Thursday, July 24, 2014

National Friday League: Fantasy Summer #5

How an auction format changes player values.

Most expert commentary on fantasy football focuses on snake draft strategy, and the odd podcast or article focused on auction generally provides what I'd consider beginner auction advice.  This can be frustrating for auction enthusiasts.  My favorite fantasy commentary focuses on players rather than strategy: when experts make their arguments for why Player A will be good or Player B will be bad, that's specifically useful.  In an auction everybody is available to you, and a good understand of players to target and avoid is crucial.

But a player's snake draft value just does not translate to auction draft value.  By this I do not simply mean that Average Draft Position doesn't convert easily to auction price: that's obvious.  I actually think the auction format changes the value of some players, types of players, and positions.  Let me offer three examples.

Many fantasy experts advise you to wait on quarterback in a snake draft: quarterback is a deep position, and the difference between the 1st QB off the board and the 10th is far smaller than the difference between, say, the 5th RB off the board and the 20th.  It would seem to be smarter to use early draft picks on positions with greater scarcity and with greater difference between elites and replacement level players.

But does this translate to auction strategy, meaning that you should spend little money on quarterback, saving money for other positions.  Perhaps...but perhaps not. If you draft an elite QB in the second or third round, that means passing on a very good RB or WR.  But if you spend money on an elite QB in an auction, you're not necessarily passing on anybody.  Yes, that money has to come from somewhere, but you can decide where it comes from. You can still target whatever RBs or WRs you want. 

Jimmy Graham offers a similar story.  As a TE that puts up elite WR numbers, he's extremely valuable.  But to draft Graham in a snake draft, you must pass on either a second tier RB or a first tier WR.  That's not the case in an auction: Jimmy Graham will be very expensive, but you can decide where that money comes from.  If you want to try build a balanced team with Graham as your best player, you can.  If you'd like to still target other elite, expensive players and build a "stars and scrubs" team, you can.

That leads to the crucial difference.  A snake draft format dictates that every team gets one first-round quality player, one second-round quality player, etc.  This has a major role in determining value.  You pick in a slot, and if you pick go RB-WR-WR in the first three rounds, you might be "stuck" with the best available RB in the fourth round.  But because every other team is only getting one first-round quality player too, that RB has some value: other teams will have a second or third tier RB2 also.

Not so in an auction: if you want to target and pay for two Top-15 RBs, you can.  Or two Top-10 RBs.  Or two Top-5 RBs.  Or, yes, two Top-2 RBs.  You'll be thin elsewhere, but this can actually be a winning strategy if you are correct about who the elite RBs are.

In my view, this lowers the value of 3rd or 4th tier RBs.  They no longer have the same appeal when there are some teams contending for championships with two much better RBs than you could end up getting.  Then again, some might argue this raises the price of 3rd or 4th tier RBs: if some teams are hoarding elite RBs, that creates scarcity and requires you to get somebody functional for the position.

As I said, this means the most useful analysis when preparing for an auction is player-specific, not strategy-heavy.  You want to learn about individual players, and you want to identify trends and characteristics of players to target, and players to avoid (I've developed a system for analyzing elite RBs that I may share after my auction).  But I will attempt to offer some possible useful auction strategies beyond the beginner advice you might get on a podcast or article.

1. Monitor how many elite players are still available at each position.  The value of specific players changes throughout the draft as the available pool of quality players shrinks.   If there are five first-tier RBs available, and everybody agrees there's a huge dropoff after that, then you can expect the fifth RB thrown out for bidding to become very expensive, as he is "the last one."

2. Monitor the overall money available.  Just as the shrinking pool of quality players changes draft values, so too does the shrinking pot of money available to spend on players.  I've seen markets collapse partway through an auction when nearly every team has spent most of its money: there can be way less money, but still quality players, meaning there could be some cheap buys.  This is especially true at WR, where there are so many WRs to draft and some might take longer to get thrown out for bidding.  Two similar WRs might go for wildly different costs whether they are thrown out in the second round of bids or the ninth.  This requires a flexible approach: every auction is different.  But having an awareness of how  much money is out there--and which teams have money and which teams don't--is very useful.

3. Throw out strategy-changing players first.  You may have a targeted player that could change your strategy for the rest of the draft: it's not that you must get the player, but whether you get him or not will determine how you construct the rest of your roster.  Again, Jimmy Graham is such a unique player: if you know he's on you roster for a high cost, that might affect how you draft other players.  If you're not getting Jimmy Graham, then maybe you're more willing to target an elite, expensive WR.  But you want to know.

4. Decide: are you a targeter or a valuer?  A targeter does the research, develops a specific plan, identifies the players he/she wants, and then makes the effort to get those players.  A valuer takes a fluid, flexible approach: rather than identifying specific targets, a valuer will likely label players into tiers and then try to get as many good players at a reasonable (or even cheap) price as possible.  Both approaches can win you a fantasy title, and neither approach is absolute (targeters still care about price, and valuers still seek and avoid specific players).  But knowing which approach you are taking ahead of time makes a difference.  I think you're more likely to be successful in an auction if you're aware of your own tendencies and preferences.

5. Do not be a price enforcer!  Do not ever, ever, ever think you're clever or sharp or savvy when you stay in the bidding just to make another manager pay more for a player and deplete his/her own money.  Eventually, you will get burned.  Never, ever, ever bid a single dollar more for a player than you're willing to pay to have that player on your team.  Because eventually, when you make a bid, you will have that player on your team.  Everybody who has ever tried to bid on a player just to jack his price up has learned this.  If you want to bid a player's price up and you're willing to take the player for the price you're bidding at, go nuts.  But don't go a dollar more.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

National Friday League: Fantasy Summer #4

When you listen to fantasy podcasts and read fantasy articles, you will often hear about value.  Experts will talk about being happy to get a lesser player in a later round--sometimes they'll even say something about how they wouldn't take a player at one spot, but they would take him at a (sometimes slightly) lower spot because then he becomes a good value.

I understand value: you look for cheaper but productive players so you can use your bigger draft resources on better players.  But I also find the focus on draft value a little perplexing.  If I'm drafting, say, my team's second best player, I don't care whether he's a reach in the early second round but a value in the later second round.  This is going to be one of my team's most important players--I want a player I want, regardless of where I take him.  When the season starts, there are no reaches or steals, just players on your roster.  There is no good value for a bad player: you need producers.  I'm not rejecting the idea of value in a draft--I'm just saying that it shouldn't be a primary principle of drafting.  If it is, you might end up with a roster of value-based mediocrities.

And this is where we come to one of my most important fantasy principles.  "Value" of course must be considered, but you don't win championships with value--you win championships with elite producers.  And that is why in the draft you should chase elite producers, not "value."  "Value" can't be your primary concern: value must be used as a means toward acquiring as many elite producers as possible.

How do you get elite producers?  For one thing, you pay for them.  If you're drafting in an auction, you will have to pay for some elite producers.  Don't be afraid to spend big on a couple of players.  It won't always work (last year in my auction one guy spent 2/3 of his money on Doug Martin and C.J. Spiller) but it definitely can (last year I spent 2/3 of my auction money on Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy).  If you're going to try avoid paying for the most expensive players, then you'd better be drafting players you believe can be elite producers.

And if you're looking to find elite producers at a reduced price, there are a few ways to do it.

1. Ignore injuries.
Injury history (recent or chronic) will lower a player's value in the eyes of many members of your league--and sometimes rightly so.  If you draft a player with an injury issue, you might get burned.  But I think most readers of this blog remember Adrian Peterson's 2012 season: sometimes injury concerns are a way to get an elite producer at a reduced cost.  Former elite producers dealing with a recent injury can return to being elite producers.  Who are some candidates this year?

This is a simple list of players (in alphabetical order) who have shown themselves capable of elite production in the past, but whose injury concerns may scare other drafters away.  Some of these guys will not pay off--but I'd stake some draft resources on some of them paying off big-time.  I'm leaving off guys that I don't actually think can be elite producers at this point, but could be quality starters (Reggie Wayne and C.J. Spiller, for example).

Arian Foster
Rob Gronkowski
Julio Jones
Doug Martin
DeMarco Murray
Roddy White

2. Build a trade-friendly roster
During a draft, all members of a league have the same number of draft resources.  As the season moves along, however, this is not so: surprise players win starting jobs, surprise stars emerge, players disappoint, players get injured.  If you draft a trade-friendly roster, you have an opportunity to acquire more elite producers.

Knowing how to build a trade-friendly roster means knowing your league.  For example, in my auction league, nobody trades anything of value for quarterbacks anymore: especially early in the season, if your QB is struggling, there's usually a waiver wire guy that seems productive enough--and a better option than trading quality starters for a QB.  So in this league, there's no reason to spend draft resources on a backup QB unless you think you might need that QB.

Building a trade-friendly roster also involves building a balanced roster--and this is where "value" comes in, yes.  It's hard to trade from a "stars and scrubs" roster unless you're willing to move stars.  If you have a more balanced roster, and also saved some draft resources for quality backups (that could be your quality starters if you're willing to trade your intended starters), you can end up acquiring elite producers.

And there's another way to build a trade-friendly roster...

3. Acquire your league's undervalued draft assets.
If you're a person who cares about value and you're now saying "Wait a minute, PV, you dumb idiot, when we talk about value this is what we're talking about!" you may be right.  But what I mean here is to specifically consider the scoring rules as well as the history and tendencies of your league.

First, look at how your league translates NFL statistics into fantasy points to find advantages to exploit.  For example, in my auction league, points for passing numbers are relatively low, but points for rushing numbers are relatively standard. This gives quarterbacks who rush for yards and touchdowns a huge advantage. At this point, everybody in the league has figured that out, and QBs that can run come at a premium cost.  But kudos to the first guy that figured out the advantages of rushing QBs before anybody else did: he won a championship with Daunte Culpepper.  If you're joining a new league, look for glitches in the scoring rules that might give some positions or some types of players an advantage that might not show up in their draft costs.

For a league that has been together for several seasons, you should be able to identify behaviors and attitudes of the league.  For example, some leagues might undervalue tight ends.  In my auction league, the top one or two tight ends are often expensive, but the rest go for under 3% of the auction budget each.  Furthermore, we have a WR/TE flex position, making tight ends more useful.  I don't suggest drafting a bunch of tight ends because they are undervalued--tight ends are rarely elite producers.  However, everybody needs to start one, and if you have a mid-tier TE (think Jason Witten), throwing that quality starter into a trade can sometimes be what it takes to get an elite producer in return. Once the season starts, people no longer think "Eh, I'm not paying that for a tight end.  Look at all these other guys that are still available!"  Once the season starts, they might start thinking "Eh, I'm getting hammered at the tight end position.  I keep getting nothing from my tight end--I need to get a decent one."  You have to start one, after all, and the "value" TE you picked up late might not be getting any points.  Those tight ends that had little appeal on draft day become more appealing once the season starts and they're starters.

4. Use your fliers on upside, not reliability.
Last week I suggested drafting Greg Jennings over Cordarrelle Patterson.  But if I'm at the end of my draft and I'm drafting cheap players that I'll be cutting by Week 3 if they're not producing, I might as well chase the unproven potential than reliable mediocrity.  If I need a starter, sure, I'd rather have Jennings. But after you draft your starters, every single position player on your roster should be somebody you think could, if circumstances break right, be a top-10 or even top-5 producer.  I could see getting one reliable, steady backup RB and one reliable, steady backup WR.   Still, I think every single late-round pick should be a potential monster season--you can pick up steady boring backups as the season goes along.

This week's fantasy principle

You should chase elite producers, not "value."

Monday, July 7, 2014

MInnesota Vikings 2014 - the true or false edition?

Don't faint. I've written a post for the blog.

But what is a guy supposed to write about this time of year? Well, this is the season where speculating is about all a football fan can do. Will your favourite team be better than it was a year ago? Will the quarterback situation sort itself out?  Will ....,well, you know the drill.

So let's ask some pressing questions about the Vikings with training camp about 3 weeks away and try to answer them.

True or false - Adrian Peterson will be pass a catching threat in the Vikings offense for the first time since 2009?

False. There is some hope Norv Turner will turn Peterson into Chuck Foreman. I don't see it. Peterson's never been a natural pass catcher and he's never looked to me like he has a great feel for finding open space in the flats or the middle of the field to catch dump offs and screen passes. Plus, his sketchy pass blocking means the Vikes take him out a lot on obvious passing situations on third downs. That's suddenly changing in season 8 of Peterson's career? No. We also have to remember Peterson's best year as a pass catcher came when Brett Favre was the QB - a guy who was a master at looking off defenses. The Vikings 2014 starting QB will either be Matt Cassel or Ted Bridgewater. One guy is a rookie with a lot to learn. The other guy is Matt Cassel. If Peterson ends up catching 30 passes he'll have had a helluva year.

True or false - Ted Bridgewater will be the Vikings starting QB by October? 

True. I hope it happens earlier, actually - like, say, for the opener in St. Louis. That's because it will likely mean Bridgewater has thoroughly outplayed Cassel and is a stud in the making who will quarterback the Vikings for the next 15 years and lead us to multiple Super Bowl victories. But if that doesn't happen (meaning Bridgewater is not starting week #1), the Vikes early schedule (in St. Louis; at home against New England; in New Orleans; home against Atlanta; at Green Bay) could see them at 0-5 before a home game October 12 against Detroit. By then Cassel's warts will have been on full display for 5 games and we'll all be sick as shit of watching him play. So will Mike Zimmer. And I'm thinking the only jolt Zimmer will be able to send to the team would be starting the Ted Bridgewater Era, which hopefully lasts a lot longer than the Christian Ponder Era.

True or false - Anthony Barr will be a non-factor as a rookie?

True. I hope that's not the case, but my guess is Barr will struggle making an impact at linebacker as a rookie due in part to his inexperience at that position and the fact he missed quite a bit of the spring OTAs due to school responsibilities. If all Barr was expected to do was rush the passer in year one I think he'd be alright. But we're told Zimmer expects his linebackers to do a lot in his defense and I think Barr will struggle with being asked to do a lot. That doesn't mean Barr is a bust, it just means he needs more seasoning.

True or false - Chad Greenway will rebound from a poor 2013

False. I've always considered Greenway to be a solid player, but not a great one. We now know Greenway played with a bad wrist last year that may have affected his tackling. But how do you account for his poor pass coverage? In watching Greenway over the years, he's never struck me as great in pass coverage. And Arif Hasan at Vikings Territory made his case a few months ago for why Greenway has been bad for a while now. Basically, I agree with Arif and I don't see how Zimmer's reputation as a guy who can turn careers around or a new defensive scheme will change the fact Greenway is a badly declining player who won't be a Viking in 2015.

True or false - the Vikings secondary will be an improved unit in 2014

True. It couldn't get any worse, could it? Seriously though, a healthy Harrison Smith will do wonders for this unit. He'll make whomever lines up next to him (Jamarca Sanford? Andrew Sendejo? Kurt Coleman? Robert Blanton? Antone Exum?) better. I think a lot of people will initially complain Captain Munnerlyn is too short and wasn't worth the money until they see him play in the slot in the Vikes nickel defense. I think Xavier Rhodes is about to become a star. And I think Josh Robinson (Seriously! I'm not crazy!) and Derek Cox are both going to surprise us as the team's 3rd and 4th corners. The Vikings secondary will be improved in 2014. And it needs to be considering we're facing Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers in 4 of our first 5 games this season.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

National Friday League: Fantasy Summer #3 (Viking Specific)

Draft this, not that: Greg Jennings over Cordarrelle Patterson

Cordarrelle Patterson showed some blistering talent at the end of last season. His big play ability was thrilling. Breathtaking. As a kick returner, he was awesome all year, leading the league with a 32.4 average and consistently getting big, useful returns. And yet I would hold off on paying the price you'd need to pay for Patterson this season. As a wide receiver and a kick returner, his big plays were impressive, but not something to rely on. I covered this at the end of the season:

"his production this season was based on huge, giant big plays--and if one or two little things go just a little bit differently, those big plays don't happen. A holding penalty here, a better tackle there, defenders taking better angles, a choice to cut left rather than right, any number of little things can prevent that. Great players become great based on their ability to consistently make plays, and Patterson will have to do that to become a great player."

Patterson may make huge gains as an overall receiver, and Patterson may be used to his fullest potential by Norv Turner. But that's staking a whole lot of may on a wide receiver that had 469 yards receives last year and averaged 10.4 yards per catch. I certainly hope he does improve! And yet I'm not going to make a fantasy pick on that hope. If he's so reliant on big plays this season, he won't be a reliable fantasy producer.

Meanwhile, Greg Jennings is a polished all-around wide receiver who is not ancient by wide receiver standards (he's 30). In his games with Christian Ponder or Josh Freeman throwing passes, he was a non-factor. The only player he caught TD passes from last season was Matt Cassel. In 2014, he'll most likely be catching passes from Matt Cassel, or (hopefully) the (hopefully) immediately better Teddy Bridgewater.

Cordarrelle Patterson probably has a higher ceiling than Greg Jennings...but I'm not actually sure about that, either. Sometimes a rookie QB finds himself leaning heavily on a reliable veteran wide receiver: consider Reggie Wayne's surprise season catching passes from rookie Andrew Luck. If Matt Cassel keeps the job, he's already established some connection (or more likely, simply greater competence than Christian Ponder) to help Jennings' numbers. And if Teddy Bridgewater earns the job, he might find himself looking for the veteran who runs good routes, knows how to get open, and has the experience to help out his quarterback. And Jennings has already shown dynamic big play ability in his career, too--notably when he has a good QB to work with. Jennings isn't the plodding, fading veteran to Patterson's fast, rising youngster. Jennings is good.

Next week I'll explore the principle that You should chase elite producers, not "value." But when you are drafting, say, a #3 WR, I'd take the option for a reliable veteran who could be an elite producer if things roll right (he has done it before) over a young unknown who has made a lot of really fun big plays but hasn't actually shown himself to be a consistent and good overall wide receiver (yet).

Thursday, June 26, 2014

National Friday League: Fantasy Summer #2

The Rookie Running Back Problem
Every year, there is at least one very useful rookie running back. The problem is that you don't know before the season which one will be useful--you have nothing close to an idea, in fact. And the deeper problem is that you might not know what rookie running back is useful until later in the season, when you've probably jettisoned the player from your roster.

Consider the running backs drafted in 2013. There are a lot to consider because there were 23 of them. Five of them were fantasy relevant: the first (Giovanni Bernard) and second (Le'Veon Bell) selected, the fourth (Eddie Lacy) selected, the 12th selected (Zac Stacy), and the 16th (Andre Ellington). Lacy, Bell, and Stacy were probably the only three rookies getting a heavy enough workload to help fantasy teams compete for championships.

Lacy first showed he was fantasy useful in Week Four. You might have still had him on your roster at that point--but you might have drafted him and ditched him by that point. In fantasy football, you draft a lot of fliers, and if they don't do anything for the first couple of weeks, you probably drop them for a waiver wire guy that's surprisingly emerged early on. If you did ride him out, he had 80+ yards plus a TD in 8 of the last 10 games. He was a legitimate fantasy superstar.

Le'Veon Bell dealt with injuries and didn't play in the first three weeks. If you stuck with him, he never got fewer than 18 touches in any game going forward. But if you had a roster need or a player you wanted to pick up, you might have seen him as very droppable.

Zac Stacy you probably never drafted, and didn't care either. Until the Rams' fifth game, he had only one carry. When were you supposed to know that Stacy would end up with 1,100+ scrimmage yards and 8 TDs? After one game with 14 carries for 78 yards, you could throw out a waiver claim on him. When should you have known he was startable? After his first TD in the Rams' seventh game? After his first 100 yard game in Rams' eighth game?

And by the way, while Lacy, Bell, and Stacy were breaking out, were you still hanging onto Montee Ball on your roster just because? When should you have known he'd be fantasy useless? Maybe you realized he had lost the job and was only getting it if Knowshon Moreno got hurt. Maybe you hung on anyway.

Rookie Running Backs are a top category of player to be monitoring throughout the year. Every year there will be useful ones, and often there are superstar production guys. And they can be quite cheap. If you can monitor those players and get them at the right time, you can fill a hole, or plug him into your starting lineup and trade away the incumbent starter for needs at other positions. Fantasy titles can be won with rookie running backs. A rookie running back can turn your season. If you get the rookie running back at the right time for the right (or no) price, then you could be adding a top-10 RB to an already complete roster. But you have to strike at the right time, get very lucky, and/or stash a rookie RB on your roster indefinitely.

But is there any way to know which ones will be the breakout players? You can monitor draft selections, depths charts, injury reports and all that, but it's almost impossible to guess at which rookie will even get the playing time to be productive.

You can't easily predict what rookie running backs will be useful.What you can do, however, is monitor value and try to chase low-cost running back situations. Some rookies are drafted to teams where you can acquire the other possible starter on the roster for very cheap. You might try to draft the rookie and the veteran.

For example, Bishop Sankey was the first running back selected in this year's draft. That doesn't mean he'll get playing time or be productive. However, the only other Titan RB likely to get meaningful carries is Shonn Greene. If you're looking for a #3 RB with potential star upside, why not draft the Tennessee RB situation? If Shonn Greene gets the job, he won't win your league, but he'd be a useful backup and bye week fill-in. If Sankey wins the job it's because he's better than Greene--maybe way better.

That's what I'd be looking for during the draft. If you acquire a more expensive starting RB, but his team drafted a rookie, that's a handcuff which potentially huge upside. And if you can find situations where the veteran is either reasonable priced, can be got at a bargain, or is dirt-cheap, scoop up both the veteran and his rookie teammate. You have to give up two roster spots for what will likely turn out to be one useful RB, but if the price is low, that can be worth it. And if you get a veteran-rookie handcuff, it doesn't feel like nearly the drag to keep the rookie on your roster into the season, waiting for him to go off.

So I can't give any useful advice on guessing which rookie RBs can become top-10 producers. All I can advise you to do is look over the list of 2014's drafted running backs and find situations where you can get the rookie and the other good veteran RB on the team's roster for a reasonable, or even very low, price.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Why Adrian Peterson's days as a Viking are numbered - and other team musings

Expect to hear and read a lot about this subject as the 2014 season grinds along.

Peterson is a running back. He's 29. And he makes a lot of money ($11.75 million this season) playing a position that NFL organizations are devaluing. In 2015 his contract will pay him $12.75 million, and in 2016 and 2017, he's supposed to make $14.75 million and $15.75 million, respectively.

Unless Peterson produces at an elite level this season, which I expect he will if he remains reasonably healthy, I can't see the Vikings not approaching him about restructuring his contract so the team can free up some cap space at the end of the 2014 season. And the Vikes might approach him to restructure it even if he puts up big numbers because they know what happens to running backs who turn 30, which Peterson will be when the 2015 starts. Will Peterson accept that? I don't know. But I have a feeling this could be his last year as a Minnesota Viking.

That makes me feel very sad. But it's also a pretty normal thing to happen. Almost all of the Viking Hall of Famers spent the final years of their careers with teams other than the Vikings. Carl Eller and John Randle finished up in Seattle. Alan Page's final 4 seasons were spent as a Bear. Ron Yary's final season was played in a Los Angeles Rams uniform. Randall McDaniel spent his last 2 seasons playing with Tampa Bay. Chris Doleman played 4 seasons with Atlanta and San Francisco before returning to Minnesota for his final year in 1999. Cris Carter's NFL swan song was heard in Miami, not Minnesota.

I don't want Adrian Peterson (who should be in the Hall of Fame someday as well) to be on this list. But I think that's what is going to happen.

Cordarrelle Patterson

ESPN's Ben Goessling says Greg Jennings is trying to impress upon Patterson how much the second-year wide receiver will be featured in Norv Turner's offense.

We'll see about that. I was happy with how Patterson's rookie season went (I was also miffed with how much better it could have been if Bill Musgrave and Leslie Frazier had figured out earlier in the season what he could do for the offense.) Yet you could feel Patterson hadn't mastered the complete wide receiver route tree. One puzzling thing about Patterson's rookie season was he never established himself as much of a deep threat. Patterson's big, he can jump and he's fast, so why did he only catch one deep pass - against Cleveland - all season?

I don't have any theories on that. But becoming a consistent threat to get open deep is something Patterson needs to add to his arsenal so he can be a more difficult guy to cover. And if he doesn't develop into that kind of receiver this year, whom on the Vikings will? Jennings? Jerome Simpson? Jarius Wright?

Minnesota's offense really, really, really need Patterson to up his game in this area.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

National Friday League: Fantasy Summer #1

(Sorry for the long hiatus. I'll try keep this consistent throughout summer and into the season).

Following football in the summer is fun if you like reports from practice that have almost no bearing on how players will perform during the season, articles about things coaches and players say about how they will perform, random reports about off-the-field behavior, and if you play fantasy football.

Sometime in late June Fantasy Football Season truly begins. I'll use the summer to explore various fantasy football theories, specific ideas about current players and trends, and along the way establish some of the principles I fantasy-live by.

Trend or Aberration?
An important rule to always remember in fantasy football: you don't get points for last season's stats. This means that you should not pay a lot for a player based on his previous season's output: you pay for what you think a player will produce in the upcoming year. For example, I'd usually avoid paying the high premium for a player who was the #1 scorer at his position last year, especially if he had an historic year (like Peyton Manning in '13): you'll have to pay more for last year's stats, when it's likely that production regresses toward the mean, and other players that will be much cheaper might match or exceed that production. If you're going to pay a lot for the #1 position scorer of the previous year, you should be confident that player will be a top three position scorer the following year (which is sometimes the case with an all-time great RB or WR: go ahead and pay for Calvin Johnson again).

Yet while you shouldn't pay for last year's stats, projecting future production usually means analyzing past production. And so when analyzing the statistics of an individual player, a specific team, or the league as a whole, it is crucial to try and determine whether last year represents a trend or an aberration. Was what happened last season indicative of future production, or was it somehow extreme and outside the norm, not helpful in projecting future production?

There are league-wide trends and aberrations to watch for. Passing numbers are up: quarterbacks and wide receivers are very high scorers, and wide receivers compare more favorably to running backs than they used to. This isn't a one-year event: the trend over several seasons is clear. That has to affect your drafting and lineup decisions. Is the trend away from running back, then, especially after last season when so many consensus high-fantasy-value running backs disappointed? I'd say no. I don't even view last season as particularly rough on high-fantasy-value running backs. Every season, there is a certain number of RBs considered an elite group, with some interchangeability of ranking. Usually this number is 3-5. Last season it happened to be 9-10. Every year, at least one of these running backs disappoint or get injured, and other more surprising running backs emerge (to be ranked in the elite group next season!). So while it appears so many high-fantasy-value RBs disappointed last season (Doug Martin, C.J. Spiller, Arian Foster, Trent Richardson, Ray Rice), actually around half performed very well (Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Marshawn Lynch--Alfred Morris was actually good too, but didn't score the TDs). It just happened that the consensus viewed a high number of RBs in the elite group. The consensus was wrong. If you targeted the correct RBs, your season went well. If you got stuck with the crappy ones, it didn't. Of course you're not drafting by yourself! Whether in a snake draft or auction draft, you have to deal with how other managers draft. And of course there's a lot of luck involved, especially with injuries. But you have to do your best to analyze individual players to evaluate which players you should target, which players you can be willing to spend major draft resources* on, and which cheaper players might be worth targeting, perhaps "overpaying" for even more draft resources than the consensus would suggest (just like always, some mid-range or lower RBs overperformed expectations and are now regarded highly: Matt Forte, Eddie Lacy, Ryan Mathews, DeMarco Murray, for example). Despite the increased stats for QBs, WRs, and TEs, and the apparently high number of RB disappointments last season, the fantasy RB position is still and actually thriving.

For individual players, determining trend or aberration is especially important when evaluating players who, in the previous season, either far exceeded or far underperformed to expectations. If the player exceeded expectations, was it a breakout year, or a situational fluke? If a player underperformed to expectations, was it a signal of decline, or simply a down year?

Let's look at LeSean McCoy's recent seasons as an example. In 2011 he was fabulous, gaining 1,624 yards and scoring 20 TDs. Going into 2012, he was a consensus top three RB (with Arian Foster and Ray Rice). In 2012, he wildly disappointed, gaining 1,213 yards and 5 TDs. For anybody paying attention, there were plenty of signs that 2012 was an aberration. 2012's disappointment could be explained: McCoy dealt with injury and missed games, and it was a truly horrid season for the Eagles. And there were plenty of indications future performance could improve: 2011 was not McCoy's first successful season (he had 1,672 yards and 9 TDs in 2010), McCoy was only 24 years old, and McCoy was getting a new offense-oriented coaching regime. And in 2013, McCoy gained 2,146 yards and scored 11 TDs.

A new coaching staff can be fool's gold: new head coaches and offensive coordinators always promise they'll be able to better use the offensive players they inherited (notice Norv Turner deciding he'll be the most successful Viking coach to incorporate Adrian Peterson into the passing game. I don't think it's happening). But the first two indicators are particularly useful when determining if the previous season's disappointment was an aberration. You must ask, "Has the player had more than one good season?"and "How old is the player?" If the player has proven his abilities with two or more successful seasons, and if the player is young for his age (some might prefer to look at games played, career rushing attempts, etc., rather than age), then the previous year was probably an aberration.

For surprise positive performances, always be wary of wide receivers, especially wide receivers whose huge production was aided by big plays. Let's call this the Brandon Lloyd Principle. If a player far exceeds anything in his previous production, and that production came as a result of big plays, then probably everything went just right that year and never will again.

Here's my list of the Return to Normalcy players in 2014. These are players who either far overperformed or underperformed to expectations last season, and I view their performances last season as aberrations.

Robert Griffin III. Just ask yourself this: can you conceive of a way 2013 could have gone worse for Griffin's team? I have difficulty doing so. I think 2013 was the worst year Griffin is going to ever have, and 2012 wasn't that bloody long ago.

Ray Rice. I think he's done, actually. He's young, but if you include playoffs, from '09-'12 he played in 18, 18, 18, and 22 games. His dropoff in 2013 was precipitous. And yet, in 2012 he averaged 4.4 yards per carry and his backup, the promising Bernard Pierce, averaged 4.9 yards per carry. As Rice sucked so hard in 2013, averaging 3.1 yards per attempt, why couldn't the younger player take control of the position? Because he sucked harder, averaging 2.9 yards per attempt. Baltimore's rushing problems last season, it would seem, went beyond the play of the running backs. If you get Rice cheap, you can convince yourself he's still got it, the problems were on the rest of those teams, and that those problems will be fixed next season.

Arian Foster. Injuries and poor performance made Foster's 2013 season a fantasy waste, but the same question for Robert Griffin applies here: can you conceive of a way 2013 could have gone worse for Foster's team? I can't. Let's assume 2014 doesn't go as bad for the Texans as 2013 did. Could a healthy Arian Foster, who scored 47 TDs in '10-'12, really be held to single digits again? Of course, to draft Foster, you'd have to believe his injury history isn't a deal-breaker--and I don't blame you at all if you think his injury history is a deal-breaker.

Alshon Jeffery. He was only 23 last season: it certainly could have been a breakout year. Yet Jeffery averaged 16.0 yards per reception, was (and likely remains) the #2 receiving option on his team, and had a lot of success last season with a QB that isn't there this season. His game log bothers me a lot: two games with 10+ receptions and 200+ yards, and in the other 14 games 67 catches, 954 yards, and 4 TDs. That's solid, but is he going to produce to what you'll pay for him? I'm doubtful.

Nick Foles. If you need me to be the one to tell you that a QB with a 0.6% interception rate in one season will not come anywhere close to that number in the following season, you need to read smarter football websites. He's young and could be very good, but that number is crazy fluky and it's hard to tell how the swing toward the mean will affect his overall numbers (or how fluky the rest of his numbers are, too). He also had a record-tying 7 TD game, which boosts his per-start stats (which are admittedly impressive even without that game).

Knowshon Moreno. You're smarter than this, right? Everybody is. Last season Moreno had a system and quarterback practically designed to let an average RB produce useful fantasy stats. This season he will not. There's a proverbial 10 foot pole somewhere that I wouldn't get within 10 feet of, lest that pole get within 10 feet of Moreno.

*I use "draft resources" to be inclusive of both auction draft and snake draft strategy. You have draft resources in either draft: money or slotted picks. Elite players either cost a lot of money, or they cost high picks. "Cheaper" players are either literally cheaper in auction money, or lower picks.

This week's Fantasy Football Principles

You don't get points for last season's stats.
It is crucial to try and determine whether last year represents a trend or an aberration.