2008′s Lesson Learned

I’m still trying to catch up with a ton of things just getting back from the Super Bowl late Monday night, but I’ll be starting to blog 2-3 times a week going forward, so if you’d like feel free to hook up the RSS feed for the blog so you can quickly see if I’ve made a new post.

One thing I’d like to do this year and re-post some of my whole articles to the blog, this way those who want to comment or chime in can. First up, here’s my annual “Lessons Learned” article posted on the site today.

2008′s Lessons Learned
Published
, 2/4/09

I recently started perusing a certain social networking site, and while I’ve been catching up with long-lost friends and acquaintances from high school and years gone by, one thing is clear to me: I’m old.

It’s true. I was in my mid-20s when I started this site, and it’s been a 15-year expedition that has seen its share of ups and downs. From proclaiming Isaac Bruce the next Jerry Rice in the summer of ’95 to an embarrassingly bad ranking of Kevin Jones in ’05, one that I’ll never truly live down, I’ve learned plenty of lessons over the years (I’ll also contend to the grave that Jones wasn’t the same player in ’06 that he was in ’05).

The upside to getting older is that, of course, with age comes wisdom, and since I’m well on my way toward obsessing about this particular activity for two decades, I’ve got the wisdom market cornered – at least when it comes to fantasy football.

I have certainly learned that I can’t be correct about everything, and while I do whatever I can to minimize my margin of error, striving for flawlessness in this realm is, in many ways, an exercise in futility. But that constant struggle for excellence and precision has definitely made me a better analyst, so I’m certainly going to continue to scratch and claw my way to perfection. 2008 was, overall, a good year, and there were some key lessons learned. They will be added to my fantasy football arsenal of intelligence, and I truly believe that, with them in hand, I’ll be better off going forward.

So here are the lessons I learned – or ones that were seriously reaffirmed – this past year. I’m going to be harder to beat in 2009 because of them, and so will you.

It’s all about knowing who to target and when.

Everyone wants to see rankings, and cheat sheets, and Excel files populated with projections and comments – and I totally understand why – but ultimately, it’s more about knowing which players to target, and when.

You’ll find no better examples from 2008 than rookie RBs Chris Johnson and Matt Forte. We loved both players, and we glowingly praised them this summer, repeatedly. I thought about being bold and ranking them higher than we did, but it simply didn’t make sense to go “all in” on these guys and ranking them, say, in the late-teens. Both had some issues, with Johnson’s a timeshare with LenDale White, and Forte in what seemed to be an unfortunate situation in Chicago. Moreover, both were unproven rookies. We would have been heroes had we daringly ranked them, but I don’t think there’s a strong need to be haphazard when it comes to ranking questionable players. Bottom line, if you liked one or both based on our input or your own instincts, they could have easily still been yours, at a very fair price. So in their case, it was simply a case of being sold on the player’s abilities and being informed enough to target them in drafts, and doing so at about the right time. I know a ton of our readers got them, anyway, so while our ranking of them both might not seem great with the ’08 in our rearview mirror, our coverage of Johnson and Forte was a success. Both were being drafted in the 5-7th rounds, and that’s right around where we had them slotted (late 5th, early 6th), but the difference is we had them as guys to snap up at this point. Guys to seriously consider.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, fantasy players, many of whom obsess over ADP in the preseason, are usually conditioned to take certain players in certain spots, so even though Johnson showed some serious game in the preseason and was climbing up draft boards as August faded, he was still a great value. In an expert league for NFL.com conducted in mid-August, I was feeling very strong in the 5th round, and I took Johnson. That was a little early based on his ADP, and the pick caused some chatter in the draft room. But while I was (admittedly) a little distracted while making the pick, I saw Johnson on the board, and I was sold on him as a play-to-win pick. I took him, and I did win it all.

In the preseason, we produced (and will continue to produce) a top-200 overall listing of players, as we always do. Looking back at the list now, of course, it appears to be a little hit-or-miss, as these types of lists always do once the season is played out. We ranked Joey Galloway, for example, a few spots ahead of Kevin Walter. But on this list, we highlighted for easy access the players that we suggested readers target at various points of a draft. Walter was ranked 81st overall, which was pretty solid, but he was highlighted as a player to target, whereas Galloway was not. We liked Walter, and we were pretty sold on him, so a lot of readers in the 8th, 9th, or 10th round likely saw Walter standing out like a sore thumb, highlighted, and they took him. That’s exactly why we created this highlighted cheat sheet.

I know there have been a lot of people who’ve gone completely off our ranking sheet and done quite well, but it’s really impossible to create a perfect cheat sheet or overall ranking of players. There are so many factors to consider, such as when the players are generally being drafted, when they should be drafted, and if they should be drafted at all. So while I wish we ranked RBs like DeAngelo William (72), Steve Slaton (102), Tim Hightower (148), Derrick Ward (145), and Pierre Thomas (144) higher, they were really ranked about where they should have been ranked, based on where they were going in should have been going in drafts. The difference for these players and many others like them was they were flagged as players to target, and those who did target and draft them got great values.

Scouting trumps everything else.

I love how fantasy football parallels the NFL in so many ways. That’s one of the main reasons I’m not a fan of auctions. I fully comprehend the appeal, but in 2001 the Chargers didn’t bid higher than the other 31 teams to get LaDainian Tomlinson; it was a draft, he fell to their pick, and they wisely took him. On the other hand, if you do scout the players well, being in an auction, you can guarantee that you get those you like, which is good.

I’ve always fancied myself more of an NFL and personnel guy more than a numbers guy, and in 2008 I became even more mindful of how important effective player scouting can be. At the NFL scouting combine, there are players who are off-the-charts by the numbers, like Vernon Davis was in 2006. But Davis can’t play, at least he still can’t now. He’s a freak physical talent, but as an NFL player, he stinks.

When I draft, I prefer not to have a laptop on me, and I don’t need to utilize a program that uses some sort of algorithm to spit out the desired pick for me. Hell, I don’t even know what an algorithm is. Whenever I’m asked about my strategy for a

fantasy draft, I usually smarmily say that I “like to draft good players.” But in 2008, although always pretty obvious, that was certainly the way to go. I, of course, target players in good situations with good vibes in the preseason, but I had a very good year because I simply drafted a lot of good players. In the Rotobowl draft, I used one sheet of paper and drafted Brian Westbrook, Tony Romo, Brandon Marshall, Greg Jennings, Dwayne Bowe, Matt Forte, Chris Johnson, Kevin Walter, Chris Cooley, Pierre Thomas, and John Carlson. They’re all good players, so it was relatively easy for me to pull the trigger on all of them, especially since some of them fortunately fell to me.

Participant preparation for fantasy drafts has never been more intense then it is right now, but those who focus on the numbers and don’t scout the actual player’s talent – and how that talent translates to the NFL – risk making the same mistake the 49ers made with Davis, who likely sold the Niners on numbers and his potential running and jumping in shorts at the combine. I’m certainly not going to let statistics tell me I should draft a player; I need, first and foremost, to see if the player has what it takes to excel on the field.

Here are some scouting tips we should have learned from 2008:

  • Runners need to make people miss – This summer we criticized Darren McFadden for his inability to do this consistently, and we praised Chris Johnson and Matt Forte for their ability to – and we’re glad we did both. You can succeed in the NFL if you fail to make unblocked defenders miss, but a RB will never be truly special if he cannot.

  • Smaller backs who play bigger than they are – I certainly realized that rookie Steve Slaton had a chance to make an impact in Houston, given the weak talent there. But I definitely had some questions about his ability to handle a larger workload in the NFL, since he was a smaller runner projected as a 3rd-down back. But what many scouts missed and what we saw right away in the preseason, was that Slaton played much bigger than he is, and he was much tougher than others expected. Maybe he won’t be able to handle 18-20 carries a game going forward, but this is definitely why he was able to have sustained success in 2008. This is attribute is what we need to look at when analyzing smaller backs going forward.

  • Young receivers need to do everything right – From the moment Bronco wideout Eddie Royal got on the field for the Broncos in the minicamps and OTAs, he did everything right. He picked up the offense quickly, showed excellent route-running ability, and he exhibited great hands. We learned in 2008 that it’s still a steep learning curve for most rookie receivers, like Devin Thomas, for example, but excelling from Day One is certainly doable. Players like DeSean Jackson and Donnie Avery had success, mainly because they were needed playmakers for their team, but Royal was the true sleeper rookie receiver this year. In fact, he was THE sleeper receiver of the year, period. He was as a rookie because he did everything right and well.

  • TEs need to have some juice – I’ve been a pretty big supporter of Redskin TE Chris Cooley in the past, but I have to say, I’m not exactly enamored with the guy now. He could score 7-8 TDs any given season, so he’s still a solid fantasy option, but I was pretty taken aback this year watching him play. The guy looked slow to me, sluggish, and I did not like what I saw. Granted, it’s rare to see a TE who can really run well, but if there are any to be had, they’re the ones I’ll be targeting. That’s why I’ll continue to get behind Owen Daniels, even though he doesn’t score, and to an extent Tony Scheffler. I’m till enamored with their speed. Not so much with Marcedes Lewis, who runs like he has a piano on his back. I’ll look at Greg Olsen, Dustin Keller, and Visanthe Shiancoe, who can run. And I’ll avoid guys like Jeremy Shockey and Todd Heap, who really cannot anymore.

Understanding your scoring system and the tendencies of your league, drafting for value, analyzing a player’s system and supporting cast, and understanding ADP are all important elements to a successful fantasy draft, but properly scouting the actual players and understanding how their skills translate to the NFL, good and bad, is priority #1 to me.

Good vibes, bad vibes remain paramount.

This was another lesson reaffirmed in ’08, and not only that, it was slammed home. We busted our asses last summer producing as much content as a fantasy freak can consume, but the reality is that all we, in fact, had to do was profile all the good vibes, and warn everyone about the bad vibes, and that alone would have been an excellent preseason primer, as things turned out.

I’d like to take all the credit for telling subscribers to steer clear of high-end players like Steven Jackson and Willis McGahee, but the fact is that they simply had bad vibes surrounding them this summer, so to me they were to be avoided. Easy call. No one really foresaw the excellent season logged in by the Falcons, but if you look back and read my “Good Vibes/Bad Vibes” article from the summer, you’ll see the vibes in Atlanta were actually pretty damn good, and after re-reading that coverage, I’m not as surprised they did so well. The vibes in Cleveland started off just fine as camp opened, and then they progressively got worse. The vibes deteriorated so badly in August, that it truly ruined their season – and cost head coach Romeo Crennel his job. Luckily, for me, I avoided their players for the most part, and the one time I did take the plunge with QB Derek Anderson because he was an apparent value in the 7th round, he was the cornerstone of my worst fantasy team of the season. In Anderson’s case, we didn’t back off him enough due to the bad vibes because the risk-reward still seemed palpable and acceptable. But if the vibes are horrific, there’s a good chance you’re going to have issues, so the affordability of the fantasy commodity means little. That’s a lesson learned for me.

After 2008, I think the Good/Bad Vibes thing needs to be elevated from a general fantasy tip and axiom, to a major rule of thumb or a law. The vibes in New England weren’t that good this past summer, for example. They weren’t good in Indianapolis, either. And if players like Tom Brady and Joe Addai (and even to an extent Reggie Wayne) can fall victim to the whole vibe deal, then we’re dealing with a serious trend in fantasy football. And forget about the Bengals, Rams, and Seahawks. As chronicled by us all preseason, the vibes there were terrible – as were their players this year as fantasy picks.

It still all starts up front.

I could talk here about the importance of the offensive lines every year, and the topic would be relevant. I usually do, but some years it’s more apparent than others, and it was very much so in 2008. We know the offensive lines are hugely important, and that we need to temper expectations for any offense when there are obvious issues up front, but here are two less obvious concepts culled from the ’08 experience that needs to be covered.

For one, it’s never that easy to project and anticipate a young or unproven line to come together beautifully, but it does happen each year for a few teams. This year, the best example was the Carolina Panthers. This young line was solidified by the addition of #1 pick LT Jeff Otah, and they added some quality depth elsewhere. They came together incredibly well, and this group was a key reason their running game dominated all season. In Denver, their OL was a huge question mark heading into the season, but they also came together well, thanks mainly to the addition of LT Ryan Clady, who quickly emerged as one fo the AFC’s better left tackles. The OLs in Baltimore, Atlanta, and even Chicago came together well and exceeded expectations. So the lesson I’ve learned is to study and analyze these OLs even more going forward. In fact, I’m thinking of approaching these units the way I approach single players in terms of projecting breakout success. Had I had this focus this past summer, I might have tabbed Carolina as “the” breakout OL unit, and I would have been even more encouraged by their running game. Seriously, accurately projecting a breakout line or two might be more important and useful to readers than, say, giving them the next Eddie Royal, so I’ll be looking for these potential breakout lines in the future.

On the negative side, it’s clear that some of the teams that disappointed this year offensively did so because of issues on the offensive line. We couldn’t really project it because most of their issues were in-season injuries, but the Jag line basically fell apart this past year, and their players disappointed because of it. RB Maurice Jones-Drew proved his mettle and value by still putting up good numbers, but he would have done even better had the line been in better shape. Even in Indy, the offense wasn’t nearly as dynamic, and they did struggle at times, due in large part to some injury problems up front. I, along with many analysts, projected the Bills to have a very good line, but thanks to the holdout of LT Jason Peters and some overall lackadaisical play, they underachieved, and that didn’t do RB Marshawn Lynch and the entire offense any favors. So the lesson here is to put even more stock into bad preseason vibes when it comes to the offensive lines, and to be a little more proactive when it comes to projecting the effectiveness and production of the skill players on teams with issues up front.

Rookies can and will do well.

If you’re one of those old school fantasy players who makes it a rule not to draft rookies, you missed out this year, big time. Falcon QB Matt Ryan’s first professional pass was a 62-yard TD strike to WR Michael Jenkins. He wasn’t a fantasy juggernaut, but he was much better and more productive than we’re accustomed to for a rookie, and Joe Flacco wasn’t that bad, either. They enjoyed excellent coaching and a solid supporting cast, but they did prove that a rookie QB can play at an elite level. When I asked Flacco about his development this past December, he interestingly said that it was best for his development to start right away. Some players at his position do need time, but the special ones are usually better off playing right away, and Flacco’s definitely special.

We’re used to rookie runners having success, and that was definitely the case this year. One interesting development is how the trend of committee backfields helped the rookies. In Tennessee, Chris Johnson was greatly aided by the presence of LenDale White, a bigger back who handled plenty of the tough inside running. Steve Slaton was in a bit of a committee early one, which helped him. Jonathan Stewart wasn’t a fantasy stud, but he did score 10 TDs, and it certainly didn’t kill him that he was playing behind DeAngelo Williams.

There were several receivers who did well, too, like Wideouts Eddie Royal, DeSean Jackson, Donnie Avery, and TE John Carlson.

Overall, we’re likely seeing a trend in the NFL in that competition is so fierce that teams need contributions from young players sooner than ever. For many teams allowing a young player to sit on the bench for a year or two and learn is a luxury they simply cannot afford, so expect more young players at all the skill positions to continue to be very helpful for fantasy. Don’t stick to an antiquated fantasy axiom of year’s past that states rookies should be generally avoided; get these guys on your radar each summer.

Poor or inexperienced coaching can kill you.

I know I’m in the minority here, and some may think I’ve lost it, but I have to say, I think a little less of QB Tom Brady here in January of 2009 compared to September 2008. Just a tiny bit less. Not his fault at all, though. The guy’s obviously one of the all-time greats, one of the smartest players at the position of all time, and a big-time winner. But Matt Cassel this past year looked more and more like Brady as the season progressed. Cassel, before this year, hadn’t started a single game since high school, yet he was, dare I say, Brady-like down the stretch in ’08.

I don’t need to delve any deeper into this concept because the point is simple: Coaching is hugely important to a player’s success. The coaches in New England have had a large hand in Brady’s development, and he had better thank them at his Hall of Fame induction speech. And it was obviously good – check that, great – coaching that enabled Cassel to excel this past year, despite not starting a single game in the NFL or, for that matter, college, before stepping into the starting lineup for the Pats. Rookie QBs Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan were incredible stories this year, and it’s no surprise that both had veteran offensive coordinators in Cam Cameron and Mike Mularkey, who were absolutely instrumental in their rapid development. Even in Kansas City, the offense was surprisingly productive, and there’s no question that the experience of new OC Chan Gailey was one of the main reasons why. In Miami, this was a gimmicky offense that surprised a lot of people, but it was still run by a long-time offensive coach in Dan Henning. And finally, yet another good example, the Titan offense, while not exactly prolific, was very effective, and it was run by a veteran offensive coach in Mike Heimerdinger.

On the other hand, we’re seeing the progression of Raider QB JaMarcus Russell slowed – if not stifled – by poor coaching, and Redskin QB Jason Campbell hasn’t exactly blossomed yet, likely due to a lack of continuity from a coaching standpoint. In Detroit, we learned that we should not trust new offensive coordinators, especially former line coaches, who don’t have a great track record running offenses. Jim Colletto, who ran Detroit’s offense in 2008, didn’t have much of a track record, period, other than coaching the offensive line, and his offense was basically dreadful in 2008.

Overall, while there were a few surprises on offense this year, most of those teams that exceeded expectations did so with veteran coaches/coordinators, or in proven systems. Most of the offenses that got it done in 2008 were run by proven coordinators, like for the Green Bay Packers, which helped QB Aaron Rodgers a lot. Most of the teams that stumbled offensively had some coaching issues and/or were running systems that weren’t exactly proven.

We always do extensive overviews of each year’s coaching changes, but we’ll be breaking this year’s moves down even more in-depth because there have been and will be a lot of changes (almost a third of the league). There will be a lot of coaches with questionable credentials, too, so recalling the lesson learned in 2008 of how important good coaching is will be an incredibly huge key to your fantasy success in 2009.

If possible, look for someone special

We all want someone special in our lives, right? Well I want that, and for fantasy I always want to draft someone who is special on the field, particularly someone who isn’t exactly a proven commodity and is, therefore, a value.

Last year, the example was RB Adrian Peterson. We practically begged people to draft him, and that was a very easy call because he was obviously very special. His special qualities certainly came to the surface last year, and quickly. You’ll find no better example from this past year than Lion WR Calvin Johnson. I loved the guy’s potential this summer – because he’s obviously a special player – but I have to admit that I was floored that he continued to produce week after week, despite the horrendous situation in Detroit. It didn’t matter who was throwing him the ball, and four different QBs did. That’s a great example of why it’s always advisable to target players who are special or potentially special because, while a guy like Marques Colston is very good, I’m not sure he’d be scoring weekly with the likes of Dan Orlovsky and Daunte Culpepper (in the system for merely weeks before getting onto the field in 2008) tossing him the pill, as Johnson did.

In 2008 we learned to be very aggressive when it comes to drafting special talents, like Calvin Johnson

In 2008 we learned to be very aggressive when it comes to drafting special talents, like Calvin Johnson

And next year, I’ll have no qualms drafting Titan RB Chris Johnson in the 1st round, even though he’ll likely still be sharing the ball with LenDale White. Johnson’s truly special, so he’ll be more than fine. I’m usually not thrilled with taking my TE too early, but snagging Charger Antonio Gates can never be considered a bad pick, simply because he’s special, he’s the cream of the crop at the position. I used to think Panther RB DeAngelo Williams was special, but while I didn’t discredit him this summer, I backed off that opinion after his first two (so-so) seasons in the league. The Panthers did, too, and that’s why they drafted Jonathan Stewart in the first round last year. They didn’t know Williams would be that good, there is no debate, or else they wouldn’t have used a #1 pick on a back. But Williams did turn out to be special, and I did get him in several leagues because I did still think he at least had upside potential, given my initial feelings that he was, in fact, special.

It goes without saying that drafting elite players is ideal, but the lesson learned here is to take a leap of faith with players who aren’t exactly proven but potentially special, like the two Johnson’s in 2008. More often than not, when you do, you’re rewarded handsomely, so if you see someone special, don’t get too caught up in hi ADP numbers. If you want him, take him, even a round too early; play to win.

The lesson is to also be at least somewhat wary of players who really aren’t special. Although he finished very close to where we had him projected in the preseason at his position, Bill RB Marshawn Lynch was really a bit of a disappointment. He wasn’t awful, of course, and his line let him down a little bit, but ultimately his problems this year stem from the fact that he’s simply not special. Detroit’s Kevin Smith isn’t, either, and neither is Green Bay’s Ryan Grant and Seattle’s Julius Jones. You can expect only so much from players who don’t truly challenge defenses with serious raw talent.

It’s probably best to hold off on your QB.

I preached holding off on drafting your QB for literally a decade, and the one time I strayed from this approach, around the turn of the century (2000, of course; I’m not that old), I got burned by drafting Kurt Warner in the 1st round. Lately, though, I’ve warmed up to picking a stud – as long as it’s not too high. I mean, no one who took Saint QB Drew Brees late in the 2nd or third round was complaining, right? Cowboy QB Tony Romo, however, didn’t work out so well. Peyton Manning was his usual solid self, so targeting a “stud” QB wasn’t such a bad idea, as long as it wasn’t in the first or even early in the second round. Of course, as we know, those who just couldn’t pass on Patriot QB Tom Brady got burned.

Brady made plenty of sense coming off his monster year, but the problem with drafting Brady or any QB in the first round is that someone else has a good chance to draft a player at this position who equals or exceeds your guy’s numbers – about 6-7 rounds later, or more. We can probably assume each year that there will be a running back or two who is drafted late and puts up big numbers, but it’s rare when a RB is drafted beyond the 6th or 7th round and puts up huge numbers from day one, very rare. Not the case with the quarterback position, however, which is the main reason it’s “probably” wise to hold off on a QB. In early July Adam Caplan and I did a podcast on breakout players, and we featured three guys who could potentially break out and put up starter’s numbers despite being later picks. As it turned out, all three players – Jay Cutler, Aaron Rodgers, and Matt Schaub – put up very healthy numbers and were quite valuable. Not only that, but Philip Rivers and Kurt Warner put up spectacular numbers and weren’t even on anyone’s radar this summer until at least the 7th round, likely later.

I’m still all about grabbing nothing but impact players in the first few rounds, even if it is a QB, and I did this past year win four leagues in which I took my QB early (2nd or 3rd), but there’s no question that, at the very least, there is absolutely no reason to overextend yourself by taking one of the elite players at the position too early. As for taking a QB with your first pick, as always, I highly advise against it.

You are what you are.

You get to a point in the NFL at which you are what you are. Saint RB Reggie Bush isn’t a featured back, for example. It’s not happening, and it’s never going to happen. He can be very deadly, and he could very well be a fantasy stud next year, but he’ll most likely be a much better PPR player more than anything else the rest of the way because he is what he is: a satellite player. And while I definitely still like Matt Schaub, he, too, is what he is. The guy was 7th in the league in fantasy points per game, and he put up very healthy numbers in 9 of his 11 games, but he’s flimsy and can’t stay healthy, and he needs things around him to be ideal. Maybe Schaub’s protection improves and he logs a monster season or two with 30+ TD passes – he’s certainly capable of that – but based on what we’ve seen from him his last two seasons, we can’t expect great things over the long haul like we can for a guy like, say, Jay Cutler. Cutler is what he is, too; he’s a player who comes around too infrequently in the NFL: He’s a stud.

Sometimes, an average player looks better than he is due to an excellent situation around him, and sometimes a better player looks average due to a poor one. But for all NFL players, at some point, with at least a couple of years in the league, we have to say they are what they are, and the lesson here is to not get too carried away with a player and hope you can will him to produce for you if he doesn’t have it in him. For example, with Schaub, I still like him, but it’s time to assume going forward, at least for now, that he’s probably not someone you can trust. And this past year, probably my biggest mistake was trying to will Bronco RB Selvin Young into being a fantasy producer. I still think the guy’s got some serious game, and he really was solid when he played, but even after his lone 2007 season, I should have realized he was what he was, and that was not a true lead back in the NFL. The Mike Shanahan factor certainly didn’t help him, either, and getting behind a Bronco back (again) was probably my biggest miscalculation of all.

Quarterbacks need to be consistent.

It’s always ideal to have consistency with your players, obviously, but it’s worth noting in 2008 that there were basically the QBs who were very consistent, and those who were not. There were various factors that enabled these consistent players to put up solid numbers each week – like Kurt Warner’s savvy and excellent receivers – but we clearly had a line in the sand this year separating the guys you could count on and the guys you were not able to count on.

Cowboy QB Tony Romo has a lot of juice for fantasy, but we should have ranked Drew Brees over him simply because Brees is more consistent, period. At this point, a sparking Super Bowl performance aside, we should question whether or not Steeler QB Ben Roethlisberger can be consistent, since he’s been up-and-down the last three seasons. I’ll definitely consider the fluctuations in his play and production when ranking and projecting him in 2009. Bronco QB Jay Cutler is very desirable for many reasons, and his consistency this year was very good, so to me he’s emerged as an elite fantasy option. And I was really, really impressed with Packer QB Aaron Rodgers’ consistency in 2008. I’m totally sold on Rodgers as a consistent QB we can count on, so I love him in 2009. I have struggled in the past with Charger QB Philip Rivers’ consistency, and I’m not 100% sure he’s going to keep it up in 2009 and beyond, but you have to be impressed with the incredible consistency he showed this past year, so he deserves a lot of love in 2009. I will continue to like Houston QB Matt Schaub, too, even though he’s not perfect. But he has the ability and potential to be very consistent, and he generally was in 2008. They may not have been great fantasy guys, but I think it bodes well for QBs Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco that they were so consistent. So most likely, I will target one of those guys this coming year over, say, Jake Delhomme, who is Mr. Inconsistency. I’m not 100% sold on Chief QB Tyler Thigpen yet, and he does have to show he can play effectively under center, but I really liked his consistency this year. He challenged opposing defenses each week, and he dictated to them as opposed to vice versa, so he’s also on my short list of young QBs who have a chance to be impact players.

On the other hand, other than some big-name vets I haven’t listed, such as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Carson Palmer, and even Donovan McNabb, the jury is still out on just about all the other QBs in the league when it comes to consistency, and I learned in 2008 to be wary of those guys. I just don’t want someone who is erratic, like Derek Anderson proved to be in 2008. I don’t want a player who can’t consistently sit in the pocket and see the whole field and make quick decisions and throw the ball from the pockets. Basically, I don’t want Jeff Garcia, or anyone like him. And in the future, I’m going to give even more respect to those players who have proven to be consistent.

Positional depth is something to look at.

Everyone kind of caught on to the notion that RBs haven’t been quite as desirable for a number of reasons lately, namely the proliferation of backfield committees. But the main reason I wasn’t all about the running backs early in drafts this year was simply because I saw incredible depth at RB, and also because I figured others were catching on and devaluing the backs more than ever before. The best example for me was in the Rotobowl league. I didn’t exactly pounce on the wideouts, but I did take three with my first five picks. Amazingly, I was still able to draft an excellent trio of backs in Brian Westbrook, Matt Forte, and Chris Johnson. In other years, I wouldn’t have dared to wait until the 6th round to take my #2 RB, but I saw excellent positional depth, and I looked to take advantage.

So each year, it’s important to analyze the position depth, or the position scarcity, and draft accordingly. Doing this is one more thing you can do to give yourself an advantage over your fellow drafters, and gaining as many advantages as possible is always ideal.

Rent-a-players rule.

Unless you’ve had the draft of a lifetime, there’s usually at least a hole or two on your fantasy roster, likely a third receiver or a flex starter, but while 2008 wasn’t a great year for waiver wire pickups who were golden all season, there was a ton of players who put up nice numbers for a decent spell, and I found myself rotating these guys in and out of my lineup all season in many of my leagues, and with a lot of success.

If a player is rolling with the production, I’m all about riding the guy for as long as I can, and this past year we saw guys like Peyton Hillis score four weeks in a row, so he was very helpful for fantasy owners who needed a lift at RB. Saint RB Pierre Thomas was absolute money the final six games of the season, so riding him while he was hot paid even bigger dividends.

But the best example of effective rent-a-players in ’08 was at the WR position. Because of the nature of the position and the general inconsistency we typically see with #2 and #3 wideouts, this position was a great source of temporary production. For example, when Chris Chambers was hurting around mid-season, I picked up Malcom Floyd and used him while I could. He scored in two of the three games I used him, and then I discarded him like a mushy banana peel. I really liked what I saw from Raven wideout Mark Clayton this year, so I picked him up in a bunch of leagues. The one week I needed him, he came through big time with 5/164/1 against the Bengals. And when I needed a third wideout to produce for him in a few of my leagues, I turned to 49er Isaac Bruce, who came through for me down the stretch with six solid games.

The WW is, of course, hugely important for fantasy, and we all like to get a guy who’s picked up and then who blows up, like Buc WR Antonio Bryant this past year. But rental players are the next best thing. More important, the lesson learned is to target rent-a-players for a short-term fix who are in good situations. Floyd was handy, but only for a few weeks. But Saint wideout Lance Moore was looking like the best example of a productive rent-a-player this year while Marques Colston and Reggie Bush missed time, yet he was much more than that. So these quick-fixes can be very helpful, if not the key to fantasy glory. So even if you don’t need help at a particular position, and if you have some roster space, it’s always wise to look into these types of players and if possible snap them up, just in case.

Forget about DTs, and this time I mean it.

We’ve done a good job over the years of uncovering some value defensive teams, but I have over the last few years become somewhat enamored with selecting an elite fantasy D, as a knockout blow. Like if I feel I’m killing it in the draft, I’ve said recently that I have no qualms going for the gusto, and selecting a top tier fantasy defense, to assemble the best possible starting lineup. In years past I usually advised against taking a DT too early.

Forming the most devastating starting lineup as possible can never be considered a bad thing, so as long as you’re not over-extending yourself and paying too hefty a price, like people have done in the recent past with the Bear defense, targeting an elite fantasy defense isn’t exactly a bad idea.

The problem is, in 2008, there really wasn’t an elite fantasy D. Not only that, it was a brutal season for fantasy defenses overall. It’s hard enough to project success for an individual player, let alone a whole unit, so I think we’re much better off simply holding off on the position and targeting the potential values. That’s a little hit or miss, but if you hit on a unit we liked, like the Eagle defense this past year, you’re golden. If you miss, like the Cowboy defense, you can still find an option on the WW, or simply go with the group that is or has a chance to get the job done for a decent stretch. The Cowboys disappointed me greatly, but they were actually the 4th best fantasy defense in the second half of the season, so they were eventually a worthy starter in ‘08.

Especially if current trends prevail, there’s simply no reason to overpay for a defense. For example, we had the Bear and Jet defense as values to target later, and both finished in the top-5 in a typical scoring system. They weren’t all that, but they were still better than the Chargers and Vikings, the consensus top two fantasy Ds. And in such a bad year for the defenses, most fantasy players will back off on taking a fantasy defense too early in ’09, so that’s yet another reason to hold off on the position. If your pick doesn’t work out, there will surely be solid options on the WW.

League setups can drive you crazy.

And finally, a soapbox item to close out the 2008 season. Fantasy can be frustrating enough, even with an ideal league setup and scoring system, so I have no idea why some fantasy players seem to be perfectly willing to abuse themselves by playing in lame leagues. I may be a pretty good fantasy player, but if I’m asked any particular week who I’d rather start between Andre Johnson, Steve Smith, and Brandon Marshall, I’d like to cop out and say all of them. I noticed a lot this year, subscribers having stacked teams with a roster strong enough to field two competitive starting lineups, and I was stuck in this fantasy quagmire myself in a league I was running for a friends of mine. Each week, I had to decide to start two of the following: Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Steve Slaton. It was usually a nightmare, and I made several bad lineup decisions. But those decisions could have been avoided if only the league had a little more flexibility. For one, you have to play in a league that has a flex starter, and I actually prefer two, like they allow in the Rotobowl league. There’s no reason a team that drafts well should be punished; that’s no fun, so I’m a big proponent of expanding starting lineups. You still have to deal with lineup decisions, injuries, and the byes, but I’d prefer to be rewarded for drafting well rather than punished.

I’m also big on the whole PPR thing, as I’ve said for damn near a decade, at least for WRs and TEs. Let’s face it; wideouts and tight ends disappoint more often than not, but a great equalizer can be the PPR format. If a receiver is a good player, he’ll get targeted a ton, and he’ll catch a lot of passes, so if you draft a good receiver, you almost always get rewarded in this format, even if he doesn’t score a ton of touchdowns. For example, Viking wideout Bernard Berrian scored 141 points in a standard yardage/TD league this past year, which was 2 more fantasy points than Eddie Royal. But don’t you think Royal was a better player this year? He was, and he was more consistent, so in a PPR league, if you drafted Royal over Berrian, you would have been rightly rewarded. Berrian was 18th in a standard scoring system with Royal 20th. In a PPR league, Royal was 16th, while Berrian was only 26th. Berrian didn’t even catch 50 passes this year (48), so for him to be ranked higher than Royal, who caught 91, was a little out of whack.

In short, since my favorite aspect of fantasy football is selecting good players, preferably undervalued and sleepers, and having a successful draft, the last thing I want to do is be frustrated because of league setup limitations. Frustrated because I did, in fact, actually draft too many good players.

Well that’s what I have for the 2008 season in terms of lesson learned. It was a good year, but that actually makes me nervous. The NFL and fantasy can by very cyclical. It was such a bad year for RBs in 2007, for example, that we were bound to see a lot of surprises in 2008, and we did. But expectations are up now for 2009, so we’re bound to see some disappointments, perhaps a lot of them.

Rest assured I’m not going to take anything for granted this coming year. I’m going to carefully consider all the lessons learned in ’08 in and in years past. I’m going to do everything I can to make the best calls possible because the greatest lesson of all I’ve learned in my 15 years covering fantasy is that the NFL truly does stand for the National Fake-You-Out League.

We can’t hope to be lucky; we must prepare to be successful.

Category: Fantasy Football

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5 Responses

  1. Tom says:

    Agree with QBs and DEF’s. This was the first year, I held longer on QBs and DEF’s. I ended up with Kurt Warner on a couple teams and won 2 of the 4 leagues I played in.

    Chris Cooley – drafted him in one league and first the most part, he was mediocre. He’s been in the league for a while and has yet to establish himself as an elite TE.

    I liked the value Antonio Gates presented this year and his 2 TDs in week 16 helped win me a championship. His stock might not be as low this year.

    I wouldn’t advocate taking Marques Colston over Calvin Johnson. HOwever, it must be noted having Drew Brees throwing the ball to you sure adds to your Fantasy Football value. Calvin is a freaking stud – I like him and I wish I had him this year.

    Sure glad I avoided Tom Brady – don’t like spending 1st round picks on QBs coming off their career years.

    Agree with Reggie Bush. I’ll take him if there’s value, but he gets hurt too much.

  2. JOOCE says:

    While I appreciate your arguments, I’ve never been a fan of PPR. Yes, Eddie Royal was a better player than Berrian this season, but that is an ideal hand-picked example.

    Who is the better player is irrelevant. Matt Ryan was excellent this season, but was 15th-best fantasy QB in my league’s scoring system.

    If one argues that PPR ensures that the better WRs put up more fantasy points than the less-used but big-play WRs, the argument should be the same for RBs: why not point-per-carry or point-per-touch? What about QBs? Point per completion, half point per attempt?

    Again, I appreciate the pro-PPR arguments, but will continue to run my league as non-PPR.

  3. Tom says:

    Jooce,

    Good point and I’ve never run a PPR league.

    In my brother’s league, they had points for QB completions and QB’s were putting up ridiculous scores. I think it’s important for a league to have good scoring or you create a silly FF league.

  4. PEPPER says:

    I play in a PPR league where the reciver (WR<RB<TE) get 1 pts for each catch. This increases the value of these postions. The QB does not get any pts unless he is the one receiving the pass–Try it you might like it.

  5. website says:

    Strange , this post turns up with a black hue to it, what shade is the primary color on your site?

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