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Your End Game As a Fantasy Draft Is Vital
If you want to improve your fantasy drafts dramatically, develop a strong end game.
Every fantasy GM is prepared for a draft's first 8-10 rounds. The final 8-10 rounds of a draft are where the greatest difference-makers will be.
Here are 13 fantasy starters selected after the 10th round in 2020 drafts:
- Justin Herbert
- James Robinson
- Mike Davis
- Myles Gaskin
- J.D. McKissic
- Justin Jefferson
- Marvin Jones
- Nelson Agholor
- Brandon Aiyuk
- Robert Tonyan Jr
- T.J. Hockenson
- Logan Thomas
- Mike Gesicki
More than half of these players were top-12 starters at their position in 2020. If you drafted well with your opening and middle games — which is increasingly becoming difficult not to do in a hobby where everyone is hyper-focused on the first 10-12 rounds of a draft — landing even 1-2 of these difference-makers gave you terrific depth at a position.
Here are 13 starters selected after the 10th round in 2021 drafts.
- Cordarrelle Patterson
- Rashaad Penny (Recommended in last year's iteration of this column)
- Rob Gronkowski (Recommended in the 12th round (above his ADP) in my draft tiers column)
- Hunter Henry
- Amon-Ra St. Brown
- Kirk Cousins
- Derek Carr
- Marquise Brown
- Kendrick Bourne
- Van Jefferson
- Elijah Mitchell
- Darrel Williams
- Hunter Renfrow
Almost half of these players were top-12 performers at their positions last year. One more time for the cheap seats: If you drafted well with your opening and middle games — which is increasingly becoming difficult not to do in a hobby where everyone is hyper-focused on the first 10-12 rounds of a draft — landing even 1-2 of these difference-makers gave you terrific depth at a position.
Considering that you're drafting a defense and a kicker after the 10th round, you'll get 7-8 chances to land 1-2 of these options.
Developing your end game is your first priority if you want to build a team that isn't as reliant on chasing free agents and gives you resources for favorable trades. There's a smaller margin of difference among the players in the first half of the draft. The players in this range are mostly proven producers.
Most players lack the appealing data that the average fantasy GM covets in the second half of drafts. The perceived ceiling and floor of these players either have greater variance than the known commodities or their upside and downside are a much greater unknown to them. It leads to a pervasive attitude that the second half of drafts is a crapshoot, and you can sense the average GMs approach it this way.
Characteristics of Viable End Game Values
While these players are in situations where their odds of production are lower than early-round talents, it's for this exact reason that you should be even more diligent about your end game and cultivating an edge over your competition. Before I share my list of potential end-game difference-makers for 2022, let's look at past end-game performers for intel that can help you create your own end-game strategy in the future.
- Half of the 26 players mentioned were early-round draft picks.
- Half were late-round picks or UDFAs.
- 12 have been with more than one team.
- Six late-round picks flashed high-end athletic and/or football skills during past preseasons.
- Six were rookies.
- Only three had past elite production, a substantial injury history, and a long enough career to depress their value: Marvin Jones, Rob Gronkowski, and Hunter Henry.
These commonalities provide a good foundation of what to look for what late-round players.
- Most will be younger than 29 and lack extensive experience as NFL starters.
- You'll want to target players who were either early-round picks that haven't emerged and fantasy GMs have lost patience — especially second-and third-year players with elite athletic ability at late-developing positions like tight end or quarterback.
- If the player is a late-round pick or UDFA, he has shown that he can make difficult plays during the preseason or has earned a routine contributing role during the season with a previous team.
- Commonly, these late-round picks/UDFAs were considered early-round prospects during their college careers due to strong production and/or top athletic ability — Cordarrelle Patterson, Rashaad Penny, Mike Davis, and Logan Thomas are four examples.
- The rookies earned extensive playing time during the preseason and impressed the organization with their play despite the analysts' low expectations due to perceptions about scheme fit.
These guidelines should give you a decent start with identifying suitable end-game prospects. Of course, the best way to develop a strong end game is to study football or make selections based on recommendations of people who study the game and its players.
It's also worth mentioning that several end-game players don't pay off long-term but still author meaningful stretches of fantasy starter production — often high-end totals — that don't finish as fantasy starters in year-end rankings.
Players I recommended last year in this article or my Draft Tiers article who fell into this category:
- Boston Scott (RB23 in weeks 8-12)
- Khalil Herbert (RB18 in weeks 5-8)
- Mac Jones (QB16 in Weeks 10-18)
- Josh Reynolds (WR16 in weeks 12-15)
- Allen Lazard (WR8 in weeks 14-18)
- A.J. Green (WR30 in Weeks 1-8)
- Emmanuel Sanders (WR23 in weeks 1-6)
- Tony Pollard (RB28 at year's end)
Although it's ideal to limit your reliance on free agency as much as possible, it's not realistic in most cases. Familiarizing yourself with end-game targets in your draft is also great summer preparation for meaningful players who will wind up on your waiver wire because their opportunity didn't come immediately.
While Pollard probably didn't make many waiver wires, many of the players with strong midseason or late-season spurts did. You would have been familiar enough with most of these players with good draft prep to recognize a solid opportunity and act.
Other Players Worth Considering and Situations to Approach with Caution
I've already written about Sammy Watkins and Devin Duvernay multiple times this summer. Their ADPs make them qualifiers for this list that you should consider, but let's not be redundant. Both have starter roles and deserve your consideration because starter roles with productive quarterbacks give both high fantasy ceilings at terrific draft day value.
I will also minimize the number of running backs I recommend because it's common sense to invest a significant amount of draft capital on contributors and backups at the position. If you want to take your best shot at a piece of a potentially productive carousel that could be the Raiders, Dolphins, Patriots, 49ers, and Commanders, be my guest.
The tried-and-true strategy is to take the lowest-ranked options with a legit shot at contributing in a committee as the lead back, which means Zamir White, Sony Michel, Rhamondre Stevenson, Jeff Wilson, and Brian Robinson are your options. Stevenson's ADP doesn't make him an end-game player, so he doesn't qualify.
Focus first on teams that don't have so many options to choose from, and the Raiders, Dolphins, Patriots, and 49ers have at least three backs with a legitimate shot of clogging up the works. It's not like JD McKissic isn't going to get his in Washington, either.
Don't avoid these teams. Wait as long as possible until there's clarity with the depth charts for these fantasy hydras. If not, limit your picks from these depth charts to no more than two in a 20-round draft.
For a bigger list of options, go to Footballguys ADP List, Top 300 page, or the Draft Dominator, and scroll over the exclamation points next to late-round players. If you see an upside logo next to the commentary, these are my thoughts on players for your end games.
12 RECOMMENDATIONS FOR YOUR 2022 END GAME
These players are listed in order of belief that they'll be difference makers for your team relative to their draft-day value.
1. Matt Ryan
There is no one on staff, NO ONE, who has watched Matt Ryan more since Ryan entered the league. Not because I'm a fan, but because I spent well over a decade writing the weekly game summaries for Atlanta at Footballguys.
There are valid criticisms of Ryan's game from the film. He never had a great arm, and he misses a surprising number of open looks in the red zone that you wouldn't expect from a wily veteran. While a tough and durable pocket player with underrated maneuverability, interior pressure is a little more disruptive to his play. Age and a statistically down year in Atlanta have led fantasy GMs to conclude that Indianapolis has signed Philip Rivers II: The False Prophet.
This couldn't be further from the truth. Despite Ryan's flaws and age, he remains a good NFL starter and, now, an underrated fantasy commodity. You should File 13 last year's production:
- Atlanta's offensive line was, at best, a league-average group and, as Matt Bitonti notes, buoyed mostly by Jake Matthews. They were a below-average performer as a unit in pass protection, allowing 200 pressures of Ryan last year.
- The line was also spotty as a run-blocking unit, performing better with gap runs than zone plays, and the personnel usage of the running backs for each made these run-oriented play calls predictable for opponents.
- Other than a rookie tight end used as a receiver, Atlanta lacked a true veteran presence in the passing game.
- Russell Gage had a nice year from the slot, but there wasn't a single receiver who could beat a top cover corner on intermediate timing routes on the perimeter: A strength of Ryan's game.
- The top receivers were a slot option, a rookie move tight end, and a receiver converted to running back. Repeat after me: This is a reflection of opponents playing garbage-time coverage.
- Atlanta lost seven games by margins of at least 14 points last year. Garbage-time coverage.
Ryan, like most NFL quarterbacks with a realistic shot of fantasy production, needs at least one perimeter receiver who can win a decent amount of routes against a top cover corner weekly. Kyle Pitts is a rising star but isn't replacing a vertical threat who can also run timing routes on the perimeter. Without Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley and pressured 200 times (29th-most in the league, according to PFF), the chances of success for any quarterback put in Matt Ryan's shoes would have been slim.
The Colts offer a lot more of what Ryan needs to thrive:
- A legitimate offensive line, especially the interior cogs of the unit.
- An awesome running game.
- An inside-outside big-play threat in Parris Campbell
- A contested-catch and YAC option in Michael Pittman
- Two legitimate check-down options in Nyheim Hines and Mo Alie-Cox
- A promising outside threat in Alec Pierce, who might have a better rookie year than most of Atlanta's receiving corps last year.
Ryan's best season was a 4,944-yard, 38-score campaign in 2016, where he averaged an insane 9.3 yards per attempt. Guess what underpinned the offense? 1,599 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground from Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Say all you want about offensive mastermind Kyle Shanahan, but Atlanta had the horses along the line of scrimmage, the backfield, and the receiving corps.
The Colts have one of the 3-5 best runners in the game, which forces linebackers and safeties to honor the run element of the play-action passing game, and it makes them a step later to cover receivers up the seams or work the middle of the field. Pittman, Campbell, and Alie-Cox win a lot in the middle of the field. So do Ashton Dulin and Kylen Gransen.
You know what also works well with the play-action game? Routes that begin with the receiver aligned inside and break outside where linebackers and safeties have to hold their depth due to the threat of the ground game. Guess who wins corner routes, seams, skinny posts, and deep overs well? The Colts' receiving corps.
Ryan and the Colts are an excellent match. Suppose you play the late-round quarterback strategy and you're not seriously considering Ryan as part of your committee tandem. In that case, the team that does will be stampeding over your team's lifeless body on two Sundays this fall. If you're lucky or good enough despite this gaffe, he or she will do it a third time in the playoffs.
Fields rushed 72 times for 420 yards and 2 touchdowns in 12 games last year. Matt Nagy's game plan for Fields was like asking Wynton Marsalis to put his trumpet down and perform a knitting exhibition at Carnegie Hall. Yes, 72 carries for Fields was 6th among NFL quarterbacks last year. However, Lamar Jackson (133), Jalen Hurts (140), and Josh Allen (122) had 100-370 more passing attempts and still managed to run the ball a lot more on a per-game basis.
As with Ryan, wipe Fields' Nagy-inspired horror show of a rookie year from your memory banks and believe the Bears staff will have designed runs for Fields in 2022. Even if they don't just look to Jalen Hurts as a model. The Eagles told the media in the spring of 2021 that they would not modify the offense for Hurts — an implication they weren't going to maximize Hurts' running skills the way the Ravens have with Lamar Jackson or the Commanders did with Robert Griffin III III. Still, Hurts led all quarterbacks in every meaningful rushing category.
Fields will look to throw first in Chicago, but like Hurts last year, the Bears won't have a renowned unit of receivers. Darnell Mooney, like DeVonta Smith, is a true threat and arguably more advanced than where Smith was last year. Cole Kmet is a competent starter but not as dynamic as Dallas Goedert. Byron Pringle and/or Dante Pettis offer more combined potential than the sneaky-good Quez Watkins last year.
The biggest difference is the Eagles' stellar offensive line. Of course, Nagy's game plans often put the line in the worst possible position to protect Fields last year, so we may learn that the Bears' line may not be word-beaters in disguise. They could still be substantially better than last year with better game planning.
Even if they aren't, Fields will be far more prepared to handle it than he was last year under a head coach clearly reluctant to leverage the best tools from his future franchise quarterback. I would look to last year's games after Week 7 against the 49ers, Steelers, Packers, and Vikings as the range of what we should regularly expect from Fields this year:
Fields' totals placed him 5th, 9th, 8th, and 10th among quarterbacks in fantasy scoring in each of those weeks. This was with Nagy's game plan of placing Fields in a mail sack filled with cement and padlocked shut before being tossed in the Chicago River.
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