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Hansen on Strategy

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by John Hansen, Publisher

Published, 12/6/13 

With the fantasy playoffs upon us, I can’t help but to start thinking big-picture thoughts about the 2013 season, and how it will go down in history.
 
I really can’t say this year has been a bad year for us and fantasy football, but in many ways it’s been a challenging year due to several factors that I’ve covered here throughout the season. The bottom line is that injuries were more a little more prevalent than usual, and the overall parity in the league made dealing with the matchups a little tougher than usual. These things are cyclical, and after a pretty and straight-forward 2012 season, I did expect a more unstable environment – and we essentially got it.
 
There was also more spreading of the wealth – the statistical production – for more teams than ever. That means most benches are deeper than ever, and lineup decisions possibly more difficult than ever. I’d much prefer to be in a league like the FantasyGuru.com Staff League, which is a 12-team PPR league with two flexes, so the tough lineup decisions are reduced. In that league, Eric Decker was in a starting lineup last week – and he is every week. Heck, I’m 13-0 with a loaded roster and I’m 90% sure that I would have started him last week.     
 
Unfortunately, I know from interacting with a lot of fantasy players that there’s more depth than usual on fantasy rosters out there, and I know from taking calls on the radio that there are many people out there with lineup calls that literally are hopeless. For example, these poor bastards who ask me to pick 2 of 4 WR, all of which are in our top-15 for the week. These people are bound to get it wrong most weeks because they have so much depth and/or limited starting lineup space. It’s also been harder to differentiate players in 2013.
 
A lot of the stuff I have below can be viewed as conflicting, but there’s no right or wrong answer when we’re making lineup decisions without having access to the results. It’s all about making the best possible decision for YOUR team and based on the players themselves.
 
If you really want to cover all your bases, there are a lot of questions you need to ask yourself. Below is my updated look at those questions.
 
What do you want/need from your players? – I’m of the opinion that, when you’re faced with a tough lineup decision, there really isn’t a definitive right answer because there are too many variables to consider, and your expectation is a huge one. I don’t believe I’m 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. If you start a guy on a Thursday night and he lets you down, you may need be a more aggressive and start a guy like Bobby Rainey this week over even a guy like LeSean McCoy, who also has a brutal matchup (see below) because you need more upside for points. 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. You should also when setting your lineup 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.
 
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, 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 Brown WR Josh Gordon in Week Fourteen, his situation is pretty hellacious – which is why he’s not ranked like #2 at this week – but his run has been so ridiculous that it’s going to take a loaded roster to bump him from starting lineups (that’s assuming Jason Campbell goes, otherwise the situation gets even more dicey and the possibility of not starting him increases). 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. If he got you to this point, keep rolling with him unless there are mitigating circumstances that are worrisome.
 
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). The matchups have been harder to handicap this year, especially for the pass, but there have definitely been matchups that are brutal for the run. But it’s possible to break the rule listed above if you’re loaded or if you have a stud with a brutal matchup. For example, you can actually sit LeSean McCoy in Week Fourteen if you have Eddie Lacy as an alternative who’d be on the bench if you didn’t start him. If you’re looking for a reach and something really stands out, like the Cardinals against TEs, then it’s perfectly fine to take a flyer when the matchup and numbers scream start.
 
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. However, one thing I do personally for all teams is look at the game logs for all positions. You can see any player’s game log by clicking on his name to get to his player page and then by clicking on the year 2013. For example, here’s Peyton Manning’s game log for 2013. I’ve found this to be very useful for projections this year, especially when looking for things like RB catches, TDs, and TE production. So if you’re deliberating between two players, check the game logs for both. You can also call them both up (or more players) in our Player Comparison Tool. There are a myriad of categories to compare the players in, and most of them are useful and offer something of which you can hang your hat on. For example, if I was looking for a WR and both had similar target numbers, matchups, and supporting cast, I might opt to go with the guy with the higher catch rate, which is a good indicator of a receiver’s success.
 
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. I plan on greatly expanding this report next year with a lot more insight culled from studying the game logs.   
 
How’s the body of work this year? – This is a pretty big one to me this year, and it’s obviously a major component when it comes to determining your trust level in the player. Some players have recently emerged, like Bobby Rainey, so their bodies of work may be minimal, which can make things tougher. 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. Julian Edelman has been on a great 2-game run in a PPR, but if forced to choose between him and Jordy Nelson, there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll go with Nelson, whose body of work this entire season has been very impressive. Then again, if I felt I needed more upside in PPR, I might go Edelman, who could get easily 15+ again this week. Rolling with a player who is currently 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.
 
You’ll notice if you’re really torn between two players, that a close examination of their bodies of work (game logs) will steer you in a certain direction, and over the long haul I’d bet it’s the right direction. And as a general rule, if you’re dipping into a situation that has been lousy most of the season – like Eli Manning and the Giant passing game – it should really be more so in desperation only.
 
The only time that using the body of work for the season to make a key lineup call can hurt you is when you bench a player who is coming on right now and getting it done. That’s another question dealt with below – does the player have the hot hand? – so as you can see a lot of these ideas and tips overlap and can conflict with one another. Two good examples right now are Steven Jackson and Rashard Mendenhall. Both have very shaky body of works this year, but they might still come out on top if you ask yourself many of these questions covered in this article. If we take a quick look at Jackson, for example, we see that he in Week 14 has this going for him:
 
  1. He’s not really sharing the ball with others, at least not considerably.
  2. He is currently healthy (and jeez, he should be fresh given his light workload).
  3. He does have a very nice matchup.
  4. He is getting it done now.
  5. He is, or at least, they want him to be a foundation of their offense.
  6. He is versatile so he does have a chance to help if his team falls behind.
So in Jackson’s case, while he didn’t likely get you to this point, and while his body of work is shaky, he’s still very viable because he wins many other areas I’ve covered here.
 
Might your player be helped more by the matchup than usual?
This element has been very prevalent in 2013, and it’s something I’ve paid a lot of attention to. If your guy is a #2 WR on a team going up against a shutdown corner like Patrick Peterson, then there’s a good chance that his target numbers will be on the rise. This week, the best example is easily Jordan Cameron. We all know that Bill Belichick usually looks to take out a team’s best player, especially when he’s playing at all all-pro level, and Josh Gordon is playing like a 1st team all-pro. So to me, this screams “Start Jordan Cameron!” and his body of work overall has still be good this year. We’re always going to alert readers of these types of situations, so pay attention to them because can advantage can be gained by reacting to them. And in case you didn’t notice on the site, we’re buying into the Cameron angle this year. We’d love it to come through, but we’ll sleep well regardless because it’s the right call to make – assuming Jason Campbell plays.    
 
Do you understand a player’s upside – and downside? – This actually hasn’t been a great year for getting a handle on a player’s upside or downside, or at least there are so player’s out there whose downside has been on display so many times that it’s pretty obvious. But a guy like Steven Jackson is a pretty good example. We know he’s capable of running for 80+ and 1-2 TDs, so he does have some upside. But we also know that he could run 37 yards on 14 carries, so there is also downside. If you completely understand Jackson’s upside and downside you’re likely going to make a better decision when it comes to starting him or not. He has some upside for sure, but there is also downside.
 
I do think that Eric Decker is a good example of this, though. On one hand, it’s closely tied to what will go down as the most productive passing games in the history of the league, so he always has upside. But he’s also on a team with three other studs, so there is also downside if he’s not the flavor or the week or if others around him just present themselves as more appealing option for Peyton Manning for whatever reason. What direction you lean on with Decker – who can obviously be considered as an upside play, but also a safe play for some – depends on your specific needs and situations. 
 
You’re still going to make mistakes with these tough calls, but at least you’ll make a more intelligent decision if you understand a player’s ceiling and floor.
 
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 Matt Stafford and Tony Romo. If the matchups make the call tougher than usual, and you deduct more than a point for an INT, then you might want to roll with Romo, who has half as many picks as Stafford this year. Obviously, you should understand the differences in value PPR and non-PPR. One of the mains reasons I like PPR is simply because it makes players more reliable. A start/sit question about someone like Shane Vereen or Darren 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.
 
Also, it’s very important to look closely as your defensive team scoring rules. If your league is really heavy on points and/or yardage allowed, that can be a really sneaky way to steal production from your defense. For example, the Raider defense can be respectable, so they have a real chance this week to keep the Jets to 15 or fewer points (or even 10 or fewer) and to minimal yardage. Your opponent may be too lazy to study the nuances of the DT scoring system while he’s streaming defenses for the playoffs, but you can inspect it carefully and benefit.
 
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, it’s usually wise to avoid starting a banged-up guy. There seems to be more competition for snaps and playing times at all the skill positions this year, so there seems to be a greater chances in general of a banged up guy losing snaps to someone else. We’ve also seen several examples of banged up players, like Jay Cutler, aggravate an injury after coming back to the starting lineup (likely too soon). Things have settle back to normalcy as the season has progressed, but for a healthy portion of the season the fantasy play was to completely avoid an injured player, since they were coming up small much more frequently then  
 
Also, if a player has been on-and-off the injury report, like New York’s Hakeem Nicks, that’s a problem. 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. We’re always following this stuff closely, so if you read our content you’ll know what a player is dealing with. For example, if I was really torn between using Frank Gore and even Rashard Mendenhall, I might go to Mendy’s there because Gore’s been slowed down by injuries on his OL (Mike Iupati) and he hasn’t exactly been healthy himself. There are so many factors involved when making these decisions so while we’re obviously going to point out all the key injuries that may affect a player’s production, it’s not a bad idea to review our practice/injury reports to see if one player’s supporting cast is looking shakier than usual.
 
On the defensive side, there’s always an edge to be gained when you understand the ramifications of defensive injuries. Week Seventeen is actually looking like a very light week in terms of key defensive injuries, but make sure you check out my Hansen’s Hints column on Sunday mornings because that is when I will hone right in on all the non-skill injuries that could potentially affect the offensive production.
 
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. One of the main reasons Alex Smith hasn’t been ranked as high as his production merits is because he’s a Box of Chocolates. Carson Palmer can be a box of chocolates, and Colin Kaepernick at this point has to be considered something of a box of chocolates, or at least a matchup guy. Chris Johnson is a box of chocolates. Clearly, Ben Tate is a box of chocolates. Unless his matchup is incredibly appealing, rolling with a BOC is risky business.
 
Where does your guy rank on the pecking order? – I would think that Andre Johnson is blindly started in most leagues, but you’d be surprised how many Johnson owners out there are actually deliberating as to whether or not they should start Johnson. But Johnson will always land high in our rankings because he’s the foundation of the passing game. Johnson in Week Fourteen also had a good matchup, so he was ranked a little higher than usual. In the same game, Cecil Shorts was also ranked high because he is a major foundation player in their passing game. Granted, he shockingly had a really quiet game, but he did at least score – and he just missed a bomb TD so he was very close to going off – so if you started him based on his body of work and also his role in the offense, he did get something.
 
There are certainly times when a #2 WR like Alshon Jeffery is looking as good or maybe even better than the top guy, and Eric Decker blew the doors off this tip in Week Thirteen (of course, he’s also in possibly the most prolific passing offense ever). There’s more on that below, but generally speaking a player’s place in the pecking order is a strong element to hang your hat on.
 
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. I’ve taken probably 100 calls on the radio the last month from people asking if they should start Josh McCown. I think my answer has been “yes” 95 of the 100 times, and I’m glad it was, since McCown has been very productive.
 
Conversely, if your option has gone ice cold, then that’s an angle you can hang your hat on. Just keep in mind that recently production isn’t exactly the only thing to consider. If you started Decker last week because he was cold, you did ignore the solid body of work and the great situation in Denver, and you missed out on 4 TDs. So at the very least, if you’re inclined to sit a player who is ice cold, it’s worth considering his situation and factoring into your decision the likelihood that he catches fire again quickly or has a big game.
 
Does your player fit the identity of his team? – Another way to help you break ties or close calls is to examine a team’s identity and then determine whether or not your player is tied to that identity. Say you were deliberating between BenJarvus Green-Ellis and someone like Ryan Mathews this week. Green-Ellis’ good matchup makes the call a little closer than usual. So you’re stuck and you’re looking for something to hang your hat on. In this case, I’d roll with Green-Ellis, since he looks like he’s more he’s tied to his team’s identity then Mathews is. If you’re stumped when it comes to two WRs, use the guy whose team is more of a passing team.
 
This doesn’t guarantee that you’ll make the right call, but over the long haul it’s obviously advisable to lean to the player who better fits his team’s identity.
 
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, like Bobby Rainey. 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. Otherwise, you should be desperate and with no other choice.
 
Also, this tip also applies to the players’ margin for error. If you have a guy like Ben Tate, who could potentially lose touches to someone else if he doesn’t perform well early in the game, that’s obviously a problem. Opportunity is a huge equation in fantasy, so if a player’s opportunity could be limited for whatever reason, that factor has to be considered. If you’re deciding between two players and you’re stuck, this is yet another element to cling to and help you make the call.
 
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 Cecil Shorts and Harry Douglas, I might go Douglas simply because he has a better QB. Shorts is usually a major foundation player, which is appealing, but Douglas has been very active. 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.
 
This tip can even apply to RBs. Since it all starts with the QB, if you’re completely baffled by a lineup call and if it’s dead even, go with the guy who has the better QB.   
 
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 30 fantasy points in a game. But that’s exactly what Newton has done (twice) recently. 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 did for Drew Brees last week – 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.
 
And by the way, the recent and season rushing production for Nick Foles and Alex Smith are definitely helping push them up the projection list. Both could easily get an extra 2-4 points on the ground any given week, and every little bit helps.
 
Does your RB have versatilityAlfred Morris has had a great season, and while he miraculously caught 3 balls in Week 13, he’s obviously not usually a factor if they are playing from behind, which is a problem and something that has to be accounted for when considering Morris. You’d really like to have a RB who has a larger margin for error and can help you regardless of the game situation. We do love volume carries for RBs, 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.
 
Are you trying to be a hero? – We all make mistakes trying to be a hero in fantasy football. I sure as heck do. Some may think I’m trying to be a hero with our Jordan Cameron love this week, but I don’t believe we are. That call there is just using logic to make a call. Part of the fun of playing fantasy is to make your own calls and make moves based on your read on the situations at hand, but I know from talking to a lot of fantasy players that people tend to go overboard and make poor reaches. We love reaches, but they’re called “reaches” for a reason; they are long-shots, maybe even major long-shots. So before you start that receiver like Andre Holmes this week, who really has like 1 ½ good games under his belt, check yourself to make sure you’re not taking an unnecessary risk.    
 
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. 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, 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. When dealing with wind, which is really the most prevalent weather enemy, also keep in mind the arm strength of the QB because a guy like Joe Flacco with a cannon can slice through 20+ MPH wind, yet Alex Smith or even Peyton Manning may not be able to. Finally, if a team is making a living off a downfield passing game or deep balls, keep in mind wind can severely disrupt that.
 
Are you waiting until the last minute to make your decision? – If at all possible, 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. Also, there are usually a few tidbits of information that leak out right before kickoffs, as some NFL insiders – especially my friend Adam Schefter at ESPN – prefer to give out info, but not until the very last-minute, likely to protect their sources. So 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 feel like the Vikings are picking names out of a hat each week when deciding who their featured receivers will be. They’re in evaluation mode, which makes their situation tricky. If you’re relying on a veteran on a team in evaluation mode, there’s a chance your guy will lose snaps, so keep that in mind. Here are the main teams that I currently see are in evaluation mode:
 
  • Houston Texans – Could be an issue still for Ben Tate, although they should also be evaluating him. And this is why they are starting Case Keenum the rest of the season.
  • Jacksonville Jaguars – It’s actually helping them, since it’s getting Ace Sanders on the field and also Jordan Todman, although it’s not like they have alternatives.
  • Oakland Raiders – They may still look to start Terrelle Pryor at least one more time. Otherwise, it’s kind of a moot point because they don’t have much else.
  • Minnesota Vikings – As mentioned above with their WRs.
  • Atlanta Falcons – Nothing major, but youngsters Darius Johnson (WR) and Antone Smith (RB) have been getting some looks.
  • St. Louis Rams – We’re seeing WRs Brian Quick and Stedman Bailey get more snaps lately.
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 Josh Gordon is coming off two consecutive 200-yard games, you have to start him.
 
Also, a good example of overthinking lately has been trying to anticipate the flow of the game. I’ve been guilty of this at times when I think a QB with a good matchup won’t have to throw the ball much against a bad opponent. I’ve been right when I’ve said this, but the problem is the QB throws 3 TD passes before he settles in for the remainder of the afternoon handing the ball off. Anticipating the flow of games and adjusting according has been a joke the last 1-2 years, anyway. It’s almost as if the opposite comes true when things look to be leaning one way or another.
 
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.
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