News & Analysis

Fantasy Football: Leveraging PFF grades to identify stacks in Best Ball leagues

At PFF, we can evaluate quarterback-receiver duos and analyze the grade based on the players’ performance together. This gives us a great idea of which pairings could emerge as high-upside options in fantasy football Best Ball formats.

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I looked at all 32 starting quarterbacks entering the 2020 season and identified their top pass-catchers based on PFF receiving grades since 2018. These PFF receiving grades will only include passes from the QB in question, omitting receiving grades in games that Patrick Mahomes, Drew Brees, etc. missed during that time span. 

If you want to take down a large Best Ball tournament, you’re going to need to stack to maximize winning potential. There is no better feeling than when a QB-WR stack fires on all cylinders — last season I had Carson Wentz and DeSean Jackson dialed up during Week 1 when DJax went for 8-154-2.

The following QB/receiver combos have proven chemistry and could put our Best Ball rosters over the top on any given week. 

1. Jimmy Garoppolo George Kittle (PFF Receiving Grade: 95.0)

In my first best ball article from this offseason, the first duo I recommended was quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and tight end George Kittle. Since that time, the San Francisco 49ers offense has lost Deebo Samuel for at least the beginning of the season and second-year sleeper Jalen Hurd for all of 2020.  And the team locked up its star tight end with a five-year, $75 million extension.

Amid all the great news favoring Kittle's fantasy outlook, his ADP has not moved at all in August — he’s still being taken at the back half of the second round.

With a lack of capable pass-catchers behind Kittle, expect Garoppolo to pepper him with targets and put up monster fantasy numbers. Over the past two seasons, when Kittle has seen at least six targets his average fantasy output has been over 18 fantasy points per game.

If you still aren’t convinced, just take a peek at his schedule — it's the third-easiest for the tight end position. Don’t overthink it: Kittle is an easy second-round draft pick this year. Follow that up by taking Garoppolo in Rounds 11 to 13 and you’re as good as some old fashioned 49er gold.

2. Drew Brees Michael Thomas (92.3)
Drew Brees Jared Cook (89.9)

I haven’t big the biggest fan of Drew Brees fantasy prospects heading into the 2020 season — having featured him on one of my early fade lists — but there’s no denying the chemistry between him and wide receiver Michael Thomas. If you end up with Thomas in the first round, you almost certainly need to double-down with Brees.

Thomas’ yards per route run (2.75) on passes from Brees ranks second and reception percentage (84.7%) ranks No. 1 among all wide receivers since 2018 with at least 35 targets. Drafting Thomas in Best Ball is going to give you a great floor, but if you want to hit the ceiling with a New Orleans Saints stack you have to draft upside with Jared Cook.

When Brees targeted Cook last season, it was a big play waiting to happen. His yards per reception (19.1) trailed only A.J. Brown and his ADOT (13.2) was the highest at the tight end position.

Highest yards per route run since 2018
George Kittle – Jimmy Garoppolo 3.02
Mark Andrews – Lamar Jackson 3.01
A.J. Brown – Ryan Tannehill 2.81
Michael Thomas – Drew Brees 2.75
Jared Cook – Drew Brees 2.68

The Saints utilized Cook as a deep threat, and with the departure of Ted Ginn Jr., there is no reason to think they will stop sending the big man down the seams. For this reason, Cook is going to be tough to trust in traditional leagues because of his high boom-or-bust potential.

The Saints drafted tight end Adam Trautman in the third round in this year’s draft — he brings a field-stretcher element to the team. His reception percentage (58.3%) on deep targets in 2019 ranked fourth-best in the nation among tight ends with at least 10 targets. 

3. Matt Ryan Julio Jones (91.7)

If you want an explosive stack, then no look further than the Atlanta Falcons dynamic duo of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. These guys just continue to put up high-flying numbers — no QB/WR tandem has created more passing plays of 15 or more yards than these two (81) since 2018.

If Ryan and Jones can connect on more touchdowns — which has eluded them up to this point — there’s a strong case to be made that they will be No. 1 on this list when 2020 concludes.

Seeing a spike in touchdowns from Jones would not be surprising — he’s averaged seven touchdowns and ranks seventh in end-zone targets (20) over the past two seasons. The problem has been Ryan not delivering catchable balls.

Since 2018, only 50% of Jones’ end-zone targets were catchable, while teammates Calvin Ridley and Austin Hooper were above 60%. With the potential for positive touchdown regression (and some luck), don’t overlook Jones as a potential WR1 overall candidate. Let’s not forget Jones ranked second in total PPR points in 2019 without touchdowns factored in.

Additionally, Hooper’s departure could aid Jones’ quest for more scores. His vacancy has been discussed in depth regarding Ridley’s potential, but not enough has been analyzed on the impact on Jones. Spoiler — it’s good. Historically speaking, when Hooper saw little involvement in the offense, Jones had eruption games.

From 2016-2018, Jones consistently surpassed 100 yards receiving and saw his touchdown equity rise when Hooper saw less usage. This carried through the 2019 season. In the two games when Jones scored twice (Weeks 2 and 15), Hooper totaled seven catches for 54 receiving yards.

That is why Jones is currently my second-highest-ranked wide receiver in PFF’s fantasy football rankings.

4. Patrick Mahomes Travis Kelce (91.1)
Patrick Mahomes Tyreek Hill (90.5)

Not sure if the question is asked enough, but who is the best Kansas City Chiefs player to stack with Patrick Mahomes? The answer is Travis Kelce because he’s been the true No. 1 option for Mahomes since 2018.

Kelce more than holds his own when compared to the top wide receivers in the league. His overall ranks for receptions (fifth), receiving yards (third), first downs (third) and explosive pass plays (second) are utterly impressive. It’s surprising to see Tyreek Hill being drafted almost five spots ahead of him. 

Most explosive pass plays since 2018
Julio Jones – Matt Ryan 81
Travis Kelce – Patrick Mahomes 69
Robert Woods – Jared Goff 69
DeAndre Hopkins – Deshaun Watson 67
Jarvis Landry – Baker Mayfield 59

Hill has the slight edge in scoring thanks to 17 touchdowns from Mahomes since 2018 compared to Kelce's 14. It’s splitting hairs when deciding between Mahomes’ top-two pass catchers, but it's no debate that Kelce is the better value. He’s the one who sees the largest target volume, his ADP is lower and he gives fantasy teams a huge advantage at the tight end position, which can be hard to replace.

Meanwhile, the wide receiver position is loaded from Rounds 4 to 6, so if you take Kelce instead of Hill in the second, you can still get Mahomes in the third and start hammering the wide receiver position.

5. Lamar Jackson  Mark Andrews (90.3)

If you draft Lamar Jackson, you almost certainly need to prioritize drafting Mark Andrews in the next round. Andrews has been Jackson’s favorite target since Jackson took over as the starter in 2018, highlighted by his yards per route mark of 3.01 that ranks second-best among all players.

The six weeks that Andrews finished as a top-five tight end in 2019 coincided with six top-five weeks from Jackson. You won’t find a much better correlation than that anywhere in fantasy football.

6. Aaron Rodgers – Davante Adams (90.1)

Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams have connected on 18 touchdowns over the past two seasons, tying two other QB/WR combinations for the most over that period.

Most receiving touchdowns since 2018
Tyler Lockett – Russell Wilson 18
Davante Adams – Aaron Rodgers 18
DeAndre Hopkins – Deshaun Watson 18
Tyreek Hill – Patrick Mahomes 17
Calvin Ridley – Matt Ryan 16
Cooper Kupp – Jared Goff 16

With little competition for targets in the Packers’ wide receiver room, look for Rodgers to continue to target Adams with highly valuable end-zone looks. Adams has the most end-zone targets in the NFL since 2018 (28). 

The next-closest player on the team was Jimmy Graham (15), and he's out of the picture.  

7. Kirk Cousins Adam Thielen (89.9) 

I argued this week that Adam Thielen can be this year's Michael Thomas, and a big component of that prediction is the receiver's chemistry with Kirk Cousins. Cousins’ quarterback rating when targeting Thielen (120.1) ranks fifth among all wide receivers with 100 targets since 2018.

With Stefon Diggs gone from the offense, Thielen is the only show in town and is going to be peppered with targets. The one time he saw nine targets last season, he finished as a top-five wide receiver.

If you grab Thielen with a third-round pick (which you should), grabbing Cousins with one of your last picks is a no-brainer. Call it the #SKOL stack.

8. Jared GoffRobert Woods (88.6)

Robert Woods’ PFF receiving grade on targets from quarterback Jared Goff is higher than Tyler Higbee (84.5), Gerald Everett (82.0) and Cooper Kupp (80.1).

He's been super dependable over the past two seasons and has posted underrated numbers: seventh in receptions and receiving yards, third in yards after the catch and third in explosive pass plays (15 or more yards). 

The lack of touchdowns has checked Woods’ fantasy upside. But with TD-hog Todd Gurley II out of the picture, there’s reason to imagine a higher ceiling with continued volume and his fair share of scores. 

9. Russell WilsonWill Dissly (87.3)

My initial thought when I saw how highly Will Dissly graded on throws from Wilson was, “Well, Wilson just makes all of his receivers great.” But when I looked at some of the other receivers and tight ends in the offense, it turns out that's not the case. Most notable is Jacob Hollister (66.1), who operated as the primary tight end last season.

With Greg Olsen coming off a PFF grade of 68.7 and entering his age-35 season, Dissly the clear upside play at tight end. His passer rating when targeted (152.1) ranks first in the league since 2018 among all players with at least 35 targets.  

Honorable mention:

Derek CarrDarren Waller (86.8)
Ryan TannehillA.J. Brown (86.4)
Kenny GolladayMatthew Stafford (85.6)
Amari CooperDak Prescott (84.1)
Tyler LockettRussell Wilson (84.0)

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