Thursday, August 16, 2012

National Friday League: Fantasy Problems

I love this time of year--the anticipation of the football season and then the season--so much.  I've already got plans of making a cake for Week One weekend.  It makes me wonder just what in the hell I'm doing February through April.  May through July makes sense, but I have no comprehension of February through April at this time of the year.

Anyway, how about a break from Adrian Peterson trying to rush back and Leslie Frazier trying to stop him, from fretting about how the first preseason game reminded us that, oh, yeah, the defense is really lousy, about Christian Ponder and everything else we've been thinking about the purple. How about PV's massive fantasy football post?

This week, I'll look at the problem at every fantasy position and explore how I choose to solve it.

The Tight End Problem
The Tight End Problem is simple: there is a massive discrepancy between the elite TEs and the bottom TEs, in my view more than at any position. The elite TEs put up elite numbers for wide receivers, and the bottom TEs put up unreliable numbers, to the point where it is a throwaway position with a few good weeks. There's no other position (excluding Kicker and Defense) where managers are willing to basically take a pass -- yet this very position also includes such elite players that it gives managers with them a massive advantage.

There are in my view five tiers of TEs.

1. Elite WRs (Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski)
By my calculation (fantasy points per game, excluding players who played less than half the season), if you threw all WRs and TEs into the same position, Rob Gronkowski would have been the #2 WR, Jimmy Graham the #6. And yet you get to start them at TE, and still start as many WRs as your league allows. That is a giant advantage.

2. Potential WRs (Antonio Gates, Aaron Hernandez)
If you can't get Graham or Gronkowski, you might try to find other, cheaper TEs that could put up WR numbers. Gates because he has done it before, and Hernandez because he is young, in an elite offense, and has been on the cusp of those numbers, seem the most likely.

3. Serviceable Guys (Vernon Davis, Jason Witten, Jermichael Finley)
These guys are competent: they'll get you some monster weeks, they'll get you some consistent yards, but you wouldn't be willing to replace a WR with any of them, and you don't really expect WR numbers from them.

4. Throwaways (Brandon Pettigrew, Dustin Keller, you know, just about everybody else)
These are guys that are going to get 600-800 yards and 4-6 TDs. Most weeks they will not matter to your fantasy team: on the weeks they get touchdowns, they will. You shouldn't devote any meaningful resources to these players: there will be plenty of guys who put up their kind of numbers.

5. Fliers (Kyle Rudolph, Jared Cook, Cobie Fleener, a few more)
These guys have never proven it yet, but could be serviceable guys, and will cost you very little.

So, how do you solve this problem? You either need to devote a lot of resources (high picks or a lot of auction money) on a TE that can put up elite WR numbers, or you basically get middling, uninspired, stolid production from a position you don't care about.

In my view, you should devote the resources to Graham or Gronkowski and, failing that, take your chance with Gates or Hernandez.

Consider the numbers that Graham and Gronkowski put up. Graham had 99-1,310-11, Gronkowski 90-1,327-17. Those numbers are very, very difficult to pass on in general, and extraordinarily difficult to pass on at a position where most fantasy managers are just going to muddle through.

You will have to pay a lot for Graham or Gronkowski, but consider them an extra starting WR. Probably, no matter what you do, your 2nd or 3rd WR is going to have better numbers than those throwaway TEs. If you have to pass on a good WR because you drafted Graham or Gronkowski, don't fret it: you will be able to get a cheap 2nd or 3rd WR that will put up better numbers than whatever TE you would get later. If you were going to be satisfied with, say, 700 yards and 6 TDs from a TE, why not go for a WR that should easily put up those numbers but has greater upside?

Wide receiver is a very deep position this year, and there is very little consensus about the wide receiver rankings: everybody has Calvin Johnson #1, and then everybody's #2-#10 is different, and then everybody's #11-#30 is different. If you're not getting Johnson, there's no WR that you can feel is really, really more valuable than other draftable WRs (well, you can, but it's personal preference). You'll find decent WRs. Why not use your resources at a position where there are only two (or potentially four) players that can put up numbers equivalent to a top wide receiver?

But if you're skeptical of this solution to the TE problem, you will probably be interested in Bill Barnwell's analysis of TEs at Grantland. I'll admit it gave me pause.

The Wide Receiver Problem
This is the year to sleep on the wide receiver position.

Last year, in standard fantasy scoring formats (1 point per 10 yards, 6 points per touchdown), Larry Fitzgerald outscored Stevie Johnson by 46.7 points, around 3 points per game played. Larry Fitzgerald's situation hasn't really changed since last year. Stevie Johnson's situation hasn't really changed since last year. Yahoo! currently has Fitzgerald ranked #11 overall, and Johnson #56 overall. At just their position, Yahoo! has Fitzgerald #2, Johnson at #24. Johnson had 75% of Fitzgerald's production last year, but his cost is way, way lower.

Sure, I'm picking one example for comparison. Sure, Fitzgerald is actually a better player and has way more potential. But the point is the highly regarded WRs aren't massively better than some lesser regarded WRs. Furthermore, top finishers at the WR position are often unexpected. You might have paid a lot for Fitzgerald last season, then watched Jordy Nelson and Victor Cruz -- players who were either undrafted or drafted cheaply as fliers -- outscore him. It happens. It happens at every position. But at a position as deep as wide receiver (and a position with two or more real-world starters per team), you can pass on spending big at WR. So what WRs should you target instead?

A lot of fantasy managers look for value: they target undervalued players who can exceed expectations (and thus exceed low draft position/cost). That’s fine, of course, but you don’t want to fill your roster entirely with solid value guys: you need stars to win your league. Of course even the most value-driven drafter is going to draft some stars (in a snake draft, anyway -- possibly not in an auction), but I like to find not just value players, but Potential Monsters. A Potential Monster is a player generally considered outside the top 20 at his position, but whom you can envision being top 5 at his position. There are a lot of players outside the top 20 WRs that represent good value (you can expect a good return on your investment), but I don't just want value, I want game-changers, fantasy performers who are so good they are swinging championships.

I'm looking at the WR rankings for three prominent fantasy sources (ESPN, Yahoo!, and Sports Illustrated -- but I'm using SI's Fantasy Football 2012 magazine, not the website). Here are some WRs that are outside the top 20 in all three rankings (and I'm not criticizing that -- it's justifiable), that I think represent Potential Monsters.

Stevie Johnson (ESPN #23, Yahoo! #24, SI #24)
Johnson's two year average is 1,038.5 yards and 8.5 touchdowns. He's on a team with good running backs, a decent quarterback, and virtually nobody else on the roster worth throwing a pass to. Let me ask you this: do you find it impossible to envision Johnson -- who averaged a little over 13 yards per reception each of the last two seasons -- catching 100 balls? And Johnson has already shown himself capable of a double-digit TD season. I just see a lot of potential here that most people are sleeping on.

Eric Decker (ESPN #26, Yahoo! #22, SI #27) 
Last year Decker started the first four games with 20 receptions, 270 yards, and 4 touchdowns. I think he was at the start of a breakout year (those of you that watched him play for the Golden Gophers know how good he is -- his play wasn't fluky). He finished the year trying to catch passes from a QB that completed 46.5% of his passes (the league completion percentage was 60.1%). Now he's going to catch passes from a QB that has a career completion percentage of 64.9% (who hasn't completed less than 66.3% since '07, and hasn't completed less than 65% since '01), good for 5th all-time. Last year Decker's team threw the ball just 429 times (last in the league), completing just 217 passes (last in the league). In his 13 years as a starter, his new QB averaged 554.6 attempts per season and 360 completions per season.

It is not hard at all to envision Decker's numbers, going, way, way, way up.

Torrey Smith (ESPN #30, Yahoo! #28, SI #26)
I learned a hard lesson last year: you don't want to depend on fantasy Joe Flacco in any way, shape or form. But Smith is a legitimate deep threat (16.8 yards per catch last season) on a team with other underneath pass catchers (Ray Rice and Anquan Boldin). Smith's rookie numbers aren't that far off from Mike Wallace's, and I can see a similar sophomore year for Smith: a lot of long catches and long touchdowns.

Those are three really cheap WRs that I like a lot. Of course there are other WRs generally considered outside the top ten that also have huge potential for a top three finish (I'm a big Dez Bryant fan, if you're curious). You can target those too. Overall I'm just saying this: don't invest big at the position, but where you do invest, try for Potential Monsters over solid production.

The Running Back Problem
The Running Back Problem is the same every year*: there is a cluster of 2-5 consensus top tier running backs, and every year, one of those RBs will be a bust (whether due to injury or plain disappointing performance). So do you target one of the cluster, spending heavy resources to do so, or do you try to find a cheaper RB (with more risk or less upside) instead, using draft resources at a safer position (like QB)?

This year the consensus top tier is the trio of Arian Foster, Ray Rice, and LeSean McCoy in some order. After that there are a bunch of RBs returning from injury, or that are higher injury risks, or that are holding out, or are coming off lousy years, or that lack the upside of those three. And I can't guess who among that trio will be the disappointment (but when we look back, it is a good guess that one of them will, and that next year's cluster will include at least one different player).

I think there is a solution here: draft Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Neither Rice nor McCoy have a backup with the talent, proven production, or upside of Tate, and neither plays on a team likely to lean heavily on a lesser backup. I'm theorizing that Arian Foster is the new Ladanian Tomlinson (fantasy football gold, the kind of single player that makes your team a contender), and on the chance that he gets injured, the team situation suggests Tate will be a quality starter. I think if you draft Foster and Tate, your floor is a starting RB with 1,400 yards and 10 TDs, and your ceiling is something unfathomable. Over the last two seasons (including playoffs), Foster has averaged 141.8 yards from scrimmage and 1.06 TDs per game. Foster is both capable of winning a rushing title (he's done it) and getting 600 yards receiving (he's done it twice). He is a monster as a rusher, receiver, and touchdown scorer, and he's got a legitimate NFL talent as his backup.

If you do a snake draft, you can only hope to get Foster (and will probably need to draft Tate early to ensure the handcuff). If you are in an auction draft, it's mostly in your control. In my recent auction ($300 cap with 0$ bids allowed), I paid $125 for Foster (happily) and went for Tate for $13 (happily). We'll see if it was the right move, but I feel pretty good.

*If you do a snake draft, the problem is unsolvable: if you don't have a top pick, you have no chance at the top running backs and have to decide when to draft other running backs that you think or hope will be elite. I'm thinking more in auction terms here (in a snake draft, if I don't get a top three pick, I'm looking at either a QB or Calvin Johnson with my first round pick, but I also like Matt Forte later).

The Quarterback Problem
The Quarterback Problem is a little like the Tight End Problem in that everybody starts just one, some people will devote prime resources (an early pick or a lot of auction money) for an elite one, some will spend a middle amount get get a serviceable QB, and some will spend very little on the position. The difference is that QB won't be a throwaway position for anybody: there will probably be 10 productive fantasy QBs, and if you get a lousy one you will be working (via free agency or trade) to get a good one.

If you are a manager that likes to spend big for a top three QB, you're probably making a safe, smart move. If you are a manager that likes to pass on QBs and get, say, the 9th or 10th best QB late, you're also probably making a safe, smart move (just don't wait too long: Joe Flacco lingers out there somewhere). Here are the two specific things I try to do.

1. Get a running quarterback (Cam Newton, Michael Vick)
If you are in a league that counts passing TDs as 3-4 points and rushing TDs as 6, you should really try for big-rushing QBs like Newton and Vick. And if you're in a league that counts a point per 10 yards rushing but only a point per 40-50 yards passing, you should really really target Newton or Vick. Those rushing numbers added to the passing numbers give a massive weekly advantage to the fantasy teams with these guys.

2. Get Peyton Manning
If you are in multiple leagues, every year there will be some player that you keep taking in draft after draft, not because you are in love with the guy, but just that it turns out you like the guy way more than anybody else does. Last year for me that was Percy Harvin. This year it is Manning. I'm pretty worried about him for all the familiar reasons, but I also see top three potential for all the familiar reasons. He keeps being there for the price I'm willing to pay. It's a riskier pick (a safer pick like Philip Rivers is probably cheaper), but not so expensive that you'd feel a terrible loss if you had to turn to a competent backup or free agent QB.

The Defense and Kicker Problem
The Defense and Kicker Problem is that you have to rely on a Defense and Kicker, and they will score a lot of points and probably swing league championships, but their numbers are so unpredictable and random you can barely do anything about it.

My advice? I say, pick a decent defense and a decent kicker you like, and just draft them year after year. I often take the Pittsburgh Steeler defense: they're perennially good, but rarely that hot defense that gets ranked too high because they got a lot of points on fumble recoveries and defensive/special teams touchdowns the year before. I often take the Bears Kicker (Robbie Gould, I guess, if I have to say his name) because he's a consistent scorer but the Bears are rarely such a famous offense that people are reaching on the kicker too early.

Don't pick mine because I named them: pick your own. But then just try to take them every year, plug them into your lineup, and don't worry about it. And if they're really good one year (awesome for you) so that they actually cost draft resources the next year and somebody else wants to pay too much for them in a draft, let them go.

Two more pieces of advice
After you've drafted a team, go follow all your players on Twitter. It is way more fun than you think it will be.

And if you're doing an auction draft, remember this critical thing:


  1. PV:

    I enjoyed the insights even though I am not in a fantasy football league this year. But now that you've dispensed all this advice, will you have to rethink some strategies next year so your league opponents can't anticipate how you will be drafting?

    1. It doesn't matter: I'm usually so wrong about everything I'll have to completely change everything next year, anyway!

      But seriously, there is a lot that changes both year to year and over the long-term. My strategy on which position to prioritize has really changed a lot over the years, and is really dependent on the depth at the position any given year (hence I'm down on spending big at WR, high on spending big at TE this year).

      Also, my oldest league just finished its 11th draft: if any of us have an M.O., we all know it. I've fluctuated at which positions to prioritize, but one thing that's consistent in my strategy: in Yahoo!'s Scott Pianowsky's terms, I'm "target-driven." Pianowski writes:

      "The Agnostics are value-driven, they take what the room gives them. The Geniuses are target-driven; they project the future and go after the guys they like."

  2. PV - I'm sitting here with SO's fantasy mag and Peter Kreeft's "Summa Philisophica" and smiling, wondering if we readers will get any Kierkegaardian waxings from you this year. Probably after some close losses, I would wager.

    McCoy fell to me at the 6th pick in my 8 team snake drart last weekend. After getting him and McFadden and Bradshaw in rounds 1, 2 and 5 and taking Graham in the 3rd, I feel you and I are on the same page for TEs, RBs and WRs.

    I was targeting Vodka and RGIII, but both were reached for well above their ADP so I missed out. I wanted to wait until round 9 for Matt Ryan but I got nervous and took him in 8. With a backup I like in Freeman and only 3 points awarded for passing TDs I feel OK about the position.

    I took 2 WRs you like in Torrey Smith and Stevie Johnson, and considering I got Julio and S.Smith in front of them I feel pretty good about the draft as a whole.

    Great read! I will have some of your points in mind for my next draft. thanks!

    1. Ahem. "SO's" should be "SI's".
      "drart" should he "draft".
      "Vodka" should be "Vick".

      Lousy phone.

      To be fair though, I did target some Vodka after the draft.

    2. I know. I remind myself of RaiderJoe.

    3. I might be Ahmad Bradshaw's biggest fantasy-fan: I fully support the drafting of Bradshaw. Though I will acknowledge that my fantasy-love for him is pretty irrational.

    4. I still read Football Outsiders very regularly, but stopped reading the comments section. The thing I miss most is Raiderjoe! Maybe I should start reading the comments again.

    5. I've kind of lost my love for FO, although I don't frequent it as much during the offseason. But they've lost Barnwell, Doug Farrar and Mike Tanier as writers in the past year or so and that's a pretty tough trio of scribes to replace. I also find some of the commentary on there annoying from the readers who are all trying to one-up each other on their statsmanship.