God, I can’t wait. The excitement is percolating within me. It colors all experiences, good and bad, with the knowledge that soon, ever so soon, it will be time. I refer, of course, to the upcoming fantasy football season.
I have happily joined two leagues this week and am keeping my ear open about the possibility of a third. I have one draft scheduled for Monday, August 27th, a tantalizingly close 49 days from now. This is followed a week later by the second draft on September 3rd. 49 days = 7 weeks. Yes! Just the thought of drafting causes question to spring, unbidden, from the depths of my mind. How will I have my RB’s ranked? Is Devin Hester worth a late round flyer? Will Colston be TE eligible again? I find old complaints, like the massive 8 player benches of one league, returning to me with all the comfort of an old friend. Hi guys, I missed you. Did you miss me?
It feels good getting back in the saddle. Yahoo Sports is tempting me with articles entitled ‘Are You Ready for some Fantasy Football?‘ and ‘Kickers to the Curb‘. I’ll be okay. Luckily there is much work to do.
I’m going to start with the backbone of any fantasy squad, running backs. On Friday I received an email from X3D, the commissioner of one of the leagues I participate in with the following rankings:
3. Steven Jackson
4. Frank Gore
Just missed the cut: Alexander, Parker, Johnson
Sleeper picks: Maroney, Benson, and A. Peterson (the rookie, not the Bears backup).
Busts: C. Williams, R. Brown, and W. McGahee
This is a good starting point, but our opinions diverge in certain areas. I began with a look at ESPN.com’s running back list. I look at RB’s from four different metrics, none of which are particularly scientific, but which I’ve found to be quite helpful. They are, in order of importance:
1. Likelihood of getting injured. Nothing is worse than your franchise guy going down for six weeks in the middle of the season, like Shaun Alexander did last year. Even though I rode him in 2005 to a second place finish, many times after a huge season RB’s regress to the mean. I personally had Alexander ranked third last year after LT and LJ. You can’t afford to have your big gun on the bench. I realize that football is a violent game and some injuries are unforeseeable, but older guys and workhouse backs have a real short shelf life.
2. Trends. Is a player getting better? With running backs it’s usually very apparent whether or not a guy has first round fantasy potential. Where the trends matter is your second string and bench depth. With older guys like Warrick Dunn you have to decide, did they have a down year or are they just getting old? With younger guys, will they get the carries? I take past production into account, but only to a point.
3. Situation. Bad teams are poison for RB stats, as their teams usually end up throwing at the end of games. Does the guy have a half decent line in front of him? As Edgerrin showed us last year, even a great back can’t do it himself. Does the team score a lot of points? Because TD’s are so important, you’re often better off taking a lesser back talentwise on a high octane offense than a great guy stuck on a poor team. Unless the RB in question is responsible for damn near all of the team’s offense, Earl Campbell style.
4. For the top guys, that’s all you really need. But more important than deciding who you’ll take if you get the third pick is where in the draft will you find quality depth to both protect against major injury or as a trading piece to use during the season? Make no mistake about it, quality backs are always in demand. Who are the sleepers you are going to target? Who are you staying away from? These are decisions that need to be made before the draft. Once the draft starts all it takes is a moment of distraction and you end up with Fred Taylor on your team. Work out your order and stick to it.
All of this is common sense and surely no surprise to the wizened fantasy football veteran, but it bears repeating. I’m certain I could increase the efficiency of my draft with some complex statistical analysis, but mostly I just want to get out of the draft with a solid roster. Every season there are guys who come out of nowhere and have big seasons; you can’t predict them. The point of my draft is to create a solid foundation that I can build with, whether through trade or free agent pickups.
As I think of it, I should include a fifth, running back only rule for looking at potential picks:
5. Never draft any Broncos RB, under any circumstances, for any reason. That sums it up. They went out and got two guys named Bell last year just to make things a little more confusing. Upon drafting a Denver back the team should send you an email with the subject ‘Welcome to Hell.’
Now, looking at X3D’s rankings, we have some tools to evaluate them with. Clearly, LT has to be the number one guy this year. Despite what I said above LT looks to have another good season, even with some regression to the mean. He still had real breakaway speed last year, one thing Alexander never had a ton of to begin with and the thing that separates the veterans from the over the hill guys. He’s on a good team, he gets tons of touches, and he reminds me of Barry Sanders in that he’s so elusive that he rarely takes huge hits.
The second spot, however, I disagree with the esteemed X3D. I like Larry Johnson, but I can’t in good conscience rank him above Steven Jackson of the Rams. Last year Jackson covered 2,334 yards of total offense with 16 TD’s and, at 23 going into his fourth year in the league, looks to just be coming into his prime. He has a good offense with him, is a huge part of the passing game (90 receptions!) and doesn’t have the question marks LJ has. Johnson totalled 2,199 yards and 19 TD’s, but ran the ball an ungodly 416 times during the season. I generally prefer high touch guys with a higher percentage of catches because catching passes seems to wear down backs less than continually pounding the ball. Again, if I was better at statistics I could try to prove that. LJ is also the only remotely threatening weapon on the Chiefs and has an aging offensive line that is getting worse rapidly. He’s 27, but has less wear than most franchise guys at that age because of the time he spent behind Priest Holmes. While I’d be happy with LJ at pick three, if I’m at two I take Jackson.
I’ve got no problem with Gore following the big three. Despite the near constant worry about his injury status on gameday he played all 16 and produced. The 49ers will be looking to put him in situations for success, so I wouldn’t worry about his opportunities to score. Addai also looks like he’s trending upwards. He’s all alone on the depth chart and, while not as talented as Edge, has a good chance to put up Edge like numbers. The Colts really broke Addai in slowly last year, so it will be interesting to see how he responds. A safer choice would be Willie Parker, who has a longer track record on an offense that is consistently among the most run oriented in the league. I never would have guessed it, but Parker had 1,716 total yards and 16 TD’s last season. He looks to equal or surpass that this year. Addai, however, could have a monster season.
So, in the end, my top five is fairly similar to X3D’s:
2. S. Jackson
4. F. Gore
5. Addai / W. Parker
As for the next tier of guys, it’s mostly the usual suspects. Rudi Johnson is a solid selection late in the first round, Westbrook is worth it if you can handle the weekly will he play or not drama. I also like Maurice Jones-Drew, he had a great year on a team that runs a lot and Fred Taylor continues to get older. Though I must hand it to him, if you told me he would still be playing in 2007 a few years back I would have had a good chuckle. By 2007 I was sure Fragile Fred would be half cyborg technology. A robotic hamstring at least. Jones-Drew will only get better. Maroney is a player I disagree with X3D about, in that I don’t think he can be labelled a sleeper at this point. Corey Dillon is gone, opening up a lot of red zone chances and Maroney is in a good system that he should be able to thrive in. He didn’t show quite as much as Jones-Drew or Addai last year, which is why I have him bumped down a little. Ronnie Brown has all the talent in the word, even if his production doesn’t quite match up to his reputation. Still he had very solid numbers before getting hurt last year and will no doubt be gone before the first round is up this year. Kevin Jones may be on the PUP list this year, making him basically undraftable before the last couple of rounds. It’s too bad, because Martz had him looking like a fantasy monster out of the backfield. I personally will be looking to avoid Shaun Alexander if at all possible. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had a better year than last, but the questions surrounding him are too worrying to ignore. He turns 30 before the season starts and he has a ton of carries under his belt.
Sleepers: C. Benson, D. McAllister, M. Barber III
Benson gets a chance to be a feature back behind a good offensive line. I’m not sure how he’ll fare against the unprecedented 11-0 defensive front teams will unveil against the Bears, daring Grossman to complete a pass to one of as many as four unguarded receivers. Deuce quietly had a real solid year and wasn’t drafted until the 4th round in my league. He’s in a prolific offense, he gets the red zone carries, and is not counted on to provide 25 rushes a game. He’s 28 with some mileage, but I think the reduced workload will keep him fresh as the season rolls on. Barber should supplant Jones as the starter, being a far better player than Julius Jones. And even if he doesn’t he should retain the title of Ultimate Vulture that he won last year. If he keeps getting red zone carries, he’s worth a roll of the dice.
Value Picks: M. Lynch, W. McGahee, E. James
Lynch looks like the real deal and he comes into a much more stable situation than Adrian Petterson in Minnesota. McGahee, as much as it pains me to say this, might be a good pick for a number two back. No, he can’t get into the end zone and that is unlikely to change. The Ravens, however, are going to ride him into the ground. He’s better than Jamal Lewis was a year ago and Lewis had a solidly productive if unspectacular season for them. James’ value lies in just how far his stock has fallen. Despite his struggles last year he remains a vital cog in one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL, at least on paper. If you can get Edge is a situation where he doesn’t have to start he could end up being a steal. If he doesn’t pan out, he’s a big enough name that you’ll likely be able to move him for something useful.
Be Wary Of: T. Jones, J. Jones, R. Bush, J. Norwood
Thomas Jones is a player I wouldn’t mind having, but he’s 28 and he has capable backups behind him. Julius is not long for the starters job. Reggie Bush is, right now, a slightly above average WR and a poor RB. Can he get it together? How quickly? Deuce is also looking to be the goal line back, taking away easy scores. Norwood has talent, but the ageless Warrick Dunn keeps chugging along eating carries and if Vick stays out of prison he takes carries away too. If Dunn goes down, I think Norwood turns into a top 10-top 15 guy.
Avoid: C. Portis, B. Jacobs, C. Williams, T. Henry
Injuries, Inexperienced, Overhyped, On Broncos.
I had written a much longer post, spending 4 hours in the process, but then managed to delete the last three hours of work. I hastily reconstructed what I had done in 45 minutes and here we are. I apologize for the general terribleness of this post, but as I mentioned, I’m really, really stupid. I was planning a monologue about how I was rededicating myself to blogging, but at this point I really don’t care.