These days, it seems like all the talk centers around redraft or dynasty leagues, but my favorite type of league has always been a good old-fashioned keeper league. Keeper leagues are a great way to reward savvy owners who can balance the present and future, while also keeping the draft fresh each year for the rest of the league.
Today, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The key to success in keeper leagues is finding the right players to target in the mid-to-late rounds of your drafts who should jump up several rounds in next year’s drafts. You can give yourself a significant advantage by starting your team with an extra first or second round talent.
Sometimes these players’ situations are clouded by incumbents ahead of them, or things haven’t clicked quite yet. But in almost all cases, they have flashed enormous potential that should propel them moving forward — even if it takes time to surface in 2019.
In the past, I’ve had tremendous success identifying future keepers. Players, such as: Deangelo Williams in 2008, Ray Rice in 2009, Arian Foster in 2010, CJ Spiller in 2012, and most recently, Nick Chubb last season.
Noticing a trend? Yup, it’s almost always running backs who make the leap but there are a few exceptions.
So without further ado, these are the potential keepers I’m targeting in all my drafts this season.
RB Damien Harris, New England Patriots
Current ADP: 10.07, #118 overall
Two words: arthritic knee. That is the degenerative condition that Sony Michel will need to weather for the rest of his NFL career. If it’s any indication of what that means, consider this: Todd Gurley totaled 1,831 yards and 21 scores in 2018, yet the Rams still found it necessary to invest valuable draft capital into a third round running back. The same situation is true in New England. Michel rushed for 336 yards and six touchdowns in last year’s postseason, but the Patriots added an insurance policy of their own by taking Harris in the third round of April’s NFL Draft. To add to their worry, Michel underwent a procedure in June to clean up his knee for the second straight offseason.
Luckily for the Patriots, Harris isn’t a slouch and if pressed, could be ready to fulfill lead back responsibilities sooner rather than later. According to Rivals.com, Harris was a five-star recruit and was ranked as the top running back and the eighth best overall player in the 2015 high school class. He was a three year starter at Alabama, who averaged 6.4 yards per carry and added versatility to his game this past season with 22 receptions for 204 yards. Despite the lead role on Alabama, Harris never received more than 150 carries in a single season, and his legs should be fresh as he embarks on his NFL career. He also did not fumble in his final two collegiate seasons, for all you Belichick-truthers out there.
As of July 18th, his ADP sits at 10.07, #118 overall according to fantasyfootballcalculator.com. If Michel is injured or loses effectiveness going forward — as could be the case with managing pain tolerance over time, according to Dr. David Chao — Harris will be a reliable fill-in who can add unpredictability to the Patriots scheme due to his receiving ability. He’s someone that could see his 2020 draft stock rise into the third round, if not higher — making him one of the most essential keepers to target this draft season.
RB Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
Current ADP: 6.04, #65 overall
No doubt, Rashaad Penny’s rookie season burned several people reading this article. That makes it tough to buy in once again. But at his current ADP of 6.04, #65 overall — going behind the likes of Derrius Guice, Lamar Miller, and Tevin Coleman — Penny represents the most untapped upside of that group, both for this year and beyond.
Penny ran a 4.46 40-yard dash coming out of college, which puts him in the 93rd percentile for speed score. Although slow to adjust to the NFL, he started to lay down tape at the end of last season that backed up his athletic profile and highlighted his big play ability, as evidence by his top-5 finish in running back breakaway percentage, according to Pro Football Focus.
Penny’s Player Profiler comp is Melvin Gordon. Should Carson succumb to injury — as he has on many occasions in his NFL career — or should Penny wrestle away the starting gig outright in the NFL’s most run-heavy offense, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be talking about Penny in Gordon’s ADP neighborhood for 2020 drafts. At a sixth round cost, that would represent quite the profit in keeper leagues.
RB Justice Hill, Baltimore Ravens
Current ADP: 13.06, #153 overall
It’s no secret that mobile quarterbacks have a positive effect on the rushing success of their team’s running backs. So with that said, I present to you the most prolific running quarterback in NFL history: Lamar Jackson.
Since the Ravens appear committed to Jackson for the long-term, you absolutely want a piece of their backfield. This presents three options: Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, and Justice Hill. Ingram carries the highest cost for this season, but in looking ahead to 2020, he will be playing in his age-30 season with a lot of mileage and injury history on his résumé. Edwards is a similar type of player to Ingram. They both serve as bruisers between-the-tackles, without much upside.
This leaves Hill as the likely change-of-pace option in a run-heavy attack that should create gaping holes using the read-option. Much like Alvin Kamara, Ingram’s counterpart while with New Orleans, Hill is smallish in size (5-10, 200 lbs), but leans on his acceleration to hit the hole. His Player Profiler page lists his burst score in the 95th percentile, same as Kamara’s. Hill, however, has a leg up on the competition in pure speed, in which he ran a 4.40 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine.
We can’t expect similar production to Kamara in his rookie season — never bet on history — but if he produces roughly 60% of what Kamara accomplished, he should far exceed his current ADP price tag of 13.06, #153 overall. Given a taste of his potential in 2019, he could elevate into the top four or five rounds of keeper leagues for 2020.
WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Green Bay Packers
Current ADP: 10.10, #121 overall
The case for Valdes-Scantling in keeper leagues is titillating. After all, who wouldn’t want the #2 wide receiver in an Aaron Rodgers-led offense? Before last season, the second receiver on Green Bay averaged at least 8.8 standard fantasy points per game in seasons with a healthy Rodgers dating back to 2011, according to fantasydata.com. Over a 16 game regular season, that number would have yielded a Top-20 wideout in 2018.
The problem seems to lie in the ability to predict whether it will be MVS or Geronimo Allison filling those shoes and the hope that they won’t cannibalize each other. In reality, that might not matter, as there should be room for both players to see a significant share of targets, much like the Rams system which has produced the most three-wide formations in the NFL since Sean McVay took over in 2017.
In three-wide sets, many fantasy analysts want MVS to fill the slot role in 2019, but new Packers’ Head Coach Matt LeFleur, a McVay disciple, tends to favor bigger slot receivers, like Cooper Kupp and Mohamed Sanu, and faster receivers on the outside, like Sammy Watkins. Personally, I think this is a good thing.
According to PlayerProfiler.com, MVS saw 41% of his snaps in the slot, which yielded mixed results. But during a four game stretch from 10/7 through 11/4 — while Allison and Cobb were injured or working themselves back from injury — MVS served as the primary outside receiver and proved his big play ability. He hauled in 15 passes for 317 yards (21.3 yards per catch) and two touchdowns. His skillset (4.37 40-yard dash, 97th percentile speed score) and height-weight combo (6-4, 200 lbs) make him an ideal threat on the perimeter. He also showed great sideline awareness here and here — not to mention he’s been working with Randy Moss this offseason.
As of this writing, his current ADP is 10.10, #121 overall. If he ascends to the number two target in Aaron Rodgers’s offense as anticipated, I would expect him to be drafted among the top 20 wide receivers next year, which would make him at least a fourth round pick in 2020 — thusly, a six round value in keeper leagues.
Bonus keeper: RB Bryce Love, Washington Redskins
Current ADP: undrafted
In keeper leagues, Love is a pocket pick for 2019, but there’s hope that he can emerge as a valuable piece of the Washington backfield in 2020. Since he will presumably spend all of the upcoming season rehabbing from a torn ACL, you won’t have to spend more than a late round pick for the ability to stash him on your IR, if your league has one. Love averaged an insane 7.8 YPC in his first three seasons at Stanford and finished second in Heisman voting following the 2017 season. Had he entered the 2018 NFL Draft following his Junior campaign, he likely would have been a first round pick.
Simply put, he possesses a lot of talent, and the Washington depth chart remains largely unsettled, especially when prognosticating the future. Derrius Guice is coming off a torn ACL of his own and has already been bitten by the injury bug heading into training camp. His time in the NFL could be over before it even begins. The two incumbents, Adrian Peterson and Chris Thompson, are aging veterans whose contract situations don’t guarantee a future with Washington past the 2019 season. At worst, Love could find himself in a valuable change-of-pace role akin to that of Thompson. In a best case scenario, Washington embraces Love’s talent and turns over the reins to him in 2020, almost two full years after ACL reconstruction.