I asked our man KC Joyner, "The Football Scientist," for some help during our NFC East blog Fantasy Week, and he never disappoints. KC this morning sent over a note about Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, who was one of the best fantasy (and real-life) performers of the second half of the 2012 NFL season and is being ranked extremely high going into the 2013 season as a result:
When Bryant had his dominant second half of the season, it was said by many that the light had suddenly turned on for Bryant. That may be, but the biggest reason Bryant was dominant in 2012 was an extraordinarily favorable set of matchups. The draft guide measures wide receiver productivity by a number of elements and cornerback competition level is one of them. The weakest cornerbacks in the league are given a green rating, and 43.1 percent of Bryant's 2012 targets occurred against that level of matchup. That total was easily the highest in the league, as no other qualifying wide receiver (minimum of 48 targets to qualify) was even close to that mark (Dwayne Bowe ended up in second place with 35.1 percent of his targets against green-rated CBs).
Bryant torched that level of matchup to the tune of 39 receptions for 687 yards and six touchdowns. Add in his 24 yards on three penalties and it equals a 12.1 YPA, which is an incredibly high total on that level of target volume.
I remember this about Bryant last year. I had KC's draft guide, and his weekly matchup sheets, and I remember they kept showing green boxes all over the second half of Bryant's schedule. This is why I spent so much time trying to trade for Bryant in fantasy, because I thought the combination of his matchups and his incredible raw talent could lead to huge second-half numbers, and in fact they did.
What's this mean about this year? Well, it doesn't necessarily mean that Bryant needs the heavily favorable matchups in order to be as great as he was in the second half of 2012. Don't take it that way, please. Bryant is a talented enough player to physically dominate defenders and put up numbers nearly any week. He's still only 24 years old, and there remains a chance he could be even better this year and in the future than he was last year. As you know if you read me regularly, I believe this to be quite possible.
But when we play fantasy football, the goal is to maximize value. And if this year's matchups don't look as favorable as last year's, it may not make sense to pay an exorbitant, Calvin Johnson-type auction price for Bryant in your draft this year, or to take him as the second or third wide receiver off the board. Not to say he can't perform that way, but if you're basing your hopes on the kinds of numbers he put up last November and December, you may end up paying a transcendent-receiver price for a receiver who's "just" very good. And that could cost you elsewhere on your roster.
Example: Our preseason rankings assign Bryant a $39 auction price while assigning Roddy White a $30 price. If you think Bryant's 30 percent better than White, and you're willing to bet on that, go ahead. It's your money. But if you're basing that decision on 2013 numbers, you could end up disappointed. Surely, if Bryant gives you Roddy White production, you'll take it. But if you paid $39 for that production and could have had it for $30 while spending $9 more to get the running back or quarterback you needed, you could regret it.
Anyway, I haven't seen the matchups in KC's draft guide this year. It's out next week, he says, and you can pre-order it here for a discount. (That's right. We help each other out here at ESPN.com. It's that kind of place.) Could be Bryant gets to feast again on weaker cornerback competition, in which case he might be a steal at $39. I'm just saying be careful, is all. It was fun last year if you got Bryant for less than he ended up being worth and he helped you win. Not as much fun if that value play breaks the other way on you.