Original Post: February 8, 2016
I’ve been doing this article for about 15 years now, and as a fantasy player and writer, I still think it’s a worthwhile exercise. But I also believe the days of drawing meaningful, big-picture conclusions about an NFL season are probably over. And while, yes, defense does still win championships, we can look no further for evidence of how just about anything can happen in the NFL than the fact that the worst starting QB in Super Bowl history just won a championship in a league that is more QB-centric than ever, and he did it against a QB who the day before (rightfully) won the NFL’s MVP award in a landslide vote.
It’s hard enough right now to get a handle on the NFL on a week-to-week basis, so having strong and insightful “hot takes” on a yearly basis in this league is damn near an exercise in futility.
Still, while a lesson learned in 2015 may not apply at all to the 2016 season, meaning fantasy owners may be better off entering each season with a clean slate rather than overreacting to what happened the year before, I do still think there’s value in taking stock of what we should have learned from a completed NFL season.
And while I don’t have anything earth-shattering in terms of lessons learned from 2015, there were at least plenty of ancillary lessons learned this past season – let’s call them “warm takes” – that I will take with me into 2016.
The NFL is cyclical.
In 2014, if you took a RB in one of the first three rounds of a fantasy draft, there was, according to my calculations, a 65% chance it worked out well and only a 15% chance it was a total bust. In 2015, however, there was about a 65% chance that the pick hurt you, if not killed you. In 2014, the top QB producers were Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger, all likely Hall of Famers and no surprises at all (I know I’m early in putting Luck in the Hall, but go with it). That year, four of the five guys in the top-5 in scoring had top-5 ADPs, which is why no one was surprised with their high finishes. But in 2015, the top-5 producers were Cam Newton (12th QB drafted), Tom Brady (10th), Blake Bortles (27th), Russell Wilson (5th), and Carson Palmer (19th), so investing in a QB in the top-25 or even top-50 was a bad move. In 2014, the rookies were great, and Odell Beckham, Jeremy Hill, Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin and others were awesome for fantasy, so I said to be aggressive with rookies in the future. Those 2015 rookies, however, sucked.
If I was going solely off the 2015 season, I’d strongly advise that fantasy owners avoid the RBs early, hold off on drafting a QB until you’re 100+ picks into a draft, and to avoid the rookies. Those could certainly be effective approaches, and I was never more skeptical of drafting RBs and inclined to go WR-heavy early than I was in 2015. But based on the cyclical nature of the NFL, following any of the three tips probably won’t be an ideal course of action because one of the main things I’ve learned covering the NFL for fantasy the last few years is to not overreact to something that happened the year before, both good and bad, yet fantasy owners tend to have short memories.
We could see Le’Veon Bell and Jamaal Charles stay healthy and net great returns on the steep investment they require, and we could see strong comebacks from guys like Rodgers and Luck. We could also see Cam Newton as the consensus #1 QB on the board, and even with his #1 WR back, he could fail to truly deliver on such a high draft position coming off a career year that’s hard to duplicate. We could in 2016 see rookie RB Ezekiel Elliott out-do Adrian Peterson’s strong 2015 campaign.
I’ve seen these cyclical trends often covering recent fantasy seasons, so these days, I’m examining those players who greatly exceeded expectations and those who fell considerably short of them to find potential busts for the next season and potential values, and I’m okay zigging when others zag. So in 2016, I’ll be probably skeptical of Bortles, who was shockingly the #3 QB in 2014, and I’ll probably love the prospect of drafting Luck at a nice discount. I may not even be afraid to take a rookie RB like Elliot in the second round this summer.
Taking a QB early is not a safe play.
You’d think after the 2015 season that this lesson would be “don’t take a QB too early” delivered with conviction, especially since we strongly advised to pass on drafting a QB the first 3-4 rounds of a draft this summer. But I’m not naïve enough to definitively state that no one should draft a QB in the first 50 picks or so this August. 2015 was an unusually-great year for the QBs – likely an outlier year – so if you used a second-round pick on Andrew Luck or a third-round pick on Aaron Rodgers in 2015 it killed you because those who passed up on those two big names were drafting guys like DeAndre Hopkins in the second round and then wound up rolling at QB with their 15th round pick in Blake Bortles, who destroyed even the great Aaron Rodgers in terms of production.
In the past, I’ve been trying to isolate “values” from the ranks of the elite options, and that’s been pretty successful. In 2014, we loved Aaron Rodgers as a “value” in the third round (over Peyton Manning), and the year before that in 2013 it was the opposite, as we preferred the value of Manning in the third over Rodgers in the second, which also worked. In 2015, the “values” we isolated among the proven studs were Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger, who we had at 3 and 4 in our QB rankings, respectively. They did pretty well, but it’s worth pointing out that their ADPs were in the 50s, so drafting an aging guy like Brees was a lot more palatable than taking a young stud like Luck in the top-15, or Rodgers in the top-25.
I’m not yet sure if I’ll be pumping up a high-end QB as a “value” in 2016, but it’s very possible with, ironically, guys like Luck and Rodgers, who both might slip to 40-50 overall on most draft boards, or even later. After all, once you get 50 or so picks into a draft, the really appealing options are usually off the board, so taking a stud QB when you’re questioning the available talent is still viable in my mind. But when a second-year guy like Bortles puts up 37 TDs, when a journeyman like Ryan Fitzpatrick accounts for 33 TDs, and when low-end guys like Kirk Cousins and Derek Carr total 30+ TDs as they all did in 2015, you know it’s imperative to get at least some value when drafting your QB. And certainly, coming off a lucrative season of production at the position, I can’t argue too much with holding off even 100+ picks before selecting your starting signal-caller, especially with fantasy owners more inclined than ever to pass on drafting their starting QB early.
A RB needs to own every role in the offense to merit a first or second round pick.
Despite the fact that 2015 was a brutal year for RBs, I need only go back one NFL season to a time when that wasn’t the case, so I’m not going to definitely state that we shouldn’t draft RBs early. Injuries were a problem for guys like Le’Veon Bell and Jamaal Charles, and I won’t dispute the notion that the RBs present more risk than WRs or TEs. But the bigger problem for early RB picks this year was competition for touches.
The rule I’ve followed in the past, at least when it comes to first-round selections at the RB position, is that in order to be seriously considered for such a high pick, a back must be young, durable, and versatile, and that remains the case. Devonta Freeman, for example, fit the bill. But Jeremy Hill is young, has been durable, and he can certainly catch the ball, so his versatility isn’t a big issue. One issue for Hill, of course, was the presence of Gio Bernard. In a vacuum and on the surface, Hill was a fine second round pick in 2015, even knowing Gio was in the mix. But while the presence of Bernard wasn’t the only thing that hurt him – Hill simply didn’t run as well for whatever reason – it didn’t help. Two better examples were probably DeMarco Murray and C.J. Anderson. I really didn’t push Murray this summer, and I didn’t draft him or Anderson a single time in my many sample drafts included in my “Draft Plan” article (if I liked them a lot they would have been included). But while we did have them ranked lower than their ADPs, we did have both in our top-20. It’s easy to say now, but that was a mistake because Anderson wasn’t truly entrenched in every role in his backfield (nor was he a truly proven commodity), and Murray had some serious competition for touches in Ryan Mathews (who we did push as a potential value) and Darren Sproles.
This past summer I was fairly down on veterans LeSean McCoy and Matt Forte, due to their advanced ages, career workload, and questionable situations. But while they both missed at least three games and had injury problems, both were very productive when they did play, and it’s because they owned every role in their backfields. Even though we factored in some expected time missed for both players due to their ages/workloads, we actually projected both players to score more points than they did. But on a point-per-game basis, we undersold Forte (our 11th ranked RB but 8th in PPG) and McCoy (our 14th ranked RB but 11th in PPG). So at least for 2015, it was better to focus on volume rather than youth and we learned that, above and beyond the always prevalent injury issues, drafting a RB in the top-25 overall is dangerous if he doesn’t own every role in his backfield.
Complementary RBs can kill you.
Again, 2015 was a horrible year for the RBs, which probably means 2016 will be a lot better for the position, but if you invested a 5th- or 6th-round pick on a dynamic and active complementary back like Andre Ellington, Ameer Abdullah, Shane Vereen, C.J. Spiller, or Giovani Bernard, it didn’t work out well. Part of the problem, I believe, is that some offensive coordinators just aren’t good at utilizing specialty players – such was the case with Vereen in New York – even if they have a large role. Sometimes, the player is slowed by injury (Ellington), and sometimes they just stink in general (Spiller). But ultimately, a lack of volume is usually the killer.
Handling these players is always difficult for me because when a guy like Bernard is clearly in line to have a considerable role as a runner and a receiver, I have to give him production in both areas, which usually lands a player like Bernard fairly high in our preseason projections. We actually had Gio lower than usual in our projections this summer – due in large part to our love for Jeremy Hill – but Bernard’s a great example because he actually finished way higher in total points (PPR, 17th) than we had him (31st). Gio did have that larger role and he did get plenty of touches, so he finished pretty high overall at his position. However, we were only 11 points off of his 2015 point total in our preseason projections, and he was actually only 32nd in points per game, so our projection was actually quite accurate in that regard. Gio’s ADP was around 70, which isn’t terrible, but it really wasn’t particularly appealing, either. Another back in that ADP range was Chris Ivory, whom we did like and whom we did push this summer. Ivory wound up 15th in points-per-game, so he was only a little better than Gio in that regard. But Ivory was also 11th in total points compared to 32nd for Bernard, so Ivory was clearly the better option with the larger role.
There’s not a plethora of volume backs out there, so everyone is still going to have to roll with a guy like Bernard on the back end of a roster, so the lesson is really about being more skeptical and cautious when it comes to these complementary types. I’ve been guilty of overhyping dynamic players like Abdullah, and I’ll continue to push upside-oriented players with a legit chance to break out. But while I fully understand the cyclical nature of the NFL and I’m not ruling out the possibility that 2016 will be a good year for RBs (as 2014 was), I’m going to be more cognizant of the fact that it’s hard for complementary players to be consistent performers, so we should pull back a little in terms of preseason expectations and projections.
If a team actively utilizes two RBs, don’t draft either of them too high; if they mainly utilize a single RB, draft him and then get his backup.
This one came from Twitter, and while it’s in line with some other tips directly above here, I thought it was worth listing on its own. In 2015, you would have been much better ignoring Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard while using two picks on Le’Veon Bell and his handcuff DeAngelo Williams. And despite his struggles in 2015, you also would have been better off grabbing Marshawn Lynch in the first and then Thomas Rawls very late than DeMarco Murray in the second. Not every starting RB has a clear and enticing handcuff, so this isn’t a blanket statement, but it does speak to the frustration of owning a RB like Bernard, who is a quality player with a lot of potential, but whose value is limited as he splits snaps with Hill. Gio actually played 55% of their snaps as opposed to 43% for Hill, but barely being on the field for half their snaps did hurt Gio.
I’m certainly not going to ignore a nice player like Bernard, since almost anyone with a solid role can be a value at some point in a draft. I’ll look to implement this lesson by isolating the backfields like Pittsburgh’s and then cover the advantages of investing in those ideal situations while also trying to pull back from over-projecting a guy in a timeshare or dual backfield.
Be patient with your talented lead runner if he’s not sharing the ball.
There are a lot of points made here about the RBs, most of them negative due to the horrible season it was for the position, and some of them will overlap. We all know that volume is critical for a back and I have a lesson in this article about how they should ideally own every role in their backfield in order to be worth an early pick. But opportunity is only part of the equation, as 2015 Melvin Gordon owners know all too well.
Carolina’s Jonathan Stewart wasn’t an “early” pick with an ADP over 50, but we did like him as a target this summer and we ranked him 17th at RB. He was actually 19th in points-per-game, so our ranking was close. Stewart did miss time, and the possibility for that was built into his projection, but he wound up being only 23rd in total scoring (again, close with our projection). But through the first four weeks, fantasy owners seriously wondered if they had a viable asset in Stewart, who was only 57th in PPG and was only 49th in scoring, with only 59/220 rushing in those four games with 5/22 receiving. But while their OL likely needed some time to get rolling, and while Mike Tolbert did have a decent 21 touches in those four games, it’s not like anyone else in the Panther backfield was stealing Stewart’s thunder. Stewart remained the lead back, and eventually the production came. In fact, it started coming in Week 5, when Stewart rushed for 2 TDs and put up 21.6 fantasy points. Stewart did have that slow start and eventually missed time at the end of the regular season, so he was hardly perfect (that’s why he was only a 5th -round pick on average in the summer). But from Weeks 5-14, Stewart was the #7 scorer (PPR) and was 11th in PPG.
So the lesson, as outlined in this title and related to the lesson above, is to be patient with very capable volume backs in good situations, since the production tends to come sooner than later.
A key skill player injury can negatively affect an entire offense.
Honestly, this lesson is related to a factor that has prompted me to undervalue Tom Brady over the last few years and especially this past year: I’ve been worried about how much of his value is tied to Rob Gronkowski and, to a lesser extent, Julian Edelman, who had a mysterious injury for most of August that seemed scary but turned out to be nothing (thanks, Bill). But if you recall, while Gronk was working his way back from his ACL early in 2014, Brady was horrible for fantasy. He was only 14th in points-per-game on the season, and was a miserable 23rd in scoring those first four weeks as Gronk was rounding into form (Brady was #1 over the same span in 2015). To put that terrible quarter of the 2014 season into perspective, Geno Smith averaged over 5 points a game more than Brady last September.
Brady-Gronk were obviously fine in 2015, but the other situation that has worried me in terms of a player’s fantasy value being too tied to one player did end poorly in 2015. That would be in Dallas, where Tony Romo’s shaky availability due mainly to his lingering back came to a head and crushed Dez Bryant’s production. It was hard to downgrade a guy coming off a 15-TD season in 2014, and Dez’ foot injury was also a problem, but Bryant was a clear case of a player’s value getting crushed by one single injury.
The obvious example in 2015 was Jordy Nelson in Green Bay. The Packers had other issues, but the overriding problem for their offense in 2015 was the lack of not only an incredibly reliable and efficient receiver for Aaron Rodgers, but also the loss of speed and how their best deep virtually removed an entire element of their offense. That had a crippling effect, as we saw play out in 2015. We didn’t exactly push Rodgers as a good target this past summer as we did the year before – we were more about holding off on drafting a QB than ever in 2015 – but I do regret not bumping Eddie Lacy down. The main reason I didn’t downgrade Lacy was because I felt the loss of Nelson would translate to more catches and check-downs for Lacy, so I took away some rushing production and added some receiving production, and it was a wash (in our PPR rankings). Lacy had his own issues, of course, and his weight and questionable conditioning were probably more responsible for his actually failing to haul in even half the number of passes he did the year before. As for Rodgers, while there were other elements at play in his down season, the lesson is simply that even the greatest of the greats can be taken down by even just one key injury.
Obviously, a QB injury can easily cripple most offenses, but there are usually some specific examples of a player’s value being too closely tied to another player, like the Falcons and Matt Ryan potentially without Julio Jones, that merit at least some consideration. If nothing else, it’s worth considering this factor if you’re torn between two high-end players early in a draft.
Players don’t always get better with experience.
When I’m breaking down a player in the preseason for an upcoming campaign, I consider all the elements at play for the player and then add up and considering the positives and the negatives. One factor I usually add into the positive column is experience, and oftentimes when a player has only one season in the league, I view his experience as a positive and I tend to assume the player will only get better. It’s only natural to assume that a young player who showed clear promise in his first or second year will continue to get better, but the reality is that it doesn’t always happen.
The best example from 2015 was Teddy Bridgewater, who encouragingly completed 64.4% of his passes as a rookie with a decent 7.26 YPA as a first-year player and without stud back Adrian Peterson. Teddy actually did improve on his completion rate (65.3% in 2015), and he was still only just an efficient game manager. The progress and increased fantasy production we expected to see in year two simply wasn’t there, even with Peterson. In Ryan Tannehill, we had this past summer a player who had improved statistically across the board in his first three season, so it was only natural to believe his improvement would continue for this former college wide receiver in the same system in 2015, but he regressed. Some of Tannehill’s regression was his fault; some of it was not.
Now, we did see clear improvements from second-year players Derek Carr and Blake Bortles, so it’s still fair to continue to be optimistic about young players continuing to ascend. There are always numerous reasons why players perform or not, but the difference between a guy like Bridgewater and Bortles, I believe, is talent. In other words, gaining some valuable experience isn’t going to help a player much if he has questionable talent. So I will be expecting improvements in year two from guys like Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston, with strong pedigrees, but while he had a very positive showing in 2015, I probably won’t be for a guy like Tyrod Taylor. And it’s worth noting for a guy like Melvin Gordon that’s it’s no lock that he takes a dramatic step forward in his second season due to his questionable game.
Players can still get better with experience.
The lesson above is more about not overrating experience because a player, despite gaining some familiarity, can still fall flat on his face in a season if he has some prohibitive factors slowing him down, like Ryan Tannehill did. I don’t view this lesson to be contradictory to the one above because every situation is different, and in fact we saw several cases of proof that a player can improve considerably, even if he’s in the league for a good number of years. The best example from 2015 has to be Cam Newton, who this time last year I felt was always going to have to run a lot to have strong fantasy value. The masses seemed to agree with me, since Cam was only the 12th player off the board and was drafted as a backup in many leagues this summer.
Cam’s running is still a huge factor, of course, but if you took away all of Newton’s rushing production this past season, he was still a top-12 QB, thanks to the surprising 35 TD passes he tossed. He did this despite losing his #1 WR in Kelvin Benjamin, so while Cam’s completion percentage was still mediocre at 59.7%, he clearly improved as a quarterback. Granted, it was hard to predict that improvement, but it happened in year five for Cam, so we should be more hesitant to say a player “is what he is,” as I’ve been guilty of saying in the past. Another fine example of a player improving was Devonta Freeman. We were pretty high on Freeman as a prospect in 2014, and I drafted him in the fourth round of our startup staff Dynasty League in 2014. Freeman’s rookie season was obviously a disappointment, but my 2014 pick turned out to be a great one because Freeman was vastly improved in his second season. The change in scheme obviously helped, but I can’t remember a RB improving so much in his second year since Ray Rice in 2009.
The common denominator with both Cam and Freeman was versatility, since Cam’s running is a huge part of his appeal and since Freeman’s receiving work was crucial to his fantasy dominance. The versatility is key, but I’d file that under the “talent” header, so it still comes down to that most important element being talent. The lesson, then, is that if a player has the capacity to be a difference-maker, we should be hesitant to pigeonhole him into being a certain tier of player because improvement is possible – even in year five in the NFL. Heck, there’s a guy I liked as a rookie prospect six years ago but he hadn’t done squat heading into 2015, and he was actually someone I was made fun of about by a close friend in the business. That guy was Gary Barnidge, and with him we learned to never say never because even I didn’t believe his emergence early in 2015 and he was my guy.
Fast starts usually come with teams that are experienced with players, system, etc.
This isn’t particularly insightful because it’s an obvious point, but fantasy players do tend to overlook small and obvious factors like experience, continuity, etc. We did see an exception in 2015 with the Atlanta Falcons starting off the season 5-0 under a first-year head coach and OC, but things did unravel for them from there. Generally speaking, the teams that had great stability and experience started the season off strongly, and strong starts are critical in fantasy. In fact, some of our readers tend to make definitive statements about our preseason projections after only 4-5 weeks, which is a tough deal for us but is part of the territory. If you look at the teams that got off to the fastest starts in terms of wins and losses and fantasy production – the Patriots, Panthers, Cardinals, and Bengals – they all had something in common: continuity. We did see a lot of success from the NY Jets, and the Colts had continuity on their side in 2015 only to have a disastrous season. But those clubs were the exception to the rule as other teams like Seattle, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Jacksonville, and even Oakland had more than a modicum of success, due in large part to their stability and continuity.
Finding strong continuity in this league is harder than ever, so the lesson I learned in 2015 is to give teams that do have a lot of stability a little more credit in terms of our fantasy analysis.
Offensive lines and running games need more time than ever to get rolling.
I don’t have any revealing data to back up this point, but I’m sure I could dig up some exotic stats to help my case if I really needed to, and I do have some examples from 2015. In my mind, handicapping the NFL has clearly been made more difficult due to the 2011 CBA, which limited the amount of time these NFL coaches can coach their players. Heck, it even limited the time a coach can talk to his player about football. The results, more often than not, are that coaches are more unfamiliar with their own rosters than ever before, and installing new systems can be more difficult than it’s ever been.
But this lesson is actually about the offensive lines and the running games. We can have another whole discussion about how the offensive lineman coming out of college now are less equipped for the NFL game than ever, and that’s true and a legitimate issue. But OL play is all about cohesiveness, and I feel that the OLs in the NFL are less cohesive these days, and I see them as hurting many running games early in the season. The two best examples I see from 2015 were in Baltimore and New Orleans, two lines that I thought were elite heading into the season. In Baltimore, Justin Forsett got off to a slow start the first three weeks of the season, averaging only 3.2 YPC. From Weeks 4-11, Forsett averaged 4.6 YPC and his fantasy production went from 9.5 points a game in PPR to 13.4 (and 15.2 PPG if you remove the week he got hurt, Week 11, in which he had just 4 touches). In New Orleans, I thought they’d have one of the best OLs in football, but early on things were shaky in terms of blocking for the run and also pass-protection. Looking once again at the first three weeks of the season, Mark Ingram averaged only 3.3 YPC. For the rest of his season, Weeks 4-13, Ingram was at 5.1 YPC. And by the end of the season, that Saint OL contributed to a guy in Tim Hightower, out of the league for a couple of years, posting stud-like numbers. This OL might have also explained why Drew Brees was sacked 6 times both in Weeks 2 and 3. Brees was sacked 31 times in 2015, and 14 of those sacks came in just the first five weeks of the season. There were many other examples of an OL starting the season slow out of the gate only to enjoy success later, like in Carolina (running game), Detroit, Houston, Philadelphia, and especially in Seattle, where an improved OL played a large role in Russell Wilson’s red-hot second half.
Most fantasy owners are conditioned now to be skeptical of the RBs, and this problem of OL continuity and cohesiveness should only add to the pessimism, but if we at least understand this dynamic, we might find ourselves being a little more patient with a struggling rushing attack and/or we might find some appealing players to trade for early in the season. I’d also submit that elusiveness and the ability to create on one’s own at the position could help a back running behind a line that has not yet gelled, not to mention versatility, so perhaps a guy like Le’Veon Bell might be immune to this little problem we saw in 2015.
Traditional NFL staples work.
We’ve already seen roughly half of the players/teams that started relying on read-option and zone-read plays about five years ago fizzle, as players like Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick have crapped out. We do still see Cam Newton and Russell Wilson have success using trickery, but those two players and teams still lean heavily on traditional NFL staples such as running the ball and winning from the pocket. Basically, if we’re relying on deception and pace, as we were in Miami and Philadelphia, respectively, it’s probably not going to work over the long haul. Yes, Cam put up huge numbers on the ground with 636 yards and 10 TDs rushing, but he also threw 35 TD passes, and he won from the pocket plenty. For half a season, Wilson was playing schoolyard football and was just running around in a scramble drill and making some plays. Wilson hung tough because he’s a pretty special player, but once he started playing consistently from the pocket, his production soared. I thought one season of success in Miami plus two seasons of success in Philly (not the exact same system and approach, but similar) was enough of a sample size for Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins, but it wasn’t. Not even close.
I’m not against QBs who can run, and in fact I’d like my guy to have that ability, but I’d prefer for him to keep it in his back pocket and use mostly only when needed. One only needs to look at the top-10 QBs with guys like Tom Brady, Carson Palmer, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford, Kirk Cousins, and Philip Rivers are running traditional NFL offenses to see that trying to trick or tire a defense out isn’t a sustainable approach for success.
Stud WRs can still produce with mediocre QB play.
I’m always concerned about poor QB play holding a wideout or TE back, and it’s a viable concern, for sure. It’s truly scary when we see a guy suffer due to a hapless and hopeless situation, like Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals in 2014 with QBs Drew Stanton and especially Ryan Lindley. But for many elite receivers, they just need competent QB play to put up numbers, as we saw in 2015 with DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins, ironically both Clemson alum. I remember pointing out last off-season that the poor 51% catch rate Watkins recorded in a solid rookie ’14 season was a good sign for Watkins if he could get improved QB play. And while the Bill QBs saw only a slight increase in their completion percentage from last year to this year, Watkins’ catch rate improved to 64%, and his fantasy production increased by 35%, and a large part of that was Tyrod Taylor, who was more consistent than the 2014 Bill QBs. As for Hopkins, despite not being particularly big or fast, he became the only player in league history to have 100-yard receiving games with four different starting quarterbacks in the same season. Hopkins accomplished this feat due to his natural receiving skills and his outstanding route-running, jumping ability, and hands.
The common denominator with both players is their ability to help make a QB look better than he is, due to elite run-after-the-catch ability, great hands and body control, and the ability to gain consistent separation. So while we certainly want our fantasy wideouts to have a good QB tossing him the pill, we learned in 2015 that elite talents can produce despite less-than-ideal quarterback play.
Offenses can succeed in the first year of a system, but expectations still need to be in check.
When things get chaotic in the NFL, and they’ve been chaotic for a long while now with things seemingly reaching a pinnacle in 2015, I tend to focus on continuity, and that’s a theme in this year’s Lessons Learned article. On the whole, the new offenses in 2014 actually did pretty well, with OCs like Adam Gase in Chicago, Dirk Koetter in Tampa, and Bill Musgrave in Oakland having success out of the gates. Every situation is different and there are usually mitigating factors that contribute to an offense’s success or lack thereof. Like for the New York Jets, we saw Chan Gailey have a lot of success, but with a veteran QB in Ryan Fitzpatrick who knew the offense front-to-back from his time with Gailey in Buffalo. In Buffalo, the offense had success because it was a run-heavy system with a basic passing game. And in Baltimore, Marc Trestman’s team had relative success with a number of QBs starting, but that was largely a function of garbage time production, since their poor defense forced the Ravens to throw it a lot (the Ravens led the NFL with 676 pass attempts).
In 2015 we did see some struggles with new offenses, as Frank Cignetti (Stl) and Geep Chryst (SF) had problems, but no one expected much from those offenses due to questionable personnel. But in Atlanta, Matt Ryan was a sure thing, and the Falcon passing game was considered one of the better units in the league. The Falcons were eighth in pass attempts and actually sixth in passing yards, but they were only 23rd in passing TDs and were eighth in INTs. I can tell you by doing a radio show with Roddy White every week that the Falcons struggled to get the passing game going all year, and even Ryan admitted to being “overwhelmed” by the offense early on and that they didn’t hit their stride until late in the season. Their struggles meant nothing to Julio Jones, but the production in the passing game ended there, so they were a cautionary tale. I can also go back to 2014 for the Detroit Lions and Matthew Stafford as an example. Although the problem likely was the fact that Stafford just wasn’t a good fit for Joe Lombardi’s offense, as we also saw play out in 2015, Lombardi was an unproven coordinator without a solid track record of a Gary Kubiak or even a Marc Trestman, which wound up being the source of the Lions’ problem.
We’re used to myriad coaching changes each year, which makes our jobs in the fantasy world tougher, but we’ve seen how we should be skeptical of offensive coaches who lack a solid body of work, and even if they do like Shanahan, we can expect some growing pains in some cases. The good news is 2016’s coaching changes included some proven guys moving into prominent roles like Ken Whisenhunt, Hue Jackson, Ben McAdoo, Jim-Bob Cooter, Koetter, and Gase, so we have some continuity with this year’s chances, therefore we may not see a lot of struggles for these new offensive coaches this year.
If there are bad vibes with an older player, head for the hills.
This seems like a no-brainer, and it usually is, yet Peyton Manning’s ADP was higher in 2015 than guy like Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Russell Wilson, plus studs like Tom Brady and Cam Newton. In retrospect, it’s easy to say Manning was a player to avoid, but the fact is he was still an early pick on average, so it’s worth covering the fact that he was an aging player who showed clear signs of trouble the year before, so the fact that he was such a high pick is a bit of a head-scratcher. Sure, there was a possibility that he regained his previous form, but we also had a coaching change with Gary Kubiak, which added to the struggles overall.
Bad vibes with an older player is clearly a major sign of trouble, but 2015 wasn’t kind to older players, in general. I remember liking a group of older receivers in the middle rounds as value picks, and among the 5-6 guys I isolated, only Larry Fitzgerald came through (although Steve Smith was great when he played). Other guys I kind of liked as bargains were Pierre Garcon, Anquan Boldin, and Marques Colston, and things didn’t go well for them. So at the very least, we also learned that aging players need to be downgraded a little more as guys like Marshawn Lynch, Calvin Johnson, Justin Forsett, Frank Gore, Andre Johnson, Arian Foster, Martellus Bennett, Vincent Jackson, and Tony Romo – all top-100 picks with most drafted in the 25-75 range – underwhelmed or flat-out flopped.
Early-season time missed equals value.
We’ve seen this in the past quite a bit, most notably with Josh Gordon in 2013, when he was slated to miss the first two games of the season. Most of the time, even a stud player will see his value suppressed due to a suspension to start the season, which opens up a tremendous buying opportunity. Now, we did see most people still willing to take Le’Veon Bell very early in 2015 (ADP of 3 overall), so fantasy owners have wised up. However, it retrospect, there’s no way Todd Gurley should have been drafted in the mid-50s overall in 2015, after a guy like Alfred Morris or Davante Adams. Granted, drafting a back coming off an ACL in the 2nd round isn’t wise, but targeting a guy like Gurley – who we painted as a transcendent talent in the summer – in the 4th or 5th round (maybe even the 6th round in some leagues) should be a no-brainer. If your injured stud doesn’t come through, it’s not a tragedy these days with the waiver wire being so active and fruitful. And if he does hit, you just belted one out of the park, as those who drafted Gurley did.
As for getting nice value for a player facing a suspension, we also have Martavis Bryant as an example in 2015. Bryant wasn’t as proven as Bell was, so his value was still reduced with a 4-game suspension to open the season. I loved Bryant this summer and tried my best to pump up his projection, despite the four games missed to get him up higher in our rankings. He actually fell short of our projection of 195 fantasy points, but not by much. In fact, one could argue that he would have racked up another 20 fantasy points or so and hit our projection on the head if his QB didn’t miss four games. Still, while there actually weren’t many WRs drafted ahead of Bryant who did a lot worse than he, there were some guys like Andre Johnson, Davante Adams, and Nelson Agholor who had very similar ADP numbers and who Bryant crushed in terms of fantasy value. Bryant ended up as only the #39 WR on the season, but more important, he was 21st in PPG. He did fall off late in the season due to an apparent slump, but he was an impact player in 8 of his 11 games, and he was a major impact player in five of his games with 18 points or more (PPR).
It’s a riskier course of action, but we saw again in 2015 that drafting players whose stock has fallen can pay dividends if they can rise above those issues. And if nothing else, we learned again that it’s better to have a major impact player for 12 games than it is to have merely a solid contributor for all 16 games.
ACLs aren’t tragic for pocket QBs.
I’ve been covering the NFL for fantasy so long that it might actually be a detriment in some select cases, and when it comes to QBs coming off ACL injuries, memories of Tom Brady and Carson Palmer looking uncomfortable while coming back from their serious knee injuries linger. But what we’ve seen lately from guys like Palmer, Brian Hoyer, and even Sam Bradford is that a QB can come back quickly from an ACL and he can play well – especially if the injury is not to his plant leg (like Palmer’s in 2014 and Hoyer’s in 2013) and especially if he’s a player who typical wins from the pocket and doesn’t rely on his legs like certain QBs, like Robert Griffin III, who’s never fully recovered from his ACL suffered early in 2013.
But this lesson is all about Palmer. As some may recall, we loved Palmer in 2014 and I proclaimed him as THE back-up QB to draft that year. I was basically a year too early on the Cardinal offense breaking out, and while we did give Palmer love as a desirable back-up option this summer, it would have been nice to beg people to draft him. I wasn’t comfortable doing that, though, because Palmer was a 35-year old QB coming off that ACL, and we didn’t get enough clues in the preseason that he was in tip-top shape. In case you’re just joining us, it turns out Palmer’s knee was in pristine condition.
Rankings and projections can mean very little.
When I think back on 2015, one of the main things I’ll remember is getting so many players’ projections right, and still being wrong about pushing the player. Like when I projected Travis Kelce to put up 74/925/6 and saw him put up 72/875/5. Or how I aggressively ranked Frank Gore 10th at RB and despite a horrendous situation, he came close, finishing 14th. Or even how I said Latavius Murray would be a top-10 back if he played all 16 games. He did and he was, but I’m not glad I pushed Murray, nor do I feel good about pushing Gore (although his 14th ranking in a catastrophic season certainly speaks to why I liked him in the first place). I got Kelce’s projection right, but I pushed him because I thought he’d exceed them, and he didn’t.
Player rankings are certainly a useful guide, and even as imperfect as they are, the projections used to come up with the rankings are needed to at least illustrate a player’s median estimate of his production. But they tell only part of the story and are hardly perfect, and in 2015, we learned that you can get a projection exactly right and still be wrong about the player. Demaryius Thomas, for example, caught 105 balls in 2015, and he kind of stunk.
I don’t have any riveting workaround for this conundrum, but it was clearly re-affirmed to me that it’s more important to focus on consistency and points-per-game, and that’s a top priority for me as we look to expand our database and offer several new tools in 2016 (which we plan to).
But also, for those who don’t study much in the preseason and just rely on someone’s rankings, it’s more important to find the right players to draft at various points of a draft than to get rankings right. That’s the goal with our Values & Players to Target article, which is hardly perfect but is an article, for example, that pushed Devonta Freeman as a strong option around 90-100 picks into a draft. We ranked Freeman only 30th at RB in our final cheat sheet, which wasn’t exactly a strong endorsement in terms of the ranking. However, Freeman’s ranking was suppressed by a preseason injury and the presence of rookie Tevin Coleman, whose ADP was actually higher than Freeman’s (we had Coleman at #38 RB). I certainly wish we ranked Freeman higher, but we did push him and I did draft him several times in my sample drafts included in my Draft Plan article in the summer, and that should be more important than a ranking.
We can only draft based on what we know, and we know less than ever.
While I do qualify this entry as a lesson learned, this is more of an explanation and an examination of a conundrum we have in the fantasy world than an example of information or insight culled from the 2015 season that we can actually use to help us going forward. As the title explains, we can only proceed and handicap each upcoming season based on the things we know, and I feel as if we know less now than ever. This is due in large part to the latest CBA agreement, which limits the amount of time the coaches are able to spend with the players in the off-season and also during the season.
I have to address Ryan Tannehill again here, if only to re-explain my thinking with him. As of this summer, we knew that Tannehill was a young player with appealing physical attributes who had improved in virtually every statistical category his first three seasons. He was in a system that had success for one season in Miami, and a system that was similar to Chip Kelly’s offense in Philly, which had success for two seasons. That was also a system that asked him to run more than most QBs. They had invested the 14th pick of the draft on a wideout upgrade, added a top TE talent, and a nice player in Kenny Stills. Tannehill did have struggles in 2014 throwing the deep ball, but he was also playing with a shaky player in Mike Wallace, and I was actually told that Tannehill looked dramatically improved tossing the ball down the field in training camp this past summer. So we knew a lot of things about Tannehill and most of them were positive. Another positive was that he was only 7th-9th round pick in most fantasy drafts. Nine times of out ten, if I’m examining a player who fits Tannehill’s profile, with all those positives, I’m going to back him. What I didn’t know, however, killed me. I didn’t know the head coach would be fired, and then the offensive coordinator would also be canned. I didn’t know #1 pick Devante Parker would be worthless for two-thirds of the season, or that Jordan Cameron would be worthless all year. I didn’t know the OL would have more injury issues, or that Tannehill’s running would be much less of a factor. Basically, I didn’t know they would be a catastrophe.
I’ve been wrong about players dating back to the mid-90s (I loved Rick Mirer in ’96!) and I’ll continue to be wrong about them in the future, but I’m clearly more wrong now than I was 10-15 years ago. That’s because we just don’t know enough about the players, teams, and the league or as much overall as we used to. And I believe the coaches know less about their players than ever, thanks to free agency, rampant coaching changes, and minimized time offered to them to coach and evaluate their players. That’s the only way to explain how RB David Johnson, clearly an elite talent, was buried third on the depth chart by Bruce Arians, a great offensive mine and talent evaluator, for most of the season.
The good news is that we’re all dealing with these challenges, and someone still has to win your season-long league, so there’s still plenty of hope. I’m still going to proceed based on what we know, but I’ll explore the other possibilities – both positive and negative – covered in this article more to cover my bases.
Here are a few more quick tips culled from the 2015 season:
- If it seems too good to be true in the NFL, it is – I’ve been saying this for years, and after the Colts signed free agent wideout Andre Johnson and then used their #1 draft pick on WR Phillip Dorsett, Indy’s offense seemed too good to be true. It was. So the lesson is to temper expectations when a new or newer situation just looks too appealing and don’t go overboard drafting their players.
- Work the WW or lose – I had one guy on twitter tell me his lesson was that “nobody knows anything,” and I can relate. As you’ve likely noticed, that’s kind of a theme of this year’s article. And since no one knows anything, that ensures the WW will be very fruitful, since we’ll be leaving so many viable options undrafted each year. So if you don’t work the WW actively, you’re bound to fall behind. In 2015, there were many pickups that looked like game-changers initially but didn’t “stick,” like Stefon Diggs, but fantasy football is still now an environment where the entire state of your team can change in only 1-2 weeks, thanks to the waiver wire, and there are more viable options available on waivers at some point in a given season than ever.
- Don’t forget a player’s pedigree – One of the reasons we ranked Tyler Eifert so high this summer (#8 TE) was because we didn’t lose sight of the fact that he was drafted in the first round for a reason, and we all saw why over the course of 2015. So when you see a 1st round pick struggle out of the gates in his career due to injuries or anything else, don’t forget why he was drafted so high in the first place (2016 hint: Eric Ebron).
- Be concerned when a player misses most of the off-season – I certainly wasn’t the only analyst to rank Dez Bryant high in 2015, but I took him twice and he hurt me. Yes, Tony Romo’s injury was a killer, but there’s probably a correlation between Dez’ missed time in the offseason and the early-season foot injury he suffered.
- Garbage time still rules – If you’re wondering how a guy like Kamar Aiken can be a valuable fantasy starter or how Blake Bortles can go from being the 27th QB drafted in the summer to the third-best scorer, the answer is GTP. It’s still good stuff, so let’s continue to try to steal passing game points by drafting quality quarterbacks and receivers on teams with bad defenses.
- Avoid injury catastrophes – He’s been dead to me for a couple of years now, and I really buried him before training camp kicked off, yet before his injury (which occurred during the first padded practice of 2015) people were still drafting Arian Foster high. I understand his value is suppressed a bit due to his lengthy injury history and there’s upside to be had, but there has to be a point at which enough is enough with an injury-prone guy, and I’ve been there for over two years with Foster, who people were still taking relatively high after his injury and recovering period of fairly clear. In case you missed it, that didn’t work out well, either.
Source: Fantasy Guru
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