THE Z REPORT

Lance Zierlein: Value picks for your NFL fantasy drafts

Jimmy Garappolo has some value. San Francisco 49ers

I’ve been a long-time radio host here in Houston, but there are people around the country who know me as an NFL draft writer for NFL.com. What most of those people don’t realize (and many here in Houston if my guess is correct) is that I’ve also been an NFL fantasy football writer for the Houston Chronicle, Rotoworld, and FantasyGuru.com.

I have a feel for how successful NFL general managers draft and for how successful fantasy owners draft. While the methodology may be different, there is an underlying truth that exists in both realms. Drafting well with your earliest picks gives you a good chance to be a playoff team, but excelling in the middle rounds of a draft is often the key to building a championship team.

The word “sleeper” gets thrown around quite a bit and I’ve found that different people have different definitions of what a sleeper really is. Instead, I’m going to give you some “value” picks that you should be keeping your eyes on for your fantasy drafts and auctions.

* The ADP (average draft positioning) of each player is based upon a 12-team, PPR league and was found on FantasyFootballCalculator.com

Quarterbacks

Jimmy Garoppolo, SF, ninth round: Garoppolo generated some heat at the end of last season by going 6-0 to end the year, but his touchdown production was underwhelming during that stretch. However, if you plan on waiting for a quarterback, it might make sense to grab a Kyle Shanahan coached player. Matt Schaub (2009) finished fourth in fantasy scoring at QB, Robert Griffin, III (2012) finished fifth, and Matt Ryan (2016) finished second. The 49ers are an average bunch at best at WR, but Shanahan has a great feel for putting his QBs in position to succeed.

Running Back

Kenyan Drake, MIA, fourth round: While some may not see the fourth round as “value” round, Drake has been coming off the board at around the 20th RB spot. Over his last two games of 2017, Drake wowed head coach Adam Gase with 56 touches for 334 yards. Sure, he’s got Frank Gore, who will be getting some work as well, but Drake is clearly the more explosive player on the ground and through the air and it should show up this season.

Wide Receivers / Tight Ends

Trent Taylor, SF, Late Round/Undrafted: Taylor will be flying under the radar in most leagues, but it was obvious from the 49ers practices against the Texans that Garoppolo is in love with his safety blanket, Taylor, from the slot. Don’t be shocked if Taylor becomes the most targeted receiver on the team and a sneaky effective option in PPR leagues.

Calvin Ridley, ATL, 10th round: While Ridley has been going in the 10th/11th round in many drafts, he could come off the board just a little bit earlier in some leagues due to his name value out of Alabama. To be honest, I think he could be a value pick beyond the eighth round. Ridley has homerun long speed and has game-ready route running skills that should translate into open opportunities. With much attention expected to head Julio Jones’ way from defenses, Ridley could make real noise - even as a rookie.

David Njoku, CLE, ninth round: I will admit that while many owners like to target the top tier tight ends relatively early in the draft, I prefer to search for value with ascending tight end talent in the back half of the draft. Njoku fits that mold. Njoku played in all 16 games, but started just five and yet still managed to finish with 32 catches for 386 yards and 4 TDs. Both Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield have shown a willingness to target tight ends in the past which should bode well for Njoku’s rise into the top eight TEs in the fantasy world.

 

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Cristian Javier has proven he's a quality starting pitcher. Composite image by Jack Brame.

The 2022 regular season is nearing its end and while for the Houston Astros the true test will begin in the postseason, now is a good time to look ahead at what the team’s starting rotation could look like in 2023.

The big question will be whether long-time ace Justin Verlander returns to the team. Heading into 2022, there was doubt whether he would even be with the Astros coming off Tommy John surgery. Verlander re-signed with Houston on a two-year deal with a player option for 2023.

His production in 2022 has been nothing short of sensational. Verlander has the most wins for the Astros with a week left in the season. He has a 1.82 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 5.2 wins above replacement. More importantly for both Verlander and the Astros, is that he has played in 26 games and counting this season.

Whether Verlander remains with the Astros will likely depend on whether Houston is willing to spend. It is highly likely Verlander opts out of his player option following the strong 2022 campaign he has put together and looks for a bigger payday. Houston has shown it is not afraid to let key players walk in the offseason, so let’s take a look at a potential rotation with and without Verlander.

If the 39-year-old, who will be 40 by the time the 2023 regular season starts, stays with the Astros, he will undoubtedly be either the No. 1 or No. 2 pitcher in the rotation along with Framber Valdez, who is right behind Verlander in wins this season at 16. If Verlander leaves, Valdez should be the new Astros ace at No. 1.

Behind those two should be pitcher Lance McCullers Jr., who in seven games in 2022 has a 2.38 ERA and has cooled the concerns about his right flexor tendon strain being a long-term concern. He suffered the injury last postseason.

After those three, things begin to get interesting. Let’s say Houston opts to stay with a six-man rotation. The fourth starter could be Luis Garcia, who has a 3.90 ERA in 2022. The 25-year-old has shown he is more than a capable starter for the Astros.

The big question is if Hunter Brown can lock himself a spot in the rotation. Numbers wise, he makes a solid case to be more than Houston’s fifth starter as he has garnered 1.13 ERA through four appearances and two starts.

Brown’s starts have been against the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers, so there is a bit of a caveat there, but the upside undoubtedly should put him in the conversation for a starting role in 2023.

If Verlander leaves Houston, it should be more of a guarantee that a spot in the rotation as a starter for Brown is locked. Another factor in whether Brown is a starter could be if the Astros keep Dusty Baker as manager. Baker has shown at times he is willing to side with veterans over younger talent.

Other factors in Brown’s role will also be Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier. Urquidy has a 3.88 ERA in 28 games, all of which have been starts. Javier has a 2.65 ERA in 29 appearances, 24 of which have been starts.

Javier’s role for the Astros the last couple of years has involved starting and coming out of the bullpen, but this season he has shown that he is a capable starter. Based on this season’s play, Javier should have the edge for a starting spot, which leaves the question, what should the Astros do with Urquidy?

If Verlander walks, and Houston opts to keep a six-man rotation, then he just slides in and becomes starter No. 6. If Verlander stays, then is he willing to accept a role out of the bullpen, or do the Astros continue to use Brown out of the bullpen? Over the course of the season, both Brown and Urquidy will undoubtedly have chances to start throughout 2023.

Because of the long grind of an MLB schedule, the Astros should not trade whoever doesn’t get a starting role if Verlander stays, but how likely is it that it is even a problem for Houston? Regardless of who leaves or stays, the Astros should also continue with a six-man rotation because over the course of 162 games, it is what is best for your starters.

If the Astros bring back general manager James Click, based on how the Astros have seen players like George Springer and Carlos Correa walk in the past under his leadership, it is likely Verlander leaves Houston, but at the same time, many didn’t believe he was going to be back at all for 2022.

One thing is for sure, the Astros have a great problem to have. So many starting pitcher candidates, many of whom can be under team control for several years. So even if Verlander walks, an unforeseen injury happens, or a player ends up being disgruntled, Houston has more than enough flexibility to remain among the American Leagues’s best.

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