Fantasy owners spend the vast majority of their draft preparation focusing on player evaluation, cultivating lists of players they like and those they want to avoid. This is reflected in typical fantasy coverage. We talk about sleepers, busts and breakouts. We go through every fantasy position. We talk about bounceback and regression candidates. We rank players, and we rank them again, and then we rank some more. All of this is done with an extreme focus on players, but we cannot divorce them from the environments they inhabit.
Among the four major sports we follow in the United States, football is the ultimate team game. A quarterback can’t do his job if his line doesn’t protect him, and a receiver is going to have trouble if either the line or his quarterback doesn’t take care of business. No running back can thrive behind a terrible offensive line, and no offense can light up the scoreboard with reined-in play calling. If there’s one sport where the success of the whole depends on each of the individual parts doing what is expected of him, it’s football. That’s why the offensive environment each player works within is so important.
To that end, fantasy owners should always be thinking about offenses in which they want to invest, in addition to specific player targets. A rising tide does lift all ships, and fantasy owners see evidence of that every year. For example, you may not be able to get Antonio Brown, but grabbing another Steeler gives you an indirect investment in the game’s best receiver, as well as the offensive environment he helps foster. Great offenses create points in real life, and those points trickle down in the fantasy world. All else being equal, you want to be involved with teams that are going to rack up yards and put the ball in the end zone with regularity. The following offenses will do just that.
The Cardinals feature a first-round-caliber running back with No. 1 overall player upside, a top-10 quarterback who threw for 4,671 yards, 8.7 yards per attempt and 35 touchdowns last season, and three receivers who could all end the season in the top 30 at the position. Other than that, there isn’t much to like about this offense.
In all seriousness, the Cardinals are the only team in the NFL that can check every box in the above paragraph. On top of that, only one fantasy-relevant Cardinal, David Johnson, is a high pick, and thus a challenging player to target successfully. As we will touch on a little later, potent offenses that are top-heavy without a lot of depth don’t fit perfectly into this strategy, because everyone in your league will be going after those players. The Cardinals, however, have the depth that makes them an easy offense to target.
Michael Floyd, Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown all have average draft positions between 51.1 and 68.6, which places them between the early-fifth and late-sixth rounds of a typical draft. Carson Palmer’s ADP is in the middle of the seventh round and ranks him eighth among quarterbacks. He, too, is perfectly obtainable for an owner who wants to invest in the Cardinals.
Arizona is going to win a lot of games and score a lot of points this season. The team has no shortage of ways to attack a defense and five players who are going to regularly start for fantasy owners. All that makes it the ideal offense in which to invest this season.
The Cardinals are an elite fantasy offense thanks to a first-round running back, enviable receiver depth, and a rock-solid QB1. The Bengals, on the other hand, get there with a top-flight receiver, two potential RB2s, a touchdown machine at tight end, and a quarterback who’s affordable but sports a top-10 ceiling. There’s more than one way to create a desirable fantasy environment.
A.J. Green is going to be taken in the first round of every draft this season and is the No. 4 player on my board, trailing only Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones. The competition for him will be fierce, but every other Bengal can be had with some planning. Jeremy Hill has a late-fourth ADP, while Giovani Bernard is typically coming off the board in the middle of the seventh round. Both players finished last season as RB2s, and the Bengals have figured out a way to keep both significantly involved without draining either one’s ability to be a regular fantasy starter. That diversity has made the entire offense better.
Tyler Eifert is still dealing with an ankle injury that required off-season surgery, but he scored 13 touchdowns last season and turned himself into a red zone monster for Andy Dalton. He could miss some time early in the season, but once he returns he has top-five ability at the position. As for Dalton, he had his best season as a pro last year, finishing ninth among quarterbacks in points per game. His ADP, however, places him 18th at the position this season. Even if he fails to match last year’s stats, it’s hard to see him as anything less than a mid-tier QB2. That makes him a valuable commodity in two-QB or superflex leagues, and a great option for owners in one-QB leagues who prefer to play matchups by rostering two or three quarterbacks.
On top of all that, the Bengals feature a late-round flier in rookie receiver Tyler Boyd, who’s expected to start opposite Green. In terms of draft-day capital, he’s essentially free, and yet he should surpass 100 targets in this high-value offense.
The Jaguars were a surprisingly lucrative fantasy offense last year, producing the No. 4 quarterback (Blake Bortles), and Nos. 4 and 14 receivers (Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns). Those three are ready to run it back this season, and while an improving defense and run game could decrease the passing attack’s volume, this remains a young, intriguing offense on the rise.
Robinson is a legitimate first-rounder who could very well place himself among the elite at his position this year. He’s already headed in that direction after totaling 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, and one more year of similar production would put him in special company. Don’t forget, too, that Robinson is just 23 years old. On the other side is Hurns, who had 1,031 yards and 10 scores last year. His production isn’t quite as bankable and is more susceptible to volume concerns, due largely to the skill gap between the two players, but he is also plenty affordable at an ADP of 61.
Bortles wasn’t the most efficient quarterback last season, getting 7.31 YPA and leading the league with 18 interceptions, but 4,428 yards and 35 touchdowns are hard to ignore. The fantasy community isn’t forcing you to pay up for him either, with an 84.3 ADP that makes him the ninth quarterback off the board in a typical draft. Quarterbacks generally live on efficiency, while receivers and running backs can get by with volume. Bortles will have to improve this season, especially if the volume decreases, but he enters the season as a strong QB1 candidate.
The running back duo of Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon puts this offense over the top in terms of it being an overall fantasy target. Ivory and Yeldon both have mid-round ADPs that make them attractive for zero-RB drafters. Given what we’ve seen of them in the preseason, Yeldon is likely to handle much of the work in the middle of the field, while Ivory will dominate touches inside the 10-yard line. It won’t be a mirror image of the way the Bengals use Hill and Bernard, but the similarities, including the RB2 upside for both players, are easy to see. Add Julius Thomas and late-round flier Marqise Lee to the mix, and the Jaguars have seven players who should be drafted in all formats. Their rise gives way to another team to assume the mantle as the surprising fantasy upstart.
That’s right, the Browns. It may seem crazy, but how many people predicted the Jaguars would turn into the darlings of the fantasy community last season? Let’s simply look at the facts.
Gary Barnidge was the No. 2 fantasy tight end last year, catching 79 passes for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns. He’ll only cost you an eighth-round pick.
Duke Johnson racked up 913 yards from scrimmage, 61 receptions and two touchdowns as a rookie. He’s expected to have a larger role in the offense this season, and is coming off the board early in the seventh round, on average. Isaiah Crowell has 13 touchdowns and 1,582 total yards in 32 career games, and has an ADP of 101.1.
Josh Gordon, fantasy’s top receiver in 2013 and a star in the making before multiple suspensions, will return in Week 5. He’ll join rookie Corey Coleman and the rejuvenated Terrelle Pryor in what could be one of the sneakily best receiving groups in the league. All three are affordable in fantasy leagues, with Coleman and Pryor both coming off the board after pick No. 100 in a typical draft.
It’s all up to Hue Jackson, one of the most respected offensive coaches in the league, to make it go with Robert Griffin III at the helm of the offense. Griffin looked nothing short of excellent in Cleveland’s second preseason game, making a handful of impressive throws while taking care of himself by sliding and throwing the ball away, two events we rarely saw while he was in Washington. He’s still making plays with his legs—he ran for 36 yards on three carries in that game—but it's clear he is being remade in Jackson’s image. If that turn is successful, the Browns are going to have a fun offense. What’s more, no one in your league is going to fight you for anyone on the offense, with the possible exception of Gordon.
New York Jets
Ryan Fitzpatrick threw 562 passes last season, set career highs with 3,905 yards and 31 touchdowns, and finished the year 11th among quarterbacks in points and 14th in points per game. Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker gave the Jets the league’s only pair of top-10 fantasy receivers, and were one of just three sets of teammates (the others were Robinson and Hurns and Denver’s Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders) to finish in the top 20 at the position.
Little has changed with respect to the Jets’ passing game, yet Marshall is the only player that comes at a premium. Decker, who has been a top-10 receiver three of the last four years, has an early-fifth round ADP. Meanwhile, the team added Matt Forte, one of just two running backs to be in the top 10 both of the last two years, while retaining Bilal Powell, who had 701 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns last season, despite being a complementary player and missing five games due to injury.
The Jets are going to score a lot of points and have three players who have top-30 overall upside. Powell is an ideal zero-RB target, both because of his skill set and 104.8 ADP. Fitzpatrick is essentially free and makes a great QB2, no matter your league’s format. Every single fantasy-relevant player on the Jets is attractive at his ADP. That’s exactly what you’re looking for when targeting an offense.
The usual suspects
New Orleans, New England
The last time investing in the Saints or Patriots was a bad thing was before Drew Brees and Tom Brady were calling the shots for those two teams. For many people, that predates their involvement in fantasy football. That streak isn’t going to end for either team this season.
The Saints feature a couple of early-round players this season in Mark Ingram and Brandin Cooks. Ingram is coming off the board at the end of the second round on average, while Cooks’s ADP is early in the third round. That’s about where fantasy owners who are targeting offenses can start to make things happen. All the targeting of Pittsburgh in the world isn’t going to help you get Brown, but if you’re deliberately looking for investment in the Saints, you can jump the line on receivers like Alshon Jeffery and Amari Cooper to secure Cooks’s services.
New England is one of the most interesting team targets this year. Rob Gronkowski is on the border of the first and second rounds, and Julian Edelman is coming off the board in the middle of the fourth, on average. No other receiver or running back is being selected within the first 95 picks of a typical draft. Dion Lewis was, but that will change now that he’s out indefinitely after a second knee surgery. James White will undoubtedly climb up draft boards, but he’s unlikely to break into the first eight or nine rounds. With him, LeGarrette Blount (ADP of 96.5), Martellus Bennett (122.1) and Chris Hogan (158), the Patriots have four easily attainable players who will have major roles in the offense.
As for the Saints, Willie Snead (114.1) and Michael Thomas (115.1) give fantasy owners affordable investment paths while being inextricably tied to Brees. That’s never a bad thing. Many of the other receivers in their neighborhood are attractive in their own right—I’m an unabashed Kamar Aiken (115.7) fan, and Devin Funchess (120.6) is turning heads in Carolina—but a 10th-round Saints receiver can provide a huge return.
Green Bay, Pittsburgh
The Packers and Steelers have been two of the fantasy-friendliest offenses over the last few seasons. Both of these teams will likely have two players—Eddie Lacy and Jordy Nelson from the Packers, Brown and Le’Veon Bell from the Steelers—selected in your draft’s first two rounds, while Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger have top-six ADPs among quarterbacks. That, however, is why it’s easier said than done to invest in these two potent offenses.
You’ll need no worse than the second pick in a snake draft to get Brown. Bell, Lacy and Nelson are more attainable, but you’ll still need to be in the right spot within the first 20 picks, and all three come with a high opportunity cost. Rodgers and Roethlisberger give you prime investment in their respective offenses, but they both come at a premium for a position where the value is later than either is going off the board.
That leaves players like Randall Cobb, Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates and Jared Cook (Ladarius Green is simply too risky at this point) as avenues of investment in these two teams. Cobb is the only one who, at the start of draft season, projects as a weekly starter in all fantasy formats.
Green Bay and Pittsburgh should feature two of the best offenses in the league, but the opportunities to invest in them aren’t necessarily targetable. In other words, just because you want to invest in them doesn’t mean you will be able to do so.
Photos: Don Juan Moore/Getty Images (Jaguars), Jim Rogash/Getty Images (Patriots)