A false correlation is sometimes drawn where "bad" NFL offenses produce bad fantasy football players. Refrains like "I'm not touching a single player from [INSERT TEAM]," "[INSERT TEAM]? Gross" or "Browns LOL" can be common phrases bandied about in message boards, text chains, and pre-draft bar debates. Yet, that type of analysis fails to see the bigger picture. One in which bad offenses still score plenty of points, and often times are more highly concentrated into a select few players than elite units adept at distributing the rock to a bevy of playmakers.
Let's do a quick exercise. Below I'm going to list the year-end fantasy finish for skill position players in the top 20 at their position (excluding quarterbacks) from two teams over the last four years (2016-2013), you try to guess which teams they are:
TEAM 1: WR18 ('16), RB15 ('16), TE2 ('15), TE5 ('13), WR1 ('13)
TEAM 2: RB7 ('16), TE1 ('15), TE1 ('14), WR18 ('13),
Team 1 is the Cleveland Browns. Team 2 is the New England Patriots. If that's too confusing, I'll put it this way: since 2013, the Browns have featured more top-20 skill position finishers in fantasy than the Patriots. Yes, "top 20" is a relatively arbitrary metric to use and yes, fantasy is a weekly game, but this was one simple example to get us on track here. My bigger point is that we have a tendency to overlook or underrate offenses we suspect to be "bad" in the coming year, even though there will be plenty of value to be had in said offenses.
So, which offenses are currently being underrated heading into the 2017 fantasy season? I'm glad you asked. Let's take a look.
The fantasy community has been doing its best to lift Mike Wallace's ADP from its current insanely low levels for a while now. A few weeks back, they took to Twitter ...
... and then penned severalarticles on his upside (one of which appeared on this very website. At this point, I'm just throwing gas on the fire, because I'm fully on the Wallace bandwagon. Especially after the disheartening news that Dennis Pitta reinjured his hip and was released by the team. With Pitta now out of the picture, the Ravens will have a league-high 345 vacated targets from last year. Wallace is coming off a year where he saw 116 targets, catching 72 balls for 1,017 yards (his first 1k season since 2011) and four touchdowns. Wallace's career-high for targets is 141 (2013), and it's likely he reaches or surpasses that total in 2017. After all, Baltimore has led the league in pass attempts in each of the past two seasons (though that could change, more on that in a bit). Breshad Perriman is also an interesting late-round option with similar draft prices, but more risk. He's flashed eye-opening athletic potential, but missed his entire rookie season (2015) and was on the field for just 461 plays last year, the fourth-most among Ravens wide receivers. It's a lot to ask for him to both stay healthy and put it all together on the field, but the reward for fantasy owners could be huge. These two could both surpass 100 targets, giving them decent shots to finish at worst in the WR2 to WR3 range in 2017. If the Ravens sign a veteran (especially Eric Decker or Jeremy Maclin), this doesn't exactly become moot, but these two will both take a hit -- especially Perriman in terms of draft value. Stay tuned. UPDATE: As suspected, the Ravens signed Jeremy Maclin, likely to fill Steve Smith's more possession-oriented role. This will put a cap on Wallace's ceiling, but he's still a fine late-round target. With Maclin in the Raven's next, I'm now out on Perriman as a late-round sleeper.
Switching gears to the backfield, the shining fantasy star is ... Danny Woodhead. No, this is not personal bias coming through. Woodhead is in a phenomenal spot to succeed, especially in PPR leagues. The Ravens rank second in running back targets over the previous two seasons, and last year's backfield leader in targets (Kyle Juszczyk, 49) is now in San Francisco. Moreover, fantasy Twitter darling Kenneth Dixon (41 targets) is serving a four-game suspension to start the season. Woodhead will see plenty of targets from the backfield, and also could be deployed in the slot, as the Ravens top two slot receivers in terms of snaps (Kamar Aiken, Steve Smith) are both gone. Yes, Woodhead is 32 and coming off an ACL tear, but he is already practicing without restrictions just eight months after the injury. Pass on the Grit King at your own risk.
As for the other backs, I'll take Terrance West 10 out of 10 times over Kenneth Dixon (and I'm a noted Dixon acolyte). West is the starter for the first four weeks while Dixon will be M.I.A., and he could hold onto the job beyond that. West out-played Dixon last season, and will get four extra weeks to operate in what should be an improved rushing attack now that Greg Roman has been hired as an offensive assistant (specifically to revamp the rushing attack). West is also likely to hold onto his red-zone role from 2016, where he scored 50 percent of the backfield touchdowns inside the 20 and 65 percent of the opportunities (targets + rushes) come his way. Sure, Dixon could leap frog a journeyman like West once he returns. But when it comes to burning a valuable bench spot for four weeks or rostering a starting running back on an underrated offense, which would you rather choose? That's what I thought.
One quick note on the tight end situation. It's worth mentioning that Ben Watson is still hanging around after tearing his Achilles tendon last season. Following Pitta's release, Watson figures to be the presumptive starter over the average Crockett Gillmore and to-this-point bust, Maxx Williams. This will be a position to watch as we approach training camp.
Let's start with Isaiah Crowell, who quietly finished as the RB15 in standard leagues in 2016. Crowell was a bit inconsistent last year, seeing as he complemented his eight double-digit outings with six games of fewer than seven fantasy points. However, that wasn't entirely his fault, as in five of those six games he carried the ball under 10 times. Heading into 2017, head coach Hue Jackson has said he wants to run the ball more behind his revamped offensive line, and Crowell figures to be the primary beneficiary. Under Jackson in 2016, the gap in carries between Crowell and Duke Johnson widened from 2015 (81 carry difference to 125), with both posting similar averages (4.9 ypc for Johnson, 4.8 for Crowell) despite Crowell seeing more than twice as many carries. Most of Johnson's rushing yards came from the shotgun (over 60 percent), with Crowell running more frequently from traditional sets. The touchdown upside is a concern here, as some combination of Cody Kessler, DeShone Kizer or (gulp) Brock Osweiler will be under center. However, the volume should be there for the Crow and as the bigger, already preferred goal-line back (he out-touched Johnson 33 to nine in the red zone in 2016), Crowell is the better bet for at least a handful of touchdowns. Crowell is currently coming at a slightly discounted price but offers high-end RB2 upside. Don't let the stink of the Browns deter you here. Fly with the Crow in 2017.
While Corey Coleman will be a hot fantasy commodity thanks to his big-play potential and the departure of Terrelle Pryor, the overlooked value here is Kenny Britt. Britt's career has had more peaks and valleys than a roller coaster at Great America, but the veteran might finally be steadying his course. He is coming off a 1,000-yard season with the Los Angeles Rams and only turns 29 in September. Let me reiterate that point: in 2016 Kenny Britt caught 62 passes for 1,002 yards and five touchdowns on the Los Angeles Rams ... an offense that not only finished a distant last in points scored, yards gained, and first downs, but was the fourth-worst unit in Football Outsider's DVOA since 1989. I'm not fond of the phrase "It can't possibly be worse than last year," but it actually applies to Britt's situation in 2017 with the Browns -- it can't be worse than what he had in L.A. He's with a better offensive mind in Hue Jackson, surrounded by more talent, and should be playing with a more capable quarterback. In addition, the coup de grace cementing his sleeper status is that he should see plenty of volume, and when it comes to wide receivers, volume is king. The team's top two target hogs from 2016 (Pryor, Gary Barnidge) are both gone, and while Coleman should see a healthy bump up in his 73 targets, Britt would be hard-pressed to fail to eclipse the century mark himself. So, 100-plus targets for a double-digit round receiver who's also 6-foot-3 and a threat in the red zone ... yeah, it's time for Britt to stop being so undervalued. He's being drafted as a mid-tier WR4 but possesses WR2 upside.
For years, fantasy analysts have shouted from the mountaintops (aka their computers and Twitter) that rookie tight ends rarely amount to anything in fantasy. And this is true, with Hunter Henry being an obvious exception last year. However, rookie David Njoku, whom the Browns traded back into the first round of the NFL Draft to acquire, could be another. The top tight end in Hue Jackson's last three offenses has averaged a stat line of 78 targets, 56 receptions, 562 yards and seven touchdowns. Those TEs were, in order, Gary Barnidge, Tyler Eifert, and Jermaine Gresham. Eifert's 13 touchdowns in 2015 obviously skew the average a bit, but still, the rest of the numbers are consistent. Once the team drafted Njoku they cut Barnidge the next day, leaving such tight end luminaries as Seth DeValve and Randall Telfer to compete with the former Miami star (no offense to Seth or Randall, but they aren't exactly household names). Njoku not only should be the primary recipient of most of those tight end targets, but he could be a top option near the goal line as well. The only skill position player currently on the roster taller than Njoku (who stands 6-foot-4) is undrafted free agent tight end Taylor McNamara. Height isn't the only factor when it comes to seeing looks in the end zone, but it certainly doesn't hurt. Combining Njoku's crazy athleticism with very real opportunities, he's a potential late-round steal with low-end TE1 upside. That stat line from before (56-562-7) would have been good enough to finish as the TE10 in 2016.
When the Vikings lost Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson in the span of a few weeks last fall it looked like the Norsemen were trying to navigate the ocean of an NFL season without oars or a sail. The team traded for Sam Bradford (receiving plenty of "lolz" and snark), but despite any lingering Ram-ness surrounding Bradford, he actually played quite well last year and could have this offense in a position to surprise people in 2017.
For starters, let's talk about his wide receivers. Stefon Diggs was on the cusp of a true breakout season before suffering a Week 4 groin injury that lingered throughout the year. He also endured an offensive shift (Norv Turner resigned following a Week 8 loss to the Bears), which caused him to slide more prominently into the slot under Pat Shurmur. As a result, his route tree grew in a different fashion, as you can see below.
Perhaps this was all Shurmur, but the groin injury might have played a part as well. Nevertheless, Diggs nearly eclipsed 1,000 yards and 90 catches in just 13 games last year while his quarterback was constantly under assault behind a poor offensive line with no semblance of a running game. In 2017, the offensive line should be better with the additions of Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers (at least marginally), giving Bradford more time, and the running game should be improved to keep defenses more honest with Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray in tow. Diggs can get deep and is a nightmare to cover in space. His three touchdowns last year are more likely bad luck than an indictment on his scoring prowess, and he could burst into the national spotlight early this season.
Complementing Diggs is Adam Thielen, an undrafted free agent who earned himself a fat new contract extension last year (three years, up to $27 million) by catching 69 passes for 967 yards and five touchdowns, most of which came after Week 5. Thielen proved to be an excellent route-runner and deep threat, culminating in a Week 16 dismantling of the Packers secondary where he caught 12 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns. All told, the Bradford-Thielen connection boasted the highest passer rating between a QB and WR in 2016 (min. 75 targets), per Pro Football Focus. Thielen looks like a solid flex play, with a WR3 ceiling if this offense takes the next step. He's coming at a considerable discount in drafts right now.
Rounding out the passing game, Bradford shouldn't be ignored as a streaming option, in deeper leagues, two-QB formats, or best ball formats. Last year he was the QB23 despite missing Week 1, playing behind the league's worst offensive line, and while learning two separate offenses. If we look to how he finished the season, he averaged 17.6 fantasy points per game over the final five weeks, potentially pointing toward a growing comfort and command of the offense. I'm not suggesting you draft Bradford as your late-round QB in 10 or 12-team standard leagues ... but his days of being lost in the abyss known as a Jeff Fisher offense are over. He'll be relevant in fantasy in 2017. And as far as Kyle Rudolph goes, he's being appropriately drafted in the later rounds. He's a red-zone monster who also led all tight ends with the highest percentage of his quarterback's intended air yards with 22 percent, per Next Gen Stats. He's a rock-solid low-end TE1.
As for the running backs, I'll try to make this brief. Dalvin Cook is the back to own here. Yes, they paid Latavius Murray a decent amount of money this offseason, but he's a one-note runner while Cook can do it all. Murray should figure in, probably around the goal-line, but Cook has home run potential, can catch passes, and is a player the team traded up for in the NFL Draft. The offensive line could still be a concern, but more casual drafters are sleeping on Cook right now and letting him slip to the double-digit rounds. He's an all-around talent in an offense that could take a step forward in 2017, making him well worth a single-digit round investment.
Other offenses to not completely ignore ...
» New York Jets: The release of Eric Decker opens up even more targets. Quincy Enunwa is a name you'll hear a lot in the coming months, but Matt Forte and Bilal Powell could both be PPR studs in an offense bereft of playmakers.
» Los Angeles Rams: If Sean McVay can coax semi-competent QB play out of Jared Goff, there will be opportunities for the likes of Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, and Tavon Austin, all of whom are draft values right now. We need to see who wins out as his top TE, too.