Grand Theft Roto: Start preparing for playoffs now
No matter how smart you are, there are certain tests you simply cannot "cram" for.
There are no CliffsNotes for a pregnancy test, although you can end up taking one after pulling an "all-nighter."
If you think you can change the results of a litmus test at the last minute, you're on acid.
And when it comes to the ultimate test of fantasy football, namely head-to-head playoffs, there is no doubt that passing (or running) with flying colors is a result of the hard work you put in now. The night before is simply too late.
So whether you're a mortal lock for the top seed or a player who needs to lob a whole bunch of Hail Marys to make it, it's time to deal with your playoff future.
A lot of that has to do with your record and team health.
Let's say you've got two wins or fewer with Ronnie Brown on your team and your league uses Weeks 14 through 16 for the playoffs. Brown, who faces the Bills, Niners and Chiefs in those weeks, has much more value to a guy who is undefeated so far but is worried about having to start Marion Barber against the Steelers, Giants and Ravens during the fantasy playoffs.
Likewise, most top-tier teams right now can afford to take some risks. Torry Holt has had a poor season, despite being targeted a more-than-respectable 6.7 times per game. But Holt also faces the Cardinals, Seahawks and Niners in Weeks 14 through 16. He's a perfect "buy low" guy for anyone who is already on the playoff express because the Rams are surging under Jim Haslett and Steven Jackson's recent performance should force defenses to respect the run more.
Another route for confident owners involves making a deal for Bernard Berrian while he's on his bye week. Berrian was started by less than half his owners a week ago, many of whom think he's a fluke. But what isn't flukish is his schedule starting in Week 14, which includes games against the Lions, Cardinals and Falcons. Either of the receivers I mentioned should outperform Hines Ward in the fantasy playoffs, who has to deal with the Ravens and Titans on the road in Weeks 15 and 16. But owners on the ropes would have to consider adding the surging Steelers receiver right away if they couldn't afford another loss this week.
"But what about us owners in the middle?" you may ask.
The key for players who want to plan for playoffs without sacrificing chunks of their current rosters is by looking to upgrade their fringe and backup players. A year ago, Kurt Warner wasn't anyone's fantasy starter, having taken over for Matt Leinart in Week 3 and posted six touchdowns, three interceptions and zero 300-yard games in five starts. But he did have the Seahawks, Saints, Falcons and Rams in his final four weeks of the season, so owners didn't have to be psychic to think, "Hey, there's a guy who might help me out if my starter morphs into Alex Smith." Gus Frerotte and Marc Bulger are both guys you can get for very little, even in deep leagues, and they share Berrian and Holt's cushy schedules. But Matt Cassel is one more name to stash. Starting in Week 14, he faces the Seahawks, Raiders and Cardinals, and unlike past years, it appears very likely the Patriots will need to win those late games just to make the playoffs.
So whether you're on the fast track to postseason play or you're stuck in traffic, there's always a way to look to the playoffs and use the month of December to get deals done in October.
Willis McGahee, RB, Ravens: This isn't "buy high" heresy. Willis McG is finally healthy enough to play like the guy who was drafted toward the end of the second round in ESPN drafts, even though he told the Baltimore Sun that his knee still hurts. So play up that "he's still hurting" angle while minimizing the fact that he's about to play the Raiders, Browns and Texans. If you need solid production the next three weeks to keep yourself in the playoff picture, he's obtainable and on the cusp of paying off.
Greg Olsen, TE, Bears: We are a "what have you done for me lately?" society, and while that may benefit Janet Jackson, it has made people forget how hot we all were for Olsen just a year ago. He was shaping up to be a top-tier tight end until Week 10 last year, when the rookie appeared to hit the wall and watch his production fall off a cliff. This year has been the opposite, as Olsen only saw seven targets in the first three weeks, but has had 26 balls come his way in the four games since. Right now, Olsen has more yards and as many receptions and touchdowns as any receiver on the Bears. In many leagues, owners are tempted to drop non-elite tight ends during their bye weeks. Give Olsen's owner another option. Make a small offer and get a guy who looks like he has another four scores in him this year.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers: I was very high on Big Ben before the season, believing this was the year the Steelers would show more balance on offense. But even with Willie Parker dinged up and Rashard Mendenhall out for the season, it's clear that the Steelers play their best when attacking on the ground and letting that open up the passing game. Roethlisberger is coming off back-to-back performances where he's thrown five of his nine total touchdowns on the year. Outside of those two weeks, he hasn't thrown for 200 yards or more in a game. With Parker returning and the tough (and cold) part of the Steelers' schedule still to come, Roethlisberger fits the profile of a player whose value won't get much higher, and could get much lower.
Bo Scaife, TE, Titans: Scaife is a solid receiver on a team that thinks "run first" is such a good philosophy, they've decided to add "run second" to their credo. Want proof? LenDale White has 18 red-zone touches this year while Chris Johnson has 17. No other player on the team has more than three. Scaife has two. Tight ends have to either be top goal-line options or catch a lot of balls to earn my love. Scaife won't do either, so now's the time to sell him to someone who is hurting at tight end in a week when three of the top nine fantasy producers at the position are on a bye week.
I took some well-deserved heat on ESPN Conversation last week about going two weeks without a deal to report. I guess closing on a new house doesn't count.
However, this week I went with a mega-blockbuster. In a shallow, eight-team league, I decided to see how much I could get with the consensus first pick in the draft, LaDainian Tomlinson. I packaged him and Greg Jennings on a bye for the soon-to-return Anquan Boldin and Frank Gore, coming off his first poor week of the year. Even though I am 4-2 in that league, my concerns over counting on LT had gotten me to the point that I was ready to look for more reliability, and even if Boldin doesn't come back until next week, Jennings wouldn't have helped me this week anyway.
Big deal. Huge risk. Massive potential to be a GTR. But for which side?
Until next week, don't just win your league. Steal it.
Shawn Peters is a fantasy baseball, football and golf analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him your own grand theft rotos by clicking here.
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