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Late-round draft picks key to fantasy championships

In Tuesday's episode of NFL Fantasy Live, our resident fantasy pundits took a look at which players were on the most championship teams from 2013 and their average draft positions (ADP). Furthermore, they each made a prediction about which players fantasy owners should target late in drafts this season that could be championship studs.

Before we get to any predictions (which you can also watch in the video above), let's see what we can learn from the list of the top-10 most frequently rostered fantasy players on championship winning teams in NFL.com leagues last fall.

Most owned players by 2013 NFL.com fantasy league champions

Player Percentage owned 2013 ADP
1) Jamaal Charles, KC 29.39 8.1 (Round 1)
2) Peyton Manning, DEN 23.22 21.77 (Round 3)
3) Julius Thomas, DEN 23.14 142.21 (Round 15)
4) Zac Stacy, STL 22.74 150.82 (Undrafted)
5) Nick Foles, PHI 20.23 150.88 (Undrafted)
6) Knowshon Moreno, DEN 19.55 144.06 (Round 15)
7) Chiefs D/ST 19.14 146.02 (Round 15)
8) DeMarco Murray, DAL 19.14 42.49 (Round 5)
9) Le'Veon Bell, PIT 18.89 111.65 (Round 12)
10) Panthers D/ST 18.57 149.23 (Round 15)

 

It should surprise no one that Jamaal Charles and Peyton Manning are at the top of the list, as they were the highest fantasy scorers at running back and quarterback in 2013. And let's not forget that Charles pretty much single-handedly pushed fantasy teams into the championship round with his 51.50 point thrashing of the Oakland Raiders in Week 15. Manning as we all know, rewrote the quarterback record books and scored 409.98 fantasy points. Woof.

What is interesting about the list is the abundance of very late-round draft picks. Excluding the defenses that made the list, four of the eight skill position players came in Round 15 or later (NFL.com drafts only have 15 rounds, for reference). This is why you'll frequently hear fantasy analysts regurgitate the adage "You can't win your league in the first round, but you can lose it." Sure, Charles was on the highest percentage of winning teams, but he was the only first-round player on this list. Meanwhile, draft steals or trendy waiver-wire picks like Zac Stacy and Julius Thomas were workhorses on fantasy teams.

Furthermore, this supports the draft strategy of spending your late-round picks on high-upside guys as opposed to solid but unspectacular veterans (the Steve Smith's and Stevie Johnson's of the world). What is evident from this list is that minimizing risks in the eariler rounds is complemented well by taking shots later. All of your shots won't hit, but when they do, it helps pave the way to fantasy paydirt.

One note about the two defenses appearing on this list. Look at their ADPs. Both were taken in the 15th round. Fantasy defenses are fickle by nature, as fluke plays and touchdowns can lead to spikes in fantasy points. Only three teams have had a top-10 fantasy scoring defense the last three years: Seattle, San Francisco and New England. The difference in points from the top defense to the 10th best defense over those three years averages about four points per game. That's a sizeable amount, but not enough to risk reaching on a defense in the middle rounds when you could use that pick to bolster running back or wide receiver depth. Sit back, wait, and take a chance on a defense like Arizona, St. Louis or Cincinnati in the later rounds hoping they become this year's Chiefs or Panthers.

Lastly, this chart is a great reminder that your fantasy draft is only the beginning. Several of the players on this list were waiver-wire pickups. If a fantasy championship is the goal, stay in tune with what's going on all season in order to be the guy who picks up the next Zac Stacy, and not the guy who passes on him.

Looking ahead to 2014

 

As I mentioned in the lede, our group of experts each made a prediction on Fantasy Live for which player they think could be a late-round steal for championship teams in 2014. Here are their answers:

Michael Fabiano -- Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee Titans (ADP: Undrafted): "If you get him past Round 12, it's like stealing." I agree with Fabiano here. Hunter has been receiving plenty of offseason hype, yet the coaching staff isn't letting that go to his head. He's an athletic specimen who just needs the mental side of the game to catch up with his physical gifts. Lately, that's been happening in Year 2 for wide receivers (see: Alshon Jeffery) which is why Hunter has the chance to be a late-round fantasy monster this season.

Adam Rank -- Kyle Rudolph, TE, Minnesota Vikings (ADP: Round 11): "If you want to wait on tight ends ... Kyle Rudolph is your guy." Rudolph had high expectations attached to him last season, but a combination of injuries and abysmal quarterback play shut those down in a hurry. Now, Norv Turner has arrived as the offensive coordinator for the Norsemen, and no one should benefit more than Rudolph. Turner has a track record of using his tight ends to full effect and Rudolph reported to training camp in better shape than last season. All signs point to a breakout for the Notre Dame product in 2014. If I can't get Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski in fantasy drafts, Rudolph is one of my top late-round targets as well.

Marcas Grant -- Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints (ADP: Round 14): "He may be in line for Keenan Allen or Cordarrelle Patterson-type rookie production." Cooks' ADP on NFL.com mock drafts is still surprisngly low, as I've seen his ADP as high as Round 7 around the web. The hype-train for the Oregon State product is barreling forward at dangerous speeds right now. Sure, the kid is undeniably talented and undeniably fast, but as his ADP creeps higher and higher my anxiety over drafting him mounts as well. The Saints have a target-rich offense, as Drew Brees can choose from Graham, Marques Colston, Kenny Stills, Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson in addition to Cooks on any given play. He definitely slots in as a high-upside late-round pick and if he's around late enough fantasy owners should jump on him. But if it comes to draft day and I have to sacrifice a early- to middle-round pick on Cooks, I'm probably going to pass.

BONUS! -- Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons (ADP: Round 15): While I didn't appear on Fantasy Live today, I still figured I'd offer one more late-round gem for fantasy drafts. I've made a point to grab Devonta Freeman in most of our NFL.com expert mock drafts, and for good reason. Freeman has all of the skills to succeed at the NFL level, but most importantly, he could have tremendous opportunity. He's currently behind Steven Jackson on the depth chart, but after years of impressive work Jackson's body is beginning to wear down. If and when that comes, Freeman will be in line for the lion's share of the carries, as he's a more complete back than Jacquizz Rodgers. And even if Jackson stays healthy all season, there's a good chance Freeman still gets enough touches to serve as a nice RB3 or flex option. Heck, Adam has proclaimed that he'll wear John Cena shoes if Freeman doesn't get 200 touches. Not that I wouldn't love to see Adam on television in those shoes, but I for one hope he doesn't lose his wager, as I want my Freeman investment to pay dividends immediately.

That covers it for our late-round steals for now. Be sure to check out the draft kit for all of the news and analysis you'll need to prepare for your fantasy draft. And don't forget to watch NFL Fantasy Live weekdays at 4 p.m. eastern time right here. Until next time.

-- Alex Gelhar writers fantasy and features for NFL.com and you can follow him on Twitter @AlexGelhar. He's currently studying the tape of sports analyst Doug Prishpreed for if/when he ever gets called upon to join NFL Fantasy Live. Wish him luck.

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