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Fantasy Roundtable - Week 16

Various staff members will share their views on a range of topics each week in discussion format. Feel free to eavesdrop.

Quick Links to Topics:

Evaluating players based on less than a full season
Trend towards RBBC?
Value of top-tier tight ends
Waiting on QBs
Older WRs
Discounting preseason hype

Maurile Tremblay: We’ve got two weeks of roundtable discussion left, including this one. I think anybody who made it to his league’s Super Bowl is capable of setting his own lineup at this point, so instead of focusing on who-do-I-start questions, I think it’s appropriate at this point to step back and take a broader approach.

This week we’re going to look back at the 2005 season and see what we should learn from it. Next week we’ll look ahead to the 2006 season, getting a jump on the always-too-long offseason.

What lessons did you learn from the 2005 season? Or what did you already know that the 2005 season reinforced for you?

Evaluating players based on less than a full season

Maurile Tremblay: I'll start with an obvious point, but it's one people would have done well to remember in the 2005 preseason: players with a track record of one season or less are particularly risky, and are often best avoided in the first round.

If you look at the FBG top twelve RBs from last July, the three biggest disappointments (excluding Holmes and McAllister due to injury) were Tatum Bell, Kevin Jones, and Willis McGahee. The common theme among them is that none had been impressive for even a full season. We were all extrapolating from a small sample of games, and doing so is always somewhat risky.

The lesson here may be applicable to the LaDainian Tomlinson versus Shaun Alexander versus Larry Johnson debate for next year's top pick. I love Larry Johnson, but he is the riskiest RB of those three, IMO, since Tomlinson and Alexander have more substantial track records.

Will Grant: The danger here is that unless you drafted any of these guys, you probably don't realize how much of a disappointment they are, and you're looking at Lamont Jordan thinking, if only I would have picked him instead of Julius Jones . . .

Maurile Tremblay: Speaking of Julius Jones, he's another guy a lot of people overrated based on a partial season.

Will Grant: Next season, if Shaun Alexander and/or Edgerrin James leave their respective teams to free agency, you're going to see guys like Maurice Morris and Dominic Rhodes going in the second round. Picking the next Lamont Jordan is very difficult, and many guys will get it wrong. However, the one or two success stories will have people swinging for the fence every year.

David Yudkin: I harped all offseason in numerous articles and message board posts that rarely did guys with impressive partial seasons parlay that into the same level of success over a full season. Too many factors play into that short-term success. I stayed away from Willis McGahee, Kevin Jones, and Julius Jones this year but would still look at taking Larry Johnson next year (provided the Chiefs don't undergo major changes).

Marc Levin: I agree with "less than one season" but not necessarily "one season." I would take Lamont Jordan next year in the first round and I do not expect he'd go the way of the Jones boys - the Jones boys really had less than a season of work and were bumped into the top of the draft predominately due to second half of the season success.

I call that the Willie Green factor. It happened with Kevan Barlow two years ago. While there is the suggestion that this trend raises questions about Larry Johnson, I think his situation will dictate that more than anything less: if he goes into 2006 with the same OL, same HC and Priest in a backup role or retired, he is a good first round pick. Expecting duplicated performance, however, is not wise if Priest returns. Priest returning, in my opinion, also does not relegate Johnson to someone not worth a high draft pick. I think he'd still manage a Steven Jackson type year, which would make him worth a second round pick.

Trend towards RBBC?

Will Grant: To continue with the RB lesson thread though, I think one of the biggest lessons that was even more reinforced this season is that running back by committee (RBBC) will become more of the standard now. Places like Miami, Denver, Chicago, Dallas, Tampa and Tennessee all used a RBBC approach when many believe that they were a 'one back' system. The trend seems like it's going to continue. This is really going to make the 5th-8th round very interesting over the next several seasons as guys try to decide if a third RB is more valuable than a 2nd WR or a starting QB.

David Yudkin: I'm not 100% sure on the teams listed here. That's how things may have turned out, but I bet that the coaches on those teams would have loved to have a stud RB had things worked out and injuries didn't pop up. Similarly, if one guy did phenomenally well, than he likely would have earned a regular job.

Marc Levin: I do not agree that RBBC will become more of a standard, but I agree that it will be seen more due to the proliferation of talented RBs. I am sure Parcells wants to run one back a lot, but if Julius is struggling and Marion Barber has been running well, instant RBBC. If Ricky Williams had never had a change of heart, Ronnie Brown would be the feature back, but you do not leave a talent like Ricky on the bench. Domanick Davis has been the feature guy for Houston, and when he gets injured, Wells becomes a feature back. But if they draft Reggie Bush, we will see a lot of RBBC in Houston.

True RBBC was what the 49ers used to do, which was run Hearst and Barlow on alternate series. I do not believe that will become an NFL standard, though I agree that the days of most teams having one back shooting for 25 carries are dwindling.

Value of Tight Ends

Maurile Tremblay: I think another lesson from this year is that a top tight end can make a huge difference.

One of the big insights of value-based drafting (VBD) back in the late 1990s was that a guy like Tony Gonzalez or Shannon Sharpe could be worth a first-round pick in terms of value, even though they could often be had in the fourth round. This was back before everyone was using VBD, so the "market prices" weren't as efficient as they are now. You could always tell a fellow VBDer when he "reached" for Gonzo in the third.

Now more people realize the value of a top tight end, but the point has been reinforced in the last couple years as more guys (not just Gonzo) have become fantasy forces. Antonio Gates has had huge back-to-back years. Jeremy Shockey is an impact player whenever he is healthy. Alge Crumpler, Todd Heap, and Jason Witten have the potential to have huge games.

If you end up with a mediocre or poor tight end, you are no longer at a big disadvantage just with respect to the Gonzo owner. Now you are at a big disadvantage with respect to half the league.

In 2004, a number of tight ends rose to fantasy prominence, but a one-year trend can easily be a fluke. This season, I think, reinforced the idea that it wasn't a fluke. More NFL offenses are including their tight ends as an integral part of their passing games, making the TE position a more important fantasy position as well.

David Yudkin: Last year, there were six TEs that scored 100+ points and 2 more at 90+ points. This year, there are currently five that have eclipsed the century mark and another at 90+. From a value perspective, Gonzalez and Gates were in the 100 value point range in 2004. Gates is still up there (currently 90 value points) with several guys in the mid range. Only Gates and Shockey have a value score over 50 points, so those two have been the guys to have this year. I owned both of them this year, and they often scored like a WR1 or WR2, and I would happily pursue that strategy again next season.

Will Grant: It would be interesting to see some analysis done for a TEBC article next season (similar to what Chase Stuart does with fantasy defenses). Tight ends seem to break out in a very interesting way:

Gates is the clear number one. Shockey has come back as a solid TE and will place within the top 3. Then you have Heap, Crumpler, Cooley and
Witten all within 1 pt per game of each other. Gonzo's slow start leaves him in limbo, but he'd probably be included in the 'second tier' group listed here as well.

The third tier is pretty deep: McMichael, LJ Smith, Stevens, Miller, Clark and Kinney. But if you look at these guys, a lot of them have multiple 10+ pt games, and multiple two or less point games. Looking at guys like Miller and Stevens, if you picked the right week to start them every time, they'd be up in the range with Heap and Crumpler.

I agree with the overall premise though: The difference between Gates at #1 and Clark at #12 is about 6 points a game... Ouch.

David Yudkin: Unlike other years, I ended up with a couple of great TE pairings which actually posed more problems than expected. I had Gates/Cooley and Gates/Witten, and it seemed that several weeks either would score more than Gates. But you can't sit Gates (couldn't get anyone to trade for the other guy).

Marc Levin: The lesson that tight ends can provide great value was learned a long time ago. It is just that now there are a lot more teams able to field a top TE and the few teams who miss out on the top TE derby are really hurting against the rest of the league. There are now four or five TEs that could be considered elite pass-catchers (Gates, Gonzales, Shockey, Crumpler, and maybe Witten). There are another group of WRs who are able to match those TEs in fantasy production on any given day, and produce fairly consistent weekly numbers (Heap, Cooley, Randy McMichael, LJ Smith) , and we probably need to throw Heath Miller, Jeremy Stevens, and Ben Troupe into the "up and comers" list.

I have just listed exactly 12 TEs who, next year, will probably be relatively close to each other in TE production - this past year, there were only the 4 or 5 I listed above who were "top" fantasy TEs.

Finally, TE scoring is taking a major overall spike: last year, six TEs finished the year over 100 points with the top two (Gonzo and Gates) distancing the field, and with
Witten nipping at their heels. This year, there are already five TEs over 100 with two games to play and a good chance that two more (Gonzo at 99 and McMichael at 90) will crest 100 this week. While there will still be two at the top of the heap (Gates and Shockey) the ones behind are not separated from each other by that much.

Anyway, IMO, it is an old lesson that a top-TE can make a huge difference. The lesson this year is that you must have one TE from the group of top TEs, but you do not have to reach for one of the top three to stay competitive with the teams that do. You can take the TE5 and still match up well against the guys who take the TE1-3.

Waiting on QBs

Maurile Tremblay: This year may have also helped to reaffirm that you can do just fine by waiting until late to draft a QB.

The top six fantasy QBs have been Carson Palmer, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, and Drew Bledsoe. Other than Peyton Manning, all of those guys were generally available in the seventh round or later. (In the case of Eli Manning and Drew Bledsoe, much later.)

Part of that was due to an unusual number of injuries to the top guys (Culpepper, McNabb, Bulger), but I still think it's true that the QB position is a bit more erratic and unpredictable than RB, WR, or TE.

Last season seemed to go against that principle with the top-rated guys (Culpepper, Manning, McNabb) all turning in great season. But I think that's more the exception than the rule.

The way to profit from this tendency is to pass on QBs in the early rounds and then draft a bunch of them in the later rounds. And use the waiver wire early in the season to latch onto whoever looks hot. Quantity can make up for a perceived lack of quality, since a number of late-round QBs are bound to pan out.

David Yudkin: If you study fantasy scoring trends over an extended time, there have rarely been consecutive high scoring QB seasons. As I mentioned numerous times in the offseason, the likely outcome would be that even if Peyton Manning wound up the year as the #1 QB, the odds were high that he would not be a great value pick. He's currently one point behind Carson Palmer but ranked 25th in terms of relative value.

Will Grant: I'm a big fan of waiting on a QB until well after everyone else has one and then picking up two back to back. My big mistake in one league was not adding a 3rd QB for insurance later on. I really think if you're going to wait on a QB, you need two mid-range and one later-round guy as well. Guys like Bledsoe and Collins performed well during the early part of the season, but faded down the stretch. Collins was still a top 10 fantasy QB when he was benched. He came back this week and stunk up the place. Even Aaron Brooks was putting up top 12 numbers before he was benched. A third QB, or a solid handcuff (like McNair and Volek) can really minimize that big risk of taking a QB in the first 3 or 4 rounds.

Marc Levin: I have been firmly in the draft-a-QB-late camp for at least five years, and this year was no different.

If folks simply can't learn that lesson, I don't think our saying it will help them out.

By the way, in my opinion, drafting a QB late is NOT the same as waiting until late to draft QBs. Optimally, in drafting a QB late, one of your QBs you have rated in the 6-10 range falls to you as you are drafting the 11th or 12th QB taken. You then must follow that QB pick up, within the next two rounds with another top 15 QB. If you do not do that, and then wait until very late to draft your QB2, you run a tremendous risk of blowing your QB draft.

If you do not take a second QB right away, that is where your ability to pick which QBs will have a good year is really tested and you become extraordinarily susceptible to the "one hit and I'm done" situation. An example from this past year, if you grabbed Matt Hasselbeck at QB10, you were much better off protecting him with a QB15 pick of someone like Byron Leftwich or Jake Delhomme than if you had selected a QB from the last few rounds of the draft as your QB2.

You might as well not take a QB2 since your QB from the bottom of the draft is unlikely to stay on your roster. Every week, you will be looking to upgrade QB2 with a WW prospect. The QBs projected that low are usually from low passing teams, so they are unlikely to explode for you anyway (Eli Manning being the obvious exception to that rule, and Rex Grossman/Gus Frerrotte, and Trent Dilfer confirm that rule.)

Older WRs

Maurile Tremblay: Here's another lesson: Wide receivers age more slowly than do running backs. If you passed on the older receivers this year, you missed out on Marvin Harrison, Joey Galloway, Terry Glenn, Eddie Kennison, Keenan McCardell, Jimmy Smith, Rod Smith, and Amani Toomer -- all of whom outperformed their draft positions.

On the flip side, many fewer old WRs performed below expectations. Derrick Mason, Keyshawn Johnson, Hines Ward, and Muhsin Muhammad finished near their preseason rankings. Only Joe Horn, Isaac Bruce, and Eric Moulds finished below expectations, and Horn and Bruce had injuries.

Marc Levin: Yes, and even when their skills erode to where they are no longer the same fantasy producers, they are still fairly reliable fantasy players. When a running back breaks down, he breaks all the way down. I think Curtis Martin is an excellent example of that and there are other examples strewn across the last few years -- Emmitt Smith's last year in Dallas, Eddie George's last couple of years with the Titans, Marshal Faulk physically broke down. I think that for next year, folks should really worry about the workload Edgerrin James took this year, Priest Holmes has not been able to finish a season the last three years, and even LaDainian Tomlinson started showing signs of wear and tear this year and last.

On the three examples you mentioned above of WRs falling below expectations due to age, you better go ahead and add Randy Moss to that list. He suffered injuries this year and last year that slowed his production, but he was not the same receiver even when healthy this year.

Final point. I expect both Horn and Bruce to bounce back next year and to be great values in the middle rounds. I also expect Eric Moulds to be released by the Bills and to sign with a team where he will vault back to the upper echelon. I am thinking he would be a perfect fit, and would excel to a high degree, with teams like
Kansas City and Philadelphia, who are teams that pass a lot but who lack one real sure-handed go-to receiver.

If he ends up in either city next year, he will make for another great middle to late round selection.

David Yudkin: Every year, I see unproven WR and breakout candidates going several rounds before proven guys and seasoned veterans. I never understood WHY people persist on taking guys with limited experience over players with several 1,000 yard seasons. Go figure. I suspect this drafting trend will continue--leaving a lot on the table for sharks to grab late.

Will Grant: That being said, there's a definite changing of the guard in the top tier of WRs. Marc mentioned Randy Moss. Moss did not come anywhere near delivering the value of a late first or early second round pick. Owens proved a bust with his attitude. Chad Johnson did well, and Harrison should also finish in the top five. But now Steve Smith, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin are creeping into the top five range. Holt's value dropped a bit due to injury and the emergence of Kevin Curtis; and Joey Galloway, Santana Moss, Terry Glenn and Chris Chambers all outperformed their draft position. Walker was hurt, but would he really have finished in the top five this season with how many other injuries GB has had?

Guys in Dynasty leagues need to take note of this trend and seriously consider dumping some of these 'sell high' candidates for next season.

Marc Levin: Regarding Steve Smith, Larry Fitzgerald, and Anquan Boldin, I think you can call all three of those receivers as solid additions to the top five, not guys creeping in. Smith leads the league in both receptions and yards. Muhsin Muhammad was near the top last year when Smith was injured, and Smith was near the top the year before. So Carolina is friendly to its top WR.

Fitz and Boldin are both top five in receptions and yards. Dennis Green will probably go with the 40+ attempts per game attack next year, but an eye needs to be kept on their quarterback situation.

All three of those guys should be drafted as top-6/top-8 receivers next year, especially in PPR leagues.

Discounting preseason hype

Maurile Tremblay: Great discussion today, guys. This was a lot of fun. I’m going to end with one more lesson that has to do with correcting a bad habit of my own. Specifically, I need to stick with my May-July evaluations of players rather than changing them all around in late August based on training camp/preseason hype.

To name just a few examples, I was higher than most on Tiki Barber and Carson Palmer early in the offseason, but came back to the pack on both guys just before the season started. I haven't done a systematic comparison of my July rankings versus my early September rankings, but it's probably a good idea, and I'll look to do one after the season is over. I'd expect to find that my July rankings were actually better once I adjust them for obvious injury issues.

And I felt the same way about the 2004 season as well (although I didn't do formal study then, either).

Early in the offseason I put a lot of effort into analyzing the previous NFL season in order to form projections/rankings of players. The whole previous season should count for a lot more than a few weeks' worth of news from the preseason. But -- probably because it's more recent -- I tend to give the preseason news (much of which is just hype) more weight than I should.

And speaking of analyzing players in the offseason, that’s part of what we’ll cover next week. How do you go about doing that? Should a common fantasy player do his own projections? If so, where should he start?

So we’ll meet back here next week to jump into some of those issues, and also make our Super Bowl picks. Until then, have a great holiday season and enjoy the weekend’s games.

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