yards. 

One of the best receivers of the past decade, Andre Johnson begins his final chapter in Indianapolis. With a 1,000 yard season, Johnson will jump to 7th all-time in receiving yards. 

Andrew Luck is the best QB Johnson has ever had by a wide margin. And lest you think Johnson is over the hill, we thought the same thing about Reggie Wayne two years before he actually was. The common denominator? Andrew Luck. Andrew Luck revives the careers of wide receivers. Lately, Johnson has gotten a reputation of not being very good in the end zone because in the last three years his touchdown totals have been inexplicably low compared to the yardage. True he's never been a big touchdown guy but he used to be in the realm of 8 or 9, not 3-5.  

Look at his stats since 2007:

  • 2007: 9 games, 60 receptions, 851 yards, 8 touchdowns
  • 2008: 16 games, 115 receptions, 1,575 yards, 8 touchdowns
  • 2009: 16 games, 101 receptions, 1,569 yards, 9 touchdowns
  • 2010: 13 games, 86 receptions, 1,216 yards, 8 touchdowns
  • 2011: played less than half the season
  • 2012: 16 games, 112 receptions, 1,598 yards, 4 touchdowns
  • 2013: 16 games, 109 receptions, 1,407 yards, 5 touchdowns
  • 2014: 15 games, 85 receptions, 936 yards, 3 touchdowns.

You might be inclined to think that he's gotten older or that he's just not the same since his 2011 injury. But the receptions and yardage were still there in 2012 and 2013. I really believe in Johnson's talent but he's been working with below average quarterbacks his entire career. With Andrew Luck at QB, it will be like night and day. I'm not saying he's going to have 100+ receptions or ~1,500 yards like he has had through most of his career, but I think that even if he picks up just 1,000 yards and 7 touchdowns (which I think is safe bet under the circumstances) he'll be well worth a 5th round pick. And don't worry that there won't be enough to go around. The departure of Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks, and Ahmad Bradshaw leaves 207 targets and 140 receptions up for grabs. He's a safe bet as a solid WR2 with upside. 

 

Worst Value: T.J. Yeldon (52)

T.J. Yeldon has less upside than the other rookie running backs this season. 

T.J. Yeldon has less upside than the other rookie running backs this season. 

Rookies are always risky and I don't think the reward is as great compared to the other rookie running backs. The main factor restricting Yeldon's upside is the team he landed on, the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are near the bottom of the league in generating scoring opportunities. Besides that, I think it would be misguided to think that he's going to get all the work or even that the workload will be valuable given the mediocre offensive line and the inability of the offense to move the ball.

Additionally, I expect Yeldon to be eased into the offense meaning he'll be ceding some carries to Toby Gerhart and Denard Robinson at the start. Don't automatically assume that Yeldon is going to get 20 touches a game. Of last year's rookie running backs, I see more Bishop Sankey is his situation than Jeremy Hill. 

 

Risky Pick: Andre Ellington (51)

Ellington is tempting upside but he comes with a couple major question marks. 

Ellington is tempting upside but he comes with a couple major question marks. 

I was all set to recommend Ellington. The Cardinals offensive line is the most improved in the off-season and Ellington's schedule is considerably more favorable than last year. Also, Ellington finished 20th among running backs despite playing hurt for much of the year and missing the last 4 games. Stretching his 12-game point total over a full season would have yielded 162 fantasy points, which would have been 12th among running backs. 

But it's unrealistic to think that Ellington's role won't be reduced this year. He just doesn't have the size and frame to be a feature back. The Cardinals know this and drafted the 6'1" 224 pound RB David Johnson to be the thunder to Ellington's lightning. You'd figure that Johnson at very least takes over as the goal line back, an extremely valuable role in fantasy. To make matter worse, on August 17th, the Cardinals signed RB Chris Johnson, not exactly a vote of confidence for Ellington who is similar type of runner. 

The various injuries he suffered last year also cannot be ignored. Ellington suffered injuries to his foot, hip, and finally a core surgery that ended his season prematurely. On one hand, the injuries might explain last year's poor YPC of 3.3 (39th out of 42 running backs). On the other hand, it also means Ellington comes as a significant injury risk. 

I think Ellington has pretty high upside and it's not as if he wont be used at all; he might settle into a situation similar to what Giovani Bernard did in 2014. He's a fantastic pass-catcher and was on pace for 526 receiving yards, 3rd most among running backs. However, questions about his role and health make him a risky pick.

 

Safe Pick: Joseph Randle (50)

Randle or McFadden? Why not both?

Randle or McFadden? Why not both?

This one is a little weird but I picked Randle to make a point. First of all, Randle is safer than you think. Darren McFadden started camp on the PUP list and is notorious for having a lot of trouble staying on the field throughout his career. He has missed 29 games in his 7 seasons in the NFL and last year was the first time in his career in which he was active all 16 games. Even when he's played he's been banged up and it's been a long time since he's actually been good (3.3 YPC the last three years). I know we all want to believe that the Dallas offensive line is going to rejuvenate his career but it can't somehow make him not made of glass. Even if McFadden somehow stays healthy, there's going to be a cap on his workload. He had just 155 carries in 16 games last year and has never had more than 223 in any season. The Cowboys ran the ball 508 times last year. Barring some kind of Adrian Peterson-like scandal (which is not completely out of the question since he's had some off-field issues in the past) Randle will play and he'll play a lot. And behind that aforementioned offensive line, he's going to be really, really productive (he averaged 6.7 yards per carry on 51 carries in 2014). Even if McFadden scrounges up around 150 carries, I could see Randle getting 250-300. 

But let's look at it from another angle. If the Cowboys had not signed Darren McFadden, where would Joseph Randle be ranked? With the unquestioned role behind that offensive line, he would be in the late 2nd or early 3rd round. Uncertainty caused by Darren McFadden is driving his price down and making him a bargain. Randle, unlike any of the other running backs available at this point in the draft, has a legitimate shot at finishing as a top 10 running back. But consider this: why not take both Randle and McFadden? Seriously, why not? Randle is a 5th round pick and Darren McFadden (ranked 95 overall) is an 8th. Spending a 5th and 8th for a top 10 running back is a steal. Even a 4th and 7th would be well worth it. If you're not worried about McFadden then Randle is a great deal by himself. If you are worried, then taking McFadden adds a level of safety to your investment. In an auction draft, it will be even easier to secure the pair. 

2015 Best/Worst Value Round 4


Round 4 (37-48)

37. Melvin Gordon
38. Peyton Manning
39. Jonathan Stewart
40. Jordan Matthews
41. Julian Edelman
42. Frank Gore
43. Drew Brees
44. Sammy Watkins
45. Todd Gurley
46. Joique Bell
47. Keenan Allen
48. Latavius Murray

Best Value: Frank Gore (42)

As mentioned in my "Rankings Comparison" article, other fantasy football analysts agree that ESPN is too low on Gore at 42 overall as most other sites have him ranked over full round above. 

Why I like Gore:

  • Gore has been a model of consistency. In his 10 year career, Gore has only twice failed to run for less than 1,000 yards: once in his rookie year and the other in 2010 when he missed 5 games due to injury. 
  • Gore comes with no injury concerns. He has played in all 16 games in 4 straight seasons.
  • While the offensive line in Indianapolis isn't quite as good as the ones he has had in San Francisco, the offense will be much, much better. While Gore has been the focal point of the offense in his time on the 49ers, the Colts' strong passing attack will take a lot of the pressure off Gore. In addition, a much more efficient offense means that Gore will see a lot of scoring opportunities. 
  • Gore's touchdown totals in the last 4 years: 8, 8, 9, 4. Last year was an outlier because the 49ers decided to split goal line carries between Gore and rookie Carlos Hyde. Hyde scored 4 touchdowns.
  • Gore will have no such competition in Indianapolis. Since Gore is an accomplished pass blocker, I expect him to stay in on passing downs.
  • During the 4 years with Jim Harbaugh as head coach of the 49ers, Gore had just 72 receptions in 64 games. In the 5 years preceding Harbaugh, Gore had 255 receptions in 70 games- over 3 times more. Last season, before getting hurt in week 11, RB Ahmad Bradshaw of the Colts had 38 receptions in 9 games which would have put him on pace for 67 receptions for the season (3rd among running backs). Bradshaw also had 6 receiving touchdowns. If Gore stays on the field as often as I think he will, I could see him having a bit of a resurgence in the passing game, similar to the first half of his career. 
  • Gore is getting up there in age but his strength as a runner has always been his superior vision rather than speed or power. His vision should be as sharp as ever. 

I don't expect Gore to get much more than 1,000 rushing yards but I think he approaches double-digit total touchdowns on such a high-powered offense. 

Worst Value: Julian Edelman (41), Joique Bell (46), and Latavius Murray (48)

There are a lot of picks that I really don't like in this round.

Julian Edelman

I'm just not feeling it. Murray is too big of a stretch for me to buy into the hype. 

I'm just not feeling it. Murray is too big of a stretch for me to buy into the hype. 

Where's the upside with this guy? Edelman finished as the 24th ranked receiver in fantasy with 127 points. I just don't see the value in spending a 4th round pick on a receiver who's ceiling is around 130. In addition, Edelman has one of the toughest schedules for receivers in 2014 and he wont have Brady for the first 4 games. Then add the fact that he had issues with concussions late last season and there's just not a lot to be excited about. Edelman is a decent pick in PPR leagues and that's it. 

Joique Bell

With one of the most favorable schedules for a running back in 2014, Bell managed just 3.9 yards per carry, which was 27th among qualifying running backs. Bell is unspectacular and his role in the offense is legitimately at risk to be reduced this year with rookie RB Ameer Abdullah earning rave reviews in camp and in the preseason. Finally, Bell has been banged up the last couple of years, making it even more likely that his workload will be limited even if he doesn't miss time. In fact, after undergoing knee and Achilles tendon surgeries in January, Bell has yet to practice with the team. 

Latavius Murray

Yeah, I don't get it. The hype is insane on this guy. ESPN actually has him ranked lower than Yahoo and other sites and I still think it's way too high. Such a lofty rank for a former 6th round draft pick with 82 career carries, just one career game of over 100 yards, and a pretty significant injury history (he had two surgeries on his ankle after 2013 and suffered a concussion last season). Murray has proved nothing and I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see RB Roy Helu take significant work and vulture more than his fair share touchdowns as he did in Washington. And Murray has a tough schedule to boot. Murray could be great but there are still way better choices out there at this price. 

Risky Pick: Jonathan Stewart (39) and Todd Gurley (45)

Jonathan Stewart

Will Stewart somehow stay healthy in 2015? I'm not betting on it. 

Will Stewart somehow stay healthy in 2015? I'm not betting on it. 

I can see why Stewart might be enticing. As some might point out, once Stewart had the job to himself, only DeMarco Murray had more rushing yards in the last 5 games. But look at the defenses he played in that 5 game stretch: MIN, NO, TB, CLE, ATL. Do you know how those defenses ranked in rushing defense DVOA? 25, 32, 8, 31, 29. Tampa Bay was the only good run defense and Stewart's stat line that game was 22 carries for 75 yards (3.4 YPC). New Orleans, Atlanta, and Cleveland were the 3 worst run defenses in 2014 and Minnesota was in the bottom 10. So yeah, I'm going to take those number with a grain of salt.

But that's not even the main reason why I'm staying far away from Stewart this year. He's proven that he's a pretty good running back when he's healthy. When he's healthy. He just cannot stay healthy. Don’t put your faith in a running back who has missed 20 games due to injury in the last 3 seasons. Even when he plays he's almost always hobbled by something. Don't be blinded by the role. Talent and role don't mean a thing if you can't play. I'm not rolling the dice on this being the year he somehow stays healthy. It's just bad sense. 

Todd Gurley

He's an unproven rookie and he's coming off of an ACL injury that will cost him valuable preseason playing time and possibly the first few games in the regular season. At any rate, he's likely to start slow and I bet the Rams use him cautiously in his first season. It's a smart move considering his injury and because Tre Mason proved competent last year but it's not great for fantasy. And besides that, the Rams' offensive line is really shaky with 4 out of 5 starters replaced by backups and rookies in the off-season. 

Safe Pick: Jordan Matthews (40)

  • 128 points last season, 24th among wide receivers
  • Matthews improved over the course of the season. He scored 35 points before week 9 and 93 points from week 9 on.
  • Wide receivers who break out in their rookie year tend to increase production in year 2.
  • Best-case scenario, QB Sam Bradford is better than the combination of Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez last year. Worst-case scenario, QB Mark Sanchez takes over due to either poor performance by Bradford or injury. Last year, Sanchez was the QB from week 9 on which is when Matthews was most productive. So worst-case scenario is still improvement. 
  • Regardless of QB, at 6'3", Matthews is the best red zone threat on the highly efficient Eagles offense. 
  • WR Jeremy Maclin is gone. He had 85 receptions, 1,318, yards, 10 touchdowns, and 143 targets. Jordan Matthews and rookie WR Nelson Agholor are likely to inherit a majority of that. Since Chip Kelly has been the head coach of the Eagles, the number 1 receiver has been highly productive. That figures to be Matthews this year. 


2015 Best/Worst Value Round 3


Round 3

25. Andrew Luck
26. Mike Evans
27. Emmanuel Sanders
28. Alfred Morris
29. Lamar Miller
30. Kelvin Benjamin
31. DeAndre Hopkins
32. Jimmy Graham
33. Carlos Hyde
34. Justin Forsett
35. Brandin Cooks
36. Russell Wilson

Best Value: Mike Evans (26)

As would be expected of a rookie, Mike Evans got off to a relatively slow start, scoring just 42 points in the first 7 games. But something must have clicked because he scored a whopping 126 points in the next 9 games. If you extrapolate that 9-game stretch to the entire season, Evans ends up with 224 points, 2nd among all wide receivers. While Odell Beckham Jr. was driving people crazy with one-handed catches, Evans was quietly every bit as terrific. But even more impressively, he put up those numbers with Josh McCown and Mike Glennon leading the offense; two guys responsible for some of the worst quarterback play of 2014. Despite having arguably one of the best receiving duos in the league, McCown's passer rating was ranked 33 out of 34 quarterbacks while Glennon's ranked 26 out of 34. 

Will Jameis Winston have a successful career in the NFL? No one can say for sure. But I really think that the #1 overall pick is going to be a lot better than what the Bucs had in 2014 and, at very least, I think the Bucs are going to let Jameis air it out considering the lack of a strong run game. Even more encouraging is that Jameis has long been touted as "NFL-ready" so I think his learning curve will be shorter than most.

Finally, did you know that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were operating without their offensive coordinator last year? It's true. After the 3rd preseason game, Jeff Tedford, Tampa's OC, was put on an indefinite leave of absence due to a serious heart condition. It certainly explains why the offense struggled so much last season. Now the Buccaneers have hired Dirk Koetter as the offensive coordinator. Koetter was the OC for the Falcons from 2012-2014 and is known for preferring to attack through the air; the Falcons finished 6th, 7th, and 5th in passing offense during his tenure. Any OC is better than no OC and a pass-happy one is especially good for Mike Evans. 

Another point in Evans' favor is that rookies that break out in year 1 tend to increase production in year 2. I really believe in Evans' talent; he has great hands, fantastic body control, strength, and speed to go along with his huge frame. I think his upside is higher than that of the receivers just ahead of him. While Evans is less proven than Randall Cobb, Alshon Jeffery, and T.Y. Hilton, I think he has a better chance than any of them to break 200 points (which would make him a top 5 receiver). I'd still probably take Cobb over Evans because Cobb's floor is so high due to Aaron Rodgers, but Evans' upside is too tempting for me to pass up for either Jeffery or Hilton. 

 

Worst Value: Kelvin Benjamin (30) and Carlos Hyde (33)

Kelvin Benjamin, WR

Benjamin had 10 drops last year, most in the league. 

Benjamin had 10 drops last year, most in the league. 

Don't get me wrong, I think Kelvin Benjamin is pretty good. As a rookie, he finished tied for 16th among wide receivers in fantasy with 1008 yards and 9 touchdowns. But I don't think he is quite as good as his 2014 stats. I think that, as Cam Newton's only viable receiving weapon other than TE Greg Olsen, Benjamin's stats are inflated by volume. Benjamin received 146 targets in 2014, 6th most in the league, but tallied just 73 receptions. His 50% completion rate was 39th out of 41 receivers with over 100 targets (only Vincent Jackson and Cecil Shorts III were worse). In addition, Benjamin led the league last year in dropped passes with 10. 

As far as pass-catchers go, the Panthers have only added WR Devin Funchess in off-season so Benjamin's workload could be slightly reduced but pretty similar overall. The problem is that I don't think he has a lot of upside compared to some of the guys behind him such as Jordan Matthew and Brandin Cooks. His position as the 14th ranked receiver indicates an expectation that he will improve but I'm not so sure. His schedule is slightly less favorable and his high touchdown total is liable to regress. If Funchess takes even just a couple of them, I can't seem Benjamin being much more than a low-end WR2. 

UPDATE: On August 20, Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL and was declared out for the season. 

Carlos Hyde, RB

I was pretty excited about Carlos Hyde coming into this year but it seems that the rankers at ESPN are even higher on him. Is that excitement justified? Hyde has a juicy role in an offense that figures to be fairly run-heavy. However, though Hyde was impressive at times in 2014, he had just 333 yards on 83 carries. 4.0 yards per carry isn't that spectacular. But what concerns me most is that the offensive line, once considered the strength of this team, is now a weak point after losing LG Mike Iupati, one of the best run-blocking guards in the league, as well as RT Anthony Davis and RT Jonathan Martin. The new RT is Eric Pears who played RG for Buffalo in 2014 and graded in the bottom 5 (out of 78) at the position. Center is another area of concern as starting center Daniel Kilgore is still quite a ways away from being healthy and backup center Marcus Martin graded in the bottom 5 at his position as well. LT Joe Staley is still fantastic and RG Alex Boone is solid but the line is considerably worse as a whole. I think Hyde will be a decent RB2 but I just don't think he's great value in the 3rd round. I'd just much rather have RB Frank Gore, Hyde's former teammate, who is ranked a round later. 

 

Risky Pick: Brandin Cooks (35)

The Saints showed a willingness to get Cooks the ball in variety of ways last season, including this red zone handoff.

The Saints showed a willingness to get Cooks the ball in variety of ways last season, including this red zone handoff.

The risk is evident: Cooks finished the year with just 80 fantasy points, 57th among receivers. Of all the 1st round receivers of his draft class (+ Jordan Matthews), the next worst was Sammy Watkins who finished with 27th among receivers with 124 points. However, even as the least proven of the last year's rookie receivers, I'd take him over Watkins, Matthews, and even Benjamin.

First of all, Cooks' season wasn't as bad as it seems. He missed the last 6 games due to a broken thumb. Extrapolating his 80 fantasy points over 10 games to a full 16-game season would give Cooks 128 fantasy points, placing him 23rd among receivers and giving him 1 more point than Jordan Matthews. But I'm even more optimistic about Cooks because he's the primary receiver for Drew Brees, an elite QB. I expect his target volume to increase significantly with Marques Colston continuing to decline and the four next-most targeted pass catchers, Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills, Pierre Thomas, and Travaris Cadet, all gone. Those 4 players accounted for 315 targets in 2014 and the only pass-catcher the Saints have added in the off-season is RB C.J. Spiller.

Let's do a quick estimate.

So let's assume that C.J. Spiller gets 70 targets in 2015 which is pretty generous as it would have been the 5th most targets for running backs in 2014. So we've accounted for 70 of the 315 vacated targets.

Then, let's assume that the Saints go with a more run-heavy approach on offense and Drew Brees throws 70 less times, going from 659 attempts in 2014 to 589. I think this number is a bit generous because, since 2007, Brees has never had less than 635 attempts in a season in which he played all 16 games. 589 attempts would have been 9th most last year while Brees has never finished lower than 3rd in attempts since 2007 (playing a full season). But let's go with it. 70 + 70 = 140. 140 out 315 targets accounted for.

Now let's account for the amount of targets that Cooks was on pace for in 2014. Cooks had 69 targets in 10 games which would have put him at around 111 targets. 111 - 69 = 42. Cooks would have had about 42 more targets in 2014 if he had stayed healthy. 140 + 42 = 182. So now 182 out of 315 targets are accounted for. 

As a result, even with our generous estimates, we still have 133 unassigned targets. 

It's hard to see Marques Colston getting many more targets than he did last year (99 targets) seeing how much he's slowed down in recent years. Maybe TE Josh Hill plays a bigger role this year with Graham gone (Hill had 20 targets for the Saints last year) but he's pretty much an unknown. Maybe a 3rd receiver such as Nick Toon sees a few more targets come his way. But I think that, more than likely, a good chunk of those targets are going to find their way to Cooks as he is, by far, the most electric of the bunch. I'd say at least 20 targets is more reasonable, which projects him to have 131 targets in 2015 which would have been just 16th most among receivers. Cooks led the league in 2014 with a catch rate of 76.8% (53 receptions on 69 targets). Combine that exceptional catch rate with 131 targets and that comes out to over 100 receptions. And personally, I think 131 is a fairly conservative estimate and I don't think it's unreasonable to expect a similarly high catch rate for Cooks with another year of experience under his belt especially because elite QBs such as Drew Brees, who is know for his accuracy, are really good at getting the ball to their receivers. Let's throw one more equation in there: high volume + high catch rate = lots of fantasy points. News flash: primary receivers of elite quarterbacks tend to do well in fantasy. I'm a big believer in Brees and, unless you think his production is going to fall off a cliff, someone is going to have to put up big stats and Cooks is the logical benefactor. 

There's no reason to think that Cooks would do worse than last year. He looks fantastic in camp and an extra off-season to gel with Brees can only help. So his floor isn't as low as his 2014 stat line would suggest on the surface. True, he's a bit risky because a lot of what I said is derived from speculation and projection rather than results but I feel good about his upside. 

 

Safe Pick: Alfred Morris (28)

There is value in safety. 

There is value in safety. 

A reliable running back is a valuable running back. And Alfred Morris is so reliable. Yet, for the past two years he's been underrated because he's that "unsexy" running back. We know what he is. Some people like to chase the unknown, the Carlos Hydes, the Melvin Gordons, the Jonathan Stewarts. Not me, I like safety in my early rounds. Morris is always productive. He's a lock for at least 1,000 yards and 7-8 touchdowns.

Plus, this year, I think there's upside for a little more.

  • His offensive line might be a little better; the weakest link on the line last year (RT Tyler Polumbus) is gone and replaced by 1st round pick Brandon Schreff. Albeit, rookie linemen, even ones drafted in the first round, do tend to struggle so Schreff might not be an upgrade right away. More importantly, LT Trent Williams was playing hurt last year. When healthy, he is one of the best left tackles in the league. 
  • The offense as a whole might be better. Maybe RGIII can turn things around. Perhaps Jay Gruden gets the offense going to 2015. I feel like last year was the floor for Morris and this offense in general as they flip-flopped between 3 different QBs throughout the season. 
  • RB Roy Helu is gone. Helu vultured 4 touchdowns from Morris in 2013 and 3 in 2014. Without him, Morris may hit pay dirt a couple extra times.

Sure, there are a lot of maybes and mights in that list and I'm not saying that Morris' upside is significantly higher but he finished 12th among running backs last year and I think that is his floor. Everything is looking up and we might see him achieve a stat line closer to 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns which is well within his capabilities considering he had 1,613 yards and 13 TDs his rookie year. 

One thing to note is that Morris' 2nd half of the schedule is much more favorable than the first half. If you don't end up drafting Morris, you might keep an eye out for an opportunity to trade for him. 

9/3/2015 Update: There have been rumblings that the coaches really like 3rd round rookie Matt Jones. Jones has been tearing it up in the preseason, earning one of the highest grades for running backs from PFF with 139 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. If there is any truth to the hype, Jones could represent a significant drain on Morris' value. Morris is a volume guy so the prospect of losing significant carries is troubling especially since the two are similar in running style meaning it might not be just on 3rd downs that Morris comes out. My "safe pick for round 3 may not be so safe after all. 

2015 Best/Worst Value Round 2


Round 2 (13-24)

13. Dez Bryant    
14. Jeremy Hill   
15. Odell Beckham Jr.
16. Jordy Nelson
17. Julio Jones   
18. Calvin Johnson 
19. A.J. Green  
20. Aaron Rodgers
21. Alshon Jeffery
22. Randall Cobb
23. T.Y. Hilton
24. Mark Ingram, RB

Best Value: A.J. Green (19)

It seems like no one is talking about this soft-spoken receiver. 

It seems like no one is talking about this soft-spoken receiver. 

Among WRs, Green is appropriately ranked. He is definitively the last of the tier-1 receivers. His upside just isn't as high as the others because, although his QB Andy Dalton isn't bad, he's the worst of the group. But Green is a tier-1 receiver nonetheless. He's a safe bet for 1,300 yards and close to double-digit touchdowns and, barring injury, there will be very little that separates him from finishing near the very top at his position. He is pushed down because the list of elite receivers is so large. I picked him as the best value of this round because I've seen him fall even further than his rank in snake drafts and he's consistently bought at a bargain in auction drafts. I don't know if people are forgetting how good he is because he under-performed while playing hurt last season, because the hate train has gone to far on Andy Dalton, or because he's relatively soft-spoken for an elite receiver. Whatever the reason, no one is excited for Green this year and that makes it likely that we can get a good deal on him.  If you're lucky enough to get a high enough pick to draft one of the 5 tier-1 running backs, Green might still be around by the time the draft snakes its way back to you in the 2nd. Tier-1 running back and a tier-1 receiver? Yes, please. 

 

"Worst" Value: T.Y. Hilton (23) and Mark Ingram (24)

To be honest, I think this entire round, including Ingram and Hilton, is pretty appropriately ranked. But I picked these two because they are the least likely to end up on my team this year mostly because there are guys behind them that I'd rather have such as Mike Evans (27) and Alfred Morris (29).

T.Y. Hilton

He's a great player and one of the best deep threats in the league but his size holds him back in fantasy. At 5'9" he's never going to be a major threat in the end zone (Antonio Brown is an exception). For this reason, I see his 2014 stats (1345 yards, 7 touchdowns, 10th WR in fantasy) as his ceiling. Meanwhile, there are some reasons to think that his production might dip a little this year. Andre Johnson and Frank Gore are considerably better than the men they replaced and will command more touches, especially in the red zone. This means Hilton gets less of the pie. There are other mouths to feed: WRs Donte Moncrief and rookie Phillip Dorsett as well as TEs Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. It's conceivable that HIlton gets a thinner slice this year. 

Mark Ingram

The good: 

There's nothing wrong with Ingram. I just don't think his upside is as great as some people think. 

There's nothing wrong with Ingram. I just don't think his upside is as great as some people think. 

  • Extrapolate Ingram's 154 points over a full 16-game season and he ends up with ~189 tying him with Justin Forsett for 8th among running backs. 
  • The Saints upgraded their offensive line by trading for C Max Unger and drafting OT Andrus Peat in the first round. 
  • With TE Jimmy Graham and WR Kenny Stills gone, and WR Marques Colston in decline, the Saints seem to be shifting their focus to the run game. 
  • Ingram earned his spot at the top of the depth chart and RB Pierre Thomas is gone. 
  • RB C.J. Spiller doesn't seem likely to eat into Ingram's role as the early-down and goal line back.
  • With Brees at quarterback, scoring opportunities shouldn't be hard to come by. 
  • Despite the shift to the run game, Brees still commands the defense's attention.

There's plenty to like there. The thing is, I'm not willing to forget the fact that all he had done prior to last season was disappoint. Then just after everybody finally gave up on him, he comes out a plays like the running back everybody expected him to be. Would I be surprised if Ingram is a dud in 2015? How can I be, when that's what he's been the majority of his career since entering the league? And while Ingram's schedule is pretty good this season, it is significantly less favorable than the one he enjoyed in 2014 when he had the most favorable schedule in the league for running backs. Finally, I don't expect Ingram's workload to increase significantly. I don't expect it decrease either but I feel like some people think he's going to get like 300 carries this season which is just not realistic considering how the Saints have used their running backs since Sean Payton took over as head coach. Other than Ingram's 226 last year, the highest number of carries by a Saints running back was 157 by Reggie Bush in 2007. 

But really, I'm just nitpicking on Hilton and Ingram. I'm not crazy about their upside but they'll more than likely be solid in fantasy this year. 

He deserves a lot of the hype but I'll take the studs with the longer track record. 

He deserves a lot of the hype but I'll take the studs with the longer track record. 

 

Risky Pick: Odell Beckham Jr. (15)

Overall, I actually believe in Odell Beckham Jr. Extrapolate his 2014 point total to a full 16 games, and he becomes fantasy's #1 receiver with ~263 points. His schedule is more favorable this year and receivers that break out in the their rookie year tend increase production in year 2. But I consider him a risky pick because you're giving up pretty clear alternatives (Jordy Nelson, Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green) with similar upside and who are far more proven. Is Beckham's upside that much higher than the others that you're willing overlook his lack of experience? Adding to that, OBJ also has a bit of an injury history. Seems like an unnecessary risk. 

 

 

Safe Pick: Aaron Rodgers (20) and Jordy Nelson (16)

Seamless. 

Seamless. 

Without a doubt, the best QB in the league right now and the best QB's go-to receiver. You can't go wrong with either. It might not be the best value to take a QB this early but there is decent-sized gap between Rodgers and the rest of the field. In a deeper league, Rodgers is even better value because the quarterback position is more scarce. 

Why no Gronk?

In my Best/Worst Value of Round 1, I said Gronk was the worst value in that round because his position wasn't that valuable in fantasy. Isn't it the same for Rodgers? So why am I recommending Rodgers but not Gronk? There a couple reasons:

  • First of all, Gronkowski is ranked almost a full round ahead of Rodgers. So you're giving up guys like Dez Bryant or Jeremy Hill to get Gronk while you're giving up guys like T.Y. Hilton or Mark Ingram to get Rodgers. 
  • Gronkowski is at greater risk for injury based on injury history and the nature of the position he plays. 
  • Starting TEs are cheaper than starting QBs. Out of the tight ends that finished in the top 12 last year, half were drafted after round 10 and 3 weren't drafted at all. Conversely, just 3 QBs that finished in the top 12 were drafted after round 10. You have to give up more to get a Rodgers alternative than a Gronkowski alternative. Also, from experience, QBs don't tend to slide nearly as low as they are ranked in ESPN leagues. Sometimes players will reach for a QB or draft a backup QB because they're unfamiliar with the more obscure players left on the board. Sometimes QBs are taken early because the owner is a fan of the team. Eli Manning is ranked 150 in ESPN but don't be fooled into thinking he'll be there in a real draft. According to ESPN's own live draft results, Eli Manning's ADP is around 106, 46 spots ahead of his rank. The later the draft goes, the less the ranks matter. People just start grabbing the guys they know and QBs just start flying off the shelves from rounds 9-11. The ADP shows that 15 different QBs have an ADP within that range, all well above their ESPN ranks. QB is one position where drafters ignore the rankings on and always reach. With Aaron Rodgers at the top, there's less room to reach because he's already up there and even newish fantasy football players know that elite running backs and wide receivers are valuable. Meanwhile, starting TEs can always be found late. Travis Kelce and Delanie Walker were not well-known before 2014 and only the more dedicated fantasy football players would have known to draft them. 
  • Rodgers' production fantasy production seems much more stable and reliable. Gronkowski's has much more variation. In addition, his value is at least somewhat dependent on Tom Brady who is suspended for the first 4 games of the season. 

8/23 Update: Reports are that Jordy Nelson has torn his ACL. Because of this, I would rank Randall Cobb after Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Demaryius Thomas, and Dez Bryant and before Odell Beckham Jr., Calvin Johnson, and AJ Green. 

2015 Best/Worst Value Round 1


Round 1 (1-12)

  1. Le'Veon Bell
  2. Adrian Peterson
  3. Eddie Lacy
  4. Jamaal Charles
  5. Marshawn Lynch
  6. Antonio Brown
  7. C.J. Anderson
  8. Matt Forte
  9. DeMarco Murray
  10. Demaryius Thomas
  11. LeSean McCoy
  12. Rob Gronkowski

Best Value: 

Le'Veon Bell (1), Adrian Peterson (2), Eddie Lacy (3), Jamaal Charles (4), Marshawn Lynch (5)

Kind of silly to pick the top 5 ranked players for best value but I wanted to point out that these guys are a tier above the rest in round 1. If I could pick where I drafted in the first round, I'd definitely try to get one of the first five picks overall. Provided that they stay healthy (and none of them are considered significant injury risks), each of these running backs has a legitimate shot to lead the league in fantasy points, top 5 is likely, and top 10 is basically guaranteed. I'd be happy with any of them but if I had to rank them, I'd go with (1) Adrian Peterson, (2) Jamaal Charles, (3) Eddie Lacy, (4) Le'Veon Bell, (5) Marshawn Lynch. 

Adrian Peterson

After a year off, people are forgetting Peterson's dominance. "All Day" will remind them. 

After a year off, people are forgetting Peterson's dominance. "All Day" will remind them. 

I don't like Peterson as a person but I think people are forgetting just how dominant of a player he is. Peterson is in a league of his own. In 2012, coming off of an ACL tear, he ran 2,097 yards and 12 touchdowns. Even more impressively, Peterson did all of this with Christian Ponder as the QB. Because defenses didn't have to respect the pass attack, they sold out against the run, constantly stacking the box and focusing on shutting Peterson down. And AP beat them anyway.

He's the only RB in the league who can put the entire offense on his back. The QB doesn't matter. The offensive line doesn't matter. The defense he's facing doesn't matter. Peterson will produce. Other than last year (he missed 15 games due to suspension), Peterson has never had less than 10 rushing touchdowns in a season. 10 touchdowns is a down year for him. And I know I said QB, O-line, and matchup don't matter but those are looking up for him too.QB Teddy Bridgewater was the most impressive rookie quarterback last year and the weapons he has to work with this year are significantly better as well: the Vikings acquired WR Mike Wallace in a trade, WR Charles Johnson showed flashes at the end of last year and has had an extra year and an off-season under his belt, Cordarrelle Patterson is settling into the WR3 role, and TE Kyle Rudolph is returning from injury. The pass offense will be legitimate enough to make defenses respect it, taking some of the pressure off Peterson. Plus, Peterson's schedule is more friendly this year than it was in 2013. He has just a handful of tough matchups: Detroit twice, Denver, St. Louis, and Seattle. 

Another reason to like Peterson is that we finally get to see what he can do with Norv Turner as the offensive coordinator. Turner's offenses always seem to have strong production from the running back. In his one year as the Browns' offensive coordinator in 2012, he made Trent Richardson look good enough to be a first round fantasy pick in 2013. Even more encouraging is that Turner likes to pass the ball to running backs (Richardson had 53 receptions in 2012). Peterson's two best years, 2009 and 2012, were the only seasons that he had 40 or more receptions. Matt Asiata and Jerrick McKinnon combined for 77 receptions and 199 fantasy points in 15 games last year (which would have been 7th among running backs). Talent-wise they're not even comparable to Peterson. Getting the ball in Peterson's hands as often as possible in a larger variety of ways is going to pay dividends both for the Vikings offense and for Peterson's fantasy owners. Finally, if you're worried about Peterson being rusty after a season of rest, don't be. Peterson may be morally questionable as a person but his work ethic has never been in doubt. He had his best season in his career coming off of a torn ACL. It's not like Peterson has spent the last year sitting on the couch eating Cheetos. No one is that good at something without being passionate and dedicated to it. Peterson is itching to play. He's hungry, he's motivated, and he's going to make it hell for anyone who's job it is to stop him. 

Jamaal Charles

Last year, Charles had the toughest schedule for running backs and still finished 7th among running backs in fantasy despite basically missing the first 3 games. Taking out those games, Charles averaged 15 points per game and would have finished with 240 total, placing him 4th among running backs. Now, while the schedule is still tough compared to the rest of the league, it's significantly better than last year's. In addition, the offensive line seems significantly improved. But more importantly, I just believe that Charles is ahead of Bell and Lacy from a talent perspective. Charles has a career average of 5.5 yards per carry and has never had a season of less than 5 yards per carry. 2014 was a down year for Charles in terms of touches (246 compared to 329 in 2013 and 320 in 2012) and yet he still managed 14 total touchdowns. Finally, Charles comes with a clear-cut handcuff in Knile Davis. If something should happen to Charles, Davis is good enough that I'm reasonably confident that he'd perform like a top-10 running back in fantasy considering how well he's filled in for Charles in the past. The same cannot be said for the handcuffs for Peterson (carries would be split between Asiata and McKinnon), Lacy (Starks), Bell (Williams), and Lynch (Turbin and Michaels). 

Eddie Lacy

Lacy is just so safe. Defenses must focus on stopping Rodgers or they'll get picked apart, giving Lacy favorable matchups. With Aaron Rodgers leading the offense, Lacy will get plenty of scoring opportunities- he's basically a lock for double digit touchdowns. Finally, Lacy developed into a viable receiving threat last season, finishing 6th among running backs in receiving yards. Lacy may not be as talented as the other running backs in this tier, but his situation is better and he's as safe as they come. 

Le'Veon Bell

In 2014, Bell finished 2nd among running backs in fantasy with 272 points, 56 points more than Lacy. He's a better player overall (Bell lead the league in receiving yards by a running back with 854) compared to Lacy and he runs behind one of the best offensive lines in the league. The only reasons I have Lacy ahead of him is the 2-game suspension to start the season and because Bell's schedule this year is quite a bit tougher than it was in 2014 including two unfavorable matchups against Denver and Baltimore in the fantasy playoffs. 

Marshawn Lynch

He's "Beast Mode". He is objectively the hardest running back in the league to tackle (led the league the past two years in broken tackles including 88 broken tackles in 2014; the next highest had 59). He's not even that old (he turned 29 in April). Lynch definitely deserves his spot in the top tier of running backs. The reason I have him ranked 5th is because his offensive line is a bit weaker this year after losing C Max Unger and LG James Carpenter. Plus, given his workload (1,181 carries in the last 4 seasons, most in the league) and physical running style it's not unreasonable to think that he might start wearing down a bit eventually. For these reasons, it's hard to see him exceeding last year's production (253 points, 3rd among running backs) even though he's still elite. 

 

Worst Value: C.J. Anderson (7)

C.J. Anderson has a lot going for him:

C.J. Anderson is the least proven of all the projected 1st round picks in fantasy.

C.J. Anderson is the least proven of all the projected 1st round picks in fantasy.

  • Since earning the starting job at running back in week 10, no running back scored more points than Anderson in that time frame. 
  • If we extrapolate his points per game over that 8-game stretch to an entire season, Anderson ends up with 316 points, 34 points more than the #1 running back in fantasy, DeMarco Murray.
  • The Denver Broncos' schedule is one of the most improved compared to last season (the schedule is much more favorable). 
  • Defenses have to focus on stopping Peyton Manning. For this reason, Manning's running backs are always incredibly productive. For example, in 2013 Denver's Knowshon Moreno came out of nowhere and scored 236 fantasy points, 5th best among running backs. 
  • New head coach Gary Kubiak has had great success with his zone-blocking scheme in his time with the Houston Texans and the Baltimore Ravens, during which RB Arian Foster became a star in Houston and RB Justin Forsett had a breakout season in Baltimore. This leads me to believe that the run game will be a focal point of the offense. 

But for a first-round pick, Anderson also has a lot of red flags:

  • A half-season sample size, no matter how brilliant, is still quite small. Even though those that have watched his game-tape assure us that it wasn't a fluke, that Anderson did actually play as well as his stats indicate, performance can vary greatly from season to season. For example, in 2012 C.J. Spiller looked every bit as good as his stats but followed up in 2013 and 2014 looking like a shell of himself. 
  • Although the schedule was tougher last year, CJ Anderson wasn't the starting running back when the Denver played its toughest opponents: SEA, ARI, NYJ, and SF. 
  • The offensive line has been devastated this off-season. RT Ryan Clady tore his ACL during OTA's, LG Orlando Franklin signed with San Diego, C Will Montgomery signed with Chicago, and RG Manuel Ramirez was traded to Detroit. With 4 of last year's 5 starters gone, it's hard not to expect a precipitous drop in performance by the offensive line. 
  • Are we absolutely sure that we know who the starter is this time? We know that whoever starts for Denver will be productive but are we so sure we know which it will be? Two years in a row we thought we knew, and two years in a row we were wrong. Is the third time the charm? Or is the third time the charm for Montee Ball? I just don't think there is a big enough gap in skill level between the three backs that one of them 100% has the job. If Anderson struggles to start the season or gets hurt for a few games, and either Ball or Hillman come in and play well, are we so sure that Anderson gets his job back? Head coach Kubiak is new in town and has no loyalty to Anderson. What if he feels that Hillman or Ball is a better fit for his offense?
  • Everybody says Coach Kubiak coming in means more running in Denver but I'm not so sure. The Baltimore Ravens, the team Kubiak just left, had 448 rushing attempts last season, 11th in the league. Denver was 12th with 443 attempts. You see, John Fox is also "known" for his dedication to the run game.

Let's look into that last point a little further. I compared the total number of rushing attempts for the Carolina Panthers from 2002-2010 to that of the Houston Texans from 2006-2013. The reason I chose those teams and those years is that I believe this to be the fairest comparison of the two. John Fox became the head coach of the Carolina Panthers in 2002 and held the position for 9 seasons. Gary Kubiak became the head coach of the Houston Texans in 2006 and held the position for 8 seasons. In 2002, the Panthers were an 7 year-old expansion team. In 2006, the Texans were a 4 year-old expansion team. So both Fox and Kubiak got their first head coaching jobs with relatively new teams. They got to start mostly from scratch and build the team they wanted and run it the way they liked. And Fox and Kubiak coached their teams for almost the same amount of time. 

Looking at the data for both coaches, it's actually quite similar. In fact, it looks like John Fox actually had his team run the ball a bit more. Both coaches started to ramp up the attempts after year 5. Kubiak doesn't seem the run the ball more than Fox so it doesn't seem that reasonable to expect an increase in volume for Anderson. But are Kubiak's teams more effective at running the ball?

Kubiak's Texans don't seem to have run the ball more effectively than Fox's Panthers. After several years in, both coaches achieved considerable success in the run game but none more than the other. 

There's no doubt that Kubiak's zone blocking scheme can be effective. It worked when he was the OC for the Broncos from 1995-2005, it eventually worked when he was the HC for the Texans from 2006-2013, and it worked last year with the Ravens. But scheme can only do so much. The offensive line that Kubiak has to work with this year is far inferior to the ones he had in Baltimore and at the end of his time with the Texans. It took 5 years before he was able to elevate the rushing attack in Houston to above average.

All this is to say that Kubiak replacing Fox does not guarantee a greater emphasis on the run game or a greater workload for CJ Anderson. In addition, Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme, while proven, is unlikely to overcome the off-season woes of the Denver offensive line. 

 

Risky Pick:  DeMarco Murray (9) and Rob Gronkowski (12)

DeMarco Murray (9)

If you took a risk on Murray last year, you were rewarded with 2014's fantasy MVP. Yet, last year I recommended staying away from Murray and I'm sticking to that now. I don't draft guys who are so prone to injury, especially not in the first round. Losing a first round pick for whatever reason cripples your chances at winning the league. But is Murray even still a high risk for injury? I'd say so. 2014 was the first time in his 4-year career that he managed to play all 16 games of the regular season. Prior to that, he's dealt with knee, leg, foot, and ankle injuries dating all the way back to college that have caused him to miss any where from 1 to 6 games. Even in 2014 he managed to get nicked up, fracturing his hand and requiring surgery to repair it. Too add to that, Murray is coming off an alarmingly high workload with 392 carries and 449 total touches. There have been many popular articles about the "curse of 370". And, while the sample size isn't large enough to conclude anything definitively, there are some clear warning signs. Consider this chart provided by Bleacher Report:

"GM NY" = "Games Missed Next Year"

"GM NY" = "Games Missed Next Year"

"GM NY" = "Games Missed Next Year". I'll do the math for you. Out of the 28 running backs that tallied 370+ carries in a season, only 1, Eric Dickerson in 1984, gained more yardage the following year. 27 out of 28 failed saw a decline in production. Only 9 out of 28 managed to make it through the next year without missing a game and 11 out of 27 missed a quarter or more of the season. Based on this data alone, Murray has a 67.9% chance of missing at least a game in 2015, a 40.7% chance to miss 4+ games, and just a 3.6% chance of increasing production. Then consider that Murray carried the ball 392 times in the regular season and tacked on another 44 carries in the post season. He had another 61 touches from receptions. 497 touches total. Running backs that get that many touches tend to get hurt the following year and, with Murray's injury history, I'm awfully nervous as an Eagles fan.

But there are 2 more factors working against Murray.

1. Even if Murray somehow manages to play all 16 games for the second straight year, I guarantee that his workload will be cut dramatically. There's no way that coach Chip Kelly is that reckless with a guy he just signed to a 5 year, $40 million contract just as there's no way backup RB Ryan Mathews was signed to a 3 year, $11 million contract to just sit on the bench. Chip Kelly is serious about his players' health, and there's just not reason to overwork Murray with such viable alternatives. And let's not forget RB Sproles is still on the roster who is more than capable and who logged nearly 100 touches for the Eagles last season. True, Chip Kelly does like to run; since becoming coach in 2013, only the Seahawks, the 49ers, and the Jets have more rushing attempts that the Eagles. But assuming the Eagles run 500 times in 2015 (which would put the in the top 5), I expect that Murray gets 70% of that, max (LeSean McCoy got 65.8% of the carries in 2014). Personally, I think 60% is more realistic with Ryan Mathews on the roster. 60% of 500 puts Murray at 300 carries which is still a lot (in 2014, only DeMarco Murray himself and LeSean McCoy exceeded 300 carries) but far less than 2014. In addition, I expect his reception total to go down due to the presence of Sproles. Last year, LeSean McCoy saw his reception total nearly halved (52 receptions in 2013, just 28 in 2014) while Darren Sproles had 40 catches. All in all, I can easily see Murray's workload slashed by at least 100 touches. Less touches = less fantasy points. It's just math.

2. A nearly 25% reduction in volume still puts him at around 215-220 points which would have been 6th among running backs last year. That's still worth the #9 overall pick. But, while we know that Murray's quantity is certain to decrease, what about quality? There is evidence that his rushing efficiency will decrease as well. Murray leaves Dallas' #1 ranked offensive line for Philadelphia's, a unit that just lost two key members: LG Evan Mathis and RG Todd Herremans. While I expect Philadelphia's line to at least remain above average, it will be considerably worse than Dallas'. 

Look, if it was just the decreased volume and worse offensive line, I'd probably still take him. I believe in Chip Kelly's offense and I think Murray is a good fit for it. But I can't ignore Murray's propensity for injury. He's high risk and reduced reward and he won't be on my team unless he falls considerably in the draft. 

Interesting thought. If you draft late in the first round, the top 5 RBs and Matt Forte will most likely have been drafted. What if you don't want to take an elite receiver (because you could get one with your early 2nd round pick anyway) or Gronk, and you don't feel comfortable drafting Anderson or McCoy (due to his recent hamstring injury). I could see you taking DeMarco Murray in this situation. His first two matchups are very favorable: Atlanta (a bottom 5 run defense in 2014) and Dallas (bottom 10 run defense in 2014 and Murray's old team). People tend to over react to the first two games of the season. I could see Murray absolutely tearing it up in those two games. In addition, the beginning of the season is the time when he's fresh and least likely to be injured. If he has two huge games, people will forget all about the injury history and the heavy workload, making him extremely valuable as trade bait. You might even be able to trade him for one of those top 5 running backs. If you can't deal him after the first two weeks, don't fret, the trade window extends to week 10. Murray has 6 favorable matchups and 2 unfavorable matchups in the first 8 games. In the second half of the season, his schedule includes 0 favorable matchups and 5 unfavorable matchups.  Obviously, this strategy is a bit risky. It depends on Murray starting hot and you being able to find a willing trade partner. Obviously, we can't assume things will work out exactly as we want them to, but the conditions are just likely enough that you could win big by drafting Murray and dealing him at a profit before he gets hurt or slows down. 

Rob Gronkowski (12)

Gronkowski is one of the most valuable players in the league. But not in fantasy. 

Gronkowski is one of the most valuable players in the league. But not in fantasy. 

In terms of dominance at his position, Gronk is rivaled by only guys like J.J. Watt, Earl Thomas III, and Aaron Rodgers. That is some very impressive company. However, I just can't bring myself to draft a tight end in the first round when starting tight ends can be had in round 10 and beyond.

I get the logic. Gronk is supposedly so far ahead of every one at his position that it makes him valuable enough to draft in the first round. But last year, Jimmy Graham was the round-1, must-have tight end and how did that turn out?

Graham finished the season with just 137 fantasy points, 3rd among tight ends. For comparison, the 8th and 9th tight ends, Travis Kelce and Delanie Walker, weren't even drafted in most leagues and they scored 108 and 105 fantasy points respectively. The gap in fantasy isn't as large as the gap in real life. So many things have to go right for Gronk or any tight end to be worth that kind of price, including staying healthy which Gronk has had trouble doing in the past. And the 4-game suspension for Tom Brady doesn't help.

If you find yourself drafting at the end of round 1, take an elite receiver or take a second tier running back like Murray, McCoy, or Hill. Don't hamstring yourself with a position that just isn't that valuable in fantasy, even for a player as good as Gronkowski. 

 

Safe Pick: Antonio Brown (6)

Antono Brown's incredible consistency is perfect for fantasy. 

Antono Brown's incredible consistency is perfect for fantasy. 

I don't think Antonio Brown is a great value because I don't think there's that much separation between him and the other tier 1 receivers, the last of which are Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green who are ranked 18th and 19th overall. But if I had to nitpick and decide which of the 8 receivers is least likely to finish outside the top 10 in 2015, it would be Antonio Brown. 

Nitpicks:

  • Demaryius Thomas - Peyton Manning is declining and no guarantee to stay healthy; the offensive line is much worse than last year
  • Dez Bryant - 16 touchdowns last year, he's due for regression; just 1320 yards last year, 378 less than Brown
  • Odell Beckham Jr. - just 1 season sample size; the hype may be unrealistic
  • Jordy Nelson - he's as safe as Brown but Brown scored 30 more points last year
  • Julio Jones - foot injuries in the past, has never finished better than 8th in fantasy points
  • Calvin Johnson - injury concerns, wearing down
  • A.J. Green - worst quarterback of the elite wide receivers caps his upside

The guy is matchup proof and consistent like no other. In 2014, he had just TWO games below double-digit fantasy points. The first was a 5-catch, 84 yard game in week 5 (not bad) and the other was an 8-catch, 74 yard game in week 10 (he fumbled twice). In his worst game, Antonio Brown had 8 catches and 74 yards. That is insane. 

So yeah, if you miss out on taking a tier 1 running back and you don't feel like settling for C.J. Anderson, Matt Forte, or DeMarco Murray, it might be best to play it safe and draft Brown as a pretty much guaranteed top 5 receiver. Then, you can take a tier 2 running back in the second round (or double down on elite wide receivers, if that's your thing). 

ESPN vs. Yahoo Rankings Comparison

Data from Disagreement

This article compares the draft rankings between the two most popular fantasy football sites, Yahoo and ESPN (as of 8/9/2015).

Why is this helpful?

We can use this comparison to find discrepancies that will help us determine which players are of good value and which are of poor value relative to their ranking. For example, drafting Frank Gore in the late second round or early third round is a reach according to the ESPN rankers but not according to the Yahoo rankers. Based on this information, you might be more encouraged to draft Frank Gore ahead of his ranking in ESPN and not feel like you reached. 

Is Gore a reach in the 3rd round? Depends on who you listen to. 

Is Gore a reach in the 3rd round? Depends on who you listen to. 

Even if do not respect the opinions of the fantasy football "experts" at ESPN and Yahoo, it's still important to look at the rankings. Though you may not follow their rankings, most, if not all, of your opponents will. In order to outsmart them, you need to know how they think. Additionally, knowing how your opponents will draft will allow you to maximize value from your own draft.

For example, let's say that somehow at the beginning of last season you were able to look into the future and knew 100% that Lamar Miller was going to end the 2014 season as a top 10 running back in fantasy (which he did). However, even with this foresight, drafting MIller in the 1st or 2nd round (like you should for a top 10 running back) would be misguided and wasteful. Here's why. ESPN had him ranked 89th overall and Yahoo had him ranked 69th. Because of this, Miller's ADP (average draft position) was 80 according to fantasyfootballcalculator.com, which is in the late 7th round in a 12 team league. Knowing that your opponents wont take Lamar Miller until the 7th or 8th means you absolutely should not take him as early as the 1st or 2nd. Instead, you could have taken someone like Le'Veon Bell or Demaryius Thomas and then waited until the 7th round to take Moreno, or even as early as the 5th round if you were feeling worried that someone else might snag him. 

Whether accurate or not, expert rankings from sites like ESPN and Yahoo largely dictate how the draft goes. Even if you have a group of fantasy know-it-alls, it's rare for players to get picked more than 1 or 2 rounds earlier than where they are ranked, especially in the early rounds. 

I chose to compare the ESPN and Yahoo rankings because those are the two most widely used fantasy football sites. I also compared the rankings for ESPN and Yahoo to the Expert Consensus Rankings provided by fanatsypros.com. The Expert Consensus Rankings, or ECR, are an aggregation of the rankings of 41 fantasy football writers and experts. More on how ECR is calculated.

ECR provides a good baseline and may help us choose which of rankings between the two sites is more accurate.

Rankings Comparison Spreadsheet

Players are listed in order of their ESPN ranking. The players whose rankings differ significantly are highlighted in red.

The image below contains only the players with large ranking disparities.


Discussion

ESPN’s rankings are heavily influenced by strategy.

The rankings are based on a 10-team league that drafts 16 rounds. You know this because 10 defenses and 10 kickers are ranked within the top 160.

Additionally, the 10th ranked QB, Tom Brady, is ranked 116th overall while the 11th QB, Ryan Tannehill, is ranked 148th overall. This large gap is tied to the idea that there is no need to draft a backup QB. I

In general, QBs and TEs are ranked much lower compared to Yahoo because ESPN considers these positions (outside of the elite tier) to be considerably deep. For example, ESPN’s 6th ranked QB, Ben Roethlisberger, is ranked 70th overall while Yahoo’s 6th ranked QB, Peyton Manning, is ranked 48th overall. Similarly, after Jimmy Graham, each tight end is ranked lower in ESPN compared to his Yahoo counterpart.  

Meanwhile, ESPN recognizes that running backs, particularly reliable ones, are especially scarce and therefore value them even more than Yahoo does. This is evident as, out of ESPN’s top 12 ranked players, 11 are running backs while Yahoo includes just 6 in it’s top 12.


I wont talk about all the disparities since you can see the chart and decide for yourself how to use the data. Here are 20 controversial players from the list that caught my eye. The number in parenthesis is the difference between the ESPN rank and the Yahoo rank. 

If you miss out on the top tier of running backs, do you settle for Forte at the bottom end of the first round? Or do you take an elite receiver?

If you miss out on the top tier of running backs, do you settle for Forte at the bottom end of the first round? Or do you take an elite receiver?

Matt Forte (8)

ESPN Rank: 8
Yahoo Rank: 16
ECR: 13

The discrepancy in Forte’s ranking comes mostly from ESPN’s preference toward drafting a running back in the first round whereas Yahoo seems more open to taking a receiver at this position. The ECR rank is right in between. Personally, I lean towards ESPN’s line of thinking of prioritizing running backs. However, it is true that Forte is a tier below the running backs that precede him so I can understand the desire to take a wide receiver here. The problem is that I don’t think there is that much difference between the top 7 wide receivers and at least a few of them will be available in the second round (unless it is a very deep league). 

 

Alfred Morris is tired of being called "unsexy".

Alfred Morris is tired of being called "unsexy".

Alfred Morris (14)

ESPN Rank: 28
Yahoo Rank: 42
ECR: 29

Morris has often been described as an “unsexy” running back. But, while he’s not especially quick or powerful, he always produces. In his 3 year career, he’s never had less than 1000 yards or 7 touchdowns. Morris is rock solid but his “unsexiness” is causing him to be greatly underrated in the Yahoo rankings. 

 

Carlos Hyde (13)

ESPN Rank: 33
Yahoo Rank: 46
ECR: 37

I’m definitely with Yahoo on this one. Hyde’s value is based on hype and speculation. As a backup to Frank Gore, Hyde had just 333 yards last year averaging 4 yards per carry. That’s not spectacular. Even more damning is that his offensive line has been devastated this off-season, losing LG Mike Iupati, one of the best run-blocking guards in the league, as well as RT Anthony Davis and RT Jonathan Martin. The new RT is Eric Pears who played RG in 2014 for Buffalo and graded in the bottom 5 (out of 78) at the position. Center is another area of concern as starting center Daniel Kilgore is still quite a ways away from being healthy and backup center Marcus Martin graded in the bottom 5 at his position as well. 

 

Was Forsett a 1-year wonder?

Was Forsett a 1-year wonder?

Justin Forsett (12)

ESPN Rank: 34
Yahoo Rank: 22
ECR: 22

Based on last year’s performance, the high Yahoo ranking and ECR make sense. Forsett was a fantasy stud last year, finishing 8th among running backs despite not being drafted in all but a handful of leagues. If we had good reason to believe that he would produce at a similar level in 2015, then 22 overall is a bargain. At first glance, there is much cause for such optimism. The Baltimore Ravens’ offensive line is still an elite run-blocking unit and the Ravens did not acquire any other running backs in the off-season that might supersede Forsett on the depth chart. The change of offensive coordinator from Kubiak to Trestman seems like it might benefit Forsett since, last year, Matt Forte caught a whopping 102 receptions in Trestman’s offense. However, Forsett’s 2014 schedule was a cake walk, with just one unfavorable matchup all year. While 2015’s strength of schedule is not too tough overall, it is somewhat more unfavorable than last year’s. In addition, the 29 year-old career backup, while decent, has never been considered exceptionally talented. A mediocre player like Forsett is liable to cede more and more playing time to someone like backup RB Lorenzo Taliaferro as the season progresses, especially at the goal line. I’m not saying that it will happen, but it could. What if 2014 Forsett is just a one-year wonder? For that reason, I’m more inclined to agree with ESPN’s more cautious ranking. 

 

Melvin Gordon (11)

ESPN Rank: 37
Yahoo Rank: 26
ECR: 34

There’s a lot to like about Gordon. The San Diego offensive line is one of the most improved going into the 2015 season and he has the benefit of having a great quarterback in Philip Rivers to keep defenses honest. While Danny Woodhead might take some 3rd down work, Gordon’s role in the offense is secure, more so than that of fellow rookie running backs Gurley, Yeldon, and Coleman. However, drafting rookies is always inherently risky. For that reason, I think the Yahoo ranking is much too high. For that price, much more proven commodities with similar upside (such as Alfred Morris) can be had. 

 

Peyton Manning (10)

ESPN Rank: 38
Yahoo Rank: 48
ECR: 43

I’ll admit, I’m a little apprehensive about drafting Manning this year. He’s another year older and his performance dropped towards the end of the season. I think injury concerns are legitimate and even more so behind an offensive line that has been torn to shreds in the off-season. Still, he’s Peyton Manning. He loses Julius Thomas but still has Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders to work with and his schedule is greatly improved from last year. I’d consider him at the Yahoo ranking. 

I love Edelman as a player but his upside is just too low to justify such a high rank.

I love Edelman as a player but his upside is just too low to justify such a high rank.


Julian Edelman (22)

ESPN Rank: 41
Yahoo Rank: 63
ECR: 53

I’m way more on the side of the Yahoo ranking here. In fact, even that might be too high. I just can’t understand the love for a receiver who’s upside is a low end WR2, who’s QB is suspended for the first 4 games, who has one of the worst schedules for the 2015 season, and who has had a history of concussions. 

 

Frank Gore (15)

ESPN Rank: 42    
Yahoo Rank: 27
ECR: 27

I think Gore is a great value in ESPN leagues. Sure, Gore is getting up there in age but the “Inconvenient Truth” has only twice failed to exceed 1000 yards in his 10 year career (his rookie season and 2010, when he was injured). Gore has outstanding vision and is an accomplished pass blocker, making it likely that he will stay on the field. A 3-down back in a highly efficient offense led by Andrew Luck is going to see plenty of scoring opportunities and I could easily see Gore approach double-digit touchdowns. 

 

Sammy Watkins (21)

ESPN Rank: 44
Yahoo Rank: 65
ECR: 59

Lots of love for Watkins in ESPN. I’d be more inclined to agree with Yahoo’s rank considering Watkins’ QB situation is among the worst in the league and his schedule is just as tough as last year. However, looking down the list of wide receivers at this point, there’s not that many that I’d put ahead of him. Watkins is an exceptional talent, a guy who can make plays for himself and elevates the play of his QB rather than the other way around. His situation was no better last year and yet he still managed to come away with 124 fantasy points, good for 27th best in the league. History shows that wide receivers that “break out” in year 1 tend to improve in year 2. With a ~120 point floor, I’d snap up Watkins at his Yahoo ranking. In an ESPN league, I might opt to go for a mid-round running back at that draft position. 

 

Joique Bell (33)

ESPN Rank: 46
Yahoo Rank: 79
ECR: 74

ESPN loves Bell, while the Yahoo Rank and ECR seem to suggest an expectation that rookie Ameer Abdullah will eat into Bell’s workload. I’m firmly with Yahoo on this one. Bell is thoroughly unspectacular. Despite having one of the most favorable schedules in 2014, Bell ran for just 3.9 yards per carry, which was 27th among qualifying running backs. 46th overall is just too high for a player whose role in the offense is at risk to be significantly reduced this year. On top of that, Bell has been banged up the last couple of years making it even more likely that his workload will be limited. 

 

Keenan Allen (14)

ESPN Rank: 47
Yahoo Rank: 61
ECR: 46

The ECR actually agrees with ESPN on this one but I think the Yahoo ranking is more appropriate. Allen was a bust in 2014, being outperformed by his own teammate, Malcolm Floyd. I’m not sold on his talent as a WR1 and it will be hard for him to bounce back when he has to face some of the toughest corners in the league in 2015. And don’t sleep on WR Stevie Johnson, acquired by the Chargers this off-season. Philip Rivers is the best QB Johnson has ever had and I really could see him outperforming Allen this season. 

 

The amount of love for Murray this year is a bit confusing. 

The amount of love for Murray this year is a bit confusing. 

Latavius Murray (19)

ESPN Rank: 48
Yahoo Rank: 29
ECR: 39

Wow. When I saw that ESPN rank, I thought it was ridiculously high. Imagine my surprise when I saw that the Yahoo Rank and ECR were even higher. Such a lofty rank for a former 6th round draft pick with 82 career carries, just one career game of over 100 yards, and a pretty significant injury history (he had two surgeries on his ankle after 2013 and suffered a concussion last season). Murray has proved nothing and I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see RB Roy Helu (or even Trent Richardson) take significant work and vulture more than his fair share touchdowns as he did in Washington. And Murray has a tough schedule to boot. Of all the players, Murray’s rank is the most baffling to me. 

 

Joseph Randle (13)

ESPN Rank: 51
Yahoo Rank: 38
ECR: 52

Everybody knows that whichever running back wins the starting job in Dallas is going to be very valuable in fantasy. Yahoo seems a bit more sure that it will be Randle rather than McFadden (whom they ranked 128th) while ESPN seems to be a bit more cautious (ranking McFadden 78th overall). I think Yahoo’s 38th overall is a bit steep but possibly worth it. I’d be far more comfortable with the value at ESPN’s ranking. 

 

Tevin Coleman (29)

ESPN Rank: 52
Yahoo Rank: 81
ECR: 79

I’m actually with ESPN on this one. I’m pretty high on Coleman and I would certainly rather have him than the other rookie running backs Todd Gurley and T.J. Yeldon who Yahoo ranked significantly higher (40th for Gurley and 52nd for Yeldon). 

 

Andre Johnson has been declining the past couple of years but, with Andrew Luck throwing him the ball, I believe he can have a very productive year. 

Andre Johnson has been declining the past couple of years but, with Andrew Luck throwing him the ball, I believe he can have a very productive year. 

Andre Johnson (18)

ESPN Rank: 59
Yahoo Rank: 41
ECR: 44

Johnson is a great deal in ESPN leagues. Like teammate Frank Gore, he’s getting up there in years but he is migrating to an offense that is far more efficient than the one he left and which is led by the best quarterback he’s ever played with in his career. 1,000 yards and catch 7 or 8 touchdowns is definitely doable.

 

Kevin White (9)

ESPN Rank: 61
Yahoo Rank: 70
ECR: 113

The ESPN and Yahoo ranks are quite similar but the ECR says that both sites are way off. While I think White might be ranked too high in ESPN, I think the ECR is much too low. In the later rounds, you need to be drafting for upside. So while the rookie wide receiver could easily do nothing from a fantasy perspective, his upside is that of last year’s Alshon Jeffery now that Brandon Marshall is with the Jets. 

 

Isaiah Crowell (26)

ESPN Rank: 66
Yahoo Rank: 92
ECR: 78

Crowell is a risky pick because he’s not a lock to be the main ball carrier for the Browns, though he’s currently the favorite the lead the backfield which also includes rookie RB Duke Johnson and RB Terrance West whom Crowell split carries with last year. Still, the upside is definitely there. The Browns seem inclined to lean heavily on the run game and the offensive line is in contention with Dallas and Baltimore to be the best in the league. 

 

Martavis Bryant (35)

ESPN Rank: 85
Yahoo Rank: 50
ECR: 62

Bryant caught 8 touchdowns last year on just 26 receptions. That touchdown to reception ratio is ridiculous and unrepeatable. I don’t really mind taking a late round flier on him but you still need reliable players in the 5th round and Bryant seems liable to bust especially because I expect Roethlisberger to regress to the norm statistically (2014 was the best statistical season in his career). 

 

The huge ranking disparity on Tannehill is mostly due to a difference in draft strategy.

The huge ranking disparity on Tannehill is mostly due to a difference in draft strategy.

Ryan Tannehill (71)

ESPN Rank: 148
Yahoo Rank: 77
ECR: 75

Tannehill is ESPN’s 11th ranked QB. Part of Tannehill’s low ESPN ranking is that he is the 11th QB and the ranking are tailored to a standard 10 team league. ESPN advises against drafting backup QBs. The other reason is that ESPN just doesn’t value the QBs outside of the elite tier (Rodgers, Luck, Wilson, Manning, and Brees) because of how deep the draft is at that position. Yahoo doesn’t seem to consider this and ranks 14 QBs in the top 100 while ESPN ranks just 8 in the top 100. I agree with ESPN. There’s just not that much difference between the 6th ranked Roethlisberger and the 14th ranked Matthew Stafford. So why take Roethlisberger in the 5th round when I can have Ryan Tannehill, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, or Matthew Stafford after the 10th round?

 

Eli Manning (86)

ESPN Rank: 150
Yahoo Rank: 64
ECR: 72

Like Tannehill, Eli’s low ranking in ESPN is due to ESPN’s draft strategy. But I also want to note that I’d rather have Eli than Tannehill or Brady who ESPN have ranked ahead of him. Both Tannehill and Brady have rather grueling schedules in 2015. Manning is far more proven than Tannehill and now has extra weapons to work with: Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz, James Jones, and Shane Vereen. Meanwhile, Brady has the 4-game suspension to deal with. 

2015 Preseason Schedule Analysis and Conclusions


Now that we have reviewed the changes to each defense over the off-season, we can make an assessment over whether or not each defense is a favorable, neutral, or unfavorable matchup against the run and pass. 

2015 Defensive Ratings

I only categorized teams as favorable, neutral, or unfavorable to start the season and did not use the "very favorable" and "very unfavorable" tags. This is because, for our purposes, it is only necessary to determine that a matchup is generally favorable or generally unfavorable. To try to predict defensive performance more specifically than that (at this point) would be more likely to be erroneous and misleading. 

Now we must apply our defensive ratings to each team's schedule.

2015 Preseason Passing Strength of Schedule

2015 Preseason Rushing Strength of Schedule

Analysis

Best Passing Schedules:

  1. Atlanta Falcons (6 favorable matchups, 2 unfavorable matchups)
  2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6,2)
  3. Washington Redskins (6,3)
  4. New York Giants (6,3)
  5. New Orleans Saints (5,3)

Worst Passing Schedules:

  1. New England Patriots (1,8)
  2. Buffalo Bills (2,7)
  3. Oakland Raiders (2,7)
  4. Miami Dolphins (1,6)
  5. Kansas City Chiefs (3,7)
  6. Pittsburgh Steelers (3,7)
  7. San Diego Chargers (4,7)
  8. Baltimore Ravens (4,7)
  9. Cincinnati Bengals (4,7)
  10. New York Jets (3,6)

Best Rushing Schedules:

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11,4)
  2. Houston Texans (9,4)
  3. Atlanta Falcons (9,5)
  4. Carolina Panthers (9,5)
  5. Denver Broncos (5,2)

Worst Rushing Schedules:

  1. New England Patriots (5,9)
  2. Kansas City Chiefs (2,6)
  3. Chicago Bears (2,6)
  4. Miami Dolphins (5,8)
  5. Dallas Cowboys (5,8)

It is important to take into account not only the strength of this year's schedule but also that of last year's. Here's why: Looking at the 2015 Preseason Strength of Schedule, you might notice that the Kansas City Chiefs have one of the most unfavorable schedules against the run (2 favorable matchups, 6 unfavorable matchups). This might cause you to avoid drafting Jamaal Charles. However, looking at Jamaal Charles' strength of schedule in 2014, you will see that his schedule was even more unfavorable (1 favorable matchup, 8 unfavorable matchups). So by comparing this year's strength of schedule to last year's, you might even be more inclined to target Jamaal Charles knowing that he is basically matchup-proof and will perform as a top 10 or top 5 fantasy running back regardless of schedule. 

Biggest Change in Passing Schedules Compared to 2014:

  • Denver Broncos +8
  • Oakland Raiders +4
  • San Francisco 49ers -4
  • Dallas Cowboys -4
  • Baltimore Ravens -4
  • Pittsburgh Steelers -4
  • Cleveland Browns -6

Biggest Change in Rushing Schedules Compared to 2014:

  • San Diego Chargers +8
  • Denver Broncos +7
  • Seattle Seahawks +5
  • Oakland Raiders +4
  • Arizona Cardinals +4
  • Cincinnati Bengals -5
  • Pittsburgh Steelers -5
  • Cleveland Browns -5
  • Chicago Bears -6
  • Detroit Lions -6

A more positive number means more favorable while a more negative number means less favorable. 

 


Conclusions

Players I am more confident about due to schedule:

Matt Ryan and Julio Jones - The Falcons had a similarly favorable schedule last year but Ryan and Jones have a lot going for them and I think they're in for a big year.

Demaryius Thomas - The Broncos' passing schedule isn't the most favorable (6,5) but it's much better than it was last year (2,9). There are reasons to avoid Peyton (age, offensive line concerns) but the schedule inspires some confidence for the Broncos passing game overall and Thomas will be the main benefactor.

Mike Evans (and Jameis Winston and Vincent Jackson) - It is uncertain if the rookie Winston can generate enough production for both Evans and Jackson to be every-week fantasy starters but his favorable schedule gives him a good shot. 

Odell Beckham Jr. and Eli Manning - Eli is ranked 161 overall in ESPN's rankings. I think that's great value for a QB that I could easily see cracking into the top 10 (he finished 10th last year), especially with Victor Cruz back and new weapons RB Shane Vereen and WR James Jones. 

Brandin Cooks - The lack of other receiving options in New Orleans combined with a favorable schedule is tough to ignore. Drew Brees is good enough to take advantage of the soft schedule. He will get his top receiver the ball. 

Doug Martin - You can't rely on Martin for anything. But you wont have to because he's currently being drafted in the 8th round which is a reasonable place to pick him up as a lottery ticket. With the most favorable schedule in 2015, it's not impossible to see him approach the production of his rookie year. 

Tevin Coleman - It's hard to trust rookies. However, due to several factors, favorable schedule being one of them, I'd rather roll the dice on Coleman compared to Todd Gurley or T.J. Yeldon who are being drafted slightly ahead of him. 

Arian Foster - It seems like Foster always has a favorable schedule. He feasts on the easy run defenses of the AFC South. 

Andre Ellington - Arizona's offensive line is greatly improved and Ellington has a significantly more favorable rushing schedule. There are concerns about his health and usage, however.

Cam Newton/Jonathan Stewart - I don't trust Stewart to stay healthy one bit. Although his favorable schedule makes him tempting, he will not be on any of my teams in the coming year. And when Stewart goes down, I expect Newton to be doing a lot of the running himself. 

Once again, Arian Foster has the benefit of a schedule full of soft defenses.

Once again, Arian Foster has the benefit of a schedule full of soft defenses.

Players I am more concerned about due to schedule:

Tom Brady gets rid of the ball as fast as any in the NFL. But even he might struggle against the stacked D-lines of the AFC East. 

Tom Brady gets rid of the ball as fast as any in the NFL. But even he might struggle against the stacked D-lines of the AFC East. 

Tom Brady - Even before his 4-game suspension was announced, I would have advocated against drafting Brady. The AFC East has some truly terrifying defensive lines. Even a future Hall of Famer like Brady is going to struggle against Miami's Wake and Suh, Buffalo's Williams and Hughes, and New York's Richardson, Wilkerson, and Williams. 

Ryan Tannehill - The schedule is only slightly worse than last year's but everybody is expecting a big year out of him and I just think that the schedule puts a cap on that. 

Ben Roethlisberger - I think Roethlisberger is a top 6 QB in real life but he's not one in fantasy. Last season was, statistically, by far the best in his career. With a tougher schedule in 2015, he's due for regression and not worth the mid-round draft pick. Antonio Brown will be fine, he's basically matchup proof. 

Tony Romo - I like Romo but he pretty much had his best year ever in 2014 and still only finished 11th among quarterbacks in fantasy. In addition, the other teams of the NFC East, who were atrocious against the pass last year, made large investments in improving their secondaries and/or pass rush this off-season. 

Keenan Allen - I was never sold on his talent as a WR1 and it's going to be tough for him to bounce back when he has to face some of the toughest corners in the league. 

LaGarrette Blount - First of all, Belichick is known for his lack of loyalty to his running backs. I'm doubly worried about Blount because he is mediocre at best and has the toughest rushing schedule of all running backs in 2015.

Joique Bell - His schedule is significantly worse (9,3 in 2014 and 4,4 in 2015) and he didn't even perform that well last year, averaging just 3.9 yards per carry (27th best among qualifying running backs). 

Justin Forsett - With 6 favorable matchups and just 1 unfavorable matchup in 2014, Forsett's schedule behind a dominant offensive line was a cake walk. The offensive line is still elite but the schedule gets quite a bit tougher. 

Matt Forte - I think Forte is a great player and I still think he's probably worth a 1st round pick but the schedule does give me pause. With Trestman gone, his receptions total is certain to be reduced (possibly drastically) and the significantly tougher schedule could make for an uphill battle. 

Lamar Miller - I loved him last year when he was cheap. He just seems a bit risky considering the tough schedule and the fact that you have to take him in the 3rd round. 


NFC West Defensive Changes

Arizona Cardinals

2014 Ranks - Pass: 16th; Run: 5th

Although the Cardinals lost a lot of veterans this off-season, DE Calais Campbell remains to lead the defense. His +31.3 grade was the 4th highest among players at his position. 

Although the Cardinals lost a lot of veterans this off-season, DE Calais Campbell remains to lead the defense. His +31.3 grade was the 4th highest among players at his position. 

Key Losses:
CB Antonio Cromartie (-0.2)
NT Dan Williams (+11.5)
DE Darnell Dockett (missed 2014 season due to torn ACL)
DE Tommy Kelly (+5.7)
ILB Larry Foote (-20.3)
OLB Sam Acho (+2.0)

Key Additions:
NT Corey Peters (+0.9)
DE Cory Redding (+6.0)
ILB Sean Weatherspoon (-8.3)
OLB Lamarr Woodley (-6.8)

Notes:

  • With defensive coordinator Todd Bowles landing the head coaching gig for the Jets, it seemed like as good a time as any to clean house of dusty old veterans Dockett, Kelly, and Foote who have their best years well behind them.
  • Part of the reason that this unit was so effective last year was the aggressive defensive play-calling by coordinator Todd Bowles, leading to 42 sacks which was tied for 7th most in the league.  
  • Peters and Redding are fine players on the inside but DE LaMarr Woodley is notorious for phoning it in the past few years after getting paid. He was released by the Steelers after 2013 and then again by the Raiders after 2014. He has the ability but, now on his 3rd team in 3 years, his issue is the effort. Update: On August 20, Peters was placed on season-ending IR due to a torn Achilles. 
  • Poor safety play and a down year from CB Patrick Peterson led to a disappointing performance for the Cardinals against the pass. If this unit is going to improve against the pass, it’s up to Patrick Peterson to return to form. He got burned way too often for an elite corner.
  • This year, Tyrann Mathieu gets the start at free safety which should help things, but losing veteran CB Antonio Cromartie probably makes it a net negative. 

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Neutral; Run: Neutral

For the most part, the replacements are good enough that the Cardinals defense shouldn’t be much worse although CB Cromartie and NT Williams were a cut above and their absence will hinder the defense against both the run and pass. 


St. Louis Rams

2014 Ranks - Pass: 18th; Run: 9th

DT Aaron Donald earned the 2014 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. In 2015, he has a legitimate shot for defensive player of the year. 

DT Aaron Donald earned the 2014 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. In 2015, he has a legitimate shot for defensive player of the year. 

Key Losses:
DT Kendall Langford (+0.7)

Key Additions:
DT Nick Fairley (+9.8)
OLB Akeem Ayers (+0.7)

Notes:

  • DT Langford was a solid player but DT Fairly is a straight upgrade. 
  • OLB Akeem Ayers will provide additional oomph to the pass rush.
  • DE Chris Long returns from injury after playing just 6 games in 2014.
  • First round pick DT Aaron Donald was a revelation for the Rams in his rookie year (+34.4) and is a contender for 2015's defensive player of the year.

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Neutral; Run: Unfavorable

The D-line is incredible but the linebackers are below average and the secondary is mediocre.  This unit will generate a lot of sacks but it’s not unbeatable. 


San Francisco 49ers

2014 Ranks - Pass: 4th; Run: 7th

Citing concerns about concussions, LB Chris Borland retired after just one year in the NFL. Borland was San Francisco's highest graded player on defense in 2014 (+20.8).

Citing concerns about concussions, LB Chris Borland retired after just one year in the NFL. Borland was San Francisco's highest graded player on defense in 2014 (+20.8).

Key Losses:
LB Patrick Willis (+2.0)
LB Chris Borland (+20.8)
CB Chris Culliver (+8.0)
CB Perrish Cox (+1.2)
DE Dan Skuta (+1.6)
DE Justin Smith (+15.6)
LB Aldon Smith (+5.8)

Key Additions:
CB Shareece Wright (-16.8)
DE Darnell Dockett (missed 2014 season due to torn ACL)
DE Arik Armstead (Round 1, Pick 17)
S Jaquiski Tartt (Round 2, Pick 14)
OLB Eli Harold (Round 3, Pick 15)

Notes:

  • When former head coach Jim Harbaugh was driven out of town, he must have cast a curse on the team because LB Borland, LB Willis, and DE Smith just up and retired, leaving sizeable gaps throughout the lineup. 
  • In addition, the 49ers lost their top 2 corners and the replacement, CB Shareece Wright, earned the 4th worst grade out of 108 qualifying cornerbacks... ugh.
  • The 34-year-old DE Darnell Dockett is coming off an ACL tear. His presence wont be enough to make up for the loss of DEs Skuta and Smith.
  • On August 7, LB Aldon Smith was arrested for hit and run, DUI, and vandalism. This will be his third DUI charge. The 49ers released him a few hours after the arrest. Smith's career may be over.  
  • To account for all the losses, the 49ers spent their 1st three draft picks to replenish the defense. However, counting on all these rookies to produce immediately is obviously optimistic. 
  • New head coach JIm Tomsula will have his work cut out for him motivating a team that has been thrown into such a tumultuous transition period. 

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Favorable; Run: Favorable

The sky is falling for the 49ers and it isn't pretty. The retirement of 3 core pieces of the defense as well as the loss of both corners have left the 49ers reeling. The 49ers still have quite a few talented players on defense but it's really hard for a unit to lose this many starters and remain cohesive. It’ll take a lot for the defense to avoid just being a disaster this year. 


Seattle Seahawks

2014 Ranks - Pass: 1st; Run: 2nd

Still the best secondary in football. 

Still the best secondary in football. 

Key Losses:
CB Byron Maxwell (-0.2)
DI Kevin Williams (-0.3)
LB Malcolm Smith (-9.0)

Key Additions:
CB Cary Williams (-1.0)
DI Ahtyba Rubin (-14.3)
CB Will Blackmon (-6.9)

Notes:

  • The big loss here is CB Byron Maxwell. But the Seahawks' secondary is so good that it most likely won't matter that much. CB Cary Williams wasn't great last year but, with safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas III backing him up and covering his weakness, I expect Williams will be just fine. 
  • FS Earl Thomas is still recovering from a torn labrum sustained in last year's playoffs. It is uncertain whether or not he will be 100% at the start of the season. 

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Unfavorable; Run: Unfavorable

The best defense in football over the past two years may regress a little this year but don't carried away. They're still really, really good. 

NFC South Defensive Changes


Atlanta Falcons

2014 Ranks - Pass: 26th; Run: 30th

Can the Falcon's defense improve significantly under the tutelage of new head coach Dan Quinn?

Can the Falcon's defense improve significantly under the tutelage of new head coach Dan Quinn?

Key Losses:
S Dwight Lowery (+1.1)
CB Robert McClain (-8.1)
DT Corey Peters (+0.9)
CB Josh Wilson (-6.2)
DE Osi Umenyiora (+1.9)
DE Jonathan Massaquoi (+1.6)
LB Sean Weatherspoon (-8.3)

Key Additions:
DE Brooks Reed (+2.5)
LB Justin Durant (+1.0)
DE O’Brien Schofield (+1.6)
DE Adrian Clayborn (-18.1 in 2013)
OLB Vic Beasley (Round 1, Pick 8)
CB Jalen Collins (Round 2, Pick 10)

Notes:

  • According to Football Outsiders, the Falcons' defense was ranked dead last in DVOA. 
  • CB Desmond Trufant (+13.5) was the lone bright spot, grading as the 6th best cornerback in 2014.
  • The Falcons hired Dan Quinn as the new head coach. Over the past 2 years, Quinn was the defensive coordinator of the Seahawks during which they were the most dominant defense in the league. 

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Favorable; Run: Favorable

In addition to hiring a new head coach, the Falcons have made sweeping changes to their defensive personnel. Unfortunately, it will take more than a new regime and a couple highly drafted rookies to right the wrongs of one of the worst defenses in 2014. 


Carolina Panthers

2014 Ranks - Pass: 14th; Run: 26th

CBs Josh Norman (pictured) and Bene Benwikere filled in admirably when thrust into the starting role in 2014. 

CBs Josh Norman (pictured) and Bene Benwikere filled in admirably when thrust into the starting role in 2014. 

Key Losses:
DE Greg Hardy (+25.4 in 2013)
S Thomas DeCoud (-5.8)

Key Additions:
S Kurt Coleman (+4.6)
OLB Shaq Thomas (Round 1, Pick 25)
CB Charles Tillman (-6.3 in 2013)

Notes:

  • Releasing him was understandable, but the loss of DE Greg Hardy definitely hurts this defense as his replacement, DE Kony Ealy (-14.9), graded bottom 5 at his position.  
  • OLB Shaq Thomas was a puzzling pick as he was projected by most to get drafted in the 3rd round.
  • Cornerbacks Antoine Cason (-9.7) and Melvin White (-9.3) started the season, but struggled. Out of 108 qualifying cornerbacks, both finished in the bottom 15. Midway through the season, they were supplanted by Bene Benwikere (+7.6) and Josh Norman (+3.7) who fared much better. 

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Neutral; Run: Favorable

The Panthers improved against the pass as the season went on, especially when they benched CBs Cason and White. However, I have reservations about whether or not former 5th round picks Benwikere and Norman can continue playing at a high level.


New Orleans Saints

2014 Ranks - Pass: 27th; Run: 32th

The Saints really struggled last year but with the return of Byrd, the acquisition of Browner, and a return to form for Vaccaro, the secondary has potential at least. 

The Saints really struggled last year but with the return of Byrd, the acquisition of Browner, and a return to form for Vaccaro, the secondary has potential at least. 

Key Losses:
LB Curtis Lofton (-21.5)
CB Corey White (-17.8)
CB Patrick Robinson (-0.9)
DT Tyrunn Walker (+8.0)
DE Junior Galette (+20.3)

Key Additions:
LB Dannell Ellerbe (-13.5)
CB Brandon Browner (-5.0)
ILB Stephone Anthony (Round 1, Pick 31)
OLB Hau’oli Kikaha (Round 2, Pick 12)


Notes:

  • S Jairus Byrd returns after playing less than a handful of games before going down for the rest of the year with a torn meniscus. He’ll have his work cut out for him if he wants to prove he’s worthy of being the 3rd highest paid safety in the league.
  • Although CB Brandon Browner graded quite negatively in 2014, the veteran is solid in coverage and should be a significant improvement over the likes Corey White who graded as the 3rd worst corner of 2014. 
  • S Kenny Vaccaro regressed majorly, grading at -19.0 after a solid +3.1 in his rookie season. He was playing hurt last season and may return to form once healthy. 
  • On July 24th, DE Junior Galette was cut by the Saints. Apparently, Galette's off-field issues and attitude were becoming a problem and the team found it necessary to part ways. While it may have been best for the team in the end, the loss of Galette is huge as he was by far their highest graded defensive player last year. His +29.1 pass rush grade was 2nd among all 4-3 defensive ends and 6th among all players in the league. 
  • The next highest graded defensive player on the Saints was DT Tyrunn Walker, who is also gone. 
  • The Saints ranked 25th in sacks in 2014, with just 34. 

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Favorable; Run: Favorable

After finishing 2013 as the 4th best defense overall (points per game), the Saints nosedived to 28th in 2014. The precipitous drop was puzzling. Which Saints defense will we get in 2015? The stifling 2013 version, or the leaky one from 2014? While the secondary has potential, it seems likely that the Saints will struggle to generate pressure with a defensive line that is missing its top two pass rushers from the year before.  


Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2014 Ranks - Pass: 24th; Run: 13th

DT Gerald McCoy and OLB Lavonte David were both first team All-Pros in 2013 but even they couldn't overcome the lack of talent around them. 

DT Gerald McCoy and OLB Lavonte David were both first team All-Pros in 2013 but even they couldn't overcome the lack of talent around them. 

Key Losses:
DE Michael Johnson (-12.6)
LB Mason Foster (-8.2)
DE Adrian Clayborn (-18.1 in 2013)

Key Additions:
LB Bruce Carter (-13.2)
DE Henry Melton (+10.5)
CB Sterling Moore (+3.7)
S Chris Conte (-3.0)

Notes:

  • OLB Lavonte David and DT Gerald McCoy are studs but the rest of the defense is still a bit lacking in talent.
  • The Bucs still need a competent corner opposite CB Alterraun Verner (+12.3). Reports are that CB Sterling Moore will be relegated to playing as the nickel corner. 
  • DE Henry Melton definitely helps the pass rush. His pass rush grade of +15.8 was 6th among defensive tackles. 

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Favorable; Run: Unfavorable

It's still McCoy, David, Verner and the rest. But in Lovie Smith’s second year and with QB Jameis Winston heading the offense, let’s see if this team can play with more fire than they showed in 2014. 


NFC North Defensive Changes


Chicago Bears

2014 Ranks - Pass: 31st; Run: 25th

After 12 seasons, LB Lance Briggs and CB Charles Tillman finally say farewell to Chicago. Both are former All-Pros and they have 9 Pro Bowl appearances between them. 

After 12 seasons, LB Lance Briggs and CB Charles Tillman finally say farewell to Chicago. Both are former All-Pros and they have 9 Pro Bowl appearances between them. 

Key Losses:
DE Stephen Paea (+14.4)
LB Lance Briggs (+7.6)
CB Charles Tillman (less than 100 snaps in 2014)
LB D.J. Williams (-6.8)

Key Additions:
DE Pernell McPhee (+20.8)
S Antrel Rolle (-13.9)

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Favorable; Run: Favorable

The Bears are rebuilding. The addition of McPhee and Rolle may mitigate the loss of several veterans but it won't be enough to elevate the defense from the bottom of the rankings. 


Detroit Lions

2014 Ranks - Pass: 7th; Run: 1st

Losing Suh and Fairley is a big deal but the Lions have found adequate replacements in Ngata and Walker. 

Losing Suh and Fairley is a big deal but the Lions have found adequate replacements in Ngata and Walker. 

Key Losses:
DT Ndamukong Suh (+27.5)
DT Nick Fairley (+9.8)
DT C.J. Mosley (+3.9)

Key Additions:
DT Haloti Ngata (+23.1)
DT Tyrunn Walker (+8.0)

Notes:

  • The interior defensive line was completely gutted this offseason as Suh, Fairley, and Mosley are now elsewhere. Ngata and Walker were brought in to fill the hole.
  • MLB Stephen Tulloch, who infamously tore his ACL in week 3 during a celebration, graded at +18.7 in 2013. With Suh gone, Tulloch's return is even more important for clogging the lanes and stopping the run. 

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Unfavorable; Run: Unfavorable

You don’t lose players like Suh and Fairley without some decrease in production. However, the Lions have responded appropriately by patching up the hole with Ngata and Walker and the rest of defense is so strong that they should remain elite for another year. 


Green Bay Packers

2014 Ranks - Pass: 13th; Run: 21st

In 2014, the Packers got great value out of 1st round pick, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

In 2014, the Packers got great value out of 1st round pick, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

Key Losses:
CB Tramon Williams (+1.6)
CB Davon House (-0.1)
LB A.J. Hawk (-11.6)
LB Brad Jones (-11.4)

Key Additions:
CB Damarious Randall (Round 1, Pick 30)
CB Quinten Rollins (Round 2, Pick 30)

Notes:

  • This off-season, the Packers had their money tied to re-signing players like WR Randall Cobb and OT Bryan Bulaga and, as a result, were forced to leave free agency empty handed. 
  • CB Tramon Williams and CB Davon House were solid cornerbacks but not worth the price paid to them by Cleveland and Jacksonville, respectively.
  • However, CB Sam Shields and CB Casey Hayward remain and the Packers added depth at the position by drafting CB Damarious Randall and CB Quinten Rollins. Randall played safety in college but will convert to cornerback.
  • In addition, Micah Hyde figures in at both corner and safety, and is definitely a candidate to win the nickel corner job outright. As it is, he is used part of the time as the 5th DB in nickel "pressure" packages, where he plays the old Charles Woodson role as a sort of hybrid DB/LB.
  • NT BJ Raji returns from injury to anchor the defense which struggled a bit against the run without him until Clay Matthews moved to ILB.
  • LBs Jones and Hawk were liabilities against the run and are most likely additions by subtraction. 

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Neutral; Run: Neutral

Typical off-season for the Packers: re-sign stars, let someone else overpay for players they can afford to lose, and build through the draft. The defense will remain solid and stable heading into 2015. 

*Thanks to u/theDarkAngle for corrections and providing more information


Minnesota Vikings

2014 Ranks - Pass: 15th; Run: 22nd

According to PFF grades, FS Harrison Smith and SS Robert Blanton were the most effective safety duo in 2014.

According to PFF grades, FS Harrison Smith and SS Robert Blanton were the most effective safety duo in 2014.

Key Losses:
ILB Jasper Brinkley (+2.5)

Key Additions:
CB Trae Waynes (Round 1, Pick 11)
ILB Eric Kendricks (Round 2, Pick 13)

  • In 2013, the Minnesota defense finished dead last in points allowed. In Mike Zimmer's first year as coach, the team improved to 11th. 
  • FS Harrison Smith (+17.9) and SS Robert Blanton (+8.8) combine for the highest grade of all safety duos in the league at +26.7.
  • The next five: Detroit's Quin and Ihedigbo combined for +23.7, Seattle's Thomas and Chancellor combined for +21.7, New England's McCourty and Chung combined for +21.0, Cleveland's Gipson and Whitner combined for +19.9, and Miami's Jones and Delmas combined for +14.2.

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Neutral; Run: Neutral

The Vikings improved mightily in 2014 under new head coach Mike Zimmer. The lineup is solid all the way through.  I expect the trend to continue in 2015. 


NFC East Defensive Changes


Dallas Cowboys 

2014 Ranks - Pass: 20th; Run: 24th

By signing Greg Hardy this off-season, the Cowboys are hoping the ensuing controversy is worth its weight in talent. 

By signing Greg Hardy this off-season, the Cowboys are hoping the ensuing controversy is worth its weight in talent. 

Key Losses:
DT Henry Melton (+10.5)
LB Justin Durant (+1.0)
LB Bruce Carter (-10.2)
CB Sterling Moore (+3.7)

Key Additions:
LB Andrew Gachkar (-0.3)
LB Jasper Brinkley (+2.5)
LB Keith Rivers (-4.5)
DE Greg Hardy (+25.4 in 2013)
CB Byron Jones (Round 1, Pick 27)
DE Randy Gregory (Round 2, Pick 28)

Notes:

  • After a disastrous 2013, the Cowboys D surprised everybody by being surprisingly competent last season. Due to the controversial Hardy signing and a strong draft, they’ve managed to improve. 
  • Signing DE Greg Hardy was controversial but no one is questioning his ability. With a PFF grade of +17.0 in 2012 and +25.4 in 2013, Hardy can play. Well, actually he can’t; at least, not until he’s served his 4 game suspension (reduced from 10 games). Still, the Cowboys front office determined that his talents were worth the PR backlash and, come October 8th, they’ll be reaping the benefits. 
  • LB Rolando McClain (+10.5) who had a breakout year in 2014, has also been suspended for 4 games. 
  • The Cowboys double dipped on controversy by drafting OLB Randy Gregory who slid out of the first round due to concerns about character. On paper, he’s the steal of the draft. 
  • LBs Gachkar, Brinkley, and Rivers were brought in as short-term solutions to plug the holes left by departing LBs Justin Durant and Bruce Carter. In addition, LB Sean Lee returns from injury and, while healthy, will do much to improve the run defense. 
  • On August 25th, CB Orlando Scandrick tore his ACL. He will miss the entire 2015 season. The Cowboys must now rely on 1st round pick CB Byron Jones to take his place. 

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Favorable; Run: Favorable

If Randy Gregory and Greg Hardy pay off, the Cowboys defense should have enough teeth to bring them back to the playoffs and beyond. The suspensions to DE Greg Hardy and MLB Rolando McClain, the inexperience of rookies DE Randy Gregory and CB Byron Jones, and the rustiness of LB Sean Lee indicate that the defense will take a little time to get going but, once they do, they will be solid. However, the loss of CB Orlando Scandrick sets them back a bit. 


New York Giants

2014 Ranks - Pass: 22th; Run: 29th

The biggest change for the Giants defense in 2015 is getting back its top corner, Amukamara. 

The biggest change for the Giants defense in 2015 is getting back its top corner, Amukamara. 

Key Losses:
CB Walter Thurmond (Injured for most of 2014)
S Antrel Rolle (-13.9)

Key Additions:
LB J.T. Thomas (-14.8)
LB Jonathan Casillas (-4.5)
S Landon Collins (Round 2, Pick 1)

  • CB Prince Amukamara returns from a season-ending torn bicep. Combined with CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (+7.8) the Giants have one of the better cornerback duos in the league. 
  • The Giants are ridiculously thin at safety, with 7 different players at the position suffering injuries of various severity in the preseason. 
  • The Giants moved up in the second round to select S Landon Collins, an absolutely necessary move to fill the hole they had at the position. 
  • DE Jason Pierre-Paul suffered a serious accident in the off-season and may not return to the team by the beginning of the season. It is uncertain when he will be able to play and how much he will be able to contribute once he returns. With 13 sacks in 2014, JPP was arguably the best pass rusher on the Giants. 

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Favorable; Run: Favorable

The return of Prince Amukamura helps a lot but the Giants are woefully thin at safety. 


Philadelphia Eagles

2014 Ranks - Pass: 29th; Run: 8th

One of the worst teams against the pass in 2014, the Eagles invested heavily in a makeover for the secondary which included bringing in CB Byron Maxwell, a former member of Seattle's vaunted "Legion of Boom".

One of the worst teams against the pass in 2014, the Eagles invested heavily in a makeover for the secondary which included bringing in CB Byron Maxwell, a former member of Seattle's vaunted "Legion of Boom".

Key Losses:
S Nate Allen (+3.9)
OLB Trent Cole (+6.5)
CB Cary Williams (-1.0)
CB Bradley Fletcher (-8.4)
CB Brandon Boykin (++6.5)

Key Additions:
CB Byron Maxwell (-3.0)
LB Kiko Alonso (+10.3 in 2013)
CB Walter Thurmond (+2.6 in 2013)
CB Eric Rowe (Round 2, Pick 15)

Notes:

  • With Chip Kelly at the reigns, the Eagles’ off-season has been more active than any other.
  • The weakest links of last year’s embarrassing secondary (CB Bradley Fletcher, CB Cary Williams, and S Nate Allen) have been cut off and replaced by CB Byron Maxwell, CB Walter Thurmond, and CB Eric Rowe. The only remaining member of the secondary, S Malcolm Jenkins was quite good last year, earning a PFF grades of +8.3.
  • CB Brandon Boykin (+6.5) has been consistently graded highly by PFF. However, he has been deemed unfit to play on the outside and relegated to playing nickel corner in Philadelphia. On August 2, Boykin was traded the Pittsburgh Steelers for a conditional 5th round pick. 
  • Opinions on former Seahawk Byron Maxwell are mixed. Some say that he only looked good in Seattle because of the outstanding play by S Earl Thomas III, S Kam Chancellor, and CB Richard Sherman which covered up his mistakes and weaknesses.  Personally, I think he is tested, tried, and true and will have a huge impact for the Eagles in 2015. 
  • CB Walter Thurmond has potential but has had a lot of trouble staying healthy throughout his career. The Eagles will try him out at free safety where he'll compete with S Earl Wolff for the starting spot.
  • The departure of aging OLB Trent Cole isn’t at all concerning as the Eagles have fantastic depth in the front 7, finishing 2014 placed second in sacks with 49.
  • LB Kiko Alonso fortifies the front even further.

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Neutral; Run: Unfavorable

If Chip Kelly’s smoothies can keep this team healthy, the completely retooled secondary could shine while the front 7 remains elite. 


Washington Redskins

2014 Ranks - Pass: 32nd; Run: 12th

Washington was dead last against the pass in 2014 but, while the situation at safety is still concerning, the cornerback position is much improved thanks to the addition of CB Chris Culliver. 

Washington was dead last against the pass in 2014 but, while the situation at safety is still concerning, the cornerback position is much improved thanks to the addition of CB Chris Culliver. 

Key Losses:
OLB Brian Orakpo (+5.2)
S Ryan Clark (-20.7)

Key Additions:
DE Stephen Paea (+14.4)
NT Terrance Knighton (+12.7)
DE Ricky Jean Francois (+0.4)
CB Chris Culliver (+8.0)
S Jeron Johnson (less than 100 snaps in 2014)
DE Preston Smith (Round 2, Pick 6)
S Dashon Goldson (-20.0)
DE Junior Galette (+20.3)

Notes:

  • The losses aren’t bad. To say that S Ryan Clark was a liability in 2014 is putting it lightly and OLB Brian Orakpo had trouble staying healthy in his time in Washington. 
  • NT Terrance Knighton improves the run defense that was already quite formidable.
  • DE Stephen Paea is known for getting after the quarterback. Combined with the pass rush of OLB Ryan Kerrigan, the Redskins should be able to improve on their mediocre 36 sacks in 2014. 
  • On July 31, the Redskins signed former Saints DE Junior Galette to a 1 year deal at the veteran minimum. Galette was cut from the Saints due to off-field conflict with the team. Galette has immense talent, finishing 2014 as the Saints' highest graded defensive player, and is an incredible bargain for the Redskins. Update: On August 31, Galette was placed on IR after tearing his Achilles. 
  • CB DeAngelo Hall returns from injury. For years he had been overrated as a #1 CB but with CB Chris Culliver taking over that role, I can see him doing a great job as the #2.
  • Sophomore CB Bashaud Breeland performed adequately when thrust into the #1 CB role after Hall was lost for the season. He’ll prove competent as the nickel corner and he may even surpass the veteran Hall at some point. 
  • S Duke Ihenacho returns from a season-ending left foot fracture sustained in week 3 of last year. In 2013, Ihenacho graded at -10.1.
  • S Jeron Johnson is a mystery. He’s currently penciled in as the backup to Ihenacho at strong safety. His lack of playing time is understandable considering that he’s been the backup to Kam Chancellor for the last 3 years. If Ihenacho gets hurt again or struggles, it's possible he'll get his chance to assume a starting role. 
  • S Dashon Goldson is just as bad as the man he replaced, Ryan Clark. Clark and Goldson finished graded last and second to last out of 87 qualifying safeties in 2014.  

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Favorable; Run: Unfavorable

The Redskins were dead last against the pass in 2014. Even though the safeties are still subpar, the return of DeAngelo Hall, the development of Bashaud Breeland, and the addition of Chris Culliver, indicate significant improvement in the secondary. Meanwhile, DE Stephen Paea will help the Washington generate more pressure than they did last year. All in all, the Redskins may have quietly put together one of the most improved defenses in 2015. 


AFC West Defensive Changes


Denver Broncos

2014 Ranks - Pass: 5th; Run: 3rd

CB Chris Harris Jr. was PFF's highest graded cornerback in 2014 (+28.4).

CB Chris Harris Jr. was PFF's highest graded cornerback in 2014 (+28.4).

Key Losses:
DT Terrance Knighton (+12.7)
S Rahim Moore (-0.2)
LB Nate Irving (+1.1)

Key Additions:
S Darian Stewart (+7.0)
DT Vance Walker (+6.8)
DE Shane Ray (Round 1, Pick 23)

Notes:

  • The Broncos D was elite against both the run and pass in 2014. 
  • The superstars remain: CB Chris Harris Jr., CB Aquib Talib, CB Bradley Roby, and S TJ Ward form a secondary second only to Seattle. Meanwhile, OLB Von Miller (15 sacks, 47 hurries), DE DeMarcus Ware (11 sacks. 30 hurries), and DE Malik Jackson (4 sacks, 29 hurries) combine for a fearsome pass rush. 
  • DT Vance Walker isn’t quite the player that Terrance Knighton was but he put forth a strong performance against the run in 2014.
  • S Darian Stewart isn’t as good in coverage as departing S Rahim Moore, but performs well in run support. 
  • 1st round pick, Shane Ray, slid a bit in the draft due to concerns about character until the Broncos moved up to get him. As a player, Ray is regarded highly as a pass rusher with a quick first step. Ray will be called upon regularly to spell the aging DeMarcus Ware who will be turning 33 heading into the season. 

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Unfavorable; Run: Unfavorable

Inevitably, due to salary cap issues, the Broncos had to give up a few of its better performers on both sides of the ball this off-season. However, most of the damage was done on the offensive end as each loss on defense was accompanied by an adequate replacement. 


Kansas City Chiefs

2014 Ranks - Pass: 9th; Run: 27th

OLB Justin Houston's +37.6 pass rush grade was second best in 2014. 

OLB Justin Houston's +37.6 pass rush grade was second best in 2014. 

Key Losses:
S Kurt Coleman (+4.6)
CB Chris Owens (-7.0)
DE Vance Walker (+6.8)

Key Additions:
S Tyvon Branch (only played 5 games in the last 2 seasons)
CB Marcus Peters (Round 1, Pick 18)

Notes: 

  • Led by the pass rush of superstar Justin Houston, the Chiefs were quite good against the pass in 2014 but were weak against the run.
  • The loss of safety Kurt Coleman doesn’t hurt much since he played only in limited time and just isn’t as good as his 2014 grade suggests.
  • Even so, the strong safety position is a concern for the Chiefs as S Eric Berry is still out indefinitely as he battles cancer and newly acquired S Tyvon Branch can’t stay healthy. *Update: On July 28th, Eric Berry announced that he had declared free of cancer and cleared to resume football activities just in time for the start of camp. 
  • CB Sean Smith is suspended for the first 3 games of 2015 due to a DUI arrest in June of last year. The secondary will really struggle until he returns.
  • Rookie CB Marcus Peters should be an instant improvement over CB Chris Owens.
  • ILB Derrick O. Johnson returns from a torn achilles. He played just 32 snaps in 2014. The veteran graded at +17.0 in 2013. 

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Unfavorable; Run: Favorable

The pass rush, led by Hali, Poe, and Houston, is elite. Once CB Sean Smith and S Eric Berry return to action, the secondary is solid as well. However, the run defense may still struggle. 


Oakland Raiders

2014 Ranks - Pass: 25th; Run: 18th

OLB Khalil Mack was outstanding for the Raiders last year, single-handedly elevating a defense lacking in talent.

OLB Khalil Mack was outstanding for the Raiders last year, single-handedly elevating a defense lacking in talent.

Key Losses:
CB Tarell Brown (-4.6)
CB Carlos Rogers (-3.6)
DT Pat Sims (-3.4)
DE Lamarr Woodley (-6.8)

Key Additions:
S Nate Allen (+3.9)
LB Curtis Lofton (-21.5)
DT Dan Williams (+14.4)
DE Mario Edwards, Jr. (Round 2, Pick 3)

Notes: 

  • While the Raiders were weak against the pass, they performed surprisingly well against the run mainly thanks to rookie OLB Khalil Mack, an absolute stud from the draft. Mack graded at a monster +55.3 overall and +46.9 in run defense, specifically. For reference, the next highest graded player on the Raiders defense is veteran DE Justin Tuck at +6.5 overall and only 2 other Raiders graded above +1.
  • CBs Brown and Rogers are additions by subtraction but this secondary probably remains below average unless CB TJ Carrie (+0.0), who was decent in his rookie season, can make great strides in his sophomore year.
  • The defensive line has struggled to get pressure on the QB, finishing 31st in the league with just 22 sacks. 
  • To that end, DT Dan Williams and rookie DE Mario Edwards, Jr. could help. However, it’s a long way to the top for the Raiders and I expect the average-at-best secondary to pay for the sins of line.

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Favorable; Run: Neutral

The Raiders remain wanting for talent on the defense. One Mack just isn’t enough. 


San Diego Chargers

2014 Ranks - Pass: 19th; Run: 17th

CB Verrett and CB Flowers are a great duo but, without a pass rush, they'll have their work cut out for them. 

CB Verrett and CB Flowers are a great duo but, without a pass rush, they'll have their work cut out for them. 

Key Losses:
S Marcus Gilchrist (-5.5)
CB Shareece Wright (-16.8)
OLB Dwight Freeney (+4.8)
OLB Jarrett Johnson (-0.3)

Key Additions:
S Jimmy Wilson (-7.4)
DT Mitch Unrein (played only 46 snaps in 2014)
ILB Denzel Perryman (Round 2, Pick 16)

Notes:

  • The secondary is quite good. CB Brandon Flowers is top 10 at his position and S Eric Weddle is top 5 at his. In limited time last year, rookie CB Jason Verrett showed that he’s more than capable (+8.1).
  • The pass rush is a major concern. OLB Dwight Freeney is gone and with him goes the bulk of an already meager pass rush (just 26 sacks as a team in 2014, 29th in the league). According to PFF, Freeney accounted for almost 1/4 of the team's total QB hurries in 2014.

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Neutral; Run: Neutral

This unit was average in 2014 but failed to make any improvements in the off-season. The secondary is strong but the lack of pass rush will put them to the test. 


AFC South Defensive Changes


Houston Texans

2014 Ranks - Pass: 8th; Run: 11th

We may have to wait a little bit longer but the Watt-Clowney combo could be glorious. 

We may have to wait a little bit longer but the Watt-Clowney combo could be glorious. 

Key Losses:
LB Brooks Reed (+2.5)
S Kendrick Lewis (+1.8)

Key Additions:
NT Vince Wilfork (+8.9)
S Rahim Moore (+0.2)
CB Kevin Johnson (Round 1, Pick 16)

Notes:

  • Solid unit against both the run and pass in 2014. Having the best player in football in JJ Watt helps (+107.5).
  • CB Kareem Jackson (+9.5) and CB Jonathan Joseph (+5.0) represent one of the best CB duos in the league and 1st round pick CB Kevin Johnson adds good depth.
  • Jadeveon Clowney could be back week 1. The hype has died down by now, but don’t sleep on him. Watt and Clowney in tandem will be ridiculous. Unfortunately, as of July 27th, the Texans have placed Clowney on the active/PUP list. This means he could be ready for week 1 or be out until week 7. It makes sense that the Texans would want to be cautious with the player in which they invested the 1st overall pick.
  • Lost S Kendrick Lewis (+1.6). Replaced by S Rahim Moore (+0.3). Lateral move. 
  • Signing veteran NT Vince Wilfork will improve the run defense.

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Unfavorable; Run: Unfavorable

If Clowney is healthy and can perform up to even a fraction of the hype, this already stout defense may very well lift itself into the elite. 


Indianapolis Colts

2014 Ranks - Pass: 12th; Run: 19th

Deflated footballs aside, the Indianapolis Colts' inability to stop the run was exposed in the AFC championship game. 

Deflated footballs aside, the Indianapolis Colts' inability to stop the run was exposed in the AFC championship game. 

Key Losses:
DE Cory Redding (+3.7)
S Laron Landry (+1.6)
S Sergio Brown (+5.3)
DE Ricky Jean-Francois (+0.4)

Key Additions:
OLB Trent Cole (+6.5)
DE Kendall Langford (-4.6)
S Dwight Lowery (+1.1)
CB D’Joun Smith (Round 3, Pick 1)

Notes:

  • The secondary, led by elite CB Vontae Davis (+21.8) was quite good but the run D unraveled towards the end of the season and was notably exposed in the AFC Championship game in which LaGarrette Blount took them for 148 yards and 3 touchdowns. 
  • This off-season, they’ve lost their 2 best DEs, Cory Redding and Ricky Jean-Francois . Newly acquired DE Kendall Langford is an average player that should fill one of the spots while the aging DE Arthur Jones (-10.2) fills the other. 
  • The Colts also lost Sergio Brown and LaRon Landry who each split time for the Colts at free safety. To replace them, the Colts have brought in FS Dwight Lowery who looked passable for the Falcons in 2014. 
  • Drafted CB D’Joun Smith with the 1st pick of the 3rd round. Smith will presumably serve as a backup for CB Greg Toler (-12.4) who graded as a bottom 10 starting cornerback in 2014. The Colts hope Smith will be able to surpass Toler on the depth chart at some point during the season.

 2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Unfavorable; Run: Favorable

It would seem that the Colts have done a fair job of plugging the holes caused by players leaving in free agency but have done little to improve the defense overall, opting to draft WR Phillip Dorsett in the 1st round instead of seeking help on the defensive line. 


Tennessee Titans

CB Jason McCourty looks to bounce back in 2015. Acquisitions S Da'Norris Searcy and CB Perrish Cox make this secondary nothing to sneeze at. 

CB Jason McCourty looks to bounce back in 2015. Acquisitions S Da'Norris Searcy and CB Perrish Cox make this secondary nothing to sneeze at. 

2014 Ranks - Pass: 23rd; Run: 28th

Key Losses:
DE Quentin Groves (-11.2)
S George Wilson (-14.1) 
S Bernard Pollard (+1.8)

Key Additions:
OLB Brian Orakpo (+5.2)
S Da’Norris Searcy (+8.6) 
CB Perrish Cox (+1.2)

Notes:

  • One of the worst teams in the league on both sides of the ball in 2014. There’s no way to go but up. 
  • S George Wilson who graded as a bottom 10 safety is replaced by Da’Norris Searcy who graded as top 20 safety. 
  • New CB Perrish Cox is solid and provides much needed stability opposite CB Jason McCourty. 
  • 2014 was a down year for CB Jason McCourty as he earned a grade of just -2.4. From 2011-2013, he graded at +11.6, +15.6, and +10.6. 
  • Added OLB Brian Orakpo who, combined with stud OLB Derrick Morgan (+14.6) and DE Jurrell Casey (+21.2), should provide a respectable pass rush. 

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Neutral; Run: Favorable

The Titans have upgraded all across the board on defense and, under the command of new defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, should manage to be respectable in 2015. 


Jacksonville Jaguars

2014 Ranks - Pass: 21st; Run: 23rd

3rd year coach Gus Bradley is on the hot seat. If his defense can continue to improve, he may see year 4. 

3rd year coach Gus Bradley is on the hot seat. If his defense can continue to improve, he may see year 4. 

Key Losses:
DE Red Bryant (-1.6)
LB J.T. Thomas (-14.8)
LB Geno Hayes (+5.9)

Key Additions:
DE Jared Odrick (+9.0)
S Sergio Brown (+4.7)
LB Dan Skuta (+1.6)
CB Davon House (-0.1)

Notes:

  • It’s year 3 for the Jags under Gus Bradley and it’s time for the rebuilding process to yield results. 
  • The young D-line showed flashes last year, finishing the season tied for 6th in sacks with 45. 
  • 3rd overall pick, Dante Fowler Jr. , might have provided the spark this team needed to become truly formidable but, alas, he tore his ACL on the first day of rookie minicamp just 8 days after being drafted. 
  • Lost LB Geno Hayes who was decent but also lose LB J.T. Thomas who was terrible.  
  • Lost DE Red Bryant who was good in run defense but contributed little to the pass rush. 
  • Added 4 new starters in free agency: DE Jared Odrick , LB Dan Skuta, CB Davon House, and S Sergio Brown . All graded as average or above average in 2014. 

2015 Matchup Projection - Pass: Neutral; Run: Favorable

It would have been nice to see what this defense could have been with Dante Fowler Jr. let loose and wreaking havoc. Still, key additions combined with a young and improving returning cast could push this unit into being at least average.