Daily Fantasy Sports Buried Treasure: NFC South
Welcome to DFS Buried Treasure
Every year players emerge from the depths of the roster to shine as a beacon of hope for desperate DFS players. Sometimes these players end up being lineup mainstays, sometimes not. Often these players start as fodder on the back end of the depth chart. Given the right conditions, these players can blow past their meager pricing and provide tremendous value. It is still very early to be thinking of DFS lineups, but this series will try to highlight players with the skills and circumstances to return great value on a likely depressed salary. These might not be for the faint of heart, but there is a lot of potential here. These are the DFS buried treasures, NFC South edition. Previous editions can be found below:
Atlanta Falcons: Romarius Smith, Running Back
More commonly known as Ito, Smith seems to be walking right into a juicy role in the Falcons offense. In his rookie year, Smith showed a lot of the positive things he displayed in four years at Southern Miss. His collegiate career was very productive and finished with him totaling almost 6,000 rushing and receiving yards. The assumption was that he would add depth to a strong tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. But, with Freeman only playing two games due to a knee sprain and sports hernia surgery, Smith was much busier.
This year he will again be the primary backup, this time to Freeman. With Coleman now on the 49ers it’s Freeman and Smith 1 and 2. The expectations for Smith are rising, but his production also shows room for growth. With the optimistic outlooks for the Falcons’ skill players, Smith is ready to take full advantage of his potential increased touches.
All of the storylines pushing the Falcons as fantasy darlings this year will help Smith. Replacing Steve Sarkisian with a bag of sand might have been a net positive for the offense, but having Dirk Koetter return to the role he filled from 2012-2014 is a big win. Koetter’s first stint as the OC in Atlanta lead to some very good RB2 seasons:
Looking at those 2012-2014 seasons, the main thing the RB2 had going for them was being involved in the passing game. Jacquizz Rodgers (’12-’14) and Devonta Freeman in his rookie year (’14) combined for the following receiving seasons:
2012: 53 receptions, 402 yards
2013: 52 receptions, 341 yards
2014: 59 receptions, 348 yards
Now, compare those seasons with the last three years of Smith’s college career (again these are just the receiving numbers):
2015: 49 receptions, 515 yards
2016: 43 receptions, 459 yards
2017: 40 receptions, 396 yards
It’s obviously not as simple as plugging in Smith and expecting that level of production from him in the passing game. What you can expect, is that Koetter will exploit that facet of Smith’s game much more than Sarkisian did last year. A steady diet of targets in the passing game will help create a solid floor for production from Smith.
It was also interesting to note Ito’s red zone usage from last year. Smith was the teams leading rusher inside the red zone last year, handling 21 carries and scoring 4 TDs. His 21 carries was just one less than the other three RBs (Freeman, Coleman, and Brian Hill) combined. While the TDs should not be counted on to repeat themselves, the workload is interesting. If the Falcons’ staff believes that Smith is as viable a red zone option as Freeman, his ceiling continues to climb.
Despite a couple of solid weeks, Smith mostly cruised under the radar in DraftKings. His price peaked at $3,800 for Week 7 last year, and was above $3,400 only 6 times all year. Understandably, he was priced at the position minimum for a few weeks, but managed to avoid any major speculative jumps once his role increased. Unfortunately, the secret might be out on Smith, as he has already set a new career-high in DraftKings in Week 1: $4,000. With an increased role in an improved offense, that might prove to be a bargain price. Monitor his usage, but if his role approaches what Coleman was able to do while working with Freeman as the main starter, Smith will be an every week consideration while priced down in the $4,000 range.
Carolina Panthers: Ian Thomas, Tight End
There are many fantasy-relevant names on the Panthers. They even have a couple deep into their journey from underrated sleeper to over discussed bust candidate who then settles into exactly where they should be taken. Still, with all the attention being paid to so many others on the Panthers’ roster, Ian Thomas has gone largely ignored. Many people picked up Thomas in a deeper league last year as the great TE debacle of 2018 unfolded, but he has been quickly abandoned.
Obviously, the return of Greg Olsen is the main culprit. The projected (hoped for?) growth for WRs Curtis Samuel and D.J. Moore also limit Thomas’ ceiling. But, ignoring a second-year player who was second amongst rookie TEs in receptions and yards, despite barely playing in 7 games last year (Weeks 6-12 he had single digit snaps), would be foolish for both fantasy players and the Panthers.
The talent of Thomas is real, and TE1 snaps are one nagging injury away from being his. As great a player as Greg Olsen is, the fact is that his best days are behind him. He’s a 34-year-old TE who has missed a full seasons worth of games the last two years. Even worse is the nature of the injury. He’s fractured his right foot twice in two years and then added a ruptured plantar fascia to top things off. Thomas is ready to step in and be the future of the position for the Panthers. Once he’s there, he stands to benefit from a career’s worth of TE favoritism from Cam Newton.
In his career, Newton has averaged 118 targets to TEs, with 2017 and 2018 the only two years he failed to crack 100. Both of those years saw a Olsen miss time, and the rise of target monster Christian McCaffrey. Look at Thomas’ game log, and you’ll see that he saw a significant increase in playing time starting in Week 13. He had some early work in the season, but was still adjusting to the NFL game. Once Olsen went down and Thomas again saw consistent snaps his production increased nicely. Putting up an average line of 5 receptions and 49.2 yards on 6.4 targets/game brings Thomas over the 100 target mark over a full season. His full projected total of 80/787.2/6.4 looks mighty attractive and would have been good for a TE5 finish last season; between Eric Ebron and Jared Cook.
In the Year of the Tight End Apocalypse, aka 2018, many a DFS player was left to scramble for a TE streamer. Many experts, including the hosts of the DFStatistics podcast (part of the FFStatistics family of podcasts) advocated paying up for the stud TEs while hunting for value at WR or RB. However, there were still enough low priced values that made bottom feeding profitable as well. Thomas was just such a player. In three of his last four games he scored at least 14.8 points, and his price never rose above $3,500 during that time. In fact, his Week 16 pricing of $3,500 was also his season high.
A new season and the return of Greg Olsen has dropped his price again, this time down to $2,800. Obviously, Olsen’s usage will dictate Thomas’ and the situation might remain fluid throughout the year. But, if Thomas’ price remains low due to the presence of the veteran TE, then he should remain a bargain for at least a couple of weeks if Olsen goes down with another injury. Keep an eye out, but be ready to fill in Thomas should his role become flipped to TE1, either due to injury or simply better in-game performance.
New Orleans Saints: Tre’Quan Smith, Wide Receiver
Here is another rookie who stepped in for an injured teammate and produced some tantalizing moments. Smith’s Week 5 explosion was a nice tease for his abilities and his Week 11 performance was a glimpse at his ceiling. An early injury to Ted Ginn left an opening for a WR2 in the Saints offense. With a full season of learning under his belt, Tre’Quan is a preseason target for many in the fantasy community. With Ted Ginn still around, he might have a slightly lower floor of production, but his talent keeps his ceiling high.
Now the second-year WR looks to fill in as the WR2 based on his talent and not solely because of injury. Smith has the size and speed to thrive in the outside role that Ginn currently occupies. Any slip from Ginn, who is now entering his 13th NFL season, will open the door for Smith to step in.
The upside is great for Smith. His wild inconsistency must be addressed, as his two huge games in Weeks 5 and 11 make up almost 63% of his total receiving yards. But that ceiling is exactly what makes him so interesting for DFS usage. Just look at how absurd his two outlier weeks look compared to the rest of his season:
Smith is so boom or bust, and really there is no way to know how his skill set will translate over the course of his career. In DFS he can break a slate and bring you to a top GPP finish, or crush your hopes.
Season-long players love the upside, but seem to be scared off by the inconsistency and the concerns about the state of the Saints offense. Brees is getting older and has seen his pass attempts drop each of the last three seasons. His 489 attempts last year were his lowest total since 2004. Michael Thomas looks likely to absorb the majority of targets, even with a healthy Ted Ginn present. In 2017, Ginn played a full season and Thomas still out targeted him by 79. It is an overall concerning trend for Brees and the Saints passing game, but Smith is uniquely suited to come out okay.
In his rookie year, Smith had a higher points per opportunity ratio than his teammate Michael Thomas and fellow stud WR, DeAndre Hopkins. In fact, his ratio is higher than anyone in the top 20 last year. Even a small market share can make Smith worth a dart throw roster spot in a GPP where differentiation is important too.
The word got out quickly about Tre’Quan last season. A Week 6 bye prevented DraftKings from immediately pricing Smith up, but by Week 7 he only had a $400 salary increase from his $3,300 Week 5 price. His real bump came after his Week 11 performance, where he became somewhat overpriced for the next month. The next four weeks saw Smith’s highest prices of the season, starting at $4,700 in Week 12. After a plateau in Week 13 ($4,700 aagin) his price dropped each week until the end of the year.
As the first Monday Night Football game of the 2019 season, Smith’s Week 1 pricing still hasn’t been released by DraftKings. Given his talent and potential, any price under $4,000 is very attractive as a high-risk, high-reward type play. Just know that he is more likely to bust out as he is to break out. Temper expectations and enjoy the ride if he hits.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Andre Ellington, Running Back
If 2018 was your first exposure to fantasy football, then you have no idea who Andre Ellington is. After being drafted by current coach Bruce Arians as a sixth rounder in Arizona, Ellington quickly established his skill set. He is a tremendous pass catching back. Out in the desert, Ellington thrived under then first time head coach Arians. Bruce had just established himself as the hottest coaching commodity after filling in for Chuck Pagano, who was battling leukemia. Things were going great to start, but Ellington seemed to fall out of favor in Arizona. In 2017 he was cut by the Cardinals and then picked up by the Houston Texans. After some spot duty there, he was somehow out of the league in 2018.
With Arians’ return to the sidelines, Ellington will look to recapture the early career magic he shared with his coach. Reports are that Ellington has been in good shape, and will be in contention for a roster spot. All he needs is a chance, and Ellington could remind everyone of who he is and what he can do.
One name: Bruce Arians. Ellington’s best seasons were under Arians and operating in his offense. In 2013 and 2014 he had over 1,000 total yards, with more of that coming on the ground than you might think. He had 652 and 660 rushing yards in those two seasons while also racking up the most RB targets in that same timeframe. He was the RB1 in 2014 and split work with Rashard Mendenhall his rookie season. Finally back on an NFL roster, he has little in the way of established competition in Tampa Bay.
Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones have shown flashes, but not consistently enough to warrant the kind of job security many might attribute to either of them. Barber did set a new career high in rushing yards, but had his least efficient season. Jones was somehow even worse and both were held to single digit receiving yards per game. There is still Jacquizz Rodgers on the roster, but Arians could feel more comfortable with a known quantity.
Given the state of the Tampa Bay defense (it’s #Bad), this offense could see similar numbers to last year in terms of plays. The Bucs were sixth in offensive plays last year. Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson are gone. If that volume of plays comes available again, Ellington could walk into 40-50 targets, easily. From there it’s just a matter of finding a favorable game script and Ellington becomes a real minimum priced target.
Obviously Ellington has no pricing data for last year, as he was out of the league. Going back to 2017, he was mostly value-priced but did have a season-high of $5,300. He hit the $4,000+ mark two more times that year but was sub-$4,000 every other week. This is one of the longest of shots, but Arians has seen him produce in the past and he may still have some life left in him. Right away he is down at the positional minimum, $3,000, for Week 1. His utility would depend entirely on injuries or ineffectiveness ahead of him. Barber or Jones going down (and preferably both in this scenario) would make Ellington a solid pivot. Even if they are healthy, their limited skill sets could force Ellington into work. Almost no one will use him, but it wouldn’t take much for a decent return on his price.