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2012's Lessons Learned

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by John Hansen, Publisher
Published, 2/11/13
 
By now we’re all used to the NFL season being a wild ride. The recently completed 2012 campaign was certainly chaotic at times, as usual, and I know some people felt it was an odd year. But I actually felt it was a pretty straightforward and predictable season.
 
Yet there’s no denying the fact that the National Football League is constantly evolving, which means fantasy football is as well. If you think about the state of the QB position right now, for example, and how the horrendously un-athletic Byron Leftwich was the 7th overall pick in the NFL draft less than 10 years ago, it boggles the mind how much the game has changed in less than a decade – and we’ve seen some major changes just the last few years.
 
So it was still a season in which some lessons were learned (or at least re-affirmed). And after reviewing all of our preseason materials and everything that went down during the regular season, here are my takeaways from the 2012 season.
 
The draft may be more important than we think.
Obviously, the fantasy draft is a huge element to your success, but in recent years we’ve seen the Waiver Wire be almost as critical to our fantasy fortunes as the draft itself.
 
But that was clearly not the case in 2012.
 
The WW was still fruitful, but what it lacked this year was a healthy number of true impact players. There were obviously some productive pickups, but unless Redskin RB Alfred Morris wasn’t drafted (we had him as an 11th-round pick in our final cheat sheet, so he should have been drafted), there really weren’t any early-season pickups who made a substantial long-term impact this past year. What there was were a number of short-term solutions, or as I call them “rental players.”
 
I think this is a function of a couple of things. For one, fantasy players are savvier than ever, so it’s an upset these days when a certifiable fantasy starter slips past the draft. We may never again see another Anquan Boldin, circa 2003. That year, the entire fantasy world slept on Boldin, and he was one of the hottest Week Two pickups in the history of fantasy after he put up 10/217/2 in his pro debut. Guys will still slip through the cracks – like Bronco WR Brandon Lloyd in 2010 – but it’s becoming quite rare.
 
The other main element at play here is the fact that offensive production is generally split up among more players than ever at RB, WR, and even now at TE. Indy’s T.Y. Hilton was a really nice story this year, and while his production was actually pretty consistent down the stretch, it was hard for fantasy owners to count on him on a week-to-week basis. He didn’t technically start, and his production was a tad sporadic. After putting up 4/113/1 in Week Three, for example, he combined for just 12/125/0 total his next four games. And after a 6/102/1 effort in Week Nine, he followed that up with an effort that failed to register on the stat sheet in Week Ten.
 
We all know the draft is paramount, but it could continue to be more important than it’s been in quite some time. For those with limited roster requirements, this can make fantasy football a little more frustrating. Like if you have little flexibility and have to draft and retain 4 RBs and WRs, for example. Or you have a smaller roster, thus creating great depth (and confusion) on the WW.
 
But for most, with the draft looking a little more significant than it’s been in a little while, my best advice is to do what I talked about a lot this summer on the radio: try to draft two starting fantasy teams. It’s not easy, but it can be done if you do a great job of scouting the available player pool. For example, you could have drafted Robert Griffin III or Andrew Luck as your backup QB, Stevan Ridley and Alfred Morris as your backup RBs, and Reggie Wayne and Michael Crabtree as your backup WRs. ”Handcuffing” your top RBs doesn’t seem as viable these days, and your roster spots are worth more than that because if you draft a guy late/later in a draft who produces like a starter, it opens up trade possibilities, which can make your starting lineup more potent. Drafting two starting teams will also protect you from the inevitable bust or two (or three) most will draft. We specifically hone in on players to target with one’s last few picks who could be starters in our annual “Mr. Relevant” article, and this year’s list included many impactful players, like Russell Wilson, Alfred Morris, Vick Ballard, Jonathan Dwyer, T.Y. Hilton, Josh Gordon, and Martellus Bennett.
 
I’m usually all about values and upside in fantasy drafts, so I won’t be making any major changes to my draft plan or my work approach in August, which is to spend countless hours analyzing the fantasy landscape to help people have successful drafts. But it’s indisputable that preseason player selections were a bigger factor than ever for those who had successful seasons in 2012, so I’m going to step up my game in August even more and starting now will be thinking of any possible angle to take advantage of this point.
 
Fantasy football winners are always ahead of the curve.
Back when I played fantasy baseball, I once had a draft in which my 5th-9th-round picks were all drafted in the 1st round the next season in a 12-team league, and that might have been my proudest moment in 20+ years of playing fantasy sports.
 
I always try to be is ahead of the curve. For example, with everyone enamored with the QBs in 2012, I was tossing around the notion that fantasy owners looking to go for the jugular should see if they could “kick it old school” and go back to RB-RB early in drafts. Previously, I was actually giving the QBs and impact players, regardless of position, a lot of love, so I was less inclined to draft a RB early. Granted, several of the RBs I was targeting at the end of Round One and beginning of Round Two for my 2012 go-for-the-gusto plan (Darren McFadden, Chris Johnson, and DeMarco Murray) didn’t have brilliant seasons. But with great depth at WR in ‘12 and incredible values at QB like Peyton Manning, Robert Griffin III, and even Andrew Luck, you can see where I was going with that angle.
 
And guess what? It looks like the first round of fantasy drafts will be very RB-heavy in 2013.
 
To cover this more broadly, my goal in fantasy football is to draft off the next year’s cheat sheet, and looking back at our preseason coverage, we made a concerted effort to be more aggressive than ever in terms of targeting ascending and “sexy” commodities and passing on aging, less “Gurrific” picks. It may not be a coincidence, then, that our subscribers felt that we had a “good year” in 2012. I passed on a couple of productive players, like San Fran’s Frank Gore, but generally speaking, I have no regrets. Our love for the Giants’ David Wilson, due in large part to his ADP of around 100 didn’t work out, but did you really enjoy that late 3rd- or early 4th-round pick of Ahmad Bradshaw? Overall, I bet you didn’t. The Giants weren’t exactly thrilled with Bradshaw, either, and they released him on 2/6/13.
 
I’d rather be a year too early on a player like Wilson than a year too late on a guy like Bradshaw, so I still think the way to go is to be proactive by drafting younger (and of course talented) players whose best football is clearly ahead of them. Gurrific players like Cam Newton, Doug Martin, Trent Richardson, C.J. Spiller, Stevan Ridley, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Dez Bryant, Eric Decker, Kyle Rudolph and others were all on our players to target list and they all came through with productive seasons.
 
It doesn’t always work out – this past year we loved Steeler wideout Antonio Brown, and while he came on late, he had a disappointing season – but when you consider players of all types fall short of expectations every year, it makes too much sense to focus on younger players who’ll likely rank higher on everyone’s cheat sheet the following season. The trick, as we learned with Wilson in New York, is to not get too enamored with a young player and blinded by any realities that could delay his ascension.
 
Preseason evaluation is significant, but case-by-case.
One of the things that has always bothered me about this business is the fact that you can make a definitive statement about almost anything, and the odds are good that you’ll be right half the time and not exactly right (or flat-out wrong) the other half. The preseason is a great example of this. One might argue that it’s relatively meaningless, and one might be right about that quite frequently. But there will always be times when the preseason turns out to be a major indicator of future success.
 
And lately, I’m leaning toward preseason evaluation being more revealing than ever.
 
Right before the regular season started, I tweeted (@Fantasy_Guru) that I felt Seahawk QB Russell Wilson had very close to a “perfect” preseason, so I called him a top-5 story to watch in September. It turns out he didn’t do much his first two months, but as we all know, that nearly flawless preseason performance was a strong indicator of things to come. In Indy, I quickly noticed how Indy’s Andrew Luck was looking for veteran Reggie Wayne on almost every snap, so we started pushing Wayne pretty hard. I saw some major red-zone mojo in Denver with Peyton Manning and Eric Decker in the preseason, and Decker did finish second in the league at wide receiver, with 13 TDs (and he should have had 2-3 more at least).
 
Sometimes, though, I’m better off rolling with my initial reaction to a situation, as opposed to being swayed by what I see in the preseason. As noted below, I wasn’t feeling great about Oakland’s Darren McFadden in the spring, but then I saw him in the preseason and he looked phenomenal, so I got on board. That didn’t work out. Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown for the Steelers looked fantastic in the preseason, so there was every reason to get behind him on the heels of a breakout 2011 season, but he fell well short of expectations. I actually wrote several times in the spring about how David Wilson was going to have to appease Tom Coughlin, a real stickler for the details, but I could not help myself after being impressed by Wilson’s speed, power, and versatility in the preseason. And while the flashes of greatness I saw in the preseason from Wilson did come to the surface eventually during the regular season, it took a very long time for that. I’m going to back a very talented young player on a good team more often than not, but in Wilson’s case, the preseason wasn’t an indicator of success (well, technically it was when he actually got a chance to play).
 
But generally speaking, we can definitely get a ton of out the preseason and the exhibition season, so I think it’s very important. I’ve been fooled in the past by a QB looking great in the preseason only to flop during the regular season (I still remember Seattle’s Matt Hasselbeck in 2001), but we all saw Luck play very well in the preseason, and that was a preview of things to come. I’d say we’ve learned over the last couple of season that the preseason is a good indicator for young QBs and for QBs on new teams, like Peyton Manning. It’s helpful for RBs, for sure, especially when they are positioning for their spot on the depth chart, like Stevan Ridley was when he logged in a terrific third preseason game. We also saw Doug Martin completely take the starting job from LeGarrette Blount in August. But in the case of Wilson, while he looked great, his team didn’t have a great need for him, so Tom Coughlin was able to be a stickler for the little details and keep him on the bench for most of the season. So that was a small lesson to not go overboard on a player who looks great in the preseason, yet isn’t guaranteed a lot of playing time.
 
Preseason vibes still tip us off.
Speaking of the preseason, one of the first things I do when I start writing this article is to review my annual “Good Vibes/Bad Vibes” article to see if the overall vibes were an indication of things to come. And once again, I’d have to say they were. Here’s a quick look at all 32 teams from that article this preseason with some key words from the article that really summed up each team’s vibe overviews from the piece, and you can decide for yourself:
 
Arizona Cardinals: Really shaky overall
Atlanta Falcons: Fine
Baltimore Ravens: Very good
Buffalo Bills: Leans to the negative
Carolina Panthers: Pretty good
Chicago Bears: Pretty solid-to-shaky over course of preseason
Cincinnati Bengals: A little shaky
Cleveland Browns: Shaky
Dallas Cowboys: Horrendous, but got better later in preseason
Denver Broncos: Very good
Detroit Lions: Could be worse
Green Bay Packers: Weren’t great, but got better
Houston Texans: Just fine
Indianapolis Colts: Good
Jacksonville Jaguars: Precarious and shaky
Kansas City Chiefs: Good, but came down to earth later in the month
Miami Dolphins: Haven’t at least been apocalyptic
Minnesota Vikings: Aren’t horrible
New England Patriots: Good, but a little weird
New Orleans Saints: Not great, but not bad
New York Giants: Could be looking better
New York Jets: Weren’t horrendous, but certainly not good
Oakland Raiders: A balance of good vibes and shaky vibes
Philadelphia Eagles: Went from okay, but certainly not great, to shaky
Pittsburgh Steelers: A mixed bag, but not very good
San Diego Chargers: A buzz kill, and not very good
Seattle Seahawks: Haven’t been great, but overall they haven’t been bad, either.
San Francisco 49ers: Odd, but not bad
St. Louis Rams: Haven’t been horrendous, but they’ve hardly been great.  
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Pretty darn good
Tennessee Titans: A little disappointing, and shaky
Washington Redskins: Pretty solid
 
As you can see, while there’s a lot of grey area in these briefs descriptions, noting the overall vibes in the preseason gave a pretty accurate baseline for how each team’s fantasy season would go. 
 
Running quarterbacks are here to stay.
A big question now in the league is whether or not plays such as the zone-read option will eventually be “figured out” by defensive coordinators, and my contention is that they will not – provided the QBs running them can also consistently throw the ball from the pocket.
 
I know Tim Tebow put up solid fantasy digits in 2011, despite the fact that he struggles to matriculate the ball down the field via the forward pass, and I know three of the four QBs to advance to the conference finals were pocket passers. But given the recent success of guys like Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick, it’s safe to say these exotic play designs are going to continue to be prevalent, as will athletic QBs who are needed to run them. And this is a huge story for fantasy football. Last year in this article, I wrote about what Newton’s breakout season meant going forward, and I specifically mentioned how it should make RGIII a very appealing pick in 2012. That was due to in part to his rushing potential, but also because, like Newton, RGIII was a very strong passer with no limitations as a thrower. And all he did was finish 5th in the league in fantasy PPG, despite dealing with a pretty serious knee problem the final third of the season.
 
I’m sure defenses will be better-equipped to stop the read option in the future, but in terms of shutting it down and basically rendering it extinct, I don’t see how they will be able to if a guy like Kaepernick runs like a deer, yet also throws the ball with good accuracy and velocity from the pocket. As far as I’m concerned, Wilson’s fantasy stock soared once they started implementing the read-option, and while Newton had a disappointing season, you’re doing something well as a fantasy QB when “disappointing” means you’re 4th in the league in QB scoring.
 
Mobility at QB is always going to be a good thing, so even if your guy isn’t running the read option, natural passers who can move well like Aaron Rodgers or Andrew Luck are always going to have a better chance to produce for you due to their legs. And eventually, players like Kaepernick and Griffin will have to throw more from the pocket and run less to prolong their NFL lives. But it’s clear to me that teams will continue to take full advantage of their QB’s athleticism, especially when they can also throw the ball well from the pocket.
 
Newton, Griffin III, Wilson, and Kaepernick can definitely throw the ball well and from the pocket, and that’s why they will be fantasy juggernauts again in 2013.
 
Some guys can just play, and some guys can’t.
I’ve worked now with Hall of Fame QB Fran Tarkenton for two years, and I’ve learned a lot about the position from him. Fran certainly appreciates the physical attributes one needs to play at the position, but he also places a huge emphasis on certain intangible qualities one needs to excel at the position. Other than the truly elite quarterbacks in the league, no player exuded those qualities this year more than Seattle rookie Russell Wilson. Tarkenton is clear that one must be able to throw the ball to play at NFL level – which is bad news for Tim Tebow, as Tarkenton has opined – and he believed all year that Wilson could. 
 
As Tarkenton told me many times late this past season, it’s only taken the NFL community 50 or so years to realize that elite physical tools can be overrated (see Russell, JaMarcus). In other words, can you play at this level or not? Russell has great size and a rifle for an arm, but for a variety of reasons, probably most of them mental, he can’t play. Wilson has only a decent arm and is the most diminutive QB we’ve seen excel in the league since Doug Flutie, but he can play.
 
Granted, Flutie and Wilson are major exceptions to the norm – perhaps even freaks of nature – but it’s time for NFL and fantasy scouts to focus a little more on simply whether or not a guy can play and a little less on the measurables. Similarly, it’s time to pull back a little from off-the-charts physical attributes if the player seems to have some other prohibitive issues, such as a lack of character, leadership, etc. It may have taken the NFL 50 years to realize it, but it’s only taken me two years of talking to Tarkenton – and seeing all the qualities he described to me in 2011 in Wilson in 2012 – to realize you don’t have to have off-the-charts-physical ability to have success in the league.
 
What’s tricky here is when a player’s sample size is quite small, so we’re still trying to figure out whether a guy can play or not. Like Bengal TE Jermaine Gresham this past year. We isolated him as a breakout candidate this summer, and he did have a solid season. But I was underwhelmed with his play. Gresham isn’t a stiff, but at this point, it’s pretty clear to me that he’s never going to be a special player. I was also a big Jake Locker supporter in 2012, granted in large part to his low price take and upside. I’m still rooting for Locker, and his injuries, along with a coordinator change during the season did him no favors, but I’m wondering aloud if the guy can truly play. He couldn’t complete 60% of his passes even in college, and he’s at 54% in two pro seasons, so I have serious questions about whether or not he has it in him. In his case, all the intangible qualities are off the charts, and physically he’s gifted. But unfortunately, his mechanical and accuracy issues aren’t going away.
 
It’s always a challenge to get a handle on a younger player’s ability to truly “play” in this league with his sample size small, but you can be sure that I will be giving more love in the future to players who have “it” and will be careful not to overrate others who seem to have “that,” which is the opposite of “it.”
 
Raw talent still wins.
Sometimes, a player has a ton of raw talent, but for a variety of reasons, it’s just not happening for him, like Jermichael Finley in Green Bay.
 
But more often than not, raw talent is still an incredibly desirable attribute.
 
Anyone who has followed the site for a while knows we place a very high premium on raw talent, like we did for Saint TE Jimmy Graham in 2011. Raw talent was a major reason we gave the Giant rookie Wilson a lot of love this past summer (there were other factors, of course, such as his cheap price tag with an ADP around 100). Dallas’ Dez Bryant came close to driving me insane his first two years in the league, but we remained a supporter of his this summer, despite his off-field issue in July, because of his incredible physical talent, and that did work out.
 
There are always other factors that contribute to a player’s production, but I usually start with raw talent because it’s a big advantage for a player if he has it. However, in the case of the Denver wideouts, we didn’t take into the account enough the physical dominance of Demaryius Thomas. We weren’t particularly down on Thomas, who we ranked in the preseason 24th at WR, but we became a little overly enamored with fellow Bronco Eric Decker (ranked 16th), and we should have given Thomas more love. This was a pretty unique circumstance in that Thomas was still considered a little raw as a receiver and we felt Decker, a more polished route-runner, would work much better with the perfectionistic Peyton Manning. In fact, I even talked to Peyton’s father Archie early in the season and Manning confirmed to me that Decker was, in fact, Peyton’s guy. But the elder Manning also told me that Peyton had never played with a receiver so physically gifted (size, speed) as Thomas, and that his future Hall-of-Fame son was really excited about playing with such a physical freak.
 
Turns out, Manning had reason to be excited.
 
Decker actually exceeded our expectations and finished well within the top-10 at WR, which was very impressive, and he came through when it mattered most in December. But ironically, I was disappointed in his performance in 2012. I saw him fail to make at least 2-3 plays for TDs, so he should have scored 15+ times (who can forget him tripping over a blade of grass on MNF, missing out on a sure score?). And while his football savvy did translate to excellent production playing with Manning, it was obvious that Thomas was considerably more talented than Decker – and he was more productive.
 
So needless to say, if I ever see an elite physical talent playing with an all-time great at QB, my antennae will be raised significantly. Otherwise, I’m going to be careful not to underestimate a special talent ever again.  
 
Check your players’ DNA at the door.
I’m a pretty aggressive fantasy player, so I tend to take on some risks with players who have injury concerns. At least in 2012, I wound up regretting most of those risks. I recently started chalking up a guy like Beanie Wells’ durability problems to the simple fact that he doesn’t have the DNA to play NFL football and avoid injury. There are always freaky injuries that no mere mortal can avoid, but what I mean by that is it’s clear there are some players who can unquestionably handle the rigors of NFL play and stay on the field, like Ray Rice, and there are others who just can’t, like Ryan Mathews.  
 
And if it wasn’t already, it’s time to appropriately downgrade those who can’t.
 
This past summer, I was told that we downgraded San Diego’s Mathews like no other, and that was with no regrets. But Mathews’ injury problems entered the surreal when he broke his collarbone on his first tough play of the preseason. That blew my mind, so Mathews was essentially dead to me. I need to take my trepidation about guys like Mathews a little further, at least early in drafts.
 
Say what you want about Titan RB Chris Johnson, but his durability is amazing. Johnson obviously has the genetic makeup to stay on the field, and that was one of the main reasons we gave him love (or didn’t bail from him) in 2012, despite the fact that his regression as a runner has been crystal clear to us. On the other hand, while he looked great in the preseason and ran extremely hard and showed good versatility this past season, Cowboy DeMarco Murray, even at this early stage in his career, seems like a long shot to play all 16 games in an NFL season. It wasn’t an egregious error to give the second-year back the benefit of the doubt this past summer, but he did enter the league with some durability questions and now he’s missed significant time due to injury his first two seasons, so he has to be downgraded at least some on draft boards going forward. We’re all forced to consider injury risks at some point in a draft, and any player can be a value if the price is discounted enough. But at least when it comes to the first 1-2 rounds of a fantasy draft, I learned my lesson when it comes to players who have durability concerns. No matter how tantalizing their upsides may be, and no matter how well they may fit into a great overall draft plan, they need to be downgraded. And this thought process can certainly be expanded beyond the first 1-2 rounds of a fantasy draft. For example, if you were looking for a wideout in the 4th or 5th round in 2012, you certainly could have taken Dez Bryant over the injury-prone Hakeem Nicks.
 
It’s hard for me to be too conservative, even though I know for many it’s an approach that leads to success, but common sense has to take over at some point, and I’ve reached that point, meaning players like Darren McFadden and Murray are off the grid for me very early in drafts. When you’re talking the first 3-4 rounds at least, there will always be viable alternatives who don’t have major injury concerns, so drafting an injury-prone player early means you’re taking on added – and probably unnecessary – risk.
 
Injury recoveries are different for everyone.
I’d like to think, when we’re wrong, that we’re wrong for the right reasons, and that explains our trepidation with Adrian Peterson in 2012. We were clearly dead wrong for preaching caution with Peterson – incredibly wrong – and I led that charge on that. But no one who works on the site stepped in and advised me, due to the fact that he was, you know, Adrian Peterson, to re-access my apprehension. And I always welcome feedback, so it’s not like I’m a dictator when it comes to our positions on players. The fact of the matter is that most people who follow the league closely were skeptical, especially since we didn’t get the benefit of seeing even one measly carry in the preseason. My sense is those who threw caution to the wind and drafted Peterson without seriously considering his situation got lucky in 2012, but will fail more often than not if they continue to proceed recklessly and on uninformed “gut feelings.”
 
But the main thing I learned from Peterson this year – other than the fact that he’s probably not a human being – is that all players react differently to injury and their return from injury, so we can’t really make blanket statements on players and their return timetable based on the nature of the injury. That’s especially true with ACL tears because the technology has clearly improved dramatically. I felt a lot better this summer about Jamaal Charles, who we did actually get to see in the preseason, but Charles had more than a three-month jump on Peterson in terms of his recovery. As for Rashard Mendenhall, his ACL injury was suffered around the same time as Peterson’s, yet his season was put on hold in September – and eventually was whittled away to next to nothing, likely due to the injury.
 
Peterson is a freak, but the differences between his recovery and Mendenhall’s were significant, so we learned in 2012 that it’s best to access each injury recovering individually.
 
Be careful with players coming back too soon from injury.
While I’m on the topic of injuries, we also took a few missteps this past summer by giving a little too much love to some players coming back from them. There’s no question part of our affinity for these players was tied to the value they presented as mid-to-later picks compared to their upside potential, but that’s little consolation if they still ended up as wasted picks.
 
We may never see it at this point, but I’m still sure that Arizona’s Ryan Williams has the talent to produce big totals in the NFL. We pushed him this year as a great pick around the 10th round because we know what he can be at his best and because he looked very good on more than a few carries in the preseason, and we figured it was only a matter of time until Beanie Wells got hurt and lost his spot on the depth chart. Wells did get hurt, and Williams was the guy, as predicted. But clearly, Williams wasn’t able to produce coming off that serious knee injury and behind a horrendous Cardinal OL. In Green Bay, I also liked Alex Green as a late pick or in-season pickup, and my logic made perfect sense. In fact, he wound up being the guy, just as I thought he would. But it really didn’t matter because he didn’t do squat. In both cases, both backs were kind of thrown into the fire, and in shaky situations and coming off their serious injuries, I don’t believe they were able to truly show us the best they had to offer. Opportunities can be limited in the NFL, so now it’s questionable if they will ever get that chance. We at least this summer bailed from Titan wideout Kenny Britt, due in large part to his injury return, and that was a wise move. Britt clearly came back from his knee injury too soon, and he was a mediocre fantasy option all year.
 
Taking a shot on a talented guy who has a great chance to lead the way for his team at his position and won’t cost much at the draft table like Williams is something I’m sure we’ll do again because it makes too much sense. But you can be sure that we will temper expectations (or at least try harder to) if they are coming off serious injury, especially if they haven’t done much in the pros yet like Williams and Green.
 
Personnel needs to fit scheme.
My initial reaction to Darren McFadden this past spring was not positive on the news that the Raiders would be switching back to a zone-blocking scheme (the scheme they ran his disappointing first 1-2 years in the league). As long-time readers will recall, we didn’t really like McFadden in the scheme his first two years in the league. But then our guy Adam Caplan went to Raider camp this past summer and actually talked to McFadden about the switch, and McFadden said he ran the scheme in college and was very comfortable with it. He also told Caplan he had worked out harder than ever in the off-season. That was certainly all encouraging, and then I saw McFadden in the preseason. He looked unbelievable. And with the goal line and 3rd down roles there for the taking (along with the featured role, of course) due to the departure of Michael Bush, we really warmed up to McFadden as an aggressive, play-to-win pick – and he turned out to be our worst call of the season. I’m sure everyone in the fantasy world also had him pretty high, but that really bothered me because, again, my initial reaction to McFadden in the new scheme was not positive.
 
As astutely pointed out during the season on my SiriusXM radio show by former NFL scout and current ESPN scout Matt Williamson, teams that opt to make coaching hires and implement schemes that doesn’t fit the personnel are asking for trouble. And, of course, the man who was responsible for the shift to the zone blocking last year, Greg Knapp, has been fired. It is true that McFadden also missed time with an injury (see an aforementioned lesson), but while our information on McFadden being used a ton in the passing game looked great after Week One (18 targets and 13 catches), watching McFadden run most of the season was pathetic. And the positive momentum McFadden’s impressive summer created evaporated quickly.
 
McFadden could actually thrive this coming season (a contract year for him to boot) with Tony Sparano and his power running scheme in the fold now, but that’s a story for another day. The lesson learned is we have to pay a little more attention to a player and how he fits into his scheme, especially if it’s a new scheme. This is clearly going to be a relevant lesson for 2013, since there were a high number of coordinator changes for 2013.

When a team doesn't have a top receiver, it will try to find one.
This is more of a lesson re-affirmed, since I use this line all the time, but we saw this theory come to the surface again in 2012 and it’s always something to look out for. Simply put, if a team doesn’t have a foundation player – or a go-to guy – in the passing game, they will try to find one. And if the situation is good, not only will a team find a frequent target, but that player will also greatly surprise for fantasy.  

We were intrigued by Packer Randall Cobb this past summer and had him on our list of players to target very late, but it was really hard for us to go “all-in” on him because of the multitude of weapons in Green Bay. Granted, a lesson learned in 2011 with teams like Green Bay was that sometimes there was enough production to go around for multiple players, but it was fair to argue that Cobb going into the season was only the 5th option in the passing game, or 4th at best. But the Packers dealt with a injuries to their top two guys at wide receiver, and they needed help, so they not only worked Cobb into their offense, but they also made him something of a foundation player. In Cleveland, the Browns picked up Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft in July, so he was really behind the 8-ball, especially since he didn’t play college football in 2011. But the Browns were desperate, so they put him on the fast track, and a viable fantasy starter was born. We also saw this in effect in Jacksonville, where rookie Justin Blackmon was not really ready for Prime Time and Laurent Robinson wasn’t a reliable option due to injury problems. In stepped Cecil Shorts and the rest was history. Another terrific example from 2012 was Danario Alexander in San Diego. They had TE Antonio Gates, but their need at WR was great, which explains how Alexander went from being on the street to in many starting fantasy lineups in a period of just a few weeks. In Miami, they really had nothing at receiver, which made the fairly pedestrian Brian Hartline their go-to guy.
 
This is a pretty obvious lesson, but as you can see with the production of players like Cobb, Shorts, and Alexander, you can gain a great edge if you consider this angle when making wide receiver WW pickups. 
 
Your wide receiver is only as good as your QB.
A very obvious lesson, but it’s worth sticking in here because we saw the fantasy wind being taken out of several marquee receivers’ sails in 2012. Nothing was worse than the torture poor Larry Fitzgerald went through in 2012. And in his case, we saw defenses look to take him out, and his QB (whoever it was) wasn’t good enough to work around that. That actually boosted #2 Andre Roberts’ production, but Fitzgerald was rendered almost useless at times in 2012. In Kansas City, it wasn’t as bad, but Dwayne Bowe’s numbers suffered from the lame QB play. Also, poor QB play can really hold a young player’s development back. In Arizona, Fitzgerald isn’t the only one suffering, as TE Rob Housler’s progression has probably been limited the last two years, and the weak quarterbacking did #1 pick Michael Floyd no favors in 2012. In Buffalo, T.J. Graham saw a lot of snaps. Graham can fly, but he made only 1-2 big plays because his QB isn’t very good and doesn’t have great arm strength. On the flipside, T.Y. Hilton was a serious factor playing with Andrew Luck.
 
The quarterback play in the league was, overall, pretty respectable in 2012, and I’d venture to guess that it will be very decent again in 2013. That’s a key point because it makes receivers playing with bad QBs even less appealing. However, as we saw with Reggie Wayne in 2012, a good QB can be a huge difference. Wayne was worthless without Peyton Manning in 2011 and a borderline stud with Luck in 2012. It’s certainly possible that the Cards find a way to throw the ball effectively in 2013, especially with Bruce Arians running the offense, so Fitzgerald could be a decent value this year, and so could Bowe if KC somewhat finds a good QB.
 
But generally speaking, with solid passing throughout the league, it’s prudent to be especially wary of a good or even great receiver who has to play with a lame QB.
 
If you don’t have a clear starter at running back, you don’t have a running back.
There will always be cases in which we see a player emerge as a fantasy factor in a backfield where there isn’t a set lead guy, kind of like how Vick Ballard emerged in 2012 in Indy’s backfield. But this past year we saw several weak backfield situations that were more of a pain in the rear than they were worth. Chasing fantasy points in many of these situations was fool’s gold. Arizona’s running game was a disaster, caused in part by their terrible OL and QB play, so unless you were dying and desperate, you should have stayed away. In Pittsburgh, we learned the best lesson of all when it comes to unsettled backfields: The players involved have a small margin for error – so a fumble can mean a seat on the bench – and with that, fantasy chaos can ensue.
 
Again, if you’re desperate and have no choice but to try to pull some points out of a messy backfield, that’s one thing. It’s quite another try to be a hero or a genius by isolating one player out of 2-3 in the mix and projecting success. Like no other skill position, NFL coaches will opt to go with the “hot hand” at RB, and in 2012 we learned that can cause major headaches for fantasy purposes.
 
It takes a special complementary RB to produce for fantasy.
With dual backfields and running back committees very prevalent in the NFL over the last five years or longer, it’s easy to become enamored with a complementary back as a later-round pick. In fact, I have. But I have to say, these guys rarely come through.
 
In Atlanta, we gave Jacquizz Rodgers some love this summer. Not a lot, but we did give him some, and that was very fair because there was a chance that he was going to take over the backfield for the Falcons, or at least play at much as Michel Turner. He actually did get as many snaps as Turner (or more than Turner) quite a bit, but it didn’t matter much because Rodgers turned out to be a JAG (just a guy), and he ranked just 37th at RB in total points. Ironically, we ranked him 37 at RB this year, but with 121 projected points (non-PPR). He scored only 88.4, though. In San Francisco, Kendall Hunter was terrific and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. But from Weeks 1-11, before he got hurt, Hunter ranked only 41st in scoring, and he was 49th in PPG scoring for the season. He really wasn’t a viable option for most fantasy players.
 
Your scoring system is a factor, especially point per reception leagues for complementary backs who see the field and catch passes. But generally speaking, rushing opportunity is a huge equation for running backs, and most of these complementary backs like Rodgers simply don’t get enough of them to make a difference for fantasy. That is why we specifically outline whether or not we think current complementary backs can potentially be “lead” backs because they are the only secondary backs to seriously consider for most.
 
You have to give some coaches the benefit of the doubt.
Back in 2011, we ranked San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick as the #2 QB for keeper/dynasty leagues behind only Cam Newton, so we clearly understood the ultra-talented player’s potential, and we are not surprised that he’s on the road to NFL stardom.
 
However, I was amazed his accession happened so quickly.
 
Talking to people in San Fran just 5-6 months ago, the general consensus among those in the media, and I’m sure some of this came from their interactions from the coaches and players, was that Kaepernick was still considered very raw. It was pretty shocking that Kaepernick was quickly in the mix to take over the starting job, and it was a ballsy move on Jim Harbaugh’s part. Obviously, Harbaugh knows what he’s doing, so the lesson here is to have faith in the league’s better coaches when it comes to personnel decisions. We pushed Kaepernick pretty hard as a WW pickup, even before it was announced that he would be the guy, but that was mainly because we were all about his skill set, and the fact that there were indications the team really wanted to roll with him (Harbaugh drafted him, for one, and they added a lot of interesting skill players in 2012).
 
So the lessoned learned was that, when a player’s sample size is too small to analyze or there’s uncertainty about the player’s ability to succeed, we should have faith in the better coaches in the league when they opt to feature these players. Harbaugh saw Kaepernick and Alex Smith up close in practice, and he was clearly preparing for Kaepernick in the near future when you consider their 2012 draft, and he clearly made the right decision.
 
Here are some other quick lessons learned from the 2012 season:
 
  • If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. I’ve said this for a while about the NFL, and it usually describes developing situations that appear wonderful on paper, but fail to materialize on the field. Look how loaded the Titans were on offense this year – and how underwhelming their production actually was. In New England, it was easy to fathom the passing offense becoming even more deadly due to the addition of Brandon Lloyd, but Tom Brady’s passing numbers were down across the board. Essentially, Lloyd to the Pats was too good to be true.
  • Mike Shanahan wants one back. I know he’s driven everyone in fantasy crazy for almost a decade, but I always knew in the back of my mind that Shanahan really wanted to feature one guy because he did it repeatedly in Denver from the mid-90s up until he had Clinton Portis in the early 2000s. That’s why I always tried to find that guy in his backfield as opposed to simply throwing my hands up and advising everyone to avoid his backfield. This could be a moot point for a while with Alfred Morris entrenched as the starter, but this was definitely a lesson learned in 2012.
  • Teams tip us off with their moves. One of the reasons I leaned heavily to Colin Kaepernick getting the nod over Alex Smith that week the starter was up in the air midseason was the way the 49ers had handled free agency and the way they drafted. Sure, they wanted to be more explosive, but they added four skill players of note, three of them wideouts, in 2012, so in retrospect, it was clear they wanted to expand the offense. And when Smith is your QB, you’re not exactly looking to “expand” things. I’ve said a lot in the past, but in 2012 we once again saw that teams will show their hands in terms of the short-term and long-term plans when they make personnel moves. Of course, sometimes teams make moves that defy logic or signify a disconnect between coaches and front office, like the Panthers going out to get Mike Tolbert and continuing to be all-in on Cam Newton. Most of the time in those cases, someone is fired, as GM Marty Hurney was midseason.
  • Remember which decision-makers acquired which players. Speaking of Kaepernick, head coach Jim Harbaugh drafted him, and he did not draft Smith. The Niners did re-sign the free agent Smith in 2012 to a new deal, but the current regime picked Kaepernick in 2011, and that was definitely a factor in their decision to roll with him. You always have to remember when a current coach, GM, etc. has ties to a player, and when they do not. 
  • Continuity is critical. Yes, the Ravens fired their offensive coordinator midseason and won the Super Bowl. But they didn’t make many changes. The Falcons went with a new OC in 2012, but again they didn’t make any major changes other than simply throwing the ball more. But when you have a revolving door in terms of an offensive coaching staff, it makes things even tougher for the QB and all the skill players. Look at Jay Cutler in Chicago, and Sam Bradford in St. Louis. Both are quality players, but they’ve been non-factors for fantasy, mainly because their offenses have lacked continuity.
  • Coordinators have a lot of influence. This was a lessoned re-affirmed in 2012 and will be a big story in 2013 with so many head coaching and coordinator changes. Dirk Koetter had a massive influence in Atlanta, for example, and Bruce Arians was huge in Andrew Luck’s successful rookie season. In both cases, these coordinators also called the plays, which is a very important distinction. Tom Clements was added as the OC in Green Bay this past year, but his impact was minimal, since head coach Mike McCarthy still called the plays. We learned in 2012 that when a coordinator heads to a new team and has a lot of responsibility as a play-caller, the fantasy implications can be significant.
  • Handcuffs can handcuff you. It may have been somewhat fluky in 2012, but the viable RB handcuffs were almost non-existent this year. It was so bad that the consensus top handcuff, Houston’s Ben Tate, was even worthless. With more and more backfield situations being murky in the NFL these days, RB handcuffs are almost becoming a thing of the past. They’ll always been viable in deep leagues with large rosters, but for most we’ve seen the need to handcuff your starting RBs (or any position) greatly reduced.

  • Don’t ever draft the consensus #1 PK. I don’t have the data on it, and I’m not even going to spend the time to gather it because we’re talking kickers here, but I do know that if a kicker is typically the consensus top guy in a given year, he’ll likely find a way to disappoint. This year, while David Akers did hit a solid 29 FGs, that total was down a whopping 15 from 2011, so his drop-off was quite massive. And on the heels of an incredible ’11 campaign, his season was quite ugly. Akers’ 2011 season was so good that there was no way to go but down, but he was yet another example of it being seemingly impossible for a kicker to have two great seasons in a row.
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