I write this with the understanding that advising against drafting Calvin Johnson in your league’s draft this summer is tantamount to treason among fantasy football’s vast and rabid ranks.
Knowing this, I will have left the country by the time this article goes to print, and my family will have been placed into protective custody. Leave us be.
Many people won’t read one word past the above headline before they turn their social media bazookas on me. They’ll eviscerate me. They’ll accuse me of hating the Lions and holding a deep-seated prejudice against men nicknamed for indestructible machines from distant planets.
Well, I kind of like the Lions, and I think Megatron is the coolest and most apt nickname in the history of organized sport.
But I’ve heard far too many people pledge to draft Johnson with their first-round pick, even if it’s in the top five. Or top three. Or top one. I suspect many fantasy freaks would sell their souls to the Dark Lord for a shot at Megatron. I’d like to tell you to step away from Beelzebub, take a breath, and listen here.
Megatron is going fifth in mock drafts this summer, a whopping 11 spots ahead of the second most highly drafted wide receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, and 17 spots ahead of Wes Welker, mock drafters’ third most preferred receiver.
This, fellow fantasy fiends, is too high. The wide receiver pool is far too deep this year, every-down running backs are a dying breed, and most importantly, even the mighty Megatron is not immune to mean reversion, no matter how high you are on Matthew Stafford or Detroit’s league-leading 666 pass attempts last year.
Megatron vs. Math
After a 2011 season with 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns, the NFL’s mean wide receiver statistical line is rearing its hideous mathematical head, reminding you that everyone – even man-machines — is pulled back toward it without mercy.
In other words, a freakish season like Johnson had last year will likely be followed by a not-as-freakish season. Still good – fantastic, even – but not as good.
Part of projecting player stats involves pretty freaking complicated formulas that help fantasy owners account for the inevitability of reversion – or regression – toward the mean. Using a formula could show that Megatron is more likely to grab 10 touchdowns this season, and that a guy like the Steelers’ Antonio Brown will score more than the measly two touchdowns he pulled down in 2011. Aaron Rodgers, according to mean reversion formula, will throw more than the six interceptions he tossed in 2011. These formulas vary from analyst to analyst, but almost all of them show that wide receiver stats are among the least predictable. Quarterbacks and tight end projections, it turns out, are the most reliable.
I’m not going to tell you which formula to apply to your 2012 draft board, but I would suggest taking a close look at Jonathon Bales’ positional correlations in “Fantasy Football for Smart People,” a book for which I am a total and unapologetic shill. It will help set a realistic baseline for Johnson’s 2012 receptions and touchdowns. This, hopefully, will help you avoid sky-high expectations that will leave you weeping in the shower when Megatron doesn’t have 18 touchdowns by Halloween.
To pretend the indefatigable Fantasy Douche didn’t already break down what mean reversion could mean for Megatron would be disingenuous of me, so let me re-release the knowledge he rained down on fantasy footballers a few weeks ago.
The Douche took results from wide receivers with similar physical attributes – Fitzgerald, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, and Andre Johnson among them – and told the numerical story of what they did a year after posting big stat lines. You’ll see mean reversion lurking throughout the Douche’s charts, even if some of that reversion was due in part to a devastating quarterback change (Fitzgerald from 2009 to 2010) or injury (Owens from 2004 to 2005).
Look Beyond The Machine
Your self-made Megatron Blinders have stopped you from taking an absolutely necessary look at wide receiver depth in a league that leans toward the pass more every year.
A.J. Green, a guy who football scout deity Greg Cosell dubbed a top-five NFL pass catcher, is being drafted in the third round in mock drafts. Julio Jones, Atlanta’s second-year receiver who is tearing up training camp while “look[ing] like a monster,” is being draft 31st on average. Brandon Lloyd, whose chemistry with Tom Brady is causing breathless beat writers to daydream of the offensive possibilities, is being drafted in the fifth round. This, dear reader, is an atrocity. Green, Jones, and Lloyd are all values at their current ADPs, and there’s nothing that says those three guys could come within striking distance of Megatron’s final 2012 numbers.
They might even, dare I say, top him.
There’s also Percy Harvin, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Carolina’s Steve Smith and a finally-healthy Jeremy Maclin – all receivers vastly undervalued in mock drafts so far this summer. Even Dez Bryant, if you can stomach the off-the-field nonsense, remains a great value.
Beware the Running Back Cliff
The projected drop-off from Megatron to fourth and fifth round sleepers isn’t nearly as dramatic as the gap between the top-eight running backs and the rest of the league. Positional scarcity should be foremost on the minds of fantasy footballers this summer, and running back is far scarcer than wide receiver.
Megatron deserves to be on a positional tier of his very own, perched above the game’s elite pass catchers. And no one – not even me, the one who will be tried for crimes against Megatron – would be shocked to see Johnson finish the season as fantasy’s No. 1 wide receiver. I like to stack my lineup with physical freaks, and there’s no one more freakish than Johnson. And if I have a bottom-three first round draft pick this summer, I’ll snap up Megatron fast enough to tweak a hammy.
But you are overpaying at his current ADP, and the value of a top-tier running back like Arian Foster, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Ryan Mathews, Chris Johnson or Darren McFadden should not be ignored. They will prove their value as the running back by committee approach courses through the NFL, leaving backfields with impossible-to-predict three-headed monsters and fantasy owners with ulcers, alcoholism, and swollen tear ducts.
Probably anyone drafting Johnson as a top-five pick is banking on him finishing 2012 with the same unholy stat line as he posted in 2011 – maybe even better. Take Johnson with a tail end first round draft pick, sure, but cash in your top-five lottery ticket for one of the league’s few remaining non-committee running backs, or that Rodgers guy who wears the green and yellow.