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Managing Risk on Your 2005 Roster

Fantasy football is about more than just statistics and projections. While raw data about the players' anticipated on-field performance is useful and can help us on draft day in the selection process (once compiled and sorted), it doesn't paint the whole picture. Beyond what happens on game-day, we need to remember that players are members of a team - a political structure composed of human beings, with a dictator the top of the heap (usually the head coach). In addition, each player has behavioral/mental dimensions that may affect the level of success he achieves in the course of any given NFL season. In order for your fantasy franchise to triumph in any given season, you need to manage the "intangible" risks that have bearing on your players' chances for success.

What kind of risks can drag down your franchise's players? The list includes (but is not limited to): Chronic Injury; Attitude Problems; Coach's Doghouse (includes holdouts); Positional Battles (including the dreaded by-committee specter); Switching to a New Team; New Coaching Staff on Players' Team; Offensive Line Problems; Off Field Problems (Reported Substance Abuse/Legal Issues/League Suspensions); and finally, Drafting Too Many Players from One Team.

Many times the mantra "you can't predict injuries" is repeated in fantasy circles - and in some cases, perhaps most cases, this is true. However, certain types of injuries - the "chronic" or "degenerative" injury - are definitely the sort of condition that a fantasy owner can rely on to manifest at some point in the season. For example, elbow tendonitis in a quarterback's throwing arm. Tendons don't heal up very well, because they don't get much blood flow - once they are damaged, a player needs to turn to pain management techniques precisely because the condition isn't likely to be reversed. Ex-Brown Tim Couch is an example of a player who never reached his potential due to elbow problems of this sort. Another example would be degenerative cartilage damage in the knees. Once cartilage is worn away from a player's knee, the bones impact on each other during each stride, which causes chronic swelling, pain, and the need for "drainage". Marshall Faulk struggled with knee problems of this type last season.

Attitude problems are another factor which can negatively impact a player's production - they can lead to sloppy practice habits, mental lapses during games, problems with teammates, or confrontations with the coaching staff. As we discussed at the top, a football team is a political entity - if a player becomes a "locker-room cancer", then the coaching staff might decide to put him in the doghouse ("Grab a piece of the bench and shut-up!"). Attitude problems don't always send a player to the doghouse, but they will help him on the way there. Terrell Owens' behavior while Jeff Garcia's teammate in San Francisco, and now as Donovan McNabb's teammate in Philadelphia, is an example of an extreme attitude problem that may negatively impact his standing with the Eagles' coaching staff and his quarterback.

Of course, attitude problems aren't the only way to get in the coaches' doghouse. Another tried and true method of reducing one's playing time in the NFL is to holdout during mini- and training camp practices, or a large portion of them. At the least, a holdout will usually lead a player to a poor start, and some coaches believe that missing a large part of preseason camp practice makes players more likely to suffer serious injury, because the holdout often isn't at the same level of condition as players who have been participating in the full slate of practices. Also, at the NFL level timing is a crucial factor in most offenses, and "getting up to speed" requires many repetitions - which a holdout will lack in proportion to the length of their absence from the team.

Positional battles are another pitfall that can reduce a player's fantasy worth. NFL teams are constantly on the hunt for bigger, better, faster players - that's what the draft is all about - and guys who didn't look very good as rookies (especially at WR) often blossom in their second or third season, and rise up to challenge an established veteran. Knowing the quality of the back-up players on the various teams will help you assess the likelihood that a veteran player may be becoming "yesterday's news". The Michael Jenkins/Peerless Price showdown in Atlanta during training camp this season is a prime example of such a situation this year.

In the era of free agency, players are in constant motion among the NFL teams. Big contracts get paid out to unrestricted free agents every offseason, and some of the moves are positive - but others just don't work out. Especially when a player is not only switching teams, but also offensive systems, there can be a negative impact on the player's fantasy value. When a big-name guy switches teams, pay particular attention to how he looks in training camp and preseason games - while the preseason games are played against vanilla defensive schemes and, for starters, only small amounts of game-time, if a player is lost with his new team, you'll see it manifest as bad routes, dropped passes, and etc. Clinton Portis suffered a significant drop-off in fantasy production last year, due in part to relocating to a new team with a different offensive line and an unfamiliar offensive scheme.

Sometimes, the players don't leave a team - instead, some or all of the coaching staff is replaced. For example, everyone is aware of the ongoing turnover amongst the Miami coaching staff. Nick Saban is performing a major overhaul of the team and coaching staff, a process which will continue during training camp. He has already faced several disciplinary problems with players during the offseason, so it'll be interesting to see what sort of discipline he can instill among the Dolphins (Ricky Williams has rejoined the team which will add to the complexity of the job for Saban). Team chemistry is a delicate balance - something which is hard to create during just one training camp.

Offensive line problems are an insidious factor, because cohesiveness of the entire unit is essential for solid line play. Line play is what opens holes for running backs to exploit and provides the time necessary for passing plays to develop. If a team has a lot of quality OL players who miss time in camp due to a plague of minor injuries, the "quality" unit may play worse than another team's unit of average OL players who enjoy lots of repetitions in camp. Therefore, it is worth your while as a fantasy owner to monitor the relative healthiness of the 32 OL units across the NFL in the days leading up to your fantasy draft, and to pay attention to it as the season progresses.

Off-field problems can lead to league suspensions, which vary in length from 4 games to entire seasons - in extreme circumstances, a player can even be banned from the NFL for life. If a player has had a series of run-ins with law enforcement, or has a history of substance-abuse problems, that player is a higher risk for suspension than better-behaved professional athletes (although sometimes even "nice" guys can give you a nasty surprise). Koren Robinson's ongoing problems with alcohol and alcohol related offenses appear to have derailed his career, for example, and Adam "Pacman" Jones of Tennessee is a rookie CB who is exhibiting a lot of poor decision making heading into the 2005 season.

Finally, sometimes fantasy owners are big fans of a particular NFL team, and they fill up their roster with lots of players from that team. This obviously leads to big problems on that teams' bye-week - but there are other problems, too. Almost every NFL team has games during the season where things just don't go right, and the offense stalls. Maybe they are playing in a torrential downpour, or dealing with the arctic cold of Lambeau field in the winter. Anyway, a fantasy team that relies heavily on one NFL team will suffer a similar "power-outage". Also, relying heavily on just one NFL team means that any OL problems the team suffers during the course of the season will be very damaging to the fantasy squad. The Houston Texans have been miserable in this department during 2 of the last 3 seasons, and David Carr and the Texan's receiving corps have suffered in terms of fantasy production due to all of the sacks/quarterback knockdowns allowed by the Texans.

So, how do we translate all these possible risk factors into a tool that you can use on draft day? A common approach is to include a column on your draft sheet that says "Injury Risk" or simply "?". The more negative qualitative factors you believe a player has against him, the more ? marks accumulate in that column. Then, when you are debating between two or three players during the draft, you can help break ties in projected point value by referring to a player's potential risk level.

Evaluating each player on your draft list in terms of "risk" will help you to draft the most consistent and solid fantasy football team around. Simply being able to break numerical ties on the basis of your risk analysis will make your entire mid-to-late round efforts easier - it's worth the investment of time and effort. Happy Drafting!

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