In a part of the city where the streets are named after states and the mansions straight out of William Faulkner intermingle with the squalor of Harry Crews, Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama isn't much unlike the outdoor arenas where I spent my Friday and Saturday nights watching high school football in the 1980s. Before former Browns GM Phil Savage took over the event in 2012, Ladd-Peebles had seen better days. If Joel Buchsbaum ever ventured from his New York borough to experience it, he'd doubtlessly give it his infamous "Looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane" label.
Its outer shell of concrete and steel stood impressively from the parking lot but once inside, it had the look and feel of a run-down boxing gym—except it was soaked in beer and Gulf breeze instead of sweat. The bleachers had more dents than the losing entry in a demolition derby. The upper reaches could double as a wind farm for the surrounding metro area for most of the week. The fencing that was in place to guard fans seated in those rows above its tunnels to the concession areas was so loose from its moorings that anyone leaning on it for support was begging for reconstructive surgery courtesy of a 15-foot drop.
Then there were the bathrooms on the bottom floor in the north stands. If desperate enough to venture there, they looked like the setting of an Eli Roth production. I heard Skip Bayless went in there as a respected journalist in Dallas and Chicago, disappeared for several years, and came out the ESPN talking head we see today.
Thoughts of what happened to him in there sometimes keep me awake a night.
None of us were there—or continue making the pilgrimage to Mobile—to make aesthetic judgments with architecture. What happens at the grassy center of Ladd-Peebles is what transfixes us for much of these six days in January. And it was from these dilapidated stands in 2010 that I saw Joique Bell for the first time in 2010.
The Wayne State star had everything but the name: power, balance, agility, burst, good hands, and a chip on his shoulder. Other than LeGarrette Blount, who shined despite the coaches doing their best to deep him under wraps, Bell was consistently the most impressive back in those practices.
The impression didn't carry over to April. The NFL by-passed Bell in the draft and the Harlon Hill Trophy winner and two-time Division II All-American bounced from Buffalo, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, back to Philadelphia, and finally to New Orleans before the calendar turned to its page to 2011. Each of those stops featured Bell doing something impressive in practice or a preseason game.
Eventually, he stuck in Detroit and the rest is history. Bell played five years in Detroit, averaged four yards per carry, scored 22 rushing touchdowns, and from 2013-14, earned top-14 and top-17 fantasy production at his position. Considering Bell was an undrafted free agent who couldn't stick with four teams as a rookie, it's a good story.
Bell exemplifies what I love about dynasty leagues: long-form storytelling. Like novels, epic cinema, jam bands, orchestral or improvised music, or a well-crafted television series, dynasty leagues encourage us to experience the subtleties of long-term development. We have more room to dictate our place in the story arc and there's greater investment in the characters.
Last week, I participated in a staff mock draft that was a dynasty start-up. Here are the rules, scoring, and how Chad Parsons critiqued each team. After we finished the draft, I wanted to use it as an opportunity to discuss dynasty strategy in greater depth—philosophy, execution, and individual players.
Parsons labeled my strategy a "balanced approach" based on my mix of youth and experience and depth at each skill position. He labeled Leonte Carroo as my best value pick and Travis Kelce as my worst value pick. His overall evaluation is that I lacked a back who can serve as a "cornerstone asset in their prime or a blue-chip talent."
It's a fair short-term assessment. But I've always had the philosophy that building a fantasy football team is like constructing a table and the draft is only one leg. Leaning only on the draft to build a winner is a limited strategy, especially in a format where trading happens far more often and the waiver wire offers greater returns.
Here's the team. As I take you through my pick-by-pick thoughts, broader philosophic and strategic ideas will become apparent and helpful to your dynasty builds.
Cornerstone RBs and Avoiding Future Victims of The Age-Finance career Bind
1.07: Having the 7th spot in the draft, I hoped I would land Ezekiel Elliott. I wanted a potential cornerstone RB to begin my draft and I'd then load up on youthful primary receivers and a young stud at quarterback. It nearly happened, but Elliott left the board at 1.06.
At this point, I opted for a different course. It's great to land a cornerstone back when you can but with Gurley and Elliott gone, the only back I like with a great mix of youth and proven skill in the early rounds is Doug Martin. Now a guy like Parsons may see Martin as a capped player, but I see a versatile young back with the starter skills to thrive into his early 30s and sporting a new 5-year contract and the starting gig. When I look at Sims, I see a good young player whose deal ends after 2017 and won't earn the job or enough touches to kill Martin's value unless Martin suffers an injury.
Who's right about the individual case of Martin vs. Sims doesn't matter as much as the broader point about running backs and how they begin their careers. Sims is on a track to become a future victim of the age-finance career bind: a talented, career backup that gets stuck between ugly middle ground where he has the ability to start but his age deters teams from offering him a contract that he believes he deserves. It's an unfortunate place to be but if a runner doesn't earn a starting role by the time he's 23-25, the appeal as a starter diminishes.
If Martin sustains his production through the end of 2017, it's much more likely that the Buccaneers roll with a developing reserve with promise currently on the squad—say Peyton Barber—or draft an heir-apparent and let a 27-year-old Sims test the open market because the cost-benefit of signing Sims to a feature back contract isn't in the team's best interest unless it has clear proof that Sims can carry the load like Martin showed twice in his four-year career.
For every Michael Turner who lands with a second team and thrives in their late 20s, there are numerous players with starter-caliber skills who wind up career committee backs at best with limited returns unless injury strikes. Holding onto them like gold when in reality they only offer bronze-caliber returns is one of the most common mistakes of dynasty management. Sims, Jerick McKinnon, Michael Bush, Christine Michael, Kendall Hunter, C.J. Spiller, Felix Jones, Christine Michael, and Joseph Randle all fit this bill during their early-to-mid 20s.
Sims may prove me wrong but unless it's due to a devastating injury to Martin, I don't think it will be at the expense of Martin's production as no worse than a low-end RB1. But I won't get to test this idea with his team because Jason Wood snared Martin at the end of the second round. I hoped Martin might fall to the mid-third and decided I'd wait because I thought there were enough youth-oriented owners in this league that he might fall another round but that's why Wood is an O.G. at Footballguys.
While Gurley, Elliott, and/or Martin would have been a nice start to my dynasty draft, the fact is that unless the running back is a special player his career doesn't last long. I don't see the appeal viewing running backs as cornerstones if you have to replace them every three years and only the exceptional pick performs well enough to provide 5-7 years of long-term RB1 production. Since 2007, here are the runners with at least five multiple "cornerstone" seasons as RB1s in 12-team PPR leagues:
- Matt Forte - 7 seasons.
- Adrian Peterson - 6 seasons.
- Jamaal Charles - 5 seasons.
- Chris Johnson - 5 seasons.
Marshawn Lynch and Maurice Jones-Drew were less than a point from qualifying with five seasons. Ray Rice also had four seasons. What about LeSean McCoy, Frank Gore, or Arian Foster? Nope (although Gore was close).
Why am I going to pick a running back early in a dynasty league when there are four backs during the past nine years who offered RB1 production for only a majority of that span and most leagues allow 30-50 percent more receivers in starting lineups and those receivers have twice the productive career span? I better be sold on that first-round back long-term and odds are against me being right.
This should tell you how much I believe in Elliott and Gurley as talents in the same way I believed in Forte, Peterson, and Lynch when they were rookies.
It means that DeAndre Hopkins was an easy choice. Spider-like in the way he wins the ball, and more reliant on great route skills than speed, Hopkins is the most proven "bad-quarterback, primary receiver' in fantasy football. Young, productive, and safe, I'm happy to land Hopkins here.
Constructing a team with materials Built to Last
Picks 2.06-5.07: Elliott, Gurley, and Martin offer that kind of exceptional possibility but as explained above, I'm fine with leaning harder on receivers, quarterbacks, and tight ends of note as my long-term roster foundation. I can then focus on acquiring running backs who can offer short-term production to at least keep me in contention. I'll either do this through the rookie draft or build on my existing depth until I can make a deal that only helps me.
It's what some people fail to see when I don't take a shot at running backs early. If I'm skeptical about them possessing "cornerstone ability", I prefer non-runners who can help me long-term by eliminating my need to plug multiple holes in my roster.
That's the problem with getting too caught up in "winning your draft" this year. If you draft a team that becomes a multiple-year dynasty champion without making further roster-building moves, there's a great chance that your league stinks.
Don't buy into the deluded dream that dominating your draft means what I stated above. It's no different than the little ads in the back of magazines that fleece adolescent boys. If you can't get that "crown jewel" runner, don't settle for the fool's gold. Build with materials that should last a long time.
It's why Russell Wilson topped my list at 2.06. He's a special player who, like Drew Brees, throws a great deep ball, makes the most of his talent, and hasn't taken as much punishment as his QB Hits stats suggest. Seattle will continue to steer more of the offense towards the passing game and if Wilson's career arc follows suit of most proven veterans, he has another 10-12 years of QB1 production ahead. It's a safe and productive choice at a position that's a lot harder to land long-term elite players in rookie drafts.
Kelvin Benjamin wasn't my first choice a 3.07 but there's a lot to like: Youth. The potential of a long career with a young, top-flight producer at quarterback. And past top-15 production at the position when Benjamin's routes and hands were still suspect by standards of primary NFL options are all good reasons to take him. With Hopkins at 1.07, I believe I have a strong opportunity to have two top-15 receivers with top-5 upside for the next 6-8 years, maybe 8-10.
Tyler Lockett also has this upside if he meets the somewhat insane Antonio Brown comparisons heaped upon him after his rookie year. Obviously, I'm a fan and love the possibility that he'll be Wilson's top option for the next 6-8 years. It's a bit of a stretch in the fourth round based on his current production but even if he bombs and only provides WR3 production in an offense not quite ready to go pass-heavy, this upside bet still feels worthwhile—especially after taking three safe picks.
While I get why Parsons feels my TE3 investment in Kelce, who finished TE8 and TE9 in 2014-2015 seems like a reach to him, I disagree that tight end is a "historically unpredictable season-to-season position." Here's a list of tight ends beginning in 2007 with at least five top-12 finishes during their careers:
- Jason Witten: 9 seasons (3 top-3 finishes).
- Antonio Gates: 9 seasons (4 top-3 finishes).
- Tony Gonzalez: 7 seasons (3 top-3 finishes).
- Greg Olsen: 6 seasons
- Rob Gronkowski: 5 seasons (4 top-3 finishes).
That's nearly half the starting list of fantasy tight ends for the past 5 years and it doesn't include Vernon Davis and Jimmy Graham with 4 seasons or the fact that Kellen Winslow (2006-2010) and Chris Cooley (2005-2010) were in the midst of careers that landed them in the top-12 4 and 5 times, respectively, Adding Graham and Davis to the list means that at least for the past 9 years, it has historically been a predictable season-to-season position.
I can understand if Kelce isn't seen as valuable of a long-term pick as Josh Doctson, who I could have landed here, but I believe Kelce is only getting started. Gonzalez, Witten, Olsen, and Davis weren't instant fantasy TE1s as rookies. It took them at least a year to reach that milestone. Kelce did it each of his first two years on the field. While the surgically repaired knee is a minor concern, I'll roll with Kelce's youth and all-around talent. I'll also bet he begins to earn another 15-20 targets per season that will elevate his future upside to top-5 production.
This leads to another philosophical point for dynasty leagues: I'll choose a proven game-changing physical talent with temporary limitations of an offensive scheme over an unproven talent in dynasty drafts.
It's unlikely that a healthy Kelce earns a dip in production after a pair of top-10 seasons—especially when considering that he can turn small gains into gigantic plays with his speed and strength after the catch. I'd agree with the limitations raised in Parson's argument if you're using Zach Ertz and his more limited physical talents as the example but not Kelce. When you have a proven player with elite athletic skills in an offense where he's already demonstrated consistency, it's a good long-term choice especially considering the longevity of the top players at the position.
Upside-Downing The Dynasty Draft
Picks 6.06-9.07: The four players I selected with consecutive picks in the middle rounds suit my philosophy with team building when I cannot land a consensus fantasy cornerstone at running back. Matt Forte, who you just read has more RB1-caliber years since 2007 than any back in the NFL, gives me a win-now player to combine with the productive youth of my non-runners.
I still believe in Ameer Abdullah. Other than the fumbles, which was also an issue early in his Nebraska career that improved as he acclimated to the college game, Abdullah was by no means a flop by NFL standards. The Lions figured out that it should run the rookie between the tackles on plays other than draws on passing downs and Abdullah's production efficiency improved. Although a far different back in style than Todd Gurley, Abdullah was the second-best runner I studied in 2015's draft class. Writing him off as a committee back for the rest of his career after one season could be a major mistake this year.
DeMarco Murray is a mid-round swing for the fences. He's young enough to perform as a top-24 fantasy starter for the next 2-3 years and I'm not skittish about players who turn in a bad season in an environment that is a bad fit. Schematically, Murray wasn't a bad fit but it's not hard to discern that there was a lot more going on behind the scenes.
If Derrick Henry performs as he's capable, he'll at least earn a split with Murray even if the veteran looks rejuvenated in Tennessee. Still, my goal is capable running backs who can play now. If I bomb completely in this pursuit, I earn a top-five pick in the 2017 draft with a rich class of runners that will be available to pair with the rest of my excellent youth.
Seems like a win-win to me.
Isaiah Crowell, like Abdullah is another young player who could provide me enough production to make my team a contender for the next 2-3 years. has near-elite talent at the position. We've seen flashes of it. If one of these two young runners gives me near-RB1 production for the next 2-3 years, I'll contend, my draft position will be low enough that I'm selecting non-runners to build on my depth, and I'll use that depth to parlay a trade for a win-now runner. If both work out as near-RB1 producers, I'm likely in a championship window. If none of my backs work out, I'm in a position where I'm likely to land a good rookie prospect.
Staying Young on the Depth Chart
Picks 10.07-17.07: If the goal is to focus solely on one position as a future team-building priority, then it's worth drafting depth that's young and has upside at the other positions to create the potential for trade bait. The only players with more than four years of experience in this part of my draft are Charles Clay (5) and Philip Rivers (12). Both provide competent depth with starter upside.
Travis Benjamin paired with Rivers gives me a competent backup version of Wilson to Lockett. Now that Benjamin is working with a good starter, I believe I landed receiver whose fantasy floor is no worse than his 29th-ranked finish among pass catchers last year.
Bruce Ellington appears poised at the West Coast Jordan Matthews in the 49ers offense. True, they are vastly different receivers but how the two get it down won't matter as much as the similarity in targets and receptions that I expect Ellington to earn from the slot. Matthews was a top-25 fantasy receiver each of his two years under Kelly. I think it's reasonable for Ellington to earn 65-75 targets, 800-900 yards, and 5-7 scores this year. That's not far off Matthews' stats in this role and Ellington is a more explosive player.
Leonte Carroo is one of my favorite options below the top tier of receivers in this 2016 draft class. Long-term, Carroo's quickness and physical style make him capable of out-pointing every receiver in this class if paired with a productive quarterback. I'm not completely sold on Tannehill to say "now paired with a productive quarterback," but I'll invest in Carroo and see what happens.
Parsons said Rivers was a luxury but I prefer proven depth at the quarterback position. Wilson's QB Hits may be overstated without proper context but it doesn't change the reality that the Seahawks offensive line allows a lot of pressure. If Rivers was a luxury, I can't imagine what folks might think if I could have nabbed Jameis Winston and had enough depth to potentially deal for a blue chip RB next year.
Spencer Ware, Jaelen Strong, and Brett Hundley give me three players whose talent I believe in and two of them are likely to earn expanded roles this year. Hundley was the No.2 QB in my 2015 rookie rankings—essentially tied with Marcus Mariota—and he would have been the No.2 QB in my 2016 rankings if he waited a year and he didn't improve between his junior to senior campaigns. There are few young quarterbacks worth a long-term investment who aren't starting within a year of their rookie season but Hundley is one of the exceptions and with Rivers likely done in 2-3 years, Hundley is one of my pet patience plays.
Picks 18.06-20.06: The Panthers were the best defense on the board. I was tempted to grab Kenny Bell here but hoped I could wait for another round. Bell wound up going 19.06 so I settled for Seth Roberts, the Raiders productive slot option who could earn perimeter opportunities if one of Amari Cooper or Michael Crabtree gets hurt. Virgil Green offers that big upside. Ellington, Strong, Hundley, Roberts, Green, and Carroo are all players I listed as Hidden Dynamite for your re-draft end game that also have similar appeal in dynasty leagues.
- RB cornerstones (top-12 RBs for 5-7 years of their careers) are far rarer than perceived.
- True foundational anchors are at QB, WR, and TE. They have longer careers with more top-12 production potential.
- Build a strong enough foundation and you'll only need to focus on acquiring functional, short-term talent at one position rather than plugging holes at multiple positions every year.
- Focus on "proven" youth at these non-RB positions and you'll increase your chances to acquire RBs through the draft or by building on non-RB depth and trading that depth for backs of your choosing.
- Depth at non-RB positions isn't a luxury, it's essential towards building a strength you can exploit.
- Winning the draft does not equate to dominating your league; it equates to building a team with manageable strengths and a clear, realistic strategy towards improvement.
Later this week, mid-round backs for Upside Down Drafts.