The early rounds of best ball drafts aren’t necessarily about winning the draft. The first few rounds of a draft are about not losing the draft and the data backs this up. Last season, the first four rounds of best ball drafts produced more below average win-rate players than above average. Win rate is simply the percentage of winning best ball teams that a player appeared on.
There were 19 players with win-rates above 8.3%—In a league with 12 players, the average win-rate across the league will be 1/12, or 8.3%—but there were 29 players below that threshold (from RotoViz).
On top of this, there were only five players with double the win-rate of the random, 1/12, chance. Conversely, there were 11 players with less than half of the 1/12 win rate. There were more catastrophic failures in the early rounds last year than there were outstanding success stories.
So, which players are going to be the pitfalls in 2019?
Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants
Saquon Barkley is probably the most talented running back in the NFL right now. Unfortunately, running back talent is only a small part of what creates running back fantasy points. No player embodied this more than David Johnson last season. He was on an offense helmed by journeyman passer Sam Bradford and then a rookie that wasn’t ready for the NFL in Josh Rosen. Arizona was 32nd in total yards per game and 47.3 yards behind the 31st team. They also scored nearly six points per game fewer than the 31st ranked team.
The Giants offense has a similar downside this season. Since 2013, 36 passers have thrown 1,000 passes. Eli Manning is at 30 or below in yards per attempt, (6.96), adjusted yards per attempt (6.59), and QB Rating (85.9). Now he has to play without his best receiving weapon, Odell Beckham Jr.
Manning could break records as one of the worst passers next year. If he gets pulled, the Giants will be led by Daniel Jones. Jones never threw for more 3,000 yards in college and has a career AY/A of 6.2. No matter who is under center, the Giants offense will be atrocious. Buying into dumpster-fire offenses, no matter the talent is bad process.
Melvin Gordon, RB, LA Chargers
The argument against Melvin Gordon is pretty simple and, like Barkley, there is a precedent for it as recent as last year. Gordon is threatening to sit out this year unless he is given a new deal by the Chargers. It doesn’t matter if players sitting out for extended periods of time is uncommon. Losing a first-round pick is essentially an instant loss in best ball. Le’Veon Bell infamously held out last year and gave owners a whopping .8% win rate.
If the Chargers are smart they will also look at the Bell situation. Pittsburgh let Bell sit and were punished by having James Connor, who went for 1,470 yards from scrimmage and scored 13 times. Running back production is hard for an NFL team to replace. First-round production is impossible for fantasy teams to replace. Gordon still has the same top-five ceiling but his floor just became zero.
George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers’
The class of Big-3 tight ends excommunicated Rob Gronkowski last season and George Kittle took his seat. Kittle set the record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,377 while adding five scores. He was only out-scored by Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz. So why does his name make the list?
Kittle was incredibly efficient last season on a per-target basis. He produced 10.2 yards on every pass thrown his way. He also converted air yards (the total distance attempted on all target thrown to a player) at an extraordinary rate. Kittle converted his air yards into yards at a 1.43 rate. Only Vance McDonald and Evan Engram producer at a higher clip.
Now he’ll be competing with multiple additions via the draft. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel was the 49ers’ second-round selection and they added running back, tight end, wide receiver Jalen Hurts into the mix as well. Factor in more volume for Dante Pettis and Kittle’s volume may come down as well. Kittle is on the wrong side of a target squeeze and his efficiency will regress.
Damien Williams, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
Williams finished his first season with the Chiefs in explosive fashion. He scored eight times in his final six games, including playoffs. Now he’s going at the end of the second round. Based on last year's running back finishes, he’ll need about 200 points (in Draft’s Half-PPR format) to be worth that pick.
Williams languished on the Miami Dolphins roster for four years before finding his home in Kansas City. He was an undrafted free agent and never went over 50 carries with the team. With the Chiefs, he was given three carries in his first 11 games.
Players like Williams are historically successful this late in their careers. Since 2,000, only five undrafted backs have hit 150 points—which would be a quality season but still have Williams failing to quite meet expectations—at least six years into their career.
Those players were Priest Holmes, Arian Foster, Chris Ivory, LeGarrette Blount, and Fred Jackson. All of them had a 100-point season by year-two in their careers. Three of them had 150-point seasons before year-six.
Undrafted players can succeed late into their careers but they always show signs of it earlier. Williams has done nothing of the sort.
A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
It wasn’t long ago that A.J. Green was in contention to be the best receiver in the league. In 2015, he was the WR7 after hitting nearly 1,300 yards and scoring double-digit times. Since then, he has failed to hit 200 fantasy points in three straight seasons. This is the number of points he would need to make good on his WR13 ADP on Draft right now.
He’ll have to compete with Tyler Boyd, Tyler Eifert, and John Ross if he wants to do that. Ross wasn’t able to do much with 58 targets last season but he did score touchdowns, seven to be exact. Eifert, if he can remain healthy, is also a prolific touchdown scorer. In his career, Eifert has scored on 10.1% of his targets.
Finally, there’s Boyd. Boyd posted a season nearly identical to Green’s 2017 campaign (75-1,078-8 for Green and 76-1,028-7) which catching passes from Jeff Driskel for half a season.
At 31 years old, Green is likely fading into the twilight years of his career. With his competition for targets heating up, Green is far too great of a risk to take in the third round.
Marlon Mack, RB, Indianapolis Colts
Mack missed some games with injuries last year, but his 1.42 receptions per game would total 22.7 over a full season. In the past five years, only seven backs who finished in the top-15 caught fewer than 25 passes. Two of those backs finished in the top-10.
In college, Mack caught 28 passes during his final year, when he played 12 games. So he does have receiving potential but unless Nyheim Hines goes down, that won’t be happening. As a rookie, Hines caught 63 passes.
The non-receiving backs who were successful had one obvious trait in common: They were touchdown scorers. This group of seven backs averaged 11 scores in those top-15 seasons. A bet on Mack is a bet on him scoring touchdowns. Given that touchdowns are subject to a lot of variance and impossible to predict, that is not a wise bet to make.
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
Last year, Mahomes put together the greatest season of a quarterback ever. He became one of only three players to throw 50 touchdowns and one of 11 to hit 5,000 yards. Mahomes scored more fantasy points than any passer before him had. He was taken, on average, in the 11th round of drafts. Despite his greatness, he still trailed Christian McCaffrey and James Connor in win-rate, at 21%. Now he’ll cost fantasy players a seven-round premium to acquire compared to last year. That will bring his win-rate plummeting back to Earth.
On top of that, he won’t reproduce his 2018 numbers. No quarterback has ever repeated a 50 touchdown season and only Drew Brees has repeated a 5,000-yard season. Instead of chasing last year’s breakout quarterback, look ahead to 2019 and get the next breakout passer.
David Montgomery, RB, Chicago Bears
Did fantasy gamers not learn their lesson with players like Royce Freeman and Ronald Jones last year? Day Two rookies are not guaranteed to produce fantasy points in their first season. Montgomery, taken as the ninth pick of the third round in the NFL Draft could see a similarly rude awakening as the players before him.
In the past ten years, the average second or third-round pick has carried the ball 117.4 times for 506 yards and 3.1 scores. They’ve also added little through the air. These backs averaged 20.1 receptions for 169.3 yards and .5 scores.
Montgomery also steps into a situation where he’ll be limited for work out of the gate. Tarik Cohen was given 91 targets and 99 carries last year. He was incredibly efficient on these touches and produces 1,169 yards from scrimmage. The Bears also added Mike Davis in free agency. Davis was an effective rusher in Seattle, averaging 4.6 yards per carry on 112 totes. He also added value in the passing game with 34 catches for 214 yards.
Montgomery has all of the warning signs of a bust but is still going in the fourth round of fantasy drafts.