News & Analysis

Fantasy Football: Draft mistakes to avoid at running back and wide receiver

There’s a lot to be gained by looking back at how fantasy football drafts played out last season. By just taking a glance at 2019 ADP, you’ll be shocked to see how many mistakes were made with certain players’ draft positions. Freakin’ O.J. Howard came off the board as the TE4 overall.

These are the types of blunders I want to identify to ensure that we are not repeating the same errors in 2020. This includes miscues like being overly aggressive on players in questionable situations and paying a premium price for unsustainable past production. 

You won’t win a fantasy football league at the draft, but you can without a doubt lose it. Here's how to avoid last year's mistakes at the running back and wide receiver positions. 

Running Backs In New Environments

In 2019, we had two major bust running backs who were drafted in the second half of the first round: David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell

Johnson finished the 2018 season as the RB9 overall, but he accomplished the feat on the back of 300-plus touches and 10 touchdowns as part of an inefficient Arizona Cardinals offense led by Josh Rosen.

DJ finished the season with a PFF rushing grade of 63.2, which ranked 33rd out of 37 qualifying running backs with at least 130 carries. His yards after contact per attempt (2.38) ranked 32nd and his missed tackles per attempt (0.09) ranked second to last. His elusive rating ranked fifth-worst (24.8).

You’d think Johnson was at least solid as a receiver, but you would be mistaken. He earned the fourth-worst PFF receiving grade (60.4), and his yards per route run (1.24) ranked 21st among 28 running backs with at least 40 targets. So, after putting up abysmal numbers in 2018, why were we drafting him as the RB7 the next season?

We all expected the Arizona Cardinals offense to improve with rookie quarterback Kyler Murray and new head coach Kliff Kingsbury. We were totally disregarding the fact that Johnson was a declining asset, which was fully on display even when he was healthy in 2019.

Last season, Johnson’s PFF rushing grade (68.9) ranked 29th out of 46 qualifying running backs. His RB6 production through the first six weeks of the season was based heavily (once again) on his five touchdown scores and heavy usage as a receiver — he was second on the team in targets (37).  

With Johnson joining the Houston Texans — with the fifth-worst OL from last season — and Duke Johnson Jr. also working as a receiver, drafting Johnson in hopes that he can turn back the clock and return to 2016 form is a pipe dream.

Johnson is the prime example of the running back you don’t want to draft in 2020. 

We should have felt the same way about Bell in 2019 after he missed the entire 2018 season, but we were too enamored by his prior high-end production with the Pittsburgh Steelers and drafted him in the first round. 

Nobody was driving home the point that he was going from one of the best situations with the Pittsburgh Steelers — running behind an elite offensive line — to the New York Jets, who graded out as the fifth-worst run-blocking unit at the end of 2018. “Shockingly” in 2019, they were third-worst and Bell failed to meet his ADP expectations.

The main lesson to learn here is that investing top draft capital in veteran running backs on new teams or on teams with new coaching staffs is a bad move.

There's a group of 2020 running backs who struggled with efficiency at times last season and are still being drafted inside the top four rounds: Todd Gurley, Leonard Fournette, Melvin Gordon and David Johnson.

In 2019, Gordon ranked 41st in yards after contact per attempt (2.46), Gurley ranked 27th (2.78) and both ranked outside the top 40 in PFF receiving grade among running backs that saw at least 25 targets. Fournette ranked 41st out of 45 running backs in overall PFF rushing grade.

When running backs land on new teams, have new coaches or put up solid fantasy production because of volume, we can sometimes jump to best-case scenarios projecting them for the next season. But it’s no guarantee that the new coaching staff is going to use the players in the same way. Why would they after these players didn't perform all that well anyway?

The easiest way to get through this minefield of questionable RBs is to not draft any of them. After all, if you follow my perfect round-by-round draft strategy, you will be acquiring wide receivers in this range instead of running backs. 

If you do find yourself in need of a running back in this range, have confidence that you can acquire James Conner, Chris Carson, Jonathan Taylor or Le’Veon Bell, who I forecast to have better overall outlooks. You can also just continue to pound wide receivers and target Mark Ingram II, Cam Akers or Ronald Jones in Rounds 5 and 6. Those guys can all be solid RB2 contributors.

Wide Receivers with Continuity and No. 2s

For wide receivers, the part of the 2019 ADP that notably stood out to me was the over-drafted top wide receivers: JuJu Smith-Schuster and Odell Beckham Jr. Their draft slots as WR5 and WR7, respectively, were both solely based on projections with their circumstances drastically changing around them.

Smith-Schuster was tasked with becoming the No. 1 after Antonio Brown’s departure and Beckham moved to Cleveland to be paired with up-and-coming quarterback Baker Mayfield. A match made in heaven… right?

Both guys completely failed to live up to expectations. You would have been much better off taking guys in the same range like Tyreek Hill and Mike Evans who had more stability and projected similarly. 

So, which top 2020 wide receiver ADPs are based on projected output in the midst of change? The clearest one has to be DeAndre Hopkins at WR5, but someone flying more under the radar is Kenny Golladay at WR7. 

Golladay's ADP is 100% based on the fact that he was the WR7 in points per game (17.6) during the first nine weeks of last season with Matthew Stafford under center. I highlighted in an earlier piece in August that Stafford will not sustain that pace over a full season.

Even if the production were sustainable, you’d be better off just drafting D.J. Chark in the fifth round — he was the WR9 in points per game (16.7) during that same timeframe. Chark’s current WR20 ADP is laughable and is such a better value for almost identical production.

Overpaying for a premium projection on a wide receiver is the fastest way to tank your team. I know that we all want to be the first to tout and draft the next Julio Jones or Michael Thomas, but when you pass on a known commodity at the receiver position, you are taking quite the leap of faith.

To put yourself in the best position to win, avoid the breakout stars early and instead wait later to take them. The perfect example of avoiding a potential star early in favor of a more established veteran is with Seattle Seahawks wide receivers D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett.

I had Metcalf ranked higher all summer over Lockett but just recently made the switch in my top-300 fantasy football rankings. I thought all along that Metcalf had the higher ceiling, but when I realized that Lockett was the WR4 before his injury mid-season, I had to call an audible.

He has established chemistry with Russell Wilson and my roster feels so much safer with Lockett instead of Metcalf. The latter was actually a very volatile performer last season with plenty more busts than booms — he finished as a top-12 wide receiver just once in the regular season.  

With offensive lines likely behind the eight ball to start the season against defensive lines, Wilson is going to be scrambling for his life regularly. When Wilson is out of the pocket, he is always looking downfield for Lockett.

Since 2018, Lockett has the most receptions (38), yards (631), touchdowns (six) and the highest PFF receiving grade (90.3) on throws from outside the pocket.

The last noteworthy item about the wide receivers’ ADP from a season ago is to avoid fringier No. 1 wide receivers and buy all the discounted perceived No. 2 wide receivers. 

In 2019, if you drafted Chris Godwin, Stefon Diggs, Cooper Kupp, Calvin Ridley, D.J. Chark, Jarvis Landry, Courtland Sutton, Marvin Jones Jr., Michael Gallup, A.J. Brown — who were all the perceived No. 2s in their respective offenses — your team would have smashed.

For 2020, head back to the No. 2 wide receiver well because the value is just too good to pass up — we see several pairs of teammates on the same team finish inside the top-24 every year. With how pass-happy the NFL has become, most receiving corps are turning into 1A/1B situations.

Some of my favorite No. 2 receivers to target at value are Mike Evans, Robert Woods, Calvin Ridley, Tyler Lockett, Tyler Boyd, Michael Gallup, Jarvis Landry, Diontae Johnson, CeeDee LambChrisitan Kirk and Laviska Shenault Jr. 

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