Over the years, it’s become the norm to draft in a serpentine fashion. If you’re picking first overall in your traditional fantasy football snake draft, go ahead and grab a beverage and take a bathroom break -- it’s going to be a while.
Snake drafts are popular, but they have their limitations. Someone drafting at the tail-end of the first round never has an opportunity to select a top player, while the guy picking first has enough time to get his hair cut before making his second selection. You can’t always get the players you want, because the structure of a snake draft doesn’t allow you to get all the players you want.
The structure of an auction draft, on the other hand, does the complete opposite. Instead of being stuck drafting a particular pack of players, your team can look like whatever you want it to look like. The entire player pool is yours for the taking. In turn, it becomes even more important for you to know which players are values and which ones you should probably avoid.
And that’s where I come in to help.
Target: Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago Bears
The quarterback position is deep, and that means you can spend minimal money on the position in your auction draft. If you subscribe to the late-round quarterback draft strategy, that’s all this is. Instead of “late round,” we’re thinking of this as “cheap.”
Cutler’s been drafted so far, on average, as a backup quarterback in fantasy. In other words, he’s not in high demand. And because owners are typically afraid to spend a high dollar value on bench players, he becomes the perfect option as your starting quarterback at almost no cost.
Keep in mind that this has just as much to do with Cutler’s situation as it does Cutler the quarterback. We know he’s got two of the best receivers in the game lining up on either side of him each play, a running back who can catch the ball out of the backfield and a tight end that can tower over defenders in the middle of the field. But most importantly, he’s got Marc Trestman.
Trestman didn’t only help the Bears become relevant offensively last year, but he did it with Josh McCown under center for nearly half the season. In total, Bears quarterbacks finished with nine top-12 weekly quarterback performances (QB1 start-worthy weeks in a 12-team fantasy league), which was tied for fifth-most in the entire league a season ago.
The offense isn’t any worse in 2014, and Jay Cutler is entering the season healthy. If they can continue their pace from a season ago, he’s easily the one cheap quarterback pick who can become a high-end QB1 in fantasy.
Avoid: Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos
Be prepared. Someone is going to overspend on Peyton Manning. It’s fine to value the Broncos’ historic passer as your No. 1 quarterback, but don’t value him in a tier of his own. Because when you do that, you’re not only ignoring obvious regression, but you’re bound to pay too much on the quarterback position.
Manning was great in 2013; there’s no denying that. He finished with 11 weekly top-12 quarterback performances, which tied him for the most at the position with Drew Brees. Moreover, nine of those 11 were top-six weeks from Manning -- if Manning was putting up a good fantasy day, there was about an 82% chance that he was putting up a great fantasy day.
Things have changed in Denver, though. Eric Decker’s now in New York, and the running game will feature a new running back. With their offseason acquisitions, the defense should be better, too, which could call for fewer passing plays given game flow. After all, only Cleveland and Atlanta dropped back to pass more times than Denver a season ago.
The fact is, you can’t easily repeat greatness. And in a lot of auction drafts, fantasy owners are assuming Peyton Manning can just go out there and throw another 55 touchdown passes. That’s not a good bet to place.
Target: LeSean McCoy, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
Every position appears to be deeper in fantasy football this year compared to last, and that’s great news for folks wanting to spend on premier players. Unlike a season ago, the running back position isn’t as bleak as you move into a snake draft’s 5th, 6th or even 7th round. You can stock up on safe, top-notch running backs and still build depth with your auction dollars as the draft progresses.
In turn, target either LeSean McCoy or Jamaal Charles. I prefer McCoy due to his system with Chip Kelly, but both players work within this strategy. And once you get one of them, feel free to pass up on some of the first- and second-round talent (aside from DeMarco Murray, who seems criminally undervalued), snagging a couple of players like Toby Gerhart, Shane Vereen, Rashad Jennings, Joique Bell or even Trent Richardson for some depth.
Avoid: Chris Johnson, RB, New York Jets
This has almost become an obligatory thing to state, but don’t draft Chris Johnson. Don’t buy him in an auction draft. Stay far, far away from him.
While I mentioned spending big on one of your starting running backs and going fairly cheap with a handful of other ones, don’t let one of the other ones be Chris Johnson. Why? Well, of the players going for a similar price as Johnson, he’s certainly one with the most ambiguity in terms of how many touches he’ll receive in 2014. And keep in mind, even if he’s a volume back, his effectiveness isn’t something you want to mess with.
Over the last two years, Johnson’s played in 32 games. In those 32 games, he’s finished with 15 weekly top-24 running back performances –- roughly 47% of his games end up being as usable ones in fantasy. That type of rate is what you’d find from a middle-of-the-road RB2 in pretend pigskin, despite Chris Johnson getting an RB1 workload.
So while you’ll look at his final standings over the last two seasons and see 13th- (2012) and 9th- (2013) ranked finishes, know that the journey in getting those fantasy totals is a complete, unwanted roller coaster ride. He’ll give you huge weeks, but when he doesn’t, your team is in trouble.
Target: Heath Miller, TE, Pittsburgh Steelers
Like quarterbacks, the tight end position in most fantasy leagues isn’t a scarce one. You typically start just one on your team each week, making the pool of available tight ends plentiful. So while some owners spend on tight ends like Vernon Davis or Jordan Cameron, you can actually give up just a dollar and still find a lot of value. If your dollar play doesn’t pan out, go ahead and hit the waiver wire -- tons of tight ends will be available.
The best dollar tight end right now is Heath Miller. After suffering an ACL tear late in the 2012 season, Miller wasn’t the same throughout 2013. As a result, he saw 11 fewer red zone targets (20 versus 9), scoring six fewer red zone touchdown (7 versus 1).
And the good news is that Pittsburgh’s 2013 red zone target snatcher, Jerricho Cotchery, is no longer on the team. Cotchery finished with 22 red zone targets for Pittsburgh in 2013, just one shy of Antonio Brown’s team-high 23. Brown scored on just one of his targets, while Cotchery scored on 10 of his.
Lance Moore will be replacing Cotchery in the slot in Pittsburgh, and he’s four inches shorter and weighs over 20 pounds less than Cotchery does. None of Ben Roethlisberger’s receivers are big bodies except for Heath Miller, who, I should add, is finally healthy. Expect his red zone numbers to skyrocket, making him a candidate to bounce back and become the No. 4 tight end he was during his first season, 2012, in Todd Haley’s offense.
Avoid: Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills
Early indications are that Sammy Watkins is a sixth rounder in snake drafts, which is close to being a starter for teams in a 12-team league. That’s translated to the auction format as well.
Please don’t draft him at that high of a cost.
I understand the allure with Watkins: he can fly down the field, should see little competition, and the Bills invested a lot in their fourth overall selection. But if history is any indication, Watkins won’t be close to a weekly fantasy starter.
Watkins is currently the 29th-priciest wide receiver in auction drafts. Last year, the 29th-best receiver compiled roughly 190 PPR fantasy points. In order for Watkins to live up to that cost – in order for him to score 190 fantasy points – he’d need to catch 60 passes for 1,000 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Seems easy, right? Well, not when you consider only 17 rookie wide receivers have ever totaled 1,000 receiving yards and only five have done it since the year 2000. Not only that, but the Bills were the third run-heaviest team in the entire NFL last year, boasting one of the more undesirable quarterback situations in the league. So just because he’s a top prospect, we shouldn’t assume Sammy Watkins is going to light up the fantasy world during his rookie season. There are better ways to spend your money.
JJ Zachariason is editor-in-chief of numberFire.com.