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The Gut Check No.363: Over-Under, WR ADPs

Waldman's first pass at the 2016 wide receivers through the lens of average draft position. 

Precision is overrated in May. The archery, surgical lasers, and nanotechnology will have its time in July. This spring, it's all about horseshoes, hand grenades, and nuclear weapons at the office of the Gut Check. 

We all have to start somewhere. As I create my first set of fantasy rankings, I'm beginning with the broad strokes. Today's Gut Check profiles receivers that I like significantly more or less than the current ADP in PPR leagues. 

A communique From Captain Obvious 

My values versus existing ADP will change. How much, I have no idea. This article is that starting point. The purpose of this exercise is to note which receivers merit closer examination when creating your draft plans.

Undervalued

Ageism in Full Effect

Larry Fitzgerald (ADP 64, The Gut Check 14): The No.7 PPR fantasy receiver in 2015, the collective conscious of fantasy football has sounded the alarm about his age. Despite earning 109 receptions, 1215 yards, and 9 touchdowns behind an improved offensive line and a good running game, Fitzgerald's fantasy price hovers around the sixth round. Excluding quarterbacks, Fitzgerald was the No.8 fantasy player last year. 

There is no logical reason for him to fall 50 spots. John Brown and Michael Floyd gave the Cardinals the No.25 and No.38 fantasy receivers last year and they each played 15 games. The Cardinals don't have a tight end capable of captivating Carson Palmer's attention at the expense of its three wide receivers.  

Last I heard, Bruce Arians and his staff remain intact. The offense will remain balanced while leaning heavily on its veteran quarterback. But fantasy owners regard Fitzgerald's production as a fluke rather than the product of an exceptional player.

They will misapply ideas of regression to the mean and historical stats that suggest Fitzgerald's production will diminish because he reached a specific age milestone. They will consider the production of all slot receivers in the NFL and conclude Fitzgerald's move to the slot is a higher risk for fantasy production compared to perimeter options. And they will downplay the idea that Fitzgerald is an exceptional player who doesn't fit these predictive models. 

The slot is a great fit for players that can use their size, knowledge of coverage, and precision with route running. Fitzgerald possesses all three and he's still quicker, faster, and healthier than Marques Colston and Anquan Boldin when they had top-15 fantasy production at the position in 2012 and 2013 respectively. We know Fitzgerald never won on speed, but what you may not realize is how many of his younger and more athletic contemporaries have trained with him year after year and could not keep up.

I understand if the hive mind of fantasy football envisions better from Floyd and Brown that it costs Fitzgerald 25-30 catches and 300 yards of receiving production. That would put him in the range of Jordan Matthews' big slot production of 85-997-8 last year. Matthews was the No.16 fantasy receiver in 2015 and his ADP is 51. 

Even if this drop in production due to the improvement of his teammates happens, I'll take Fitzgerald over Matthews this year. In this WR-heavy, Upside-Down-Is-Right-Side-Up fantasy draft environment the fact that Fitzgerald presents a potential bargain as a WR1 available in the 6th round bears further examination.

Cold War Paranoia

Brandon Marshall (ADP 23, The Gut Check 12) & Eric Decker (ADP 56, The Gut Check 20): Two of Marshall's past three seasons are 100-catch campaigns, he's a year younger than Fitzgerald, and he has always won by using his size more than his speed. The issue is another Fitz; the Ivy League quarterback with the beard of a lawn gnome. The fact that the Jets haven't re-signed Ryan Fitzpatrick has generated the drop in Marshall's ADP. 

The ADP is only one round lower than it might be if Fitzpatrick arrives in Jets camp by August but what happens if Fitzpatrick doesn't earn the call and New York rolls with Geno Smith or Christian Hackenberg? This is the fantasy owner's paranoia coming to life.

Marshall was a top-15 fantasy receiver in 2011 when Miami rolled with career backup Matt Moore for 13 games and the offense had the versatile Reggie Bush earning top-15 RB production.  Marshall was also a top-15 option in 2009 in Denver when the Broncos traded 2008 Pro-Bowl QB Jay Cutler and went with career-backup Kyle Orton.

Instead of worrying how much of a drop-off there will be for Marshall without Ryan Fitzpatrick, it will be more productive to consider how much of a drop-off there is between Smith or Hackenberg compared to Moore or Orton. The answer might be that Moore and Orton are closer in skill to Fitzpatrick than Fitzpatrick's recent starter status may appear. If this is the case, the paranoia is valid. If the current Jets stable isn't that far off from Moore or Orton, Marshall comes at an early-round discount.

Apply the same thinking to Decker whose skills combined with Marshall enhance the stability of the offense even when factoring a lesser quarterback into the equation. Compared to those Dolphins and Broncos offenses, the Jets receiving corps offers more talent at the top of the depth chart.

"UDFA", the NFL's Scarlet Letter

Allen Hurns (ADP 59, The Gut Check: 29):  Hurns 2016 ADP is lower than his 2015 WR19 production should merit. A valid reason for some of the declining ADP is the expectation that Hurns won't repeat his double-digit touchdown total. The reasoning includes Allen Robinson's place as the primary option Jacksonville, Julius Thomas healthy and hopefully acclimated to the Jaguars' offense, and lingering doubts that Blake Bortles can support three highly productive passing game weapons year after year.

But should a potential touchdown regression for Hurns result in a drop in ADP of two-and-a-half rounds?  If 2016 Hurns earns only half of his 2015 scores, his production drops to the range of Travis Benjamin's 2015 production. Benjamin, now joining Philip Rivers, Keenan Allen, Antonio Gates and Steve Johnson, has a 2016 ADP of 32. 

Rivers has a better track record than Bortles, which explains some of the difference fro Benjamin's ADP. Hurns is arguably more versatile in the middle of the field and still offers Bortles a second, effective vertical threat on the perimeter. Hurns also earned his production while playing most of the season with a sports hernia.

I have more concerns that Julius Thomas as a bigger product of the Broncos' system and Peyton Manning than I do about Hurns' talent. The Seahawks targeted Thomas as a weak link in the passing offense when scouting Denver's unit in Super Bowl XLIX. Thomas isn't a bad player but Seattle saw that he doesn't respond well to physical play. Seattle forced Manning to funnel the ball to the tight end early where the defense had the best opportunity to limit big plays and harass Thomas into mistakes. 

Hurns is a physical player who has proven reliable in big moments. The biggest question for Hurns after his rookie was his drop rate. But after the two drops from the Buffalo game that Matt Harmon listed in Reception Perception analysis, Hurns didn't drop another target for the rest of the year. His 1.9 percent drop rate was a significant improvement from the year prior. 

So excuse me if I'm not buying the drop in ADP relative to his 2015 production as a reflection of TD regression, Julius Thomas, or the caliber of his hands. The real reason is perception. Hurns was a UDFA and UDFAs are regarded as flukes early in their careers.

One year of top-20 production isn't enough to erase these fantasy scarlet letters. Fantasy owners have more belief in a player like Benjamin, who experienced his first breakout season in 2015 because he was a 4th-round pick. If Hurns proves equally reliable this year, fans will remember the acronym for fantasy points (FPTS) before they remember the one for undrafted free agent (UDFA).  

"Reached His Ceiling" Doesn't Mean "It's All Down Hill From Here"

Michael Crabtree (ADP 73, The Gut Check 35): One-half the Raiders' starting receiver overhaul in 2015, Crabtree matched his career-high reception total (85) and touchdown totals (9). Fantasy owners aren't as impressed. The former first-round pick of the 49ers averaged 13-14 yards per catch for most of his career prior to an Achilles' tear and since then, Crabtree's production per catch has dipped to the 10-yard territory. 

We focus so much on upside potential when we pick players that there times we overlook the potential for rock-steady consistency. I'm not completely sold that Crabtree is that guy, but there's reason to believe the 28-year-old has found the role, the quarterback (Derek Carr), and the receiving talent (Amari Cooper) opposite him to earn this consideration. 

His peers considered him one of the smoothest route runners in the game prior to his injury. There's no doubt Crabtree has lost some of his explosion, but he still looked good last year to deliver as a high-volume, complement to Cooper who can win in the red zone.

Crabtree is available in the 6th to 7th round because compared to T.Y. Hilton, Doug Baldwin, or Randall Cobb, he lacks their big-play ability. Psychologically, fantasy owners imagine three dimensions with Hilton, Baldwin, and Cobb: ceiling, likely reality, and floor. With Crabtree, it's only likely reality and floor.  

But I like the idea that this likely reality is very likely, which means I can get a WR2 at a good price. If I'm still sold by August, Crabtree is one of those reasons I can widen my potential team-building options.  

Jeremy Maclin (ADP 39, The Gut Check 24): There are two governing factors that put the kiabosh on anyone thinking Maclin has WR1 fantasy upside: Captain Check-Down Alex Smith and the fact that Maclin has only been a WR1 once during his six-year career. But Maclin has been no worse than a WR3 for five of those six years and at least a WR2 for half of his career. 

Smith had one of his better years as a passer in 2015. Some may say this point alone calls for the fantasy hive mind to temper expectations. But there's a difference between keeping expectations reasonable and dropping them.

The Chiefs have continuity on offense, veteran leadership, a stable offensive mind as the head coach, and run-pass balance. Smith's yards per attempt was nearly a half a yard better than his 2014 average—14th overall among starting quarterbacks in 2015. Continuity brings comfort—even for the conservative-minded Smith. And comfort brings added confidence to take a little more risk. 

Maclin is a steady WR2 but I think people have given up on him as having WR1 upside. It deflates his ADP by more than a round. He's not a sexy pick in August, but he can make a fantasy squad pretty hot when it matters most.  

The Secret is in the Sauce

Laquon Treadwell (ADP 91, The Gut Check 59) and Stefon Diggs (ADP 93, The Gut Check 63): Forget about the individual talents of Treadwell and Diggs for a moment. The key to the Vikings passing game is the offensive line. Teddy Bridgewater was pressured on 46 percent of his attempts according to a Tweet from Pro Football Focus—more than any quarterback in the league last year.

When Bridgewater had moderately better protection as a rookie, he was the No.11 fantasy quarterback during the final 7 weeks of the 2014 season, completing 68 percent of his passes and averaging 7.8 yards per attempt—better than all but Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Eli Manning and Tony Romo. Last year, most of the Vikings line was hurt. This year, they're healthy and the team added veteran 49ers guard Alex Boone. 

These changes alone should give Bridgewater a fighting chance produce closer to his 2014 stretch run instead of the chucking and ducking of 2015. Now add Diggs and Treadwell to th mix, and Bridgewater has to receivers that are much better at running timing routes than Mike Wallace and Charles Johnson. Diggs was also a rookie thrust into the mix at mid-year as essentially the primary option. This year he and Bridgewater should have more rapport.

Treadwell gives the passing game a player who can erase minor inaccuracies down field with his size and skill against tight coverage. His quickness and strength at the line of scrimmage, against tight coverage, and after the catch might even be a little underrated by people who covet "big-play" options. I've been saying this since August, but Treadwell reminds me of Michael Irvin (and Irvin even stated during the draft that Treadwell reminds him of him).

It means Bridgewater won't need as much time to get rid of the ball and Norv Turner's offense can run with more precision that matches the best things that Bridgewater does. I think I'm underrating both receivers and both are 8th-round ADP values in May.

People have given up on the Vikings offense too early and it's because most football fans don't truly look at offensive line play. Don't be one of them. 

   

OverValued

 

Formation Matters

Julian Edelman (ADP 28, The Gut Check 40): A second foot surgery could limit Edelman until training camp. The rehab is a moderate concern, but surely not insurmountable. This point alone makes his early third-round ADP a little high for my taste. I'd prefer to see him go a round later. While possible, early-round players don't usually drop a full round at this stage of the draft.

I'm a fan of Edelman's skills as a high-volume slot option with some flexibility on the perimeter. By August, my questions should be answered about his health. But there's another factor that diminishes Edelman's value and it's what Martellus Bennett represents to this offense.  

Edelman may have enough speed to get deep but he's not a primary option in this arena. He's at his best as a slot receiver. Adding Bennett to the mix may provide the Patriots more flexibility with formations, but there's a good chance that Edelman's production diminishes. 

Between 2007-2012, Welker had five years with at least 110 catches. That sixth year was an 86-848-7 campaign--good for 23rd among fantasy receivers and Welker's worst year of those seasons. 2010 was the year Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez worked in tandem as fantasy TE1s.

Gronkowski and Bennett have this potential as a duo. We all know that Bill Belichick has been obssessed with this two-tight end (12 personnel) look since seeing that potential with Detroit's tandem of tight ends in the 1970s. It raises some doubts about Edelman earning top-20 production in a base 12 personnel set if Welker couldn't repeat multiple years of his top production when two good tight ends arrived on the scene. 

New Blood, Old Role

Willie Snead (ADP 95, The Gut Check 125): There's no doubt that Willie Snead performed well above his pay grade last year. There's also little doubt that the Saints manufactured a lot of Snead's bigger plays. The UDFA from Ball State lacks the physical skills that inspire teams to consider him the future of their starting corps.

Adding Michael Thomas to the mix and giving him first-team looks in OTAs is another strong indication that the team values Snead as a contributor, but not much more. With Thomas, Brandin Cooks, Cobi Fleener and Brandon Coleman, the roles seem pretty clear if you look at past Saints receivers:

Cooks is the Devery Henderson speedster with a little more range as a route runner. Thomas is the Marques Colston slot option with skill to work outside like pre-injury Michael Crabtree. Fleener plays the Jimmy Graham role. And Coleman is the Robert Meachem-like threat.

It makes Snead the Lance Moore option. Moore was capable of top-20 production if the Saints lost its other weapons, but Moore was hardly the offense's first choice. Drafting Snead inside the 10th round seems too high and I bet his ADP drops to a more reasonable spot as Thomas' training camp exploits increase.

Say it Ain't So, Sammy

Sammy Watkins (ADP 20, The Gut Check 44): I'm a huge Sammy Watkins fan. I tried to give up three first-round picks this spring to land him in a dynasty league this spring. He's a complete weapon that the Bills were just beginning to exploit.

But the Bills offense has shown signs of a dysfunction this offseason. Tyrod Taylor and the Bills can't agree on his long-term value for the franchise and the team drafted a developmental quarterback with franchise upside.

The offense also doesn't use Watkins to his fullest potential. Without year-to-year continuity with a single quarterback, it's not ever going to happen. 

The foot injury is an added concern. These are difficult issues and players are known to push too hard. Watkins surely won't be in tip-top shape.

I have a difficult time believing he'll repeat last year's production. Until there's good news about his foot, I'm more inclined to think Watkins' upside is his rookie effort rather than anything surpassing his 60-1047-9 sophomore effort.