The first 10-12 rounds of a draft are the most overrated aspect of team building in the fantasy industry. There's no doubt it's important, but too many fantasy owners over prepare for the first 10-12 rounds and under prepare for bottom half of the draft. Having a good late-round strategy is a game-changer because it sets up your approach to free agency, roster management, and trades.
If you don't put thought into your overall approach with late-round picks, you risk filling a roster with late-round players that you will overvalue and miss on opportunities to acquire players that can help you immediately. One thought process is to aim high with late-round picks that either hit big or you can cut quickly. Juron Criner is a good example.
Criner "far and away . . . [was] the best receiver on the field." This is what Steve Corkran of the Bay Area News Group had to say about the third-year receiver at Raiders' OTAs last week. Criner is no stranger to this column. I have written about the former University of Arizona star this year as a player worth monitoring this summer.
If you draft him late June-July-August and he doesn't win the starting job, he's a quick and easy cut. If you don't draft him, there's a chance he'll still be available in most free agent pools if he climbs into a starting role by midseason. However, the Raiders receiver depth chart is crowded enough that picking Criner as a handcuff to James Jones or Denarius Moore/Rod Streeter/Andre Holmes if he doesn't become a starter might be a wasted choice.
Late-round drafting strategies can lean towards one extreme of taking "aim-high, cut early," swing for the fence picks to the opposite of taking safe, consistent contributors with low ceilings. I prefer the swing for the fence approach or at my most conservative, balancing my swing for the fence picks with a few consistent contributors with low ceilings.
In best-ball leagues or leagues with very deep rosters, a balanced mix is helpful. In leagues with less than 20 roster spots, swinging for the fences is probably best.
Receivers and running backs are probably the best two positions to target late in drafts. I examined middle and late-round running backs with the Upside Down Strategy. This week I'm looking at late-round receivers. However, I'm narrowing the scope of my examination to receivers that have a very specific set of integrated skills. Criner leads off this column because he's a perfect example of the type of late-round receivers I want to target or monitor for the waiver wire.
I speculated three weeks ago that the Raiders may not like Criner as much as some of its other options because he lacks great speed and quickness. However, compare Criner's 4.52-second 40, 4.3-second 20-yard shuttle, and 7.15-second three-cone drill with Justin Blackmon's trio of 4.6, 4.37, and 7.16 and it's tough to argue that the Raider's young option can't hang in the NFL due to a lack of athleticism. In his 2012 draft class, Criner's 39-inch vertical was only bested by Stephen Hill (39.5) and Greg Childs (40.5). Throw in a 6-2, 224-pound frame, and Criner is a big, strong target with good reach, and the skill to out-leap most cornerbacks.
What I shared about Criner (height, weight, leaping ability, speed, and quickness) are conditions; not skills. Conditions can complement skills, but they are not the foundation of a players' game. If a player lacks the skill to use his athleticism, the athleticism goes to waste.
I should note that each position in the NFL has physical-athletic baselines that a vast majority of players much possess to play in the league. However, those baselines aren't as high as some believe. Still, if you're not big enough, strong enough, or fast and quick enough to ride the NFL ride, you need to be in the 99.99 percentile of receiving and route running skills to earn a shot.
Criner's physical dimensions and his athleticism don't come close to falling outside the NFL baselines so this is not an issue. But let's not get confused why this receiver has had two impressive OTAs in three years and could wind up a factor in the Raiders' offense if he can stay healthy this summer: Criner has excellent skill at adjusting to and winning the football in tight coverage.
Some may argue that it takes size, reach, and leaping ability to win the ball. There's ample evidence that these conditions can enhance a player's skill to win the ball, but they aren't skills. The core factors are hand-eye coordination, technique to earn and maintain position on a defender, and the concentration and fortitude to make the reception against physical play.
Steve Smith, DeSean Jackson, Marvin Harrison, and Derrick Mason were small receivers, but they won the ball in tight coverage. All four have had multiple seasons as fantasy WR1s. Pair any of them with a quarterback with Peyton Manning's health and they could have rivaled Marvin Harrison's run of eight consecutive seasons as a WR1--and seven in the top-five.
As fantasy owners, we love to target the highest-percentile athletes when seeking potential breakout players. However, athleticism and/or size might be best factored as a tiebreaker among a small group of candidates. If the NFL drafted a player or signed him to a UDFA contract, that player has passed the baselines requirements as an athlete. The question marks are the mental and technical skills to put that athleticism into action so he can think, react, and play "fast, strong, and sound."
When examining NFL depth charts for this collection of skills--hand-eye coordination, technique to gain position, and concentration and fortitude--it narrows the field of late-round receivers/dynasty keepers with breakout potential. Here are receivers I'm monitoring for every style of league.
All Leagues (Re-Draft, Keeper, and Dynasty)
I may not draft these receivers in re-draft and keeper leagues, but they will be players I'll consider in these formats with deep rosters and I'll definitely be monitoring their progress for the in season waiver wire. If you're in a dynasty league, these players should be on a roster and are worth acquiring if the price is right.
Juron Criner, Oakland: I mentioned in a previous column (link above) that a good showing this year could put Criner into prime position for a starting role because there are multiple receivers on Oakland's depth chart that will see their contracts expire after this season. Matt Schaub and Derek Carr have enough experience and skill to deliver accurate fade routes and this is one of Criner's specialties. Right now, Criner is a late-round pick in re-draft leagues with 20-25 roster spots, but he could move up if he earns the starting job opposite James Jones.
Andre Holmes, Oakland: A bright spot down the stretch for the Raiders in 2013, Holmes displayed a knack for winning the ball in tight coverage. However, he also played with multiple inexperienced passers last year and he has to prove that his routes are good enough to earn consistent separation. Holmes could get drafted earlier or selected sooner off the waiver wire than Criner in a lot of deep leagues because of last year's performance.
Brandon Lloyd, San Francisco: There is a lot for fans to dislike about Lloyd as a fantasy prospect over the course of his career. He shined bright early during his first stint in San Francisco, making some of the most ridiculous grabs in the history of the NFL, but he was never a consistent force. He disappeared in Washington and appeared more interested in becoming a musician than a football player. He flashed the same skills with the Bears, but was an afterthought in Chicago's offense. Two years later in Denver, Lloyd was the best receiver in fantasy football. But two years after that, he had worn out his welcome in New England and at least one prominent beat reporter said Pats staff wondered if Lloyd had a psychological disorder.
Now Lloyd is back in the NFL after a 12-month hiatus filming a zombie movie. According to Jim Harbaugh, Lloyd doesn't look like he's missed a year of football. The 49ers are loaded with receivers capable of winning the ball in tight coverage: Steve Johnson, Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, and even second-year player Quinton Patton isn't bad at it. Even so, a healthy, focused Lloyd at 32 years of age can earn playing time in this offense. Boldin is a year older than Lloyd and Johnson's groin has been a recurring issue. Throw in Crabtree's Achilles' and Lloyd is worth a late pick or an acquisition in a deep dynasty league.
When you think about the fact that Lloyd's talent for making the tough play is be among the best we have ever seen in the game, but he's had exactly one season as a fantasy WR1 or WR2 (No.1 overall in 2010) over a 10-year career is mind-blowing. Monitor the 49ers wide receivers this summer, because Lloyd's talent is good enough that he could provide WR1 value if the conditions work out.
Marquess Wilson, Chicago: Chicago expects Wilson to earn the No.3 receiver role this year. The second-year receiver has added 20 pounds of muscle to his frame since his rookie debut, which is something fantasy owners should have expected from a 6'3", 185-lb., 20-year-old. Wilson has the skills to develop into a starter, but even as the No.3 receiver, his ticket for an appointment with the football will be behind Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett, and Matt Forte.
Long-term, Wilson's potential in Chicago is now dependent on an injury handcuff rather than contracts expiring. Marshall's hip surgery before the 2013 season didn't hamper the veteran and the Bears recently awarded him an extension last month. Wilson is the type of player that is probably best to own if you have Marshall or Jeffery and you have deep rosters. Otherwise, he's a better bet to acquire in a trade after his current owner grows impatient. Three years from now, Wilson will only be 24 and capable of another 8-10 years of starter production.
If you draft Marshall or Jeffery in re-draft leagues, Wilson will make a great handcuff. However, be careful about not having too many handcuffs as late picks or you'll find it difficult to act fast in free agency.
Doug Baldwin, Seattle: The former Stanford Cardinal has been a top-40 fantasy receiver for two of his first three seasons. Not bad for a part-time starter on a run-first team, eh? Last season's No.37 fantasy receiver had five touchdowns and did enough to earn a contract extension through 2016. Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice have had their share if injuries and while you'll see later in this article why I like rookies Paul Richardson Jr and Kevin Norwood, Baldwin will provide a veteran presence and feel for working open when Russell Wilson has to operate outside the structure of the play.
Baldwin is a low-ceiling fantasy option, but if Harvin and Rice miss time, Baldwin has enough skill to finish the year as a low-end fantasy WR2 if some combination of the starting rotation suffers injury and the rookies are slow to adjust. However, it's more likely that Baldwin will serve as a fantasy bye-week option with enough low-end WR3 PPR value in most leagues that he's worth taking as one of your "safe" late-round picks.
Vincent Brown, San Diego: The fourth-year receiver has been a fantasy disappointment. There was an ankle injury in 2012, and last year Mike McCoy's early praise of Brown that led to speculation that Brown would be targeted heavily didn't pan out. Brown saw a decent share of targets during the first five weeks of the season, but those opportunities tailed off as Keenan Allen came to the fore. Further, Brown's targets were often tight-coverage throws that he often made as a rookie but didn't show the same skills to separate like he did as a rookie. Count me among the disappointed.
Brown is now almost two years past the ankle injury and the Chargers lack a receiver who has nailed down the No.2 job opposite Allen. Malcom Floyd is serviceable and Eddie Royal flashed some of his rookie-year productivity upon arrival in San Diego. However, a fully healthy Brown could earn the job. Last year, I was opimistic this year, I'm chastened by last year's results.
Brown is a decent late-round flier/swing for the fences in re-draft leagues and still worth owning in dynasty leagues with rosters larger than 25 players. He's definitely a priority option in free agency if he returns to his rookie form.
Marlon Brown, Baltimore: Brown won't start this year, but he'll play outside and in the slot in three-receiver sets. The real question will be how often do the Ravens go three-wide when it now has Owen Daniels and Dennis Pitta? This is what could limit Brown's upside this year. What the UDFA from Georgia showed last year despite just seven months removed from an ACL tear when he arrived in Baltimore was strength, skill after the catch, and excellent hands to adjust to the ball in the red zone.
If Brown gains more speed now that he's a full year and a half removed from the ACL tear, he could force his way onto the field at the expense of one of the Ravens' two tight ends. Remember, Steve Smith is 35 and his sore knees won't be getting any better as his career progresses. I see Brown as a handcuff capable of consistent red zone production in re-draft leagues and a roster stash in leagues with at least 20 roster spots.
Re-Draft monitors/Priority Dynasty keepers
Paul Richardson Jr, Seattle: The rookie is an excellent vertical weapon and big-play YAC option with toughness in tight coverage that belies his frame. He'll earn early playing time. The question is how much? If you want to swing for the fences, Richardson is that guy to take late in deep re-draft league drafts before training camp. Otherwise, he's among the first-call free agent options if Rice or Harvin get banged up. In dynasty leagues, you can try to pry him from my cold, dead hands.
Kevin Norwood, Seattle: Norwood made a living catching passes in tough situations against quality defenders in the SEC. While the Seahawks staff had Richardson pegged as a first-round talent, they were most surprised that Norwood was still on the board. Like Richardson, Norwood should earn some early opportunities in the lineup, but don't count on fantasy production without injuries to Sidney Rice and Jermaine Kearse.
Seattle will remain a run-first team for the next year or two, but don't be surprised if it becomes a highly productive aerial unit by 2017 and Richardson and Norwood are big reasons for it. Norwood is a swing for the fences late in deep re-draft leagues. Otherwise, he's a player to consider on the waiver wire if gets an early call for an injured starter. In dynasty leagues, Norwood is a nice fifth or six-round rookie pick with talent that exceeds his ADP.
Martavis Bryant, Pittsburgh: Lance Moore and Markus Wheaton are favorites to earn more playing time than Bryant heading into camp, but when a team expresses optimism that Bryant has the talent to start as a rookie it's an indication that they are leaving the door open for him to win significant playing time this year. The Steelers have not had a player of Bryant's height and speed. When they have, he couldn't catch the ball on fade routes in tight coverage and in the red zone like Bryant.
Bryant is another end of re-draft, swing for the fences. If Moore, Brown or Wheaton get hurt--and it seems like one of these guys is likely to go down based on their past history--Bryant could also make nice free agent pickup if he doesn't win the starting job immediately. Within two years, he should be starting in dynasty leagues.
Mid-to-Late Dynasty OPtions (Longshots)
Jeremy Gallon, New England: Julian Edelman signed a contract extension and he's primarily a slot receiver. Even if he moves outside, it's because Danny Amendola is staying healthy for once. Then there's the casting call of Brandon LaFell, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Josh Boyce for the third receiver spot in New England's recent base set. Thompkins and Dobson were up and down; Boyce was lost; and LaFell an underachiever in Carolina.
Gallon is viewed as an overachiever because he's an inch shorter and nine pounds heavier than Steve Smith. He also ran a 4.49-second 40-yard dash, leaped 39.5 inches, and benched 15 reps--three conditions of athleticism not much different than 6-0, 211-lb., Sammy Watkins (4.43, 34, and 16). Gallon's actual skills are also much better than his draft status. He's one of the toughest receivers against contact in the class and he can win on the outside against physical coverage.
I wouldn't be surprised if Gallon one day becomes the exception to the rule and earns time on the perimeter. However, his best shot to make this team will come as a reliable slot option and force Edelman outside. Keep an eye on Gallon this summer as a re-draft league waiver wire prospect, but consider him an option to stash on dynasty league practice squads.
Jared Abbrederis, Green Bay: I have to believe that Jordy Nelson will get re-signed, but there's a decent chance that Randall Cobb does not. If this is the case, Davante Adams--a good fade-route pass catcher--is the prospect on paper likely to earn first shot at the job. But when training camp and the regular season finishes, Abbrederis could out-play the more heralded Adams. Abbrederis is a terrific route runner and his work against Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby was a clinic against tight man coverage. If Adams falters in his transition to the NFL, Abbrederis could be that sneaky-good practice squad option that pays dividends. I don't see tremendous upside for Abbrederis, but he could be a nice buy-low, sell high.
Matt Hazel, Miami: There's a lot of love for Jarvis Landry, but Hazel does a pretty strong job of catching the football and runs smooth routes as a perimeter option. He's worth stashing on a practice squad in dynasty leagues.
Albert Wilson, Kansas City: The Georgia State star is a short guy with good athleticism and skill to make the tough, tight-coverage play. He's a good YAC receiver, too. The Chiefs have one of the weaker depth charts on paper, so keep an eye on Wilson.
Kofi Hughes, Texans: A former quarterback, Hughes often made plays at Indiana that could have you mistake him for his college teammate and Broncos rookie Cody Latimer. He's a guy I'm grabbing at the end of drafts or early summer free agency until roster cut-downs are enforced.