Thanks to the worry of a suspended NFL season, the typical elation that encompasses fantasy football took a backseat this summer to the league’s labor issues. But with the nightmare of the lockout finally over, fantasy has vaulted back to the forefront now that, you know, games will actually be played.
With leagues beginning to commence, it seemed apropos to compile a guide for those seeking advice for their upcoming drafts. Below is a collection of strategies and tips that have proven advantageous in my personal pursuit of fantasy glory, and hopefully they will provide the same fortune for you.
Pick two RBs with first three picks
Only 17 players passed the 1,000-yard plateau last season. Just eight scored 10 or more touchdowns. Even fewer (six) amassed over 300 carries. In short: the reliable running back is a dying breed. As most leagues have ten or more participants, finding a serviceable back after the third round will be an arduous task. Granted, Arian Foster, Peyton Hillis, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and LeGarrette Blount were all overlooked or undrafted players that made a fantasy impact in 2010, but only Foster and Hillis ranked inside the top 10 at season’s end. Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Jamaal Charles and Foster are in the upper echelon at the position, but LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden and Rashard Mendenhall are all viable first-round selections. Even backs like Matt Forte (who quietly had a bounce-back campaign after a disappointing 2009) and Steven Jackson, two players ranked in the teens, have the endowment to serve as the heart of a fantasy squad.
However, after that list, the variety of trustworthy runners becomes slightly murky. While Shonn Greene, DeAngelo Williams and Felix Jones own the aptitude to become elite backs, none would be classified as a steadfast. As most league scoring formats facilitate running backs as the chief component in fantasy, make sure you leave your draft with a solid backfield corps.
Don’t be bullied into picking a QB
Covered more extensively in last week’s article, you can find a proficient passer later than you believe. Occasionally in drafts, when names like Brady, Brees and Manning start flying off the board, one will get pressured into taking a quarterback so as not to be left out in the cold. Depending on your league rules, Brady, Brees and a select few are worthy of a high selection. However, odds are you will be able to draft Joe Flacco or Matt Cassel in later rounds, players who will be extremely productive at a discounted rate. It’s easy to fall in love with quarterbacks thanks to their absurd stat lines, as well as their peripheral endeavors outside of football (such as Manning’s commercials, Brees’ involvement in charity undertakings and Brady’s attempt to grace the cover of every men’s fashion magazine on the planet). Don’t get sucked into the hoopla over fantasy field generals and rest assured ample arms will be available in the middle rounds. That being said...
Take Aaron Rodgers
Confession: I’m in love with a man (superficially that is), and that man’s name is Aaron Rodgers. This affection derives from two sources. Primarily, I always abhorred Brett Favre after he threw Javon Walker under the bus during the wideout’s contract dispute and felt that he purposefully neglected his tutelage of Rodgers; and two, the Packer passer has been the driving force of my fantasy juggernaut in one of my college-based leagues. (In a related note, congrats to my Ohio Bobcats for finally capturing their long-deserved distinction as the top-rated party school in the nation. Never has an alumni group been so jubilant at the devaluation of their degrees.) Besides thriving in a pass-happy offensive attack (3,922 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2010), Rodgers possesses the gift of mobility that’s rare behind center, running for 356 yards and four scores last season. The Cal product’s performance should improve this season with the returns of Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley to the offense. I’m a little worried about the post-Super Bowl hype, but Rodgers seems like a cool enough customer to not be effected by the glorification.
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Reliable receivers are bountiful
In the same breath as quarterbacks are discussed, there’s a plethora of talented wideouts on the market, as over 31 receivers amassed 800 or more yards in 2010. As mentioned in FOXSports.com’s Top 200 player rankings, historical evidence has proven that valuable receivers can be obtained in the middle-to-late rounds of the draft. Need evidence? Brandon Lloyd, Dwayne Bowe, Santana Moss, Stevie Johnson, Hakeem Nicks and Tampa Bay’s Mike Williams were all influential contributors last year, yet none were highly sought during the preseason.
Andre Johnson, Greg Jennings, Calvin Johnson and Roddy White may warrant an early selection, but dependable receivers will be available, so don’t pull the trigger too early on this position.
Stay away from crowded backfields
You may claim Mike Shanahan’s primary objective as coach is to win ballgames; I would counter his sole purpose on this earth is to kill the collective will of every fantasy owner who holds one of his halfbacks on their team. The sardonic aspect is that owning a Shanahan running back used to be an asset, as for years Denver would transform anonymous runners (Olandis Gary, Reuben Droughns, Mike Anderson) into 1,000-yard backs. Yet somewhere along the line, Shanahan realized the potential of employing a committee to handle the running opportunities in his offense, with the theory that a reduction in touches would keep his halfbacks healthy and equate to more production. The upshot of this concept eradicated the value of any back under the once fantasy-fertile Shanahan reign. (And one could make the argument that it hurt the coach’s career, as Shanahan was 101-59 with the Broncos before the carry-by-committee approach compared to a 43-37 mark since implementing the system in Denver and Washington.)
Unfortunately Shanahan’s sentiment toward sharing has spread across the league. BenJarvus Green-Ellis accumulated 13 touchdowns and 1,008 yards last season, but New England’s draft picks of Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, along with fan favorite Danny Woodhead, make the Law Firm a gamble in 2011. Carolina’s duo of Williams and Jonathan Stewart fall outside the top 25, as their individual presence devalues the other’s worth. Ahmad Bradshaw will compile the yards, but Brandon Jacobs will be the one finding the end zone for the G-Men. Same with Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert in San Diego. And God knows who will emerge from Shanahan’s collection of Ryan Torain, Tim Hightower, Roy Helu, Keiland Williams and Evan Royster in Washington.
Curse you Shanahan for exterminating the fantasy back. Curse you!
Beware of rookies
That murmur you hear is the nodding of owners who selected Ryan Mathews in 2010. Replacing the supposedly dilapidated LaDainian Tomlinson, Mathews was expected to breathe new life into a stagnant San Diego rushing game whose 3.3 yards per carry was a league-low in 2009. This promise correlated to a predicted first-round fantasy pick. Six hundred seventy-eight yards and thousands of destroyed fantasy squads later, it’s safe to say Mathews’ prospects didn’t come to fruition. LeGarrette Blount did submit a 1,000-yard campaign as a rookie in Tampa Bay last season, but Blount was cut by the Tennessee Titans after training camp and wasn’t a prominent part in the Buccaneers’ backfield until Week 7. Sure, Minnesota’s Peterson and Chicago’s Forte excelled as neophytes, but for every promising prospect that has emerged there are dozens of C.J. Spillers, Beanie Wells, and Darren McFaddens who failed to fulfill their lofty first-year forecasts.
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This season’s crop of anticipated impactful youngsters includes New Orleans’ Mark Ingram and Miami’s Daniel Thomas. While both of their games should translate well to the professional level and will get an opportunities to be the featured back, don’t waste a high-round pick on either of the rookies. Same applies to Ryan Williams with Arizona, Mikel Leshoure in Detroit and Helu in Washington.
Be proactive with TEs
This advice lies on the other side of the spectrum from selecting a quarterback, as the discrepancy between the elite and ordinary is extreme. Oddly enough, the fantasy depth at tight end is the strongest it’s been in years, but the upper echelon of the position still hover above the rest. Jason Witten, Antonio Gates, Vernon Davis and Dallas Clark are practically receivers, and aside from a lack of scores, Chris Cooley’s merits are just as worthy as those aforementioned. Although he succumbed to injuries, Jermichael Finley posted phenomenal numbers in his abbreviated appearance in 2010.
After those select six, the drop-off begins. Brandon Pettigrew has a high ceiling, but his play is contingent on the health of Matthew Stafford. Dustin Keller would be slated higher if not featured in a run-first offense. Jimmy Graham certainly has promise, yet Brees has a penchant of spreading the ball around in the aerial attack. Owen Daniels remains a health concern. And if you could somehow combine the stats of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, you would have a fantasy tight end godsend; alas, they remain two separate entities. As these options are less than enticing, make sure to be preemptive when selecting a tight end in your draft.
Don’t overstock at one position
This is one of the more heated discussions in the fantasy forum: do you draft on need or availability? To me, this inquiry is simple: with many leagues hamstringing teams with position maximums and only so many roster spots available, draft on need. Utilizing the “best available” premise is only useful if one of your starters disappoints and/or is injured, or if you plan on parlaying that pick in a future trade. The former is an understandable consideration, although if you’re worried about a possible injury or letdown, you probably shouldn’t pick that player in the first place. As for the trade chip philosophy, that’s making the bold assumption that your player is not only desirable to others, but that you will receive fair value in return. Play it safe by drafting for need.
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Sleepers are Sleepers for a reason
Small rant: I have always been amused at the notion of “sleepers,” as the process of listing someone who may experience unexpected success is an oxymoron.
Anyway, many people confuse “sleepers” for “sure-things.” To clarify, a player is bestowed sleeper-status designation thanks to the lack of communal belief in their abilities to consistently contribute to a fantasy squad. Yet numerous owners will begin to stockpile sleepers after their perceived starting lineup is set in drafts. This is a formula for disaster, as your bench will still be a key factor in the outcome of your season.
If you want to take a flyer on a few sleepers, have at it. But wait until your last picks before you proceed in this venture, that way your losses are manageable if the sleeper doesn’t bare fruitful results.
Don’t bet on the comeback
In baseball, owners will often take a chance on a former superstar who’s fallen from prominence, hoping to squeeze out one more dynamic season (think Lance Berkman’s rejuvenation in St. Louis this season). This same logic doesn’t necessarily apply to football, as once a player’s performance begins to declines, it does so at a rapid rate. Favre’s 2009 season in Minnesota and last year’s submission from Tomlinson in the Meadowlands proves this is not necessarily the rule, but the sad truth is football does not facilitate a graceful aging process for players on the way out of the league. In reference to this upcoming campaign, be wary of Donovan McNabb, Tomlinson, Chad Ochocinco and Tony Gonzalez.
Don’t outsmart yourself
Or as I like to refer to it, “the Phil Mickelson principle.” You don’t get any points for being a hero. Take a couple risks, but daring moves tend to backfire in fantasy football. Play it smart in your draft day strategy, and your dividends should be prosperous.
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