Five Ways to Decipher Team Depth Charts & Situations After the NFL Draft (Fantasy Football)

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The NFL draft ended. Your rookie drafts started.

And yet over the weekend, you were supposed to gather all of your thoughts and opinions in all things rookies that makes sense, look smart, and ultimately allow you to navigate the summer of fantasy football with ease. Easy task right?

The problem with sorting out depth charts and draft picks is that this isn’t a linear process. There are so many ebbs and flows to sort out. I offer these five principles as starting places for figuring out how to forecast offenses. For more on that topic, I wrote Forecasting 101: How to Project Offenses Knowing You Could Be Wrong.

1. The Season Starts in September.

Perhaps I’m stating the obvious but depth charts can be fluid over the course of the season. Yet, we have such short memories that the tweet sent in early May is long forgotten come October. However, the convictions we have regarding post-draft depth charts influence how BestBall and redraft rankings are compiled going into the summer. Rookies bring an air of optimism while their absence on a team’s roster hypes up veterans who are well past their fantasy primes.

I wrote this follow-up article after the draft last year and it feels like dejavu because I jokingly referred to the Dolphins and their running game… and the same exact thing happened in 2021. Myles Gaskin was a major “winner” after Miami was a popular landing spot and the only RB they added was 7th rounder Gerrid Doaks taken at 244th overall. Myles Gaskin‘s play at the end of 2020 (30 fantasy points in Week 16) primed the pump of some to declare him a fantasy superstar as his ADP reached the 4th round by August. While the opportunity was there, Gaskin was never viewed as a workhorse by the Miami regime the way fantasy managers projected him to be.

Here were some other major takeaways in terms of winners & losers immediately after the draft last year:

  • The Bears were voted the most improved team after the draft in a poll we posted… they dropped to 6-11 from 8-8 the previous years with the 27th ranked offense.
  • Melvin Gordon was all but abandoned after the Broncos traded up to get Javonte Williams with the 35th overall pick. All Gordon did was finish as the RB18 with some serviceable weeks for fantasy rosters.
  • Washington felt comfortable going into the season with Ryan Fitzpatrick as their QB. He became a popular BestBall play and late-round QB due to his gun-slinging ways. (I’m a big fan if you want to read 25 Ryan Fitzpatrick Facts to Make You Rethink Your Life) But a Week 1 injury left the Commanders (formerly the Football team) scrambling to replace him and the entire WR corps suffered. RIP Terry McLaurin.
  • Christian Kirk was declared a loser after the Cardinals drafted Rondale Moore in the 2nd. Kirk might be the one laughing now with the bag of cash he just secured this off-season with Jacksonville.

Whoops.

This year, one of the biggest winners were RBs J.K. Dobbins & Gus Edwards as the Ravens failed to take an RB until the 6th round. However, as we saw last off-season, injuries can happen and the depth chart can have some pieces added. Andy, Mike, and Jason highlighted recent AFC Winners & Losers on Tuesday’s Fantasy Footballers podcast.

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2. To Draft or Not to Draft… This Isn’t the Question.

Whether a team drafted or didn’t draft a position isn’t the same as a vote of confidence. Our job is to read the tea leaves and construct a narrative where players gained and lost value. It’s also possible things status quo. Drafting or not drafting a position isn’t always a signal for fantasy. Sometimes it’s just noise. We can avoid the extremes of groupthink and Twitter beef wars.

I’ll give you a couple of situations from last year:

  • The 49ers drafted Trey Lance– Honestly, count me among those that deleted Jimmy Garoppolo from my mind as
  • The Bengals didn’t draft OL in the 1st Round– For fantasy, Ja’Marr Chase rocked. But did you think the Bengals would go to the Super Bowl after not addressing this position?
  • The Falcons didn’t take an RBMike Davis received some hype and heck, even UDFA Javian Hawkins received some hype from the dynasty community.
  • The Panthers didn’t take a QB– Remember when Sam Darnold could’ve been great?
  • The Jaguars drafted Travis Etienne Jr.– Ok so this is cheating a bit because Etienne’s season-ending injury reopened the door for James Robinson, someone everyone all but abandoned after the draft.
  • The Packers didn’t take a WR in the 1st round– You could’ve looked at this in a number of ways but trading up for Amari Rodgers in the 3rd boosted his rookie draft value.
  • The 49ers took Trey Sermon in the 3rd… and Elijah Mitchell in the 6th– Sermon had 44 total touches & Mitchell was an electric rookie with five 100+ yard rushing games in his 11 games played.

Use the inverse argument to discover more information rather than simply making a definitive statement based on what this team did or didn’t accomplish in the NFL Draft. For instance, the Texans DID take an RB in the 4th round (Dameon Pierce) but the production profile was lacking from college. Some want to crown him as a major winner but Marlon Mack truthers might say the exact opposite.

I’ve mentioned this in Are We Good at Drafting Mid-Round RBs? but we tend to overestimate our abilities to forecast. We all fall victim to assuming we can predict usage, opportunity, and situations and even more so on this side of these outcomes. In Superforecasting, a book I highly recommend, they review hindsight bias and take it a step further. Usually, we refer to this type of bias as “once we know the outcome of something, that knowledge skews our perception of what we thought before we knew the outcome”. But more than that, we can often assume that when a decision is followed by a good outcome, the decision was good, which isn’t always true. This leads to my next thought…

3. All draft picks are not created equally.

Opportunity is golden in fantasy football but the windows of opportunity are often much smaller than we realize. A WR with no one else on the depth chart or an RB who could emerge as the clear lead back both is tempting reasons to draft players. But their draft capital is not changing anytime soon. We have a couple of resources on the site that take this point to the 1,000th level. If you haven’t done so, stop what you’re doing and read some of the extensive research our team has put into explaining draft picks

But let’s narrow the conversation to RBs as they are the holy grail for fantasy football but an enigma in dynasty. RBs clearly bring the greatest early returns but outside of Round 2 the results are less than stellar. In a recent article The Dynasty Rookie Manifesto & How Not to Screw it Up, I looked at every rookie RB drafted in the 3rd round or later of the NFL draft since 2015 and where managers took them in dynasty. I thought the principles and observations were worth bringing up again:

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Some of these will make you roll your eyes and others you’ll have to do some googling to jog the brain of players taken in the last five years! Paul “Smash Jackson” Perkins anyone? Did you forget he was the 2.02?

Of the 35 RBs selected, here is how they worked out.

  • Five were RB1s in their 1st year (Antonio Gibson, Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, David Johnson, & Jordan Howard) which sounds amazing to find. But this is the exception, not what we assume will happen with these picks.
  • 12 were selected in the 1st round of rookie drafts including three inside the top-5. While we have the benefit of hindsight analysis, Darrell Henderson Jr., David Montgomery, and the aforementioned Royce Freeman all look like their opportunity was the shiny carrot dangled in front of fantasy managers and their draft capital mostly ignored.
  • Anything beyond 3rd round draft capital is honestly less than a dart throw. You’ll see names like Jordan Howard and Jay Ajayi that might get you a bit excited. At the end of the day, these players might have a brief moment in the sun but they are not worth 2nd round draft capital. Save them for the 3rd or let someone else reach.

Use that information to your advantage before reaching on an RB like the aforementioned Dameon Pierce or placing your hopes in 5th round Tyler Allgeier. The opportunity is there for him in Atlanta but the draft capital states he likely will be nothing.

4. Opportunity is King in Fantasy Football… But It’s Not Guaranteed.

Every year I highlight vacated targets and breakdown where teams have historically shifted their passing volume when players leave town. I wrote Vacated Targets & Predicting the Future almost two years ago and it is one of the pieces I am proudly questioned the most about in my tiny little corner of the fantasy football world. With rookies, we are quite thirsty for these new & shiny players to fill the void that the previous batch of disappointments left. We like new and novel things to solve old problems. It’s human nature.

But remember that vacated targets are descriptive of what happened last year, not prescriptive of “here is where the targets go in 2022″.

Take the Detroit Lions as an example last year. After the draft, Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams were declared “winners”. Yes, that last sentence is not a typo.

The Lions vacated 21.9 targets per game, almost 60% of their passing pie according to our market share metrics. While no one was propping up their offense as competent, someone had to catch the ball from Jared Goff right? In BestBall drafts, you likely took a stab at one of these guys. Pour one out for those drafters as those two combined for TWO catches for Detroit in 2021. Two. 4th rounder Amon-Ra St. Brown went biserk at the end of the year but trying to peg him as a potential breakout after the draft was unlikely.

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WR Christian Watson looks like a massive winner as arguably the most talented pass-catcher on the Packers’ depth chart. We could presume that because of his draft capital (34th overall) and opportunity, he should see 100+ targets from Aaron Rodgers in Year 1. But Allen Lazard, 2021 3rd round pick Amari Rodgers, and Sammy Watkins are candidates to see a major uptick in targets with Davante Adams gone. Watson also is a bit older (23) for a prospect and comes from a small school. He never really dominated that level of competition so let’s not crown him as an alpha WR already.

Offenses like Green Bay, Chicago, and Kansas City have WR corps that needed to be sorted out. But sorting out a passing pie for an offense is not a solvable equation after the NFL draft. Yes you want to start having convictions but realize you have some of the information but be willing to have some fluidity… which leads to my final thought.

5. It’s OK not having a firm stance May 1st.

Shocking but maybe instead of making up your mind now, you can give yourself room to form an opinion over time. You can also have a hunch, do some research, explore possibilities, and come to a different conclusion.

We don’t know what we don’t know. Comforting, yes I know. But admitting that on the front end is helpful in a number of ways. Having strong convictions about player projections is part of the puzzle. But on the other end, “staying water” is an old Footballers adage that is essential in having a clearer end in mind for players and their situations. Be open to the fact that we don’t know everything.

Take for example these WR draft classes from 2016-2018. Knowing what you know now six years later, did you know exactly how these players’ careers were going to turn out? Josh Doctson anyone? Did you see Calvin Ridley becoming a dominant WR1 and then his career abruptly turning into a giant question mark?

The point isn’t the belittle anyone or say NFL teams get it wrong. (Ok, they often get things wrong). But there are so many variables in play for each player no matter how sure of a thing they are in our minds. For these WRs, it was more than just an opportunity. QB play, situations, timing, and injuries all played a role in their success or lack thereof. Knowing that there is massive variance on the front end prepares you to pivot or at least re-examine some of your initial takes.

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