How to Choose… Wisely
August 4, 2016 | Chet
Editor’s Note: Congratulations to Scott Cedar for taking second place in Round 2 of The Fake Football Writing Contest! Here is his entry:
In one of the greatest movie scenes of all time, Indiana Jones finds himself face to face with an enemy swordsman. The swordsman menacingly twirls his sword around in a dazzling array of moves, and then… bang! Indiana Jones pulls out a revolver and promptly ends the fight. This, in a nutshell, is fantasy football.
In case it wasn’t clear, you’re the swordsman. No matter how prepared and skilled you are, as soon as your draft ends things beyond your control will begin to wreak havoc to your carefully laid plans. Whether it’s an injury, poor performance, or one of your players going Jesse Spano with banned substances, your team will get blown up several times throughout the year.
There’s no way to avoid the unknown catastrophes to come, but what you can do is put yourself in a position to deal with bad luck. This starts in the draft.
In most leagues, you start more receivers and running backs than any other position. Unfortunately, receivers and running backs have relatively high busts rates, so even if you think you’re set at a position, you’re probably not. And as some great numberFire research has shown, it’s not easy to find viable receivers and running backs in free agency. So how do you avoid bringing a sword to a gunfight?
Volume. Draft lots of receivers and running backs. They should be raining down like manna from the heavens. In a standard league with 15 roster spots, I’m usually leaving the draft with 11-12 wide receivers and running backs. Some of them will bust, but enough will pan out to keep you competitive through any unforeseen bad luck.
Quarterback, tight end, defense and kicker can wait. You only need one of each, and they’re easier to fill later in the draft or by streaming throughout the year.
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Here’s my WR/RB-heavy plan of attack for 2016
Anchor Wide Receiver and Running Back Early
The MFL10 teams I’ve been happiest with (and thus will inevitably implode) have struck a balance between early-round wide receivers and running backs. With that in mind, I have two goals in the early rounds.
First, I want an elite wide receiver. Look at the top 15 receivers in 2015:
The top 6 receivers provided a major advantage over the 7-15 receivers, averaging 1.5 more targets and 3.5 more points per game while providing more consistency (top 24 finishes—theoretically starters in 12-team leagues) and upside (top 6 finishes—theoretically best wide receiver in their matchup). WR 7-15 all performed well (they were top 15 receivers, after all), but generally gave you consistency or upside, not both. The two exceptions, Doug Baldwin and Allen Hurns, were fueled by unsustainable TD rates of 17.9% and 15.6%, respectively.
So what does this say about early-round WR? Half of the top 6 is comprised of Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr., who were three of the first five receivers drafted in 2015. Your best bet at a league-winning receiver—consistency and upside— is to take one early. Even if your early pick doesn’t prove elite, you’ll probably get a return on investment. Each of the first 10 receivers drafted last year finished as a top 15 receiver except Randall Cobb (injury), T.Y. Hilton (injury to QB), and Dez Bryant (both).
My second early-round goal is to find an every-week starter at running back. I know 2015 was a bloodbath for early round running backs, and I know Zero RB is an increasingly popular strategy. All of this creates value at running back. According to fantasyfootballcalculator.com, here are the top 24 ADPs from 2013 and 2016:
In 2013, 17 running backs, including the first nine (!) picks, were drafted in the first two rounds. This year, only 11 of the top 24 picks are running backs (soon to be 10… why , LeVeon?). While running backs are undoubtedly less valuable in today’s pass-heavy NFL, the landscape hasn’t changed that dramatically in three years. Maybe it’s Luddite, but I’m buying.
Not only are the top running backs a good value, but after the 4th round it gets old-guy-alone-at-the-club sketchy. According to current ADPs, the best available running backs starting in Round 5 are Matt Jones (worst YPC in NFL last year), Jeremy Hill (only scores touchdowns), Jonathan Stewart (never scores touchdowns), and Ryan Mathews (he’s good, but I’m terrified of this offense when Carson Wentz is named starter in Week 4). These are the worst types of players—you want to start them because they “have the job,” but they don’t actually produce, and you never cut them because they “have the job.” If you wait until this group to select your first running back, it’s going to be hard to fill two RB slots every week.
Quantity > Quality
In the middle rounds, you should continue loading up on wide receivers and running backs to fill in for the bust(s) you unknowingly just drafted.
For mid-round wide receivers, I like big-play guys in good offenses (John Brown, DeSean Jackson, Tyler Lockett), unexciting guys in pass-heavy offenses (Willie Snead, Kamar Aiken, Sterling Shepard), the 2016 Junk Time All-Stars (Torrey Smith, Corey Coleman), and perennially undervalued guys because… reasons (Eric Decker, Jeremy Maclin).
I’ve been staying away from Larry Fitzgerald (targets and production fell dramatically in 2nd half of 2015), Jordan Mathews (I’m still terrified of Carson Wentz), DeVante Parker (late-season breakout wasn’t as good as you remember, has a Charles Johnson feel to me), and Markus Wheaton (Davante Adams 2.0).
For running backs, I already mentioned my dislike for the plodders who come to your party, clog your toilet, then hang around all night like nothing happened. I’d rather take a chance on pass-catching backs—Giovanni Bernard, Duke Johnson, Danny Woodhead, and Charles Sims all present good value in the mid-rounds. Their involvement in the passing game provides a weekly floor and ensures they won’t be game-scripted out of touches. There’s also season-long upside with this group if any of them can take over their backfield due to ineffectiveness (with all due respect to Jeremy Hill, Isaiah Crowell, and Melvin Gordon) or injury (I see you, Doug Martin).
Quarterbacks and Tight Ends, Eventually
You only need one quarterback and one tight end, which means in 10- and 12-team leagues, you can wait.
At quarterback, my favorite targets are Phillip Rivers (averaged 21 ppg before losing Keenan Allen in Week 8) and Eli Manning (top-10 finishes last two years, and Sterling Shepard is perfect for McAdoo’s offense). Rivers and Manning are going off the board in the 9th round on average, which is fine. However, if I’m still finding wide receivers and running backs I like, I’ll pass on Rivers and Manning and go true late-round QB. When I do, I’m targeting Kirk Cousins (bad QB, but elite weapons, ©Andy Dalton) and Tyrod Taylor (8th in ppg and 2nd in rushing attempts among QBs last year). Otherwise, it’s a streamer’s life for me.
I’m fading Andy Dalton (downgrade at receiver and Eifert already hurt; looks like 2014, where he finished 26th in ppg), Marcus Mariota (“exotic smashmouth” is a euphemism for “three-and-out”), Jameis Winston (breakout still a year away; 22-year old QBs need to run to produce, and Winston’s 6 rushing TDs aren’t repeatable); Derek Carr (hot 1st half created a positive narrative, but he finished 20th in ppg); and Ryan Tannehill (would rather be waiting for Godot than for his breakout season).
I’m also waiting at tight end. There are plenty of suitable options late, so I don’t like to pay up for Rob Gronkoswki and Jordan Reed at the expense of an early round receiver or running back. I’m consistently ending up with Dwayne Allen (great redzone target, freed of Coby Fleener and with a tight end-friendly coordinator), Will Tye (stud athlete, averaged 7.8 ppg from Week 10 on), and Eric Ebron (converted 8 redzone targets into 6 catches and 5 touchdowns; opportunity for more volume with Calvin Johnson’s retirement).
Last and Least
Traditional wisdom says the last two rounds are reserved for kicker and defense.
Unless I’m required to, I’m not drafting a kicker. Kicker scoring varies week to week, and the top kicker never separates far from the pack. That roster spot is better used to stash a position player until the season starts, at which point I’ll grab a kicker from an offense I like or a game with a high over/under.
As for defenses, I don’t pay for top defenses because DST scoring is largely dependent on touchdowns and turnovers, which are highly variable from year to year. I’d rather take a late-round shot on a defense with upside, and if they bust, play matchups each week. This year, I’m targeting Oakland and Washington. Both have good pass rushes and are tied to potentially great offenses that can set up favorable game scripts, ripe for sacks and turnovers.
My favorite thing about the aforementioned Indiana Jones scene is that it was an audible, replacing a more elaborate fight sequence that Harrison Ford was too sick to film. You can’t predict the future, so whether you’re searching for the Ark of the Covenant, filming a blockbuster movie, or just trying to make it through fantasy football season with your dignity intact, always give yourself options.