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Predictability, Randomness, and the Space Between

Identifying fantasy-friendly situations and examining "alternative" value plays

Fantasy Football is full of great analysis and forecasting but also keeps us on our toes with out-of-nowhere surprises. But often there's a middle ground between those extremes -- a we should have seen that coming type of element that goes overlooked. In this article, we'll look at fantasy-fertile situations that experts are telling fantasy owners to exploit. But instead of recommending those same players primarily tied to the analysis, we're going to flip the script and recommend one of their teammates.

So let's take a look at some popular undervalued players, lay out the case for why they're considered such, and then use that case to tell ourselves a story of how a teammate could benefit instead.

Reborn on the Bayou

The Popular Play: Willie Snead IV and Ted Ginn Jr

The Case:

  • Brandin Cooks, his 117 targets, and his top-10 WR finish are gone.
  • Snead played the second-most snaps among non-Cooks wide receivers last season.
  • Ginn isn't an every-down receiver (never more than 60 receptions or 800 yards).
  • Michael Thomas was a highly-efficient touchdown scorer last season, suggesting he could be a regression candidate (even with more targets this year).
  • Snead has over 200 targets, over 140 receptions, and almost 1,900 yards over the last two seasons with only 7 touchdowns, suggesting he could be the beneficiary of some touchdown progression.

The Alternate: Coby Fleener becomes a TE1.

As the cheesy section header (get used to those) would indicate, there's potential for Fleener to rebound from his disappointing debut in New Orleans. You read it all above: opportunity is available, touchdown regression is possible for the team's WR1, and the replacement receiver isn't a target hog. What if Snead's lack of touchdown scoring isn't a fluke? What if that's just not a strength of his?

Current Projections for Fleener:

ProjectorGRECYDTD
Dodds 15 50 620 5
Henry 16 55 660 4
Wood 16 50 650 5
Tremblay 16 53 681 4

If Fleener could just "take" 10% of Snead's projected production alone (in the 70-900-5 neighborhood), these numbers would be around 60 catches, 740 yards, and 5-6 touchdowns, which would project him to be in the TE10 range. But prior to last season, this had been an offense that has a long history of utilizing tight end more than most teams and the WR2 less than most teams. Let's look at how those positions finished between 2015 and 2011:

SeasonNO WR2NO TE
2015 31 6
2014 38 2
2013 55 1
2012 21 1
2011 35 2

Fleener is not Jimmy Graham. But is Fleener more athletically-gifted than a then-35-year-old Ben Watson (2015's TE6)? Is Snead any better than the previous players to finish as the second-highest receivers in New Orleans (Snead himself, Kenny Stills, and Lance Moore)? If Fleener doesn't see a bounceback, either Snead and Ginn have played well enough to garner a higher target share than they've ever had, or Alvin Kamara has emerged to dominate targets from out of the backfield.

Author's note: the rest of these will be shorter, but feel free to drop me a line at either hester@footballguys.com or @RyanHester13 if you want more reasoning for each.

Ty It Together

The Popular Play: Martellus Bennett

The Case:

  • Green Bay's offense is very good and prefers the pass.
  • Green Bay was excellent at the end of last season with Jared Cook exploiting mismatches.
  • Players tied to Aaron Rodgers are always viable fantasy assets.

The Alternate: Ty Montgomery finishes as an RB1.

Green Bay is pass-heavy, but passing efficiency actually correlates with rushing fantasy points. Don't be scared away from backs on pass-first teams. Montgomery is the only player on his depth chart with NFL running back experience, and he is an excellent receiver, so he'll be used in that capacity often.

Current Projections:

ProjectorGRSHYDTDRECYDTD
Dodds 15 168 803 6 40 332 2
Henry 15 158 720 7 47 385 2
Wood 15 160 740 5 41 320 1
Tremblay 16 175 726 5 31 242 1

Already, Montgomery is David Dodds' projected RB14. Even if you don't believe Montgomery can handle any more carries than shown above, he's just two more rushing touchdowns away from RB1 status. On the receiving side, Montgomery had 44 receptions last season after not being the running back until mid-season, making the projections look conservative there.

What if he adds a dozen? Those would come with maybe 100-110 yards, perhaps even a touchdown. If all of those things were to occur in addition to the above, Montgomery would be in the RB7/RB8 territory. For all the love Bennett is getting, perhaps some of the production assumed to be going to him will come in the form of the run game instead.

Starvin' Marvin

The Popular Play: Eric Ebron

The Case

  • With 61 receptions and 711 yards in 13 games last season, all that was missing for Ebron were touchdowns (he had just one).
  • Anquan Boldin led the team with eight receiving touchdowns and is no longer in town.
  • Boldin ran routes from the slot and was most effective in the middle of the field.
  • Ebron's athleticism allows for him to be productive in the same parts of the field as Boldin was.

The Alternate: Marvin Jones Jr is a WR3.

Touchdowns are random and unpredictable, but certain players are better at scoring them than others. What if Ebron just isn't a good touchdown scorer? In his three-year NFL career, Ebron has seven touchdowns (including two seasons with one each). In three years of college football, he played 34 games, had 112 receptions, 1,805 yards, and scored just 8 times. Jones, however, has a 10-touchdown season under his belt (2013 in Cincinnati). He once scored four times in the same game. Again, Ebron's best season (pro or college) is five.

Current Projections:

PROJECTORGRECYDTD
Dodds 14 60 684 5
Henry 15 68 770 5
Wood 14 56 600 3
Tremblay 15 60 667 3

Our projectors have Ebron scoring four touchdowns. What if Jones gets two of those? Giving Jones just one more catch every other game, along with his career 14 yards per catch average, and those two scores move him from the WR55 range to a fantasy WR3.

Wild West

The Popular Play: Danny Woodhead

The Case

  • Baltimore led the NFL in pass attempts each of the last two seasons.
  • Woodhead is a great pass-catcher.
  • Joe Flacco has a history of passing to dynamic running backs.

The Alternate: Terrance West becomes an RB2 (with a ceiling even higher).

Baltimore's depth chart is precariously thin after the season-ending surgery to Kenneth Dixon. West is motivated by playing for his hometown team. He lost 12 pounds this offseason, has worked on his pass-blocking, and sharpened his route-running under the tutelage of Woodhead himself. 

Current Projections

PROJECTORGRSHYDTDRECYDTD
Dodds 15 190 754 6 36 252 1
Henry 16 210 820 6 28 190 1
Wood 16 205 825 6 29 210 1
Tremblay 16 163 664 4 35 247 1

West and Woodhead are both projected in the low-end RB2 range. But Woodhead is 32 and coming off an ACL tear. What if he were injured again? The team isn't thrilled with Javorius Allen, meaning West's role could expand. Right down to Woodhead himself, the situation has a lot of similarities with San Diego last year. It's very unlikely that West becomes 2017's Melvin Gordon III, but an expansion of his assumed role would mean exceeding expectations. And an injury to Woodhead gives him every-week RB1 upside.

More Situations

To spare you from a "War and Peace" length column, here are some other situations where an "alternate sleeper" can be found, in quick-hit format.

Questions, comments, suggestions, and other feedback on this piece are always welcome via e-mail hester@footballguys.com