print 2011ís Lessons Learned

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by John Hansen, Publisher

Published, 2/8/12 

Instead of focusing on all the lessons learned from the recently completed NFL season as usual, this year’s article takes on more of a Darwinian approach because the NFL, and by direct association fantasy football, is evolving quickly.
 
And if you know anything about Darwinism, you know that the basic premise centers around the notion that only the strong – those willing to adapt to their environment – survive.
 
You’ll find some examples of lessons learned that can apply to almost any period of time, but the majority of this year’s lessons learned article deals with how fantasy players need to adjust their thinking (if they haven’t already) and adapt to the current NFL game. And since the NFL game and fantasy football are changing so quickly, consider this year’s piece as your first 2012 NFL draft plan.
 
Elite passers rule
This past summer, we ranked the highest number of QBs in our top-25 overall than we ever have – five signal callers made the cut – so we were clearly tuned into the growing trend of stud QBs being more valuable than ever. And our ranking of that many QBs in the top-25 was right in line with my basic strategy of getting as many impact stud players as possible to hang your hat on early in a fantasy draft.
 
However, we should have gone even more “all in” on the stud QBs. That’s really saying something because, for example, we had New Orleans’ Drew Brees at #19 overall, a mid-second round pick, yet he shattered our projections for him. Everyone knows the QBs score the most points, but no one drafts the top-10 guys in the first round because you’d like to get some value. We thought even a #19 ranking represented some value, yet we undervalued Brees. We had him with 357 fantasy points, which was on par with his 2010 output and would have placed him about 10 points off the lead in ’10. Brees wound up with a whopping 472 points, finishing as the top point getter in all of fantasy. Yes, old school fantasy players can be hesitant to draft a QB as high as the top-12 overall, but the times have changed, and the truly elite at the position need to get even more love in fantasy drafts – even though they have already been moving up overall drafts boards for a few years now. Brees’ Saints moved back up into the 1st round of this past April’s draft and selected the rookie classes’ top running back, and a bigger sustaining back at that, yet Brees had his best statistical season throwing the ball and broke the all-time single-season record for passing, which says a lot about where this league is right now.
 
We all want great production from our top pick, but it’s as important not to miss out on at least good production with one’s initial selection because you’re digging yourself a hole that you might not climb out of if your top pick implodes or gets hurt (and QBs generally get hurt less often than RBs). And when you use your first pick on a reliable and durable stud QB like Brees or Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, the chances of implosion are minimal, especially in this current NFL.
 
One of the reasons the truly elite are getting more love is because they’re putting up staggering numbers – much bigger numbers than ever before. As stated in Chris Paavola’s excellent article on our site, Rate of Diffusion, “The average top-12 QB in 2011 (348.5) scored more FPts than all the QBs in 2010.” So not only are the stud QBs more productive than ever, but they are also so productive these days that they can help offset some deficiencies you may leave yourself at RB or WR by taking a QB with your first pick.
 
While Chris has a mathematical definition of “elite” outlined in his article that I can totally appreciate, I’ll focus on the traditional sense of the word. Yes, 2011 was a year of unprecedented production in the passing game, and the QBs benefited greatly, as did many of the receivers, including the TEs. But Baltimore QB Joe Flacco’s numbers were down from 2010, and Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick actually averaged fewer fantasy points per game in 2011 than he did in 2010.
 
I use those two players as an example to make my point, which is very simple: while I’m totally on board with the notion that the league has been more about the passing game than ever before and there’s no end in sight, there are still only a select number of players who will be taking advantage of that. All the rules have been put in place to help QBs succeed in terms of throwing the forward pass, but it might not matter if you’re an average player like San Fran’s Alex Smith, or if your team has serious supporting cast issues, as the Rams and Sam Bradford did in 2011.
 
So basically, if you don’t get an elite talent capable of taking full advantage of the way the NFL is evolving, you might be screwed going forward. Houston’s Matt Schaubisno longer going to cut it, for example. This means we’ll likely have 3-4 QBs in our top-12 this summer, and the safe play will, in fact, be to take a signal caller like Rodgers, Brees, Newton, Stafford, or Brady with one’s first pick.
 
I see nothing wrong with that, but before we throw out all scouting analysis and draft strictly by what the statistical trends tell us, I have to point out one glaring truth about QBs and fantasy football from 2011: Detroit’s Matthew Stafford had an ADP (average draft position) of 82 this past summer, meaning he could have been had for a 7th-round pick in a 12-team league. Stafford in 2011 was 55 points better than Peyton Manningin 2010, and Manning was the #1 scorer in fantasy football in ’10. Can you imagine how potent a fantasy team was in 2011 that loaded up on stud RBs, WRs, and even TEs and then still managed to acquire an elite QB – both on the field and in the stat sheet – like Stafford? I’m sure many of you can, since you actually did it in 2011.
 
That is really the age-old debate when drafting QBs because we all know they usually outscore all other positions; it’s just that it would sure be nice to still get some value when drafting one, so player scouting is still very important.
 
I wish we had ranked Stafford in our top-25 overall last summer, but we’ve praised his elite ability from Day One in the NFL, and we’ve drooled over his potential since before he even threw an NFL pass. While his serious injury issues prevented us from going 100% in on him, he essentially was the guy we honed in on this past summer at the QB position if you didn’t draft one of the elite options, and those who got him not only hung with the big boys in terms of QB production, but they also got an incredible value on their side. What we should have done is simply say that, if you didn’t get a stud QB, then Stafford HAD to be the guy to get, no matter what. If he got hurt again, you might have been hosed, but if you didn’t get him after passing on the studs, you still might have been hosed unless you got Cam Newton, who had a rookie season for a QB we may not see again (in other words, don’t count on another Newton to come around this year).
 
There’s no doubt taking a stud QB is a safe play in the 1st round these days, especially if you’re struggling with your pick and feel you’re “stuck,” which is something I’ve said for a few years. It’s still not time to give up trying to steal a potential stud like Stafford in the middle rounds, but it is risky business because if your value stud misses, it could be a major setback. In addition, when you consider how wide open the Waiver Wire is for fantasy, deficiencies at other positions can be made up for and offset by massive digits being put up by your QB. As I’ve said for years when making my “get-as-many-studs-as-you-can” plea in terms of one’s first 4-5 picks, fantasy players can always fill in some holes working the WW, meaning you can still be fine at the other positions if you use your #1 pick on a QB. And as mentioned above, someone like Rodgers putting up massive digits can offset a lack of scoring from another position, namely the RB position.
 
So this is where we are right now in fantasy football. Not only is it no longer dangerous to acquire a stud QB with one’s first pick, but it’s also probably ideal unless a player at another position makes an incredibly compelling argument to take him. I’ll still argue that there are a few running backs who do make that strong argument, but the top QBs are now in play as early as #1 overall.
 
Fantasy Football is about finding impact players
I’ve been saying this forever, and it’s been a focus of my Draft Plan article every year, but it’s time to expand on this notion and take it to the next level.
 
As outlined above, most fantasy players will now understand that the first few rounds of a fantasy draft should be all about snapping up as many high-impact players as possible, regardless of position. I’ve covered this here and everywhere else on the site in previous preseasons, and it’s probably sunk in for everyone, finally. But it’s not like there are a ton of these quality options available, so the supply of sure-thing studs will be limited. Most of the options available 50+ picks into a draft will have some issues – or else they wouldn’t be available. Once those studs are off the board, we’ll be left with a lot of viable options, which is good, but few will stand out from the others.
 
And that’s why I will be focusing even more on possible impact players for the rest of my drafts.
 
Of course, it’s not like fantasy players select weak performers on purpose; they’re always looking to make good picks and unearth good players and values. But is there an intense focus on finding impact/breakout players? I’m not sure about that, or else Matthew Stafford’s ADP this past summer would have been lower than 82, since it was crystal clear the guy was going to be a juggernaut if he could stay on the field. There should be an obsession with finding the players who fit the profile of a breakout player because finding a guy like Stafford in 2011 is how you win.
 
Now, there is a fine line of sorts between throwing caution to the wind and swinging for the fences on every single pick because that approach can certainly blow up in your face. I’m not saying people should take Jahvid Best in the 4th round in all their leagues this year and hope he stays healthy. It’s also worth noting that loading up on rookies just because their potential seems untapped and large is also risky. At some point, you’re still going to have to “settle” for some solid but unspectacular options, like Anquan Boldin. Stafford was a risk in 2011, but with an ADP of 82, it was a risk worth taking. And if you’re smart enough, you might even “settle” for a guy like Fred Jackson, who could have been had in the 7th or 8th round of a 10 or 12-team league this past year.
 
New York’s Victor Cruz taught us in 2011 to never say never with a young player, and in 2010 Brandon Lloyd taught us to never say never with a talented older player. But generally speaking, if a player’s been in the league 1-2 years, we should have a good feel for his upside potential, so we can probably cross 80% of the players who weren’t high-impact players in 2011 off our potential 2012 stud list. If we somehow cross a Cruz or a Lloyd off our list and leave him undrafted, there is still a chance we can get him on the Waiver Wire, so each preseason we can narrow our search down and hone in on a handful of players and do everything we can to get them.
 
Even if you miss on most of them, you should still be okay because you’ve already created that foundation with your first 2-3 picks, and you know the Waiver Wire is going to be absolutely crucial each and every year.
 
If you hit on 1-2 breakout players, work the wire, and your top guys come through as expected, well, you’ll probably win.
 
Sometimes, there’s enough production to go around
It’s never fun to go back and look at our preseason rankings and projections after a season is over because ranking individual commodities who are merely parts of an unpredictable NFL can be an exercise in futility. Luckily for us, it’s not about getting everything right; it’s about getting more stuff right than our/your competition.
 
But it still stings when I go back and see how we ranked Tennessee’s Jared Cook two spots over New England’s Rob Gronkowski. Cook was a bust, and his top-3 showing the final three weeks of the season, while offering some validation, did little to ease our minds. Cook had a lot of things going for him in 2011; possessing elite physical tools, he was embarking on his third NFL season with a very capable and veteran QB in Matt Hasselbeck pulling the trigger – and he was THE GUY at the position for his team. Gronkowski, on the other hand, was playing the same position as the immensely talented Aaron Hernandez, and my concern was that the two would cancel each other out over the course of a full season, and also that maybe even Chad Ochocinco would command more passes (not that I was high on #85 this summer) and limited the TEs targets (don’t forget Branch and Welker were there, too). Or, at the very least, the presence of two good players at the same position meant that neither would be particularly reliable.
 
So Cook got the nod based on his role as the clear leader for his team at this position, and that didn’t work out so well. Actually, we had Cook at #12 and he finished #14, so that was actually okay. It was the Gronk ranking that was bad. Gronkowski did split time at his position with Hernandez, yet Gronk’s role was massive, and as importantly, his offense was great and all about him and his TE position.
 
This coming season is my 18th year owning and running this site, and for most of those years, it was safe to be cautious when a player was splitting time/production with another good player, but it’s time to adjust thinking and realize that, in some cases, there’s enough production to go around, and that’s especially true when it comes to the passing game, where statistical production is at an all-time high. If you’ve been paying attention the last 3-4 years, you might recall we’ve loved Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson for years (we ranked him the #2 WR for keeper leagues the year he was drafted), and we’ve always given him the edge over James Jones, with whom he’s always competed for the ball. We were ready to go all in on Nelson this year, but when the Packers surprisingly brought the free agent Jones back, it was hard to point to Nelson’s situation and predict a huge year, since there were so many mouths to feed in Green Bay. Nelson’s performance and production was greater than anyone could have expected, but while we did list him as a player to target late in drafts, we should have recognized his slow-but-steady ascension more and placed less emphasis on all the other weapons in Green Bay, especially since Nelson’s skill set is clearly borderline special.
 
Back to Gronkowski, he could turn out to be the exception to the norm at the TE position, and it’s worth noting that Jimmy Graham, the guy we were all over this summer, clearly was the only viable option at his position for the Saints (which is one of the reasons we loved him). So maybe the lesson is also to be careful when the role seems to be a major positive for a player. In Cook’s case, yes, he was the guy, and he’s very talented, but those weren’t guarantees he’d produce. The Pats deserve credit for their excellent coaching and putting their players in a position to succeed, and they did have continuity on their side. You knew they were going to produce, so given all the changes we’ve seen in the league lately favoring the passing games, we should have expected better results than we did, despite the apparent timeshare.
 
Young QBs can produce, especially if they run
If you recall, we were actually quite optimistic on the Panthers and Cam Newton this past summer, and we listed Newton as a player to target and also an ideal option later in your drafts in our “Mr. Relevant” article. But unfortunately, he had such a poor showing as a passer in the preseason that we couldn’t go nuts on him and beg readers to draft him as a high upside backup, especially because there was concern about his playing in a pro-style offense for the first time and in a lockout year with no off-season, no less.
 
Newton obviously wound up doing way better than anyone expected as a passer, but the bottom line is that his running was huge for fantasy, and for most leagues, it made him a certifiable stud as a rookie. It’s easy to say now, after the fact, that we should have all expected the rushing production to be huge – but we should have all expected the rushing production to be huge.
 
Most of the time, QBs who run aren’t refined passers, which is why Newton stands out as a special talent. Newton threw the ball beautifully and showed he could scan the field well and make all the throws on the field with timing, accuracy, touch, and, if need be, big time power. His potential as a passer is through the roof, which is why he should be a serious fantasy juggernaut for years to come because his rushing production should be off the charts as well. But as good as Newton was, he was still just a rookie playing in a lockout year, so you had to expect his running to take over at times – and it did.
 
We all know that running QBs can put up huge numbers, or in Tim Tebow’s case, solid numbers, even if they have a long way to go as passers, but the lesson learned with Newton is that even a rookie can be a major difference-maker at the QB position if he can seriously augment his fantasy value with production on the ground.
 
I’m not sure we’ll see another Newton any time soon, but you can be damn sure we’ll be recognizing the Newton Effect when we’re handicapping Robert Griffin this year. The Heisman winner has rushed for 1334 yards and 18 TDs the last two years at Baylor. And as the likely #2 overall pick in the draft, he’ll play a lot in 2012, if not from Day One. It may not even matter where he goes this year; Griffin looks like a great fantasy backup this year because it’s all about the running. His running could make him an impact player, and it’s really all about impact players in fantasy. Griffin played in 13 games this past year, and he rushed 10+ times in 11 of them, so this is a player who will clearly take off and run. And like Newton, he does have good potential as a passer, which makes him incredibly intriguing. Griffin threw for a whopping 4293 yards and 37 TDs in 2011, so he can clearly excel throwing the forward pass.
 
Since we are dealing with a pass-happy league in which rookie QBs are playing earlier in their careers than ever, Stanford’s Andrew Luck, the likely #1 overall pick, has a chance to make a fantasy impact. But as great a prospect as Luck is, he probably needs planetary alignment if he’s to emerge as a strong fantasy force as a rookie, and that’s because he won’t do as much running the ball, although he could surprise with rushing production similar to Aaron Rodgers eventually. But with a guy like Luck, who can move well but isn’t a gazelle like Newton, it’s probably wise to be cautious and look for a backup option who is more proven as a passer.
 
But based on what we learned from Newton last year, Griffin will probably have way more upside than a pedestrian backup type like Matt Cassel or Kevin Kolb. Heck, he might have more upside than a higher-end backup like Matt Schaub or Carson Palmer. And due to his running, he probably has less downside than the bottom half of the starting QBs in 2012.
 
Newton was a savior this past year for those who weren’t fortunate enough to secure a stud QB earlier in their drafts. And for those who did, he was an exceptional commodity on the trade market. Newton’s ADP was 164 last August, which was a 14th round pick in 2010. Yet, once it was clear that Newton was a beast for fantasy, he could have netted you a wideout or a back who was drafted in the top-20 overall (Michael Turner, Greg Jennings, etc.). It’s like those who “invested” a 14th-round pick on Newton got an extra #2 pick if they didn’t exactly need Newton at QB.
 
Serviceable fantasy backup QBs are usually a dime a dozen on the WW, so it just makes sense to focus on the potential impact of a running QB – even a rookie.
 
Volume Runners Stink
This past year, on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio, there was a clip of me from the preseason that was used in a promo in which I said “That’s the kind of move that will lose you the league,” and I was referring to someone who was overly proactive in drafting Jet RB Shonn Greene in the 3rd round of a 12-team league.
 
On one hand, with so many dual backfields and committees in the league, there’s a lot to be said about the league’s “volume runners” like Greene; the guys who we know are going to get the rock.
 
But I think I’m kind of done with the Cedric Bensons of the world.
 
For one, most of these volume runners don’t catch the ball very well or frequently, and that’s a killer in a pass-happy league. They also have a smaller margin for error, as we saw many times this year. Sure, there will be weeks when the planets align for Michael Turner, and he puts up huge numbers, but especially with an aging and less-than-versatile Turner, there’s always the potential for a stinker line of 15/41 on the ground, which is exactly what Turner did in their playoff loss to the Giants (he “chipped in” with 1 catch for 5 yards). A guy like Turner is too reliant on scoring TDs, and those can be fluky in terms of predicting them. Turner actually had a solid year, but Buffalo’s Fred Jackson was money (and 4th in points per game at RB), despite scoring only 6 TDs, because of his work in the passing game. Jackson was a “volume back” and not a “volume runner” in that he got a ton of touches, but he was getting them both as a runner and receiver.
 
The bottom line is if a RB can’t produce as a receiver out of the backfield, you’re never going to fully trust him. In Houston, Arian Foster is a do-it-all player, so the flow of their games is meaningless. If they’re up, they have no qualms giving him 20+ carries, and he can wear a defense down with the best of them. And if they’re behind, Foster’s a player who’s caught 119 passes the last two years for over 1200 yards and 4 TDs. Even a guy like Peyton Hillis can be an appealing option because, when he’s the guy, he brings that volume runner approach to the table, yet he’s also a guy who caught 61 passes in 2010, so he has versatility and a larger margin for error. So don’t confuse volume backs (a lot of touches as a runner and a receiver) with volume runners (guys who need a lot of carries to come through).
 
One of my bigger errors this year was our ranking of Steeler RB Rashard Mendenhall, and that was all me, as I felt he was a pretty safe option compared to shakier guys like Chris Johnson and even Jamaal Charles, who I was worried about this summer. I certainly don’t think it was an awful call when you consider all the factors, but it sure looks pretty bad now. Mendenhall was a volume runner in 2010, and he actually looked great all year this past season and was by no means a bum. In fact, had the Steelers committed to him a little more, he would have been fine. But that brings us to another problem with volume back: what if the volume disappears? It kind of did for Mendenhall, who the team for some reasons doesn’t utilize much in the passing game. I don’t know if the lack of work for Mendenhall is the reason OC Bruce Arians was forced into a brief “retirement,” but it might have been. This is yet another reason to be wary of volume runners and to make sure one doesn’t overpay for one: the expected volume may not even be there.
 
This past season I did get behind New York’s Greene – to an extent. We ranked him 20th at RB and felt he had a very good chance to settle in as a solid fantasy option because he was clearly “the guy” and he was, in fact, “the guy” all year. Greene actually exceeded our ranking by finishing 18th in fantasy RB scoring in a typical scoring system. Amazingly, he was actually 20th in a PPR league, so we nailed the ranking. But honestly, we really didn’t nail anything, since Greene was more of a pain in the rear than a reliable fantasy option. Some of his issues were a function of the poor QB play and offense overall, but Greene’s owners never felt good about him and, in fact, probably sat him the week he scored 3 TDs. Greene had six solid games, but more often than not, he put up 7 fantasy points or fewer because Green is a guy who needs a lot of carries to come through. In other words, his margin for error was too small to feel good about him.
 
There always comes a time in a fantasy draft when a guy like Benson is a solid option, especially if he’s coming at a very reasonable price. One can certainly win a fantasy title with someone like him, but the lesson learned in 2011 – especially with the league becoming more pass-happy than ever – is to not hang your hopes on a volume back. At least in the first third of your draft, you want to focus on players who you know will deliver for you, no matter what the game situation, and with RBs you want to focus on versatility. There’s more scoring than ever in the NFL, and fantasy totals are higher than ever, so if a guy like Benson doesn’t score and gets you only 78 yards rushing and 6 yards receiving, those 8.4 points just aren’t going to cut it.
 
RB is top-heavy
This isn’t really a lesson, since we’ve been leaning this way for a few years now, but more than ever it’s clear the RB position is very top-heavy. While there’s nothing wrong these days with using a #1 pick on a QB, there’s still a lot to be said about getting that stud RB, provided there actually is one to be had. That’s simply because there aren’t many of them, so an advantage can be gained if you bring one into the fold in Round One, especially if you can still mine a fantasy gem later at the QB position.
 
This is something we’ve written about for a couple of years now, and at this point it’s blatantly obvious that locking yourself into RB mode early in drafts and taking a running back just because he’s a running back is foolish. At this point, we may have even reached a point at which a RB needs to present a very compelling argument to merit a #1 pick.
 
Amazingly, that’s where we are right now because of the reliability not only of the QBs, but of the receivers. In fact, there’s a lot of statistical data that supports the notion that a stud wideout like Calvin Johnson is much safer than a top RB, even an Adrian Peterson, as we learned in 2011. In addition, as I’ve said a lot the last few years, the RB position is the easiest to fill on the Waiver Wire because opportunity has so much to do with success. One guy gets injured, and then his backup is immediately viable, so the position can be easy to strengthen during the season on the Waiver Wire.
 
Granted, this past season wasn’t a great one in terms of finding impact RBs off the wire, but DeMarco Murray was certainly a great pickup who produced like a #2 pick for about six weeks, and there were others, like C.J. Spiller, Kevin Smith, and Toby Gerhart, who were very handy fill-in starters, if only for a few weeks.
 
The RB position is deeper than ever these days for fantasy drafts, but the quantity doesn’t exactly equal quality, so unless an option like Arian Foster or Ray Rice stands out as a slam dunk #1 pick, it’s probably best to lock in a sure-thing stud at QB or WR (or maybe even TE) and address RB a little later.
 
A RB must present a compelling argument to be a 1st-round pick
To piggyback off the lesson listed above, this is essentially where the NFL is in terms of running backs being drafted in the first round of the league’s annual draft – and we might be getting there in terms of fantasy, as amazing as that sounds.
 
As covered in this article, fantasy football right now is all about elite players at the quarterback position, since they are clearly elite fantasy performers and major difference-makers. It’s also fair to argue that a stud WR is “safer” than a stud back and is typically just as productive these days. And now we have the TEs who have come so far in terms of their roles in the real NFL that they have now encroached on the first round of our fantasy draft world.
 
That said there sure seems to be more risk than ever to invest a #1 pick on a running back, as crazy as that sounds. So in my opinion, a RB needs to now present a compelling argument to merit a 1st round pick. And that argument can simply be summed up by saying the players must be:
 
  1. Young
  2. Durable
  3. Versatile
If a back is aging, like Steven Jackson, forget it. If he’s injury-prone like Darren McFadden, he’s out. And if he’s not versatile like Michael Turner, he’s off the grid.
 
Don’t give up on an elite RB talent
It wasn’t easy to trust Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller once he got his opportunity after Fred Jackson’s injury. And it was actually somewhat surprising that Spiller pulled things together so quickly. But he clearly found a comfort level, and then his elite speed and overall movement took over, and that’s something to remember going forward because, while Spiller’s career was seemingly in the toilet, he was still the 9th pick of the 2010 draft for a reason.
 
We’ve seen #1 overall picks at the QB position have underwhelming careers or end up being outright busts, and it’s not uncommon for a high pick at WR to fall well short of expectations due to his lofty draft status. But if there’s a RB who is drafted in the first round, especially high in the first round, he’ll usually have his moments in the NFL, if not for a couple of years. You could also argue that Reggie Bush finally came through in 2011, and that Marshawn Lynch validated Buffalo’s 1st round selection in 2007. And the best example from 2011, other than Spiller, was Indy’s Donald Brown, who was the 27th pick of the 2009 draft. Things were ugly for Brown in his first two years, and while he’s certainly not headed to the Hall of Fame, he did finally show serious signs of life in 2011 and now has a chance to be relevant.
 
Obviously, one doesn’t have to be a high pick to have success in one’s career at the RB position. But if a back is drafted high, we’ve learned that he’ll usually heat up and come through for fantasy at some point. This is especially true since the position has been devalued in the NFL draft in recent years. So if a team invests a #1 pick on a back, he’s probably very talented and/or an excellent fit for that team. That’s something to remember with a guy like Mark Ingram going forward. Ingram may not be the best fit for the Saints, but it’s not like he’s a weak receiver, and he is pretty darn talented. Ingram will come through at some point.
 
The WW is mostly about filling holes, but...
Other than the occasional bust-out player like Victor Cruz, it seems as if the WW these days is more like a band aid for fantasy teams, but what an important band aid it is because most fantasy teams are bleeding in some way, shape, or form at some point, so the wire is still critical and offers immediate relief that is very helpful, if only for a short period of time.
 
On one hand, fantasy players are so savvy these days that we are seeing fewer star players emerge from the WW because they’ve been drafted. But on the other hand, there are so many more players who are seeing the field and contributing in this day and age, that there are more viable options than ever. I can tell you from firsthand experience that keeping track of all of the worthwhile options on the wire this year was a full-time job itself because I did it, and it was a lot of work. Some fantasy players in a lot of leagues had a choice this year: have a social life or work the WW.
 
It was a constantly changing landscape, but for the most part, the available options were quick fixes. Injuries are a big part of that, since a guy like Toby Gerhart was only a worthy option while Adrian Peterson was hurt.
 
However, there was another lesson learned this year relating to the Waiver Wire, and it was that if a potentially potent option did present itself, it was wise to pounce quickly and aggressively. In one of the leagues that I pay the most attention to, I bypassed the TE position and rolled with Tennessee’s Jared Cook, who was my long shot sleeper at the position. I was enamored with Cook’s talent and opportunity (and affordability), but I did realize he had a history of underachieving. This was a competitive 14-team league, too, and I figured I couldn’t wait too long on Cook. So when he put up 1/7 in Week One, I was already looking for a replacement. It just so happened that Washington’s Fred Davis put up 5/105 that week, so knowing Davis had the potential to be an impact player, I was all-in on him and I used a healthy portion of my free agent dollars to secure him. He did end up hosing me down the stretch, but that move saved my team, which soon lost wideout Kenny Britt, which was a devastating loss.
 
The Wire is fine for quick fixes and to get with any commodity that is hot at the time because you always want to grab any production when you can and while you can, like Scott Chandler early in the season at TE and Cook late in the season. But it was also very important to monitor it for anything resembling an impact player. For example, after Week One, I put Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown on our WW report with the following analysis: “He came up small along with most of the Steeler offense, but he did get some downfield looks, and he was tied for second on the team with 9 targets, so he’s definitely someone to stash away if he’s out there or gets dropped after his 2/14 opener. Brown’s got a really nice skill set, and he might be borderline elite some time down the line.
 
We always cover pass targets in the Waiver Wire report because they can be very revealing, but the key words here were “borderline elite.” I don’t throw the “E” word around, so when you see it, it’s time to buy in, and those who bought in on Brown got rewarded with a nice player. It’s also time to buy when a player with a big-time pedigree emerges, even if that player has a lot going against him. In Denver, Demaryius Thomas was coming back from multiple injuries and had a shaky passer throwing him the ball, yet the cream rose to the top, and he got it done big time down the stretch. Even Cruz did at least flash some serious playmaking ability in the preseason previously.
 
So in the future, prepare to fill in some gaps on the Waiver Wire – most teams absolutely will have to do this – but also take a similar approach as recommended in the preseason and place a high emphasis on potential impact players. If that includes spending a large portion of your free agent dollars, then you probably should if you’re sold on the player being of the impact variety.
 
Preseason Scouting will tip you off on WW pickups
You’re not always going to nail your Stash-and-Hope back, but the main reason I was a little ahead of the curve on Murray (not that he wasn’t a productive back in college) was that I took the time to watch him when he played late in the preseason, and as I noted on the site, he was quietly very effective.
 
Most of the time, when we’re keeping track of the preseason, it’s all about our drafts, but if you leave no stone unturned, you’ll be surprised at how many emerging options during the season you’re clued into. They’re not always going to work out extremely well, but you gave yourself a good chance to land an impact player by picking up Oakland’s Denarius Moore based on his stellar preseason play, and that’s all you can really do because the rest is out of your control.
 
Latching onto trends quickly can pay dividends
There are always trends in fantasy football during the NFL season, and this past year, I noticed that those who caught them quickly had a distinct advantage. Many trends aren’t exactly earth-shattering, but, for example, when I noticed that Brent Celek was finally starting to get looks from Michael Vick, I suggested trading your stud TE (assuming it wasn’t Gronk or Graham) for help elsewhere and picking up and rolling with Celek, and that worked out pretty well (Celek was the #5 fantasy TE the second half of the season). On the bad side, we saw a trend in Houston that was not good at all for Owen Daniels, which was Joel Dreessen vulturing TDs, and those who reacted to that quickly avoided some headaches. Also, I did notice after about 3-4 games that the Packers clearly weren’t making a concerted effort to get Jermichael Finley the ball, so we suggested readers trade Finley while his value was high, which was a solid move.
 
A big trend at WR this year was Laurent Robinson, who was clearly QB Tony Romo’s guy (another lesson learned was to appreciate when a receiver emerges like this for a QB). Even when Miles Austin was back and playing with Dez Bryant, Robinson still produced. In Baltimore, it was obvious the Ravens were taking deep shots every week to rookie Torrey Smith. They didn’t hit a lot, but at least noticing that trend gave you some upside potential if you snapped Smith up off the WW. Even in Oakland, while the flashy guys like Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford got more love, it was Darrius Heyward-Bey who was the reliable possession guy all year long. Sometimes, a trend dies prematurely, like Pierre Garcon making big plays from QB Curtis Painter, but a careful study of the game and the events that transpired on a week-to-week basis did give fantasy players a distinct advantage this year.
 
Having Patience is great if you can manage it
One thing I hear a lot from readers is how their success in fantasy football was tied directly to their patience. More often than not, it’s about not overreacting to a few bad games and staying the course on a player or a few players whose positives prompted you to draft them but who were underachieving.
 
Patience is a good thing, for the most part, but you do have to make sure you’re not left holding the bag and waiting for Shonn Greene to finally have that big game, which he did in 2011, but not until he’d inflicted three months of torture on his owners. And I do have to admit that, after two pitiful performances to start 2011, I was out of patience when it came to Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch, based mainly on his body of work the previous two years.
 
I suppose patience paid off for many with Lynch simply because Seattle had no other options, and as it turned out, he become more and more comfortable with the new blocking scheme implemented by OL coach Tom Cable, but I’ve heard of other horror stories from 2011, like owners dropping Victor Cruz after a bad game early in the season or Rob Gronkowski after a couple of quiet games in early October. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Percy Harvin got dropped in some leagues because he was only 39th in fantasy PPG through Week Ten. From Week Eleven on, Harvin was, amazingly, #2 in scoring at WR.
 
The easy answer is to say that slumping players are what fantasy benches are for, and that’s certainly true, but making a decision on keeping or discarding an underwhelming player can be the toughest call any fantasy player makes. Sometimes, things are so ugly that it’s an easy decision to cut bait, but we did learn that if a player has a very large role (Lynch, Harvin) or is in a good situation (Cruz, Gronkowski), it’s prudent to stay patient and to not overreact.
 
Handcuffs need to be handpicked
When I started this site in 1995, I’d venture to say more than half of the league’s starting running backs had a guy playing behind him who was a viable handcuff, if not a must-have. These days, that number is down significantly. But as Darren McFadden owners learned all too well if they didn’t also draft Michael Bush, handcuffing your stud RBs is still a wise move in some cases.
 
Clearly, the backup needs to have the skills to produce if called upon, which Bush certainly did. Although I loved rookie Taiwan Jones’ potential this year, he was considered raw and very shaky in pass protection, so the Raiders had very little behind Bush, which really helped and is something to keep in mind for the future. In Buffalo, the only thing standing in front of C.J. Spiller carrying the load if Fred Jackson went down was another rookie in Johnny White, and when Jackson did go down, White wasn’t a factor. We also learned in Buffalo (and to an extent in Minnesota) that, if the backup and handcuff is a high draft pick with talent, he’s a desirable handcuff.
 
Especially if you draft a starter who has injury issues, we did learn again in 2011 that it was wise to look on the roster for a viable handcuff. In Dallas, Felix Jones tricked a lot of us into believing in him (yet again) after a stellar preseason, yet fully investing in the Cowboy backfield worked out well, provided you also drafted or later picked up DeMarco Murray. We also learned that just because a running back is a stud and a very high draft pick, that doesn’t mean there will be a viable handcuff on his team’s roster. It was certainly the case in Houston, where Ben Tate was easily the handcuff of the year in the preseason, and it did end up applying in Minnesota, where Toby Gerhart was surprisingly productive in Adrian Peterson’s stead – but not so much in Philly, KC, Atlanta, and Tennessee.
 
As a general rule, the higher the draft pick, the more likely a handcuff was needed or ideal, but you really have to look at each situation individually. If there’s clearly only one guy in the mix to play if the starter is out, and that backup can play himself, that’s someone to consider if you have the roster space. That’s especially true if you’re looking at a good running game, like the one in Houston. Or if the top rusher is injury-prone and there is a quality backup behind him, which was the case this year in Oakland, then that’s another strong case for handcuffing. But if it looks like there’s a committee approach behind your starter, or if it’s a weak rushing attack or offense overall, it might not be worth it. 

Top receivers in bad offense can be worthless
We throw around the word “volume” a lot, and usually it’s a good thing, but the promise of volume doesn’t exactly ensure production. In Seattle, RB Marshawn Lynch garnered some attention in fantasy drafts this past year because he was clearly the guy, and many felt there was a lot to be said for that. I was of the opinion that just because Lynch was the guy, it didn’t mean he was going to be even decent for fantasy, and that was based on really his previous three seasons, his outstanding run in the 2010 NFC Playoffs notwithstanding.
We all know that the Lynch angle worked out for those who invested a middle-round pick on him, but most of the time, it does not, and we saw that this year at the wide receiver position. Still in Seattle, Sidney Rice was brought in to be the #1, so he commanded some attention this past summer, yet while he had a couple of good games, he was a lame option more often than not. I certainly liked Greg Little as a viable late-round flyer because I figured he would be the guy at some point, and he was the guys, yet he wasn’t anything close to a reliable option for fantasy. Some of it was his own fault, as he had some problems catching the ball and was a raw rookie, but the bigger issue was likely the passing game overall led by Colt McCoy, who wasn’t very good. In Jacksonville, their receiving corps was an abomination, and it mattered little who the #1 guy was because there was no chance with Blaine Gabbert playing so poorly. Even with teams like the Jets, Ravens, Chiefs, Bears, and Buccaneers, it usually wasn’t good enough to be the go-to guy because they just weren’t good passing games.

So the lesson learned this year is that a #2 or even a #3 in a great passing game can be more reliable and a better producer than a #1 in a crappy passing game. That said, as we saw with teams like the Giants, Packers, Falcons, and Cowboys, you can be better off with two guys on the same team as opposed to being concerned about them canceling each other out and rolling instead with a guy who had perhaps a larger role on his team. As we learned this year and covered in this article elsewhere, sometimes there’s enough production to go around and keep everyone happy, and that’s especially true these days with passing numbers at an all-time high.

Playing to win can help you lose
I’ve always been an aggressive, play-to-win guy, but I do have to admit there’s something to be said for the cautious approach. By “cautious” I don’t mean settling on Matt Schaub over Matt Stafford this preseason, but I do mean trying your best to avoid potential landmines. Maybe my definition of “cautious” is to simply not be stupid.  
 
You’ll find no better example than Washington’s backfield this past year. Obviously, I know all about Mike Shanahan’s ways when it comes to handling his backfield, but I really don’t have a choice but to address the situation and try to give out the best advice I possibly can. But I think the cautious fantasy players simply avoided the situation completely, and there’s a lot to be said for that. I sometimes got caught up in my affinity for Roy Helu when addressing the Redskin backfield, and also the apparent potential of anyone being featured in this system.
 
I noticed this in 2011 because, each week this past year, I had on my SiriusXM radio show the previous week’s winner of the fantasy sports channel’s weekly salary cap challenge. One of the prizes for winning (and beating out about 7000 other people) was a guest spot on my show, and I would take calls with the winner and give out advice, mostly lineup advice. More often than not, the winners would err on the side of caution, so there was a trend there with successful fantasy players not trying to be heroes and taking big risks. And even though it pains me to admit it, playing things a little safer and not trying to be a hero is probably a sound approach, especially when you’re dealing with an unsettled situation – and the NFL, in general, was pretty unsettled in 2011.
 
I’m never going to give up on to my inclination to be a play-to-win fantasy player, and you really do have to be aggressive at times if you want to win, especially when you’re considering breakout candidates in drafts and on the Waiver Wire, but it is possible to be aggressive while also playing things smartly and taking a laissez-faire approach when there’s too much downside.
 
Watch out for scheme changes for WRs
I really wasn’t one of them, but there were a lot of people who were expecting big things out of Chad Ochocinco in 2011. He’s certainly had a really nice career, and there was some confidence in Bill Belichick’s endorsement of the move (and of Chad), yet his season wound up being a complete flop. It’s as if he wasn’t even there for the most part in New England this year, which just goes to show how one has to be careful when there is a scheme change for a wideout (and obviously a QB). It’s not nearly as bad for a RB, but adjusting to a new scheme can be a daunting task for even a veteran, especially one who’s been in the same scheme previously for a long time.
 
Of course, the lockout didn’t help, but this is worth bringing up because there are a lot of interesting free agent wideouts set to hit the market next month, so we should see some player movement. It’s going to be important to analyze each move and understand how equipped these receivers are to handle the transition smoothly.
 
Be wary of large TD outputs from marginal players
I’ll be honest; we didn’t know what to do with Jaguar TE Marcedes Lewis this past summer. Coming off a season in which he scored 10 TDs, he had to be ranked somewhat high, but I sure as hell didn’t take him in any of my drafts and didn’t think he should be pushed as a particularly “Gurrific” pick. In Tampa Bay, wideout Mike Williams’ 11 TDs in 2010 really shielded the fact that he caught a very low percentage of his passes, so while you could argue that his production could improve in 2011 with a higher percentage of passes caught, it turned out that the score total was a bit of a fluke and was tough to duplicate. In Buffalo, wide receiver Steve Johnson had a decent season in 2011, but he fell short of his 2010 production because those 10 TDs in ’10 weren’t easy to match this past season, so his value fell.
 
Stash-and-hope RBs still make sense
We all know the WW is huge, and most people are all over it, which makes it hard to acquire an emerging player who is clearly a hot commodity on the WW. That’s why, if you have a dead spot on your roster you can utilize for a stash-and-hope option, it’s a worthy endeavor.
 
After Week One, my top-two S&H RBs were Washington’s Roy Helu and Dallas’ DeMarco Murray. We all know how annoying the Redskin RB situation was, but Helu did rush for 100+ yards three weeks in a row, and Murray was a top-10 back for a nice 5-6 week stretch and before he got hurt, might have gone down as the pickup of the year.
 
This can go beyond the RB position every now and then and apply to the QB spot. For example, if was pretty clear to me even after two games that Kyle Orton wasn’t long for the starting job in Denver, which is why I put Tim Tebow on our WW report as early as 9/19 and made the point that he could easily be a difference-maker at the position, which is quite rare.
 
The whole “stash-and-hope” thing is really about impact players. Sometimes, the opportunity can mean everything and can transform a player who no one owns into an impact player, once he gets a chance to hit the field. It’s just another way to acquiring impact players before your opponents do.
 
The “experts” don’t know your team
I recently sent out a tweet (@fantasy_guru) asking my followers to give me their top lesson learned from the 2011 season, and I got a lot of replies that had something to do with not listening to the “experts.”
 
I’m considered an “expert,” and when I use that word I always put it in quotation marks, which implies the opposite. I do that because there’s only so much a guy like me can get right because we are, you know, human beings and stuff. People do like to bash the experts, but for the most part, anyone considered as such does know what he or she is talking about. The problem is, when we get a singular question, we probably don’t know enough about your situation to truly give an expert opinion, so the questions need to be asked better. The “who-do-I-start” questions are mostly impossible to answer wisely, so people are better off asking about specific players and situations than they are their own team. It’s your team, and we don’t know the nuances of that squad. That’s your gig.
 
Defenses and Kickers are still a joke
I’ve been whining about this fact for several years now, and I continue to pout about it because the fantasy defenses keep getting worse and worse and harder and harder to handicap. When you think about how important the Waiver Wire has been the last few years, it makes so much more sense to focus on good depth options (and potential WW options once the season starts) before you make your last 1-2 picks. At this point, those last 1-2 picks should be used on a fantasy defense and a kicker, which is another position that is a complete circus for fantasy and should be not addressed until the bitter end of a draft.  

And speaking of the place kickers, you should be prepared to drop yours during the season, and early in the season. Almost every year a handful of productive options emerge on the Waiver Wire, and they’re usually more productive than the guy you drafted. In 2011, I would argue that 7-8 of the top-12 point leaders weren’t even drafted.


 

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