Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fantasy Football is Fast Approaching

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I have not been able to devote dozens of hours to fantasy football preparation this year.  That’s probably a good thing, as it never helps anyway.  This year I’m going with the “don’t overthink it” approach, which seems to work for everybody else.  

However, out of habit I am compiling my fantasy rankings and general thoughts.  

Let’s start with quarterbacks.

To me, it’s a Big 5 this year, and then a very, very deep class, maybe the deepest QB class in fantasy history. 

Rodgers is the only guy I would consider in the 1st round, because he has the complete package – passing yards, passing TDs, rushing yards, durability, huge game potential, all-time great in his prime.

I have Peyton second, narrowly ahead of Kaepernick, and here’s why:  Peyton is less likely to get hurt, he’ll be more consistent, he plays in a weak division, and Kaepernick lost his only legitimate receiver in Crabtree.

There’s actually quite a few things not to like about Kaep – 4 games against the Rams and Seahawks for starters. And the aforementioned lack of receivers, the fact that San Fran is a run-first team, and especially the fact that he only has 10 starts under his belt. But his big-game potential is unprecedented, which is why he’s the definition of high-risk, high-reward at the QB position. As he showed in the postseason, he can put up 100 rushing yards in a single quarter; he has Denard Robinson potential with his legs; he plays for an elite team with an elite offensive line and an elite coach who knows how to get the most out of QBs; he’s got Vernon Davis in the end zone; and unlike the tantalizing run-first QBs of the past, he can really throw the ball.

So, I’ve got Kaepernick ranked 3rd, ahead of Brees and Brady, which probably means I’ll end up with him in most of my leagues, and I'm okay with that.  I like Brees 4th – you can count on tons of yards, but a few too many INTs. Brady drops to 5th, not because I’m worried about the loss of his entire receiving corps (the guy invented the concept of turning nobodies into stars), but because I think New England is slowly becoming a running team.  Belichick is always ahead of the curve on these things. He'll wisely try to preserve Brady’s career with a lot more running plays and a lot less running up the score. Still, Brady's a top 5 fantasy QB and a guy you never want playing against you.

After the Big 5, it’s a toss-up.  Stafford will throw 700 passes and he has Megatron; RG3 could be better than Kaepernick if his knee holds up; Andrew Luck is the next Aaron Rodgers, but probably not til 2014; and nobody wants to bet against Russell Wilson.  Then there’s Cam Newton (top 5 QB potential); Matt Ryan (ditto); Josh Freeman (I love the Bucs this year); Tony Romo (great numbers but you never feel good about him); Eli Manning (durable and consistent); Jay Cutler (good weapons around him); and Sam Bradford (solid sleeper). Heck, you can even take a flier on Carson Palmer (who has Fitzgerald) or Michael Vick (Chip Kelly offense!) if you want, which technically means Christian Ponder is the only QB in the NFC who is not worthy of a roster spot.

The AFC is much, much more desolate. You want absolutely nothing to do with KC, Oakland, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Buffalo, or the Jets. Dalton, Tannehill, Schaub, Rivers and Flacco are desperation options at best. Roethlisberger is a decent fantasy backup. But outside of Peyton, Brady and Luck, you want to stick to the NFC.

In the past, when there were only a handful of reliable QB options, it was vital to grab a QB in the first 3 rounds.  This year, unless the value is exceptional, you should wait until round 6 or 7 to find your quarterback.   

This is especially prudent when you consider that this is the weakest class of running backs in at least a decade.  Spending early picks on RBs has never been more important.  Last year, the RB position was bleak; this year, it’s even bleaker.

Of course, if you have the #1 pick you’re all set. Take AP and don’t think twice. Then on the way back take a RB along with a top WR.  Don’t overthink it.

The rest of the top 5 is debatable. If you’re picking #2, do you take Doug Martin, Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch, Trent Richardson, or Jamaal Charles? What about Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Chris Johnson, CJ Spiller?  Have their ever been so many viable options in the top 8 but none of whom seem like great #2 overall picks?

To me, Rice and Foster are the epitome of consistency, and that’s what you need in the first round. However, both come with the same red flag.  Both guys have been overworked in recent years and have budding stars behind them on the depth chart (Bernard Pierce in Baltimore, Ben Tate in Houston). Either situation could turn into a dreaded committee backfield and crush your season. 

Martin and Richardson are the young and sexy options, but the concern is simple: are they experienced enough to trust?  Will the sophomore slump strike?  Richardson is the better talent and runs behind Joe Thomas, but he’ll see 8 or 9 in the box every down. Martin plays on a better offense and faces weaker defenses in his division.  Both guys will catch a ton of passes and handle the goal-line carries.  You can’t go wrong either way, but does either guy warrant the #2 pick?

That leaves Lynch – the guy who used to be synonymous with lazy bum.  Now he’s reborn in Seattle, chowing down on Skittles and proving he’s no fluke.  He has a QB that scares defenses, a coach who knows how to motivate him, and an offensive line that controls the line of scrimmage. Most importantly, he runs like a psycho and gets all the work within the 10-yard line.  To me, Marshawn Lynch is the best choice at pick #2. (Never thought I would say that).

Lynch’s former backup, CJ Spiller, is also a chic pick in the top 5, but my concern is that Fred Jackson will steal the red-zone carries.  With Spiller, as with Charles and Chris Johnson, you’re relying on the 60-yard TDs.  Of those 3 guys, I actually like Charles more than the others.  Spiller's a close second.  Chris Johnson I don’t like at all, which of course means he’ll run for 2,500 yards and single-handedly win fantasy championships for everyone who drafts him.

So - here are my top 9 running backs:  AP, Lynch, Foster, Rice, Martin, Richardson, Charles, Spiller, Chris Johnson.  I would squeeze Calvin in between Richardson and Charles, and Rodgers between Spiller and Chris Johnson. 

Absent from my top 10 are two guys with untrustworthy coaches.  That would be Alfred Morris and Stevan Ridley.  If you want to pin your hopes to Shanahan or Belichick not suddenly flipping the script and going with a stupid RBBC, be my guest.  But those two guys have dashed more fantasy seasons than any two monsters on earth, and I won’t let them destroy my year again (see: Tatum Bell, 2006; Lawrence Maroney, 2007; and countless others).  

Another guy I don’t love is McCoy, who has top 10 talent and plays on what is being called a “high-octane offense.”  With All Pro left tackle Jason Peters coming back from injury, I should be giddy about Philly’s offense making a comeback into fantasy relevance, and McCoy should be the main beneficiary.  But, Maclin’s year-ending injury, Vick’s degeneration, and Chip Kelly’s inexperience make me leery. Once Nick Foles in under center, McCoy will be looking at 9 in the box. That’s what doomed Chris Johnson, and McCoy is less talented than him. No thanks. 

Four totally unsexy picks who can help you win your league in the 10-15 range of the draft are Matt Forte, Maurice Jones-Drew, Frank Gore, and Steven Jackson.  There’s nothing more boring than pick like this, but when you try to be cute and take a Dez Bryant or a Gronkowski at the end of the 1st round, somebody else is securing one of these guys and a 1,200 yard, 9 TD season at least. 

Running backs are more injury-prone than receivers, but they’re also more rare at the top.  This is the year to spend your 2nd round pick on a boring running back. 

Outside of the 16 running backs I’ve mentioned so far, you have a lot of risk factor. 

Darren McFadden? If you like being miserable.  

DeMarco “Questionable” Murray?  No freaking thanks.

Ryan “Mega-Bust” Matthews? Stay away!

Darren Sproles?  He gets about 3 carries per game.

Reggie Bush?  About 8 carries a game and a mid-season injury.

Eddie Lacy, Montee Ball, Gio Bernard, LeVeon Bell?  Tempting, especially in keeper leagues, but it’s never fun to trust a rookie RB.  Bernard has the skills, Lacy and Ball have the best situations. If I have to take one of these guys it's Gio.  

What about David Wilson?  He has all the makings of a breakout RB with the Giants’ backfield all to himself.  Andre Brown probably gets the goal-line work, but Wilson should rank above the perennially-injury-prone and the rookies. 

A couple of potential unsexy picks that will compile nice stats would include Chris Ivory (the workhorse for a terrible Jets team), Lamar Miller (should have the Miami job mostly to himself), and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (he knows how to find the end-zone).  

I’d steer clear of the crowded Carolina backfield, avoid Rashard Mendenhall and all other Cardinals like the plague, and don’t get cute with the Rams’ Richardson/Pead/Stacy situation.

Ahmad Bradshaw on the Colts is intriguing. You can get great value for an injury-prone, fumble-prone guy who has been utterly forgotten, but now goes to a playoff team that will be able to move the ball. 

Before you move on to the next crop of TD vultures and timeshare guys, you’ve got to consider drafting the top level of handcuffs:  Tate, Pierce, Fred Jackson, Bryce Brown (Philly), and Robert Turbin (Seattle). Those guys are an injury away from being 1st or 2nd round picks.

Shane Vereen will replace Danny Woodhead as the maddening Patriot who does nothing, does nothing, and then all of a sudden puts up 30 points. You could take him if you like suffering. 

Mikel Leshoure might lead the NFL in worthless carries of 2 yards, but he also might score 6 -8 TDs so he’s probably worth a bench spot. 

As you can see, the crop of fantasy running backs is abnormally slim this year.  That's why it's wise to stock up of 3 or 4 of them early and spend your 10th, 11th, and 12th round picks on receivers, where depth is much greater.  If you draft any running backs in the late rounds, you’ll likely end up dropping them 2 weeks later.  Remember, the free agent wonders of the RB world are undrafted guys like Peyton Hillis.  When injuries happen, the backups who emerge usually surprise us.   

So let’s move onto receiver, where the king is Calvin Johnson, the all-time record holder for receiving yards in a season.  The only question with Megatron is how early he goes in the 1st round.  Probably in the top 7 in Michigan leagues.  Despite my well-documented dislike of Stafford, I think Mega will actually improve on his historic season from a fantasy perspective, by tripling his touchdowns from 5 to 15 and still putting up 1,800+ yards.   He’s a legit top 5 pick, especially if you’re a Lions fan.  Heck, he might be the #2 pick after Peterson.  

The second-most talented receiver in the NFL is A.J. Green, but I’m not sure I’d take him over Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, Brandon Marshall or even Demaryius Thomas.  Green has all the skills, but his QB lacks the arm strength to make consistent big plays downfield.   Any one of these guys is a solid second round pick though, and it’s up to you who you feel good about.

After this group of 6,  I don’t know who else I like. Andre Johnson and Roddy White seem like two guys on the sharp decline, but both had monster years in 2012, so maybe not. Randall Cobb seems to be the Packers’ new #1 receiver, but he’s more of a slot guy than a downfield threat. Larry Fitzgerald has the talent to be up there with Calvin and A.J., but he’s on the Cardinals and he was miserable last year (he's kind of the Dwight Howard of the NFL, nobody really likes him anymore).  He will undoubtedly improve on last year’s pathetic 4 scores and 798 yards but is he still being drafted too early? 

What about Vincent Jackson, who is good for a 50-yard TD every other game? And don’t forget Wes Welker, who resettles in Denver and is out to prove he can play without Tom Brady.  The Giants should utilize Cruz and Nicks equally, mking both guys good picks but neither guy a stud.  Colston and Wayne benefit from playing with excellent QBs; they are safe but unsexy 4th/5th rounders. 

Greg Jennings, DeSean Jackson, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe and Steve Smith are lousy picks unless they drop unusually late; you can find Antonio Brown, Danny Amendola, Jordy Nelson, Pierre Garcon and Steve Johnson at a better value and get less of a headache.

I love four rookies from this class: Tavon Austin (Rams), DeAndre Hopkins (Texans), Kenbrell Thompkins (Pats), and Cordarelle Patterson (Vikings).  These guys are extra valuable in keeper leagues; you can get them very late in normal rounds, and they might provide great value.

A few more random thoughts on the receiver position …
-Don’t buy the Ryan Broyles hype. He won’t stay healthy.  
-The is the year I finally stop buying into the fast Oakland receivers. I won’t even think about any of them.
-Buffalo’s no-huddle offense and quick tempo should make their games high scoring and give all their receivers an uptick of value. This makes Robert Woods intriguing late.
-Miles Austin is not washed up. But he is a late round value.
-Anquan Boldin is washed up. He’s on my ‘do-not-draft’ list.
-T.Y. Hilton is a good investment.  Andrew Luck will figure out how to use him.
-There are tons of guys who will give you consistent but unspectacular numbers as the #2 receiver on a good team or #1 receiver on a bad team.   Lance Moore, Emmanuel Sanders, James Jones, Mike Williams, Vincent Brown, etc. This is what makes WR so much deeper than RB.  
-Tandon Doss is a sleeper I like. So is Ashlon Jeffrey. 

The best advice I have about receivers is to not be stubborn and fall in love with too many sleepers.   I do that every year and it never works out.  Usually, the guys I fall in love with are ridiculously talented, but I miss their breakout season by one year; they stink for me, then the next year they go crazy. (Dez Bryant the latest example).

That probably means big years for Brandon LaFell and Antonio Brown, who I whiffed on last year in pretty much all my leagues.  This year I’m just taking safe receivers who will at least give me 50 yards a game.  Crazy fliers are fine for QB and RB, but not so good for WRs.

So the strategy in a nutshell:

Get RBs early.
Load up on safe WR depth late.
Find a QB when value presents itself.

Somewhere in there you need a pesky tight end.  With Gronkowski’s slew of injuries, Jimmy Graham is really the only TE worthy of a 2nd round pick. He’ll put up numbers like a top 5 receiver. 

After Graham, it’s a deep but less-than-amazing group.

Somebody in your league will jump on Gronk pretty early, and they’ll either be a genius or an idiot. Normally I would avoid being that guy, but Gronk has scored more red-zone TDs than anybody over the last 3 years, and he can score even when injured.  I might not hate the idea of taking the Gronk in the spot of my second receiver, maybe in the 4th round.

Tony Gonzalez is 75 years old, so I’m not going with him. Jason Witten is steady but so boring. Vernon Davis is a physical freak but flopped miserably last year.  Since those 3 round out the top 5, I’m probably either going Graham/Gronk early or I’m waiting until everybody has a tight end and then waiting 3 more rounds. 

In the 6-12 range of tight ends, you have Kyle Rudolph (best receiver on Minnesota), Antonio Gates (game-time decision), Jared Cook (perennial let-down, now a Ram), Owen Daniels (Texans’ mainstay), Brandon Pettigrew (frying-pan hands), Jermichael Finley (big mouth, little production), and Fred Davis (high-risk, medium-reward).

Not exactly a crop of winners.  The difference between playing Pettigrew every week and playing the waiver wire every week is that you’ll save a draft pick.  Tight ends are as unpredictable as kickers, so don’t draft them too early.  

Speaking of kickers, even 5 seconds spent thinking about them is 5 seconds too many.  Just pick one at random. 

Regarding defenses, I prefer to play the week-to-week matchup, a strategy that was brilliant for me in 2011 but miserable in 2012.  But honestly, I could make a case for 15 different teams as the #1 fantasy defense, and it's all a matter of dumb luck.  It's really much more about playing the schedules and picking on bad quarterbacks.  As such, the best options off the top of my head would be Denver (6 games against Flynn, Rivers, Alex Smith), Houston (4 games against Gabbert & Locker), Miami or New England (4 against Jets and Bills).   Since all the good QBs are in the NFC, let's assume all the good fantasy defenses are in the AFC.  

So, that's all for now. 

Goodbye from India.  

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