A list of players that I like from each 12-pick tier in David Dodds' Top 300 Player Rankings in mid-July.
These are players—one from each round for the first 12 rounds of a draft—I believe in regardless of what my analysis recommends and I'm willing to ride or die, see the bitter end, go down with the ship if enough of them falter. It's unlikely I will try to draft all of these players on every team, but a handful of them will be on many of my crews heading into the fall.
First Round: RB Ezekiel Elliott (Dallas)
In an upcoming staff chat, you're going to see much of the Footballguys staff recommend taking Saquon Barkley ahead of Elliott and Kamara and you'll also see my argument for Elliott there as well:
For the sake of playing Devil's Advocate, I'll argue the only answer here is Elliott.
Barkley is a compelling talent but let's take off the highlight goggles. A closer and clear-eyed look belies the sizzle with Barkley on the surface.
1. The Giants defense must get better to reduce passing game scripts.
2. The Giants offensive line should be better this year, but it is still not on par with top units.
3. New York's quarterback has major flaws with feeling pressure in the pocket, a lack of downfield accuracy, and had his greatest success with one-read, quick-hitting plays.
4. Barkley's occasional forays outside the structure of the play design come from a lack of patience due to the flaws with surrounding talent that goad him into doing more than he should. He loses patience with the maturest decision to take what's in front of him.
Barkley had 4 games in 2019 with less than 60 yards rushing and 4 of those games tallied less than 70 total yards and no scores. There were also seven games where he didn't score a touchdown.
In contrast, Ezekiel Elliott has a better offensive line, a better quarterback, and better surrounding skill talent that leads to more red-zone appearances.
Elliott scored twice as many rushing touchdowns as Barkley last year despite having better surrounding talent. Although Elliott had 5 games with less than 60 yards rushing and 3 with less than 70 total yards, only 2 of those games did he go without a touchdown.
Elliott only had six games where he didn't score a touchdown and four games with two touchdowns. Barkley had two games with two touchdowns.
He also outgained Barkley on the ground for each of the past two seasons and tallied 131 catches, 986 yards, and 5 scores during that span despite a reputation that he's not much of a receiver. Barkley has 143 catches, 1158 yards, and 6 scores during the same span--not enough to make up for the lack of touchdowns or inconsistencies.
Elliott isn't as sexy of a pick because he lacks the sizzling moves and breakaway speed of Barkley, but he's a far more mature player between the tackles. As good as Barkley is, I want good players in good situations, and while Barkley fits that criteria over most players, Elliott is a better player in a better situation.
The old, "he'll be the only a focal point," sounds good but is it really true?
Elliott's totals and surrounding talent suggest it isn't.
Many of you are compelled to go for the player with the highest possible upside with your first-round picks. It's understandable that you hope to hit the bull's eye dead center and nab the player who could be the highest scorer by a significant margin.
We all want to hit the Powerball number if we play the lottery, but the safest picks in the early rounds of your draft are often the best because they're consistent producers who deliver on a strong volume of weekly touches and targets and they're on teams with the best supporting talent that help them earn high-leverage opportunities for big plays.
The Cowboys have the offensive line to help Elliott be creative at the second level for chain-moving gains and big-play rushes (gains of at least 12 years) more often than behind the line of scrimmage for minimal yards. Dallas also has the passing game to keep opposing defenses off-balance and it means Elliott will see more red-zone opportunities and easier ones than Barkley, who should have a strong year but he'll have to do more with a lot less support.
You can cite Elliott's off-field behavior, Barkley's incredible athletic ability, or your belief that Daniel Jones is going to emerge into a Pro-Bowl starting quarterback but if you take Barkley ahead of Elliott and he has the better year, it's a case of abandoning process-oriented thinking of what makes a top pick compelling and getting lucky.
2. Second Round: RB Nick Chubb (Cleveland)
If Chubb hadn't slid to the second round in recent weeks due to the growing sentiment that Kareem Hunt will have too big of a role for Chubb to reach the production required for a fantasy RB1, Chris Godwin would have been the choice here. Godwin had a career-year with Jameis Winston last year and the addition of Tom Brady and Brady's offense provides a scheme where Godwin will be Brady's Julian Edelman/Wes Welker in this offense.
That said, Chubb is three spots higher on my board based on my in-season projections. Some of my colleagues have noted that Chubb will see a regression in production this year because of Hunt, which makes last year's targets in the passing game unsustainable and they find his touchdown totals for his rushing yards to be a negative indicator of potential upside.
Last year, Chubb earned 298 attempts for 1,494 yards, and 8 touchdowns on the ground and 50 targets, 26 catches, and 278 yards as a receiver. Kareem Hunt played 8 games last year and earned 44 attempts for 171 yards and 2 touchdowns as a runner and 45 targets for 37 receptions, 285 yards, and a score as a receiver.
Let's look at Hunt's average volume and production per game as well as Chubb's overall as well as splits with and without Hunt on the team:
|Player||Att||Rush Yds||Rush TDs||Targets||Receptions||Receiving Yds||Receiving TDs|
|Hunt (8 gms)||5.5||21.4||0.25||5.6||4.6||36||0.125|
There are numerous insights worth gleaning from these splits. First and foremost, and I'll repeat this for further emphasis later, Chubb was the clear starter in an offense that didn't make him the offense's focal point for several weeks. Even when it did, the pistol and shotgun alignments didn't maximize Chubb's ability as a decision-maker.
Why I don’t like this alignment for Browns as main look pic.twitter.com/s6Hx9wxY5b— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 29, 2019
Even without Hunt as a factor, Cleveland's coaching staff hamstrung its best player in favor of operating an offense that used Baker Mayfield as the centerpiece and Mayfield wasn't good enough. This year, Kevin Stefanski will employ alignments with two and three tight ends and put Mayfield under center as the base set. The Browns also upgraded its offensive line with the addition of top tackle Jedrick Wills on one side and free-agent acquisition Jack Conklin on the other.
Chubb is an excellent outside zone runner the Browns' weakness last year were the tackle positions. Stefanski's scheme features a heavy dose of the outside zone concept and he acquired the tackles to do the job.
Let's return to the splits above. Before Hunt returned from suspension, Chubb was on pace for 308 attempts, 1,613 rushing yards, and 12 touchdowns on the ground as well as 64 targets, 50 catches, and 322 yards receiving.
After Hunt's return? 288 attempts, 1,382 yards, and 4 touchdowns on the ground as well as 36 targets, 24 catches, and 234 yards.
In PPR fantasy formats, Chubb was on track for 315.5 fantasy points (the No.4 RB overall) without Hunt and 209.6 points (No. 18 RB overall) with him. This appears to be supporting my colleague's arguments but let's take a closer look.
Most of my colleagues who are anti-Chubb believe that Hunt's production will come at the expense of opportunities for Chubb. However, there wasn't a single game last year where Hunt out-touched Chubb, and there were only 3 games where Hunt earned more than 55 percent of Chubb's volume within the same contest.
In every game that Hunt earned at least 10 touches, Chubb earned at least 16 and there were only 2 games out of 8 where Chubb didn't earn at least 20 touches with Hunt on the field. More important is the fact that when Hunt had low-touch counts, Chubb's touches were also lower than his average and this had to do with Cleveland losing early and the game script forcing the Browns to throw the ball downfield against softer defenses protecting leads.
If Hunt were usurping Chubb's role due to unfavorable game scripts, this argument would be compelling. However, this wasn't the case. When the Browns could run, both players produced and Chubb thrived. When opposing teams could take the ground game away with big leads early in the contest, both players suffered.
In fact, if you remove the final two losses from Chubb's per-game totals his per-game averages jump:
|Player||Att.||Rushing Yds||Rushing Tds||Targets||Receptions||Receiving Yds||Receiving Tds|
|Hunt (8 gms)||5.5||21.4||0.25||5.6||4.6||36||0.125|
|Chubb (final 8 gms)||18||86.4||0.25||2.25||1.5||14.6||0|
|Chubb (final 6 gms)||19.3||100.8||0.33||2.5||1.7||19.3||0|
If we use Chubb's adjusted six-game totals—and again, we're not accounting for the poor offensive scheme and lack of tackle play that hurt the backs and quarterback--Chubb was on pace for 309 carries, 1,613 yards, and 5.3 rushing touchdowns on the ground and 40 targets, 27 catches, and 309 yards as a receiver.
The adjusted version places Chubb at 249.2 fantasy points—just above Saquon Barkley at No.10 among backs in PPR leagues. In other words, the losses during the final two weeks of the 2019 season skew Chubb's production enough that it appears that Hunt was cutting into his time and limiting his potential output. Hunt was not nearly as much of a factor as the Cleveland offensive ineptitude.
The adjusted version actually places Chubb only two spots lower than he actually finished the season and when comparing Chubb with Hunt (RB10) versus Chubb's potential without (RB4), it fits what I've been arguing for months: If Chubb were the featured back without Hunt around, he would be an elite producer but with Hunt, he's still a solid fantasy RB1 candidate.
Again, this analysis is based solely on Chubb's production in a scheme that was neither maximizing his talents nor minimizing Mayfield's flaws. This year, the upgrade in personnel and scheme will be in Chubb's favor.
Let's look at the Vikings running back production Stefanski last year.
2019 Minnesota Vikings Ground Game
|Player||Att.||Rushing Yds||Rushing Tds||Targets||Receptions||Receiving Yds||Receiving Tds|
|Dalvin Cook (14 gms)||250||1,135||13||63||53||519||0|
|Cook Per Gm||17.9||81||0.93||4.5||3.8||37||0|
|Vikings Depth Chart||179||867||4||64||45||336||2|
|Vikings Depth Per Gm||11.1||54||0.25||4||2.8||21||0.125|
The Vikings backfield generated 429 attempts, 2,002 yards, and 17 scores on the ground and 127 targets, 98 catches, 855 yards, and 2 scores through the air—nearly 3,000 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns. If you subtract 2 games worth of Cook's per-game totals from the depth chart to account for a 16-game season that's a transfer of 35.8 attempts, 162 yards, 1.86 scores that would go to Cook on the ground and 8.9 targets, 7.8 catches, and 74 yards through the air.
Cook was already the No.6 fantasy back without the additional 42.56 points Cook likely earns if he stayed healthy. This would have bumped Cook to 338.96 fantasy points, placing him second only to Christian McCaffrey as a PPR fantasy option last year.
Even so, the Vikings depth chart still would have generated 143.2 attempts, 705 rushing yards, 2.14 scores, 55.1 targets, 37.2 catches, and 262 yards if Cook played 16 games. If you gave that combined depth chart total to one back--say, Hunt in Cleveland's offense--that's 145.7 fantasy points and would have been RB36 totals in PPR leagues last year.
Before we examine what Hunt might earn in 2020, let's please put to bed the analysis of Chubb's red-zone production. First, Chubb worked in a system that used way too much pistol and shotgun with him flanking the quarterback rather than having the multiple options available to him while behind the passer (see video above). Second, the offensive line lacked two quality starting tackles.
These issues will be fixed and make the greatest difference with Chubb's red-zone production.
However, if we're going to bang on Chubb's red-zone production we can't even compare apples to apples within his team. Chubb scored 6 times in the red zone on 52 attempts--1 per 8.67 attempts. Hunt scored 2 times on 5 attempts--1 per 2.5 attempts. Hunt's opportunities were so small that you can't make a valid comparison.
Now that we've seen that Hunt's presence didn't render Chubb a fantasy RB2 producer on a per-game basis, let's transfer the Vikings 2019 production to Cleveland. I am projecting the Browns to run the ball 421 times with its backs for 2,116 yards, and 16 touchdowns. My receiving projections for the depth chart is 135 targets, 82 catches, 721 yards, and 2 scores.
That's 8 fewer carries, 114 more rushing yards, 1 less rushing touchdown, 8 more targets, 16 more catches, 134 more yards, and the same number of receiving scores. Essentially, I believe that the Browns' running back depth chart is marginally better than the Vikings depth chart and will be more efficient on the ground but not massively so.
In these projections, I have Chubb and Hunt essentially splitting the receiving production:
Matt Waldman's Projected 2020 Totals for Cleveland's Backfield
|RB||Att||Rush Yds||Yds/Att||Rush Tds||Targets||Rec.||Rec. Yds||Rec. Tds||PPR Fpts.|
But for the sake of appeasing the Hunt touters, let's award Hunt more targets as a receiver in 2020 than the Vikings depth chart in 2019 and make Hunt the primary option in the passing game. Although the idea that Hunt is a much better receiver is a myth perpetuated by analysts who look solely at the numbers in the box score and not the on-field skills of the players. This makes Chubb my No.8 fantasy back in PPR leagues and Hunt the No.33 option. Hunt earning 928 yards from scrimmage seems generous considering that Vikings depth chart earned 967 from scrimmage if you adjust for Cook's 2 games missed.
In fact, let's essentially flip the passing-down production and not only make Hunt the receiving back with the greatest volume of targets but give him a larger majority than the Vikings' model:
If Kareem Hunt Earns the Majority of Passing-Down Targets
|Chubb, Nick - CLE||285||1450||5.09||11||35||27||240||8.9||1||270|
|Hunt, Kareem - CLE||123||600||4.88||4||63||49||436||8.9||1||182.6|
Unless you think Chubb will earn less than 2.25 targets per game, which is the amount he earned when Hunt returned from suspension and pretty unrealistic unless you've grossly underestimated Chubb's skills because you've never watched him beyond the red-zone channel, this is the most realistic upside one can expect without a Chubb injury.
If fantasy point distribution among NFL backs is similar to 2019, this adjusted receiving total in favor of Hunt still places Chubb 7th among last year's PPR backs while increasing Hunt's value to 23rd. Based on my projections for 2020, this adjustment would place Chubb 12th and Hunt 26th.
While many people who didn't watch Chubb and Browns football who were expecting Hunt to overtake Chubb last year, they should know better this year. It hasn't stopped some of them from predicting it again. Based on the Vikings' model, there's room for both to perform as starters and while it's possible we could use Hunt's talent to predict a split in rushing production that's more equitable than above, it's unlikely.
Third Round: QB Patrick Mahomes II (Kansas City)
What's the really to say? He was still among the three best point producers on a per-game basis last year despite missing multiple games, losses to the offensive line, injuries to Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins, and a mediocre committee effort from an injury-riddled backfield.
If you're seeking safety with upside, no better option exists.
Fourth Round: RB James Conner (Pittsburgh)
Top offensive line? Check. A veteran quarterback with elite upside? Check. A receiver in the prime of his career? Check. A field-stretching tight end who can be placed in multiple spots of the offensive alignment? Oh, yes.
Most important, Mike Tomlin named Conner the feature back this spring, and Conner is in great shape.
If you really need to read more, check out this article.
Fifth Round: QB Russell Wilson (Seattle)
Darren Waller is a serious candidate for this slot but if you're going to pick a quarterback early, the best two candidates from the standpoint of safety and upside are the best two quarterbacks in the league right now. Wilson has excellent young weapons on the outside, the venerable Greg Olsen to exploit the seam, and there's a strong likelihood that either Antonio Brown or Josh Gordon will be in the fold at some point during the fall.
The No.4 quarterback in 2019 formats, Wilson has often done more with less during his career when you consider the criticism that Brian Schottenheimer arguably earns for his decision-making, the run-heavy scheme, the season-ending injury to Will Dissly, and an offensive line that was only beginning to turn the corner last year. Despite these obstacles, Wilson remains efficient with his opportunities, and he probably has another 4-6 seasons of starter ability left in his game.
As the defense re-tools, you get the sense that this coaching staff understands it may have to lean harder on the passing offense than it did in the past. Wilson's 4,110 yards and 31 scores took place in a run-oriented offense that only threw the ball 52.3 percent of the time. In contrast, Carson Wentz delivered 4,039 yards and 27 scores in an offense that threw the ball 58 percent of the time.
Imagine if the Seahawks sign Brown before training camp? Wilson could finally have a 5,000-yard upside. Even if he doesn't, I have no problem rolling with this incredible quarterback who has remained healthy and productive with less than many less skillful passers.
Sixth Round: WR D.J. Chark Jr (Jacksonville)
Drew Brees, T.Y. Hilton, A.J. Green, and DeVante Parker could all earn this spot. However, the one player most likely to get drafted to his ADP number is Chark and it makes him worth the ride-or-die commitment. Chark made the greatest strides in one offseason as a technician at the point of the catch faster than any receiver in recent memory.
I think the Jags got it right with DJ Chark. They saw what he could be with regard to his hands and it is happening. pic.twitter.com/uo87BinANq— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 15, 2019
DJ Chark with great pull-down pic.twitter.com/H4ab2p74yS— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 20, 2019
Jay Gruden told reporters that Chark will be moved around the offense this year, featured more often in the slot. Anytime a staff decides to move its best talent around, it's a positive development for fantasy players.
With Laviska Shenault Jr and Tyler Eifert joining the offense, look for this influx of talent to benefit Chark and Gardner Minshew. Our projection team at Footballguys has taken a conservative approach with Chark. The average production this foursome has estimated is 70 catches, 970 yards, and 5.7 scores.
I'm expecting 2019 was the on-ramp to greater heights--75 catches, 1050 yards, and 9 scores. Considering that two of Chark's three worst games in 2019 came with Nick Foles under center and two of his three best games came with Minshew, I expect additional growth on the field and in the stat column for both.
Seventh Round: QB Tom Brady (Tampa Bay)
Give Brady the skill-talent and he'll deliver elite production. Brady's best years included the likes of Randy Moss, Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, Aaron Hernandez, and Martellus Bennett. Quick, name a top-flight fantasy producer at tight end, flanker, or split end in New England last year.
You can't. None of them were good enough. Analysts may raise the question about a decline in Brady's talent, but the film didn't reveal anything clear-cut. The biggest thing missing was the surrounding talent.
This won't be a problem in Tampa Bay. And just as the Broncos brought Peyton Manning and Manning's offense to Denver, the Buccaneers are doing the same with Brady, who now has the best overall collection of skill talent that he's ever worked with.
You can tell me until your blue in the face that you'd rather have Randy Moss than the combo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and I'll let you pass out from talking that nonsense and walk over you to the way to the television to watch Tampa's offense.
As was the case with Manning, Brady has a shot of earning record-breaking production. At worst, Brady earns low-end QB1 fantasy production--and that's if he's truly declined as a passer. I think there's a much better chance he's a top-5 passer than he is in the bottom quarter of the top 12.
Eighth Round: WR Marvin Jones Jr (Detroit)
Jones technically has an ADP at the top of the ninth round but since David Dodds has placed Jones as an eighth-round option on his list, I'm rolling with it. Jones was the No.13 receiver in PPR leagues last year before suffering a Week 14 ankle injury. He's one of the best contested-catch receivers in the league, he has the deep speed to win in the vertical game, the route skills to work the middle of the field, and the athletic ability and vision to produce after the catch.
Jones led all receivers in contested red zone catches last year and led the league in 2018 with a 51.4 percent catch rate on contested targets. Kenny Golladay may be the more productive receiver but Jones is the more skilled option and the one Matthew Stafford targets most often in key situations.
A long-time favorite of mine, Jones is a player you can feel good about even if he's only the third or fourth receiver you took off the board at this point in your draft because he has the upside to deliver as a top-15 option at the position and if the downside is injury, it's easier to acquire a No.3 or No.4 receiver than most positions. It's why I'll take my chances with a player of Jones' talent for as long as he still has the athletic goods to do his job.
Ninth Round: WR CeeDee Lamb (Dallas)
As mentioned numerous times in this column throughout the spring and summer, Dak Prescott supported 3,300 yards from four receivers and two of them constituted a 1,100-yard platoon of targets that Lamb should inherit if he earns the third spot in the lineup as expected. The fact that Lamb and Amari Cooper will be alternating the slot and flanker roles means that Lamb has a strong shot of not only earning a high volume of targets in an offense that uses three receivers in its base personnel, but he could wind up passing Michael Gallup in the pecking order by midseason.
Want to learn more about Lamb? This is one of the more in-depth examinations you can watch.
Tenth Round: WR Emmanuel Sanders (New Orleans)
Jerry Jeudy, Preston Williams, and Alexander Mattison are all compelling names on Dodds' list but the only one with the true 10th-round ADP is Sanders and he's another one of my outliers that I haven't budged on since profiling him last month.
Eleventh Round: TE T.J. Hockenson (Detroit)
Twelfth Round: RB Boston Scott (Philadelphia)
Miles Sanders is a good back but what we learned in 2019 is that he's an incomplete runner with terrific athletic ability. Fortunately, he's a part of an organization that actually adjusts the scheme to its key players when they struggle.
This has been the case with Carson Wentz since he showed difficulty with footwork for longer drops and pocket movement often required for longer-developing routes. As a result, the Eagles changed the offense to a quick-hitting style that predominantly uses pistol and shotgun alignments so Wentz's footwork issues are minimized while maximizing the accuracy he can attain without perfect technique.
Last year, Sanders showed that he had repeated difficulty executing behind zone blocks.
This analysis from RSP contributor J. Moyer isn't cherry-picking. There were numerous plays throughout the preseason and regular season where Sanders displayed immaturity with zone blocking. Here's another in a short-yardage situation where Sanders didn't make the best choice.
Once the Eagles realized that Sanders wasn't showing steady improvement in this area, the coaching staff allowed Sanders the luxury of doing everything he could to manipulate and exploit one option common to gap blocking rather than given multiple choices behind the line of scrimmage with zone blocking. However, few teams are skilled enough to use gap blocking as the sole style of its ground attack.
Gap blocking is also a difficult style for the green zone (inside the opponent's five) because these plays either develop slower or if the opposing defense guesses the play, it can marshal its resources to foil the blocking early in the play and prevent it from developing. A zone blocking scheme gives a running back more options if there's early penetration that gap blocking doesn't, but Sanders has shown that he was ill-equipped as a decision-maker in this respect last year.
Enter Boston Scott, a promising runner with comfort running zone and gap plays. He's a quick and elusive back with excellent suddenness when changing direction. He also has a low center of gravity that makes him difficult to wrap up and even knock off-balance.
Scott dropped out of the NFL Draft because of the work he did at a smaller program and a rare muscle disorder that has no cure and knocked him out of football for a year. You can read my sample scouting report from the 2019 Rookie Scouting Portfolio on Boston Scott here.
As for some visuals of his skills, here are a few displays of his work that has translated well to the NFL.
Don't read this analysis and expect Scott to usurp Sanders. However, Scott is a ride-or-die option because he's earned a role in the Eagles offense as the second back, he's more comfortable running plays that are often a part of green-zone play calls (zone blocking) and if Sanders falters, Scott has enough skill to earn the lead role, or at least an uptick in touches, while Sanders misses time.
Next week: My 10 Toughest Picks of the 2020 Season.