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Draft Analysis

Favorite Fliers

by Adam Levitan
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:09 pm ET

The first couple rounds of a fantasy draft are boring to me. We’ve poked and prodded guys like Matt Forte, Eddie Lacy and Dez Bryant so much that even the casual fantasy owner knows their whole life story.

But as each round of the draft passes, our edge over lesser-informed enemies grows wider. And when we get to Rounds 11-14 of a 16-team draft, we really get the chance to flex our muscles.

I like to call this area of the draft the “Flier Range.” Our goal is not to acquire boring, low-upside players who get singles. We want the Pedro Alvarezes and Adam Dunns of the world – when they actually connect, the ball goes a long way.

With this strategy, we’re going to strike out a lot. Last year’s Favorite Fliers column whiffed on Roy Helu, Zach Sudfeld, Rueben Randle and Coby Fleener among others. But we hit big with Jordan Cameron and Joique Bell, and also finished in the black with Michael Floyd and Jay Cutler.

The point is that these are low-risk lottery tickets that can be discarded cheaply if it doesn’t work out. We should be targeting talented, athletic, high-upside players that just need a break or two in order to emerge as a top-40 option.  

For this column, a flier must have an ADP (average draft position) of 115.0 or later, as defined by Fantasy Football Calculator’s ADP report. That means guys I like such as Zach Ertz, Devonta Freeman, Jeremy Hill, Christine Michael, Brandin Cooks and Kyle Rudolph are out.

So here we go with the 2013 Favorite Fliers, listed in order of how badly I want them:

1. Ladarius Green, ADP 128.0
We no longer need to establish Ladarius Green’s status as an athletic freak. The cat is already out of the bag on the 24-year-old that goes 6’6/240 and has 4.5 wheels. We also shouldn’t have to establish that 34-year-old Antonio Gates is done – he averaged 3.0 catches for 27.8 yards with one touchdown over the final eight games last year.

All we need to find out now is how the San Diego coaching staff views Green. Last year, they finally began to take the shackles off in Week 13. From that point forward (seven games including playoffs), Green played on 59.7 percent of the Chargers’ offensive snaps. That would be an OK percentage if he was a strict pass-catching tight end, but he only ran pass routes on 39.5 percent of his snaps. So we had a part-time player that was blocking a majority of the time, which led to wildly inconsistent box-score production.

The hope is that Green has improved as a route-runner and the coaches are ready to let him emerge as a No. 2 or 3 option in a thin pass game. This is exactly the kind of situation we look for in an ideal flier.

2. Marvin Jones ADP 126.3
It wasn’t a good start to camp for Marvin Jones, as he missed nearly two weeks due to an ankle injury sustained at a post-minicamp workout. Hopefully that will keep him in the flier range. Former OC Jay Gruden’s questionable talent evaluation skills meant Jones played on just 48.0 percent of the snaps last year as he rotated with Mohamed Sanu, but he still posted a 51-712-10 line. New OC Hue Jackson won’t stand for that usage, as he immediately inserted Jones as his primary bookend to A.J. Green and moved Sanu into the slot. Now Jones will likely be playing 75 percent of the snaps at a minimum. He has a real shot at 70 catches and 1,000 yards even as the Bengals shift to a more run-based approach.

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3. Kenny Britt ADP 158.2
Kenny Britt spent the first the first two years of his NFL career with Jeff Fisher (2009 and 2010), compiling 84 catches for 1,476 yards and 12 touchdowns in 28 games. In the first two games of the 2011 season, he went 5-136-2 and 9-135-1. Showing overpowering physical ability, he was on his way to being a fantasy and real-life star. Then Britt tore his ACL in a Week 3 game against the Broncos, the off-field headaches started to pile up and he eventually bottomed out as one of the worst receivers in the NFL last year.

All is not lost, however. Britt is still just 25 years old, has been reunited with Fisher in St. Louis and reportedly “seems like a changed man” at camp. He’s been getting a ton of work with the first unit in a receiving corps desperate for a true No. 1. Based on raw talent, Britt will run circles around the likes of Brian Quick, Stedman Bailey and Chris Givens.

4. Carlos Hyde ADP 115.8
If you’re interested in handcuffs, we have you covered here and here – I don’t include handcuffs in this “Favorite Fliers” list. I have Carlos Hyde here because he’s worth a standalone pick. That would have been the case before the season-ending injury to Kendall Hunter (ACL), LaMichael James’ elbow injury and Marcus Lattimore’s continuing struggles to regain health. Frank Gore, now 31, averaged just 3.65 YPC over the final ten games of last year and is projected to see something around 220 carries this year even if he does stay healthy. The 49ers clearly see the writing on the wall with Gore, having used a fourth-rounder on Hunter in 2011, a second-rounder on James in 2012 and a fourth-rounder on Lattimore in 2013. The difference with second-rounder Hyde is that he’s true feature back material, one that’s capable of capitalizing on a run-first scheme and dominant run-blocking line.

5. James White ADP 152.9
When we talk about early-camp winners among rookies, two names immediately come to mind: James White and Brandin Cooks. White has been referred to as a “phenom” by the Boston Globe, and top beat mean Mike Reiss expects White to both threaten Stevan Ridley for early-down work and be a “significant part” of the attack. Perhaps most importantly, coach Bill Belichick lavished praise on the fourth-round rookie, dispelling notions that he’s a mere passing back by calling him a three-down player. The path to playing time is not that crowded here, as Shane Vereen has been unable to stay healthy and Ridley has fumbled nine times across the last two seasons. White is already ahead of Brandon Bolden and can be penciled in as the backup to both Vereen and Ridley.

6. Markus Wheaton ADP 149.7
These are not your older brother’s Steelers. This Pittsburgh team skews toward the pass under OC Todd Haley, something that allowed Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery to combine for 113 receptions and 16 touchdowns last season. Both those guys are gone, leaving coach Mike Tomlin to talk about the “gravity” of the situation for second-year breakout candidate Markus Wheaton.

Wheaton has been handed the starting “X” job opposite “Z” Antonio Brown, leaving newly acquired slot man Lance Moore to merely do some dirty work. Wheaton, whose 4.45 Combine time doesn’t indicate how fast he plays, drew Mike Wallace comparisons coming out of Oregon State – and he may even run better routes. Reports from both national and local media say Wheaton is off to a strong start at camp. “He can be that guy that teams look at in the first four games and are like, ‘Who is that dude running past people?’” said Ike Taylor, who has been going toe-to-toe with Wheaton in practices.

7. Justin Hunter ADP 138.6
Justin Hunter embodies a “flier” pick. He costs very little on draft day because he played on just 340 snaps as a rookie, has an erratic/unproven quarterback and is on a team that wants to run the rock to win. But if we just look at raw ability, there’s a lot to like – especially in the red zone (four of Hunter’s 18 catches went for touchdowns last year). Hunter has packed on an extra 15 pounds to his 6-foot-4 frame and has moved ahead of Nate Washington into the No.2 receiver role. The Titans, Vegas’ 29th choice to win the Super Bowl among 32 teams, project to be trailing a ton this year. We could very well see a lot of garbage-time shots to Hunter late in games from Jake Locker’s powerful arm. Mike Clay suggested Hunter as this year's Alshon Jeffery here.

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8. Jordan Matthews ADP 129.8
The Eagles are going to start Jordan Matthews off as an oversized slot complement to outside receivers Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper. It’s a position lead-footed veteran Jason Avant had 38 catches on 76 targets last season, so there’s not a ton to be excited about – especially with Darren Sproles in the mix and Zach Ertz’s role expanding between the numbers. But Matthews has a higher ceiling than that slot role for two reasons. First, he was the unquestioned star of the Eagles’ offseason, drawing comparisons to Terrell Owens. Second, Maclin is coming off an ACL tear and Cooper is ideally a role-playing blocker/jump-ball specialist. There’s a very reasonable chance that Matthews ends up as an every-down, outside receiver in the Chip Kelly scheme at some point during the season.

9. Andre Williams ADP 151.9
Anyone who watched the Hall of Fame Game on Sunday night is moving Andre Williams up their draft boards. We know Rashad Jennings is going to be the starter, but he’s a 29-year-old with no special running qualities. Williams showed considerably more burst and power, and is also locked in as the goal-line back. The biggest problem is that the rookie is a zero in the passing game, but non-PPR owners could do much worse. The Giants appear to be very high on the Doak Walker Award winner, who ran for 2,177 yards and 28 touchdowns for Boston College last season.

10. Andrew Hawkins ADP 161.1
I like Andrew Hawkins to be a big part of Cleveland’s passing game whether Josh Gordon’s suspension stands or not. They want to be a conservative offense under Ground ‘N Pound disciple Mike Pettine, meaning plenty of short throws. Hawkins is not going to score very many touchdowns at 5’7/180, but he is going to get open out of the slot and do more after the catch than people think. As a true jitterbug with impressive quicks and fearlessness over the middle, PPR owners in deep formats should be buying on Baby Hawk. He’ll find a way to get 3-5 catches weekly at a minimum.

11. Johnny Manziel ADP 138.6
The quarterback battle in Cleveland is comical. In one corner, we have a guy nicknamed Johnny Football, a Heisman trophy winner who was drafted to be a franchise quarterback. In the other corner, we have a 28-year-old journeyman with four career starts who is coming off an ACL tear. Even if Brian Hoyer starts Week 1, I’d be stunned if he held the job for more than a month. So what we’ll have is a highly-touted, mobile rookie quarterback in the very capable hands of OC Kyle Shanahan. Sound familiar? It should, because Robert Griffin III took the fantasy world by storm by running for 815 yards and seven touchdowns during his rookie year with Shanny. Manziel is obviously a different kind of runner (more spontaneous than schemed), but that’s OK. Running stats are gold in the fantasy quarterback world, and some passing stats will be there too – especially if Josh Gordon gets on the field this season.

12. Kelvin Benjamin ADP 121.5
Jerricho Cotchery, Greg Olsen and Jason Avant can only effectively work the middle at the short and intermediate levels. That leaves Benjamin to do what he does best – run simple patterns deep down the field and use his freakish 35-inch arms along with his 6-foot-5 frame to dominate at the catch point. It’s a perfect fit for Cam Newton, who has a powerful arm but can often lack touch and accuracy. I like Benjamin far more as a non-PPR flier thanks to his red-zone ability. He might only catch 50-60 balls, but 7-9 touchdowns is in play.

13. Donte Moncrief ADP N/A
The Colts’ wideout depth chart may seem crowded, but I don’t see it that way. Reggie Wayne is 35 and coming off an ACL tear – I don’t buy the glowing reports coming from camp. Hakeem Nicks’ litany of lower-leg injuries combined with an apparent lack of motivation have his career circling the toilet. The Colts are calling Nicks out publicly for not being in shape and listing him as a backup on the initial depth chart. It’s also worth noting that Donte Moncrief was listed as a second-teamer on that chart, ahead of incumbents Griff Whalen and Da’Rick Rogers. Moncrief is incredibly young as he’ll turn just 20 years old Wednesday, but his jaw-dropping Combine measurables scream 1A NFL receiver. It’s not far-fetched to think we could see those assets in action with Andrew Luck sooner rather than later.

14. Lance Dunbar ADP 154.9
Last year, Scott Linehan’s Lions offense produced two 50-catch running backs in Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. Now Linehan is in Dallas, where third-year back Lance Dunbar has been buzzing throughout the offseason as someone the Cowboys are really high on. It makes sense, as Dunbar flashed a little juice last year (5.0 YPC on 30 attempts) and is a plus player in the pass game. He’s a nice change-of-pace option behind workhorse DeMarco Murray, a spot that should yield 6-8 touches per game. Deeper PPR owners should take note.

Honorable Mention
Kenbrell Thompkins – If Aaron Dobson can’t get over this foot injury, Thompkins becomes the favorite to be Tom Brady’s primary outside receiver.
Marqise Lee – Good bet to lead the Jags in receptions this year. Cecil Shorts’ injuries are really piling up.
Andre Holmes – Read up on Holmes in this in-depth piece from Nick Mensio. Then note that Holmes is listed as a starter on the Raiders’ initial depth chart.
Richard Rodgers – I think Green Bay’s tight end spot will end up as a committee, but Rodgers had the momentum in the spring.
Cody Latimer – Led my non-RB handcuff column with Latimer. Find out why here.

Adam Levitan
Adam Levitan is in his seventh season covering football and basketball for Rotoworld. He won the Fantasy Sports Writers Association award for Best Series in 2011 and 2009, and ESPN's overall fantasy football title in 2000. Find him on Twitter.