- Matthew Berry, Fantasy
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For the record, I bought the big salad, OK?
Whether you have read me for years or for just two sentences, it should come as no shock to you that I am a flawed human being. A list of all my failings and shortcomings would be a whole different 10,000-word article but for now, let's just focus on one area that still has plenty of room left for personal growth.
I am a petty person. Kissing cousins to bitter, my pettiness right now reminds me of "The Big Salad" episode of "Seinfeld." If you've never seen it, George is walking to lunch with his girlfriend when they run into Elaine. She asks George to buy her a "big salad" at the diner. After lunch, George pays for the big salad but the waitress hands the big salad to the girlfriend. Back at Jerry's apartment, the girlfriend then hands Elaine the big salad and Elaine thanks the girlfriend, not George, for the big salad.
George spends the rest of the episode bitter about the fact he didn't get the credit for being the one to buy the big salad. I understand these bitter, petty feelings. Because I was half-right, dammit.
Actual conversation I had a month ago:
Random guy: Hey, you're Matthew Berry, aren't you?
Me: I am.
Random guy: I took Vick No. 1. Thanks, genius.
Me: You realize we're in the bathroom at a Springsteen show, right?
Given we were both in front of urinals and that the Boss was about to go on, I thought there were at least a couple of issues that were, um, at hand and more pressing than a fantasy football pick from 10 months ago. But no, he wanted to talk. Because the Vick pick, as it happens, did not work out.
I was glad he brought this up, because I had no idea it didn't go the way I expected. Really. I was completely unaware. What happened, exactly?
Don't worry; this isn't about to be some long, whiny piece about the Vick pick. No, I already copped to that one not working out. Instead, this is to be a long, whiny piece about the other big tenet of last year's Manifesto.
It's that other part that is my big salad. I don't mind that I got Vick wrong. Say what you want but the reasoning was sound and if you employed the strategy, you agreed with me that the risk was outweighed by the enormous potential reward.
So the problem isn't that it didn't work out -- it's not my first blown call and won't be my last -- it's that it is the only thing folks remember. The thing that, 10 months later in a bathroom in New Jersey, less than 20 minutes from Badlands, mind you, is the first thing out of a random dude's mouth.
No one -- and I mean no one -- remembers the other part, which was not nearly as flashy but proved very true: that you need a stud quarterback last year above all else. That quarterbacks and tight ends had a much better chance of returning draft day value than running backs and wide receivers. My fundamental roster-building theory last year ended up totally correct. Get a stud quarterback and tight end, and then draft a ton of running backs and wide receivers in the middle rounds, knowing that some of them will pop. And as 2011 turned into the Year of the Quarterback it worked like a charm.
I just chose the wrong poster boys for it.
So that's the crux of my bitter pettiness. I take the lumps with the bad calls, it's part of the gig, but I'd be lying (and not human) if I said I didn't want a little love when it does work out. Especially when I know I will see tons of articles this preseason all about how you have to draft a quarterback early and why there are a bunch of quarterbacks in the first round. About how it's all about the consistency of quarterbacks and tight ends and to be aware of the unpredictability of running backs. And they'll all be right. A year later. Sigh.
OK, thanks for bearing with me. That was then. This is now. Let's see if we can't keep you one step ahead of the competition again this season. So without further ado, welcome to the 14th annual heart-stopping, Bruce-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, QB-taking, winner-making DRAFT. DAY. MANIFESTO!
They say winning starts on draft day, but they lie. Winning starts way before, when you are prepping for draft day. So let's get you ready. We're gonna be here for a while, so sit back, put your feet up and start with one basic understanding. Underline it, read it aloud and make it your Facebook status update:
At its fundamental level, fantasy football is all about minimizing risk and giving yourself the best odds to win.
Everything leads back to that.
I wrote it last year and I'm gonna keep writing it until it's not true. It's that important. So let me repeat it.
At its fundamental level, fantasy football is all about minimizing risk and giving yourself the best odds to win.
Remember that simple rule for this entire season. Before you make any decision -- whom to draft, trade, start and sit -- make sure you are following that basic principle: How risky is this move, and does it give me the best chance to win?
No one saw Cam Newton, as a rookie with a short training camp, having the greatest fantasy season ever for a rookie QB. No one thought Darren Sproles would have just five fewer fantasy points than consensus top-two pick Adrian Peterson. That Victor Cruz would outscore anyone else in the New York Giants' receiving corps. And Larry Fitzgerald. And Roddy White. That Laurent Robinson and Nate Washington would finish with more fantasy points than Greg Jennings or Dez Bryant. That Rob Gronkowski would have more touchdowns than top-10-drafted tight ends Jason Witten, Vernon Davis, Dallas Clark and Owen Daniels combined.
I can't predict the future. Don't claim to. Neither can you or anyone else. So don't try to.
All we can do is put ourselves in the best possible position to win then hope for the best. There are going to be things that surprise you along the way. Like, did you know that butterflies taste with their feet? That's what we're all about at TMR HQ: Info-tainment!
But don't get distracted by cocktail party trivia (A snail can sleep for three years!) as I want all of us to focus on one thing and one thing only: Everything we do from this point forward -- from draft day to the end of the season -- is entirely about putting ourselves in the best position for success. More specifically, giving ourselves the best odds to win every single week. That simple.
While we hear talk about total points and overall season performance, the truth is that fantasy football is a weekly game. Every week we pick up new players, we set our lineup, we try to construct our team to win that week, while keeping an eye on the rest of the season and the playoffs.
The difference between trying to win every week and trying to win every season is the difference between Steve Smith's and Roddy White's seasons. Smith scored 176 points. White scored 173 points. Both played 16 games, so essentially, Steve Smith was 0.18 points better than Roddy White every week, right? Wrong. In fact, White outscored Smith in 8 of the 15 weeks in which they both played. So which one actually had the better season?
As a kid, I loved those "Schoolhouse Rock!" videos. I linked to this last year and am doing it again as a tribute, while adding this obscure piece of TMR Trivia: I once went to a bar in L.A. to see Bob Dorough in concert. Bob, of course, wrote and performed all of the "Schoolhouse Rock!" songs. So yeah, don't wanna brag or anything, but I've actually seen "Conjunction Junction" live.
Because three is a magic number and all, there are three overarching themes we'll discuss in constructing your team; consistency, probability, and the fact that nobody knows anything. By the end, you should have a pretty good idea of how to construct a roster with an eye toward the ultimate goal of winning week to week.
Before we give you that foundation, let's understand the league in its current state.
A word about offense
Quick impression. Who am I?
"Yawwwn. Whateves, dude."
I'm every person in America when Tom Brady passed Dan Marino's 1984 record of 5,084 passing yards. Brady finished with 5,235 yards (276 of which went to Chad Ochocinco!). It was an amazing season for Brady and he bested a mark that Marino had held for almost 30 years.
And no one cared.
Because Drew Brees had already broken the mark (and finished with 5,476 yards) and, in fact, if you count Eli Manning's 4,933 yards as "close enough," there were four different quarterbacks to get to 5,000 yards last year. Four! Entering 2011, only two quarterbacks in NFL history had ever passed for 5,000 yards in a season (Marino, and Brees had also done it once, with 5,069 in 2008).
I know, I hear ya. "Yeah, yeah, Berry. The league is becoming more offensive. We get it." But I don't think you do. It's not more offensive, it's the most offensive it's ever been. Quarterbacks were to the NFL in 2011 what Howard Stern was to the radio in the '80s. The offensive stats from last year are video-game level ridiculous. League-wide passer rating (84.3) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (1.472:1) were both at historic levels, topping the records that were set just the year before.
Got more mind-numbing numbers for you. Games averaged an all-time high of 693.7 total net yards per game, surpassing, once again, last year's record. Not surprisingly, high-flying passing offenses fueled much of that, with an average of 459.4 net passing yards per game, also an all-time high (443.1 in 2010). We had three quarterbacks throw for more than 40 touchdowns. No other season had ever had more than one quarterback throw for 40-plus scores.
Last year, there were 121 individual 300-yard passing games, which was, say it with me class, the most in any NFL season ever. Dude. One hundred and twenty one! That's a lot. There were also a record-setting 18 individual 400-yard passing performances.
More records: 11,356 points were scored and games averaged 44.4 points, the highest average in 46 years.
For those who say that you can't draw conclusions from just one year, I say fair enough. We know to be wary of small or polluted sample sizes when drawing big-picture conclusions. But, as a way of leading to our first big theme, the quarterback position, I offer this little stat, courtesy of Jason Vida of ESPN Stats & Information: There have been five seasons in NFL history when quarterbacks completed at least 60 percent of their passes: 2007 to 2011. As in, the past five seasons. At some point, kids, it stops being random and it starts being a trend.
Not only are QBs completing more passes, they are throwing more in general. Per Vida: Teams dropped back to pass on 59.1 percent of scrimmage plays in 2011. In 2010, it was 58.8 percent. In 2009, it was 57.7 percent. In 2008, it was 57.0 percent. In fact, QBs averaged a combined 7.20 yards per pass attempt in 2011, the highest since 1963.
Personally, I think it's a result of superior talent, advanced coaching and the fact that, if a defender breathes on someone more than 5 yards from the line of scrimmage, they'll throw a flag on it. But whatever the reason, it's a QB league. And you're gonna need a good one. Why? I'm glad you asked.
In an ESPN standard 10- team league, not every quarterback is likely to be rostered, so, the thinking goes, you can not only wait on your starting quarterback, but you don't even need to draft a backup since you can always grab one from the waiver wire during a bye week or injury, right? [Editor's Note; the preceeding paragraph was altered on June 25 to better reflect the author's intended advice.]
Well, sort of. You can. But the problem is, so can everyone else.
Simply having a good quarterback isn't enough anymore because good is the new mediocre. You need a great quarterback. It's the same phenomenon we discussed in fantasy baseball this preseason; yes, starting pitching is deep, but it's deep across the board. Everyone is going to be able to get good pitching, so if you don't want to end up in the middle of the pack, you've got to have outstanding pitching. It's the same with quarterbacks in fantasy football.
Your best bet at ensuring a weekly edge is at quarterback. Very simply, it's not so much about the fact that they are the highest-scoring players, it's that, as a whole, they are more consistent year to year and week to week than any other position.
In last season's Manifesto, I looked at the top 10 quarterbacks who were drafted on ESPN.com in each of the previous three seasons. Then I looked at the top 10 scoring quarterbacks for each of those three seasons. Let's update the results now to include 2011.
In 2010, once again, seven of the top 10 drafted quarterbacks finished the year as a top-10 guy (Brees, Rodgers, P. Manning, Brady, Schaub, Rivers and Joe Flacco, who was drafted ninth among quarterbacks and tied for tenth in scoring with Eli Manning).
Last year? Six quarterbacks drafted in the top 10 finished the season as top-10 guys (Rodgers, Brees, Brady, Rivers, Romo, Matt Ryan). And, ahem, Michael Vick finished 11th in QB points despite missing three games. On a per-game basis (he added defensively), Vick averaged 17 fantasy points a game and was a top-10 QB. Anyway, not counting Vick, out of a possible 30 quarterbacks drafted top-10 the past three seasons, 20 finished in the top 10.
Certainly, some players returned more value than others in terms of where they were drafted and what they produced, but at the end of the day, we're talking a 67 percent success rate. And look at the names: Rodgers, Brady, Brees, Rivers and Romo show up on all three lists. Schaub shows up on two of three, as does Peyton Manning, and he missed an entire season.
I did the same exercise for running backs and wide receivers. (We'll address tight ends in a bit) Over the past three years, only 16 of 30 (53 percent) of the running backs drafted in the top 10 at their position finished the season as such. I chose top 10 because those are the guys you are spending the first- and second-round picks on, but fine, you want to expand it to top 20 since we play two running backs? Now we are at 35 of 60, or 58 percent. Better, but still more of a crapshoot than quarterbacks, and with much fewer names showing up on all three lists (it's only Adrian Peterson as far as drafted and finishing in the top 10 all three seasons, and you're not spending a first-rounder on him this year).
For wide receivers, results were a little better, but similarly short of quarterback success rate. For top-10 drafted wideouts, 15 of 30 finished in the top 10. That's 50 percent. And only Roddy White made all three lists. Expanding to the top 20 brings better results. Another 35 of 60 in this case, for 58 percent.
To put this all in perspective: Over the past three years, 42 percent of the running backs and wide receivers who finished in the top 20 at their position were not ranked so in the preseason. Conversely, only 33 percent of quarterbacks drafted outside the top 10 QBs finished as top-10 QBs. And many of them -- guys like Eli last year, Matt Ryan in 2010 and Ben Roethlisberger in 2009 were drafted just outside the top 10 and were not huge surprises. Every year, some quarterback has a surprisingly good season -- Cam last season, Vick in 2010 and Brett Favre in '09 -- but we see running backs and wide receivers come out of the woodwork, so to speak, much more often. (And don't say Stafford was out of nowhere; I was touting him as a sleeper last year as much as I was waving the flag for Vick. Grumble, grumble, big salad, grumble.)
Now let's move to week to week. As I said up top, so much of preseason discussion revolves around yearly totals, but the fact is we don't actually play yearly. This is a weekly game played out over the course of a season, and that's an important distinction.
They say football is a game of inches, and the same thing can be said in fantasy football. With that in mind, I asked the great Mike Polikoff, who oversees our league manager product (Still free! Still free live scoring! Auction capabilities, accessible from any mobile phones, all the bells and whistles, sign up now!) to pull the data on week-by-week points scoring for winning and losing teams last season. In 2011, the average ESPN standard league team scored 89.69 points per week. Sounds right, doesn't it? About 90 points a week. And in any given week, an average winning team scored 101.82 points and an average losing team scored 77.58 points. But again, that's a yearly average. This game is played out week after week. Averages don't tell the whole story.
Lotta numbers coming at you now, so look alive, kid. This is important. It probably won't surprise you to know that when a team scored between 61 and 80 points, they won their games a hair more than one out of every five times (20.35 percent)? Or that teams that scored between 101-120 points lost a hair less than one every five times (19.59 percent)? And it's not shocking that an average team, scoring between 81 and 100 points, was actually a hair better than average, winning 51.23 percent of the time.
So let's do the math. Is it better to build a team with big-time upside and a huge downside? That is, a team that's as likely to score between 61 and 80 points as it is likely to score 101-120 points in a given week? Or it is better to aim for the middle, getting consistent excellence week to week, getting a guaranteed 81-100 points time after time. After all, if you can still win once every five times by scoring fewer than the average, you have to like your chances to win big all the other times, right?
Not so fast, my friend. According to our percentages, that train of thought just doesn't add up. In a 10-team league with a 13-game schedule, if everyone is average and scores the average number of points, then you can reasonably expect five teams to be 7-6 and five teams to be 6-7. The four playoff teams will almost always come from the 7-6 teams, while the 6-7 teams will be left bemoaning that one win that got away. So what is your best chance to get to 7 wins?
One out of 20 people have an extra rib, which is roughly the same percentage as teams who won while scoring 41-60 points, or lost while scoring 121-140. Coincidence? I certainly hope so.
Winning percentage for a team scoring 81-100 points every week: 51.2. That's 6.65 wins.
Winning percentage for a team scoring 61-80 points in half their games, and 101-120 points in the other half (so an average of 6.5 times each): 50.3. That's 6.54 wins.
Winning percentage of an extreme high-and-low team, scoring 41-60 points in half their games and 121-140 in the other half: 49.8. That's 6.47 wins, which makes you more likely to finish with six wins than seven.
Remember our mantra from the beginning. What's most likely to happen? That is what we are shooting for. Even if the odds of something happening more than something else are slim, they are still more. And we want every edge we can get. We can agree on that, right?
OK, but I can still see your mind churning. Seriously. You lips move when you do it. I know you're thinking that since 13 doesn't divide neatly into two, it's worth taking a chance that you'll score on the high end seven times and the low end six times, and you'll beat the odds, or you end up with an "average" week and you've got a 51.2 percent chance of winning. Really, the only way you lose this game is if you end up "busting" that swing week. Great. How do you avoid doing that?
To find the answer, we turn to Tristan H. Cockcroft's end-of-the-year consistency rankings.
Tristan tracks all sorts of stats. A crazy amount, really. He's an animal. An animal with a spreadsheet. In my next life, I want to come back as a kid who sits next to Tristan all through school. Would totally cheat off him.
Anyway, Tristan has looked at data of every game for five years and came up with certain thresholds based on scoring trends. His definitions: A start is a player whose point total in a given week was worthy of having had him active in an ESPN standard league. A stud was a player whose point total ranks him among the top at his position. A stiff is a player whose point total ranked among the worst at his position, making almost any waiver-wire option a smarter choice.
Tristan Cockcroft's Consistency Rankings Points Benchmarks
Now, let's assume a "boom" week is one in which you get an average performance out of three players and starts from everyone else. In almost any combination, that equals 100-120 points. A "bust" week is one in which you're getting "stiffed" by at least three players. You'll have a hard time getting over 70 points that week. Now, which is more likely to happen, getting studs or getting stiffed?
Among all the players Tristan tracked, there were 575 "stud" performances. And 3,664 stiffs. OK, fine, you say. That number is skewed by the likes of Blaine Gabbert or Kendall Hunter, whom you'd never start if you could help it. So, to be fair, I cut down the list to the top 15 QBs, top 30 running backs, top 30 wide receivers, top 15 tight ends and the top 15 defenses and kickers, in terms of consistency. You figure, any given week, your starting lineup will be made of guys in those thresholds. That leaves us with 407 stud performances and 397 stiffs. We're still splitting hairs here. But guess what happens when we take the quarterbacks out of the equation? Studs 318. Stiffs 368.
I think we're on to something.
Here's a full list of the players who had a stud performance at least eight times last season; which is to say they were studs at least half of the time.
A rabbit is not able to vomit. Therefore, a rabbit is able to recall how it sat Cam Newton for his first two games of last season, losing both, without incurring the natural reaction.
1. Aaron Rodgers (14 times)
2. Drew Brees (12)
3. Tom Brady (9)
4. Cam Newton (9)
5. LeSean McCoy (9)
6. Arian Foster (9)
7. Calvin Johnson (9)
8. Rob Gronkowski (9)
9. Matthew Stafford (8)
10. Ray Rice (8)
11. Jimmy Graham (8)
That's it. That's the list. Eleven guys. Of the 11, there are three running backs, two tight ends, one wide receiver and five, count 'em, five quarterbacks.
Only 11 guys in the NFL made this list, and almost half of them were quarterbacks. Your best shot at having someone dominate the week for you is from the quarterback position. And the fact that Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy and Ray Rice make this list is one reason why they are among my top picks this year.
"OK, fine," you say. "I get it. I need a good quarterback. But whatevs, dude. There's so many good ones, I can get one later." Maybe. But like I said earlier, a good quarterback is the new mediocre. Check this out as we go back to Tristan's consistency list.
Here are last year's top nine scoring quarterbacks, along with their point totals.
1. Aaron Rodgers, 385
2. Drew Brees, 380
3. Tom Brady, 352
4. Cam Newton, 333
4. Matthew Stafford, 333
6. Eli Manning, 273
7. Tony Romo, 265
8. Matt Ryan, 260
9. Philip Rivers, 246
OK, now let's look at that list again but add their "stud" weeks. The weeks they had more than 20 fantasy points in ESPN standard scoring.
1. Aaron Rodgers, 385 -- 14 stud games
2. Drew Brees, 380 -- 12 stud games
3. Tom Brady, 352 -- 9 stud games
4. Cam Newton, 333 -- 9 stud games
4. Matthew Stafford, 333 -- 8 stud games
6. Eli Manning, 273 -- 7 stud games
7. Tony Romo, 265 -- 6 stud games
8. Matt Ryan, 260 -- 5 stud games
9. Philip Rivers, 246 -- 3 stud games
Other names worth noting: Vick had seven "stud" games, Ben Roethlisberger had three and Matt Schaub had two.
As good as Eli was last year -- and he was terrific -- he had just half the number of stud games Rodgers did. You look at 385 for Rodgers and 273 for Eli and you're like, "Eh, 102 total points -- that's a lot, but it's not a crazy amount over an entire season. I can live with Eli if I get a stud running back." And if that running back is Foster, Rice, McCoy or Jones-Drew, I agree with you. But anyone else?
Look, in an ideal world, you want your first few picks to carry your team and help you win weeks by themselves, More often than not, the highest scorer on every team is going to be a quarterback and you want your quarterback to be better than your opponents'. If Eli is only half as "studly" as Rodgers, see what happens when you get even deeper, with guys like Matt Ryan.
All this boils down to this: You need a stud quarterback. And this year, the rock-solid list is Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees.
There's other guys I like a lot but who have slight question marks: Can Stafford stay healthy again? Are Cam's rushing touchdowns repeatable? And if not, is the decline in vertical passing over the second half something the Panthers can fix? And I am positive the year after I am all about Vick is the year he's gonna go off, but he still has the injury question, as does Tony Romo and, obviously, Peyton Manning. Plus, Manning has a new team and is playing a full season outdoors for the first time in his career. Peyton's brother Eli, for all his yards last season, has never had more than 31 touchdown passes in a year and has only one season with more than 29 touchdowns. And finally, does the loss of Vincent Jackson and the ongoing health issues for Antonio Gates keep contributing to the interception problem Rivers had last season?
That's your list, and you can probably go 7-6 with any of them. But I really think you want one of the big three, if at all possible, which is why I've got all three in my top 10 this season. And if you don't get one of those three, I think you should hope for a repeat of the magic and draft Stafford, Vick or Cam.
You can hope to have everything break your way with your running backs and wideouts and maybe you find this year's Cam/Vick/Favre (RG3?), but if we are playing the "what's most likely to happen" game and, if you've read this far, that's exactly what we're doing ... your best odds for winning are to pay for a stud quarterback and hope to get lucky with your running backs, not the other way around.
Personally, I'll be taking a quarterback in the first three rounds every chance I get, and usually within the first two. Once I'm set there, I'll feel ready to take a whack at the giant piñata that is the running back position.
You know how, on New Year's Eve, people who never leave their house all year suddenly decide to go out, live it up and then, after three wine spritzers, are loaded by 8:30? Well, that's the running back position this year: It gets ugly quick.
So many questions. The health status of previously explosive backs like Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles and Rashard Mendenhall are unknowns. Was last year the real deal or just a one-year fluke for Chris Johnson (bad) and Marshawn Lynch (great)? Can Ryan "six games missed in two years" Matthews and Darren "12 games missed in two years" McFadden stay healthy? Will Matt Forte hold out? How much do we believe in DeMarco Murray, coming off a season-ending injury suffered after so few games as a starter? How much does C.J. Spiller cut into Fred Jackson's time? How much does Michael Turner, Steven Jackson and Frank Gore have in the tank? Do we trust a repeat for Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles? Is this finally the year for Shonn Greene or Beanie Wells? Can Trent Richardson overcome the "Clevelandness" of the Browns? And we're not really trusting Mike Shanahan on Roy Helu, are we?
Show me a running back not named Arian Foster, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy or Maurice Jones-Drew, and I'll show you flaws and uncertainty. Which are fine ... in the middle rounds. But not in the first and second.
Remember that stat from earlier? Over the past three years, 42 percent of players who finished as top-20 fantasy running backs were not drafted as such.
Many years ago, my friend Joe Bryant created a system called Value Based Drafting (or VBD for short). It was, and remains, a groundbreaking piece of draft strategy that has been written about extensively. In essence, the idea of VBD drafting is that, as Joe wrote: "The value of a player is determined not by the number of points he scores, but by how much he outscores his peers at a particular position."
Applying it to an ESPN standard 10-team league, the idea is not how good Aaron Rodgers is, but how much better Rodgers is than, say, the 15th-best quarterback, a guy you can get off the waiver wire? (The answer last year was 190 points). You then take that 190 points and compare it to every other player. How does Rodgers at quarterback compare to, say, Maurice Jones-Drew compared to a running back you can get off the waiver wire? (last year, MJD was 165 points better than a replacement level RB). So, if faced with Rodgers or Jones-Drew staring at you on draft day, VBD tells you to take Rodgers.
The dot that appears over the letter "i" is called a tittle. Hehehe. I said "tittle."
VBD makes a lot of sense, and many people I respect swear by it. Here's my issue with it: For VBD to work, the projections have to be correct. According to VBD, Chris Johnson should have been your No. 3 overall pick last year. How'd that work out for you?
Now, accurate projections (or lack thereof) is a flaw with any ranking system, of course. Johnson was as high -- or higher -- in many non-VBD ranking lists as well. So I'm not trying to beat it up, but there's a reason I am not a slave to it the way I see some folks are. It's a tool that helps, especially with position scarcity and valuation, both important factors on draft day. But it's not the be-all and end-all, especially because it also deals in season-long stats. This guy is 120 points better than that guy over the course of the season, etc, etc. But again, we don't play season-long. We play week to week over the course of the season.
So if the issue with VBD and other ranking systems is flawed projections -- we know things are not going to happen exactly as we expect -- then what are we to do?
The answer is really simple. Give ourselves as many chances at getting it right as possible. And those chances are going to come at the running back position.
In baseball, one of my big slogans for years in mixed leagues has always been "Don't pay for saves." The reasoning is that there is a lot of turnover at that position, for a variety of reasons, and that saves always come into fantasy leagues via the waiver wire or by sleepers panning out. In the new pass-heavy NFL, I feel the same way about running backs.
Remember the stat I quoted about running backs when comparing them to quarterbacks as far as consistency: Over the past three years, 42 percent of running backs who have finished in the top 20 of fantasy point-getters at that position were not drafted among the first 20 running backs.
It probably seems elementary to some of you, but I continue to see way too much emphasis on running backs early in the draft in mocks that I have done. All right, so we know there will be guys at the end of the year who will wind up in the top 20 that weren't drafted, but again, we play this game weekly.
So just for kicks, here's a list of running backs who had weeks as top-20 backs and were drafted outside the top 20 last season, with the number of said top-20 weeks in parentheses.
Marshawn Lynch (10), Darren Sproles (10), Reggie Bush (9), Fred Jackson (9), Michael Bush (9),Willis McGahee (8), Beanie Wells (7), Ben Tate (7), Shonn Greene (6), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (6), Pierre Thomas (6), DeMarco Murray (5), Roy Helu (5), Toby Gerhart (5), Mike Tolbert (5), Cedric Benson (5), Mark Ingram (5), C.J. Spiller (4), Felix Jones (4), James Starks (4), Jahvid Best (4), Brandon Jacobs (4), Marion Barber (4), Donald Brown (4), Kevin Smith (4), Dexter McCluster (3), LaDainian Tomlinson (3), Maurice Morris (3), Khalil Bell (2), Tim Hightower (2), Daniel Thomas (2), Ryan Grant (2), Evan Royster (2), Kendall Hunter (2), Jackie Battle (2), Lance Ball (2), LaRod Stephens-Howling (2), Isaac Redman (2), Chris Ogbonnaya (2).
Crazy, right? Thirty-nine different running backs last year had multiple weeks in the top 20. Am I advocating a draft strategy centered on acquiring guys like Maurice Morris and Chris Ogbonnaya? Of course not. But the point is, between my experience, research and Tristan Cockcroft's consistency rankings, I can tell you top-20 running back production comes into the league more than any other position. And that, by having a rock-solid quarterback that you don't need to back up, you can use even more of your bench to stockpile running backs. Backs that you drafted and backs that you pick up during the season can give you, week in and week out, based on matchup and playing time that week, multiple top-20 options. It won't always be the same guys, but that's OK. You've got lots to choose from, and as long as you win that week, you've accomplished your goal.
Just to drive this point into the ground, I want to go back to Tristan's consistency ranks one more time. Remember the stat he calls "stiff"? This is the number of times a player's point total for the week ranked among the worst at his position, making almost any waiver wire add a better option that week. For running backs, that's four points or fewer, and you have to have played, so it's a true measure of how many times you were let down by the player. So here are the first 20 running backs drafted last season, per average draft position, and the number of games in which they were stiffs in parentheses.
Adrian Peterson (0), Arian Foster (1), Chris Johnson (4), Jamaal Charles (did not finish Week 1), Maurice Jones-Drew (0), Ray Rice (1), LeSean McCoy (1), Rashard Mendenhall (4), Michael Turner (2), Frank Gore (4), Steven Jackson (2), Darren McFadden (1), Peyton Hillis (3), Matt Forte (1), Jonathan Stewart (5), Ahmad Bradshaw (2), Knowshon Moreno (5), LeGarrette Blount (6), DeAngelo Williams (9), Ryan Mathews (1).
Fifty-two times last season. Forget not being a top-20 guy for the week. Fifty-two times, a top-20 running back couldn't manage 50 yards without a fumble. What?!? (I, uh, may have also loved LeGarrette Blount last year. Yeesh. Sorry 'bout that.)
Meanwhile, I won't list them all, but among the top 10 quarterbacks drafted last year? It only happened 11 times, total. For a quarterback, the "stiff" benchmark is eight points or fewer, and no quarterback had more than two "stiff" starts (Rivers, Romo, Ryan, Schaub and Vick all had two each, and Eli had one). And among the elite guys, they combined for zero.
Quarterbacks = consistent. Running backs = not so much.
Some might say, well, because there's so few "sure thing" running backs, shouldn't we grab one of them early? And I say yes. Foster, Rice, McCoy and Jones-Drew are all top-six guys for me. But after that? I'm waiting a few rounds.
I don't know who this year's Fred Jackson, Marshawn Lynch, Darren Sproles, DeMarco Murray and Reggie Bush are going to be. I have some ideas, of course, and you'll read about them in Love/Hate and other things I write this preseason, or hear about them on the podcast or in a video … we'll spend a lot of time trying to figure this out. Because what I do know, for a fact, is that some running backs will pop. In fact, more than some. Close to 40 will be usable at some point during the season.
Do you know how many (at least sometimes) fantasy-useful running backs played all 16 games last year? Here's the list, alphabetically: Donald Brown, Michael Bush, Toby Gerhart, Frank Gore, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Shonn Greene, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, C.J. Spiller, Darren Sproles, Jonathan Stewart, Pierre Thomas, Michael Turner. That's it. Only 14 running backs. And if we pare the list down to those drafted in the first two rounds, the list is now Gore, Johnson, MJD, Rice and Turner. Five guys! That's it.
And it's not just last year. You know this. One last time; 42 percent of top 20 running backs at the end of the season the past three years were not drafted among the first 20 running backs taken. And when you expand it to a weekly list -- because we care about who is the top 20 for a given week -- it becomes a much longer list.
And then, you look at the list of useful fantasy quarterbacks who played all 16 games: Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton, Tony Romo, Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, Mark Sanchez, Alex Smith, Joe Flacco, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton. And Aaron Rodgers played 15 games, missing only the very last week, and you knew well in advance. Quarterbacks do not get hurt and/or have nearly as much turnover as running backs. If you get a stud quarterback, chances are you are set for every week but the bye. There's value in that. Because you don't need a backup -- unless you have a guy like Vick who is an injury risk -- I want you to only use one roster spot on a quarterback. You'll also be using only one roster each on a kicker, a defense and a tight end. And the remaining 12 roster slots in an ESPN standard league need to be running backs and wide receivers, which we'll get to in a moment. I personally like a seven-running-backs-to-five-wideouts ratio, but depending on which wideouts you get, I'm OK with just four, as long as you've got some studs.
With seven or eight running backs? You got a pretty good chance of hitting a winning lottery ticket, and that one or two of those mid- and late-round runners you're rostering will be this year's Marshawn Lynch or Fred Jackson (both on last year's "love list" as posters boys for this theory last season, he said, holding his big salad above his head and scaring all the women off).
It's crazy deep this year. You basically have three types of players: Your studs (Calvin Johnson, Roddy White, Greg Jennings, Mike Wallace and crew), your new guys that emerged (Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Victor Cruz, Jordy Nelson and the gang), and then your former studs coming off down years due to injury or something else, but who have a pretty good chance to bounce back (Andre Johnson, Miles Austin, DeSean Jackson and friends).
It stands to reason that there are so many good receivers; remember all those crazy passing offensive stats we talked about? That would translate to record-breaking receiving stats, too. I'm not the best analyst in the business for nothing, folks.
And just like at other positions, there are players like Calvin Johnson who are a significant cut above. But for the most part, there's a general sameness to the lot of them. Here's a little exercise I like to do this every year. Super simple. Let's look at how many wideouts had at least five 100-yard games last season. Touchdowns are so hard to predict -- I mean, Lance Moore and Eric Decker had more than Hakeem Nicks last season -- so I like to look at yardage. And five 100-yard games aren't that many, right? Once every three games, basically. And in a crazy record-setting season like we just saw, there should be a ton of guys who had a bunch of big games, right? So let's see...Thirty-two teams, three main wideouts on each team, and the answer is ... nine.
Calvin Johnson and Wes Welker had eight, Victor Cruz had seven, Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Smith had six and Brandon Marshall, Jordy Nelson, Julio Jones and Roddy White had five. That's it. That the whole list.
In 2010, also a big offensive season, there were only seven guys. And there's only one guy who was on both lists: Roddy White.
The good thing about the position being so deep is that you know you'll get someone good, even if you wait. The bad thing about it is, it's so deep, everyone else is going to have really good wideouts and there will be a lot of weeks where your guys don't show up.
Back to Tristan's consistency ratings. Every player gets an overall consistency percentage. It's the number of "start" performances divided by scheduled team games. So, in other words, even if a player is injured, it's divided by 16. Which is fair. If a player is hurt, he's not producing for you, and it's another week he hasn't done anything for you.
In Tristan's ratings, a "start"-worthy performance is at least eight fantasy points. Anyway, among wide receivers, guess how many have a start percentage of 75 percent or better? Forget being a stud -- just how many WR were worth starting at least three of every four games last year?
Only one. Calvin Johnson.
Lower it to 68 percent, and we get six more: Welker, Green, Jennings, Nelson, Cruz, Smith and Steve Johnson. Seven guys.
OK, let's lower it to 50 percent. I mean, just half the time, he's worth starting. Not amazing, just eight points or better. How many for fifty percent?
Not all polar bears hibernate; only pregnant females polar bears do. But that still doesn't explain what the heck happened to DeSean Jackson last season.
Just 20, and several, of course, were not drafted as top-20 wide receivers.
You need one stud wideout. I'd be drafting one wide receiver in the first three rounds, but then I'd probably be loading up on running backs (and taking care of my tight end) until the middle rounds. I mean, seriously, it's deep this year, and there's not a ton of differentiation once you get past the really elite guys. I've seen guys like Jeremy Maclin, Steve Johnson, Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Brandon Lloyd fall out of the top 20 in mock drafts.
One last thing to note about wide receivers: While they aren't among the most consistent positions, they are more consistent than running backs in general.
They are not, however, more consistent than ...
Here's another position at which I picked the wrong poster boy for last year (Gates said he was healthy, and I foolishly believed him), but I had the right idea. After quarterbacks, tight ends are the most consistent performers, from a fantasy perspective.
Over each of the past three years, six of top 10 tight ends drafted have finished as top-10 scorers at the position. Sixty percent isn't a ton, but it is a little better than the return you get on running backs and wide receivers, but not significantly so.
The thing that does it for me, however, is that the same names pop up every year. Unlike the running back or wideout list, there are guys like Antonio Gates and Jason Witten who have been there three years running, and there's lots of guys (Tony Gonzalez, Dallas Clark, Vernon Davis, Kellen Winslow, Chris Cooley, Jermichael Finley) who made two of the three lists.
Use of the tight end, and specifically of the two-tight-end sets, has become more and more en vogue these days in the NFL, as two sets have become in vogue. Once again, here's Jason Vida of ESPN Stats and Information:
Plays with 2-plus tight ends on the field
Note: Does not include kneel-downs or spikes to stop the clock
As you can see, the number of plays with at least two tight ends on the field has gone up each of the past three years, jumping two points in 2011 to top 35 percent.
But that barely tells the whole story. It's not just the number of tight ends being deployed in the NFL, it's the quality. Let's talk about two of the biggest names in fantasy last season; Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham.
Gronkowski set a single-season tight end record for receiving touchdowns (17) and receiving yards (1,327). Jimmy Graham's 1,310 receiving yards were the second-most ever by a tight end. No tight end had ever had 1,300 receiving yards in a season entering 2011. Also, Gronkowski became the first tight end ever to lead the league outright in touchdown catches.
Many people question whether Gronkowski's touchdowns are repeatable, and the answer is probably no. But he is a matchup nightmare, and he's in a prolific offense that has run more two-tight-end sets than any team in football the past two years, so if anyone has a shot, it's him. But here's the thing: Take away every single touchdown Gronk had last year. Every single one. And he's still the second-highest scoring fantasy tight end. Second to -- you guessed it -- Jimmy Graham.
Every year, I do an article called "100 facts you need to know before you draft." It's basically a cleverly disguised sleeper and bust column, as I use facts and stats to highlight different players that I like or don't. Here are facts 12-14 from the 2011 edition.
12. John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information tells us that, last season, the New Orleans Saints attempted 661 passes, second most in the NFL.
13. He goes on to tell us that 23 percent of the time, the pass was to the tight end, 12th in the league.
14. Jimmy Graham is going in the 12th round.
This season, Jimmy's going to go a lot higher than the 12th round, but considering he had 149 targets last season, the fifth-most in the league, I feel fairly confident in his role in what should still be one of the most prolific offenses in the league, their troubled offseason notwithstanding.
Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham are impossible matchups for defenses, and only Roddy White had more red zone targets (29) than Gronkowski and Graham's 26 each.
Graham and Gronkowski are so much better than anyone else at their position, they are both worth second-round picks. That's gonna be pricey for some folks, but history tells us that tight ends are, in general, more likely to retain draft day value than running backs or wide receivers. Even if you don't get Gronk or Graham, you want to invest in a tight end earlier than later. I will say I really like Jared Cook as a sleeper, but in general this season, I want a stud tight end, and I'm willing to pay for it. Then, just like with quarterback, I don't bother backing him up -- I'll start him every week and take care of the bye week when it arrives -- and the rest of the time? I'm drafting running backs by the half-dozen.
Wait until the second-to-last round. Seriously.
Every year, people reach for defenses. Every year, they are disappointed.
The top two picks for defenses last year were the Steelers and Packers. They finished 10th and 13th respectively. The top two picks in 2010? The Jets and Ravens, who finished at five and eight among defenses. That sounds OK until you realize the Ravens averaged 7.9 points per game, or just 0.8 points per game more than the No. 11 defense that year, the Titans, who averaged 7.1 points per game. In 2009, the top two defenses picked were the Steelers and Giants, and they finished 16th and 26th that year.
Trust me here. History has shown us that reaching for a fantasy defense blows up in your face more often than not, and on the rare occasions that you get a solid defense, the advantage is negligible over replacement-level defense. You'll do a lot better drafting a seventh running back before you draft your first defense.
A cat's ear has a total of thirty two muscles. Which is exactly the same number of kickers which should still be available at the onset of the final round of your draft.
I'm embarrassed that I have to include this section every year. But did you know that last year's No. 1 drafted kicker, Nate Kaeding, had an average draft position in the 12th round? And if it's an average draft position, that means some people are taking him even earlier, like in the 11th!
Someone has reached for a kicker in pretty much every league I've ever played in.
And before you say, "eh, 12th round, who cares?", here's a list of some other players who went in the 11th through 13th rounds last year: Jimmy Graham, Matthew Stafford, C.J. Spiller, Michael Bush, Julio Jones, Roy Helu and ... Rob Gronkowski.
Kickers are such a crapshoot, you can't even get an edge by drafting guys from high-octane offenses. According to Tristan Cockcroft's consistency rankings, the kickers for last season's No. 1 (Saints), No. 2 (Patriots) and No. 3 (Packers) offenses by yards -- John Kasay, Stephen Gostkowski and Mason Crosby -- were startable between 50 and 57 percent of the time. The same threshold as the kickers for the No. 16 (Redskins) and No. 17 (Titans) offenses, Graham Gano and Rob Bironas.
Listen, I've heard plenty of good arguments for eliminating kickers from fantasy football: too many of them to choose from, they're a total crapshoot. I've never heard a good argument for taking one earlier than the final round. I'm using my last two picks on a defense and a kicker, in that order. There's no statistical reason not to do that.
Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.
1. Get an elite quarterback. Ideally, one of the caliber of Rodgers, Brady or Brees, but definitely one of the top six.
2. Get an elite tight end. Ideally Gronk or Graham, but definitely one of the top five.
3. Your roster should have just one kicker, one defense, one elite tight end, one quarterback (unless you feel like you need Vick insurance, in which case you can grab a nice arm late) and the rest need to be nothing but running backs and wide receivers. We know players will pop, we know they'll likely be running backs and wide receivers -- we just don't know who they'll be, so the idea is to maximize your chances at getting one of those players. Panning for gold, as it were.
4. Your first four picks should include one quarterback, one wide receiver and either Gronk/Graham or two running backs.
5. Your next 10 picks will be the best available running backs and wide receivers, with the only exception being one of the other elite tight ends in the fifth or sixth round if you don't get Graham/Gronk, and potentially a backup quarterback if you wind up with Vick.
6. Your last two picks will be a defense and kicker.
That's my theory. There are tons of others written about elsewhere in this draft kit, and as your draft (or auction) unfolds, you'll have to adjust on the fly. This is why I highly recommend our mock draft lobby (now with eight-, 10- and 12-team leagues) to practice different strategies. There's lots you can do to prepare for draft day, but this year I have cut out a lot of the basic "Fantasy 101" stuff that has been in previous editions. If you're a new reader or simply want a refresher on how I prepare, how to do keeper league inflation or any of the yearly staples of this article, you can check out last year's Manifesto and, um, just skip the whole "take Vick No. 1" thing.
Draft Day: 10 rules to success
OK, it's game day, baby. Time for the big show. Don't bother cramming on the way in or anything stupid like that. It's like a test. You know it or you don't. It's like dropping off your date at the end of the night. If you don't know what you're doing now, the next 10 minutes aren't going to help. You want to project -- even if you don't feel it -- an air of confidence. Make others sweat. That's my first draft day hint.
1. Never show fear. Just be confident. You don't have to be cocky or a jerk, but occasionally sighing a breath of relief when the guy before you picks -- as if to say, "Thank God you didn't grab the correct guy" -- will do wonders to rattle your less-confident leaguemates.
A monkey was once tried and convicted for smoking a cigarette in South Bend, Indiana. Not all rules may make sense to you, but they should still be followed.
2. Have a plan. Ideally, you'll know which pick you have before the draft, so run through scenarios: What guy are you likely to get, what guy would you hope fall to you and what happens if you have pick No. 9 and there are only eight guys you really like in the first round, and they all go before you pick? I've given you the tools to formulate a plan, but drawing that plan and then following it, adapting as the draft unfolds, that's all on you, and the better prepared you are for each situation, the better you'll do.
3. Practice makes perfect. Yeah, it seems like I am a company shill (and I sort of am), but the fact remains: The more you do something, the better you get at it. My career notwithstanding. As I mentioned above, we have free mock draft and mock auction lobbies open 24/7. Jump in and practice drafting. And try picking from different spots. Try different things. See what happens when you grab a quarterback in the first round. Or a wide receiver. See who you wind up with if you go wide receiver/wide receiver with your first two picks. The more scenarios you face, the less fazed you'll be when something screwy happens in your real draft.
4. If you find yourself getting squeezed out of a position, don't panic. Say you find yourself on the short end of a run on elite tight ends. Instead of reaching for a guy like Vernon Davis (assuming you like him; I don't necessarily), grab the last "elite" quarterback, even if you already have yours. Or grab another wide receiver or running back that you do like. Give yourself something to trade with. Finley, or someone just like him, will still be there a round later, trust me. But by getting a surplus somewhere else rather than just grabbing the best available at a depleted position, you'll be in a position to help yourself later.
5. If you are at one end of a snake draft, grab what you need when you can. Let's say it's your pick and you really want a good wide receiver. You see there are at least eight guys left you could live with. So you grab your third and fourth running backs to start your stockpile. But one good run and you're screwed. It's 18 picks until you get to choose again (in a 10-team league). Don't wait. Grab what you need, get surplus later (unless you're in a situation like I described above).
6. Don't sweat bye weeks. So much can happen during a season in terms of injuries, role changes and what a good or poor matchup is, you're not gonna know what you want to do in a given week until you're setting your lineup that week. So get the best player, period. There's even an argument to made for trying to have every player have the same bye week. Yes, you take it on the chin one week, but you're at full strength every other week and all your opponents are not.
7. By that same token, I never worry about things like if a player is on the same team as another guy I've already rostered. You're trying to get the best possible team, period. If the next-best guy available is the wide receiver for your quarterback, so be it. Don't get cute or overthink it.
8. Please realize that all rankings -- including mine -- are guidelines and not hard-and-fast. They are not designed to be followed religiously. I'll often get a question like, "I have the second pick and I really want Calvin Johnson. Is that too early?" While, yes, I have Megatron in the middle of Round 1, the answer is ... it's your team. Calvin will not be there when you pick in the second round, so if you want him, grab him there, and don't listen to what anyone else says. Of course, this is yet another reason why auctions are better.
9. I like to look at average draft positions so I have a general idea of where guys I am targeting are going. I necessarily recommend reaching, but in the later rounds, when you're looking for upside, if there's someone who makes your heart go pitter-pat, knowing where he normally gets drafted can only help.
10. Have fun! During the 12 years that I've been doing this professionally, I've probably given hundreds of interviews to various newspapers, radio stations, blogs, etc. about fantasy football. I get the usual stuff all the time: How did I get my start? Do I really make a living at it? And seriously, what's with the hair?
But the No. 1 question I have gotten in every interview, without fail, is "why?"
Why has it become so popular? Why should people who have never played it try it? Why are people so obsessed with it? Why, why, why?
Because it's fun, I answer.
It's about loving it when your running back vultures a touchdown, getting five field goals from your kicker, being able to call your buddy on Monday morning and just laugh into the phone for five minutes. It's about hilarious team names, cursing your favorite receiver for dropping a touchdown, and deciding that I don't care if it's a boy or a girl -- I'm naming my next kid Marshawn.
Remember, we do this for leisure. We all play to win, but it's not worth ruining friendships over. Well, unless you've really got a shot at the title. And it's not that good a friend. I mean, come on, you can always get a new friend. Or wife.
Matthew Berry -- The Talented Mr. Roto -- is ready for some football! He is the creator of RotoPass.com, a website that combines a bunch of well-known fantasy sites, including ESPN Insider, for one low price. Use promo code ESPN for 10 percent off.