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2013's Lessons Learned

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by John Hansen, Publisher

Published, 2/4/14 

This time last year, I was reviewing for this article what I felt was a pretty straightforward 2012 season. I felt the players’ roles were pretty clear back in ’12, and most of the players we expected to break out or perform well actually did – or at least they did a little more consistently than we were used to.
 
Since I know the NFL can be cyclical when it comes to things like this, it led me to approach the 2013 season a little more cautiously, and it prompted me to cling more to a “big-picture” methodology and what I repeatedly referred to “long-term investment” principles. Granted, I essentially did still reverted to my usual play-to-win form by backing mostly exciting and ascending players in the summer, but I think my strong interest in covering all the bases and accounting for all possible factors hurt me at times. I do believe that my calculated approach helped with the consistency of our coverage, and I was correct to predict an unstable 2013 season.
 
But this past year was certainly (yet another) season in which I learned many valuable lessons. It was a pretty uneven and odd season, but when that is the case, it tends to make this article a little meatier than usual, so hopefully consuming my overview of the lessons I learned from the 2013 fantasy season will be your first step toward a title in 2014.
 
If you don’t have time to digest all of this, here’s this year’s article in three words: play to win.   
 
BPA Mode is where it’s at
With unusual depth at WR and with great (at least perceived) depth at QB this past year, I was pretty enamored with the RBs early in 2013 drafts, like mostly everyone else. That approach wound up being a 50/50 proposition at best in terms of its success in 2013. Most know that the safe play very early in drafts is usually the QBs and even the WRs, but my feeling was, if everyone is going all-in on the RBs, you might as well jump into the fray because the appealing prospects at the other positions are going to drop a little in drafts. For example, you might have felt silly in 2013 if you took Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas with your first two picks only to find out that the best available wideout for your next pick is a high-end guy like Andre Johnson, yet then the best available RB is Darren McFadden. So I was about the RBs, but the key to any successful draft, as I’ve been saying for over a decade, is to simply get as many impact players as you possibly can, almost regardless of position. For many, even if you’re loaded with an embarrassment of riches at one position, like wide receiver, you can at least still help your team my making a trade or two. If you go BPA early in your drafts, you’ll likely at least have some marketable commodities needed to address a need at another position.
 
All leagues are different, too. For example, in our Staff League this year, I did go pretty heavy on the RBs, with Matt Forte and Eddie Lacy drafted in the first and third rounds, respectively. Yet, I also still got A.J. Green and Drew Brees in the second and fourth rounds. So I basically did go BPA mode in that draft with a focus on RB and it worked out. In other leagues, though, Brees wasn’t making it out of the second round. I knew the “experts” tend to wait a little on QB, and while I didn’t exactly plan on taking someone like Brees, he was impossible to pass up early in the 4th. So you always have to have a feel for how your particular draft goes, especially in terms of how early the top QBs go off the board.
 
I’ll be pointing out a lot of things I got wrong or was off-base on in this article, but I’ll also be referring to my draft in the FantasyGuru.com Staff League a lot because that draft and league was not only one in which focused on more than usual, it was a great example of a lot of principles I’ve been writing about for years. First and foremost, that draft was about acquiring 5-6 impact players early, and spreading the talent throughout my roster well. I predicted all off-season that the Waiver Wire in 2013 would be as important and likely more important than ever, and I do think that was the case. So knowing that I would be able to acquire numerous players who were impactful on the WW, I made sure I drafted a strong foundation early. I was hoping to hit on all of my picks, but of course I didn’t, yet that wasn’t a problem because I had the foundation of impact players to carry my squad while I tweaked and adjusted my team all year while working the WW.
 
I’m sure a lot of fantasy players will be going into BPA mode in 2014, what with the RBs being more hit-and-miss than the other positions and with guys like Peyton Manning, Jimmy Graham, and maybe even Josh Gordon being so appealing. But we were already there a couple of years ago and reverted in 2013 to old school form with all the RB love, so it’s worth pointing out that any fantasy draft is about acquiring as many impact players as possible, regardless of the draft trends for a particular year.
 
Zigging when others zag can work
I’ve written many times that there are many possible paths to a fantasy championship, and I absolutely believe that will always be true. I’m usually of the opinion that your best chance to form the best fantasy football team is draft a QB only after you have acquired at least a few studs at the other key positions. But I’ve also always conveyed a willingness to select an elite producer at the QB position in the early rounds, especially if one is “stuck” and isn’t sold on the remaining high-end options at the position in one of the first 2-3 rounds. There really isn’t a right or wrong answer when it comes to draft approach, so it should come down to your comfort level with the players – and of course supply and demand. In 2013, fantasy players were clearly enamored with the RBs early in drafts. Ironically, that fact made drafting a QB very early even less appealing because if mostly everyone is going to hold off a little on drafting their QB, it made little sense to be overly proactive about drafting one in the early rounds. For example, if everyone was drafting RBs early, it made little sense to draft Aaron Rodgers late in the first round when your best back in the second round was Steven Jackson. That’s especially true when you could have had Matt Forte late in the first and Peyton Manning in the second. That’s a basic example, but you get the point.
 
With unusual depth at the QB position, thanks to the rise of several young, emerging players who greatly augment their fantasy production with their legs, it seemed more prudent in 2013 to hold off a little on drafting your QB. If you read the site closely this summer, you likely recall that Andrew Luck was essentially the QB we pushed the most. We didn’t think he was going to be better than Manning; we thought he was going to be very good and a much better value than Manning, and we’re always going to shoot for value when drafting. I’m greedy in that I want the best of both worlds, and I felt that Luck had the best combination of fantasy potential and affordability in drafts.
 
But as we know, Manning was the better pick, even if he cost significantly more than Luck at the draft table. For the record, Luck finished 7th in overall QB scoring and would have been even more consistent and he would have easily finished in the top-5 had he not lost Reggie Wayne. Drafting Manning was certainly a best-player-available move, but it was also a good example of “zigging” when others were “zagging.” Heck, you could have virtually ignored all the RB-heavy trends early in drafts and ignored the position while selecting guys like Manning, Graham, and a stud wideout or three while later grabbing backs like Giovani Bernard, Ryan Mathews, and Le'Veon Bell, plus snagging a guy like Zac Stacy on the WW.
 
Every situation and year will be different going forward, but the lesson learned is that you don’t have to fall in line with a particular trend, even if it’s a very strong one, as the RBs early in 2013 drafts were. And while it can be dangerous and you need to be careful not to be a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian, you can actually gain an advantage if you ignore the trends and go completely against them.
 
You might as well play to win
I’ve always been about upside later in drafts, or even earlier in drafts, and I usually focus on playing to win in general. But as stated at the top of this article, I took more of a holistic/conservative approach this year and tried to consider all possible angles when evaluating and projecting players. That was in an effort to make fewer mistakes, and I do believe that worked. But I also think I missed out on a few opportunities in the process.
 
Starting with the draft, I’ve noticed lately that being aggressive in the mid-to-late rounds makes more sense than ever. This past spring, I was reviewing some of my drafts from the year before, and I noticed a trend, at least for my drafts. The first 6-8 rounds were very good, even outstanding. But after that, my picks in the back half of my drafts were pretty bad, other than 1-2 players I hit on. In the FantasyGuru.com Staff League, my first seven picks were Matt Forte, A.J. Green, Eddie Lacy, Drew Brees, T.Y. Hilton, Josh Gordon, and Daryl Richardson. I nailed six of the seven, but after that my picks were underwhelming, other than Pierre Thomas in the 12th round. I did draft guys like Coby Fleener and Rod Streater very late, and they were decent at times, but nothing special.
 
Things could change in 2014, but I sensed all off-season that 2013, with more roles up in the air than usual, was going to be an uneven and unsettled season, and it was. That made picks in the second half of drafts even more hit-or-miss than usual. Most of these picks are not going to pay big dividends, and many of them will flop. So it makes more sense than ever to hone in on and take a shot with a player with tangible upside, due mainly to superior athletic abilities. A great example of this was Julius Thomas in Denver. We definitely talked him up in many places, and he was our top TE to draft late in our “Mr. Relevant” article in August. But what we really should have done was to tell people to get him at all costs. It wasn’t 100% clear until very late in the preseason that he was going to be the guy over Jacob Tamme (Thomas was named the starter less than a week before Week One), and they did have others at the position in the mix. But the main reason we didn’t beg people to get Thomas was because the guy had only 1 career catch for 5 measly yards in two seasons in Denver. But with late-round picks being so hit-or-miss lately and with the WW being as big a key to success as ever, I should have simply recognized that he had the physical talent to dominate, was clearly ascending here, and he did play with Peyton Manning. Granted, there’s only one football, but we all knew there was a ton of production to go around, so I should have begged people to take a flyer on Thomas (I know a lot of you did, anyway, but there could have been more of you).
 
Sometimes, I have too much information to process and consider, and it can actually hurt me, as it did with Jordan Cameron of the Browns. Regular listeners to my SiriusXM Radio show know that I’ve been borderline obsessed with Cameron dating back to 2011, and we did talk him up and we listed him as one of the best breakout candidates at his position in our players to target article in the summer. However, in talking to those close to the team the last two years, it was actually hard to give Cameron a really strong endorsement. The previous coaching staff was underwhelmed with him, and while the new staff in 2013 did little to bring in competition, which was definitely a good sign and something we pointed out a lot, the overriding opinion of Cameron was a fairly skeptical one due to a variety of factors, namely his durability. He did have a good preseason, which helped, and we did push him and ranked Cameron higher on our overall cheat sheet than he was going on average. But Cameron did very little in his first two years (26/259/1 in 22 games played), so with me trying to cover all viable bases more than usual, it was really hard for me to beg people to get him. For about half the season, I felt his emergence was one of the most impressive ascensions in the league in 2013, and that was due mainly to the fact that he really hadn’t done anything previously, yet he played like an all-pro, and the fact that the overriding opinion of those close to the team was that he was far from a lock to deliver in his third season.
 
But Cameron did deliver, and while he was helped by the great Norv Turner’s influence, he ultimately did so because he’s a better athletic talent than most of his TE counterparts. Just being very athletic isn’t enough, of course, as we’ve been seeing the last two years with Arizona’s Rob Housler. But Cameron was only about a 9th- or 10th-round pick, so I think we could have pushed him a little harder.
 
I feel like the mid-to-late rounds are cloudier than ever because there are more players in on the fun and touching the ball these days. Obviously, we’ve seen a ton of backfields that don’t just feature and rely on one back, and that’s a problem that’s only been getting worse the last few years. The game has mirrored the college game more the last 4-5 years, so we see more teams spreading defenses out with more receivers on the field, so there are more viable options than ever before for fantasy. For example, five years ago, the #30 WR put up 57/822/5 in a PPR, which was pretty mediocre. In 2103, the #30 WR in total points was Torrey Smith, who put up 65/1128/4. Back in 2009, Smith would have finished about 10 spots higher, but there were more WRs putting up numbers in 2013 than there was in 2009.
 
What I should be pointing out more often in the preseason, and what I will be doing going forward, is explaining that our rankings, which are derived from our projections, can be your enemy at times. If a player like Jacquizz Rodgers has a clear role, he’s projected as such, and someone like Rodgers, who is a lock to get touches, will land fairly high on our rankings because we can actually project him fairly accurately. But if a player like Zac Stacy doesn’t have anything resembling a role in the preseason, which he didn’t this past year, then it’s tough to project out anything more than minimal production. We did flag Stacy as having upside based on his potential to take over the backfield, but he could not be ranked ahead of Rodgers, who again was a sure bet to get touches.
 
Players like Rodgers can be valuable in deeper leagues, and he did have a little more value than expected because Stephen Jackson missed so much time. But generally speaking, those guys are a dime a dozen, so in the second half of your draft, you might as well play to win. You can certainly invest a pick or two in a solid complementary player for depth, as I did in our staff league in Pierre Thomas, who was a pleasant surprise in 2013. We also listed Danny Woodhead as a player to target in the preseason, and he was really productive (keep in mind that in PPR leagues, complementary guys can be more productive than usual). But in general, and especially with your last 4-5 picks, your focus, unless you’re strictly looking to handcuff some studs, should really be on any player who has the talent to be a difference-maker, and someone who has a legit chance to play more than expected (and not just the handcuff guys).  
 
As for the Waiver Wire, it was more active than ever this past year, as I predicted in the summer. But once again, I felt as if I held back a bit a few times on being aggressive and playing to win when it came to WW recommendations. It’s true that different fantasy teams have different needs, so it may be better for one team to pick up a “safer” or more reliable option compared to another fantasy team that needed to swing for the fences more. But in general, with so many viable options emerging each week or sitting there on the WW, you might as well go for the upside and pick up the player who actually has a chance to be seriously impactful.
 
Earlier in the season, I was so impressed with a certain young WR’s performance one week that I actually tweeted to subscribers about him on a Tuesday night and called him a really sneaky pickup for upside. The problem is that his team was without a go-to wideout, and there was another more experience player on the team who, at the time, looked like a better bet to emerge. Both were viable pickups, but I gave the experienced guy the slight advantage. I did say that my “gut feeling” on the younger guy was that he had more upside, which was a stretch at the time, so I do believe that a lot of subscribers got him. It’s easy to say now, but I should have simply told people to go for the gusto and pick up Keenan Allen over Vincent Brown, even though Allen had only 8 career catches for 130 yards and 0 TDs at the time. It’s a shame because I feel like I was way out in front on Allen, yet I had to recognize Brown, who had clearly flashed the previous two seasons (he was spectacular in the 2012 preseason, and he made some great plays in his rookie 2011 season). There were definitely solid vibes with Brown in the preseason, and I was told repeatedly by those who cover the team that the Chargers were expecting big things from Brown. But I also knew that Brown projected more as a complementary guy than Allen did and that Allen, had he not had some knee problems, could have been the top wideout drafted in as early as late in the first round. Granted, Allen was shockingly good, but if you were staring at these two guys on the WW after veteran Malcom Floyd went down and you made a play-to-win call, you would have made the right call. As for Brown, what happened to him is almost another lesson learned entirely. I still don’t know what exactly happened, but he clearly lost the confidence of his QB, and he clearly lost confidence himself, perhaps due to the fact that the offense had changed in 2013. Sometimes, it’s literally impossible to handicap what’s going on in a player’s head. 
 
There’s a fine line between playing to win and being reckless, and as any David Wilson owner can attest to, playing to win doesn’t always work out. But with more options to choose from lately, and with so many variables that can disrupt a fantasy player’s prospects, and with breakout WW stars fairly rare lately (there’s more quantity but a little less quality on the WW the last couple of years), I’ll be reverting to my previous form going forward, which means I’ll be taking more chances.
 
We do play this game to win, and for most it makes sense to play aggressively.
 
You’re better off bailing a year too early than a year too late
It’s usually tough to know when to cut bait or downgrade an aging player, since it’s always possible that an older player finds himself in a situation to put up good numbers and actually does put up good numbers. For example, some felt that Bill RB Fred Jackson was done in the preseason. As it turned out, Jackson didn’t really have a ton of juice to lose to begin with, and he was a top-12 producer at RB in 2013, even at 32 years old.
 
However, we clearly learned this past year, at least with the RBs, that if you’re concerned about an advancing age and/or a lot of mileage on a player’s tires, your concern is probably warranted. If you simply crossed all the players off your board who had some injury-related issues due, at least in part, to a heavy workload or has simply piled up a ton of touches in his career, you would have been better off. Sure, a guy like Frank Gore was still plugging along well in 2013, but did you really “miss” Gore if you passed on him? Not really.
 
But if you passed on players with some breakdown concerns like Arian Foster, Maurice Jones-Drew, Stevan Jackson, Darren McFadden, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Rashard Mendenhall, you didn’t regret it. The big name in this group is Foster, who ironically improved his yards per carry and catch averages in 2013. His touch averages were actually good for half a season, but you have to think his massive workload the previous three seasons contributed to his body breaking down.
 
I’ve long said that the “safest” RBs to take early are those who are young, versatile, and durable, and while that is still the case, things didn’t work out too well for some guys who were all three, like Doug Martin and C.J. Spiller. So there are landmines everywhere. Still, it does make more sense to focus on young players (who ideally have some experience and a fairly sizable body of work) and to be even more skeptical about players with age or usage issues. Heck, even the previously brittle Ryan Mathews had a great season, due in large part to his youth and fairly minimal wear and tear. I actually thought Ray Rice was pretty “safe” in 2013, especially in a PPR league, and I was not too concerned about the presence of Bernard Pierce, as others were. His horrendous season had a lot to do with an offense that fell flat this past year and an OL that was much less effective – the very youthful Pierce also struggled and actually averaged fewer yards per carry – but you’d have to say that Rice’s massive workload in college and the pros had a lot to do with his 2013 demise. And now we’re left wondering not only if we’ve already seen the best of him, but also if Rice is about ready to fall off the proverbial cliff.
 
So in 2014, we should all downgrade guys like Rice, Arian Foster, Steven Jackson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren Sproles, Frank Gore, and Darren McFadden, to name several obvious guys. It also means we might want to focus on some younger RBs who fell short of expectations this year, since RB is clearly a young man’s position. Martin and Spiller still have their best football in front of them, and they have proven they can produce, so they look like good picks in 2014. Heck, even Trent Richardson could be something of a value if he falls far enough in drafts, since he’s still quite young (and will have a full off-season to get more comfortable in Indy’s offense). I’d much rather be wrong about a young back who has shown promise, like Richardson, Doug Martin, and Alfred Morris, than an aging back who’s in danger of having his game fall off quickly.
 
Even at WR this year, it was wise to pass on the league’s older stars, as guys like Larry Fitzgerald, Roddy White, Steve Smith and Reggie Wayne generally disappointed, due mainly to their bodies breaking down. There were also some younger guys with injury issues who continued to torture fantasy players as well, such as Hakeem Nicks and Miles Austin.
 
We’re going to see older players produce big numbers almost every year, so if you pass on all players of a certain age or with a certain career workload level, you’re going to miss out on some fantasy production. But we clearly learned in 2013 that if you simply crossed these greybeards or high-touch-total guys off your board, you’ll likely come out on top overall. At the very least, we need to be more cognizant that older players as riskier investments, and it’s always wise to minimize risk by being careful not to invest in too many players who are no longer in their prime.
 
It’s (still) about pocket passing
The NFL is evolving and changing so quickly that I feel like no one really knew what to expect from most (if not all) of the QBs who exceled running the read-option in 2012. We knew that defenses would adjust after studying tape in the off-season, but the read-option was so effective in many cases in 2012, and most of the QBs running it are also viable pocket passers (unlike a guy like Vince Young), so it wasn’t easy to just assume the worst, at least it wasn’t for me.
 
But really, when you look at the production of guys like Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, and Russell Wilson, the rushing yardage was down, and their TD totals compared to 2012 were way down (11 in 2013 compared to 24 the year before).
 
In 2013, we ironically saw some surprising rushing production from QBs like Nick Foles and Alex Smith, but we also saw several less-than-mobile QBs produce top-12 totals, like Foles, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger. Rivers, amazingly, looked like an outdated fossil on paper going into the 2013 season, and we know how that ended up. Rivers did wind up posting 20 or fewer fantasy points in half of his games, so he was a little inconsistent, especially when they started running the ball a lot with Ryan Mathews. But he did also still finish in the top-10 in QB scoring, which could not be realistically predicted this time last year. Even Matt Ryan, who rushed for only 55/0, finished tied for 12th in QB scoring despite suffering major injuries at wideout.
 
Rushing production is great, and we love it for fantasy, but while I can’t say the read-option dried up completely in 2013, it took a pretty major hit, confirming once again that we should still focus on those QBs who can consistently move the sticks while throwing the ball from the pocket.
 
Running QBs need to run
Also, in this same vein, I think we all learned that most of the QBs known for their rushing production are mediocre NFL players and fantasy producers if they’re not running. I certainly like Cam Newton as a fantasy option still, but that’s mainly because his rushing impact has been significant now three straight years. Newton can make all the throws, and I’m sure he would perform better as a passer with some better players around him, but ultimately I think what we’ve seen from him thus far is what he is and will continue to be: a player who cannot consistently move the ball up and down the field without running. That’s disconcerting because his rushing production overall has declined in each of his first three seasons, so the Panthers really need to get him more help at receiver to offset this downward rushing trend. In 2013, Newton posted fewer than 5 fantasy points rushing in half of his games (8). He averaged only 16.1 fantasy points per game in those games, which is horrendous. I was downright panicking after the first two games when he didn’t run – and was 25th in QB scoring and behind even Terrelle Pryor.
 
I’m more optimistic about Colin Kaepernick, the passer, but for now he’s another player who needs to run to maintain a high level of NFL play and fantasy production. And that definitely appears to be the case with Russell Wilson. As great of an NFL player as he is considering his lack of height, it’s fairly clear that he’ll need to keep running if he’s to be a fantasy force. It can be argued that he wasn’t a “force” for fantasy in 2013, so my guess is that he’ll have to step up his game as a passer and/or find a go-to guy. As for Robert Griffin III, I do think that he can throw the ball well from the pocket, and he’s going to have to really step up his game in that area because if RGIII continues to be a guy who needs to run to be very effective, he might not have a very long career.
 
And this is why I love Andrew Luck so much. While he’s unlikely to produce as much on the ground as someone like Newton or Kaepernick, Luck’s added about 60 fantasy points per season rushing in each of his first two seasons, and that’s a significant total. Yet he’s also a QB capable of leading the league in passing attempts, and he’s capable of having great success throwing it. Aaron Rodgers has been close to Luck in terms of his rushing production, but we already know he’s a stud. Luck’s the next stud, and when you consider his running ability and also his potential as a passer, I think it’s entirely possible that Luck goes down in history as the most physicality gifted QB to ever play the game.
 
I definitely think that these running QBs are still very viable for fantasy, and after Luck I’m highest on Kaepernick, who probably has more raw talent overall than Luck. But while a QB’s rushing ability over the years has usually helped his consistency, I feel like the opposite can be true. Perhaps these players are too reliant on their legs and haven’t progressed well enough as passers, but in a passing league your best bet to produce consistently is when you can throw it consistently. I always like to have the best of both worlds, which again is why I love Luck so much and will be very high on Kaepernick in 2014 because I still think he has a lot of untapped potential as a passer.
 
Use common sense with young RBs
One my biggest regrets this past summer is failing to push Knowshon Moreno more as a late pick. While he really wasn’t getting much love anywhere as far as I can tell, and while I did mention him quite as bit as a serious threat to the presumed (at least by midseason) starter Montee Ball, I should have realized that Moreno was sitting there all summer as an incredible value late in drafts. Granted, I wasn’t alone in my evaluation of the situation, and I was probably still blinded by the fact that the team really wasn’t that high on him before he was pressed into duty in 2012 (he was inactive quite a bit and was actually working with the practice team early in ’12). Moreno is ultimately just above average, and they did use a #2 pick on Ball presumably to handle a healthy percentage of their rushing load. But Moreno did preform very well in 2012, and he was the veteran who fully understands their blocking assignments, plus he’s very versatile. I guess it’s really easy to see now, but I’m pissed at myself for not recognizing what is very obvious now: Ball was going to have to be lights-out in training camp to push Moreno out of a prominent role, and he really wasn’t, as he was shaky in terms of ball security and pass protection. In my defense, the real confusing element to this backfield was Ronnie Hillman, who actually ran with the first-team offense for most of the summer. We knew Hillman was a complementary guy all the way, though, and we stated it many times while covering this situation. So in terms of finding a possible lead back here, it was really Ball vs. Moreno. This situation did scream ugly committee, and it kind of was very early in the season, but common sense said to give Moreno the nod. 
 
So the lesson here, other than to never ignore simple good judgment, is that rookie backs have the best chance to produce when there’s little competition and a larger margin for error. The Broncos did use a 2nd -round pick on Ball for a reason, but in Pittsburgh, the need for a lead back was far greater. Le’Veon Bell did have some competition (rookie backs usually have at least some competition), but there was no one on the roster anywhere close to Moreno in terms of experience and recent production, so once Bell was healthy, he was the guy. In Green Bay, we obviously got Eddie Lacy completely right, as we pushed him very hard, but in retrospect that made sense because James Starks, as solid as he was in 2013, had received plenty of the chances in the recent past and just hadn’t come through. And fellow rookie Jonathan Franklin was exposed in the preseason, so other than a fleeting moment early in training camp, we didn’t see him as much of an impediment for Lacy, and he wasn’t.  
 
Change at the top is usually a positive
It’s not easy to make a blanket statement about anything in the NFL and fantasy football, so there’s not a lot of insight here other than to say that the ramifications of a significant move in the NFL needs to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis.
 
But at least in 2013, change was good.
 
In San Diego, change was not only good, it was great. I guess we learned, with a guy like Philip Rivers, that when a player has a strong body of work and is still relatively young, it’s premature to write him off. Rivers’ game seemed to be falling off the previous two seasons with Norv Turner, yet he was rejuvenated in 2013, thanks in large part to the new offense. That offense really helped protect an OL that looked poor on paper by helping Rivers get rid of the ball quickly, and he responded. In Chicago, the addition of new head coach Marc Trestman was a smashing success, as we expected. In Kansas City, things weren’t incredible for fantasy, but it’s pretty clear that Andy Reid’s influence was a positive one. Even in Cleveland, we saw two young players bust out as Pro-Bowl performers, and we can thank OC Norv Turner and HC Rob Chudzinski for that, even as the organization thanked them both by firing them. Things didn’t work out too well in Indianapolis with Pep Hamilton taking over the offensive coordinator duties, but former Colt OC Bruce Arians was a success in Arizona, and I’d have to say overall that the new regimes in Jacksonville and Buffalo had positive impacts.
 
Change can be a scary thing for fantasy, since installing a new system can take some time, but in 2013, we did learn that change can be good, or at least better than the status quo. After all, with some previous regimes in places like San Diego, KC, and Chicago, things got stale and the changes injected some life into these offenses. Generally speaking, if something isn’t working in the NFL, changes will be made, so in the grand scheme of things, we learned that change is a good thing when it comes to coaching staffs.
 
ACL QBs can be fantasy killers  
It’s easy to say now, but the Redskins really should have given Robert Griffin III the month of September off. He was rushed back, and it showed. Mechanically for QBs, it all starts below the waist, and we’ve seen time and time again that QBs coming off ACL injuries usually aren’t the same the next year. There are exceptions, like Philip Rivers, who was brilliant in 2008 after suffering a torn ACL. But I believe Rivers is the exception to the norm. He’s more of an “arm thrower” than someone like Brady, whose mechanics are impeccable from bottom to top, and Rivers is not someone who moves much in the pocket, so it’s possible that he dealt better with his ACL recovery than Brady or a guy like Carson Palmer did. Both Brady and Palmer were okay coming off their serious knee injuries, but they were clearly less comfortable, and we like our QBs to be comfortable. Brady was a solid 7th in scoring the year he returned from his ACL, but he went from 50 TDs in 2007 to only 28 in his next full season, 2009. He was back up to 36 in 2010, and based also on the eyeball test, he was clearly less of a player in ’09.
 
This does not bode well for Sam Bradford in 2014, especially since Bradford’s flaws were more exposed in 2013. Bradford could possibility be an exception, and he suffered his injury back in November, so he’ll have a decent amount of time to recover. But I would venture to guess that if a fantasy player avoided drafting a QB coming off a serious knee injury 10 times out of 10, that he or she will convincingly come out on top.
 
Preseason injuries can be overrated
One thing that really upset me in 2013 was the situation with Packer WR Jordy Nelson. Coming off a disappointing 2012 season, we noticed that a lot of his telling stats – such as his catch rate and yards per target – were still very good. So we loved Nelson early last summer. But in early August it was announced that he was going to undergo a knee procedure that would keep him out 4-6 weeks, putting his Week One availability in question. The procedure was to correct an issue with a nerve in his knee area that had been bothering him, but coming off an injury-plagued ’12 season, it was hard at the time not to be anything up disturbed by this injury-related development.
 
To be fair, I don’t think anyone was spinning Nelson’s surgery as a positive, but it turns out it was a positive. Nelson was like a new man post-surgery, and he was quietly one of the most consistent receivers and difficult covers in the league, at least when he had his starting QB in the lineup.
 
Obviously, it’s never good to have your player down with an injury, but rest assured I’ll be more conscious of the possibility that a surgery or time missed might be a major blessing in disguise, as it clearly was for Nelson. I talked to a ton of NFL beat guys in the preseason and regular season, and you can be damn sure that I’ll regularly cover this possibility with them when talking about injured players and players coming off surgeries.
 
Also, another thing that really annoyed my in 2013 was Jamaal Charles’ foot issue in the preseason. We were very high on him for obvious reasons, but in my quest to provide more balanced coverage that took every possibly factor into consideration, I had to bump him down a couple of spots in our RB rankings due to the injury, behind two comparable options in LeSean McCoy and (gulp) C.J. Spiller, who was .5 points higher than Charles. Had Charles not had his foot problem, I could have seen us ranking Charles as high as #2 at RB by the time the preseason ended (at least in a PPR), which kills me. We certainly don’t want to ignore preseason injuries, and most of the time we’re not going to get enough information to make the correct adjustment (or non-adjustment), but I’m going to try harder to make sure an injury-related downgrade, even a slight one as Charles really was (he went from #4 to #6 overall), is warranted.
 
Never again with a Patriot volume back
I say “volume back” because Shane Vereen, who one could argue was a “volume receiver” was great in PPR, so I’m not down on drafting someone like Vereen in 2014. We did like Vereen this summer and backed him pretty hard, but we also endorsed Stevan Ridley, and that was a disaster. Ridley’s ADP was about 30 this past summer, and we ranked him at #25 in our last cheat sheet (first pick in the 3rd round in a 12-team league), so we weren’t exactly begging people to get him. But we did list him as a player to target in that third round, and I did write that I didn’t think LeGarrette Blount – who’s had his own fumbling problems and some short-yardage struggles in the past – was a significant threat to Ridley.
 
Blount was good for 10+ points in a PPR only three times through Week Fifteen (he obviously killed it Weeks Sixteen and Seventeen, but that’s a small sample), so he really wasn’t a strong producer for fantasy. But thanks in large part to Ridley’s fumbling, Blount was obviously a threat to Ridley. And when you take the volume (and considerable goal-line carries) away from the volume back, you’re essentially rendering him useless for fantasy, and that’s what happened to Ridley.
 
But the Patriots and Bill Belichick also happened to Ridley. I understand that players need to protect the football, but I’d prefer coaches like Belichick and Tom Coughlin give their guys a little more slack, especially since it seems like they do them more harm than good by placing the microscope squarely on their ball security issues for all to see and analyze. So that was the first mistake: assuming a Belichick back, even a young one coming off a terrific season, was a safe bet. Truth be told, Ridley had a lot going for him heading into 2013. Extremely young at 24, yet experienced with two years in the league going into 2013, he was third in the NFL in rushing TDs, averaged a solid 4.4 yards per carry, and he had over 300 touches in 2012. All of that meant nothing to Belichick once Ridley put the ball on the ground a couple of times early in the season.
 
The Patriots have been in the top-10 the last two years in terms of rushing attempts and seemed to morph into more of a power running team in 2013, as we expected (that’s a big reason why we liked Ridley, all their issues in the passing game), but the bigger problem in New England is that they are too game-specific with their approach. They will feature a certain skill player like Julian Edelman for weeks or months at a time if he’s getting it done, but overall they have few allegiances to players, and Belichick won’t hesitate to pull back from a player’s usage if he has issues or if he doesn’t fit into that week’s gameplan and approach.
 
So again, I’m sure we’re going to be high on Vereen in 2014 as a 5th- or 6th-round pick in a PPR, and that he’ll come through if healthy because of his versatility and ability to produce in the passing game. But as for their expected lead runner, expectations need to be lowered and we cannot draft him so early that they could seriously disrupt a fantasy season if Belichick and the Pats continue to bail quickly on fumblers and continue
 
Fantasy football is a game of failure
This lesson may be too philosophical for some, but between the ever-changing pro football game, the overall lack of continuity and astonishing league parity, combined with the overall randomness of the game, one lesson that I learned is that you have to accept the fact that you’re going to make mistakes in this endeavor we call fantasy football.
 
In the league I wanted to win the most this year, I made a ton of mistakes. I invested in the Ram offense in the preseason, for example. I also failed to hang on to Redskin TE Jordan Reed early in the season, despite the fact that I was hurting at the position and was talking him up on the site as a nice WW pickup right after Week One. I picked up Zac Stacy at one point because I had Daryl Richardson, only to drop him a few days later the week before he finally got his opportunity (in my defense for both moves, we had very shallow benches).
 
But despite these bad management decisions, I finished the regular season in this league, the FantasyGuru.com Staff League, a perfect 14-0 (I lost in the finals to finish 15-1).   
 
This notion is great and all, but my goal with this article is to offer up thoughts that might, you know, be helpful. I guess the bottom line with this lesson is an ideology that I’ve fostered for years but got away from a little in 2013: You can’t be afraid to make mistakes, and you’re better off playing things aggressively, and to win.  
 
This article is next to impossible for me to end each year, so here are some other quick lessons learned from the 2013 season:
 
  • If the negatives surrounding a player start to pile up, head for the hills – The basic thing I do when evaluating players is stack up the positives and negatives and make a determination in terms of which side will win. With Tom Brady all preseason, the negatives won convincingly, and we listed him as the top QB to avoid in 2013. Brady’s an all-time great, and his final numbers weren’t that bad, but he was a fantasy buzz kill in 2013.
  • Fantasy values can be had due to expected time missed – It’s certainly risky to invest in a player who is expected to open the season on the shelf for whatever reason, but with a guy like Josh Gordon we saw that fantasy players can take advantage of expected time missed. Gordon was going to be risky no matter what because he was in a one-and-done situation in terms of being in the league’s substance abuse policy. But clearly, his draft stock dropped because of it. We’re all about impact players, and if a potential impact player is going to take a hit in terms of his average draft position, that can offset some of the risk. It almost also happened with Justin Blackmon, who was actually the 7th best WR this past year in points per game (4 games played). Also, in Pittsburgh, Le’Veon Bell could have been had for an 8th round pick or better in a typical league. At that point, he was certainly worth a shot, and with the 2013 season in the books we now know he was worth a shot. We have to remember it’s a long season, and an impact player for the second half of the season can be more valuable than a solid player for the whole season.
  • If you don’t get a stud TE early, hold off – I did write all summer about the advantage that could be gained by drafting Jimmy Graham early and dominating that position, and we did rank Graham in our top-12 overall, which many disagreed with. But as we saw in 2013, if you didn’t draft Graham in the first or second round, it was wise to hold off on the position and target an ascending player who hadn’t yet busted out. Granted, this strategy isn’t full-proof – just ask those who drafted Jared Cook – but when you also consider the possibilities on the WW (like Jordan Reed), the TE position stands out as a position to address either very early, or pretty darn late.   
  • If you’re going to take a shot with an injury-prone player, at least let him be young – This time last year I was big on avoiding players who “didn’t have the DNA to play football and avoid injury,” like Darren McFadden. McFadden was a disaster again, but while DeMarco Murray did miss two games, he was an extremely valuable asset for fantasy players. It was impossible to strongly back Ryan Mathews for obvious reasons, but we did move him up our board and pointed out repeatedly how good he looked in the preseason. He finally found a way to stay on the field, which was a function of being experienced enough to do what it took to remain available and also because he’s still very young. We still want to be wary of players with durability issues, yet at some point we’re probably going to have to take a chance on a couple of them. Ideally, as we learned in 2013, we’re doing that with youthful players.
  • Secondary receivers on teams with a high-end go-to guy are in a good position – This was something that was very prevalent in 2013, so I’m going to pay closer attention to it when it comes to preseason evaluations. I found that we saw shutdown corner types on a team’s stud WR more often in 2013, and I also felt that we saw defenses otherwise paying more attention to a team’s top target, which opened things up for the secondary guys more often than I’m used to seeing. So if Eric Decker leaves Denver as a free agent in 2014, his replacement on the outside could be a big sleeper. In Cincinnati, Marvin Jones came out of nowhere, and he was clearly helped by the presence of stud A.J. Green. In Dallas, Terrance Williams wasn’t exactly ready to explode as a rookie, yet he had some great moments, thanks in large part to the attention Dez Bryant commanded. We fantasy players are always looking for any edge we can get, even if it’s a slight edge, and I think we saw in 2013 that an advantage can be gained if we hone in on these specific types of secondary wideouts.     
  • The building of an offense takes time – I’m guilty of being a year too early on a player or an offense all the time. I try to be ahead of the curve on everything, and you just can’t be that without occasionally backing something that is not yet ready for prime time. In 2013, it was the Ram offense. Yes, I was concerned with OC Brian Schottenheimer’s weaker track record and slow-to-learn offense, but they really had some intriguing pieces in place. We didn’t really rank any Ram very high at his position, but we did categorize most of their key players as sleepers, and that didn’t work out. Most of this article is about playing to win, and I suppose we did that with the Rams in 2013, so the lesson is not to be more conservative, but to recognize that there’s a difference between being aggressive with a single player and a whole offense. A single player can break out at a moment’s notice, but a whole offense does need time to develop.
  • If a team is hesitant to commit to a lead back in the preseason, they could be hesitant all year – In Miami, the Dolphins were hesitant to back Lamar Miller in the preseason, and it turned out they were hesitant to do so all year. Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman (since fired) didn’t exactly do a good job managing his backfield, and they never truly gave Miller a chance to show what he could do. Miller flashed at times for sure, but we probably can’t blame his poor season on Sherman, since the general feeling in Miami with the 2013 season in the books is that Miller isn’t really an ideal lead back. Investing in Miller was more of a play-to-win move, but just like anything in fantasy there are no absolutes and we will be incorrect with our evaluations. We only ranked Miller in the 20s at RB, and their hesitance to commit to him in the preseason definitely kept his ranking down, but their hesitancy in the preseason was a worse sign than we thought.
  • Innovative offenses can work well in year one – Not that the read-option was particularly “innovative,” but it was a newer wrinkle in the NFL in 2012, and it worked pretty darn well. But in 2013, defenses adjusted and the read-option was less effective. The rushing numbers for some of the main QBs running it looked okay, but it was clearly less effective in 2013 by the eyeball test. It actually seemed to be more effective for guys who weren’t running it much in 2012. Obviously, the best example from 2013 was Chip Kelly’s offense in Philly. It’s going to be interesting to see how well defenses can adjust to it in 2014, but one aspect that could ensure its continued success is the offense’s tempo and pace, which does give them an advantage. I would guess that teams in their division will be better prepared to handle it, but my feeling is that Kelly’s offense won’t decline noticeably this coming season. But clearly, over the last couple of years we’ve learned that something new offensively can take defenses a year to react to.
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