The 2014 Draft Day Manifesto
Updated: July 24, 2014, 11:26 AM ET
By Matthew Berry | ESPN.com
"I know the price. That's not what I'm asking. What does he want?"
It was a few years ago and, newly engaged, my soon-to-be wife and I were looking for a new home. Having bought (and then sold) two different houses in Los Angeles, I knew one thing for certain: It takes forever. Days upon days of driving around neighborhoods; silently judging potential neighbors; going through strangers' homes and saying things like, "Well, we'd have to gut the bathroom" or "Come on honey, that big giant moose head is cool"; having potential neighbors silently judging you back ... it's a seemingly endless process that qualifies somewhere between "brutal" and "soul-crushing."
The Talented Mr. Roto
I was prepared for the worst.
Our realtor, however, quickly shrugged off our concerns. It'll take an hour. An hour? Yes, he said, an hour. As he pointed out, we had pretty specific parameters: we had my three soon-to-be stepsons to think about, so we needed a house that not only had room for them, but was near their father and didn't require them to change school systems.
"How many homes do you think are in this city? There's fewer than 19,000 houses in town, no one is selling because of the economy ... there are exactly five, count 'em, five houses that meet your criteria and price range," he'd told us.
Could it be that easy? I am the questioning sort, always have been, so I did what I always do (and somehow have managed to make a living doing): I went to my computer and started researching.
He was right. There were five.
But then there was this sixth house that met all of our criteria but had no price listed. And even better, it had been on the market for two years. Maybe they were lowering the price? I asked my realtor about it and he said, yeah ... that house is way out of your price range. With three kids, a wife and potentially more kids on the way, price range was very important to us. We have a lot of college to pay for. But I said, "Let's look at it anyway. You never know."
My realtor stared at me.
"So we'll look at six homes instead of five," I said. "Humor me."
He shrugged and said, "OK, but I'm telling you, it's out of your price range, and what happens if it's the house you want?"
I ignored the question, and an hour and 15 minutes later, my realtor proved again he was smarter than me. It was the house we wanted. We fell in love with it, and there wasn't a close second.
Now, there was no way we could afford this house. But instead of trying to figure out how to pay for something we couldn't possibly afford, I did something else. It hadn't sold for two years and I wanted to know why. As far as we could see, there was nothing wrong with the house. So how could it still be around after two years?
So, with our realtor, we called the realtor who was representing the owner of house we wanted, and I asked an atypical question.
"What's he want?"
She told me the price again. I said, "I know the price. That's not what I am asking. What does he want?"
I started asking a lot of questions about the owner. Turns out he had grown up in the town and this was the house where his kids had grown up. He had since hit it insanely rich and now had multiple houses all over the country. He didn't even live here all the time. I heard all that and more, and then made an atypical request.
"I'd like to meet him."
My realtor was surprised when the owner agreed; it's not unusual for buyers and sellers to never meet, even at closing. But I wasn't surprised.
As we drove to meet the owner, I shared my theory with my fiancée. "Look, he doesn't need the money. I bet he's holding onto the house for sentimental reasons. He doesn't just want to sell it to anyone. But it's on the market, so he does want to sell it. My guess is he's waiting for the right people to sell it to."
So we met him for drinks and just told him how much we loved the house. How we were starting this new, blended family together and how we imagined our kids running through the house. We told him what kind of people we were, what kind of values we had, and we learned a lot about his life as well.
A few days later, we sent him an offer for the house with a note, thanking him for meeting us -- and telling him we apologized for the offer. We knew it was much, much lower than he was asking. We were not trying to lowball him or insult him. This was literally all we could afford. If he didn't want to sell it for that small price, we completely understood, and frankly, we wouldn't blame him. But if he was willing to sell it to us for what we could muster, we would treat it -- and his longtime neighbors that he cared so much about -- with the utmost love and respect.
And he said ... "OK."
It was a done deal. And on the day we moved in, he sent us three bottles of wine. Such a class act.
We are still in the house; we love it and can't imagine moving. And it all happened because I asked a different question.
The rest...it's gonna be a long read but it's worth it.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
When buying a house, the most common question is "What's the price?" And, if it's been on the market for a while, it's "what's wrong with it?" Those weren't the questions I asked, because those weren't the right questions.
The most common preseason question in fantasy football is "Who's going to score the most points this year?" And that's not the right question, either. We don't play a game in which whoever has the most points at the end of the season wins. We play a game in which the goal is to win a series of individual weekly matchups. Remember it, repeat it, Snapchat it to a friend. It's a weekly game.
The correct question to ask is "How can we construct a weekly, winning starting lineup?" More specifically, when we contemplate setting weekly lineups, we have to ask ourselves, "Where do our starters come from, and what do we need those starters to do?" Those are the questions we need to answer before we draft our first player or place our first bid. And that's what we're going to answer in the 16th edition of the annual Draft Day Manifesto.
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Fantasy Life Between celebrating every aspect of fantasy -- the trash talk, the trophies, the insane draft-day locations, the punishments, the clever attempts at cheating and surprisingly uplifting stories -- Matthew Berry chronicles his journey from a 14-year-old player to ESPN's senior fantasy analyst.
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Welcome. Pull up a chair. May I take your drink order? Because we're gonna be here a while. I've given this thing a complete rewrite, but some things remain the same: It's very long, and my editor takes a week's vacation after he's done with it. There's some research and theory that hasn't changed, so you might have read some of this before, either last year or in this year's ESPN The Magazine's fantasy football guide. And, of course, there's some over-the-top promotion for my New York Times best-selling book "Fantasy Life," which is now out in paperback. In a blatant attempt to try to make you buy it again, I added three new chapters. So for those who waited a year, it's now cheaper and there's a lot more to it. What do I always say? Nothing good comes from hustling! But otherwise, much of this text is new material, with new theories, tons more research and at least one brand-new joke.
We start with the secret to life, the universe and everything. Which, for our purposes, is really just about how to win at fantasy football. And that secret is that, at a fundamental level, fantasy football is about minimizing risk and giving yourself the best odds to win on a weekly basis. Everything leads back to that. Everything. I say it every year because it's that important. And that simple.
As in every preseason, you're going to be bombarded by an insane amount of research, advice, analysis and rankings. Some of it will be quite good, some of it won't, but as you sift through it all, remember two key points: (1) facts and statistics can be manipulated to whatever their presenter wants, and (2) at a fundamental level, fantasy football is all about minimizing risk and giving yourself the best odds to win. On a weekly basis.
As my good friend Joe Bryant of FootballGuys.com likes to say: "It's an oblong ball made of leather. Weird stuff is going to happen." At this time last year, no one thought a second-year wide receiver who was suspended for the first two games would lead all wide receivers in fantasy scoring, that Andy Dalton would outscore Aaron Rodgers and Michael Vick combined, that Drew Brees would throw 39 touchdown passes yet be 16 touchdown passes behind the leader. Or that all those "safe" running backs in the first round would crash and burn.
I cannot predict the future. Nor have I ever claimed to. Neither can you or anyone else. So don't try.
Instead, stack the odds in your favor, put yourself in the best possible position to succeed and hope for the best. That's good advice for life as well, incidentally, as is "Any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still know where his towel is clearly a man to be reckoned with."
Of course, you say, "I'm already a hoopy frood who really knows where his towel is, but how do you decide what's most likely to happen?" Well, we're gonna spend the rest of this article finding out by asking different kinds of questions.
Last caveat before we dive in. What I am about to lay out for you is my draft strategy this year, the one I believe gives you the best shot at success this season. But there's no works-every-time magic bullet. There are many, many ways to win. I've been playing for three decades now, and I've seen a lot of them, but even I haven't seen them all. Besides, I read somewhere that a common mistake people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools. I'm sure it wasn't about you, though.
Let's ask some questions.
"What does a winning fantasy roster look like?
Before writing anything this year, I asked the great Mike Polikoff, who oversees our League Manager product on ESPN.com (fully customizable, mobile- and tablet-friendly, free to play on ESPN.com, don't cha know) to pull all the data he could from the millions of teams that have played on ESPN.com the past two years. I wanted to see what all the teams that made the playoffs had in common. Besides buying Fantasy Life, duh. Note that throughout this process, I looked at teams that made the playoffs over league champions because there are a lot of variables that have nothing to do with drafting that go into taking a playoff team all the way to the title.
The first thing I looked at was roster composition. Here's the average number of players owned at each position of the teams that made the playoffs and those that came in last place.
Roster composition: Playoff teams versus last-place teams, 2012-13
Position Playoff Last place
Quarterbacks 2.0 2.6
Running backs 5.0 5.0
Wide receivers 5.0 5.1
Tight ends 1.6 1.6
Defense/Special teams 1.3 1.2
Kickers 1.1 1.1
Now, the last-place team rostered more quarterbacks than the playoff teams (more on that later), but in general, the roster composition is virtually identical, right? Five running backs and wide receivers, a kicker, a defense and either one or two quarterbacks and tight ends. Which leads me to this conclusion: If all rosters are constructed with basically the same positions, it's all about the specific players on your roster. OK, we're on our way. Next question.
"What point total do I need every week?"
I'm gonna write this until you're sick of reading it. (Too late you say? Just wait.) It's a weekly game. So rather than looking at how many points fantasy playoff teams accumulated over the course of the season, let's look at the number of fantasy points a playoff team scored per week in the first 13 weeks of each of the past two seasons.
The answer is 94.945. I'm as surprised as you are that it wasn't 42.
If you had a team that scored exactly 95 points every week for each of the past two seasons, you would have won 11 of 13 weeks against the fifth-place team (the top four in ESPN standard leagues make the playoffs). No team that won 11 games last year missed the playoffs. So that's what you're shooting for: 95 points.
Trust me here. Get to 95 points a week in an ESPN standard league and there's a very, very good chance you're making the playoffs. So how do we get there? It all starts at your draft, and specifically, in the first two rounds. You know the top of the draft is important. Really important. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly important it is. I mean, you might think picking up the right 10th-round wide receiver is important, but that's just peanuts to the first two rounds. I paraphrase, of course, but it really is as easy as 1, 2, 3, 4: 1,234. That's 94.945 multiplied by 13. It's also the average number of total fantasy points an ESPN standard league playoff team scored in the first 13 weeks the past two years.
So think about that 1,234 points. Over the past two years, a player picked in the first round averaged 191.5 fantasy points (ESPN standard scoring). In the same time frame, a player picked in the second round averaged 184.5 fantasy points. Pretty close, right? And keep in mind how many busts there were last year in the first two rounds. (In 2012, first-round picks averaged 220 points, second-rounders 170. Last year, those numbers were 163 and 199. So if last year was a normal year, the average would have been even higher.)
But once you get to the third round, there's a big drop-off. How big? Good question; you're catching on. Let's go to the chart.
Average points scored per round , 2012-13
Target score represents 1,234 points in Weeks 1-13
Round Pts in Week 1-13 Diff. from Round 1 Pct of target score
8 119.9 -71.7 9.7
14 97.3 -94.2 7.9
9 109.2 -82.3 8.8
4 148.0 -43.6 12.0
12 99.5 -92.3 8.1
1 191.5 -- 15.5
13 98.8 -92.7 8.0
7 131.7 -59.9 10.7
2 184.5 -7.0 15.0
5 142.3 -49.3 11.5
15 98.3 -93.3 8.0
11 98.6 -93.0 8.0
6 135.7 -55.9 11.0
16 97.7 -93.9 7.9
10 101.8 -89.8 8.2
3 164.0 -27.6 13.3
On average, it's 40 points less once you hit Round 4, and it only drops from there. And as you can see, once you hit Rounds 4 and 5, it keeps dropping, but not as much as the drop from Rounds 1 and 2. Going back to our magic number of 1,234 -- those first two rounds represent a whopping 30.5 percent of your total. You miss on the first two rounds and it's much harder to get to 95 points a week.
I say it every year, and now you've got a bunch of numbers to back it up: You can't win your league in the first two rounds, but you can lose it. So it's not the place to get cute, to try for "upside" or to reach. You need as sure a thing as you can get. You should spend a good percentage of your draft prep on making sure you not only nail picks No. 1 and 2, but that you know how you want to attack the draft after that, depending on which way you go, with the ultimate goal of putting out the best starting lineup every week. That means you need a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C for every draft you do.
"Where should my starters come from?"
Another way to phrase that question might be: How important is it that I draft my starting quarterback or my second running back in August? Can't I just draft what comes to me and fill in the holes with my bench full of amazing sleepers and my deft waiver-wire skills?" Well, frankly -- no. Not if we're playing the "What's most likely to happen?" game. And since I'm the one writing this, we are.
You can't assume that you'll just be able to play the matchups or that we know that running backs get injured and there will be starters available. You can't just count on grabbing this year's Nick Foles. Because yes, while there might be another Nick Foles out there, it's not just about being able to identify him and grab him before everyone else. It's also about having enough trust in this guy you just picked up to start him over the other players on your team. If he's not starting for you, it doesn't count. So the real question to ask is, on the weeks when Nick Foles was worth starting last year, did you actually know to start him?
[+] EnlargeNick Foles
AP Photo/Brian Garfinkel
"I'll just find the next Nick Foles" is not a draft strategy.
Sure, by the end of the season you knew Foles was a stud, but what about Week 6 at Tampa Bay? He had played well in relief the week before against the Giants, but it was his first start. Vick was questionable that week, so you didn't even know whether Foles was gonna start until fairly late in the week. He wound up with a 29-point game, yet ... he was started by only 1.2 percent of ESPN standard league owners. So you didn't get anything out of his first start. The next week he played horribly and left the Dallas game with an injury and only five points to his name. He didn't play the week after that, and then the next week was the Oakland game. Started by just 3.8 percent of ESPN standard leaguers, that was the game in which he threw for seven touchdowns. You had to wait until Week 11 to find a week when he was started in more than 50 percent of ESPN.com leagues. So yes, while Foles had an awesome year, there were only five weeks when he was started by more than half the leagues. Only five weeks when owners could reasonably project a good outcome for Foles and feel confident in starting him. As I'll show you, it's a mistake to think you can put together a winning starting lineup with bench guys (by playing the matchups) and waiver-wire pickups. Also, on no account allow a Vogon to read poetry at you.
The answer to the question "Where should my starters come from?" isn't all that hard figure out, as long as you have Tristan H. Cockcroft around. Tristan's computer is like Deep Thought, but for sports. So Tristan and I started talking about how people realistically set their lineups every week in order to better understand the question: Where do our starters come from on a weekly basis? Because, you might have heard, we play a weekly game. And lineups change week to week. Out go the draft-day busts and the injured stars, and in go the emergent starters and sleepers that panned out. Guys like Bobby Rainey or Andre Brown or Zac Stacy or Keenan Allen or Marvin Jones or Julian Edelman or Eddie Royal for a few weeks, and so on and so forth.
We started by establishing how many players would be owned right after the draft. In an ESPN standard league, there are 160 players drafted. Using the roster composition data I covered earlier in this column, we decided that those 160 broke down like this: 20 quarterbacks, 51 running backs, 51 wide receivers, 16 tight ends, 12 defenses and 10 kickers. As the names of these players changed from week to week, the basic composition did not, so we established that if you were ranked within that threshold, you were considered a startable option. You were predictable. We see players come out of nowhere to have a huge week, but no owner in his or her right mind would have started those players if given any option, and this eliminates that hindsight bias.
To explain this with examples, in Week 5 of last year, Ryan Fitzpatrick made his first start of the season, subbing for an injured Jake Locker. He was facing the red-hot Kansas City defense. He was ranked 25th that week, and no one in their right mind was starting Fitzpatrick that week. He finished with a strong 20-point game, but it doesn't count for our purposes. No one would have known (or had the guts) to start him. Conversely, in that same Week 5, Terrelle Pryor was ranked 13th. At that point, he was someone who easily could have been owned and started. I don't care that he was outside the top 10; the point is merely that, if you needed to start Pryor that week, you would have. He finished with 19 points, so that's a "good outcome."
What's a "good outcome?" Since it's really not about where our starters come from, but where our starters come from if we want to win, Tristan and I established what we considered to be a good outcome of a starting decision. Based on our rather broad definition of predictable -- he has to be owned -- we could be a bit more strict in our definition of "good outcome": You didn't leave a higher scorer on the bench. Having defined what outcomes were "predictable" -- the player was ranked as ownable and good, the player performed as a starter at his position -- we could then go about the business of charting out the distribution of predictable good outcomes (or PGO).
Total of predictable good outcomes by position
Provenance of predictable start-worthy players by weekly fantasy results:
Pos Out PGO HDP
PGO Pct LDP
PGO PCT H%
PGO PCT M%
PGO PCT L%
PGO PCT UGO
All 1530 1139 586 51.4 235 20.6 179 15.7 43 3.8 96 8.4 25.6
QB 170 143 72 50.3 35 24.5 17 11.9 5 3.5 14 9.8 15.9
RB 425 390 204 52.3 99 25.4 55 14.1 9 2.3 23 5.9 8.2
WR 425 330 167 50.6 91 27.6 36 10.9 4 1.2 32 9.7 22.4
TE 170 107 58 54.2 7 6.5 28 26.2 3 2.8 11 10.3 37.1
K 170 72 37 51.4 0 0.0 14 19.4 12 16.7 9 12.5 57.6
D/ST 170 97 48 49.5 3 3.1 29 29.9 10 10.3 7 7.2 42.9Key: Out: Number of possible outcomes in 10-team league over course of 17 weeks. PGO: Predictable Good Outcomes. HDP PGO: No. of times a player drafted as a starter (top eight picks) had a PGO. Bench PGO: No. of time players drafted to the bench had PGO. H%: No. of undrafted players who became owned in greater than 50 percent of leagues and had PGO. M% PGO: No. of players owned in 25-49 percent of leagues who had PGO. L% PGO: No. of players never owned in more than 25 percent of leagues and had PGO. PCT: Represents the percentage of category to the Position column. UGO PCT: Percentage of total start-worthy performances by unrankable players.
In our first column, we see the total number of starts are made in an ESPN 10-team league over the course of 17 weeks. So 10 quarterbacks started, times 17 weeks equals 170 starters required. Same number at tight end, kicker and defense. We decided on 25 each of wide receivers and running backs to split the difference at flex, based on the roster composition numbers we already discussed. The "PGO" column indicates the number of times any player was ranked as a plausible starter and finished as one, based on the definition above. In the subsequent columns, you see the breakdown of how each of these predictable good outcomes was acquired: drafted as a starter (top half of the draft), drafted to the bench (bottom half of the draft), as a popular waiver-wire pickup, a deeper pickup or as a lighting-in-a-bottle player who never got onto more than 25 percent of teams.
Let's draw some conclusions, while understanding that we're looking back at just one year of data. Still, it will let us draw.
• More than 75 percent of quarterbacks with predictable good outcomes came from the draft. If you consider that there were almost as many quarterbacks with unpredictable good outcomes (27, as in times a QB who wasn't ranked in the top 20 but finished in the top 10, the difference between 170 starts and 143 PGO at the position) as there were undrafted quarterbacks with predictable good outcomes (36 of them, if you add up the bench columns), that doesn't speak well of your chances to hit the Nick Foles lottery.
• Even in a year when there were a ton of big-name running back injuries and first-round busts, more than 75 percent of PGO came from drafted running backs. However, this was the position with the fewest surprises, with only 8 percent of top-20 running backs being unpredictable. Running backs do come into the league, and they'll be snatched up, but the bulk of your starts will come from the guys you drafted.
• By comparison, wide receiver is the wild, wild West, with almost three times the percentage of unpredictable good outcomes as running backs. Essentially, if you're counting on making a smart pickup for your WR2 or steaming receivers at flex just because the position is deep, you'll need to get lucky to do so. Remember that for every UGO, there's an equal and opposite highly ranked player who didn't make the cut.
• Tight end bears out the anecdotal evidence we've been seeing for years. With just 60 percent of PGO coming from the draft, I want to be one of the first guys to draft a tight end or the very last guy to grab one. With tight ends having the lowest number of total PGO and the highest percentage of them coming from popular pickups, having the No. 6-ranked tight end offers very little advantage versus drafting another running back to your PGO-heavy stable and streaming the TE starts with the flavor of the week. Even if you have to throw a dart with an unranked tight end, this is where you get your best chance to catch lightning in a bottle.
Not that you needed numbers to prove this, but with roughly half of all kicker and defense startable performances coming from the unpredictable pile, there's really no reason to draft them early.
To summarize the summary: You need to hit on an elite quarterback or grab two later if you really trust that you'll be able to make the right call every week. Draft a true stud No. 1 running back and add to that a stable of running backs you will use for your No. 2, supplemented by pickups, as this is the position where you'll focus your waiver-wire scouting. Wide receiver is deep, but the more reliable guys you get early, the better. Go early on tight end or don't even bother until just before you get your defense and your kicker, which are too unpredictable to sweat.
And, most importantly, while there will be pickups to make, trades to do and lineup decisions to ponder -- the draft is crucial. Screw up the draft and there's a very good chance you're prepping for fantasy baseball even sooner.
"So if quarterback is so predictable, why should I care which one I get?"
I've seen a lot of people proclaim you should wait on a quarterback this year, because the position is really deep. I've seen others who say that when they say wait, they mean don't even draft a starter, take two No. 2 types and just play the matchup/platoon game. I have seen others talk about the safety of the elite. And finally, I have seen a lot of the talk focused not on strategy, but rather on the comparative value of this QB versus that QB.
Frankly, they're all sort of right.
Simply put, I want to be either one of the first guys in my league to draft a quarterback this year, or the last. And I'm still going to be picky about whom I get in whatever tier I end up selecting one.
Going back to the study of playoff teams in ESPN standard leagues over the last two years, they got, on average, 19 percent of their weekly scoring from the quarterback position. This percentage was the highest of any one slot. Now, we also know that playoff teams averaged 1,234 points in the first 13 weeks. So if a QB scores 19 percent of your total, that means you need 235 points from your starting QB and your bye week fill-in in the fantasy regular season. Assuming your bye-week replacement gets your 15 points (your average Matt Ryan/Alex Smith performances last season), you're looking for 220 in 12 weeks out of your starter, or 18.3 points per week.
You know how many quarterbacks averaged at least 18.3 points per game last season that you felt comfortable starting in at least eight games (which rules out Foles)? Four: Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers.
[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File
An elite quarterback gets you a long way down the road to a championship.
You know how many teams make the playoffs in an ESPN standard league?
Obviously, there are many ways to win. If you get higher-than-average production from running backs and/or wide receivers, you don't need as much production from your quarterback. And there are, in fact, a lot of good quarterbacks. Too many.
"As the management consultant said: 'Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich. But we have also run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability, which means that, I gather, the current going rate has something like three deciduous forests buying one ship's peanut.'"
Thirteen, count 'em, 13 different quarterbacks scored 240 or more fantasy points last year, the most since 1960. But because there are a lot of good solid players, a good quarterback is the new mediocre. It's a passing league and, with rules that call for interference if you breathe on a receiver, it's gonna stay that way. So if all the quarterbacks in your league are scoring 240, getting 240 for yourself doesn't help you; to win on a weekly basis, you need to have an advantage over your opponent at multiple positions.
Now, getting a great QB doesn't necessarily mean drafting one early. From RG III having the services of DeSean Jackson under Jay Gruden, to Matt Ryan throwing to a healthy duo of Julio Jones and Roddy White behind an actual NFL offensive line, to Tony Romo executing the Scott Linehan offense, there's no shortage of options. It's Year 2 of Jay Cutler under Marc Trestman; plus you can't count out Tom Brady bouncing back, especially if Gronk is healthy. And hey, Colin Kaepernick added pass-catchers to his arsenal; Russell Wilson will get a full season of Percy Harvin (who couldn't possibly get injured again); and there's the potential that Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton or Nick Foles can repeat their breakout seasons. Plus, who knows, maybe Johnny Manziel goes nuts. Geno Smith had five 30-point games! Carson Palmer was a stud down the stretch! Jake McCown was a stud for a handful of weeks. Jake Locker has shown flashes of being a star, and now he gets the guy who turned around Philip Rivers last season. You know, the erstwhile star quarterback who was barely drafted as a backup last season but finished sixth in fantasy quarterback scoring? Those guys will be out there, and at least a few of them will be studly at some point this coming season. Whether you roster them and reap the rewards depends on your ability to identify which ones will pop in the weeks when you feel confident starting them. Hey, who knows, maybe you have a knack for it. It's kind of like having a knack for flying; the knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.
"When it comes to running backs, do I want quality, or quantity?"
The answer is both.
Playoff teams the last two years got, on average, just over 22 points a game from their running backs. Meanwhile, last-place teams got just 17 points a game from theirs. That five-point difference between a position on playoff teams and last-place teams is the largest spread among all the positions.
Most other positions are fairly close, except for quarterback, and we just covered that. In general, what separated the playoff teams from those who didn't play in December were the running backs and the quarterback. But running backs come into the league, so no worries, right?
Starting running backs can be had on a week-to-week basis, but running backs you start the entire year are hard to come by, and in a game in which consistency wins, that's valuable. Last year, only eight running backs had at least 12 different weeks (of 16) as a top-25 RB in ESPN standard scoring, based on Tristan Cockcroft's consistency rankings. Think about that. While 75 percent of predictable good outcomes for running backs came from your draft, fewer than 10 running backs were actually startable 75 percent of the time. That leaves a lot of contenders vying for those remaining "startable" performances. You're gonna need a lot of guys over the course of the season.
Yes, last year was a bit of an anomaly because of the injuries, but looking back at previous years, it's not that far off. There were only five running backs to score 200 points last year, the fewest since 2001, but 2010 was the last year there were more than six 200-point running backs. Between injuries, running backs-by-committee and the fluky nature of touchdowns, counting on consistent running back production from the same two guys all year is hard to do.
So it comes down to this. I believe the importance of a good No. 2 running back is overrated. Make no mistake, you need a stud No. 1. But you also need to pursue quantity and quality at wide receiver, as you'll see soon. So more often than not, if I have a stud running back in Round 1, I'm probably going stud wide receiver in Round 2. I will piece together a No. 2 running back from a bunch of mid-tier guys with upside by building a strong bench. Check out the running backs being drafted outside the top 20 on ESPN.com: Joique Bell, Steven Jackson, Rashad Jennings, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Maurice Jones-Drew, Lamar Miller, Chris Johnson, Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson, Ryan Mathews, Toby Gerhart, whoever emerges in Tennessee, David Wilson, Ray Rice, Trent Richardson -- the list goes on and on and on. Some of those guys will pop. Some of those guys have been legit No. 2s before. Now, there's a wide range of running backs that we can call "mid-tier" and you're gonna need to roster a few of them, but that's OK. Last year, there were 44 different running backs who were top-25 at least four different times last year. Again, over 40 different running backs were startable at least 25 percent of the season at a position with the best rate of predictable good outcomes. Go stud, then go depth.
"So with so many wide receivers popping any given week, I can wait on them, right?"
If only all those points came in a consistent, predictable pattern.
Let's bring Tristan's consistency rankings back for another go, and go even further back to 2012 for good measure. Here's the list of guys who had at least 20 games the past two seasons when they were top-25 receivers: Brandon Marshall (24), Demaryius Thomas (22), A.J. Green (21), Dez Bryant (21), Calvin Johnson (20). That's it. That's the whole list. Five guys. Only FIVE guys could manage to be start-worthy 63 percent of the time over the last two years. Sixty-three percent! That's not even that much! Why am I using exclamation points!?
I think Jordy Nelson deserves to be in this group this year (his numbers last year, in games that Rodgers finished, extrapolated over a 16-game season, were over 1,600 yards and 14 touchdowns), and if Julio Jones can stay healthy, he's in the mix. I'm an Antonio Brown believer, and if you wanna throw your lot in with Alshon Jeffery or Randall Cobb, that's fine with me. Love both, and they're super close. But with your third and fourth wide receiver likely to be unpredictable, a stud No. 1 is important, and I'm gonna do everything I can to make sure I get one of those big five (or Jordy).
Now, that's not to say that there are only five (or six) wide receivers worth rostering. It's just that, like at quarterback, if you don't have an elite guy, you're probably going to need multiple roster spots to draft enough receivers to cobble together three starters, and bench slots/pickups are better spent on running backs. Just like at quarterback, a good wide receiver is the new mediocre. You need an elite to have an advantage at the position. And while they usually don't start going before the second round, there are actually fewer consistently good wide receivers than running backs. Last year there were only 13 wide receivers who played at least eight games and averaged 10 points a game. Meanwhile, there were 17 such running backs. If you go back either of the past two years or make the threshold lower (say, eight points a game), it doesn't change. Listen, quarterback or running back or wide receiver -- it doesn't matter which positions get you an edge on your competition. It just matters that you do. Yes, even at tight end.
"We're not really drafting Jimmy Graham in the first round, are we?"
I have no issue with it if you want. My attitude on drafting tight ends this year is the exact same as quarterback. I want to be one of the first people in my league to draft a tight end or the last. Graham is a stud and gives you an advantage almost every single week at tight end; he was a "stud" eight times last season, according to Tristan's consistency rankings. No other tight end managed that feat (which is finishing top-three at the position for the week) more than four times. If you combine that fact with the volatility of predictable good outcomes at the position, you can argue that no player gives you greater peace of mind at a position than Graham. But it comes at a cost; if you draft Graham, you're not going to be able to draft a stud quarterback and an anchor at running back and one of those elite wide receivers.
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So what if you wait at tight end? There are guys I like more than others. I'm a big Jordan Reed guy this year; feel Greg Olsen is being underrated in drafts; Dennis Pitta and Kyle Rudolph should have career years; and for deeper leagues, I'm all about Ladarius Green, Dwayne Allen and, going deeper, Levine Toilolo. But ultimately, they are all sort of the same. The majority of tight ends are touchdown-dependent for their fantasy value. There will be a handful of games when they score and you're happy, and the rest they won't and it'll stink. Consider that last year there were only two tight ends with over 900 yards receiving. Meanwhile, there were 18 tight ends who had between 500 and 900 receiving yards, which works out to a difference of, at most, 25 yards a game. In 2012, those numbers were three above 900 and 20 between 500 and 900.
As for touchdowns, in general they are too hard to predict. Consider the great Antonio Gates, who was fourth in tight end targets last year, played on a team that had the fourth-most receiving yards, a team that was top-12 in total points, and he scored ... four touchdowns. Four. One of the greatest tight ends ever in a year when he was relatively healthy and the team was able to move the ball and score consistently and he got ... FOUR. Go early or wait on tight end, kids.
"If the goal is to get an advantage at any position, is it worth using a midround draft pick on an elite defense?"
Generally, in 10-team leagues, I will wait until the second-to-last round to grab a defense. But if you want to get the Seattle Seahawks (or another defense you really believe in) in the middle rounds, I don't have a huge issue with it. If you hit on the right defense, it can be an advantage. But if you want to wait (or miss out on Seattle), keep yourself warm with this fact: Over the last four years, on average, only five of the teams drafted as a top-10 defense actually finished the year as a top-10 defense. In fact, it was exactly five in 2010, 2011 and 2013, while 2012 only had four top-10 preseason picks finish that way. Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers and the Kansas City Chiefs weren't drafted last year. Did you know the Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints all finished as top-10 defenses? Matchups on both sides are so crucial in fantasy defense that there's a reason it's worth waiting.
"Kickers are people, too!"
That's not a question. But yes, kickers are part of the game, and you should get one in the last round. I feel dumb writing this, yet every year I see someone grab Stephen Gostkowski in the 10th round or something. So here's the deal. It's two points. Two points a game. That's it. But more importantly, it's two points ONLY if you can predict who the top kickers are from week to week.
Take the aforementioned Gostkowski. He was worth 1.85 more points a week than the 10th-best kicker last year (Dan Carpenter, if you're keeping track at home.) He scored 176 points, which actually tied for the third-most among kickers since 1960. Great year. And per Tristan's consistency rankings once again, he was a top-10 kicker in 11 weeks, the most for a kicker since 2004.
Sounds impressive, until you really think about it: one of the best kicker seasons in fantasy history and there were still five weeks when he wasn't even top-10. As podcast listeners know, the official kicker of the 06010, Blair Walsh, plays fantasy football himself. He's in three leagues. And even he takes a kicker in the last round.
Take a kicker last; anything earlier isn't playing to win.
So playing to win, that's your final piece of advice?
No, of course not. It's to have fun. When I was writing the new chapters for the paperback version of the New York Times best-selling book "Fantasy Life" (did I really just shove one more plug in? Hell, yes, I did), fun was one of the themes that kept coming back to me. Whether it's having weird rules, great trash talk, weekly traditions, an amazing trophy or outlandish punishments for losing (wait until you see the new tattoos people are getting) ... the important thing is to have fun.
It's about loving it when your tight end gets a cheap touchdown off a play-action to your opponent's running back, getting five field goals from your kicker, being able to call your buddy on Monday morning and just laugh into the phone for five minutes. It's about hilarious team names, cursing your favorite receiver for dropping a touchdown and deciding that you don't care whether it's a boy or a girl: you're naming your next kid Cordarrelle.
Remember, we do this for leisure. We all play to win, but it's not worth ruining friendships over. Well, unless you've really got a shot at the title. And it's not that good a friend. I mean, come on, you can always get a new friend. Or wife.
So long, and thanks for all the fish.