Fantasy Football Intelligence – The Real World Can Invade Your Fantasy Life

The NFL regular season is little more than a month away. Your fantasy draft is coming up even sooner. No need to panic, we still have plenty of time to prepare a winning strategy for your team and still enjoy the rest of the summer.

Last week’s blog was an introduction to the basic philosophy of the FF Intel system. This week we will begin focusing on the expected performance of the real NFL teams, and how what we expect of them can influence who we will want to draft for our fantasy squads.

Each team will get a grade:

A (10+ wins/likely playoffs)
B (7-9 wins with upside)
C (6 wins or less)

The key takeaway is that the best teams generally produce the most useful fantasy players and bad teams generate fewer overall opportunities to score, so you want the lion’s share of your talent to be on winning or at least competitive teams. The thumbnails below are a quick download on each team. Feel free to do additional research, but if you are not the research type, just try to remember the big picture when you are deciding between players.

“A” Teams (2018 Records in Parentheses)

Chicago Bears (12-4) – Despite last year’s record, this is a soft “A” team. The division should be tougher than last year. Green Bay and Minnesota should combine for more than the 14 wins they had in 2018. The Bears’ success is built on their defense and their former defensive coordinator is now coaching Denver. HC Matt Nagy’s offense is creative and they were top 10 last year, but the performance is spread out. They have some RB3, WR3 and Flex candidates (Allen Robinson, Tarik Cohen, David Montgomery, Anthony Miller) to go with a top 5 defense. There will be weeks where QB Trubisky scores well, but his lack of consistency is risky. He put up two scores in only seven of the 14 games he started (I use that metric because a 2 score game is “par” for a fantasy QB. You will have a hard time winning in the weeks you do not get that production.) TE Trey Burton was a trendy pick last year, but he disappointed. There is a fair amount of TE depth this year, so I wouldn’t reach for him among the top 10.

Dallas Cowboys (10-6) – This is a softer “A” as well, but there are useful players here. Dallas will benefit from four games against the Redskins and the Giants as well as home games with Miami and Buffalo. Their schedule begins with Giants, @Redskins and Dolphins. 3-0 is a distinct possibility. Zeke Elliott’s holdout is the wild card that can upend Dallas. The Cowboys are not as deep or well-coached as the Eagles so they are likely to be competing for a wild card. If Elliott comes in late and is rusty, or in a worst case scenario misses games, the Cowboys could drop a winnable game or two and end up on the outside looking in. If healthy and playing, Elliott is a top 3 pick, arguably #1; if his holdout drags on, we’ll discuss how to deal with it closer to draft time. Amari Cooper is poised to have a big year. He is Dallas’ clear cut #1 receiver and will see a lot of volume. Prescott accounted for at least two scores in six of the nine games he played with Cooper. Here’s what scares me about Cooper – 18 of 53 catches, 397 of 725 yards and five of his six scores came in two of his nine games with the Cowboys. When drafting your fantasy teams, you want consistency in your early round picks and depending on your league, Cooper looks like no worse than a 4th or early 5th round pick. Someone may even reach for him in the 3rd. On the other hand, if Zeke’s situation is resolved and your league drafts two QBs, Prescott may deliver good value. 18 of his 28 passing and running TDs came in Cooper’s nine games, so that number could be more like 34 scores this year. Neither Michael Gallup nor Randall Cobb excite me, nor does a returning Jason Witten. Dallas’ defense is intriguing. They will be undervalued in most rankings because they only scored 1 TD last year and they had some ups and downs, but they held nine opponents under 20 points, they have some talent and as I mentioned, they have some cherries on the schedule. We’ll talk more about streaming defenses but starting the season with the Cowboys defense may pay dividends.

Green Bay Packers (6-9-1) – I’m projecting a 2018 “C” to jump to an “A”, and I’d put the confidence level at 60%. From a personnel standpoint, the Pack are improved on defense, which will help Aaron Rodgers who limped through an off 2018 in which he “only” threw for 4,400 yards and 25 TDs against two picks. My concern is with Matt LaFleur, the new, inexperienced coach who may not be able to put the pieces together. Even if they struggle, I think the floor is eight wins, two more than last year, and there is plenty of fantasy gold to be mined in Green Bay. This will be the first time in many years that a healthy Rodgers is not the #1 QB off the board, but he is still top 5 (Drafting QB’s is an art that will be discussed in a week or two). “Free Aaron Jones” was a rallying cry in fantasy last year as first injury, then Mike McCarthy and finally injury again held back the Packers’ most talented runner. He produced borderline RB1 numbers when healthy and will probably be drafted 25-30th this year. Know your rules carefully before drafting. Jones should do well between the 20’s, but only two of his nine scores came from within five yards and a healthy Rodgers likes the ball in his own hands at the goal line. Last year Rodgers passed or ran for five scores inside the 5 yard line. If your league undervalues yardage or is TD dependent, drop Jones a few spots on your board. Davante Adams is a top 3 WR and has scored 10+ TDs the last three years and is hitting his prime at 26. One of the other Packers WRs may also be useful but we don’t know which yet. Today the money is on Geronimo Allison. He may provide you an inexpensive way to tie into a top offense, but let’s see what the preseason brings. Unless you own a time machine, don’t draft Jimmy Graham as a TE1. If you have a large enough roster for 2 TEs, he may have some TD upside, but between age and health, he is unreliable. GB cut some veterans on defense but has been investing draft capital the last couple of years. The defense will likely go undrafted, but five of their first seven games are at home and they will have some productive weeks.

Indianapolis Colts (10-6) – They went 9-1 to finish the year after starting 1-5. The Chiefs took them to the woodshed in the playoffs and Andrew Luck channeled post-season Peyton Manning. Nevertheless, the Colts look like a solid bet to win their division and contend in the AFC. Frank Reich had an impressive first year as HC and the Colts offensive line was vastly improved over prior years which is crucial given Luck’s injury history (he’s already nursing a sore calf). With Chris Ballard and Reich leading the organization, the Colts are far better run than they were during the Ryan Grigson clown show. Luck is a top 3 fantasy QB if he stays on the field. He will win you games and be fun to watch. The WR/TE picture is muddled. T.Y. Hilton is the #1 WR and good for 1,100-1,400 yards if healthy but does not see a lot of red zone work. Behind him is former Panther Devin Funchess whose size is good for the red zone, but he does not get a lot of separation. I suspect that a more precise passer like Luck will be able to do more for him than Cam Newton did, but he probably won’t see enough target volume to be consistent week-to-week. The Colts drafted a burner named Parris Campbell, but breakout rookie WRs are few and far between, so unless Hilton goes down in the pre-season, I’d wait and see on Campbell. At TE, Eric Ebron had a career year and scored 14 TDs, but he may not be the best TE on the team. When healthy, Jack Doyle is a better all-around receiver and Luck uses him a lot. Expect Ebron to regress and group him with the second level of TEs, well below the top 3. The Colts had a top 10 defense last year but was middle of the pack in sacks and turnovers. Their young LB Darius Leonard is a stud and they will be winning more games, creating more defensive scoring opportunities.

IMPORTANT STRATEGY POINT:
Defenses are not consistent year-to-year. The genius who reached for the Jags in your league last year either pivoted quickly or had a bad year. The fumbles, interceptions and especially TDs that drive defensive scoring are very difficult to predict. There are very few situations in which it pays to be the first to draft a defense. There are two different strategies to employ depending on the size of your roster:

1. If your league drafts a lot of players and you have backups at all positions with at least two defenses, I recommend a “platoon” strategy. Using a schedule and this analysis, identify a few different pairs of defenses whose schedules complement each other in terms of weak opponents. In general, look for defenses that are not necessarily ranked top 5 or even 10 but whose schedules include plenty of “B” and “C” teams with questionable offenses. Look at the schedules side-by-side and pick pairs that make sense. How would you like your defense to play this schedule?

NYG, @Mia, MIA, @Buf, @Was, NYG, @NYJ, CLE, @NYG, MIN, @Det, DAL, BUF, @Chi, @Cin, BUF and if you play week 17, MIA or WAS, take your pick.

This is Dallas (27th in fantasy points in 2018) and New England (7th). I’d sign up for it right now.

2. If your league has smaller rosters and many teams carry one defense at a time, use a streaming strategy. In a 12 team league, if no more than half of the league carries only one defense at a time, that means that in a given week, at least 14 defenses are available. You can find a decent defense playing a bad offense and roll with it. This is a fairly popular strategy among top players and you may be competing with others doing the same thing. In season, you can read this blog or email me ([email protected]) for suggestions.

Both strategies allow you to use later picks on defense. Thus, you can take more chances on upside RBs and WRs later in your draft when others grab the top ranked defenses. Remember, at any given time there are always two teams on the field and the incompetence of an opponent is often as relevant as the ability of your defense.

Kansas City Chiefs (12-4) – They were a pinball machine on offense last year and even with some regression should still be a juggernaut. Andy Reid is a great coach, excluding clock management and the post-season, and he has a lot to work with here. The Chiefs may win fewer games because they took some hits on defense but there will be plenty of shootouts. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chargers win the division this year, but you want a piece of this offense if you can get it. Mahomes is the presumptive #1 QB, but may get taken too soon by the person who drafts exclusively off last year’s stats. Tyreek Hill dodged the law and the commissioner and is a top 5 receiver, even with some regression. Travis Kelce is no worse than a top 3 TE, perhaps #1. All will be high picks but are among the safest options at their positions. If the chips don’t fall right for you to draft any of them, the next best option is RB Damien Williams. He inherited Kareem Hunt’s #1 role and he ran (and received) with it last year. He scored six times in the last four games with 353 yards. His best case is a top 5 RB performance, but he’s never had to handle 200+ touches in the NFL (he averaged 15/game in the last four), so durability is a question mark. Carlos Hyde is not putting a lot of pressure on him, but he may be a change of pace/vulture if Reid wants to keep Williams fresh. Also a risk, but far cheaper on draft day is Sammy Watkins, the former #1 pick of the Bills who played for the Rams in 2017. I’ve bought into this fool’s gold a few times and may again. He is talented and explosive but has been mostly unimpressive the last two years. He constantly battles foot problems that have cost him 14 games over the last three years. He had 8 TDs on only 39 receptions for the Rams in 2017 which isn’t sustainable, but he had over 1,000 yards and 9 TDs for the Bills in 2015 before his foot troubles. He is a good high risk/high reward pick as a WR3 or 4. If you want a safer, healthier pick, try Demarcus Robinson who will likely be the 3rd WR, but his upside is lower. The Chiefs defense was the second highest scoring unit in fantasy last year, not because they are good as much as because the offense was killing everyone and opponents had to take a lot of chances. They were 27th against the run and 32nd against the pass. Let someone else roll the dice on them repeating the 52 sacks and 4 TDs. They lost a number of starters on D in the offseason.

Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) – Take a moment and give these guys some credit. They moved from a long-time home, haven’t yet established a sizeable LA fanbase and they are playing in a stadium smaller than every other NFL team. They are another year away from moving into their “permanent” home, where they are ostensibly a tenant with the Rams as their landlord. In a parallel universe, they would be the west coast version of the Jets. Instead, they hired Anthony Lynn for his first head coaching job and appear to have made a very good choice. They have built a well-balanced team that tied Kansas City for the best record in the AFC last year. Had they not lost the tie-breaker they could have been the #1 seed. Instead they had to go to Baltimore where they won on the road against a very tough team. Their reward for doing so was an ass kicking in Foxboro, but my point is, don’t sleep on the Chargers, they are very good. Fantasy wise, presuming he reports to camp (stay tuned), the first Charger off the board will be RB1 Melvin Gordon. Gordon is a steady, high volume performer. He runs, he catches passes and he gets virtually all of the short yardage red zone carries. He won’t lead the league in yards, but he’ll get enough and is a good bet for 10+ TDs if he is healthy (he missed a couple games last year and still got there). Depending on the rules of your league, Gordon is somewhere between the 5th and 8th best RB. The next Charger will be WR Keenan Allen. This is another guy whose value is rules dependent. He is best in a PPR league. His yardage totals will be respectable, but he will not score long TDs and he isn’t the go-to guy in the red zone. 4-7 TDs seems like his range. He has a significant injury history, but he suited up for all 16 games last year (though his goose egg in week 15 probably ended some fantasy seasons). If your league isn’t PPR, he probably will get drafted sooner than he should. One value pick on the Chargers might be WR Mike Williams, a former first rounder who has a nose for the end zone. The rest of his game is unproven, but with Tyrell Williams leaving for Oakland, he will get more chances. In a non-PPR league, I’d feel okay about Williams as a WR3. You could do worse than Philip Rivers as QB. Again, know your rules. If you have 6 pts for TD passes, I like Rivers better than if they are 4 pts because Rivers makes Brady look like Usain Bolt when it comes to running. He won’t give you any rushing points. (Literally none – 5 rushing yards the last two years.) But if the draft dictates that you wait on a QB, Rivers threw for 2+ scores in 13/16 games last year and you can work with that consistency. TE Hunter Henry is an interesting play. The Chargers offense traditionally uses the TE in the red zone and Henry has looked solid when he can stay on the field. If you don’t land one of the top 3 TEs, Henry should be in the mix. The Chargers defense is top 10 in real football and with a fairly friendly schedule will probably be no worse than top 5 in fantasy, though you will want to find a sub for the two KC games.

Los Angeles Rams (13-3) – The NFC West will be tougher this year. The 49ers should be better, the Seahawks are still a borderline playoff team and the Cardinals probably can’t be any worse (The Rams outscored them 65-9 in two games last year.) The Rams are still the class of the division though. Sean McVay got schooled in the Super Bowl, but he is still a great young coach. Like the Chiefs, you will want a piece of this offense if you can get it, but there are not nearly as many sure things here. The Rams had incredible health on their offensive line last year but changed out two starters in the offseason. The effect of that remains to be seen. All eyes in fantasy are on Todd Gurley’s knee. After being the consensus #1 overall pick last year, his end of the year performance and the offseason medical reports have his draft stock plummeting. You can make a case for him as the 8th to 12th best back depending on rules and circumstances. His ceiling isn’t as high and his floor is a lot lower now with the Rams carrying multiple insurance policies in case his knee balks. Final decisions on Gurley should not be made until the last minute, but based on what we know now, I would draft him as a 1,200 yard, 10-12 TD back with both upside and downside. He is the poster-child for a “hand-cuff” strategy, which is when you draft the backup to your starting RB to protect yourself against injury. The complication here is that we don’t know Gurley’s backup yet. Malcolm Brown has filled the role capably in the past, but the Rams traded up and drafted an explosive runner named Darrell Henderson in the 3rd round. We’ll have a better sense of the depth chart after week 3 of the pre-season, but unless your roster is impossibly small, you have to hand-cuff Gurley. In fact, in leagues with big rosters I would draft Gurley’s backup late even if I don’t have Gurley. You may earn some scorn from Gurley’s owner, but if his knee flares up and you end up with the Rams starter it will be well worth it. Ask the guys who drafted James Conner last year. Jared Goff will be a QB1 this year. He threw for 2+ scores in 10/16 games and accounted for 34 total TDs. He may be a bit underrated; I would take him ahead of Brees, Newton and Roethlisberger among others. The Rams WRs are all useful but not productive enough to be more than WR2’s and 3’s. Before blowing out his knee, Cooper Kupp was getting in the end zone regularly. If he is 100%, he would be my first choice among the Rams wideouts, but we probably won’t see a lot of him in the pre-season if the past is any indication. Robert Woods is consistent and will get you 6-8 scores and is the best PPR option. Brandon Cooks had almost identical numbers but is the faster player if long scores help you. The two are almost interchangeable and would be high end WR3’s, but less exciting as WR2’s. The Rams TEs are not draftable.

New England Patriots (11-5) – Death, taxes and the Patriots. Pencil them in for another AFC East title and they will be in the mix again for another championship. Every year the media drags out the narratives about the end of the dynasty; we should all end so well. Between the Chiefs, Chargers and Colts there will be some competition at the top, but this team will once again win 11-13 games. While the beat goes on for the Patriots, the fantasy pickings are slimmer than in years past. The Patriots will score more than their share of points, but the production looks to be spread out. Believe it or not, the most fantasy relevant Patriot will probably be James White in PPR leagues. Last year he had 1,176 rushing/receiving yards, 87 catches and 12 TDs. The most volatile number there is the 12 TDs, so if you draft White in a non-PPR league, or if you are banking on double-digit scores, caveat emptor. Not only did three of those TDs (all rushing) come in the two games Sony Michel missed, Rex Burkhead missed time last year as well. The Patriots also drafted Alabama’s Damien Harris so there will be a lot of options for Josh McDaniels when he is dialing up plays. The Patriots became more of a running team as the season went on, but the beauty of them is that they can change what they are doing on a dime, so I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to play the same smash-mouth style each week; it is just another thing they can do. After White, Michel is probably the most draftable, but he is probably a low end RB2/high end RB3/Flex due to the crowded backfield and his injury history. He’ll have some good weeks, but consistency is a concern. They will miss Rob Gronkowski’s blocking almost as much as his catching, but the blocking is easier to replace. I wouldn’t draft any of the TEs on the Patriots’ roster. If Ben Watson starts making plays after his four week suspension he may be worth a waiver claim, but check back in with me after week 5. The WR picture is cloudy too. Currently out with a thumb injury, Edelman is the top option, especially in PPR leagues. Last year he caught 74 for 850 after missing the first four games so he may slip farther than he should in your draft. He can go with the other 90/1,100 receivers with a 6-8 TD range. I’d rather have him in the 6th round than Keenan Allen in the 3rd or 4th, for instance. The rest of the WRs bear watching. Demaryius Thomas is on the PUP list. N’Keal Harry is a 1st round draft pick still learning the offense. One or the other might be worth a flyer but we don’t know yet. The Patriots own the rights to Josh Gordon. If he is reinstated he is an interesting play. If you have a huge roster you can stash him but be prepared for it to be a wasted roster spot. Last but not least, Tom Brady is no longer the top 3 QB he has been in the past, but neither is he over the cliff. Last year he accounted for 31 total TDs and only three went to Gronk, so another solid season (4,500 yards, 30 TDs) is not out of the question. He accounted for 2+ TDs in 9/16 games, which seems like a floor to me. He won’t run much and he probably doesn’t have top 5 upside, but he is comparable to Rivers and will have plenty of good starts. The Patriots defense benefits from the opposing QBs on their schedule and while not an every week play, will be productive.

New Orleans Saints (13-3) – Their season ended in heartbreaking fashion against the Rams but they are a well run, veteran organization so I am betting that they will be able to move on from it. They play in a division that promotes scoring (they averaged 28.5 points in NFC South games) and they also have Arizona and SF at home. They lost Mark Ingram in the off-season but added Latavius Murray which isn’t a huge drop off, and Alvin Kamara is their stud anyway. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Atlanta and Carolina both had down years and should bounce back. The Saints schedule starts with Houston at home and then they play the Rams and Seahawks on the road before coming home to face Dallas. A 1-3 start isn’t out of the question and to coin a phrase, may be “more probable than not”. Finally, Drew Brees isn’t getting any younger. He threw for under 4,000 yards (15 games), had 2+ scores in 9/15 games and only went over 300 yards twice in his last seven games and six times all season. New Orleans has shifted the offense to pass less than in the past, but can they crank it up again if they have to? They are probably going to lose a couple more games but should still be in the hunt at the end. From a fantasy perspective, Alvin Kamara is a top 3 RB and I wouldn’t argue with him at #1. Regardless of format, he is incredibly valuable. 1,500 total yards and 15 TDs is a conservative prediction if he is healthy. Latavius Murray takes over the Ingram role and is a good handcuff, though if Kamara goes down, Murray will probably be only 70-75% as productive. WR Michael Thomas just signed a $100M ($61M guaranteed) contract and like Kamara is top 3 at his position. He is Brees’ favorite target and is especially valuable in PPR formats (125 catches in 2018). TreQuan Smith is probably the second WR on the team but is not yet consistent enough to be counted on. Most of the offense will run through Kamara and Thomas making them incredibly valuable fantasy commodities. Despite my misgivings about Brees, he still accounted for 36 TDs in 15 games last year and he remains a back end QB1, high end QB2. If you end up with him, prepare to be infuriated when Sean Payton inserts Taysom Hill at QB to run option plays in the red zone. New Orleans defense can rush the passer but did not get a lot of turnovers or defensive scores last year. At the very least, they are probably playable in half their games.

Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) – Two years ago they won the Super Bowl with a rookie head coach and a backup quarterback. The defense had a fierce pass rush and was stout when they needed to be. The offense was creative with run/pass options, deep throws and a committee of running backs. After a slow start in 2018 they won their last three and knocked out the 12-4 Bears at Soldier Field in the playoffs, again with the backup QB. While the backup QB is now in Jacksonville, I believe the Super Bowl hangover has passed and the starting QB, who was an MVP candidate in 2017 before blowing out his knee, should return to form if his health holds. Taking advantage of two weak teams in the division and a reasonable schedule, the Eagles will contend for top seed if Wentz returns to MVP form. The first Eagle to go in fantasy drafts will be top 3 TE Zach Ertz. He could be the #1 TE, particularly in PPR. He is the best receiver on the team and gets plenty of looks in the red zone. Were Ertz to get hurt, quickly grab up Dallas Goedert, he will plug in nicely. If I had to select an Eagles RB, it would be Jordan Howard. Howard is primarily an early down runner and will probably get red zone work, but he is not a receiver. Additionally, Coach Pederson prefers a committee approach and this one is crowded. The Eagles drafted Miles Sanders from Penn State in the 2nd round which would indicate that they plan to use him liberally as well, though he needs to learn the offense. There are three more guys who saw the field last year – Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood and Josh Adams. None are draftable, but whoever sticks on the roster can further muck things up for Howard and Sanders. The WRs are an interesting group. Alshon Jeffrey is the top man and I’d sign on for him as my WR2. The other two, Nelson Agholor and DeSean Jackson have popped in the past (Agholor had 8 TDs in 2017) but their consistency is questionable. Jackson is a hit or miss deep threat, but if Agholor gets some run in the slot, he may become relevant since his 2017 performance was primarily with Wentz at the helm. Wentz is a potential bargain. Particularly if your roster is big enough to carry two QBs, I would take a chance on Wentz. After Mahomes, Luck and Rodgers, I think Wentz is as likely as anyone else to end up in that #4 spot and he is getting ranked below 4-5 other QBs. The Eagles defense may prove useful. They didn’t score any TDs last year after historically scoring a few each year. They ranked 12th in points allowed so they did some things right. Additionally, four games against the QBs of the Giants and Redskins as well as Buffalo and Miami will make them viable.

Stay tuned for the “B” teams in the next few days.

Hit me with questions or comments at [email protected].