Let's start by being totally honest: Fantasy football is an unfair game ruled by randomness and luck. Don't believe me? Pretend that you somehow ended up with four first-rounders in your fantasy draft last season, including the first pick. You very well could have used those picks to take Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Michael Vick, and Andre Johnson. That group of four players would have combined for 507 fantasy points.1 That guy who ended up with all the picks at the bottom of the draft could have used them on Cam Newton, Darren Sproles, Roy Helu, and Jordy Nelson, four players who were all available in the 11th round or later. Those guys produced 891 fantasy points; Newton, a 13th-round pick, was the tenth-most valuable player in the game. Fantasy football is stupid.
OK, so when everything goes wrong, fantasy football is stupid. When you end up with Newton throwing to Nelson and Victor Cruz, though, it's a lot of fun. We can't find you the next Victor Cruz. Nobody can. What we can do, though, is try to apply some of the smart things we've read and some of the harebrained ideas you've seen in our NFL preview and apply them to fantasy football. It probably won't win you your fantasy football league, but as we head into America's unofficial national weekend for fantasy football drafts, it might just give you some ways to think differently from the rest of your leaguemates. You might even find a sleeper or two!
The Right Framework: VBD
The best piece of thinking about fantasy football in the history of the genre belongs to Joe Bryant and David Dodds of footballguys.com, who developed the concept of value-based drafting (VBD). If you're familiar with VBD, skip ahead, but it's a fundamental concept that everyone who plays fantasy football needs to keep in their heads at all times.
Bryant and Dodds describe the VBD concept succinctly: "The value of a player is determined not by the number of points he scores, but by how much he outscores his peers at his particular position." Now, even if you haven't heard of VBD before, that logic is already at least slightly instilled in your head; Mark Sanchez (253 fantasy points last year) and Arian Foster (256) scored roughly the same number of points last season, but one's a top-five pick and the other's a 13th-rounder. Quarterbacks produce more fantasy points than running backs, but because most leagues start two or more running backs and just one quarterback, running backs are a far scarcer (and therefore more valuable) quantity.
How do you apply VBD to your draft board? There are a variety of tools and theories out there that will do so, but the simplest way is to find the number of points produced by the guy who would be the worst starter in your league at his given position and use that as your baseline. In a traditional league with 12 teams, that would be the 12th-best quarterback, tight end, kicker, and team defense, the 24th-best running back and wide receiver, and then the 60th-best running back/wide receiver (for the flex spot). Once you've got their seasonal totals, you build your draft board upon how many points each player would score versus that baseline at their respective position.
As an example, here's last year's baseline skill-position players using those rankings:
Using those baselines, Sanchez goes from being worth as much as Foster to producing just 12 points of excess fantasy value, making him roughly akin to teammate Shonn Greene, who was responsible for 162 points, 13 ahead of BJGE. Foster, meanwhile, creates 107 points more than the average back and gets catapulted into the top 10, where he belongs. Rob Gronkowski's 241 points would have placed him 24 points behind Calvin Johnson's league-leading 265 points at wideout, but because Gronkowski was doing it against a lower baseline at tight end, he actually produced four more points of value than Megatron.
VBD doesn't account for everything. It doesn't consider the specific rules or style of your league, the context in which those points were gathered, or the likelihood of injuries affecting each player. Most notably, it's a system that bases value for each player off of last year's baselines, and there's no guarantee that last year will look anything like this upcoming season. That's where you have to combine VBD with your intuitions about 2012, and where we think you might be able to game even the smartest of fantasy football systems.
The Dangers of Gronking
Last year, Gronkowski was responsible for 143 fantasy points above the tight end baseline, which was the fourth-highest figure in the league; in other words, if you could redraft your entire league before last season knowing what they would do in 2011, Gronkowski would be the rightful fourth pick, ahead of guys like Tom Brady, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Shady McCoy. Jimmy Graham would be the 12th pick, and Aaron Hernandez would have been tied with Adrian Peterson at 27th. It truly was the year of the tight end.
If you've been reading our ongoing football preview here at Grantland, though, you've seen some skepticism about Gronkowski and Graham and the likelihood that their 2012 seasons will look much like they did in 2011. And if their 2012 seasons do blend in with the rest of the tight end crowd, well, it materially changes the way you would value them on draft day.
Let's say that Gronkowski and Graham stay healthy in 2012, but produce 75 percent of the fantasy value that they did a year ago. For Gronkowski, that would be a seasonal line of 67 catches, 995 receiving yards, and 12 touchdowns, producing a total of 171 fantasy points; Graham would be at 74-982-8 and accrue 146 points. If everyone else's performance stays the same and the baseline remains at 98 points, Gronkowski's value in terms of VBD gets cut nearly in half, as he falls from 143 points above baseline to a mere 73, while Graham goes from 99 to 48. If you plug those new VBD figures into last year's totals, Gronkowski would be the 16th-best fantasy player in the league, while Graham would be tied for 22nd with Eli Manning.
This decline is already partly priced into drafts. In ESPN drafts, Gronkowski's been coming off the board 14th, while Graham is just behind him at 20th. Three spots of Average Draft Position (ADP) doesn't seem all that significant, but that could be the difference between taking Gronkowski with the first pick of the second round or opting for somebody like Matt Forte or Marshawn Lynch.
And while 25 percent sounds harsh, you could make the case that this would be a conservative argument for the decline of 2011's two star tight ends. If our logic holds true and the copycat NFL begins to focus more on using tight ends, 2012 could very easily be a year in which the production of the average tight end goes up, even as that of Gronkowski and Graham goes down. As a result, we could see the baseline for tight ends go past 100, which would drive down the value of the stars even further. When you factor in Gronkowski's injury history and the question marks surrounding Graham in New Orleans, it just seems safer to wait for Jacob Tamme or Brandon Pettigrew in the eighth round than it does to go for a killer tight end.
More Fun With Unsustainability
Because they're so simultaneously valuable and rare, touchdowns are the easiest aspect of fantasy football to exploit. Players with disproportionately high touchdown totals tend to be overvalued, as we suspect Gronkowski is this year, and the opposite is true for players who failed to find the end zone as frequently as you might expect. Understanding that and changing your values accordingly can give you that much-vaunted edge.
Take Cam Newton, for example, who had 14 rushing touchdowns last season. Newton's undoubtedly a force of nature, but since 1990, only four other guys have had as many as eight, and while Michael Vick and Steve McNair each pulled it off twice, it only happened twice across their respective careers. With the Panthers expected to pull into contention this year, this is also likely to be the season where the Panthers start talking about keeping Newton healthy for the long-term while limiting his designed carries. He's probably overvalued because of that rushing TD total.
The same is true at wideout for Victor Cruz, who made an art of the big play last season. As the Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 notes, Cruz had five touchdowns of 65 yards or more last season. The last time that happened was when Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch did it in 1951, and you undoubtedly remember how overvalued Hirsch was in 1952 fantasy drafts. Cruz will still be good, but those five plays were responsible for more than 30 percent of his fantasy production last year; if he only has one of them this year, he's far less valuable. Jordy Nelson and Laurent Robinson scored at a rate greater than once every five receptions, which is also almost always unsustainable.
On the flip side, you might expect a little more out of Chris Johnson this year near the goal line.2 Johnson touched the ball 319 times last year and only scored four touchdowns. That's a touchdown every 79 touches, which is twice the league-average rate for guys with 200 touches or more. It's also way below CJ2K's previous career average of one score per 28 touches. Even if you think that you've already seen Johnson's best, chances are he'll score twice as frequently in 2012.
The same is also true for newly paid Steelers wideout Antonio Brown, who touched the ball 76 times in 2011 and produced just two touchdowns. The ultimate example of all this, though, is Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis. After becoming a "red zone threat" and scoring 10 touchdowns on 58 receptions in 2010, Lewis bounced all the way past the mean and regressed to, well, the bottom of the barrel. Lewis didn't score a single touchdown, including a horrific drop in the end zone against the Texans. It's a safe bet to say that Lewis will finish somewhere between zero and 10 touchdowns this season.
The Second-Year Running Back Bump
What do Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy, and Ray Rice all have in common? In addition to being among the league's best running backs, they all broke out in roughly similar fashion. They each followed a relatively quiet rookie season with an enormous second-year campaign, and they were each valued at a roughly similar spot before the season began. Foster and McCoy were drafted at the end of the third round in fantasy drafts before their big 2010, with Rice a couple of picks behind them in 2009. It's a small sample size, to be sure, but it's been an interesting sweet spot for possible superstar running backs over the past few years.
The bad news? There's no real candidate who fits the bill this year. The only unproven back in that range is Buccaneers rookie Doug Martin, who is expected to start ahead of LeGarrette Blount. If Tampa Bay makes the sort of leap that we've predicted, Martin could be a great value at the end of Round 3. Like those players, though, he could struggle to stay healthy or effective as a rookie.
There is a decent crop of second-year backs who have some potential for breakout seasons lurking later in the draft. Roy Helu appears to be on the outs in Washington, but, as anyone who watched the Mike Shanahan talk about running backs last year remembers, that means he's more likely to be the starter than to ride pine. More promising are Mark Ingram and Daniel Thomas, each of whom struggled with injuries during their first season at the professional level. Thomas is particularly interesting. Despite playing with a Miami offense that starts a rookie quarterback and no receivers of any note, he's not coming off the board until the last pick of the 11th round. Thomas will split time with Reggie Bush, but Bush just finished the healthiest season of his career. Thomas probably won't emulate the likes of our three superstars, but isn't he a better risk in the ninth or 10th rounds than the likes of Shane Vereen, Alex Smith, or Randy Moss?
Give Boring a Chance
It's also always a good idea in fantasy drafts to avoid the sexy bandwagon team and to try to go after some of the league's more depressing situations.
What do I mean by that? Basically, that even bad offenses move the ball and score, and there's something to be gained by remembering that. That Dolphins offense we just mentioned will complete a minimum of 230 passes this year, and those completions have to go to somebody. Let's say Reggie Bush stays healthy and gets 65 of them, and Thomas picks up 25 of his own. That leaves 140 completions to go to wide receivers and tight ends. The only guy in the Miami offense of any competency there is Davone Bess, who is currently being taken two picks ahead of Redskins backup Leonard Hankerson in ESPN drafts. It seems close to a sure thing that Bess will pick up at least 60 receptions, more if the Dolphins don't have a historically bad passing attack (and/or if Ryan Tannehill loses the job). As a bye-week option and occasional flex play, that makes him a legitimately useful player, even if nobody else can stomach the idea of taking a Dolphins receiver.
You can make the same case for the passing games in Cleveland (where Greg Little would be the obvious target) and St. Louis (where the closest thing might be Danny Amendola). It's harder to do with running games, since every running back of any consequence gets attention, but the aforementioned Doug Martin in Tampa Bay is probably the guy who best resembles this strategy. Remember: Just because they're on your fantasy team doesn't mean you have to watch them every Sunday.
Stuck With Luck?
The most interesting fantasy football question of the year, though, involves Andrew Luck in keeper leagues. As the best quarterback prospect of his generation, it seems obvious that Luck would be a prime target in keeper leagues, but is it worth punting 2012 to grab Luck a few rounds too early?
Well, what if you're not punting 2012 by grabbing Luck a few rounds too early at all? Since the obvious thing to do is to compare Luck to his predecessor Peyton Manning,3 let's consider what Manning did at the beginning of his career. During his rookie season, Manning inherited a dismal Colts team, albeit one that had Marshall Faulk and a young Marvin Harrison on the roster. Despite throwing 28 interceptions, Manning finished ninth in fantasy points among quarterbacks. A year later, he finished fourth among QBs and started a 12-year stretch in which he was never lower than sixth.
If Luck can do that, at what point can you really justify not taking him? Luck's currently the 16th quarterback coming off of ESPN draft boards in standard leagues, but that's not really applicable. The ninth-highest rated quarterback in those leagues is Tony Romo, whose ADP is 50.1, at the beginning of the fifth round. If your league allows you to keep players for multiple seasons at the same round or at a relatively cheap price, you can probably start justifying a season with Luck right around that 50th pick. Even if he's genuinely the 16th-best quarterback in football this season, his upside is so high that it's difficult to fathom him ever going in the fifth round again. And if you can get a top-four quarterback for 2013-15 as a fifth-round pick, well, you might actually get to prove that fantasy football isn't ruled by randomness and luck after all.