By Andrew Metcalfe
Your annual league draft is winding down into the later rounds and you are combing through an endless pile of fantasy irrelevance, hoping to come across late round steals that somewhat excites you. There are a few different ways to approach your final pick. You can grab a handcuff to one of your starting running back, a backup tight end or quarterback, or even be the one to take a shot on Antonio Brown (automatically committing to one dead roster spot for half of the season). Instead, I would like you to consider one of these late round steals who are almost guaranteed to be available at the end of any 15-16 round draft. They are unlikely to become league winners, but could be useful to plug into your lineup in a pinch at some point throughout the season.
The Texans’ off-season moves were the talk of Fantasy Football Twitter as they happened. Shipping out DeAndre Hopkins frees up 150 targets from last season, and Houston also ranked sixth in the NFL in 2019 for total vacated targets. The first roster move that Houston made after the trade was to sign Randall Cobb to a 3-year, $27 million deal. That is not “just adding depth” money — Bill O’Brien has a role for Cobb in this offense. Cobb quietly put together a decent season in 2019 — 55 receptions, 828 yards, and three touchdowns — despite being in the same offense as Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Ezekiel Elliott, and Jason Witten. That was also his lowest touchdown total since his rookie season when he played at least 13 games.
Cobb’s floor is a borderline FLEX play, while his ceiling is tied to the health of the two wide receivers above him on the depth chart. Both Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks have injury histories that are well documented. Fuller has only played in 65% of games in his career, and Cooks is one more concussion away from an extended absence or possibly even retirement. Cobb has shown that he can post WR2 production when he has an opportunity to receive a high target volume. Even though it feels like he’s been around forever, he just turned 30 years old in August. There is no reason to believe he’s slowing down physically.
The Buccaneers backfield has been one of the more intriguing storylines during the off-season. For Ronald Jones, 2019 was inconsistent to say the least. Every time we felt confident that Bruce Arians would give Jones a full workload, he would come out and lay an egg. Many were excited about their third round draft pick out of Vanderbilt, Ke’Shawn Vaughn. He began the already abbreviated Training Camp on the COVID list, and since reporting to camp, reports about his work ethic and attitude have not been positive. Head Coach Bruce Arians even suggested that his best chance to contribute to start the season will be on Special Teams. The team also brought in LeSean McCoy, but Kansas City didn’t even activate him for the Super Bowl in February — so I’m not expecting anything much from him in Tampa, outside of being a veteran presence.
That brings us to Dare Ogunbowale — a 2017 undrafted free agent. Ogunbowale led all Bucs running backs in targets last season, and was the clear third down back for them down the stretch. Arians made it clear that Tom Brady will have a major influence over the offense. One of the vital aspects of New England Brady-run offenses is the use of running backs in the passing game. Tampa Bay targeted their backs on 19% of passes last season (league average: 21%), while Tom Brady targeted running backs on 28% of his passes last season. Over the past three years, only Drew Brees has thrown to his running backs at a higher rate. If Brady decides that Ogunbowale is his favorite receiving option out of the backfield, there is major PPR upside with him.
Anthony McFarland Jr
There has been plenty of buzz surrounding the top rookie running backs, but Anthony McFarland Jr. is one of the most dynamic rushers in the class. He was drafted out of Maryland in the fourth round, after his redshirt sophomore season. Halfway through his second year as the starter, he suffered a high ankle sprain, which he managed to play through, but it definitely had a negative effect on his production and draft stock. James Conner is the clear cut starter, and the Steelers have never shown a desire to use a running-back-by-committee under Mike Tomlin. A single running back approach is much more manageable when you are a pass-heavy offense — Pittsburgh led the league in pass attempts in 2018. In Week 2 of last season, Ben Roethlisberger tore three flexor tendons in his right elbow which, causing him to miss the rest of the season. At 38 years old, Roethlisberger had even considered retirement after the injury occurred.
While torn flexor tendons are common in baseball pitchers, we don’t have any precedent of an NFL quarterback coming back from this. I can see Tomlin taking a different approach to try and protect Ben by using a more balanced approach on offense and scaling back on the pass plays. While Benny Snell appears to be the second string running back on the depth chart, McFarland is the best change of pace option — no other back on the team comes close to his 4.44 speed. Even if Conner manages to stay healthy for a full season, McFarland has a good chance to carve out a role for himself.
The Atlanta Falcons have been top five in pass attempts for the past two seasons. Their dreadful defense leads to a lot of “shootouts” and, going into 2020, I do not expect to see much of an improvement on that side of the ball. Starting TE Austin Hooper signed a free agent deal with the Browns, so his 97 targets from 2019 are up for grabs. Many expect recently-acquired Hayden Hurst to step right into Hooper’s role and soak up all of those targets, but I would not be so quick to overlook Russell Gage. Gage was a sixth round pick in 2018 and has worked his way up the Atlanta depth chart to become the WR3 behind Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, after the Falcons traded Mohamed Sanu Jr. to the Patriots for a second round pick last October. From week 8 on, Gage had a 16 game pace of 117 targets, 80 receptions, and 715 yards. Maybe it’s not league winning production, but it’s rare to find a player with 100+ target potential going undrafted. Dave Brock, the Falcons WRs coach, had this to say about Gage earlier this summer: “He’s somebody we’re going to certainly count on in a lot of scenarios this season… He’s got a ton of potential, and I don’t even think he’s come close to reaching it yet.”
I’m not one to buy into coach-speak, but Atlanta has also shown confidence in Gage through their actions — or lack thereof. Despite the abundance of wide receiver talent in the 2020 rookie class, the Falcons were one of the few teams that didn’t draft a single one of them. Factor in the Sanu trade with Jones being on the wrong side of 30, and they certainly could have justified spending a mid-round pick on a receiver. The only addition of note is 2016 first round bust, Laquon Treadwell, for depth.
The next time you are on the clock in the final round of your fantasy draft, there is a very good chance that all four of these late round steals will be available. Stop burning roster spots on an additional QB/TE that will never crack your starting lineup or a handcuff RB that needs an injury in front of him to become relevant. Depth is more important than ever this season, so take a shot at one of these overlooked late round steals that should have weekly flex consideration, with opportunity for much more.