Avoiding the 'burn' factor

Some players could be major bargains following subpar 2011 campaigns

Updated: August 15, 2012, 5:38 PM ET
By Jim McCormick | Special to ESPN.com

Fantasy owners have uniquely strong memories. Remembering your brother's birthday might be a challenge, but you definitely remember that stretch in 2004 when Drew Bennett (and possibly Billy Volek) stole your heart and propelled you to a fantasy title. It's even more likely that the players who greatly disappointed resonate in the minds of their owners with an indelible stain. The old marketing truism that "a happy customer tells one friend, an unhappy customer tells everybody" certainly applies to fantasy football. This effect is natural; when we invest heavily in a player early in drafts, there is an imaginary pact where the football player unknowingly agrees to provide said investor with heaps of imaginary points. While it might seem a bit silly to an outsider, getting burned badly in fantasy, well, burns.

[+] EnlargeTBD
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireSteve Smith's fantasy football value was revived with Cam Newton throwing to him in 2011.

We've all heard the phrase "when the hate goes too far" in regard to fantasy. This expression suggests that when the impression of a player is overwhelmingly negative, it can reach a point where the player can become undervalued given just how sour the buying public has become. Value potentially can be found in the general distaste for a specific player. A related branch of this concept can be considered to be the "burn factor"; when a player doesn't meet the statistical expectations commensurate with a lofty draft price, he can become persona non grata in subsequent seasons.

This is a natural effect; we are prone to not touch a hot stove for a second time just as we are apt to avoid reinvesting in a player who welched on his fantasy football contract. In the comment section of Eric Karabell's recent piece on DeSean Jackson, a reader chimed in with a statement that embodies the burn factor well: "DeSean burned me too bad last year so there is no way I'm drafting him this year. And this is coming from an Eagles fan." Whatever one might make of Jackson's value as a fantasy commodity, this idea of crossing a player off the draft board is common, and is likely an unwise approach to pricing the market for production.

The concept here is whether we can find value on the market for talent in the resulting deflation of the "burn factor"; when the hate can go too far the year after a player significantly underperforms his average draft position/auction price. More specifically, is there a form of Matthew Berry's "proven players off a bad year" (PPOBY) idea that he's regularly applied to fantasy baseball analysis that can be translated into football?

Some of the value that I find in this PPOBY concept stems loosely from an idea that expert fantasy baseball analyst Ron Shandler crafted some time ago that essentially said, "Once a player exhibits a skill over a long enough period of time, he then owns that skill." A rough translation of Shandler's concept is to say that if a professional player can sustain performance over an enduring stretch, say a full season, it's then entirely possible -- not guaranteed, per se -- for such skills and performance to resurface.

The best example from 2011 of a PPOBY is likely Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers. Smith was coming off an undeniably bad season in 2011 before returning to fantasy stardom. Despite the market souring on his value, Smith returned to a level of elite production that he had previously established.

Despite posting relatively disappointing seasons in 2007 and 2009, the ADP didn't crash until after his abysmal 2010. The deflation in Smith's draft price in 2011 made enough sense, but did it go too far given the previous production floor he had established? There seems to be potential for this type of burn factor to overinfluence the market. The idea being that Smith so dramatically underperformed, with the taste of char so strong and bitter, that there was some form of a punishment or banishment on the subsequent draft market.

There is always a reason previously proven players drop in drafts. We respond to fantasy production, and with awful seasons -- whether influenced by injuries, holdouts, inept quarterbacks, weak offensive lines or bad schemes -- the end result is that the crowd moves on after being burned. Now that we have the hindsight provided by Smith's resurgent 2011, we can look at 2010 as the aberration and not a condemning trend. The reasons now seem obvious; Smith, who undoubtedly underperformed in 2010, was also beset with the poorest quarterback play in the league that season (lowest QB rating and fewest yards by 632). If anything, Smith's case teaches us that we need to apply context to performance and mind the Shandler concept of players "owning" previously established skills and production thresholds.

Those willing to forgive his 2010 season reaped great profits on Smith last season. Coming into 2012, there are some potential PPOBY candidates to consider.

Many fantasy pundits believe that Reggie Wayne's depressed production in 2011 was a foreboding sign of a downward career arc. It's difficult to blame them when considering that the aging Wayne's 960 yards were his lowest since 2003, and his four TDs his fewest since 2002. But like Smith, we have to consider the contextual factors that might have depressed his production. Like Smith, Wayne was paired with poor quarterback play; with Colts signal-callers combining for the third lowest QB rating in the league last season.

My colleague KC Joyner analyzed Wayne's potential for a bounceback 2012 with Andrew Luck leaning on him regularly in the passing game. In discussing how Wayne still has some big-play days left, Joyner wrote: "The truth is that Wayne's 2011 numbers indicate he may still have some greatness -- or at least very good play -- in his future. His early-season totals weren't dominant, but from Weeks 12-17 Wayne gained 472 yards on 45 targets (if penalty plays are included). That equates to a 10.3 overall YPA that was highlighted by a 13.0 vertical YPA (VYPA) on 25 vertical targets."

Wayne, the leader among wide receivers for total fantasy points since 2006 with 868, is currently going as the 36th overall wideout with an overall average draft position of 106.5 in ESPN live drafts. It won't cost you much to find out if Wayne is indeed a PPOBY with another strong campaign in the tank, but it could cost you untold amounts of regret if you dismiss him solely on account of the burn scars from 2011.

Peyton Hillis doesn't have the same résumé as Wayne or Smith, but if we also assume that the prime stretches for tailbacks are considerably shorter than for wideouts, we'll consider Hillis "proven," given the elite 2010 performance he established. After going undrafted or as a twilight selection in 2010 drafts (ADP of 170), Hillis posted the fourth highest point total (218 points) for running backs in ESPN standard leagues that season. This sudden rise to star status led to the cover of "Madden NFL 12," or curse if you will, and an ADP 23.5 in 2011.

[+] EnlargeIndianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne
Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIREReggie Wayne may be getting older, but he could be a prime bounceback candidate with Andrew Luck now at quarterback for the Colts.

We all know the story of his disappointing 2011, none more so than those jilted investors who trusted that he'd live up to the considerable draft-day cost. Like Jackson's disappointing 2011 with the Eagles, Hillis' season was marred by contract squabbles and underperformance in addition to nagging injuries. It's likely, however, that the hate/burn has gone too far with Hillis in 2012.

A fixed role in a Kansas City backfield share with Jamaal Charles should see Hillis net at least similar work to the 259 total touches Thomas Jones received in his time splitting with Charles in 2010. If anything, we can assume that Hillis plays a larger role in the passing game than Jones ever did given his established skills in such a role. With a current ADP of 89.5 as the 34th running back on average -- behind the likes of Jahvid Best -- there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that Hillis is an ideal PPOBY to target.

While their ADP gaps from 2011 to 2012 aren't as pronounced, it can be argued that the Philadelphia Eagles' duo of Jeremy Maclin and Jackson could be considered PPOBYs. Maclin saw his touchdown total cut in half from 2010 to 2011 as he spent much of the season hampered by an offseason ailment in 2010 that lowered his weight and limited his explosiveness and endurance throughout. Jackson, for his part, established a strong reputation as a big-play threat with 1,293 total yards (rushing and receiving) and 12 total touchdowns in 2009 and 1,160 total yards with eight touchdowns in 2010. After being drafted 29.2 overall in 2011 drafts, ranked 10th at his position, a disappointing 2011 season has left many investors loathe to reinvest. There's little doubt that Jackson embodies the idea of a boom-or-bust producer, but with an ADP of 64.1 overall as the 22nd wide receiver on average in current drafts, there's great potential for profit given the dip in draft-day price over the past 12 months. Some will even suggest that Chris Johnson, who remains a first-rounder in most leagues, is an ideal PPOBY to consider as he has the tools to return to No. 1 status (especially with guard Steve Hutchinson in town to improve what was a middling interior blocking group in 2011).

Each situation and scenario is unique as a number of different elements factor in to why a player's value drops. But as savvy investors in a somewhat fluid market for talent, we are constantly seeking value where we can find it. Many of us are willing to pay the price for the unknown, for the upside of untapped potential, but we are not nearly as willing to forgive a down season when track record and contextual reasoning might suggest otherwise. There are likely other potential PPOBY candidates to consider for this season, and certainly for future seasons. Is there a singularly successful strategy or statistical and analytical approach to determining whether a player is in true decline or merely mired in a bad stretch? No, no there isn't. If nothing else, this discussion asks us to consider giving some proven talents a second chance -- even after they have burned us.

Jim McCormick is a fantasy football and fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.