You want to make ESPN’s Matthew Berry feel old? Tell him, as I did this week, that you have been reading his material since he began his fantasy football writing career at Rotoworld nearly 15 years ago.
The league that first introduced me to fantasy football -- complete with Monday morning USA Today box-score tabulations and results that were sent via snail mail each week -- limped into its 20th anniversary draft Tuesday night.
Out of 12 high school buddies, I am the only one still unmarried and childless. Real life has trumped fantasy for the other 11 members of the Backyard All-Stars FF League, taking with it the rivalries, barbs and even draft preparation of yesteryear. How fun can a fantasy draft possibly be if half the league is consulting the Rotoworld Draft Guide for each selection?
As dinosaurs of the industry, however, Berry and I have learned valuable lessons along the way. Three of the core tenets of my philosophy are especially applicable to this column:
A). Go with your gut. It’s your team; draft the players you like. You will be surprised how often your gut steers you toward the right decision. Particularly in the first round, do not ask Chris Wesseling, Matthew Berry or Evan Silva which player you should draft. The next step is asking us to wine and dine your wife for you. Don’t be a fantasy football cuckold.
One of the maxims of legendary ex-Packers GM Ron Wolf is relevant: “It’s better to draft a player you like a round too early than miss him a round too late.” This applies to fantasy football as well. If you don’t want to kick yourself for missing out on Julio Jones’ coming out party, don’t worry about reaching for him. You’ve done your homework. It’s your hobby. Trust your instincts.
B). Exploit the industry-wide tendency toward consensus revolving around an over-emphasis on last year’s statistics. For some inexplicable reason, we have to re-learn every September that the previous year’s numbers don’t carry over.
We have two years of data on Michael Vick as the Eagles’ starting QB. In one of those years, he was the runaway fantasy MVP, putting trophies on mantles across America. The other year brought a disappointing 12th-place finish (sixth in points per-game). Since that one is the most recent of the two (click here for more insight on “recency bias”), it’s the one upon which the industry bases Vick’s expected 2012 value. Don’t fall for this trap.
C). In an offseason interview with Footballguys.com, I was asked, “What is the biggest mistake you see fantasy players make?” The answer was easy: “Drafting established mediocrities over high-risk players with major upside.”
The key to fantasy football is collecting difference-makers that give you an advantage over your opponent on a weekly basis. In the game of resource scarcity, the risk often associated with drafting these talents is worth the payoff. If you want to collect mediocrities, wait for the in-season waiver wire for a chance to pluck players on par with the ones your opponent drafted in Rounds 6-12.
Truth be told, this philosophy has long driven Rotoworld’s projections, rankings and even news bias. More so than other fantasy sites, Rotoworld has preached from the “swing for the fences” pulpit. That said, we are still obligated to perform the risk versus reward calculation on each player.
But how would a draft look if we devalued safety and mediocrity and eliminated factors such as injury risk, usage question marks and the over-emphasis on last year’s statistics? What if we drafted without regard for floor, with eyes only on the best-case scenario ceiling? Let’s give it a stab.
1. Darren McFadden, RB, Raiders - Not only was McFadden No. 1 in fantasy points when he went down in Week 7 last year, he also finished second only to Arian Foster in points per game two years ago. You could make the argument -- and then-coach Hue Jackson did -- that McFadden had already stolen Adrian Peterson’s tailback crown before their respective mid-season injuries. If you want to fall in love with McFadden, check out 2011 NFL Game Rewind clips of him and Chris Johnson back-to-back.
Any prospective McFadden owner still waffling over his injury history should pore over Frank DuPont’s polemic on “injury prone” as well as Footballguys’ Jene Bramel’s medical breakdown (podcast link, 55-60 minute mark) of the star back’s injury history.
2. Calvin Johnson, WR, Lions - I loathe fantasy football projections. They limit possibilities, stifle the imagination and are slave to the past at the expense of the future. The same people who failed to envision nearly 1,700 yards for Megatron last season will tell you that he can’t repeat the feat. Poppycock. The 200-yard performances in three of his last four games to close out the season suggest the sky is the limit.
3. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles - See introduction for explanation. Vick was the landslide fantasy MVP two years ago. Loaded with weapons and coming off the most scrimmage yards in Eagles history (for the second time in two seasons), Vick’s ceiling is the record-breaking 49 standard-scoring fantasy points dropped on the Redskins in November of 2010.
4. Chris Johnson, RB, Titans - CJ2K boasts a 2,500-yard ceiling, hasn’t missed a game in three years and appears to have recaptured pre-holdout form this summer. The question is whether the offensive line can block at a level commensurate with the 2008-09 seasons.
5. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots - Buoyed by the arrival of the second-greatest wide receiver in NFL history, Brady topped 50 touchdowns in a legendary fantasy season five years ago. Brandon Lloyd isn’t quite Randy Moss as a vertical weapon, but he doesn’t need to be. Brady is now equipped with a traditional inline tight end, slot receiver and joker tight end that may all rank among the best at their positions by the end of their respective careers.