News & Analysis

Making the cases for five underrated players in fantasy football

Each and every fantasy football season brings forth a wide range of opinions on players. With a highly variant span of potential outcomes, so too comes a large variance of projections, expectations and anticipated workloads. Many of the perenially underrated players garner that status due to circumstances that make a season tougher to project — players joining new teams, rookies entering the league and so forth. Here are five players who I believe are currently underrated, and why they may outperform their average draft positions (ADP).

All ADP info is sourced from BestBall10s drafts dating back to the beginning of August.

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Cam Newton, New England Patriots – 148.71 ADP (QB18)

Most of what happens with Newton in 2020 will depend entirely on his health, as he’s proven to be one of the most productive fantasy football quarterbacks when free of injury. Unfortunately, his shoulder issues have hamstrung his abilities as of late. With a history of success, Newton is worth betting on, especially when you factor in the game-planning capabilities of head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

Here are Newton’s finishes among quarterbacks since he entered the league:

And here is how productive Newton has performed on a per-dropback basis since entering the league:

It’s clear that a healthy Newton can do damage, and lots of it — his mobility, rushing upside and football IQ combine to project a strong floor and an almost immeasurable ceiling. Here are Newton’s rushing statistics dating back to his first season in the NFL in 2011.

Cam Newton’s Career Rushing Performance (min. 200 attempts) | 2011 – 2019
Category Number (Rank)
Rushing attempts 931 (1st)
Rushing yards 4,760 (1st)
Rushing touchdowns 59 (1st)
Missed tackles forced 108 (1st)
Missed tackles forced per attempt 0.12 (6th)
Yards after contact per attempt 2.5 (4th)

 In addition to his absolute rushing dominance, Newton ranks 12th in passing yards, 11th in passing touchdowns and sixth in average depth of target (aDOT) over the same time frame (min. 500 attempts).

The last part of the equation is examining the roster around Newton. If we look at the Patriots’ ranks in 2019, we can deduce that Newton probably has a good shot to produce in spades if he can remain healthy. The Patriots ranked first in red-zone plays and goal-line plays, ranked ninth in total pressures allowed and explosive plays passing (15-plus yards downfield) and ranked 13th in offensive touchdowns.

It’s tough to project what these numbers may look like on a Patriots team led by someone other than Tom Brady at quarterback for the first time in two decades. However, the expectation is that Newton should have a legitimate shot to not only re-insert himself as a quality starting quarterback in the NFL, but as a potentially dominant week-to-week option at the quarterback position in fantasy football leagues in 2020.

PFF’s fantasy projections anticipate a QB23 finish for Newton — that would place him between players like Philip Rivers and Gardner Minshew. One of the major positives for Newton is his schedule, which ranks as the fifth-easiest in 2020, according to PFF’s strength of schedule (SoS) metric.

David Johnson, Houston Texans – 43.04 ADP (RB22)

Like Newton, a lot of Johnson’s potential intrigue is strictly tied to his health. The difference is, Johnson simply hasn’t had any luck in that department as of late. He has played in 30 games out of a possible 48 games in the past three seasons. The 2019 season was not a great experience for Johnson, as he ranked 36th in running back scoring (143.5) and 32nd in points per snap, but his efficiency metrics proved to be highly impressive. He ranked 16th in points per touch (1.10), fifth in yards per target (8.60) and seventh in yards per reception (10.28) among all running backs. In addition to those efficiency metrics, Johnson ranked fifth in aDOT, which is exciting for a player who totaled 43 targets (not a small sample size).

Since being drafted in 2015, Johnson ranks 10th in receptions (208), fourth in receiving yards (2,219), second in receiving touchdowns (15), fifth in missed tackles forced on receptions (60), first in aDOT (3.4) and first in receiving yards per reception (10.7) among all running backs with 150-plus targets. Johnson is a decent runner, but it’s his receiving ability that separates him from many of the league's running backs.

The trade that sent Johnson to the Texans muddies the waters in terms of his projection, but the offense has been productive in recent seasons and seems to be a decent landing spot for the pass-game connoisseur. Houston ranked ninth in explosive plays rushing (54), fifth in explosive run percentage (14.3%) and 10th in offensive touchdowns scored (44) in 2019. All of those figures bode well for Johnson, especially since his receiving ability is not in question. 

One area for the Texans to look at is their propensity to target running backs. They ranked 26th in the NFL with only 77 targets to running backs. Expect that number to rise with the team employing two of the best receiving backs in football in David and Duke Johnson. Lastly, the departure of former Texans running back Carlos Hyde frees up 259 total touches (245 rushes and 14 targets) — that is a strong workload immediately available for Johnson to overtake.

PFF’s fantasy projections expect Johnson to slightly outplay his ADP, slotting him with an RB20 finish. A major positive for Johnson and his backfield teammates is their second-easiest schedule, according to PFF’s SoS metric.

Zack Moss, Buffalo Bills – 101.78 ADP (RB41)

The main roadblock for Moss to reach fantasy relevance is teammate Devin Singletary, who — like Moss — is a tackle-breaking extraordinaire. But there may be enough work for both players to prosper in Buffalo. The departure of veteran Frank Gore frees up a total of 181 touches, 166 of which were rushing attempts.

That workload may be significant enough for Moss to surpass his value as the current RB41, but there may be even more work available in his rookie season. The split between Moss and Singletary is likely to cause a headache all season, but one player should separate from the pack as the superior option — and Moss’ college statistics suggest he’s got a great shot to do exactly that. Moss ranked incredibly well as a creator at the college level across the board.

Zack Moss' College Performance (min. 100 rushing attempts, 25 targets) | 2019
Category Number (Rank)
Rushing yards after contact 929 (9th)
Missed tackles forced 80 (3rd)
Missed tackles forced per attempt 0.4 (3rd)
Yards after contact per attempt 4.7 (7th)
Receiving yards after the catch 346 (10th)
Receiving yards after contact 150 (6th)
Missed tackles forced on receptions 12 (8th)
Receiving yards per reception 14.4 (3rd)
YAC per reception 15.7 (1st)
Yards per route run 2.61 (5th)

Moss’ had absolutely legendary efficiency in his final college season. The competition between him and Singletary will be fierce, but there is a lot of potential work left on the table from Gore’s departure, particularly in the red zone. Gore’s 27 red-zone carries ranked 23rd, and his 11 rushing attempts inside the 5-yard line ranked 13th. It was evident the Bills preferred to use a larger back near the endzone, which is a profile that Moss fits perfectly.

If Moss is capable of being productive between the 20-yard lines, his rookie season could amount to a fantastic one — he’s likely the first option in line for Gore’s vacated red-zone and goal-line work and should see a fair share of usage as a runner and receiving back outside of the money areas.

In addition to Moss' own abilities, the Bills’ offensive line proved to be a solid unit in terms of run blocking capability in 2019. The group ranked sixth in rushing yards before contact and eighth in rushing yards before contact per attempt. The team showed a willingness to commit to the ground game, too, with its eighth-ranked run play percentage (41.4%).

PFF’s fantasy projections don’t expect Moss to outperform his current ADP, with his ranking slotting him in at the RB53 spot. Like everyone else on this list prior to Moss, he’ll benefit from a solid schedule — PFF’s SoS metric ranks the Bills’ running back schedule as the 11th-easiest in 2020.

Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers – 157.53 ADP (WR62)

Aiyuk is the second rookie to make this list, and with good reason — there’s a massive target share up for grabs in San Francisco, and there's arguably nobody on the roster more equipped than Aiyuk to secure it. The 49ers’ receiving corps is in flux with Emmanuel Sanders departure in free agency (freeing 96 targets) in addition to Deebo Samuel’s foot injury that may extend into the season and ultimately force him to miss games (77 targets). While Samuel is expected to return at some point, we aren’t sure when. And to double down, we aren’t even sure just how much the foot injury will affect him when he does finally return to the field.

With not much left at the position in terms of true playmaking ability, Aiyuk has seemingly become the next man up, and he stands to benefit a great deal with the uncertainty at the position.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan has built an offense that relies on yards after the catch from his pass-game weapons, so his selection of Aiyuk should come as no surprise. Aiyuk was one of the best receivers at creating yards after the catch last season in college football. The 49ers ranked fifth in the NFL in receiving yards after the catch last season (2234). Meanwhile, Aiyuk ranked third in yards after the catch (710), first in receiving yards after contact (378) and fifth in yards after the catch per reception (10.9) among all college receivers with 50-plus targets.

The marriage between Aiyuk and the 49ers is perfect. In addition to that seamless fit, Shanahan is likely to find creative ways to deploy his first-round pick, too. Aiyuk’s capabilities with the ball in his hands are sure to be taken advantage of, as evidenced by Samuel’s 14 rushing attempts (ranked third among receivers) in 2019.

PFF’s fantasy projections expect a relatively quiet rookie season for Aiyuk, with his current ranking placing him at the WR81 spot. The 49ers’ wide receivers schedule ranks as the 12th-easiest in 2020, according to PFF’s SoS metric.

Gerald Everett, Los Angeles Rams – 199.59 ADP (TE27)

The 2019 season was a tale of two halves for Everett. The first 10 weeks resulted in strong production and what seemed to be a relatively featured role, and the final seven weeks were filled with injury, a lack of playing time and basically no role within the Rams’ offense. Here is the breakdown of the two splits.

Gerald Everett's Performance in Weeks 1-10 and Weeks 11-17 | 2019
Category (Per game) Weeks 1-10 Weeks 11-17
Targets 5.6 1.3
Receptions 3.8 1
Receiving yards 40.6 14.3
Receiving touchdowns 0.2 0
Receiving snaps 25.3 6.7

The unexpected emergence of teammate Tyler Higbee didn’t make it any easier for Everett, but a lot of his issues stemmed from a mid-season injury that plagued him for the remainder of the year. Over the first 10 weeks, Everett out-snapped, out-targeted and outproduced Higbee, even though Higbee received a big contract extension prior to the kickoff of the 2019 season. The Rams and head coach Sean McVay clearly viewed Everett as the superior pass-game weapon, and they treated him as such until the misfortune struck. Projecting the split between Higbee and Everett moving forward is incredibly tough, but it is fair to expect a large increase in usage across the board for Higbee.

The potential for both players to produce does remain a possibility, though, as the Rams shifted from a primarily 11 personnel offense to a much more varied offense that featured 12 personnel at a heavy rate. Here are the splits between the two personnel deployments.

Los Angeles Rams' 11 and 12 Personnel Usage in Weeks 1-10 and Weeks 11-17 | 2019
Category Weeks 1-10 Weeks 11-17
11 personnel 81.0% 61.3%
12 personnel 10.9% 35.6%

It was clear the Rams wanted to shift their offensive identity midway through the 2019 season, though it remains to be seen whether they stick to it in 2020. The departure of Brandin Cooks opens up another 67 targets, most of which are likely to be replaced by wide receivers Josh Reynolds and Van Jefferson. The decision to trade Cooks — while eating a massive dead money cap hit — could speak to what the Rams intend to do in 2020, and that could very well involve a lot more snaps in 12 personnel alignments.

PFF’s fantasy projections anticipate a TE23 finish for Everett, which would result in him slightly outplaying his current TE27 ADP. Both Everett and Higbee have a favorable schedule — PFF’s SoS metric ranks their tight end schedule as the 12th-easiest in 2020.

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