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Hansen on Strategy: 25 questions to help you think through your lineup decisions

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by John Hansen, Publisher

Published, 12/6/12 

I’ve been talking all year about how this has been a relatively easy season for handicapping the league for fantasy, but things are getting a little treacherous – just in time for the fantasy playoffs.
 
This year has been as active on the Waiver Wire as ever, but 2012 has also been a year in which the draft was more critical than it’s been in the recent past. That’s because, for the most part, the pickups on the wire this year have been mainly short-term solutions, or “Rental Players,” as I call them. Furthermore, the production has been spread among more players than ever for most teams, which has not only made the WW less fruitful this year, but it’s also made dealing with weekly lineup decisions a little tougher.
 
But if you’ve made it this far, you really have won because fantasy football, at least if you’re in a one-and-done playoff environment, is all about getting to the dance, and then hoping the fantasy gods take over. But those gods tend to smile down upon those who make the best decisions possible, so this is not the time to blindly submit your lineups and then head to church to light a candle.
 
I have some thoughts this week that hopefully will help you make the best decisions, and below I will review a series of questions you should be asking yourself when you chose which players to use to (hopefully) carry you to fantasy glory.
 
Has the player gotten you here? – This is blatantly obvious, but still worth pointing out. When in doubt, I’d probably rather lose with a stud who got me to the dance than try to be genius by starting a shakier week-to-week player who might seem more appealing than usual. Unless your guy is injured or dealing with a hellacious situation like the one Cardinal WR Larry Fitzgerald was in (that’s an optimistic was with their QB switch) keep it simple; start your studs regardless of the matchup and let the chips fall where they may. This approach is usually prudent about 95% of the time. In the case of 49er TE Vernon Davis, if you’re still fighting for a title, you are doing so in spite of Davis, so he is an extraordinary example of a high-end player you bench in favor of someone else, even someone lifted from the scrap heap. This point holds a little more water because there really aren’t any true “shutdown” defenses this year, so your stud probably has a good chance to get it done against anyone.
 
What do you want/need from your players? – I talk about expectations all the time because it’s a huge factor when setting your lineup. I’m not waffling when asked a lineup question and I say something like “this guy is the guy to use if you want upside, and this option would be the safe choice.” This is even a bigger factor, due to the Thursday games all year. For example, if you started Falcon WR Roddy White last week and he let you down, you may have needed to be a more aggressive and start a guy like Indy’s T.Y Hilton over Cleveland’s Josh Gordon. It’s Week Fourteen, so for the most part, we should understand the upside and downside most of our players present. If you’re in the playoffs now, you absolutely have to look across at your opponent’s lineup and see how you stack up. If it’s looking dire, you may want to swing for the fences and start Niner QBB Colin Kaepernick over Bengal signal-caller Andy Dalton because Kaepernick runs and because of that has more upside. The first thing you should do when setting your lineup is think about what you’d be happy with from each player or what you think you need from each player, and then examine your options and determine which have the best chance to give you that.
 
Do you understand a player’s upside – and downside? – Speaking of expectations, you can’t have any if you don’t clearly understand what a player’s upside and downside generally is. A great example is Baltimore’s Torrey Smith. Smith is a fine player, but he’s sometimes hamstrung by an erratic offense, so he clearly has downside. Like in Week Eleven, when he caught 1 ball for 7 yards, or even last week, when he had 8 targets and 3/33. However, he also has huge upside, as he showed in-between those two stinkers (7/144 on 13 targets) in Week Twelve. The downside is there, but last week he had a few deep balls thrown to deep down the field, and he could have easily scored, so his upside is also clearly there, even if he doesn’t produce each week. If you look at a guy like James Jones, however, he also has upside – but massive downside. He scored last week and almost scored a second TD. But the week the before, he didn’t even show up on the stat sheet, so his downside is significant. You just never know with a guy like Jones, so while you’re determining your expectations, it pays to have an understanding of your player’s ceiling and floor.
 
How does his matchup look? – This is another obvious point, of course. We have everything you need on the site, from our Points Allowed tool that shows all the numbers each team is giving up to each position (even in your scoring system, if you’ve entered one) and game logs to our comprehensive Production Tracker report, which details those numbers and what they mean to our Projections and Game Center/Player Matchups on Friday, to our injury reports and analysis, you should have everything you need to determine whether or not your player has a favorable or unfavorable matchup (or in between). Honestly, though, the matchups haven’t been as important as usual this year, mainly because, again, there are fewer elite defenses in the league. But you can certainly clearly see if a matchup is favorable or not. Also, when we talk about the numbers given up, notice we don’t talk about what defenses are giving up for the year. That can be meaningless information. NFL teams, when they prepare for an opponent, go back only 4-5 games (maybe even 3-4), which is why we do the same. A great example is the Buffalo Bills. If you click on the Points Allowed tool for RBs you’ll see they are giving up the 5th-most points to RBs. Great matchup, right? Not necessarily because, over their last four games, they are giving up the 6th-fewest points per game to RBs. They have greatly improved, and are now giving up only 71.8 rushing yards per game. The Production Tracker report is a great thing because it will always look inside the numbers to put them into perspective. If they have been skewed because of 1-2 very good or bad games, or because they have faced a few inferior or superior teams, that will be explained here, so make sure you check that out.   
 
How’s the body of work this year? –I’m offering a lot of tips here and some of them might not necessarily line up, but when all else fails, and I’m looking for something – anything – to hang my hat on when making a tough lineup call, I’ll look at the body of work for the season. Cincy’s BenJarvus Green-Ellis, for example, has been on a nice little roll the last couple of weeks, but I’ll still go with a guy like Frank Gore over him because Gore’s body of work for the whole season has been better. Rolling with a productive player is usually advisable, but it’s not the only factor to consider. If a guy is hot now but clearly displayed downside earlier in the year, I have to consider the body of work for the whole year.
 
Is the player helped or hurt by my scoring system? – It’s elementary, but some scoring nuances can help you make the best lineup decision. For example, say you’re deciding between Detroit’s Matt Stafford and Indy’s Andrew Luck. Luck seems like the better play, in general, but if you’re taxed for INTs, that changes things. I wish I had a dime for the number of times I was asked a lineup question this year on Twitter about guys like Ram wideout Danny Amendola or Saint tailback Darren Sproles and the person didn’t even specify whether it was a PPR or not. A start/sit question about Sproles simply cannot be answered without knowing whether or not it’s a PPR. That’s why it’s always advisable to check leaders and production trends in your scoring system first and foremost. You can do it on your league site most likely, and you can do it here if you ever a custom scoring system in MyGuru.
 
Is your player healthy? – Injuries are always very tricky, but if you’re torn between two players and one of them has an injury red flag, we’ve seen lately with guys like Packer WR Jordy Nelson that starting a banged-up guy can backfire badly. Also, while Beanie Wells did score a couple of TDs, his lack of health caught up with him this past weekend. While DeMarco Murray was a poor example last week because he wound up playing a lot more than expected (although 57% of the snaps was still somewhat limited), but generally, when a player is coming back from an injury, especially if the team has others at his position, it’s best to expect him to be a little limited, as he gets his “football legs” from under him. Also, if a player has been on-and-off the injury report, like New York’s Hakeem Nicks, that’s a problem. Nicks is a high-end player who most fantasy players probably have to suck it up and start. But if you’re torn between him and a comparable option, it just makes sense to lean toward the healthier player.  
 
Have you considered the injuries around your player? - Some people barely have the time to investigate the health and status of their own players, so unless you’re a hardcore player, you may not realize the potential landmines or injury-related positives surrounding your player (s) each week. Chris Johnson is probably a weekly starter for most this week, but it’s possible you have a comparable option. If you do, then you have to take into consideration, for example, the fact that his OL is decimated with injuries right now. They’ve played two starters on IR this week, and starting T Michael Roos is questionable to play. If he’s out, that’s a problem for Johnson, and their entire offense. Stafford in Detroit is throwing the ball really well right now, but he’s lost another wideout this past week, so his receiving corps is quite thin. Therefore, expectations have to be lowered a tad with Stafford. On the defensive side, there’s always an edge to be gained when you understand the ramifications of defensive injuries. For example, if you’re on the fence with a Redskin player this week, you should definitely be aware that OLB Terrell Suggs is considered questionable to play (although he did practice 12/6), and this is a defense that will also once again by without Ray Lewis. The Raven pass rush would take a huge hit if Suggs can’t go, so that’s a big positive for Robert Griffin III and someone like Pierre Garcon.
 
Is the player like a box of chocolates? – Unless you’re desperate, you never want to use a player who is like a box of chocolates because, to quote the great Forrest Gump, “You never know what you’re gonna get.” And that’s a big problem this time of the year. At this point, I’m not sure the matchups really matter when you’re dealing with players like this. Cardinal RB Beanie Wells can score 2 TDs against a good defense one week and average 1.9 yards per carry against a bad defense the next week. If you’re using a player like this, it should only be out of sheer desperation and/or in a larger (14 teams or more) league. Here’s a quick list of players who I think are Boxes of Chocolates right now: Matt Schaub (not his fault, really), Joe Flacco, Jay Cutler, Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer, Michael Turner, Mikel Leshoure, DeAngelo Williams, Shonn Greene, Vick Ballard, Reggie Bush, Darren McFadden, Ryan Mathews, Beanie Wells, Pierre Thomas, Michael Bush, Jonathan Stewart, Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin, Dwayne Bowe, Brian Hartline, Brandon Lloyd, James Jones, Denarius Moore, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley, Greg Olsen, and Vernon Davis.
 
Where does your guy rank on the pecking order? – As I write this, a friend of mine e-mailed to ask about his wideouts this week. He has Denver’s Eric Decker, Carolina’s Steve Smith, and Washington’s Pierre Garcon, and he needs two of them. Decker’s matchup this week against the Raiders is/was good, but his current productivity has been disconcerting, which is a problem. He’s not getting targets because he’s not atop the passing option pecking order. Smith and Garcon are the top options, so I told him to start those two guys (it’s also a distance scoring league). There are certainly times when a #2 WR is looking better than the top guy; for example, we ranked Tampa’s Mike Williams over Vincent Jackson in Week Thirteen. But those instances are rare. Ultimately, you always want to go with the guy whose coaches are game-planning to get the ball to. Secondary player may have better matchups frequently, and that should be considered, but most of the time, you’re better off rolling with the go-to guy.
 
Does your player have the hot hand? - It’s hard enough to chase points and production in the NFL, so if you have a guy who is clearly getting it done, the best advice is to keep rolling with him until he proves you wrong for doing it. Oftentimes, the worst thing you can do with a surprising producer on a roll is try to guess when that roll will stop and bench him. Those who thought to themselves that Jacksonville’s Cecil Shorts couldn’t possibly do it again in Week Thirteen and sat him saw that he did, in fact, do it again. Production can be streaky, and if you’re guy is in the middle of a streak, you’re usually better off just riding it out. Conversely, if your option has gone ice cold, like Denver’s Eric Decker, then you might feel like a chump if you assume this is the week he gets it done only to watch him come up short yet again.
 
Does your player fit the identity of his team? – Donald Brown is likely out this week, which is great news for those who need Colt RB Vick Ballard. But as much as I like Ballard (granted, he’s not a stud), he’s no lock. The team is being coached by Bruce Arians, who never saw a pass play he didn’t like. Ballard is a volume back, so there’s no way you can expect anything with Brown in the mix. Certainly, his situation this week is improved with Brown not expected to play, but he’s still a bit of a reach. If you need Ballard, you definitely feel better about him with Brown unlikely to grab some of their RB touches, but Ballard’s margin for error is still rather small.
 
Is your player sharing the ball? – More often than not, I’ll want to roll with a guy who isn’t sharing the ball with another player at his position. I like Jacob Tamme, for example, but he’s hard to go all-in on him because he loses looks to Joel “The Vulture” Dreessen, so he’s essentially sharing the ball. In Detroit, it’s hard for us to project Mikel Leshoure very high because Joique Bell is usually in the mix, and Kevin Smith has been in the mix as well. This is usually a good tie-breaker because you never want to hope your guy gets opportunities; you’d prefer to know he will. If you’re going to invest in a guy who is sharing the ball it had better be in a good situation on a team with a lot of production to go around, like New England and Green Bay. Or unless you’re just desperate and have no other choice.
 
Does your guy have a good QB? – A very simple tie-breaker, especially for receivers, is the QB. If, for example, I’m torn between wideouts Shorts and Danario Alexander (who both have the “hot hand” right now), I’ll probably pick Alexander, simply because he has a better QB. You really do have to be careful when your guy’s team is being led by a shaky quarterback because you never know how a guy like Chad Henne will react to a given matchup. He doesn’t have much of a margin for error, and he always has some downside, and that downside can destroy your fantasy hopes and dreams. You can also consider any supporting cast issue that might slow down one of your players, but it’s all about the QBs, that we know.  
 
Does your QB run? – We all know it’s a huge factor, but it sticks out even more for those who have the (sometimes excruciating) task of producing weekly projections for fantasy football. Each week, I have to be conservative on guys like Carolina QB Cam Newton and Washington’s Robert Griffin III because there’s no way I can project one or both of them to put up 40 fantasy points in a game. But that’s exactly what Newton did in Week Twelve. If your fantasy QB has tangible potential running with the ball, that is a big edge. Most elite QBs put up numbers each week, but if the passing TDs dry up – as they have for Falcon Matt Ryan lately – then you have a problem. QBs who don’t typically augment their passing production on the ground have a smaller margin for error than guys like Newton, Griffin III, Luck, and Kaepernick.
 
Does your RB have versatility – One of the reasons we were so high on rookie RBs Doug Martin and Trent Richardson this summer was because they’re versatile. That’s a huge key because they can help you regardless of the flow of the game. With guys like Michael Turner, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and even Alfred Morris and Stevan Ridley this year is, if their teams fall way behind, they may be hosed. Now, I do love it when a guy like Morris gets volume every week, but when in doubt, especially since the NFL is unpredictable and it’s hard to be confident about how a game will flow, I’ll go with the versatile guy because he has a greater margin for error. If the Browns fall way behind, I know Richardson – who’s had some 8-9 target games this year – can still get it done for me. That is a significant advantage over some other backs who aren’t as versatile.
 
Are you trying to be a hero? – We all make mistakes trying to be a hero in fantasy football. I sure as heck do. To wit: last week I somehow had the notion in my head that Fitzgerald would do something because fellow receiver Andre Roberts was out and rookie QB Ryan Lindley did manage to throw for over 300 yards the week before. Fitz had a nice 23-yard catch early and I thought to myself, okay, here we go. But we didn’t go anywhere after that catch. Amazingly, that was Fitzgerald’s only grab of the day. Obviously, Fitzgerald is an all-time great still in his prime, so our relatively high ranking (I guess it was like 20 at WR before a Week Thirteen game was played) wasn’t a mortal sin. But it was a good example of how, if you have a gut feeling, it better also have with it some facts that are strong enough to lean on. There is no disputing the notion that Fitzgerald is a great player, but that was the only tangible fact that could be leaned on, and it wasn’t enough. Obviously, playing Fitzgerald this week isn’t nearly as scary with John Skelton getting the start, but it’s worth noting that just because you have a “gut feeling” on someone doesn’t mean you should start him.
 
Does your player have a weather issue? – Weather is absolutely something you have to keep an eye on, but reacting to poor weather appropriately can be maddeningly difficult, especially when decisions have to be made hours (or days) before the potential weather game kicks off. Last week, a frequent caller to my SiriusXM radio show was at the Raider game. He was in the parking lot at around noon Pacific, which was obviously two hours after the early games had started, and he said it was nasty. And then about 50 minutes later it was a beautiful day in the Bay Area! Weather is extremely frustrating to me because I feel as if whenever I’m concerned about it, it’s an issue – and vice versa. There’s not much we can do about it but be aware of it. It can be a tie-breaker when you’re struggling with a lineup decision. If there’s wind expected over 20 MPH (which was expected in Oakland, for at least the first half), that’s a problem for passing games and for kickers. Poor weather conditions tend to help out the running games, but if there’s snow that can actually help a passing team, since the receivers know where they’re going, yet the defenders generally don’t.  I was worried about Palmer last week for other reasons, and those reasons played out. Wideout Denarius Moore was benched and Darrius Heyward-Bey continued to drop passes. Palmer was terrible, but he got it done in garbage time. But as we always say, if we’re going to be wrong, we’ll try to be wrong for the right reasons.
 
Are you waiting until the last minute to make your decision? – The weather issue last week does lead me to another point. If at all feasible, make your decisions as the last possible minute. Sundays are very hectic, but if there’s a morsel of information that we think will be helpful, we’ll post it to that Sunday update page. For example, last week on the Sunday page, we posted the following: 3:17: The rain has stopped in Oakland, so our fears about the weather have been eased. That morsel of information may have convinced someone to start Josh Gordon, for example. If it helped one person, it was worth putting it up, and we will continue to add anything helpful to that page so check it online or on your smart phone, if you can. Also, there are usually a few tidbits of information that leak out right before kickoffs, as some NFL insiders prefer to give out info, but to protect their sources, not until the very last-minute, so if at all possible, waiting until the last possible moment is ideal. Sometimes, when it comes to info on players who aren’t playing in the early games on a Sunday, pieces of information come to the surface just before the 1pm kickoffs. And obviously, it’s always wise to check the gameday inactives carefully because expectations for players can change dramatically based on a surprise inactive on both sides of the ball. 
 
Is your guy actually on the field and getting action? – There are certainly a lot of things that you just can’t pick up just by checking out the Box score. We track all the snap counts at FantasyGuru.com, and we absolutely take them into account when we do projections. Obviously, pass targets are another huge indicator of a player’s role. How are his targets in the red zone? For a RB, is he getting goal line carries (on our site, we measure that by carries inside the 10). When in doubt, it’s certainly prudent to lean toward the guy who is getting a better opportunity.
 
Is your player’s team in evaluation mode and have nothing at stake? – This probably won’t be a huge problem for most, but it’s worth pointing out that some teams that are out of it might be inclined to take a look at some younger players, so that can be a problem. For example, I like what Jet wideout Jeremy Kerley has done this year. But in addition to not having a good QB, the Jets are in evaluation mode, so they may want to take a look at some of their other receivers. The same goes for their backfield, where Shonn Greene has been losing more snaps lately to Bilal Powell. Sometimes, this can be a good thing. Heck, even Jonathan Baldwin scored last week. But for the most part, if a young player is taking snaps away from a veteran, it’s not a positive. As I listed last week, here are some teams that might be in evaluation mode right now: Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Kansas City Chiefs, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams, and the Tennessee Titans. On a related note, it’s wise to consider what’s at stake for each player/team. A guy like Philly’s Bryce Brown is playing to have a bigger role next season so these final four games are important. The Lions' season is lost, but Calvin Johnson is still going for a record, so Stafford and the offensive play-calling might be more geared to get him the ball. There are teams contending for playoff spots that stop screwing around with rotations and are playing the best guy, like Jonathan Dwyer in Pittsburgh. They ditched dividing the snaps and are playing him the most. You have teams that had expectations like the Chargers that are just playing out the final string of games and look a bit lifeless, but just as worrisome are teams like Atlanta and Houston that might wrap up top seeds and have nothing to play for in the final week or two.
 
Might he fall victim to the Thursday night Buzz Kill? – I don’t have all the answers here, although we attempted this week to answer the question here, but it’s fair to say the Thursday night games have been disappointing this year more often than not. Obviously, the short week is a killer, especially for the road teams. So it’s a viable tie-breaker. If you’re that close on a lineup decision and literally can’t find anything to cling to and one option is playing on Thursday, I’d sit that guy. At the very least, while it does tend to make the game more entertaining, I would NOT be inclined to start a guy just because he’s playing in a nationally televised game.
 
Are you overthinking things? – I may seem crazy to even bring this up in an article like this, one that could easily cause paralysis by over-analysis. What I’m trying to do is isolate things that fantasy players can hang their hats on with tough calls. If you don’t do that, then you might as well break out the dartboard. We don’t have the answers to the results before the test, so we have to think through our decisions and try to make the best one. But there’s a difference between thinking a decision through and being paralyzed by one single factor like a great matchup. If a guy like Beanie Wells - who’s the poster boy for many of the red flags outlined above – has a fantastic matchup, don’t start him over Frank Gore because Gore’s matchup seems kind of tough. He’s Frank Gore and Bean Wells is Bean Wells.
 
Are you patient? – Fantasy players often remind me of an old boss I had when I was young working at a pizza joint. If he saw me standing around, he’d tell me to “Do something, even if it’s wrong.” I feel like a lot of people want lineup questions answered way too early in the week. It’s like they want the answer now – even if it’s wrong. Keep in mind that I – and probably most fantasy “experts” – don’t have best handle on the upcoming week until the very end of the week. Heck, in my case, I usually dip into Saturday until I feel like I know as much as I can know about the games (other than late-breaking news on Sunday). So make sure you’re patient because knowing who you’re going to start on Monday doesn’t make the games come any sooner, and you’re depriving yourself of some valuable nights to sleep on your decisions.
 
What’s the point spread in your player’s game? – I’ve given this tip out since literally 1997, and it’s a good one. If you’re torn between two players of seemingly equal value, upside, downside, whatever, check out what Vegas thinks about their games. We like points in fantasy football, and those guys in Las Vegas know what they’re doing when they set the over/under for the games.
 
Many of the principles I’ve mapped out here have a lot to do with logical, long-term investing decisions. You may certainly still make a wrong call here and there. You might have a year or two in which you make them quite frequently. But if you adhere to most of these logical tips, you’ll probably reap some long-term dividends.

Oh, and you need to be lucky – so good luck in the playoffs.

11,756 people wish they still made Flutie Flakes.

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