(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.