Best Ball: Late Round Strategy Guide for 2023 (Fantasy Football)
Best ball season is in full swing as we make our way towards Week 1! Now that it’s August, we have more information than we did when we were drafting in May and June, and as a result, our late-round strategy in best ball formats should change with new information from training camps and pre-season action.
Back in May, Kyle wrote up his favorite Late Round Fliers for best ball leagues. The tricky part is that this is a moving target, so players that were viable back in May might not be great targets four weeks out from the start of the regular season. Additionally, some of those players aren’t even available in Round 17/Round 18 anymore, as their ADP has changed. As a result, our late-round strategy should adjust, too.
Late Round Strategy
Avoid zeros in your lineup. Simple enough, right?! If only…
It’s not rocket science, but the more players you have in your lineup that aren’t contributing to your team’s score, the less likely you are to have a successful best ball roster. Establish The Run’s Michael Leone wrote more about this in his Best Ball Manifesto.
Leone found an extremely strong correlation between the number of “live” players you have in your lineup during the fantasy playoffs and the chances of advancing, and eventually, bringing home some cold hard cash.
In his article, Leone defined “live” players as any player that scored more than zero points on a given week. This means a “dead” player could be an injured, suspended, or benched player. From his data set, he found that having 14+ live players at the end of the season resulted in a higher expected value (EV). Not surprisingly, having 15, 16, 17 or 18 live players is even better than 14, but that’s where the cutoff seems to be significant.
This data shows us how important it is to identify players going late in drafts who have a direct path to playing time. Now, before I dive into some specific player takes, it’s important to get this out of the way nice and early – any player can injured, any player can get suspended if something happens off the field, and any player can lose their starting role. There’s risk in every player going in Rounds 16-18. Heck, they’re being drafted there for a reason.
But if we think critically about each player and their potential role in the team, we can probably identify landmines to avoid, and that’s what this section is all about, especially in regular 12-team leagues.
A Look Back at 2022
Think back to the summer of 2022. What a year…mowing the lawn, the Fantasy Footballers DFS and Betting Podcast blasting in your headphones and you get that notification that you’re on the clock in Round 18. You scroll the player pool and tell yourself a story about the 4th string RB that could take over the starting job. It sounds fun and exciting to maybe hit on that low-rostered player, but the reality is, you probably just lit that draft pick on fire, and as the data shows, that is not great for your end-of-season results.
I went back and looked at some notable names who were being drafted after Round 16 in August 2022 and what most of us were probably thinking when we clicked the button – Whoops!
- Will Fuller – He’ll sign with a team eventually, right?
- Isaiah Spiller – Chargers took him to be the complement to Austin Ekeler
- Tyrion Davis-Price – TDP has that RB2 job on lockdown!
- Eno Benjamin – There’s gotta be value in the RB2 in Arizona
- Mike Davis – J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards are both coming off torn ACLs. Davis will get some run!
- David Bell – Talented rookie WR. All he has to do is beat out Donovan Peoples-Jones.
- Darrel Williams – Didn’t you see his performance in the playoffs the year prior?
- D’Ernest Johnson – Kareem Hunt could get moved from Cleveland. If he does, Johnson is the dude behind Nick Chubb
I’m not going to lie. I fell into the trap with some of these guys, too. The point here isn’t to try to cherry-pick some of these names as hindsight analysis is 20/20 – We now know they were horrible picks! My question and challenge here is whether or not we could have potentially seen some warning signs or perhaps more importantly, did we actually get news that these players would have a role in their offense, or were we just projecting (hoping) it ourselves?
For example, we never got the news that the Browns were looking to move Kareem Hunt, yet we kept drafting D’Ernest Johnson in Round 18. There were literally no rumblings of Will Fuller ever being close to signing a contract, yet we kept taking him at the end of drafts. We need to remember to avoid take lock and be willing to take some safer, less sexy picks at the end of our drafts if we want to have 14+ “live” players on our roster when we get to the playoffs. Let’s dive into some later-round options for 2023.
Hey, it could happen!
To quote the great 1994 film, Angels in the Outfield, “Hey it could happen!” I mean sure, anything could happen with a late-round dart throw. You can tell yourself a story about any player on an NFL roster to justify clicking the button with your final two picks, but that’s the thing – if you have to tell yourself a story about that player earning a role, they’re an extremely risky pick.
Below is a list of players with an ADP after 180 overall on Underdog Fantasy that I see go in almost every one of my drafts. ADPs are accurate as of 8/8/23.
To be clear, I do understand why these players are being selected. They could in theory, out-perform their ADP if things break right, but there’s a lot of risk in this group of players. I’ll hit a quick blurb on why I’m usually passing on each one then provide a list of some guys I am actually targeting in Rounds 16-18.
WR Justyn Ross
Ross was a great prospect coming out of Clemson, but injuries have prevented him from getting on the field at the NFL level. It’s impossible to scroll Twitter (X) right now and not see a Chiefs player making a highlight reel grab. After Kadarius Toney got injured in late July, every Chiefs WR climbed in ADP. I’m not chasing Ross into Round 15/16 given that he’s reportedly playing with the second team, and we need to remember, Toney will be back this year and actually trending towards being available early in the season, if not Week 1. MVS is still making a ton of money ($11M guaranteed), Skyy Moore was a second-round pick last year, Rashee Rice was a second-rounder this year, and this team has shown us they’re willing to use a committee.
Fantasy football tweet: Skyy Moore has been with 1s every rep at training camp when KC has had 2 WRs. Rashee Rice/Justyn Ross have occasionally mixed in with 1s but overwhelmingly been with 2s. Things can change, of course, but every indication as of now is Moore is ahead those 2
— Jesse Newell (@jessenewell) August 7, 2023
RB Zamir White
Josh Jacobs is away from the team, so White is mixing in with the starters. I get it, and completely understand why you’d want to take a shot here, but as of early August, the chance that we see Jacobs return to the team is higher than it might be in three weeks when we get closer to Week 1. I’d rather sit this one out now and potentially buy back in right before the season starts if we get more Jacobs news and pay a round or two premium if I have to. We also need to remember, it’s no sure thing that the Raiders would give White 15+ touches in a game if Jacobs wasn’t there, and there are still plenty of free-agent RBs on the market.
WR Khalil Shakir
I don’t hate throwing Shakir on a Josh Allen team. I did like him coming out of school, but Bills Reporter Matt Parrino recently reported that Shakir is splitting slot reps with Deonte Harty, who by the way signed a 2-year, $9.5M contract this off-season with over $5M guaranteed. Shakir was a 5th-round rookie last season who struggled to get on the field. Are we sure he’s the slot WR we want? And just how much does first-round TE Dalton Kincaid play in the slot?
QB Sam Howell
The Commanders have been sending mixed messages with Howell. They’ve talked him up all off-season, but just last week, Ron Rivera literally said, “Don’t sleep on Jacoby Brissett” when asked about his QB competition. Ultimately, I do think Howell is starting Week 1, but what happens if this team gets out to a 3-6 start and Ron Rivera is coaching weekly for his job? Are we sure he won’t hand the keys over to the veteran? After all, this team decided to roll with Taylor Heinicke in meaningful games last year despite the fact that Howell was waiting on the bench…
RB Chase Brown
Cincinnati took Chase Brown in the 5th round out of Illinois. Immediately, drafters assumed he’d be the dude behind Joe Mixon, but as we saw last year, we didn’t actually know who the Bengals’ RB2 was until late in August. Samaje Perine was being drafted after pick 200 at this time last year. At this point, I don’t know who wins the RB2 job, but the market assumes it’ll be the rookie. History from this team tells us we shouldn’t be so sure. This competition is one of the ones I’m watching closely over the next four weeks.
WR Tyquan Thornton
We should always be weary when we hear about a player having a great camp, but we should take notice when there’s a consistent drumbeat of a player not having a great camp. There may not be a player whose stock is falling faster than Tyquan Thornton. This Boston Herald article states, “It seems like the team feels Thornton still has a lot to prove, which is why he’s seen more time with Zappe.” There’s also this from a few days ago…
Patriots beat writer @ezlazar believes Kendrick Bourne has the “inside track” to start in 3WR sets over Tyquan Thornton
Would be a bit of a surprise based on snap usage down the stretch last year, where Thornton played slightly ahead of Bourne
Interesting battle to track pic.twitter.com/Y9NMrBW9jx
— Sam Sherman (@Sherman_FFB) August 6, 2023
WR Puka Nacua
The argument that I’ve heard from others is that Nacua would immediately fill “the Cooper Kupp” role if Kupp were to get injured. Excuse me?! Cooper Kupp is one of the best WRs in the game. As a result, I’d be shocked if a 5th round rookie WR was able to step on the field and produce right away. Plus, if Kupp goes down, it likely means the Rams’ season is in the tank, anyway.
WR Wan’Dale Robinson
Robinson remains on the PUP as he recovers from his ACL injury. However, at this point, the Giants have been extremely clear with their actions that they probably can’t trust Robinson and Shepard coming off major injury. The team signed roughly six different slot WRs in free agency and traded for Darren Waller, who has shown he’s more than capable of playing in the slot. In theory, Robinson would get healthy enough to earn a role in December, but a lot has to go right for that to happen.
WR Nathaniel Dell
There are some major playing time question marks with Dell given the current state of the WR room. Nico Collins seems likely to start as the team’s X receiver while veteran Robert Woods and John Metchie are likely to play significant roles. The hit rate on third-round rookie WRs who weigh less than 165 pounds is…not great. It certainly doesn’t help that he’ll be playing with a rookie QB. A lot has to go right for Dell to be a key piece of winning rosters.
TE Jelani Woods
Woods is a mountain of a man at 6’7″, 253 lbs. who ran a 4.61 at the Combine two years ago (87th percentile). The guy has upside…but he also has a lot of downside. Woods only played 29% of the snaps last year as a rookie when he was part of the Colts’ TE committee. That committee remains intact entering this year, and they’re set to play with a rookie QB who completed just under 55% of his passes in college. When taking a stab at a late-round TE, I’m looking for guaranteed playing time and/or the chance at 5+ TDs. Woods’ playing time isn’t a lock, and the Colts are currently tied with the Arizona Cardinals for the longest odds to lead the NFL in scoring this year according to DraftKings Sportsbook.
RB Deuce Vaughn
Vaughn is a great story after he was selected by his father, who’s a Cowboys scout, in the 6th round of the NFL Draft. However, he’s just 5’6″ and 176 lbs. That archetype is an easy fade…did I mention he was a 6th round pick? Rico Dowdle and Malik Davis are in the mix for the RB2 job, and this team could easily sign Zeke tomorrow.
RB Pierre Strong
The Patriots have made it clear with their actions that they want to lighten the workload for Rhamondre Stevenson. The market knows this, and as a result, drafters are taking the shot on Pierre Strong in Round 18, but is Strong definitely the RB2? Is he even the RB3? New England has brought in Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette, Zeke, and Darrell Henderson this off-season. It seems like a free-agent signing is imminent, which would essentially make Strong irrelevant.
Late Round Best Ball Targets
As stated previously, my primary goal here is to try to avoid a zero in my lineup. As of mid-August, below is a list of players who project for playing time with an ADP of 180 or later. This list is subject to change as we get news and updates. Happy drafting, friends!
2023 – The Year of the Late-Round TE
Each of these TEs has been running with the first-team offense in camp and has minimal competition for playing time. Part of the reason I like 3TE builds this season is the ability to take two of these guys with your last two picks and avoid some of the potential landmines mentioned above while also using earlier picks on RBs and WRs.
- Juwan Johnson (185.6) – signed a 2-year, $12M contract after flashing 500+ yards and 7 scores in 2022
- Hayden Hurst (197.4) – signed a 3-year, $21.7M contract this off-season
- Jake Ferguson (198.8) – reportedly running with the first-team offense in camp. 2nd round rookie Luke Schoonmaker has been dealing with a foot injury
- Hunter Henry (204.6) – somehow my second-highest exposure TE behind Mark Andrews. Henry has been flashing a ton in camp and is ahead of Mike Gesicki on the depth chart. Gesicki has never been a true in-line TE, which is where Henry excels.
- Isaiah Likely (205.0) – Playing time risk is there, but we’ve seen big-time upside if Mark Andrews goes down. Comfortable taking on some risk for an offense we want to be high on in 2023
- Luke Musgrave (206.5) – Rookie TEs are always a risky investment, but that’s priced in. Musgrave has been running exclusively with the first team ahead of 3rd round rookie Tucker Kraft. Behind Christian Watson, Musgrave’s target competition is pretty weak.
WR DeVante Parker (186.5)
Parker isn’t a sexy pick by any means, but he should be out there in 2WR sets for Mac Jones after the team signed him to an extension this off-season. The King of No Separation, Parker at least has a red zone presence and posted four top-36 fantasy weeks last season. I’m thrilled if I can get 3+ usable scores from my round 16/17 pick.
WR Darius Slayton (202.1)
Slayton’s ADP does not make sense to me whatsoever. He was the only free agent WR to sign a multi-year deal with New York this off-season, which was a 2-year deal worth $12M. That’s starter money for a WR who’s consistently provided multiple useable weeks in his career. In theory, the target competition got more difficult with the addition of Waller, but Slayton seems to have secured a starting perimeter WR job. Slayton had six weeks last year as a top-36 option in half PPR. Anything close to that is a slam dunk in Round 18.
WR Chase Claypool (204.6)
I’ve never been a Chase Claypool guy, but there’s no denying the 3WRs for Chicago are going to be D.J. Moore, Darnell Mooney, and Chase Claypool. After the team traded the 32nd overall pick in this year’s draft to acquire him halfway through the year last season, this team is incentivized to get him involved. Will he be reliable? Of course not. Will you ever want to start him in a managed league? Nope! Will he have a couple of weeks where he cracks your lineup thanks to a TD? Almost certainly.
WR Robert Woods (209.6)
I’ve already touched on the Texans’ WRs a little bit, but Woods checks the box as another WR going in Round 18 who should play meaningful snaps. Woods signed a 2-year deal in free agency, including $10M in guarantees, which is…a lot for a guy like Woods. Nonetheless, the financial commitment is there, and Woods has familiarity in this system. He’s also now two years removed from his ACL injury.
WR Michael Wilson (212.4)
A 3rd round rookie playing for a Cardinals team with a 4.5-win total. What could go wrong?! I just dunked on Tank Dell above, but the difference here is that Wilson checks in at 6’2″, 213 lbs. He’s built like a true X receiver, something the Cardinals don’t have on the roster after they decided to move on from DeAndre Hopkins. Hollywood Brown is certainly the WR1, but this current regime didn’t draft Rondale Moore. They’re very likely going to want to see what they have in their guy, Michael Wilson. He’s already running with the ones in camp.