We spend all summer fretting about the early rounds of our fantasy drafts. Everyone wants to know who the No. 1 pick is, and who should be the first quarterback off the board. In reality, these are not the questions that make or break league winners in fantasy. Often, the picks made in the double digit rounds change the course of fantasy history.
With that in mind, we'll look at 15 fantasy players who currently carry an ADP in the 11th round or later who could return serious value in the final few rounds. We'll also divide these players into three categories, as every late-round gem situation is not created equal.
Sneaky usable: A player you'll pay a low cost for, who will not explode, but give you more starting weeks than anticipated.
Circumstance based upside: Players that need a few chips to fall into place to hit, but if they do, it will be big.
ADP makes no sense: We don't know what to tell you, there's just no real reason these players are not going higher in drafts.
Brian Quick, WR, St. Louis Rams
Fantasy analysts were obsessed with identifying "the next Josh Gordon"; a wide receiver to rise from the late rounds to end up winning leagues. That taking place two years in a row was a stretch. But for a portion of games to begin the season, it looked like Brian Quick was set to be the closest available version of that player. The third-year Rams receiver put up 322 yards and scored three times in the first four weeks of the season. He was lost for the season shortly after, and he's since faded from memory.
Not many knew that Brian Quick's shoulder injury last season nearly cost him his playing career. Luckily, he's good to go now, and is expected to play a major role again this season. Quick's injury caused the masses to forget he was producing WR2 and WR3 numbers before he went down.
The Appalachian State product was just starting to put things together when he was lost for the 2014 season. Now, Quick is completely off the radar in redraft leagues. Nick Foles, for all his flaws, is likely to provide a quarterback upgrade for the Rams, and Quick could be his No. 1 receiver. Fantasy owners should watch to see if he's still progressing in the preseason. Despite the injury and lack of a track record, they may have a steal waiting for them.
Darren Sproles, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
At different points in his career, Darren Sproles was a low-end RB1 in PPR leagues. He looked back to that form in the first two weeks of last season, recording back-to-back double digit fantasy point outings. However, Sproles faded fast after that, and his role evaporated. The Eagles gave the veteran back five or fewer touches in eight of the 15 games he played in last season.
With the signings of DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews, it would seem that Sproles' utilization decline will continue. Not true, according to head coach Chip Kelly. "Just another versatile player," Kelly said. "It's Year 2 for him, so I think he feels really comfortable in terms of what our running backs are doing. So we are just kind of cross-training him like we do some other guys in terms of how do we get our best players on the field and put them in different situations." It sounds like Kelly wanted to use Sproles more creatively last year, but refrained due to his place as the primary backup to LeSean McCoy. With more depth there now, Kelly will try to line him up in the slot, and create mismatches in space against linebackers. That sounds exactly like the ways Sproles thrived with the Saints and Chargers.
There are plenty of weapons who need passes in Philadelphia, and taking a package player is rarely advisable. However, given that this offense runs more plays than anyone in the league, and Sproles is a veteran we've seen do it before, this could be an outlier. At worst, Sproles will provide a safe reception floor, and a decent fill-in for bye weeks in PPR leagues.
Eddie Royal, WR, Chicago Bears
The Bears rocked the fantasy world when they dropped the news that rookie Kevin White underwent shin surgery and may miss the entire 2015 season. Chicago spent the seventh overall pick on White, and surely envisioned him playing a big role in the passing offense. With that new reality, we must look to who will pick up the slack. The answer may be a player who was going to exceed usage expectations all along.
The Bears signed Eddie Royal in the offseason, and seemed rather thrilled about it. The new offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, compared Royal to legendary slot receiver Wes Welker. Strong praise for a player whose best season was all the way back in 2008. However, Royal's wide receivers coach back in those days was none other than Gase, and his quarterback was current Bears starter, Jay Cutler. It's a stretch to spin that as a definitive sign of things to come, but it's a start. There is a strong chance Royal posts his best season since that 2008 rookie campaign.
You'd be surprised to know that Royal finished last season as the WR32 in PPR leagues. Of course, anyone who owned a piece of the Chargers offense in fantasy leagues knows that production came in spurts. And were mostly just nuisances to Keenan Allen. Players like Royal require volume to post useful fantasy numbers. He never surpassed 105 targets after that rookie season. The good news, Royal became a lot more efficient over the last two seasons, posting his best catch rates since 2008. Even better, the targets will absolutely be on the uptick now that Royal is the No. 2 receiver. The veteran wideout will play as the flanker in two receiver sets and slide into the slot, where he fits best, when the team goes three wide. A career best season, or at least one in that 2008 neighborhood, could be coming down the pipe for this forgotten veteran.
Steve Johnson, WR, San Diego Chargers
Speaking of Eddie Royal, the player set to replace him presents another fantasy draft bargain. After quietly plucking him off the free agent market, the Chargers began to work Steve Johnson in with the first team offense. That may not inspire some people, but we need to look past Johnson's disappointing season with the 49ers last year.
From 2010 to 2012, Johnson averaged 79 receptions, 1041 yards and 7.7 touchdowns per season, numbers good enough for a regular WR2 finish. Not coincidentally, those years coincided with Ryan Fitzpatrick playing well under Chan Gailey, somehow the best quarterback play Johnson has been paired with (sorry Colin Kaepernick truthers).
Many remember Johnson for being one of the few receivers who could routinely get open against Darrelle Revis. Those performances were not outliers. Johnson is a pristine route runner, with a great release move to free himself from press-man coverage. Kaepernick, due to his limited ability reading the field, has routinely failed to take advantage of that brand of players. On the other hand, Johnson's new quarterback, Philip Rivers, possesses a skill set perfect for that type of receiver. Stevie Johnson is going to assume all of Eddie Royal's 91 targets from last season, and will likely siphon looks from other players. He's a candidate to bounce back to the 70-plus catch territory.
Michael Crabtree, WR, Oakland Raiders
We're continuing this recently developed circle of wide receiver transition. Another former 49ers receiver, Michael Crabtree is also a victim of recency bias. Fantasy owners can tend to make decisions based who most recently hurt their feelings. Crabtree went off the board in the fourth to fifth round of drafts last year, but plummeted to a WR46 finish in PPR. Fantasy owners, as reactionary as ever, never even considered the possibility that a change of scenery was exactly what this former top-10 draft pick needed.
Michael Crabtree is still a technically sound route runner. A close examination reveals that he was still getting open on a regular basis. The veteran receiver lost some speed when he tore an Achilles tendon in 2013, but still separates from coverage on short and intermediate routes. Just as with Johnson, Crabtree is the type of timing player that Kaepernick just does not jive with as a "see it, throw it" passer. Conversely, Derek Carr's preference for the short passing game will be a natural fit for Crabtree. He'll need another outlet threat opposite Amari Cooper.
Crabtree dazzled onlookers with his strong hands and technique in Raiders training camp. This was the reminder fantasy owners needed to see that a career revival is going to take place. With the Raiders needing to pass frequently in catch up mode, and Carr looking to deliver the ball in a hurry, Crabtree's ability to flash open quickly will pay off. He's another candidate to catch something in the neighborhood of 70 passes.
Roy Helu, RB, Oakland Raiders
The former Washington running back is an underrated player, and one the Raiders were happy to sign in free agency. Just like the Raiders starter, he was a great athletic tester coming out of college. However, his real value comes in the passing game. Helu averaged 40.7 catches a year playing for Washington, when he played at least 14 games in a season. He would regularly replace the starter, Alfred Morris, in passing situations.
Even if Murray breaks out, Helu will serve as the passing down back over the starter, and is a nice late-round PPR sleeper. When Oakland is losing, it will be Helu on the field over Murray. If you play in a format that rewards receptions, taking Helu as your final running back is a solid plan. He'll fill in for starters, and presents a safe floor.
Circumstance based upside
Khiry Robinson, RB, New Orleans Saints
Some impressive plays in the Saints preseason opener should serve to remind us that Khiry Robinson is one of the best backup running backs in the NFL. Last year, he was a player many buzzed about. A breakout campaign by Mark Ingram made us all forget how high the Saints were on Robinson just a year ago. In their first released depth chart, the Saints had Robinson listed ahead of new addition, C.J. Spiller.
No need for a freak-out, but with Spiller already undergoing a medical procedure, it's time to return our focus to Khiry Robinson. The former undrafted free agent is the superior pass catcher to Mark Ingram. He would assume that role in the offense should Spiller ever miss significant time. The Saints have never ranked outside of the top three in terms of running back receptions since 2006. That is a lucrative role to inherit.
In addition, Robinson could fill in for Ingram just as well, if the early down banger goes down. The fantasy world is rightly high on both Saints running backs, but it's necessary to acknowledge their shaky history. As much as we like these players, that should make us all the more interested in the man set to replace both in an emergency situation. Especially when Robinson has proved his worth on the field. Maybe some other team calls New Orleans about Robinson's trade availability. Looking at you, Dallas.
Denard Robinson, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Not many, outside of Eric Stoner, expected Denard Robinson's transition from college quarterback to NFL running back would work out. Nevertheless, the former Michigan passer took 135 carries for 582 yards and scored four times last season. It was not in their original plan, but Jacksonville gave Robinson 14 or more carries in five games. He filled in admirably when a rash of injuries hit their roster.
While the team spent draft resources to bring T.J. Yeldon in as a bell-cow running back, there's a chance Denard Robinson still plays a role. Yeldon is a technically sound and intelligent runner, but he only averaged 15 catches-per-season in college. On the other hand, Robinson caught 23 passes in 396 snaps last season. Jacksonville may improve, but will still trail opponents in most contests and will need to throw to catch up. In that scenario, perhaps Robinson carves out a Danny Woodhead-type role.
The team values this player, and invested in his transition and position change. He may yet have a role greater than his ADP would indicate. Also, we know Robinson can produce top-24 fantasy weeks at the running back position, if Yeldon ever goes down.
Lance Dunbar, RB, Dallas Cowboys
Frankly, any Dallas running back is going to catch our attention. They're all set to run behind a star-studded offensive line, and there's still no set-in-stone clarity pointing to a full-time workhorse. Offseason injuries have kept him off the radar, but Lance Dunbar has a chance to see a decent sized role.
Dunbar only saw 140 snaps last season, but still caught 18 passes and averaged 12.1 yards-per-catch. DeMarco Murray was the king of the Dallas backfield last season, but Dunbar played well in a small role. He's not a prolific runner, but effectively serves as a Pierre Thomas-style outlet receiver. If injuries hit the Dallas backfield, this is a name for the waiver wire speed dial. Dunbar will be a usable fantasy asset in games Dallas is in shootout mode, and throwing the rock around.
Donte Moncrief, WR, Indianapolis Colts/Cody Latimer, WR, Denver Broncos
We've mostly highlighted forgotten, woebegone veterans in this column. But we know you fantasy owners are really all about upside. Late in drafts this year, there are two glaring high-upside candidates; Cody Latimer and Donte Moncrief. Their situations are so similar that they are just Frankensteined here. Both are big, athletic receivers who play on some the league's best offenses. Both players' talents are just waiting to be exposed by their All-Pro quarterbacks. Unfortunately, both will need injuries or unforeseen misfortune to strike the players ahead of them to present weekly fantasy value. For extended looks at both players, check out Sophomore Wide Receiver Encore: Part four.
ADP makes no sense
Kenny Stills, WR, Miami Dolphins
Stills improved as a second-year player in the Saints offense. He nearly broke 1,000 receiving yards, and caught 75.9 percent of his passes, despite running difficult downfield routes. The Dolphins lost their deep threat in Mike Wallace, and he left behind 115 targets. Miami acted quickly when free agency opened by trading a third-round pick to nab the ascendant talent. Stills could absorb most, if not all, of Wallaces' 2014 targets.
With Parker obviously taking a little longer to get off the ground, the veteran could approach, or pass, solid WR3 value; with the possibility of major scoring weeks, due to his big play ability. Of course, you must be prepared for variance in his play, and that his targets may taper off as Parker gets more comfortable. Stills' ADP looks crazy sitting in the 13th round. He's a perfect target for best ball and daily formats.
Eric Decker, WR, New York Jets
What does Eric Decker have to do to get a little respect in the fantasy world? Despite a 38-career touchdown pedigree, no one wants to draft him. Currently going off the board in double digit rounds, Decker's ADP is mind-numbing. The disdain surrounding him is merely an overreaction, and confirmation bias, regarding his decline after leaving Denver.
Many expected his stats to fall off a cliff after separating from Peyton Manning, but the veteran posted 962 yards and five scores in 15 games. Yes, most of his production came in the Week 17 finale. He caught 11 passes for 221 yards in that contest against the Dolphins. And yet, given how unhealthy he was (hamstring) for a stretch of the season, it all evens out. Decker is back to playing across from a competent starting split-end, and is a well above average receiver. If Gailey's system upgrades the quarterback production, and the offense as a whole, Decker could exceed his 2014 production.
Decker falls to the 11th round of casual drafts because the masses wrote his narrative two years ago. Don't go with the flow, and pick up the obvious value.
Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals
We've been waiting on the Tyler Eifert breakout since the moment the Bengals selected the 6-foot-6 tight end. If any player has a chance to be the Travis Kelce surprise player at tight end this year, it's Eifert. His current ADP on NFL.com has him in Round 15. Nothing about that is remotely justifiable. Eifert has a very real chance to finish as a top-10 scorer if he stays healthy.
If you are not targeting one of the top few tight ends, you're taking a late rounder with the intention to stream, but you are hoping he turns into an every week starter. That upside player this year is Tyler Eifert. Take him with confidence, and feel free to reach in order to assure no one outsmarts you for him.
For an extended look at Eifert this year, and why you should be on board, check out Hype Train or Smoke Screen: Part two.
Jordan Reed, TE, Washington Redskins
The book on Reed is just about written at this point. Quite talented, but just cannot stay on the field. Both are accurate statements. Reed plays like an ideal move tight end. He's a smooth runner, and can make plays with the ball in his hands. Reed has also been wildly efficient in his chances, catching 76.6 percent of the targets thrown his way during his career.
There are plenty of reasons to be out on Reed this season. He struggles to stay on the field, his quarterback situation is questionable and the overall team is a mess. However, that is more than baked into his ADP. Considering Reed is completely free in drafts right now, he's worth a speculative add. He'll out-produce several tight ends taken ahead of him, when he does play.