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Fantasy football dos and don'ts
Thank the gridiron gods that training camp has arrived. With most offseason discourse bordering on the morose (bounty scandals, player arrests) or monotonous (the Jets’, ahem, “quarterback controversy”), one could understand if turning a deaf ear to the NFL noise. Though non-injury-related tidbits rarely qualify as newsworthy, at least the narrative is finally occurring on the field rather than off it.
Besides, we as a football fan base should count our blessings, as at this juncture last summer, the prospect of a season was uncertain. Instead of discussion involving lawyers and CBAs, we get conversation involving “The Law Firm” and OTAs, and for that, we rejoice.
Accompanying the return of professional pigskin is the commencement of fantasy football. With league registration open on FOXSports.com, we present our annual blueprint for success in your upcoming drafts. This collection of strategies will give you the upper hand over your fellow owners and prove advantageous in your pursuit of fantasy glory. On to the list…
Don’t lose your fantasy faith in Saints
Judge Goodell laid the hammer down on New Orleans, suspending head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma for the entire 2012 campaign after their involvement in the team’s bounty program. With these two vital components on the sidelines, combined with the residual funk surrounding the franchise after the scandal fallout, owners are soured and skeptical on the Saints’ fantasy outlook.
While this apprehension is understandable, don’t let the melancholy ambiance deter your acquisition of New Orleans’ entities. If anything, the expected defensive shortcomings could make Drew Brees and company more explosive, as the Saints could find themselves trailing more often than not, equating to an amplified aerial assault. Jimmy Graham, who will be entering just his fourth season of organized football, made gigantic developmental leaps this summer. And that comes on the heels of the tight end grabbing 99 receptions for 1,300 yards last sason. Mark Ingram may have disheartened fantasy owners in 2011, but given an entire offseason to grasp the Saints’ scheme versus last August’s truncated camp, the former Heisman winner should live up to his first-round status. Darren Sproles and Marques Colston endure as PPR paragons, and rookie Nick Toon and Adrian Arrington are more than suitable replacements for the departed Robert Meachem. Oh yeah, that Brees character isn’t bad under center, either.
Payton was a vibrant catalyst for the franchise’s about-face, but his league-sanctioned sabbatical doesn’t spell the end for the other pistons in the Saints’ engine.
Pick two RBs with first three selections
Only 15 players passed the 1,000-yard plateau last season. Just nine scored 10 or more touchdowns, and that includes QB Cam Newton. Even fewer (five) amassed over 280 carries. To give connotation to these figures, in 2006, 23 players hit 1,000 yards and 12 rushers racked up 280-plus attempts. In short: with the growing popularity of committee backfields and the NFL’s transition from the ground to the air (more on this in a moment), the reliable running back is a dying breed.
In standard 12-team leagues, unearthing a serviceable backfield entity becomes an arduous task after the third round. There’s a general consensus that viable runners can be obtained in the latter stages of the draft, evidenced by the feats from Marshawn Lynch, Reggie Bush, Willis McGahee and Sproles a year ago. Alas, Lynch and McGahee were the only outliers from preseason rankings that finished as top-10 performers in fantasy points.
Granted, there’s more risk with RBs thanks to injury/washout than other positions, illustrated last season by Adrian Peterson, Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Johnson. However, while minimizing gambles is a core philosophy of fantasy drafts, I second the sentiments of Teddy Roosevelt when he proclaimed, “Far better it is to dare mighty things, than to take rank with those poor, timid spirits who know neither victory nor defeat.” And while history buffs might note that Roosevelt never uttered that exact phrase, his words were interpreted as such in the cult classic Red Dawn, and that’s good enough for me. But I digress…
Don’t be bullied into picking a QB
Split backfields are definitely doing their part in the extinction of the fantasy back, but as mentioned above, the offensive environment of the league has shifted from the sod to the sky. In 2005, two QBs threw for over 4,000 yards. In 2011, 10 arms passed, pun intended, this barometer. That’s not including Michael Vick, whose distinguishing skill in the running game corresponds to a premier rank at the position. Throw in Josh Freeman, who, despite a disappointing 2011, maintains top-10 QB potential, as well as a handful of other hopefuls (Matt Schaub, Jay Cutler, Sam Bradford, Carson Palmer, Andy Dalton), and suddenly the presumed pressure of acquiring a quarterback early seems amiss. The opulent stat lines are enticing, and field generals are by far the visible personalities off the field (although am I the only one concerned with the lack of fashion cover exposés on Tom Brady this offseason?), yet don’t fall for this fallacy and rest assured ample ammo will be available in the middle rounds. That said…
Take Cam Newton
Newton’s transcendent first-year showing in the pros correlated to the Carolina QB finishing second in fantasy points last year behind Aaron Rodgers. However, a hearty contingent believes the former Heisman winner’s statistical onslaught was a bit of an aberration and that regression is inevitable, verified by his standing outside the overall top 20 on a multitude of preseason projections. Undoubtedly, replicating 14 rushing touchdowns might be too tall of an order. Then again, if Newton was capable of such carnage with just an abbreviated assimilation period in 2011 thanks to the lockout, imagine the wrath he can inflict with an entire offseason under his belt. And though the Panthers enhanced their defense, the third-worst NFC unit didn’t improve that much. Presume Newton and the offense will find themselves behind more often than not, translating to further plays taking flight.
Carolina will try to limit Newton’s ground excursions in order to keep their franchise savior upright. Then again, as countless runs came from broken pass plays, Newton should continue to be a dynamic fantasy force.
Wait on the receivers
We’re including tight ends in this collection, as many are starting to line up in the slot rather than on the line. In a parallel mindset to passers, there’s an abundance of proficient receivers to be had in 2012, with 40 wideouts/tight ends accruing 810 yards or more in the previous fall. Out of the 20 that exhausted secondaries for at least 975 yards, half could be labeled as mid-to-late picks, including Victor Cruz, Steve Smith, Rob Gronkowski, Graham, Jordy Nelson, Antonio Brown, A.J. Green, Nate Washington and Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Roddy White may validate their preeminent grade, yet similar harvest can be had later in the draft. This is especially true in PPR formats, with 72 players hauling in 50 catches or more in 2011.
Caution on committees
Here’s part of my transcription on this topic last season, a notion that many of you felt was too callous:
“You may claim Mike Shanahan’s primary objective as coach is to win ballgames; I would counter his sole purpose on this earth is to kill the collective will of every fantasy owner who holds one of his halfbacks on their team. The sardonic aspect is that possessing a Shanahan running back used to be an asset, as for years Denver would transform anonymous runners (Olandis Gary, Reuben Droughns, Mike Anderson) into 1,000-yard backs. Yet somewhere along the line, Shanahan realized the potential of employing a committee to handle the running opportunities in his offense, with the theory that a reduction in touches would keep his halfbacks healthy and equate to more production. The upshot of this concept eradicated the value of any back under the once fantasy-fertile Shanahan reign. (And one could make the argument that it hurt the coach’s career, as Shanahan was 101-59 with the Broncos before the carry-by-committee approach compared to a 43-37 mark since implementing the system in Denver and Washington.)
Well, guess what happened in our nation’s capital in 2011? Four – yes, four – different running backs collected 19 or more attempts in a single game last season, meaning fantasy proprietors were ensnared in a scathing game of running back roulette with Washington rushers. Roy Helu appeared to take the reins near the end of the season, with 20 or more carries in four of Washington’s final six contests. Naturally, he’s listed as second on the depth chart in 2012 behind Evan Royster, who garnered all of 56 touches last year. The lesson, as always: Mike Shanahan is the fantasy devil.
Regrettably, this affinity for sharing has spread. By our count, 15 teams, or nearly half the league, will employ a committee system this season, and that’s not including possible split-duty structures in Jacksonville (if Maurice Jones-Drew’s holdout endures) and Minnesota (dependent on Adrian Peterson’s health). This outlook just gives more fuel to the fire of attaining clear-cut first-string backs early and often in your draft.
Roster balance over position surplus
This is one of the more contentious dialogues in the fantasy environment: do you draft on need or availability? Personally, the rationale for need holds more merit, as many leagues confine rosters with position maximums. The “best available” claim can render successful as a possible trade chip, but this comes with the caveats that, not only must this player be desirable to others, but that you receive fair value in return. With the high frequency of injuries, constructing a sound and complete roster is the best route in surmounting a charge for the championship. The prudent play is going for need.
Beware of rookies
In a sense, 2011 was a deviation to this postulate, as Newton, Green, Julio Jones, Torrey Smith and DeMarco Murray all made significant contributions in the rotisserie forum last season. Nevertheless, I’m sure more than a few Ingram owners nodded their head to this subject heading. Ingram was supposed to be the first legit back in the New Orleans offense in the Brees Era, yet the Alabama product underwhelmed to the tune of 474 yards and five touchdowns. And though Andy Dalton was solid under center, he was far from consistently relevant in fantasy.
Newton’s breakout campaign has also put an unfair onus on Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. While both are exceptional talents, I don’t regard either neophyte as a top-15 QB. Unfortunately, according to early mock drafts on FOXSports.com, managers seem to be jumping at the greenhorns way too early, especially in the case of RG3. Cleveland’s Trent Richardson is another young gun forecast for prompt success. Call me skeptical in this scenario as well. Not only is the offensive line far from formidable, but without a serviceable signal caller for the Browns, being the chief target for adversarial defenses is an imposing endeavor for a beginner back. Plus, it’s Cleveland! When have things ever gone right for those poor souls?
Taking wagers on rookies are easier to swallow in later rounds, but in the early phases of the draft, let other owners walk that plank.
Sleepers are Sleepers for a reason
I love oxymorons. Soft Rock. Dodge Ram. A movie that bills itself as “an Adam Sandler comedy.” Fantasy sleepers belong in this arena, as listing a player that may experience unexpected success is inherently contradictory.
The biggest misnomer in dealing with this subject is many people confuse sleepers as sure-things. For clarification, a player is conferred sleeper status due to the lack of collective assurance in the performer’s capacity to unswervingly contribute. Carelessly, owners will begin to stockpile sleepers after their starting lineup is satisfied. This is a formula for disaster, as your bench will be a key factor in the outcome of your season.
If you want to take a flyer on a dark horse or two, have at it, but wait until the end of your draft in this venture. By taking this course, your losses are manageable if the sleeper doesn’t come to fruition.
Don’t bet on the comeback…
Praying for a renaissance is more applicable to baseball, as it’s easier for a former star to facilitate rejuvenation (think Carlos Beltran in St. Louis) thanks to the physical nature, or lack thereof, on the diamond. The same logic doesn’t apply to the pigskin, as once a player begins to deteriorate, it’s a swift and rapid regression. Tony Gonzalez has fought an admirable battle with Father Time, and Brett Favre’s 2009 season in Minnesota was one for the ages. These are the exceptions, however, as football does not grant a graceful aging process. Keep this in mind when viewing Randy Moss, Chad Johnson and others. Of course…
…unless those comebacks are Peyton Manning or Mike Vick
I think we can make an allowance for the most exciting player in football and the patron saint of fantasy, no?
I was a major detractor of Vick’s last season, as his so-so second-half exploits of the 2010 season, combined with his sometimes reckless running style, equated to too much liability for a No. 1 overall fantasy pick. Yet as a third-round choice? Forget purchasing a ticket on this bandwagon, I’ll volunteer to drive the convoy. Yes, the risk of injury remains, but it was ever-present last season, and that didn’t stop owners from snatching the Philly field general. Also returning for Vick: his absurd upside that occasionally manifests into 450-yard, five-score outings.
As for Mr. Manning, reports that Denver’s new 6’5” quarterback lacks the laser-rocket arm as advertised has sent apprehension amongst the fantasy community. Though he might be the greatest roll of the dice in the draft, Manning did throw for 4,700 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2010 despite working with a backup tight end, a former Division III wideout and a 32-year-old Reggie Wayne. Furnished with an arsenal of talent at the receiving corps, Manning has all the necessary instruments to conduct his offensive symphony once more. Besides, if Manning was as battered as feared, pretty sure No. 18 would have hung it up rather than coming back with a middle-of-the-road AFC West team.
Previously stated, a fundamental principle of fantasy football drafts is to minimize risk. Standing next to this edict is the tenet of maximizing value, and few mid-round selections possess the potential of Vick and Manning. And as formerly revealed, there are enough cannons at the position to serve as suitable replacements in the scenario that either QB flames out.
Plus, you get the added bonus of self-righteousness in the event the signal callers return to All-Pro form. In the end, isn’t rubbing your greatness into friends’ faces the utmost feat one can achieve in fantasy football?
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