On Thursday of last week, my main thoughts about fantasy football were what food I’ll bring to the draft. On Friday, I was immediately in fantasy preparation mode; it was my unofficial start to the fantasy football season. The flip was switched just like that. All I did was start listening to fantasy podcasts again, and now it’s fantasy football time.
Fantasy football isn't just about a draft, and it isn't just about how you watch football during a season. Fantasy football is summer. It's about looking forward to the draft, talking with people about players and strategies, reading magazines and websites, emailing your league, debating minor rules, and everything else that makes a person a fantasy junkie. That's why the fantasy football season starts sometime in summer when you decide it does.
If you're a fantasy football junkie, and you've got activities that allow you to listen to something (working out, driving, whatever), you want to listen to fantasy podcasts (hell, you can even listen while shaving, if you are shaving. Any hygienic activities, really, which are boring anyway, and could use getting spruced up with a fantasy podcast). When I run, people in my ear talk about things like how they value quarterbacks this year, what they think of Marshawn Lynch's value, and various other things that distract a fantasy junkie from pain or exhaustion.
I highly recommend the CBSSports.com Fantasy Football Podcast. It is not, in my view, very systematic — and that’s fine. The experts--Jamey Eisenberg and Dave Richard, with Adam Aizer hosting -- talk about recent mock drafts they’ve done, answer email questions (usually about keepers), comment on recent football news, but also give their rankings and go through the divisions. While listening, you just get saturated in the season’s fantasy football views. You get a lot of player to player comparisons and justification and exploration of player value. And that’s all you really need. You’re not creating your own systematic draft plan while listening to a podcast in June or July (though you’re getting ideas), and if you’re prepping for an auction league, the focus on snake drafts means it is precisely those player evaluations that matter to you. These guys do a good job of discussing a lot of angles.
The ESPN Fantasy Focus Football Podcast is also very good, but has a very different tone than the CBS podcast. The CBS experts talk like people willing to discuss and consider just about any perspective on players, draft strategy, etc. (and that's a strength). Matthew Berry has made himself a "fantasy personality" (I suppose in the current parlance people would say he has made a "brand" of himself, being "The Talented Mr. Roto" and all, but I resist the language that makes a human being a "brand'), so it often comes off as Berry making a booming, provocative assertion that must be defended vociferously to Nate Ravitch. This, too, is a good thing: provocative assertions -- and how they are defended -- give you something to think about.
July and August are the prime times to be listening to these podcasts. Before you've drafted your team(s), discussion of any and every football player's fantasy value is worth your time. That won't be true in Autumn.
This summer’s gimmick
If you’re a long-time reader of my old blog, you know that Hazelweirders (members of my oldest fantasy football league, prepping for our 11th draft this year) read my blog, so I don’t want to share my real fantasy thoughts until after the draft. It’s real cloak and dagger stuff. But deep summer is also a time to really devote time and thought to fantasy football discussion, so I’m going to write about it.
This summer, each week I’ll be providing you a Theme Team. The Theme Team is a realistic team you could try to build (in an auction draft, where you can budget money in diverse ways, probably not in a snake draft, where rankings, value, and the picks of others limit your team) based around a common theme. Some of these Theme Teams might end up actually being really good fantasy teams. Some may not. The point is, we get to talk about fantasy football, and those Hazelweirders can go screw themselves.
This may seem like a pointless gimmick, but I hope it is actually a way to think about and group the types of fantasy prospects there are this season.
Again, the point is to make a realistic team that would fill out your starting lineup. I’ll give you an optimum realistic lineup, but throw in some alternatives that might work as well. And then we can ask, is this a team you could win a fantasy title with?
The Return from Injury Team
This team features players who have produced great fantasy numbers in the past, but missed a significant number of 2011 games with injuries. What is a “significant” number of games? Let’s say it is enough games that you were disappointed if you drafted this player last year not because of performance, but because of the missed games (but let’s say playing fewer than 12 games). Maybe drafting those players this year will be good value, as other people are scared off by those injuries—and maybe those injuries actually do mean a meaningful risk.
When players have an injury-plagued year, even their per game numbers don’t really help you evaluate their year. Sometimes the players get hurt early in a game before they even get a chance to put up numbers, depressing their per game average. And sometimes they are able to play through injuries, but the injuries affect their performance. Thus, when building the Return from Injury Team, you may as well give no stock to the players’ 2011 numbers. Look back to their production in the past, and hope they still have it in them.
There are no 2011 rookies or 2011 breakout players who missed games on this team; these are all players who have established meaningful fantasy football production, even great fantasy football production, in years past.
QB: Peyton Manning (also consider: Matt Schaub, Jay Cutler)
RB: Darren McFadden, Jamaal Charles (also consider: Fred Jackson)
WR: Miles Austin, Andre Johnson (also consider: Kenny Britt, Sidney Rice)
TE: Dallas Clark
Analysis: This team seems like a realistic auction team to me right now: after training camp and a few preseason games, it's possible a player like Jamaal Charles explodes in value, and it might not be as possible.
The strength of this team is at wide receiver, where Austin and Johnson have been elite studs in the past, and injuries significantly depressed their production last season, lowering their perceived value. Injuries are, of course, unpredictable, but it is only past injury and not diminishing performance that you have to worry about with these players.
There is a ton of potential -- and risk -- at running back. I wouldn't be shocked if any of those three RBs listed are top-3 fantasy running backs this year, and I also wouldn't be shocked if McFadden plays only six games, or Charles isn't as explosive and still gets touchdown vultured.
Peyton Manning is one of the most intriguing fantasy players of 2012. He is, in my view, the best quarterback of all-time, has had amazingly consistent fantasy production, and has had numerous transcendent fantasy seasons. He is also aging, coming off a full year off, recovering from a serious injury, and switching teams after building his success partly on the familiarity and continuity of his teammates and offense.
Is this a team you'd be happy with? You might be nervous having a starting lineup full of people who have recent injury history, but injuries are really unpredictable, often a matter of luck than some weakness in the player. This team might give you a bunch of proven elite players who will be cheaper in a draft because of 2011 injuries that won't impact them in 2012.
Next Week: The Sophomore Stud Team
Kick Ass Links
Matthew Berry provides his Draft Day Manifesto (ESPN).
Could Everson Griffen help at linebacker (Vikings.com)?
Chris Kluwe gets political (Outsports.com, via Star Tribune).
John Carlson (Pioneer Press).
Phil Loadholt (Pioneer Press).