Breaking down an early 2021 draft

Draft strategies, player values, and more as we embark on the offseason

Tonight at 9:15 ET over on the Ship Chasing YouTube channel, I’ll be joining Pat and Pete as we break down a very early best ball draft we did last week. If you haven’t checked out those streams before, we usually just hang out, talk shop, and take listener questions from the live chat. And the good news is we’re planning to keep doing them every Wednesday night at the same time, so if you get the urge to talk a little fantasy football this offseason, that’s the time and place. 

Before the show, though, I wanted to do a quick look at the draft results and talk about some early takeaways from a January draft. We did the draft on FFPC, where the weekly roster requirements are 1 QB, 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE, and 2 Flex. Because it was a “Slim” draft, there were no kickers or defenses. It’s also TE Premium scoring, which elevates the high-end options at that position.

In 2020, Travis Kelce and Darren Waller caught 107 and 105 passes, while Logan Thomas ranked third in tight end receptions at 72. That means the extra half-point from the 1.5 points per reception in TE Premium scoring amounted to about 16 additional points, or an additional point per game between Kelce/Waller and the rest of the position. The gap may not always be that wide, but TE is a position where there are often a few guys who are legitimate high-volume receivers and many others who aren’t, so that’s always something to be aware of in TE Prem drafts.

That was part of the reason we started with George Kittle out of the No. 7 spot. Here are the results followed by some thoughts (I believe you can click to enlarge).

There’s a funny dynamic when you’re doing your first draft of the year. In any early draft, part of the process is predicting future ADP shifts; you’d like to be making picks at spots where you won’t be able to draft those players later in the year. Obviously when you’re drafting in January, you know you’re going to be doing many more drafts before Week 1 kicks off next September, and when that’s all said and done the early drafts become just part of a portfolio of exposures you have entering the following season.

But there’s also an element for your very first draft where you have no exposures whatsoever, and you’re excited about trying out certain strategies or contemplating how best to play things. Once you’ve started to do a few drafts, it gets a little easier to allow picks to come to you, but for that very first one there’s an excitement that simply can’t be replicated. If I wasn’t a perfect father who loves and cherishes both his daughters equally, I might point out it’s a bit like the balance between your natural excitement every time your first born does anything — because it’s the first time for you, too, as a parent — and how impossible it is to replicate that the next time around. It’s just human nature, and yes, I just compared my children to fantasy football drafts.

Early Rounds

So the Kittle pick is an interesting one. We talked a bit about Saquon Barkley, and I think if we were just trying to maximize future ADP value, Barkley would be the pick. A phenomenon you always see with early drafts is a stronger tilt toward last season’s results — early last offseason, my guy A.J. Brown went as high as the end of the first round in some leagues, before an offseason of regression articles landed him in the late third or fourth by August (Justin Jefferson might be a candidate for similar this year, although 3.03 wasn’t far off where I’d like to have considered him).

Naturally, that means injured players tend to fall a bit. Barkley tore his ACL early in the season, though, and will be more than 11 months removed from the injury at the start of next season. I expect as we move along this offseason, he’ll wind up as a top-five pick again, possibly in the top three.

But we prioritized an elite tight end in the first round for a couple reasons. First, if we didn’t take Kittle, we didn’t think Kittle or Waller were likely to make it back to us. After that pretty clear big three, tight end gets thin very fast. And in a TE Premium league, you can expect the position to fly off the board in the middle rounds; our expectation was similar to what happened, that by about Round 10 you’d be into the pure speculative options.

Second, tight end is a position of opportunity, and one that can be hard to predict as we head into the offseason. Last year around this time, Jace Sternberger was the heir apparent Green Bay tight end, not eventual PPR TE3 Robert Tonyan. Logan Thomas, the TE3 in TE Premium leagues, wasn’t on anyone’s radar, at least not until he signed a surprisingly solid free agent deal with Washington in March. Even then, buzz on him was muted through draft season.

There are obvious bets to make like Dallas Goedert with Zach Ertz no longer looking likely to be a significant factor, or third-year guys T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, but we expected those bets to cost a bit more in this format, and didn’t feel great about identifying late-round gems. That made a Kittle a nice choice from a construction standpoint, and in part because it was the first team we were building — maybe next time we’d go Barkley just to mix it up.

From there, we nabbed a pair of 2020 rookie running backs, and it was a bit rare for us to be through three rounds without a wide receiver. But again, some of that was driven by positional scarcity this time of year. Running back is a very difficult position to predict even in August; with an offseason of movement in front of you, the gap between the sure things and everyone else is even wider. Some of those speculative plays will work out better than many speculative TE options do, but with Matt Patricia out of Detroit and D’Andre Swift’s receiving ability and explosiveness on full display all 2020 season, we felt really good about his upside in the second round. Similarly, Antonio Gibson could move into more of a workhorse role after an extremely successful rookie campaign.

At the Swift pick, we most strongly considered Cam Akers as an alternative, and we were pretty stoked about Gibson making it back around but also considered Miles Sanders there. None of our RB focus was due to not liking the wide receivers in that range — we just felt we could still build a very good WR group later on.

Middle Rounds

After locking up a pair of high-end backs, we went eight rounds before circling back to the position as we passed through the Running Back Dead Zone. It played out very nice.

It will likely come as no surprise to you as a reader that I love D.J. Moore in the fourth round here. Moore was very efficient despite being typecast into a downfield role that didn’t mesh with his quarterback’s strengths. In the one game Teddy Bridgewater missed, Moore went 11-7-127 with a more vertical passer in P.J. Walker. The comp for Moore is how Stefon Diggs emerged in 2020; Diggs was similarly typecast in Minnesota in 2018 and 2019, before being treated like a true No. 1 in 2020.

As we made this pick, I toyed with an idea of considering regression for an abstract concept like “role” or “situation.” Diggs had something like a 10th percentile situation in 2019 when he didn’t even see 100 targets as a pure downfield threat, but by any metric he did the absolute most you could expect from him there. His “situation regression” swung back past what we might think of as a mean, because Buffalo became a really high-end situation where they were willing to throw a ton and allow him to run routes at all depths. They also gave him the freedom to improvise in situations like key third downs where Allen would roll out; it was a beautiful thing to watch his elite talent across all major facets of wide receiver play mesh with the perfect role that emphasized that versatility.

Moore likely won’t be so lucky, but the similarity is he also saw something like a 10th percentile situation in 2020, and Moore’s ability to still be very efficient and rise above it with reasonable production is also the same. The hope for Moore is maybe Matt Rhule and Joe Brady decide to utilize his YAC ability more next year, giving him a bit of a Deebo Samuel-like hybrid role now and then with some free receptions on jet motion tip passes. Maybe a quarterback change suddenly turns him into a high-end downfield threat. I don’t know how it might play out, but I feel even stronger today than I did last offseason than Moore is a very good wide receiver with big days ahead of him, and I do expect the situation will be better for him next year because it can’t be much worse.

CeeDee Lamb in the fifth is another easy win, and he was an absolute monster before Dak Prescott’s injury. With Michael Gallup taking a bit of a back seat, Lamb might be right up there with Amari Cooper this year atop the Dallas receiving leaderboard, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if 2021 went down as the year he took over as the clear No. 1 before a long career as a high-end producer.

Courtland Sutton fits the mold of injured player being overlooked — Sutton was typically a fourth-round pick last year, but we have new information in that Jerry Jeudy wasn’t an immediate stud, and the Broncos could also be in the market for a quarterback upgrade (can you imagine Sutton as Matthew Stafford’s new Kenny Golladay? Because I can).

And then Brandon Aiyuk was yet another 2020 rookie who looked like a great value. Truth be told, we strongly considered Aiyuk in the sixth, but with some quarterback uncertainty in San Francisco and the prior commitment to Kittle, it was a tough pick to make there. In the seventh, though, as our WR4? Easy game.

From there, we grabbed Justin Herbert, who we later stacked with a cheap Mike Williams, before adding Matthew Stafford as our second quarterback a few rounds later. The news that Herbert and the Chargers will emphasize tempo next season came out after the pick but was music to our ears. The news that Stafford was more on the “likely to be moved” side of the spectrum also came out after that pick, but he’s likely to be a 16-game starter anywhere.

The Stafford pick was one we settled on, where we played QB chicken a bit after DeVante Parker fell to us the round before. We had been targeting a QB in the 10th, but Parker was a tough one to pass up there. Parker wasn’t great this year as he dealt with injuries and Miami had a few extremely low volume passing games after Tua Tagovailoa took over, but he posted a 1,200-9 season in 2019 and in 20202 had three games with at least 12 targets and over 110 yards, ultimately hitting 15 or more PPR points in 5 of 14 games. He’s locked up next season with too much dead money to be cut, just turned 28 here in January (he’s been around a while but came into the league pretty young), and if healthy is a lock to see 100 targets in the type of high-aDOT plus red zone role you love in best ball. None of us were over the moon about the pick, but he won’t be there in the 10th round come August.

Part of why he was there was the massive TE run we’d expected in the middle rounds. Over the nearly three rounds between our Aiyuk pick in the seventh and where we took Parker in the 10th, only seven wide receivers went off the board, while 12 tight ends and 11 running backs were selected. That’s a pretty weird quirk to this individual draft, and I think we did a good job of taking advantage of the value that presented with the Parker pick, as he gave us a really strong WR5 despite going TE-RB-RB to start.

As part of that TE run, we took rookie Kyle Pitts. Tight end is the most difficult position for rookies to post big numbers, but Pitts plays like a wide receiver and looks like a lock in the first round of April’s NFL draft. Given the types of question marks throughout the tight end position, I don’t suspect he’ll go in the ninth round in FFPC TE Premium leagues this summer unless he gets a really bad draw with his NFL landing spot.

The end game

Down the stretch, we built out our RB group. One class of player we knew we wanted to target was pass-catching backs, and there are three things working in their favor. First, while pass-catching backs are often seen as high floor guys, they are actually more volatile on a weekly basis than other RBs. That does make sense — while other backs might have a consistent share of low-value rush attempts each week and the ability to chip in at least 40 or 50 rushing yards, receiving backs rely on the PPR element and can have games where they may only catch one or two balls with maybe three-to-five rushes for a really low fantasy score. Then in other games — particularly ones where their team trails and throws a lot and game script plays into their lap — they might string together six or eight catches all at once. If you chip in a touchdown or two when the receptions are there, like our 12th-round pick Nyheim Hines did a couple of times this year, you’re talking about 25-point potential.

The other two things working in favor of targeting pass-catching backs are price — they are always cheap — and job security. I don’t have great evidence of this take, but I think because these guys are specialists, it’s easier in January to see a role for them in August. The massive 250-touch upside might not be there, but we know that’s fool’s gold for most backs anyway, and these guys will likely provide us a few weeks of usability throughout the season, which is more than we could say for a lot of other RBs we could have considered late.

After Hines, we missed on Tarik Cohen, but we wound up adding J.D. McKissic after realizing he caught 80 passes and was RB17 in PPR leagues this year (RB29 or RB30 in points per game, depending on your cutoff), which sounds made up. He’s older, wasn’t established before 2020, and benefited from Alex Smith a bit, but he saw 110 targets and caught 80 balls and we drafted him in the 15th round. That’s nuts.

One interesting thing with the McKissic pick is that we already had Gibson. The upside for Gibson is of course that he earns a lot more work on passing downs, which would potentially make the McKissic pick a bad one. I’m typically against handcuffs, but I do think this is a really interesting pairing, and it’s something I did a little bit last year with Jonathan Taylor and Hines. Basically, we don’t know how Gibson’s role will progress, but if it does become a monster role then that’s fantastic. Conversely, if he’s good but a little game script dependent, there’s a correlation where we now have the back that benefits whenever Gibson has a down game. This isn’t a handcuff strategy; assuming McKissic is back with Washington in a similar role, he won’t be the back who benefits most if Gibson misses time. This is a pairing of two negatively correlated teammates who can nonetheless get there in the same week if things break right, but cover us multiple ways.

I’m going to look into this “early-down plus passing-down” RB pairing for best ball success more as the offseason progresses, and it deserves it’s own newsletter at some point. For now, I’ll say that the great RotoViz Bestball Win Rate Explorer offers favorable results. Gibson and McKissic were only stacked in 18 FFPC leagues last year (16.7% win rate), but Taylor and Hines were stacked in 75. Taylor had an 11.0% win rate, Hines was up at 13.8%, but the duo together hit 20%. You could also consider a situation like David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen, where Cohen’s injury pretty directly led to Montgomery being a huge success in a reverse handcuff sort of way. There are almost certainly also examples of this not being a profitable move, but there does appear to be upside if you get the roles and offensive potential correct, and I think that is almost certainly due to how the two types of backs succeed in different game environments so you can have at least one usable back out of the duo most weeks.

Our other late picks included Rashod Bateman, an incoming rookie with great metrics we’re all going to love, as well as two more rookies in Demetric Felton and Terrace Marshall. Pete and I, who have done far less prospect research than Pat to date, literally asked Pat to pick rookies we’d never heard of so we could immediately become fans.

I’ve since fallen in love with Felton.

I still haven’t googled him and just now while writing this realized it’s “Terrace,” not “Terrance.” It pays to have smart friends.

Of course, you can come hang out during the livestream tonight to catch more of what Pat and Pete thought about this draft. Catch ya then.