Amateur Fantasy Football Advice: The Draft
Hello readers, and welcome to the first edition of “Amateur Fantasy Football Advice.” This column will serve to dispense advise on who to draft, who to start, who to sit, who to drop, and who to pick up during the 2012 Fantasy Football season.
The catch? I am no expert, nor will I ever claim to be one. I’m just a fantasy football junkie who has been playing since 2005, has had mild success (a couple championships, around an 80% playoff rate), and wants to talk about it. As my wife will tell you, around this time is where I get nuts about fantasy football. I’ve gone so far as to give my passwords to her so she can make lineup changes if I’m not near my computer (thank the lord above for smart phones!). She knows that for the next five months, she’ll have to fight really hard to get my attention.
I love fantasy football because it combines my two loves: football and gambling. Unlike betting on single games, this is a long, hard road to getting your money back. And unlike making bets on who is going to win the Superbowl in the beginning of the year, you are (somewhat) in control of your own destiny. You draft the players, you make the start/sit decisions, you pick up the waivers. Essentially, if you win, you earn your money. Dropping $25 or $50 on a league in September is easy enough, and by the time the league is over, either you’ve won a few hundred bucks, or enough time has passed where you don’t miss the money you spent in September. I at least rationalize that I was paying for the experience of running the league. I’ve kept track of my winnings and expenditures since I started playing fantasy football, and I’ve made more money than I spent. So if that is enough to qualify me for dealing out advice, I guess I’ll take it!
Let’s get one thing out of the way: predicting fantasy football player success is pure guesswork. It can be educated guesswork, but at the end of the day, it’s still guesswork. Nobody can see the future. All you have is past and current information, and you have to make a guess based on that information. The only difference between me and, say, Matthew Berry is a paycheck, a TV show, fame, notoriety, insider information, a column on ESPN.com…wow, I just made myself really sad.
Why have I chosen to make this leap from fantasy football reader to fantasy football columnist? Perhaps I’m just a glutton for punishment. Being a reader of fantasy football columns, I have seen how much vitriol these columnists receive for factors that are beyond their control. I actually read this comment last year, “Thanks for telling me to spend a first-round pick on Jamaal Charles, idiot.” Yeah, like the guy knew that Charles was going to blow out his ACL in Week 2 (by the way, I’m high on Charles this year). I take the attitude that any player is one bad step away from a season-ender, regardless of health (look at Adrian Peterson last year), so you just have to let the chips fall where they may. Again, this column is not meant to tell you what to do in order to win a championship. I am simply presenting the mindset of one fantasy football player, and it is up to you to decide whether I’m crazy or not. At the end of the day, I’m not putting a gun to your head and telling you who to draft, who to start, who to sit, or who to pick up. So let’s save the “Thanks for telling me to ______” talk (unless you’re not being sarcastic!). I didn’t tell you to do anything, you made that decision yourself.
This column will also encourage reader feedback. Not only do I want to let you know what I’m thinking, I also want to know what you’re thinking. Maybe I’m overlooking something, or maybe some news has broken regarding a player that I’m not aware of. If you follow me and tweet me @PocketSeagull, I promise I’ll answer every tweet I receive. Remember, I’m no more qualified to do this gig than you are. I’m just the guy who happens to write wrestling columns for John Canton, and was the first to ask him to write a fantasy football column for his sports site. Those are my only qualifications!
This first column will deal with the draft. This week, I will tell you who I’m thinking about taking in the middle and late rounds, and next week, I’ll tell you who I’m staying away from in the early rounds.
Late August and early September bring the best part of any fantasy football season in my opinion: the draft. Everybody comes into the draft with the same high hopes, the same clean slate. Many people hold draft day traditions. In one of my leagues, every league member MUST be drinking (yes, we all succumb to peer pressure). One year, the only alcohol I had in my house was a bottle of absinthe I brought back from Israel. Let’s just say some VERY interesting picks were being made in the later rounds. In yet another league, we use Fleaflicker, who allows you to draft any player, regardless of whether they’re currently playing or not. I mean anybody. Last year, some of the picks in the last round included Akili Smith, Kurt Warner, and even Lucious Pusey. Personally, I felt that I won the round by selecting Doug Flutie out of Boston College. I had a good feeling about that Flutie guy. What types of draft day traditions do you uphold? Let me know in the comments below.
I personally believe that leagues aren’t won in the first few rounds of the draft. On the contrary, leagues are lost in the first few rounds. You are selecting from the cream of the crop of players. If they perform well, they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. I’m sure nobody who selected Aaron Rodgers last year was as surprised with his production as they were with Steve Smith of the Panthers. But if you whiff on the first few picks (or heaven forbid, the first pick), you’re playing catch-up all season long.
Rather, I believe that leagues are won in the middle and late rounds, as well as the waiver wire. Ask anybody who picked up Victor Cruz, DeMarco Murray, or Tim Tebow last year, or Michael Vick in 2010. Seasons can turn in an instant if you get that magic lottery ticket. If Jeremy Lin taught us anything, never underestimate the power of momentum coming from out of nowhere. It’s not an exact science (that’s why they call it a lottery ticket, you don’t cash in every time), but a big game out of nowhere could be the start of something big all season long. Any championship I ever won involved at least one big waiver wire claim.
The middle and late rounds will have the value picks that, combined with your expected studs in the first few rounds, will allow you to dominate your opponents. In this inaugural column, I will look at the guys that I expect will pay off big dividends for your team, and will be selected in the middle and late rounds. I’m basing this off ESPN’s current projections for each player. But first, here is my early-round strategy.
Early Round Selections
In all my leagues last year, I found myself more intimidated facing teams that had a stud quarterback than I did facing teams that had a stud running back. And more often than not, when I lost, it was single-handedly to the production from the quarterback. The league is moving farther and farther away from workhorse running backs who are getting the tar pounded out of them week after week, and moving toward running-back-by-committee offenses. New rules protecting wide receivers have also made the NFL develop into more of a passing league. One need only look at the types of numbers being put up by quarterbacks last year as evidence. Until defenses learn to adapt to these new offenses, it’s a quarterback-driven league. With the exception of Arian Foster, Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy, I’m looking at a quarterback with my first pick in the draft. You really cannot go wrong with Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, or Matthew Stafford (if he stays healthy) as the premier point producer for your team, especially if passing touchdowns count for 6 points (as they do in all leagues I participate in).
Barring any preseason injury, that should really be the top 7, in this order: Foster, Rice, Rodgers, Brees, McCoy, Brady, Stafford. If I have any spot in the draft order after that, I can’t be 100% confident that my pick will put up first-round numbers all year. The next quarterbacks after Stafford are Cam Newton (I’ll dedicate an entire future column to why I’m not sold on him), Michael Vick (feast or famine), and Eli Manning (he’ll give you the yards and the touchdowns, but interceptions bouncing off his young receivers’ hands are inevitable). The next running backs after McCoy are MJD (who will have to be slowing down after basically carrying the Jaguars offense on his back last year), Chris Johnson (who may be cooked), Ryan Matthews (who is always an injury risk), Marshawn Lynch (who has had one great season after multiple disappointing ones, and will need one more good season to convince me that last year wasn’t a fluke), and Matt Forte (coming off a major late-season injury, has Michael Bush to compete with, and had a turbulent off-season, which didn’t bode well for Chris Johnson last year).
For the record, I wouldn’t take any wide receivers or tight ends with the first round pick, because they’re too dependent on the quarterback getting them the ball. I usually spend my second round pick on a stud wide receiver if he’s there. Last year, I lucked out with Calvin Johnson or Roddy White (or both!) in four different leagues. This year, both will most likely be gone by the time my turn comes around again in Round 2. I don’t believe in the Madden Curse, but I do believe in regression to the mean. Megatron had a mega-year last year, and while I expect him to produce at a high level, to expect him to match or surpass a career year is asking too much. There’s too much safer talent in the first round to gamble on a WR. I’m sure people who drafted Andre Johnson in the first round last year know exactly what I’m talking about.
Middle Round Value
Matt Schaub - QB, Houston Texans (ESPN Rank: QB13, 86th Overall): As I mentioned before, it would be wise to take a QB with either one of your first two picks. Some people will not follow my advice and will either go two RBs, a RB and a WR, or even go after a TE like Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski with the first two picks. Chances are, by the time Round 3 rolls around, all of the stud QBs will be gone, and you’re left with a big dropoff to the next tier. Here you’ll find guys like Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Jay Cutler, RG3, and a Vincent Jackson-less Philip Rivers. If you find yourself in Round 3 or 4 without a quarterback, and the stud QBs are gone, my advice is to continue filling up the RB and WR ranks (it’s possible you could sell high trade for a stud QB if one of the RBs or WRs goes off), and wait until Round 6 or 7 to get Schaub. His health is an issue, but he’s had an entire offseason to recover, and looks to be on track to return during training camp. He will be at the helm of one of the most potent offenses in the league. There’s nothing real sexy about him (playing style or looks…dude is ooglay), but if he plays all year, he’ll get the stats. The run game will keep defenses honest, and it certainly helps that he has Andre Johnson to throw to. Schaub also works great as a QB2 for insurance or a bye week plug-in. I drafted Schaub last year as Michael Vick insurance, and there certainly were weeks when I was glad I had him.
Doug Martin - RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (ESPN Rank: RB35, 83rd Overall): Last year, I thought this spot would belong to everybody’s favorite pigskin pugilist, LeGarrette Blount. Blount had a surprisingly great year in 2010 (one of those waiver wire lottery tickets that paid off). Blount also had the advantage of being a workhorse running back in a league dominated by Running Back By Committees. Blount was given the opportunities all season long, and he blew it. I’m sure people remember the game against the Falcons where the Bucs had first and goal on the 1 and gave it to Blount three straight downs, and he couldn’t punch it in. Blount also had the disadvantage of being a pitiful pass-blocker, making it difficult for Josh Freeman to have time to get his passes off. It was Blount’s job to lose, and he lost it. There’s a reason why the Bucs traded up in the draft to nab Martin before the Giants could. They want this guy to be the starter, and with fresh legs under him, he has the opportunity to be a serious workhorse. New head coach Greg Schiano has experience cultivating beast running backs while at Rutgers. One need only look at Ray Rice for evidence of that. If it’s Round 5 or 6 and Martin is still available, I’m scooping him up as my RB2, ahead of guys like DeAngelo Williams, Shonn Greene, Beanie Wells, or Ben Tate.
Malcolm Floyd - WR, San Diego Chargers (ESPN Rank: WR33, 85th Overall): When I’m filling out my wide receiver corps, I like to fill it full of WR1s for any team. My WR3 should be a WR1 from a team that’s not well-known for their WR corps. Wide receivers are only as good as the quarterback throwing to them, and it’s all about looks and opportunities. My attitude is, “Somebody has to catch those passes!” I’d rather find a WR1 on a mediocre passing team than a WR2 on a good passing team, because they have to split the looks. Last year, I managed to pick up Santonio Holmes as my WR3, because he was the de-factor WR1 for the New York Jets. Now, while Holmes didn’t put up great numbers last year for a WR1 or even a WR2 on people’s fantasy teams, he was certainly serviceable enough as a WR3. This year, as I look for a WR1 to plug into my WR3, I find myself looking toward the San Diego Chargers. With Vincent Jackson’s departure, the WR1 spot is wide open. Consider me not sold that the WR1 job in San Diego is Robert Meachem’s yet (ESPN ranks Meachem a couple spots ahead of Floyd). Meachem was a WR3 or WR4 at best in New Orleans, and had the advantage of having one of the three best quarterbacks in the league throwing to him. Floyd has the advantage of familiarity with the Chargers’s offensive schemes, and has already developed rapport with Philip Rivers, who is no slouch at QB. In the (many) games where Vincent Jackson was hurt, Floyd has always stepped up and produced. In round 7 or 8, if Floyd’s there, I’m nabbing him as my WR3 over other potential WR1s like Holmes, Denarius Moore, and Pierre Garcon.
Fred Davis - TE, Washington Redskins (ESPN Rank TE9, 108th Overall): I’m not going to chase Ron Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham in the first two rounds. Even though the Tight End is becoming a more focal point of the offense, I think Rounds 1 and 2 are too hefty of a price tag for a TE (but if Round 3 rolls around and either one is available, I’m picking them up with the quickness). Last year, I managed to get lucky and nab Graham in Round 5, and ended up in the championship game, in large part thanks to him. When it comes to TEs, I like the mid-round value more than reaching for the stud. Last year, I experimented and bucked that theory by selecting Jermichael Finley, and ended up getting burned. For many years, I’ve found myself looking at Owen Daniels in rounds 6 and 7, and he’s always been serviceable for me. This year, I’m looking at Fred Davis. Davis was quietly putting together an excellent year last year before a marijuana bust made him miss the last four games of the season. If he keeps his head on straight, he will be a much-needed security blanket for RG3, who will be at the helm of an NFL offense for the first time in his career. Davis has the sure hands that you look for in a Tight End. If it’s Round 7, I don’t have a tight end, and Davis is available, I’m getting him. I also wouldn’t mind selecting Davis as a TE2 that you could plug in the flex or use as trade bait if you end up with Graham or Gronkowski.
Late Round Value
Andrew Luck - QB, Colts (ESPN Rank QB24, 138th Overall): If Luck is available in the 12th or 13th Round, and I don’t have a QB2, I’m taking him. Honestly, when you get this deep in the draft, what do you have to lose? Cam Newton went in and around the 10th Round last year, and his owners certainly weren’t complaining about the production they received from him. Now, Luck has a different skill set than Newton, but there’s a reason why teams “Sucked for Luck” last year. This kid is the real deal. And while he may not lead the Colts to the playoffs (or even a winning season), I think he’ll get the stats. He does have Reggie Wayne to throw to, and I think he’ll find Coby Fleener early and often (more on Fleener later). If he doesn’t work out, it will be an easy cut. You’re not drafting anybody in the 12th or 13th round to lead your team, you’re taking a chance and hoping it works out. Luck will go in every draft, and you might get Luck-y yourself with a QB that you can trust to start.
Mike Goodson - RB, Oakland Raiders (ESPN Rank RB49, 143rd Overall): I’m surprised ESPN has Goodson so high. Darren McFadden owners, Goodson is a MUST to draft and handcuff RunDMC, who has yet to have a full, healthy season. When McFadden goes down, and he will, his owners will either be grateful to have Goodson on the bench, or will probably field an offer from whoever else has him. Taiwan Jones will make training camp interesting, but Goodson has the experience edge, and will most likely take the RB2 job on the Raiders. In the 13th or 14th round, I’m scooping him up if I can.
Greg Little - WR, Cleveland Browns (ESPN Rank WR53, 164th Overall): As I mentioned with Luck, at this point, what do you have to lose? Little is the de-facto WR1 on the most anemic offense in the NFL. It’s all about opportunities, and the additions of Brandon Weeden at QB and Trent Richardson at RB must have to do something positive for Little. He has the talent, and has more of a traditional WR skill set than Josh Cribbs. As the second-to-last pick before I go for the defense and kicker, it’s definitely Little if he’s still around.
Coby Fleener - TE, Indianapolis Colts (ESPN Rank TE19, 195th Overall): This is my absolute shot-in-the-dark pick. I had my eyes on Fleener going into the NFL draft as a potential pick for the Giants to replace Jake Ballard, who tore his ACL in the Super Bowl. Fleener has that new-age TE size and skill set that have made Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski so successful. When the Giants passed on Fleener to select RB David Wilson (another guy I have my eye on in the middle-to-late rounds), I knew it was a slam dunk that Fleener would be selected by the Colts and reunited with his QB at Stamford, Andrew Luck. Immediately, I said to myself, “FANTASY SLEEPER ALERT!” It was a slam dunk! Luck already has the rapport with Fleener, and he will act as Luck’s security blanket. Then the Colts had to go and muddy things up by immediately selecting Dwayne Allen from Clemson, the second-best TE on the draft board. Now, it’s really a toss-up as to who is going to get the stats this year, similar to a Gronkowski/Hernandez situation in New England. My money’s still on Fleener due to the rapport with Luck. If I end up taking a defense early, he’s the guy I’m taking in the 14th or 15th round, right before the kicker.
That’s it for the first edition of “Amateur Fantasy Football Advice!” Next week I’ll have an in-depth discussion about the early round picks I’m staying away from if at all possible. I will also debut a feature of this column called “Nobody Wants to Hear About Your Fantasy Team!”
Like this column? Hate it? Have any suggestions for middle or late round picks? Want to share stories of how your significant other deals with your fantasy fanaticism or your draft-day traditions? Leave me a comment below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter @PocketSeagull!