Defending my 2012 rankings
It was weird.
It was awesome.
It was uncomfortable.
It was informative.
It was a milestone.
But mostly, it was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
This past weekend, I was at a fantasy football event. I do them every August, these fantasy football talks, in different cities across the country. I'm in Dallas this weekend, for example, for an ESPN Radio event on Sunday after a kickoff party Saturday night at The Owners Box Sports Bar at the Omni Hotel. Come by, say hi.
So yeah, I do them all the time, right? I actually enjoy them. You talk fantasy football, get to meet fellow fantasy players, see different cities. They're always a blast, and they're usually much the same.
Except this one event last week.
You know, if you bend a little at the knees, you can pick up those names I just dropped. Um, yeah. It was mostly for Eagles fans, obviously, but they wanted a fantasy guy on the panel, and, for whatever reason, they chose me. (I suspect maybe my staunch fantasy support of Vick and McCoy might have had something to do with it.) It was hosted by ESPN Radio Philadelphia's Mike Missanelli, and, after a few questions to Vick and McCoy about the offseason and thoughts on the upcoming Eagles season, Missanelli pulled out my Top 200 rankings and immediately had a question for Michael Vick.
"Michael, how do you feel about being the No. 6 quarterback on Matthew Berry's list?"
And just like that, every reaction I talked about in the paragraphs above flew through me and continued for the rest of our 45-minute presentation.
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First, it was awesome. I'm sure I'm supposed to be above all that and act cool and everything, but whatever; we both know I'm not cool. I was psyched. When I began in the fantasy sports industry, I never imagined there would be a time when someone who gave fantasy football advice would sit at the same table as current NFL superstars. And be taken seriously. I've interviewed plenty of NFL players, but this was different. We all were getting interviewed. Vick, McCoy and -- gulp -- me. It was very different. Maybe others have had that kind of experience, but for me, it was a milestone moment.
It was also informative. After explaining how the fantasy scoring worked, I asked Vick point-blank which Eagles receiver I wanted this year. Kudos to Vick and McCoy for answering. DeSean Jackson, said Vick. McCoy agreed. Really, I said? Not Jeremy Maclin? "I don't know DeSean's catching a lot of balls in practice," Vick said. They had nothing bad to say about Maclin, but Jackson is the one they were talking up.
I asked Vick about his rushing touchdowns. Just one last year, nine the year before, so what's the expectation at the goal line this year? "I'm handing it off," he said, nodding at McCoy. "Maybe I get a bootleg occasionally or a busted play, but he [McCoy] is getting it."
I asked Vick about staying healthy. Was he going to try to just play smarter this year, or were they working on different protection/blocking schemes to try to keep him upright? Both, he said, then he elaborated on how they were going to do that.
McCoy talked about the team's red zone issues last year -- the Eagles had three fumbles in goal-to-go situations, the most in the NFL and, per Stats LLC, just a 42.6 percent success rate in the red zone, 17th in the NFL -- and mentioned that red zone execution had been a particular focus for them in camp.
All really interesting stuff. I'm not sure I buy it (more on that in a bit), but it was fascinating to hear up close.
But before we got to that discussion, and the many questions that followed there was a weird moment. Like, really weird.
And awkward. Sooooo awkward. Like many people, I generally don't like confrontation. I think most people want to be liked, and I'm no different. When I was a boss, I hated having to give bad news to an employee. And now, here I was, in front of 500 or so rabid Eagles fans, with players I liked a lot for fantasy, having to tell them things they didn't want to hear. I had to directly tell Michael Vick, not six inches away from me, that yeah, I think five quarterbacks are better than you this year.
And I had to explain to LeSean McCoy why I had two other running backs ahead of him. Like everyone else, but especially pro athletes, these guys have a lot of pride in what they do, and, whether they admit it publicly or not, they all think they're the best. And here's little ol' me, starting to go bald, never played the game, armed with a bunch of nerdy stats. Me.
But, as the panel continued, I became OK with it. I had no idea what questions were coming at me, and they came fast and furious. I patiently tried to explain each ranking, my thought process behind each, and why I had these two guys and their NFL counterparts ranked where I did.
You'd have to ask someone else who was there, I suppose, but I felt as if I held my own. And it's not often I will say this about myself because, if I'm being honest, I am very self-critical of all my work, but I was proud of myself.
To my credit, because apparently I'm not only name-dropping but also evaluating myself, I didn't pull punches or shy away from it. I told Vick that I hoped he proved me wrong, that I had him No. 1 overall last year. But until he can prove he can play all 16 games, he's an injury risk and yeah, damn it, there are five other quarterbacks I'd rather have this year.
I told McCoy that he's awesome but that scoring 20 touchdowns is difficult for anyone to repeat. And that Vick had just one rushing touchdown last year but nine the year before; if we split the difference, those five or so rushing touchdowns are likely to come from him. So no, I can't take him ahead of Ray Rice or Arian Foster.
Although it's rare that the jock is on the same page as the geek, some of my explanations seemed to work in this case. After Vick was asked for his top five quarterbacks (not including himself), I argued with his list and gave my reasons. Vick seemed to agree with me after I gave my explanation. "Good thoughts. Deep thoughts," he said. McCoy said he planned to try playing fantasy this year and, when pressed, said he would take Ray Rice ahead of himself in a draft.
After that, I realized if I can stand up and defend my rankings to the actual people I'm ranking, well, I can take on all comers. So I asked the folks who follow me on Twitter and on Facebook what issues they had with my rankings. As I said to the disagreeing panel after I explained why I didn't have either of the Manning brothers in my top five, "You may not agree with it, but there's thought and reason behind each ranking."
Here are some of them:
TMR: I have Calvin Johnson at No. 10 overall right now, which means I likely won't own him in any league I play in this year. I'm OK with this. Let's start with Johnson. I expect some regression. He had more than 1,600 total yards last year, and only one receiver in the history of the NFL has had more than 1,400 yards the year after having 1,600; Marvin Harrison did it once. Plus, no wideout who has scored 16 touchdowns in a season has had more than 13 the next year. It's a different kind of league these days, and he's a different kind of player, I get all that. But still, I'm expecting a slight regression as teams concentrate on him even more.
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It's also because wide receiver this year is -- say it with me, class -- crazy deep. So as great as Megatron is, I place less value on receivers than I would with other, scarcer positions. Stafford, meanwhile, solved health issues last season, and the Lions have been in the top three in pass attempts each of the past two years; that's their offense. They will throw, throw, throw.
As for Forte, he's just safe. He has never had fewer than 1,400 total yards in a season, I'm not concerned about Michael Bush (goal-line carries were never Forte's game, anyway), and I have no concerns about his December knee injury; he played in the Pro Bowl. There's something to be said for safety at running back. If you want to go Calvin there (at No. 8), I get it. In fact, Calvin probably will outscore Forte this year. But in terms of total roster composition, getting a running back here and waiting on a wide receiver will be better for your team.
@lewan5959 (Twitter): Why so low on Beanie Wells?
TMR: I have him at No. 36 among running backs, lower than Ryan Williams, and no doubt that's crazy low on him. Maybe I'll raise him a bit in the next update, but he plays in a bad offense, behind a bad line, and he has a bad quarterback who is always banged up, not to mention we're looking at Arizona having a lot of West Coast games, in which you'll have to wonder whether he's going to play. Williams has looked better to me in limited action, and I expect Williams to be the starter sooner than later.
To be honest, I just don't like Wells, so I never want to own him, and yes, my biases come into play in my rankings. That's why they are my ranks. Hmm, after writing all this, I now think a better question would be: Why am I not lower on him?
@joshuaschenk (Twitter): You'd stick with Vick over Peyton Manning even following Vick's rib injury?
TMR: Yeah, I have them right next to each other in my Top 200, and any time you see players at the same position lumped together like that, that's my way of saying I feel they're the same value and it's really just a matter of personal preference. I've put them in order to tell you whom I like, but ultimately they're about the same value. I did it this way because both guys have question marks. Peyton has new teammates (with less talent than in Indy's heyday), will play 15 games outdoors (like most quarterbacks, his career numbers are worse outdoors than in a dome), is 36 years old and hasn't, ya know, played football in more than a year. Vick, meanwhile, has the obvious concerns.
So, they both have question marks and they both have tremendous upside, but Vick's upside, to me, is much greater. The logic used last year is the same. If he stays healthy for all 16 games, he has the ability, the offensive scheme and playmakers around him to have the greatest fantasy season ever. Period. That's what you're rolling the dice for. That upside is why he's higher.
@snarrfthekid (Twitter): Why has DeMarco Murray dropped so far?
Philly Charron (Facebook): Why do you have DeMarco Murray so high, given the small (albeit excellent) sample size, when similar injury-prone guys such as Ryan Mathews and Trent Richardson are 15-20 spots lower?
TMR: Welcome to rankings in general. One guy thinks Murray is too low, and another thinks he's too high (compared with other running backs). Murray has dropped because, to Charron's point, we have only a small sample size on him, and, the more I see (or don't see) of the Dallas offense, the more worried I get. The Cowboys have had injuries, or injury scares, with Jason Witten, Miles Austin and Dez Bryant already; their offensive line looks terrible; and, right now, I'm not seeing much that would help take the pressure off the run game.
That said, at least Murray is healthy. I have Murray as my No. 13 running back, Mathews as my No. 15 running back and Richardson at No. 17, so, although there are a handful of wideouts, a tight end and a few quarterbacks between them, they are still fairly close in my running back ranks.
These are fair questions, and after I turn in this column, I'll go back and look at the ranks. I might actually be a bit too high on Murray. I'm fine with my ranks on Richardson and Mathews, who are both banged up already. In addition to never having produced for a full season, Mathews is another victim of his schedule, as only four of his games this year are 1 p.m. ET starts. I'm not a fan of the West Coast guy who is always banged up, leaving you to decide whether you start a lesser yet healthier guy at 1 p.m. or wait 'til 4 p.m. and see whether the better guy (Mathews) can go. As for Richardson, he has had two knee surgeries in six months, has a rough schedule and plays in a bad offense (at least the Cowboys have the potential to be explosive), and we haven't seen him do it in the NFL at all.
TMR: Britt has two huge question marks: his off-the-field issues (is a suspension coming?), and his health. He has crazy talent, and it really depends on what you're looking for. If you're just looking for a lottery-ticket upside play late, Britt makes sense because he has top-10-receiver potential. But if you need someone who might start for you, it's clearly Washington, who was Jake Locker's most targeted wide receiver when the young quarterback played last year. People forget that Washington had more than 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns last year. I like Kendall Wright a lot, too, but, in general, I'll go with the proven vet over the unknown rookie.
@JohnLorge (Twitter): Lotta wide receiver pairings just a few spots apart (NE, PHI, DEN, PIT). Do you anticipate identical stats, or are you scared to make a distinction?
TMR: Not scared. Where I rank them overall is more important than where I rank them on their own team, and I've clearly made that distinction. But similar to my Vick/Peyton Manning example above, it's more of an acknowledgement that both guys are relatively the same. Not that I anticipate similar stats, just that they have similar value. That's an important distinction. Rankings are not about stats but about relative value compared with every other player. One guy might have better stat potential but also have more of an injury risk. Mike Wallace is a better wide receiver than Antonio Brown. But, because of Wallace's holdout, Brown's finishing strong last year and his chemistry with Big Ben, and the way the Steelers use Brown in the offense with slants and bubble screens (leaving him free for plenty of yards after the catch), I feel Brown will have the slightly better fantasy season. Wallace's upside keeps him close to Brown, but there is also more risk there.
In general, always remember that rankings are a loose guideline to help determine market value.
Derek M. Zimmerman (Facebook): Why is "Beast Mode" (Marshawn Lynch) behind two backs that will be splitting carries?
TMR: I assume you're referring to Matt Forte and Jamaal Charles. First, I factor Lynch's potential suspension into the mix. Secondly, I'm not concerned about Michael Bush stealing value from Forte or Peyton Hillis stealing value from Charles (though I really like both Bush and Hillis as flex plays this year). Charles is not a volume guy, anyway -- he averaged less than 15 carries a game in 2010, his best fantasy season -- and Forte's, er, forte is not goal-line carries. As a great pass-catcher, he'll touch the ball more than anyone else on the Bears' offense and is very safe (as detailed above). His relative safety in a year in which there are so many running back question marks moves him up in my ranks.
David Jimmerson (Facebook): Why has Fred Jackson moved up so much recently? I like him a lot this year, but what are you seeing that has caused his move into the top 20? Is it running back uncertainty everywhere else?
TMR: Pretty much. I believe there will be enough touches to go around in Buffalo, as the whole offense will be focused on the running game. C.J. Spiller also will get some work as a wideout the way he did last year. But mainly, as I see more and more question marks pop up among running backs, I go back to what I wrote in my "Ten lists of 10" column: Last year, through Week 10, Jackson was fourth in the NFL in offensive touches and first in total yards from scrimmage. He missed basically seven games and was still the 13th-best fantasy running back, tied with Frank Gore. He can get fewer touches and still be worth where he's being taken.
Zak Lansing (Facebook): Why are your first five rounds so QB-heavy? Don't you think people would rather fill out their other positions before picking Peyton/Rivers/Eli? (Not that I agree with that order, but hey, they're your ranks.)
TMR: It's all explained in my Draft Day Manifesto.
William Johnson (Facebook): Matt Ryan has moved up in several other rankings lists. You don't believe?
TMR: Yeah, there are lots of people talking about how much Ryan is throwing the ball this preseason, and others have discussed Joe Flacco's throwing volume. But, as we discussed on Friday's Fantasy Focus podcast, Ryan and Flacco led the NFL in pass attempts last preseason, too (among incumbent starting quarterbacks). Then they went out and did basically what we expected of them. As in, no breakthrough for either guy.
Could Ryan go off this year with a new offensive coordinator and a healthy Julio Jones, who is no longer a rookie? Of course. Then again, coach Mike Smith could insist the team run the ball when it gets in close. We just don't know. I did just move Ryan one spot above Tony Romo, so, combined with all the injuries in Dallas, I am sort of buying that. But until we see it, I can't move Ryan past more experienced guys.
A related question I get a lot is how come I have both Roddy White and Julio Jones in my top six among wide receivers, and not have Matt Ryan higher? Well, let's go to my favorite game: Playing fast and loose with simple math. Last year, the No. 5 and No. 6 wide receivers in terms of fantasy scoring (Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Smith) combined for 2,805 yards and 15 scores. (Roddy White was the No. 7 fantasy receiver with 1,296 yards and eight touchdowns, incidentally.) Give Jones and White those numbers (2,800 yards and 15 TDs), and Ryan still needs to find another 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns to move into Eli Manning's No. 6 six territory last year. Where's he getting that? Even if Tony Gonzalez gets to 1,000 yards and Harry Douglas, Jacquizz Rodgers and others somehow combine for another 1,000, the touchdown total will be hard to come up with. It could happen. In fact, I wouldn't be shocked if it did. But I also would not be shocked if it didn't. Bottom line: The high rankings of Jones and White do not mean Ryan automatically will have a huge year or should be ranked as if he will.
@MatthewBerryTMR (Twitter): Hey, nobody asked you this, but I'm going to make you answer it anyway: Why do you have Maclin ranked higher than DeSean Jackson when Vick specifically told you otherwise?
TMR: Well, because I've found that athletes are often the poorest judge of their own and others' fantasy value. It's a small sample size, of course, but every time I talk to an athlete and buy in -- Adrian Gonzalez and Jeff Francoeur in baseball over the years, and the Panthers' Steve Smith downplaying himself last year on our podcast come to mind -- it has never worked out. So yes, I did move Jackson up some (I do love to hear he's looking good, motivated and healthy), but I still have Maclin ahead of him because the latter is not long-play-dependent for his fantasy value.
@BeeHate (Twitter): Wanted to argue with you, but couldn't really find a rank I disagreed with. Well done, TMR.
TMR: Hahahaha. One down, a million to go. Who's next? Bring it on.
Matthew Berry -- The Talented Mr. Roto -- wants to know why he couldn't have been on a panel with Michael Vick last year. That would have been easy! Berry 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.
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