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This Is a Three-Beer Feature
No, I'm not calling it a three-beer feature because you'll need a few cans to get through it (although if you're an adult, inclined to do so, and drink responsibly, by all means, sit back, relax, and knock yourself out). It's because choosing players in the early, middle, and late rounds is a lot like choosing from three types of beer.
If there's one thing I've learned during the past 20 years of work in the fantasy football industry, it's that a lot of you fantasy hobbyists are major beer snobs. No matter which three brews I select, 80 percent of you will wrinkle your face and have half a mind to give me a treatise on the brands I should have mentioned for this analysis.
I've tried a wide variety of beers over the span of 30 years, and I've come to realize that I just don't care that much about it. When it comes to a pint, I'm a man of common tastes — a beer plebian.
Keep this in mind as I compare premium, mid-range, and late-round fantasy prospects with my beer choices. I'm sure there are better representations for each type of player but lighten up, Francis. Have another slug of whatever suits you, put your feet up, and get over it.
We're here to list 10 early-round options and profile a potential mid-range and late-round alternative that could influence you to make a different early or mid-round draft pick for your fantasy squad. I've seen how most of you are at parties and bars. If you're in a nice establishment, you have a few top tastes you'll for. If the place is not that good, you have a shortlist of options that are acceptable based on price. This includes dives or house parties where you know the set list is cheap.
If you're this prepared to imbibe in any environment so you're capable of enjoying any scenario, you should apply the same thinking to fantasy drafts.
Blond Fatale Picks
I was going to roll with Sam Adams, but it's not a premium beer. I could imagine how you'd likely riot en masse, especially if I told you to get over it. So, here I am using Peace Tree Brewing's Belgian blonde to represent the elite options of the fantasy space.
These are players valued inside the fifth round of most fantasy drafts this summer. They're all talents capable of strong production. They're all at a point in their NFL careers where it's worth considering the PBR and Miller High Life when looking at what you can get in the early rounds if you opt for the alternatives.
I'm not telling you to unequivocally pass on these players. Several of these players, I wouldn't hesitate to draft early--even with what I'm sharing about them below. I am telling you it's a worthwhile exercise to see what your team build could look like if you pass on them.
TE Travis Kelce, Chiefs: It's difficult arguing against Kelce. He has been the No.1 or No.2 fantasy tight end since 2016, and most of that time has been spent atop the board. His production often rivals the top 5 or top 10 fantasy options at wide receiver.
The Chiefs, whose passing offense revolves around Patrick Mahomes II, Kelce, and a primary wide receiver, have no plans to stop leaning on the 33-year-old tight end in 2023. Age is fast becoming a concern among fantasy analysts, but the great tight ends have delivered at more advanced ages.
Tony Gonzalez remained a perennial top-five tight end until he retired at 37. Antonio Gates was a perennial top-12 option between the ages of 32-36, including a season as the No.2 overall option at age 34. Shannon Sharpe delivered top-five fantasy production during the final four years of his career between the ages of 32-35.
Like these four, Kelce is counted on far more for his receiving than his blocking, he's performing with a productive quarterback, and he's one of the greatest of all time. However, Kelce's greatness isn't the question.
The real issue is whether drafting Kelce ahead of three of the receivers and running backs going after him with a good case for top-five production value is wise. Based on his production in 2022 and 2020, Kelce's value was strong enough to warrant taking him ahead of all but the top three receivers and runners and appears wise.
Not so when examing his production during the other five years when he was a top-two option at the position. As great as Kelce is, you're investing in him at the top range of his potential value, both in terms of his ranking and his production. In contrast, investing in the commensurate talent at receiver and running back may be close to their top range of value in terms of ranking but not as tight of a margin of error with production.
Despite these points, the margin of difference between Kelce's production and his peers, even when he's not on par with top-five receivers and runners, is the production advantage he has often earned within his position. This is why it is difficult arguing against Kelce for an alternative.
I'm going to pose that argument this year, but think of it as the riskiest stance on the list.
TE T.J. Hockenson, Vikings: One of the best all-around tight ends in the game, Hockenson delivered career production last year. Even so, he had highs and lows with both the Lions and Vikings last year.
In Detroit, Hockenson had an 8-catch, 179-yard, 2-TD outing against the Seahawks in Week 4 but only had one other game for the Lions with at least 80 yards. Six of Hockenson's seven games in Detroit were contests with no more than four receptions, and he failed to eclipse 50 yards in five of those seven games.
In Minnesota, Hockenson had 5 of 10 games with at least 6 receptions and 4 games with at least 50 yards. This was a significantly better percentage of quality games but by no means in Kelce's territory as a producer. Kelce only had 3 games with fewer than 50 yards and only 5 games with fewer than 6 catches.
As you can see, there's often a big gap between earning production commensurate with the No.2 fantasy TE and the top option at the position. Kelce averaged 6 fantasy points per game more than Hockenson. It makes one wonder if there's enough of a gap between Kelce as the No.5 player taken overall this summer and Hockenson as the 42nd--that's a gap of 37 players.
There were 29 non-quarterbacks with fantasy point totals making up the gap between Kelce and Hockenson last year. Add four quarterbacks to the list with ADPs and production that make them more valuable than Hockenson and two compelling rookie running backs to the mix, and that total is 35 players.
In this sense, the gap appears logical, and it makes Hockenson's projected value appear logical on paper. Even if you account for Mark Andrews staying healthy this year and playing in a better offense, Hockenson's value appears sensible.
The big questions are Jalen Addison and K.J. Osborn. Addison has the talent to become the DeVonta Smith complement to Justin Jefferson's A.J. Brown. Osborn has grown as a receiver to the point that there's talk that he might play outside and push Addison inside.
The combined talents of Addison and Osborn could limit Hockenson's ceiling of targets. More important, this receiving duo could limit Hockenson's role as a match-up threat in the intermediate and vertical passing game.
It's why there's reasonable doubt that Hockenson's production takes that next step despite his talent. Calvin Ridley, Justin Herbert, Terry McLaurin, D.J. Moore, Christian Watson, Aaron Jones, and J.K. Dobbins are going after Hockenson in drafts. Most of these players are safer bets, and the ones with a higher boom-bust element still have much higher ceilings than Hockenson.
RB Bijan Robinson, Falcons: There's a realistic outcome where Robinson becomes Arthur Smith's bell cow as a rookie, earns the volume we saw from Derrick Henry under Smith, and delivers rookie of the year production. There's also a realistic outcome where Robinson doesn't earn the trust of the Falcons' staff in all facets of the passing game, and it opens the door for Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson to earn large enough roles as situational contributors to stifle Robinson's Year One upside.
Atlanta has a young offensive line that's on the rise but an unproven quarterback. Smith has also generated doubts with his difficulty with maximizing Drake London's and Kyle Pitts' talents last year.
None of these factors make Robinson a safer selection than Nick Chubb, Henry, Jonathan Taylor, Josh Jacobs, or Tony Pollard. All six have similar ceilings and higher floors thanks to their line play and quarterback.
And if the floor described for Robinson is closer to the rookie's Year One reality, he's less likely to match the likes of CeeDee Lamb, Davante Adams, A.J. Brown, Patrick Mahomes II, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Josh Allen, DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, and Jalen Hurts. If you've kept count of both lists, that's at least 15 players available after Robinson with higher floors and strong ceilings.
RB Breece Hall, Jets: Compensatory injuries are a legitimate concern, even if Hall's knee is pronounced 100 percent before the season. We read this every year, and every year we ignore it: The final and most difficult obstacle for players rehabbing from a difficult injury isn't the physical but the psychological trusting of the rehabbed body part.
That lack of trust often shows up with how the player moves on the field when the game is unfolding at full speed and with the violence they don't see during the preseason. A lack of trust leads to players compensating with their movement in unnatural ways to their normal gait. It leads to injury--often soft-tissue injuries that cost the player multiple weeks.
I love Hall's long-term value. He's a dynamic mover with greater creativity for his size and strength. But will he trust his leg enough to move in the way that makes his game so promising? I have doubts his confidence will return at the same time his knee is pronounced 100 percent.
Considering the wealth of strong producers going after Hall — including Tee Higgins, Rhamondre Stevenson, Chris Olave, D.J. Metcalf, Joe Burrow, and Lamar Jackson, among them — betting on Hall's upside when history is against Hall playing a full season and doing so with confidence behind a weak offensive line seems like a bigger gamble than his ADP as a top 30 player suggests.
RB Travis Etienne Jr., Jaguars: Based on the signing of D'Ernest Johnson, reports that Tank Bigsby is off to a solid start, and Doug Peterson telling the media that they hope to diversify the run game volume and personnel, Etienne's 2022 production as the No.16 fantasy RB could become a distant memory. If that's the case, and it likely is when considering that Etienne's decision-making is inconsistent, valuing Etienne as a high-end fantasy RB2/low-end fantasy RB1 doesn't match the desired changes for his usage.
Amari Cooper, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Aaron Jones, and Joe Mixon are all more sensible selections in the same range. I'd argue that Keenan Allen, Ken Walker III, Jahmyr Gibbs, and Calvin Ridley are also better risks with similar upsides than Etienne.
WR Davante Adams, Raiders: It's hard not to love Adams. He's one of the best route runners in football. Yet, it's difficult to trust his situation after he signed with Las Vegas to work with Derek Carr and Josh McDaniels ran Carr out of town.
McDaniels may be a skilled coach in terms of X's and O's, but he's not a people person. It's also becoming clear that McDaniels believes his system is more important than talent. Carr, Darren Waller, and Foster Moreau are gone, and it's likely Hunter Renfrow will follow. In their place, McDaniels has added former Patriots that know his system: Jimmy Garoppolo, Jakobi Meyers, and Phillip Dorsett.
These additions aren't a net upgrade to the team. Adams is now working with a passer who has a pretty stroke but has a reputation for falling apart under consistent pressure and in pivotal moments during games. Although Meyers is an underrated receiver, what the Raiders lost in the passing game will allow opposing defenses to pay more attention to Adams than before.
Adams has been a top-five fantasy receiver for four of the past five seasons. It's a fantastic track record, and Garoppolo didn't hold back Deebo Samuel's elite campaign in 2021.
However, the Raiders lack the 49ers' line and well-rounded skill talent. It may prove an overly cautious approach to avoid Adams. Still, A.J. Brown, Nick Chubb, Patrick Mahomes II, and Derrick Henry have equal ceilings and higher floors, and they're typically drafted after Adams. If you can land a pair of receivers later that make your team build more appealing without Adams, that approach is worth exploring during your draft prep.
WR Keenan Allen, Chargers: His current value just inside the top 50 picks overall is probably fair if you're still believing that Allen can deliver high-end WR1 fantasy upside. At 31 years of age in an offense that has added weapons and coming off a season where missed 6 games and 11 games during the past 3 years, I'm not feeling that projected ceiling for Allen.
I'd rather take my chances on Mixon, Jones, Calvin Ridley, Justin Fields, Terry McLaurin, and D.J. Moore. With the exception of Fields, the rest are proven players with top-12 upside at their positions. Fields has a top-five upside at his position because of his rushing potential. All of these players are available after Allen.
WR Deebo Samuel, 49ers: An ADP of fantasy WR16 is fair for Samuel, this is essentially where Samuel would have ranked last year if he played 17 games at his points-per-game average. Yet, there's a valid argument that drafting Samuel as WR16 is taking Samuel near the ceiling of his fantasy potential.
Samuel's best seasons came when the 49ers needed to use him as a part-time running back. This wasn't something Samuel wanted to do long-term and the addition of Christian McCaffrey limits the need to give Samuel remotely similar volume as a runner.
Samuel is a great athlete with strong hands but he's not a marquee receiver against single coverage. Branon Aiyuk is poised to become that player, which means he'll be overtaking Samuel for the role of the primary wide receiver option in this offense.
Neither of these developments gives us reason to believe that Samuel's upside is higher than a mid-range fantasy WR2. If George Kittle stays healthy and the 49ers do more to run the offense through McCaffrey, Samuel could wind up a low-end fantasy WR2 or even less valuable.
Until there are injuries that require the 49ers to lean more on Samuel, Cooper, Gibbs, Jackson, Mixon, Ridley, and Jones are all currently better values who are available after Samuel leaves the boards.
QB Josh Allen, Bills: The Stefon Diggs drama may prove to be nothing burger, but it doesn't sound that way right now. Diggs' anger at Allen and the staff stems back to the playoffs, and Allen has taken some passive-aggressive shots at Diggs during OTAs when talking about Trent Sherfield.
These are far from irredeemable actions, but let's say Diggs doesn't patch things up with the Bills, and Buffalo misses out or passes on DeAndre Hopkins. This would leave them with one player who has the quickness, catch-point potential, and route upside (one day) of Diggs, and that's second-year pro Khalil Shakir.
Even if Shakir steps into Diggs' role and performs well enough to show future promise, it's not going to keep Allen's past production whole. For Allen to maintain past value several things will have to happen in Diggs' absence:
- Dalton Kincaid becomes an elite producer this year as a Travis Kelce type of receiver. It's surprisingly possible but still not probable.
- Dawson Knox delivers top-12 production as a TE, with Kincaid's role more like a wide receiver.
- James Cook becomes what the Jaguars and Lions envisioned from Travis Etienne and D'Andre Swift.
- Gabriel Davis displays more consistent mitts and the rest of the personnel offers enough as route runners to keep Davis in his past role.
WR DeAndre Hopkins, Free Agent: Unless he signs in the next 2-3 weeks, I'm not a fan of receivers joining new systems in August and delivering at a high level. Even a player like Hopkins, who is a masterful route runner, has to learn the nuances of what his quarterback expects.
When a player has to do any added level of thinking due to a lack of familiarity, it increases the risk of injury. While Hopkins still has mid-range fantasy WR2 potential, drafting him ahead of Calvin Ridley, Terry McLaurin, and D.J. Moore is taking a player at the ceiling of his value and with a lower fantasy floor relative to this trio.
Pabst Blue Ribbon was once a working man's choice, but hipsters have staked a claim. This sounds just like the overlooked, underrated, and unsung fantasy options that finally earned widespread cred to the point that they are likely overhyped. Even so, like PBR, they are still worth their enhanced standing as long as you maintain proper perspective.
Travis Kelce TE Dalton Kincaid, Bills: A 10th-round value in 12-team leagues as a rookie, a lot of the box-score jockeys will hate this pick because they have no data to justify the selection and they'll see it as a risk. I love this pick because my data is derived from studying the film, and the current reports from Bills' OTAs validate much of that film-derived data.
Kincaid has the contested-catch acumen of an elite fantasy tight end and underrated skill after the catch. Based on what I'm reading, the Bills have been cautious about saying what type or role Kincaid will have in the offense, but his skills influence the staff to use him in multiple roles.
There's a stronger likelihood than what most currently realize that Kincaid could be the No.2 receiver in this scheme if Diggs returns to the fold and possibly the No.1 option if the rancor drives Diggs out of town.
It's a ballsy call, but if there's a tight end who could potentially deliver historic production out of the gate during his career, Kincaid has the skills and potentially the offense and situation to do what has long seemed impossible.
T.J. Hockenson TE Chigoziem Okonkwo, Titans: It's likely that Onkonkwo delivers as the No.2 option for the Titans' passing game, and possible that he is the leading option for receiving TDs. It wouldn't shock me if Okonwko earns more touchdowns than Hockenson and earns similar yardage.
Bijan Robinson RB J.K. Dobbins, Ravens: With the Ravens spreading the field under Todd Monken, Gus Edwards may not see as significant of a share of touches this year. Dobbins' explosion is the best fit, and there's no drop-off in skill as an interior runner compared to Justice Hill and Keaton Mitchell. Dobbins proved during the second half of last year that his knee is finally healthy, and this could be a career year for the running back.
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