We often refer to a late-round draft pick as a “dart throw”. We’ve got a list of fantasy football sleepers and we’re hoping to hit on this year’s breakout. At the same time, we acknowledge that the odds in that part of the draft are low. But here’s the thing about playing darts - some folks are actually really good at it. And the same goes for picking these late-round flyers from the deep, dark parts of the fantasy football rankings. By the nature of drafting late ADP guys, there are bound to be some busts, but we’re here to share our biggest secrets for giving yourself a chance at hitting on that league winner. That way, you won’t feel like you’re taking a complete shot in the dark.
Whether you’re doing your draft for your big home league or picking a team in Best Ball Mania IV on Underdog Fantasy (a giant tournament where the winner gets $3 million dollars), there is one word you need to know. Well, if you want to win Best Ball Mania IV, you first need to know promo code FANTASYALARM where they will match 100% of your deposit up to $100 when you first sign up. Then, AFTER THAT, you need to focus on one word when looking at your deep wide receiver rankings - uncertainty.
In the early rounds of drafts we want certainty. I want to know for sure I’m getting a megastar with my big investments. So I take guys I can trust like Justin Jefferson or Ja’Marr Chase. In the later rounds, however? Uncertainty is your friend. You want to look at the team and say “Who is going to lead the team in targets?” And you want the answer to be “who knows?” Even if you THINK it will be one particular player, just the thought that it MIGHT be someone else is enough to leave that door open for us. So what do we look for?
Change in Target Competition
This is the most obvious one. If pass catchers leave or new pass catchers come in, we don’t know for sure how that target pecking order is going to shake out. Let’s take the 2022 Jaguars for example. They had the incumbent Marvin Jones. They then brought in a BUNCH of new faces. They paid Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, and Evan Engram. Money talks, so our hunch was that Christian Kirk would lead in targets. And that hunch was right. But that uncertainty meant that it was worth taking stabs on pretty much any of the late round options, just to see how it might shake out. Here’s how it did in 2022 in PPR (ADP and finish numbers per FantasyData.com).
I mean, technically they ALL surpassed their ADP. But Marvin Jones was clearly the loser of the bunch in terms of fantasy relevancy. And that’s okay - he was WR63 anyway, being drafted in the 14th round, so did it really hurt that bad to draft him? You gave yourself a shot at upside in an ambiguous situation. With a guy like Evan Engram, we were drafting him everywhere because, if it’s an uncertain pecking order for targets, why not lean into the guy with TE eligibility? Zay Jones may have scored a few more points but the TE5 is more valuable than the WR26 due to positional scarcity.
Change in Quarterback
In 2020, the Carolina Panthers announced that Teddy Bridgewater would be their starting quarterback. And we, as a community, were convinced that DJ Moore was going to be the best wide receiver on the team for fantasy football. We were so certain, in fact, that we were drafting DJ Moore at WR11 overall at the start of the third round. And we were pretty much ignoring the other wide receivers, Curtis Samuel and Chosen Anderson (at the time known as Robby Anderson). Here’s how that one shook out in PPR.
They didn’t finish too far off from each other. But you clearly got a LOT more bang for your buck waiting and taking the cheaper options. We actually broke this full DJ Moore conundrum down at the time, trying to figure out what the heck was happening. And, at the end of the day, the solution was pretty simple. They were using DJ Moore to run the deeper routes. And Teddy Bridgewater did NOT like throwing those deeper routes. He preferred dumping it down to guys like Anderson, as you can see in these charts from the article (with the original data courtesy of Pro Football Focus).
Here is the breakdown of attempts for Teddy Bridgewater through two months of the season.
Look at all those sweet, sweet dump downs. New QB, new preferences. Curtis Samuel was a slightly different story because Christian McCaffrey got hurt and he got a good chunk of carries. But there’s no question Anderson benefitted from the QB’s tendencies.
Change in Scheme
Now, the Panthers situation above also coincided with the Matt Rhule era so you can argue that a change in scheme was also part of the equation. I personally had figured that Anderson would have run the deep routes with Moore underneath, honestly. But that’s not how the roles were set. There was uncertainty about that scheme coming in. Another example of a scheme change would be the Miami Dolphins in 2019 when Brian Flores took over from Adam Gase.
Adam Gase has notoriously always used an in-line tight end. Even when “Orange” Julius Thomas was a TE1 in fantasy for his Broncos, he was blocking on ~20% of his PASS plays. Touchdowns from Peyton Manning masked that poor usage. So, in 2018, Gase had Mike Gesicki playing in-line with his hand in the dirt, blocking on 17% of his pass plays. That’s not conducive to fantasy production and Gesicki was getting literally two targets a game. The next coaching staff with Brian Flores at HC and Chad O’Shea at OC had Mike Gesicki in the slot blocking on only 2% of his pass plays. His targets jumped to 5.6 per game. He went from TE53 in 2018 to TE12 in 2018.
And there was a noticeable change for some other players as well. The leading target-getters under Gase were Danny Amendola out of the slot and Kenyan Drake out of the backfield. DeVante Parker on the outside averaged 4.3 targets per game. The following season under Flores? Parker finished with 128 targets or a full 8 per game. In that season Parker finished as the WR11. Of course, Chad O’Shea was then fired and Chan Gailey changed the offense as the OC the next season. Then Gailey was fired the next year. Then Brian Flores was fired. In fact, the Dolphins have had a different offensive coordinator every single year for five straight years. This is the first year they will have the same guy twice in a row with Frank Smith. A little consistency helps with drafting Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle in 2023 but it doesn’t make the Dolphins a good place to find dart throw WRs does it?
Targets in 2023?
Well, my friends, the nature of uncertainty is just that - we don’t know for sure. That creates a bit of a “choose your own adventure” situation. The one thing we do know is that, the more uncertainty, the better. That’s how we got the 2020 Panthers with a new head coach, head coach, quarterback, and wide receiver corps. In fact, they will have that exact same combo this season. You always have the rookie QBs like Bryce Young to bring uncertainty as well as guys like Aaron Rodgers, Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Baker Mayfield changing teams. The Cardinals, Panthers, Broncos, Texans, and Colts all have new coaches. Plus, there are a number of players that swapped teams, per usual. The Bears put together a brand new group of receivers over the last calendar year - will our friend DJ Moore actually be the guy this time or are Darnell Mooney and Chase Claypool worth a dart throw? These are the questions we need to start asking. In the early rounds, we ask “Why?” Why am I spending this high pick on Ceedee Lamb? In the later rounds, we start asking a new question - “Why not?”