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5 Players Who Fit Any Fantasy Football Roster Construction

Michael Pittman

Michael Pittman

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

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We’re almost done arguing.

For months fantasy managers and analysts alike have wrestled online about player ADPs and roster construction strategies that may or may not be optimal for 2022 redraft leagues. For months the back-and-forths have raged about which kind of player fits into which kind of strategy, and as ADPs have shifted over the past month, so too have the arguments about which guys will make it work for those who hammer wideouts early or drafters who go in on elite running backs.

It’s almost over. The regular season, when we snap out of our collective preseason haze and realize ours is first and foremost a weekly game, is nearly here. You can smell it if you stand still long enough. It reeks of sweaty palms and regret.

Now, more than ever, we need Unity Players: Guys who fit into any and all roster construction strategies. I’ve written extensively about the antifragile Zero RB strategy and its tough-nosed, hyper-fragile cousin, Robust RB. There are some players -- both running backs and wideouts -- who simply don’t matter to these approaches because their ADPs make them undraftable if you’re intent on creating a certain kind of roster. Robust RB folks aren’t taking Cooper Kupp or Justin Jefferson in the first round. Zero RB truthers probably have zero interest in Dalvin Cook or Najee Harris at ADP. So it goes.

Below are a handful of players who I think can -- or should -- fit into any sort of roster building approach. What exactly do I mean by this? Well, I don’t see why a Robust RB drafter would be interested in AJ Dillon at RB26, whereas Dillon certainly has appeal for those who stock up on receivers in the first few rounds. And I’m not sure why a Zero RB advocate would target Christian Kirk as WR41. Kirk, meanwhile, profiles as an excellent target for drafters who go heavy at running back early on.

Probably you could add 15 players to this list without much pushback, but these five guys stand out as workable for fantasy managers of any strategic bent. I used Fantasy Pros ADP data.

Michael Pittman (IND)
ADP: WR13, 37th overall

Gone are the days when we could take Pittman in the WR16-18 range. The secret is out: Frank Reich and the Colts are intent on running a more balanced offense in 2022 because, as Reich said, ground-and-pound teams don’t win Super Bowls. He’s right, per the analytics.

An Indianapolis offense not entirely centered on feeding Jonathan Taylor would be a decidedly positive development for Pittman, who this year gets both a quarterback upgrade and more threatening receivers to line up alongside him in three-receiver sets (standout rookie Alec Pierce and the always-tantalizing Parris Campbell). The addition of Pierce and the presence of the oft-injured Campbell hasn’t stopped Pittman from being Matt Ryan‘s clearcut No. 1 target. In a recent 11-on-11 scrimmage against the Lions, Pittman caught six of Ryan’s nine completions. That’s nice.

The main thing to know about Pittman: He’s good. Among receivers with at least 80 targets, Pittman was 13th in yards per route run last season despite horrific QB play from Carson Wentz down the stretch. He ranked 15th in wideout expected fantasy points per game, trapped in an offense that was 25th in pass rate over expected. A pass rate jump and a quarterback in Matt Ryan who has reportedly force-fed Pittman targets throughout training camp should offer Pittman the somewhat rare combination of a sturdy floor and a lofty ceiling.

How To Play It

Drafters who largely fade running back until the middle and late rounds can scoop up Pittman as their No. 3 receiver. Pittman alongside a pair like Justin Jefferson and Tyreek Hill, for instance, constitutes an embarrassment of Zero RB riches. You could quite easily have three top-12 fantasy receivers with a trio like this. Your league mates will seethe with jealousy. Enjoy it.

Those hammering running backs in the early going can draft Pittman as their WR1 and have a wideout who has a clear and present path to top-5 numbers. Pittman on a roster with two high-end running backs could give you the best of all worlds -- catnip for those obsessed with a balanced roster.

Courtland Sutton (DEN)
ADP: WR22, 58th overall

Sutton, following a massively disappointing 2021 campaign, has reportedly been Russell Wilson‘s favorite target throughout offseason workouts, practices, and into training camp. I think we can give Sutton something of a break for his down 2021 season. He was coming off a devastating 2020 knee injury and seeing targets for what was perhaps the worst QB duo in the entire league, playing in an offense that ranked 28th in pass rate over expected.

Now he has Wilson, who could propel the Denver offense into a mouth-watering upside scenario spelled out beautifully here by Rotoworld’s resident zoomer, Kyle Dvorchak. A natural red zone target in an offense that will likely be a “threes and layups” system -- predicated on deep shots and check downs -- Sutton has as much touchdown upside as all but the game’s elite receivers. Just last year, Sutton led all wideouts in intended air yards per target (and had one of the season’s lowest rates of catchable targets). That naturally leads to some volatile production. Catching passes from the NFL’s premiere downfield passer makes Sutton one of the most intriguing picks in 2022 redraft leagues.

The Sutton redraft hype is more than justified. Wilson in early August called Sutton “one of the best receivers I’ve seen in terms of understanding the game and what’s going on.”

Meanwhile, ESPN’s Jeff Legwold said last week that when Russell Wilson “really needs a completion or is moved off his spot,” he has looked to Sutton. And Denver head coach Nathaniel Hackett said Wilson’s comfort with his big boundary receiver has only improved since the start of training camp.

“We define how people are open in different ways,” Hackett told The Athletic. “Now, Russ is starting to realize (Sutton) might be open in even more ways than you might think. He’s such a huge man that can run, works hard, and attacks the ball. He’s starting to take some shots even when there’s not that much separation. He’s consistently testing those waters and that’s what you’re seeing now.”

Being the primary target for one of this generation’s best scrambling quarterbacks might not be bad for Sutton’s fantasy prospects.

How To Play It

Zero RB types can draft Sutton as their WR3 or WR4. For those who go all in on Zero RB -- a viable approach in PPR formats where you can start up to four wideouts -- you can plug Sutton in as your flex -- likely a massive advantage over many of your league mates. Again, there will be jealous seething.

Robust RB adherents can casually take Sutton as their WR1 or WR2 in the fourth round. Sutton, far more than receivers with similar ADPs -- Amari Cooper, Jerry Jeudy, and Marquise Brown, to name three -- can blow away his redraft ADP if he is indeed Wilson’s go-to guy in 2022. He’s the sort of guy who can make an RB-RB-RB start somewhat workable in standard and half-PPR leagues.

Cam Akers (LAR)
ADP: RB18, 36th overall

It’s not exactly easy to tout a guy who averaged a meager 2.7 yards per carry in his postseason return to the Rams starting lineup -- a mere six months after rupturing his Achilles. But that’s what I’ll do here, if only to feel alive.

Sean McVay‘s talk of having “two starting running backs” can be safely ignored, I think. McVay does not have a history of carefully splitting the backfield workload, and just last summer -- after Akers went down with the Achilles injury -- he expressed grave concern about Darrell Henderson‘s ability to stay healthy. While Henderson isn’t a non-entity in the LA offense, his impact on Akers is probably overstated by both the team and fantasy managers letting Akers slip into the third round.

Still just 22 years old, Akers could be the Rams’ primary early-down back and see work in a passing game that is widely believed to utilize running backs more in 2022 than it did last year. Fantasy managers should of course monitor the soft tissue injury Akers has dealt with in recent weeks. Assuming he’s a full go for Week 1, I see a clear path to reliable weekly touches in what should again be one of the league’s most productive offenses.

That Akers has never been an efficient producer worries me a little bit. In 2020, when he rushed for 625 yards in 13 games, Akers was outside the top-50 backs in rushing fantasy points over expected. He was 32nd in average yards before contact that season, behind backs like Ezekiel Elliott and Zack Moss. Akers’ best-case scenario involves plenty of volume.

For those who reside on Narrative Street, consider The Athletic’s July report saying Akers “is not cutting himself any slack [after a poor postseason performance]. He is actually fuming about how he played, because of the standards he holds himself to. And he’s coming for 2022 with everything he’s got.” He’s fuming. Adjust your ranks.

How To Play It

Your typical Zero RB drafter might puke all over their laptop if forced to use a late third or early fourth round pick on a running back. Nevertheless, I think Akers is the back Zero RB drafters should take if they want one fairly priced back to go along with the lottery ticket backs they’ll draft in the double-digit rounds.

Akers could be a sledgehammer pick for Robust RB drafters. Throwing him into a lineup with a pair like Austin Ekeler and Aaron Jones could bless your lineup with all manner of PPR production from these multifaceted runners. The big-bodied Akers carving out the goal line role for LA’s high-scoring offense would potentially give this Robust RB truther a trio of top-12 backs. That’s unfair.

Dallas Goedert (PHI)
ADP: TE8, 75th overall

If there’s a skeleton key to finding draft day values (there’s not), identifying offenses that will operate differently than they did a year ago is it. We could have that with the aforementioned Colts, and we almost certainly have that with the Eagles.

One of the run heaviest offenses in recent NFL history during the second half of 2021, Philadelphia’s offseason moves -- primarily acquiring alpha WR1 A.J. Brown -- say Nick Sirianni is ready to try a more balanced offense approach in 2022. The Eagles offense, 29th in pass rate over expected in 2021, could have far more receiving production to spread around in 2022.

That leaves Goedert as a potential beneficiary of a philosophical shift that has not been baked into the ADPs of any Eagles passer catchers. Last year Goedert’s pass routes and targets spiked after the Eagles dealt Zach Ertz to the Cardinals around midseason. He was second in fantasy points over expected during the second half of the 2021 regular season. Goedert trailed only George Kittle in yards per route run over that span, as he was targeted on a (very) healthy 28 percent of his routes.

Philadelphia beat writers have raved about Goedert’s training camp usage and performance. NBC Sports’ Dave Zangaro wrote last week that Goedert has been “targeted more than any other Eagle in training camp” -- an almost unbelievable claim considering A.J. Brown‘s pass-catching dominance and connection with longtime friend Jalen Hurts.

I see Goedert as something of an arbitrage option for those unwilling to pay the price for Kyle Pitts and Kittle. More passing for the Eagles and more defensive attention on Brown should be a dandy development for Goedert in 2022.

How To Play It

An under-discussed aspect of Zero RB is grabbing a top-end tight end to go along with your crop of early-round wideouts. Goedert is a deviation from that approach, offering a third option between paying up for Pitts and punting the tight end position altogether. Call it a Third Way.

Robust RB folks who can constrain themselves from also drafting the game’s top tight ends would do well to take Goedert in the sixth or seventh round. Taking full advantage of offenses that could (should) be more pass heavy is critically important for Robust RB truthers.

Adam Thielen (MIN)
ADP: WR28, 68th overall

Thielen is set to once again be Minnesota’s No. 2 pass catching option, and with no viable tight end options after Irv Smith‘s training camp injury, could be Kirk Cousins’ go-to red zone guy, as per usual.

Thielen will be the primary slot receiver in a Vikings offense that had the league’s 12th lowest pass rate over expected in 2021. You may have heard the new Vikings coaching staff plans on unleashing the potential of Cousins, Justin Jefferson, and Thielen in a more pass-centric offense in 2022. It’s why Jefferson is now being drafted ahead of Cooper Kupp. And it should be why Thielen is going well ahead of guys like Michael Thomas, Jerry Jeudy, and Marquise Brown.

Entering his age-32 season, it’s a touch concerning that Thielen’s yards per target and yards per reception have slipped in each of the past two seasons. And yes, the veteran’s days of sparkling yards per route run rates are likely over. Thankfully, his reasonable redraft ADP makes this palatable for drafters desperately searching for wideout value in the middle rounds.

Minnesota’s offense will be far less predictable in 2022 than it was during the frustrating Mike Zimmer era. New head coach Kevin O’Connell is expected to move Jefferson and Thielen around the formation to create mismatches and scheme the team’s two best pass catchers open more frequently.
Thielen fits nicely with the theme of the players highlighted in this column: His fantasy valuation probably doesn’t include a higher pass rate for his offense. Last season, for example, the Vikings had a 49 percent pass rate when leading. Under O’Connell, they’re more likely to keep their proverbial foot on the proverbial gas.

How To Play It

Thielen should be a solid WR4 for drafters who go with early-round receivers and tight ends. Thielen in the sixth round of 12-team formats could allow a Zero RB manager to draft a dead zone running back like James Conner or Ezekiel Elliott. Even if his ever-falling average depth of target remains relatively low in 2022, Thielen can easily deliver PPR-viable outings in a new-look Vikings offense.

Robust RB drafters can snatch up Thielen in the sixth round of 12-team leagues as their WR2 (with someone like D.J. Moore or Courtland Sutton as their WR1). Taking Thielen as your WR1 -- assuming you used your first five picks on running backs, a tight end, and a quarterback -- is certainly flying too close to the Robust RB sun.