Daily Fantasy Sports Buried Treasure: AFC North
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, AFC North edition.
Baltimore Ravens: Justice Hill, Running Back
Justice Hill was the fourth-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens and joins a somewhat crowded Baltimore backfield. The Oklahoma State alum comes with a very solid body of work in his collegiate career. After averaging more than 1,100 yards per season, Hill declared for the draft after his junior year. He was only 70 yards shy of rushing for 1,000+ in all three seasons, only missing out on the milestone last year due to missing two games with a rib injury. Prior to that, he had not missed any time, having played in all 13 games during his freshman and sophomore years. On top of all the rushing yardage, Hill showed a good nose for the end zone, scoring 30 times on the ground. In a draft where many running backs were available later, Hill still could become a significant value, both in real life and in DFS.
Last year the Baltimore Ravens had an almost even split in passing and rushing attempts (556 vs 547) and were one of two franchises to rush over 500 times. The disparity in the offensive attack became even greater once rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson took over as the starter. Obviously, the expectation is for Jackson to work on the passing element of his game. Despite that, their biggest offensive free agent was another running back, Mark Ingram. The wide receiver group has a bunch of question marks, including rookie additions Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin. This team will still live and die by the run, and Hill is the most explosive option out of the backfield. No one can match his 4.4-40 time, 40-inch vertical, or 130-inch broad jump.
Judging by the skill sets of the other backs on the roster, Ingram and Edwards will be used as power backs, with only Kenneth Dixon competing with Hill for passing opportunities out of the backfield and third-down work. In his short time in the league, Dixon has been a frustrating mix of potential and injuries. Already having missed 30 of a possible 48 games due to injury and suspension, Dixon is on thin ice and must show well with Hill in town. If he or any of the other backs falter, Hill will step into a solid workload. Given coach John Harbaugh’s recent success with RB2s, Hill is a commodity that should not be ignored.
As a rookie who has yet to complete a full training camp, Hill’s pricing is tough to determine. However, there are precedents for other players in a similar situation to him. Looking at the 2018 pricing for a pair of former fourth-round picks can provide some insight into his price range. Nyheim Hines was a rookie for the Indianapolis Colts last year, who was in the mix for work early on in the season. Hines’ price peaked at $5,100 in Week 6, just after a pair of starts for him. He had more weeks at a sub-$4,000 price than any other price range. Kallen Ballage never started a game for the Miami Dolphins last year, and really didn’t see significant playing time until Week 15. His price peaked at $3,700 after that. Assuming Hill starts off in the sub-$4,000 range, he is more than capable of returning three or four times his price given his skill set.
Cincinnati Bengals: C. J. Uzomah, Tight End
Seasoned fantasy players, standard and daily, should be very familiar with C.J. at this point. As the understudy to Tyler Eifert, the Bengals tight end has seen plenty of playing time in his career. In the last two seasons, Eifert has only managed to play in six games, leaving the bulk of the TE work to Uzomah. Yes, Eifert did re-sign with the team, but his presence shouldn’t affect the prospects of Uzomah, who finished as the TE18 last season. On this offense, which can be very potent if everyone is healthy, C.J. has a chance to shine. Entering his age-26 season, Uzomah is in his physical prime and has a new three-year contract. Cincinnati is giving him $6.25 million in guaranteed money this year. That shows trust in him from the front office, as he is the 15th highest paid TE in the league (in avg./year). Of the players ahead of him, only Eric Ebron is younger.
Already boasting one of the game’s elite wide receivers, Cincinnati was finally able to develop a complementary passing option to run with AJ Green: Tyler Boyd. Now, if Andy Dalton can stay upright, he will have an offense with two excellent WRs, a top-end RB in Joe Mixon, and a very underrated TE in Uzomah. There is also a lot of optimism for the offense given the new coaching staff that has come in to replace the long-running Marvin Lewis regime. New coach Zac Taylor is the Bengals’ attempt to find their own Sean McVay. To find him they went right to the source and poached him away from the Los Angeles Rams’ coaching staff. He is joined by new offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. Callahan has a recent history of successful work with QBs, helping Derek Carr recover some of his lost shine, and prior to that, helping Matthew Stafford have to very productive seasons in 2016 and 2017. Both Taylor and Callahan are former QBs, so Andy Dalton should have a scheme built to help maximize the talented skill position group assembled in Cincinnati.
In the two seasons that Callahan was working with Stafford in Detroit, their TE1 was Eric Ebron in both seasons. In 2017 he was TE13 and in 2016 he was TE14 in just 13 games. Last year, when Callahan was working with Derek Carr, Jared Cook finished as the TE5. His QBs will utilize the TE, and Uzomah is poised to take the bulk of that attention. A full season of Andy Dalton at QB will help, as will the return of A.J. Green. Even if Dalton were to miss time, Uzomah was slightly better with Jeff Driskel in at QB.
Going through Uzomah’s pricing on DraftKings last year, he looks like a replacement-level player. His average price in 2018 was only $3,162.50, placing him closer to the bottom of the position’s pricing. His salary topped out at $3,700 and he only hit the $3,500 mark five times all year. It is doubtful he will be that cheap very often as the season progresses, especially if the new coaching staff is able to elevate the offense. Still, the team is committed to him, and he is their TE1. Finding a starting TE in a good offense for close to minimum pricing is good value. If he sticks under $4,000, Uzomah should go from an overlooked afterthought to lineup mainstay.
Cleveland Browns: Rashard Higgins, Wide Receiver
With all of the headlines generated this offseason by the Cleveland Browns, it’s easy to forget about the players already there. Rashard Higgins was a fifth-round pick in 2016 out of Colorado State. He had a very productive college career and was a Biletnikoff award nominee for his excellent 2014 season. Despite his tremendous career, where he finished as his school’s career leader in yards, TD receptions, and receptions, he slipped in the draft. A slow 4.64-forty time did him no favors, but the reports had him as more of a possession receiver than an outside threat. Luckily, Cleveland won’t need him to be a WR1 or even a WR2. With Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry around those two spots are covered. But guarding those two, as well as accounting for TE David Njoku will leave many secondaries stretched thin. This is where Higgins can become a real value for the Browns and DFS players.
In DFS games when scouting for cheap WRs, I prefer to get possession-type players. The baseline production that they can return in a PPR format is valuable when building cash lineups, or looking for some medium floor cheap alternatives. Higgins profiles nicely as a receiver stepping into a slot type role. In 2018, Higgins set new career highs in every major statistical category including yards, targets, receptions, and TDs. All his production also came in the fewest games played in his young career (13). Now, on the depth chart ahead of him is one of the best WR tandems in the league.
Jarvis Landry is very good, but five years into his career, he has never topped 1,157 yards receiving and only one time has scored more than 5 Tds. Opposite him is Odell Beckham Jr. OBJ is one of the most exciting WRs to play the game, but he also has missed 21 of a possible 80 games to this point in his career. The point is, there is still room for production to come from other players on the team. The other young WR on the roster, Antonio Callaway, is a work in progress who is more likely to see his role affected by the presence of OBJ. Callaway is more of an outside and downfield threat and is behind Higgins in terms of intermediate route running. Higgins has shown he can coexist with Landry and Callaway on the outside. OBJ should replace Callaway and help Rashard find more room to operate underneath in this offense.
Several times last year, Higgins was an absolute steal at WR. His pricing in 2018 never exceeded $3,900, and in his three best games, all with 15+ points, his price never went above $3,500. Double-digit production from a player near the position minimum is a fantastic value. Having a player like Higgins hit more than 4-times his salary is the type of play that can win tournaments. If OBJ is lost at any point due to injury, or Callaway does see a hit in snap counts, Higgins is the other WR to keep in mind.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Donte Moncrief, Wide Receiver
In a post-AB world, many fantasy players and Pittsburgh Steelers fans alike are wondering how the WR corp will shake out in 2019. Obviously, no one player can come in and replace Antonio Brown and his role in the offense, but the Steelers have JuJu Smith-Schuster who is a very close replacement. The question remains, then, who will replace JuJu’s role? As Pittsburgh’s lone major offensive free agent, Donte Moncrief is ready to step in. He’s an easy player to forget, given a recent combination of injury and mediocre QB play. After playing all 16 games his first two seasons, Moncrief missed 11 games from 2016-2017, before playing in 16 for Jacksonville last season. He has only played one full season with a solid QB, with Andrew Luck missing an assortment of games during their time together in Indianapolis. And the less said about the 2018 Jacksonville Jaguars QB situation, the better.
Still, in the time he did play with Luck, Moncrief was productive. His receiving line while playing with Luck looks very solid, 84-1,036-14 on just 139 targets. Just as a reminder, Juju put up a 111-1,426-7 line on 166 targets last season. Now, playing with another good QB, Moncrief is entering his age-26 season in an offense that should score with ease. Ignoring Moncrief would be foolish for any fantasy player, season-long or DFS.
There were six teams last season with 600+ passing attempts. One of those teams was the Pittsburgh Steelers, who led the league with 689 total and 675 from Ben Roethlisberger (4th most all-time in a single season). The WR2 in that kind of an offense is not a player to overlook. Even assuming a drop in attempts this year, the Steelers have a history of producing very solid WR2 seasons.
Eight seasons with a WR2 that is above league average is solid production. Typically, the Steelers have been able to promote from within. They have drafted and developed Antonio Brown, Juju, Mike Wallace, Martavis Bryant, Emmanuel Sanders, and Santonio Holmes. It is telling that rather than relying on James Washington, the Steelers went and signed Moncrief.
Looking a bit closer to Moncrief’s 2018, it becomes clear how bad his offense was. Jacksonville only had Leonard Fournette for 8 games and relied on a mix of Carlos Hyde and T.J. Yeldon. Not ideal for any offense, but a disaster for one led by one of the worst QBs group in the league. Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler combined for a horrible passing year. Moncrief was still second on the team in receiving yards. He only had 49 fewer yards despite having 12 fewer targets. He operated as Jacksonville’s primary deep threat, having by far the highest average depth of target (12.3). Having a successful season as a deep threat when your QBs are in the bottom third of most statistical categories is a tough life. Things are going to turn around for Moncrief, and DFS players can take advantage before his pricing catches up.
Reviewing Moncrief’s pricing in 2018 looks about right for his actual output. He started the season off low- $4,000 or below for the first four weeks of the season. His price crept up slowly, reaching a small bump in Weeks 10-12. Peaking at $4,900 in Week 12, he came back down every week after that settling at just $3,400 by Week 17. Part of that coincides with Dede Westbrook becoming the preferred target, but Moncrief will have a much more defined role in Pittsburgh this upcoming season. If his pricing hovers in the mid-$4,000s, he should be a regular DFS target as long as Roethlisberger can stay healthy. He won’t be Juju, but he can certainly be the version of himself we have already seen thrive with Andrew Luck in the past.