Draft Young, Not Old When Building Fantasy Rosters
The NBA clearly missed the memo that its playoffs shouldn't be this spectacular. How dare they distract us with an incredible round 1 and full weekend of game 7's. After all, the NFL is where it's at 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Nothing competes with it, ever. Don't they know the NFL draft is only a few days away?
NBA excitement aside, football fans across the globe are getting that Christmas morning feeling as the draft draws ever closer. From the moment the Seattle Seahawks partied with the 12th Man, we've set our sights on the 2014 season. The head coaching changes, free agency frenzy, combine, pro-days and schedule release all get us fired-up, but it's the draft that lets us know the NFL season is here. Every team has a clean slate with Super Bowl aspirations. Every fantasy team owner has a vision of winning their league championship. Fantasy players are ready to make a run at winning the 2014 Fantasy Football World Championship and the 2014 Rotobowl. It's a special time of year. The NFL draft results provide the G.M. in all of us a useful starting point for molding our opinions. Average Draft Positions start to take some form. The fantasy football season officially begins.
The NFL draft as it relates to immediate fantasy relevance is on the rise. The NFL has become a young man's league more than ever. Quarterbacks are being drafted to start and win immediately. We see you Russell Wilson. Wide Receivers are being drafted to be difference makers in years one and two. If you have been avoiding wide receivers until their 3rd year based on the old school third year breakout rule, you have been missing out on some gems. How did skipping on Josh Gordon, Alshon Jeffery and Keenan Allen work out last year? And let us not forget running backs, which have almost become an afterthought both in NFL salary allocation and in fantasy circles. It's no longer wise to load up on RBs early at the expense of ignoring WR and TE, a big no-no in a pass first league. There is always an Alfred Morris or Zac Stacy to be found in the draft on the cheap. In fact, the only correct strategy that's stood the test of time is to wait on kickers and defense.
Fantasy team owners tend to have strong opinions on most players that have played in the league multiple years. More often than not, a player is deemed a must have, or must avoid based on their past experience with that player. In the more positive example, an owner will assume the league veteran will match previous production, if not exceed it. This pushes their ADP up to a point where they can't possibly be considered value and in the process push down unheralded rookies and 2nd year players. Many find comfort in a known entity that's been in the league for years and is often with a new team via free agency. That strategy will generally place you in the middle of the pack, looking up at a handful of teams as the fantasy playoffs start. As Herm Edwards so wonderfully said, "You play to win the game." Nobody remembers fifth place.
Now it's extremely difficult to predict which young players are ripe for breaking out, especially when the masses are sour on them, and their role is undefined. It's easy to default to seasoned veterans on a new team. Let's look closer at the names mentioned above. Last August, Josh Gordon, a 2012 2nd round supplemental draft selection, while highly regarded for his physical talent, was widely ignored in fantasy drafts because of his inconsistent rookie season , off the field concerns, and being on a team not known for generating fantasy beasts. All he did was lead the league with 1,646 receiving yards after missing the first two weeks due to suspension. Alshon Jeffery, a mid 2nd round pick, also in 2012, was passed on by many because he was a clear 3rd option behind Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte. Jeffery finished the season top 10 in receiving yards and receptions. In this fantasy era, there are more than enough balls to go around to three, sometimes four offensive threats in the right system. The 2013 draft produced two wildly surprising studs in Keenan Allen in the third round and Zac Stacy in the fifth round. Allen was one of the more consistent fantasy contributors during the bye week portion of the season. Stacy was a top 10 running back during the fantasy playoff weeks. During training camp, and the early portion of the season, Stacy was buried 4th on the Rams depth chart behind, Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead and Benny Cunning ham. Remember that? Swing for the fences, take shots and mix up your exposure to various young players.
A winning fantasy player will often have multiple players on their playoff roster that were not consensus picks at the beginning of the season. Most of those home run picks will be young players that get an opportunity and run with it. Stat predictions on rookies vary greatly whereas free agents generally are projected in a tighter range, meaning there is more opportunity to outperform your peers by taking more shots on lesser known picks at the expense of safe picks. And these 'safe picks' aren't so safe anyway.
A closer look at most of last year's fantasy relevant free agents paints a clear picture about the dangers of drafting a team too heavy in free-agent exposure. Whether it be injury, new team chemistry or other factors, the collective results were poor. Mike Wallace, Danny Amendola, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Reggie Bush, Greg Jennings, Steven Jackson, Percy Harvin, Rashard Mendenhall all underperformed. In particular, Jackson and Amendola were expected to shine. Their ADP climbed all throughout August. For much of the season, they were wasted picks. Even Anquan Boldin, who slightly out-performed his pre-season ADP, was a frustrating start for much of the season. And let us not forget Trent Richardson, who many of us drafted early in round 1 last year. Although he was not part of the free-agent pool, he was traded early in the season and was perhaps the biggest bust of the season relative to expectations. New scenery often equates to lack of continuity with the new team, and poor fantasy stats.
This year's free agent class is a who's who of current and former fantasy studs. Chris Johnson, Ben Tate, Knowshon Moreno, Toby Gerhart, Eric Decker, Hakeem Nicks, DeSean Jackson, Emmanuel Sanders, Golden Tate, Steve Smith and Mike Williams headline this year's group. It will be hard to pass on all of them but one would be wise to temper their expectations and limit exposure to no more than one per fantasy roster, even when most of them look set to excel. History tells us otherwise. Instead, watch the NFL draft closely. Pay attention to teams that are using multiple picks for skill positions. Look for situations that make sense. What WRs are the Carolina Panthers drafting? Does New England aggressively target TEs to fit their system? What teams make RB a priority? Next week we'll break down the draft and come up with a long list of rookies to keep an eye on as the season draws near.