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The Safety Dance: A look at who's consistent

6/19/2008

I'm sure you know the feeling: It's your turn to make a selection in your fantasy football draft, and you just can't make up your mind. Do you take a chance with a guy coming back from an offseason surgery, or do you play it safe by going with a player with less upside but a better track record of being healthy come Week 17? Do you take a flier on the rookie with both star potential and bust potential, or do you go with the unflashy veteran who can be expected to perform exactly as he has every year for the past decade, but no betrer than that?

Decisions, decisions.

Fantasy football is a week-to-week affair. In order to be successful, you must have your best lineup performing at its utmost level each and every week of the season. Now let's say you are deciding which running back to draft with the second overall pick. You are debating between Adrian Peterson and Brian Westbrook. Looking at the numbers from last season, you obviously have a tough decision on your hands. Peterson rushed for eight more yards despite 40 fewer attempts and scored 13 touchdowns to Westbrook's 12 (even though Westbrook could have had another had he not intentionally gone down on the 1-yard line in Week 15 against Dallas). However, Westbrook caught a staggering 90 balls for 771 yards last season and is clearly the better pass-catcher. Fans of Adrian Peterson could point out that Peterson put up those numbers despite missing two games because of a knee injury, and would add that he could reel off a 300-yard rushing game -- and almost win a fantasy game all by himself -- in any given week.

Then again, Westbrook has the better track record of success. Peterson carries more risk because of (a) the possibility of injuries (it was his right knee last season, and his collarbone previously); and (b) the volatility of his output. Sure, Peterson racked up fine season-ending totals despite missing two games, but more than one-third of his fantasy points were accumulated in just two games. That makes Westbrook, who pretty much gave you the same double-digit scoring output nearly every week in 2007, the safer week-to-week option.

Now, I'm not telling you to pass on Peterson. I've picked him myself in several leagues already. What I am telling you is that Westbrook is the safer pick. But "playing it safe" and "winning it all" are not the same thing. In fact, they're often complete opposites. By the same token, however, if you fill your roster with nothing but risky selections, there's a far greater likelihood that you'll end up getting burned. The best strategy is to have a balanced roster, with an equal number of risky players with tons of upside mixed in with dependable, steady performers who will give you exactly what you expect from them. And that's where my "Safety Rating" comes into play.

What I did was take the Top 300 fantasy scorers from the 2007 season, using a scoring system that weighs each different position's contributions equally. I then used a formula which combined each player's durability (injury risk), opportunity (starter vs. backup) and consistency (standard deviation over each week from his personal average output) and came up with a single value called the Safety Rating. Any player not in the Top 300, or any newly drafted rookie, is to be considered a risky pick. Players such as Brett Favre and Vinny Testaverde were left on the list so that you could see where they would have fallen had they not retired, but obviously drafting them is not recommended.

I have broken down my master list by position, including each player's scoring rank from last season. Again, this list is not telling you that Jay Cutler (61.99) is a better pick than Donovan McNabb (50.10). It is definitely not saying that Samkon Gado (18.22) is a better pick than Ronnie Brown (9.80). After all, a back can be incredibly consistent at giving you bubkes. What the list is trying to impart to you is that if you do draft McNabb and Brown, you'd better hedge those bets and make some safer selections with your next couple of picks. Feel free to take a chance on Laveranues Coles (27.65) and Marvin Harrison (unrated), if you like. Just be aware that you are in fact taking a chance by selecting them.

At the same time, if you are fortunate enough to draft a Tom Brady or a Peyton Manning, then you can feel pretty secure that you don't have to rush to select a backup quarterback. Both of these signal-callers have proved they can last throughout an entire schedule of games and perform at a consistently high level. Obviously you do want to eventually select a backup, but given the safety net you've provided your team via Brady or Manning, you can afford to do so a little bit later than originally anticipated.

AJ Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.