When Barack Obama talks about "Change we can believe in!" I can only assume he means some new theories for TMR's Draft Day Manifesto for 2008.
I've been writing a version of this column for a decade, updating it every year. There are always new twists, strategies and trends, but at its core, it's always been running back/running back in the first two rounds. I've spent a lot of time talking about how fantasy football is all about minimizing risk. If nothing else, you knew a team's main running back was touching the ball at least 20 to 30 times a game. You didn't know that about a wide receiver.
Well, for the first time in the decade or so that I've been writing this, it's best player available (at least in the second round). Too many running backs are in time shares. Too many quarterbacks are about the same skill level. And look at last year's scoring leaders: Of the top 30 players in standard ESPN.com scoring, only seven were running backs. Eight were wide receivers, 14 were quarterbacks, plus the Chargers D/ST sneaked in there, as well.
The reason for the running back/running back rule in previous years was simple. You score in real football by touching the ball. So you want guys who touch the ball as often as possible. That would be running backs, and then quarterbacks (RB before QB because you often can play three RBs to only one QB, so it's a matter of positional depth).
The idea is also this: Fantasy sports, specifically fantasy football, is about minimizing risk. Luck will always have some part in it, so when you can minimize risk, you have a better chance of success. And you know running backs and quarterbacks will touch the ball.
At least, that was the thought. But with the move to more running back by committees, you know running backs will touch the ball, but you just don't know which one.
Consider this fact from ESPN Researcher Jason Vida:
Last season, the player who led his team in rushing attempts accounted for fewer than 54 percent of his team's attempts, the lowest percentage in the past 10 NFL seasons. At the same time, a team's second-leading ball carrier (the player with the second-most rushing attempts on a team) got the ball on more than 23 percent of team rushing attempts, the highest percentage in the past 10 NFL seasons. The bottom line: In 2007, NFL teams gave fewer carries to their leading rusher and more carries to their second backfield option than in any of the past 10 seasons.
Two more points from Jason: Only three running backs averaged 20 carries a game last year (Willie Parker, Clinton Portis and Edgerrin James). In the previous four years, at least seven runners got at least 20 carries a game.
Meanwhile, in 2007, LaDainian Tomlinson led the league with 1,474 rushing yards, and Clinton Portis led the league with 325 carries. These totals are the lowest for a league leader in each category since 1990.
By my count, more than half the teams in the NFL have at least a somewhat murky distribution of the touches (Atlanta, Carolina, Chicago, Cincinnati, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Jacksonville, Miami, Minnesota, New England, New Orleans, New York Giants, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Tampa Bay and Tennessee).
Sure, some of them, like the Vikings, Giants and Jaguars, have multiple productive backs, but the point remains the same. With less that is certain about running backs, the less reliant we should be on them in the early rounds. And I managed to successfully use the word "murky" in a sentence. Always fun!
So we're ignoring running backs and just going wide receivers then, right?
Well ... not so fast.
None of them had as many touchdowns last year as Nate Burleson.
So instead of touchdowns, I like to judge players based on yardage.
Do you know how many wide receivers had five or more 100-yard games last year? I mean, five is not that many, right? Basically once every three games, right?
The answer is ... six. That's right. Thirty-two teams, three main receivers each. Only six receivers had five or more 100-yard games. Can you guess who they were?
No surprise that Randy Moss leads the list with nine games. Terrell Owens and Reggie Wayne each had six. In
a bit of a surprise, Roddy White and Jerricho Cotchery had five each. And finally, Chad Johnson also had five, which is no surprise. (It also should be noted tight end Tony Gonzalez had six 100-yard games, as well.)
OK, so do you know how many players on this list made the 2006 list of "At least five games with 100 yards or more"?
None. Not one of those guys had at least five 100-yard games in 2006, and none of the guys on the 2006 list (only five players) was able to repeat in 2007.
So let's look at the RBs from last year who had five or more 100-yard rushing games. (This is just rushing, OK? We're not counting receiving yards.)
There were nine. Nine runners and no real surprises:
Got another good stat for you: Last year, there were 386 game performances in which a running back, wide receiver or tight end had more than 100 total yards from scrimmage. Of those 386, 164 were from a wide receiver or tight end. To put it another way, when a player went over 100 total yards last year, 43 percent of the time it was not a running back. Almost half. Still want to go running back-heavy?
Well, the answer is yes, just not nearly as much. You still want a running back in the first round. Because when you include rushing and receiving yards (as most leagues, including ESPN standard leagues, do), you have 20 running backs who had at least five games of 100 yards or more. Here's the list (with number of 100-total-yard games in parentheses).
Brian Westbrook (12)
Adrian Peterson (10)
Willie Parker (10)
Willis McGahee (9)
LaDainian Tomlinson (8)
Brandon Jacobs (8)
Steven Jackson (8)
Frank Gore (8)
Jamal Lewis (8)
Clinton Portis (7)
Thomas Jones (7) -- I know! I was surprised too.
Joseph Addai (6)
Earnest Graham (6)
LenDale White (6)
Marion Barber (6)
Fred Taylor (5)
Ryan Grant (5)
Reggie Bush (5)
Justin Fargas (5)
Derrick Ward (5)
As a result, I say you go running back in the first round, and then it's best player available. Points come from everywhere, but they still seem to come most consistently from running backs. The difference now is that the point differential is not as great and there are more running backs contributing to point totals (but contributing less in terms of total points) than before.
Before the draft
If you are in a keeper league, you obviously need to figure out who to keep. You keep your difference-makers and that's it. I define a difference-maker as someone who is clearly better than most of the others at his position. The Tomlinsons, Bradys, Owenses of the world. But that's it (other than an elite tight end, where it might be OK to keep him).
Also understand that guys like Chris Chambers are a dime a dozen. The difference between a 1,200-yard-a-year wide receiver and an 800-yard scrub is 25 yards a game. Less than three fantasy points a week. It's just not worth reaching for a guy like that in the draft, keeping him or trading for him. Oh, and you should never dump a quarterback or running back to keep a tight end unless it's one of the top three guys. Tight end is really deep this year. But we will get to that in a second.
Never, ever keep a kicker -- I don't care who he is -- and unless it's San Diego or Minnesota this year, no defense is keeper-worthy.
If you are in a league in which you have a penalty for keeping a guy -- like, you have to give up a third-round pick for Adrian Peterson, as one reader with more running backs than roster spots recently wrote -- you need to decide what is more valuable.
Fantasy sports are all about value. So in this blatantly obvious case, you keep Peterson, because he is a first-round pick and it's only costing you a third-round pick. But what if it's Julius Jones and he's gonna cost a sixth-round pick? Well, I throw him back. Because a quick glance at our live draft results shows Jones currently going in the seventh round. I can get him cheaper by throwing him back and using the sixth-round slot on someone I really like, such as Roy Williams.
Unless you are in a very deep league and/or a league in which you keep a lot of players, I don't like keeping "projects." The average life span of an NFL player is something like five years.
For every Peyton Manning or Carson Palmer you hang onto, there's a lot more Joey Harrington and Kyle Boller types out there. How many years in a row did someone in your league hang on to Cedric Benson? There's a black hole in my heart for the number of years I waited on Kevan Barlow.
You keep elite guys who can play. Maybe you keep one project at most, but otherwise you need to stick with as close to sure things as you can. Fantasy football is by far the most luck-based of all the fantasy sports, so your goal is to minimize bad luck as much as you can by loading up on those sure things.
OK, you've turned in your retention list. Or it's just a start-from-scratch league. So let's prepare for the draft.
Obviously, you should be reading as much as possible. I would be checking ESPN.com at least once a day. Read the articles, listen to our daily podcasts, watch our daily videocast, post on the message board and stop by our twice-daily chats. We'll have more free fantasy football content than any other site out there this year.
Don't just read fantasy sites. Read the football sections of major newspapers. Watch "SportsCenter." And once the season starts, watch games. Not just highlights. Games. See how a guy gets his 100 yards. Was he grinding it out or did he just get a lucky 75-yard gain and sucked the other 20 carries? The more info you can have, the better.
There are millions of sites devoted to fantasy football. See who you like, who you trust, who you agree with, who you think are morons. It's all speculation -- some more informed than others -- but at the end of the day, we're all just making educated guesses.
Either way, knowledge is power. The more you know -- about players, lineups, injuries, sleepers, coaching changes, schedules, bye weeks, etc. -- the better shape you are in. So prepare as if you are testing to get into Harvard med school, because the only thing worse than screwing up on draft day and listening to your buddies tell you you're a jackass for the next six months is having to sit in front of a TV on Sunday while saying, "Come on, J.P. Losman!"
Speaking of knowledge being power: I know this sounds stupid, but you'd be amazed at how many people make this mistake. Know your league's rules. Inside and out. Like, do you get the same amount of points for a touchdown pass as a touchdown run? If so, quarterbacks are much more valuable than they are in leagues that reward six points for a TD run and just four for a TD pass. Do you get points for receptions? What about return yards? Do you get negative points for turnovers? Bonus points for long plays? Do running backs get points for receptions and receiving yards? Because Frank Gore is a lot more valuable if it does. It all matters when prepping for your draft and evaluating players.
OK, you know your league's rules. You've marked draft day on the calendar. You've got Matt Forte and Sidney Rice at the top of your sleeper list. You can't wait to grab Fred Jackson and screw over Marshawn Lynch's owner.
But now, time to get serious. You're going to need to do some paperwork prior to the draft to make the draft easier and more efficient for yourself.
First, get yourself an up-to-the minute depth chart for every team in the NFL. We have really good ones on ESPN.com and they will be updated throughout the preseason. Whomever you like, print them out and bring them with you.
When you're nearing the end of the draft and you need another wide receiver or a starting tight end, the depth charts will come in very handy. Trust me. A simple depth chart is one of the best tools you can have.
Whatever list/magazine/book you choose to go with, just bring one. Too much info can clutter things up. Read the ones you have, decide whose is closest to how you think, and go with that.
Personally, I like to make my own list. But whatever list you have, you need to prepare it. By that I mean I like to group players into tiers. As an easy example, you'll group your wide receivers. Moss, Owens, Wayne, Edwards: those are the elite.
Next tier has about 10 guys. So you may say to yourself, "I don't want my No. 1 receiver to be worse than, say, Plaxico Burress. So T.J. Houshmandzadeh goes early to a Bengals fan, as do Steve Smith, Marques Colston, Chad Johnson and Brandon Marshall. You don't freak out because you look at your list and see Andre Johnson, Santonio Holmes, Burress and Larry Fitzgerald are still left, and you have two selections in the next six picks. You can probably take a running back with the first of those picks and be relatively sure you'll get one of those guys, or you can decide that you need to strike now because there's a run on receivers. Whatever decision you make, this way, it will be an educated one.
During the draft, it's especially important not to get hung up on one particular player. By dividing your list like this, you'll be more able to see where there is scarcity in the draft and where there is surplus. Just because you don't get Anquan Boldin or Donald Driver, you're not out of luck. Roddy White will be just fine.
Another thing you want to do before the draft is prepare a "draft sheet" for every team in the league. I cannot stress how important this is. As the draft progresses, you are going to want to be able to know who everyone has, what positions they have filled and what they still need. If it's a keeper league, fill in who has been kept. This is a sheet that has every team in your league and every position they need to fill. And hey, if you are a member of Insider, you get a free Draft Analyzer, which is an easy computer program that helps keep track of all this stuff for you during the draft. (I am nothing if not a company man.)
But if you're just using pen and paper, no worries. Let's say Team 1 takes Tomlinson. You write down "LT" in one of Team 1's RB slots. This way you can see at a glance what you need in comparison to every other team.
Say it's the eighth round and you need a backup quarterback, but there's a sleeper wide receiver you want to grab as well. You look at your sheet, see most everyone has two QBs and that, according to your quarterback tiers, Jason Campbell, Jon Kitna and Jake Delhomme are still out there. So you should be OK when it comes around to you next. You don't need to burn the pick here. Conversely, the three teams picking after you all need wide receivers, so you better grab the guy now or never get him. You grab your receiver and then get a decent No. 2 quarterback next time around.
This sheet will save your bacon more than once toward the end of the draft, and that's where leagues are won and lost, not in the first few rounds. Any idiot can take Joseph Addai in the first few picks. It's the guy who grabs Brandon Marshall in the last round -- as I was able to do in one league last year -- who generally wins the league.
I also like to have a list of sleepers I want to target. When you're in Hour 4 and can't think anymore, you can glance at the sheet and go, "Oh yeah, I wanted to take a gamble on Chris Redman." Or Chris Johnson of Tennessee. Or James Jones of Green Bay. You then grab them instead of saying, "I can't think of anybody I'll just take a second kicker that I don't need."
By the way, if it's a salary cap/auction league -- did I mention you can now do auctions on ESPN.com for free? -- I also have a place to see how much money they have left. Those of you with laptops can have a spreadsheet do all this for you, obviously (or if you are using ESPN.com Auction Draft Lobby, we do it for you). If it's a keeper league with a salary cap, you start with how much money they have left for how many positions to fill.
OK, we pause here for something really nerdy.
If you are in a keeper league with a salary cap, I suggest doing keeper-league inflation. What the hell's that, you ask? Well, basically, keeper leagues always have guys kept well below their value. I'm proud to have Santonio Holmes for $1 in my keeper league. As a result, the prices of available players will go up in the auction, because the less talent available, more money to spend.
So you look at your handy ESPN Auction Cheat Sheet and you see we list Holmes at $17. OK, we say he will be worth $17 this year in a start-from-scratch-league auction.
But that's only in a start-from-scratch auction. A better judge of what to pay for Holmes in your keeper league will come about if you spend a little time calculating draft inflation.
I cannot take credit for the formula and this has been written about elsewhere, but here's how you do it.
Let's say it's a standard 10-team league with 16-man rosters and a $200 cap.
That means there is a total of $2,000 (10 x $200) of available money to spend in your league. Now, you add up how much each team has spent on keepers. For simplicity's sake, let's say each team has kept five players at $10 a piece. So each team spent a total of $50, for a total spent of $500 (10 x $50).
OK, here's where we get even nerdier. Take whatever price list you have decided to use and calculate how much "value" is being protected. For example, my Santonio Holmes is projected to earn $17 this year. So while I have him at a $1 PRICE, his VALUE is $17.
So you add up all the VALUE on the teams. Again, for simplicity's sake, let's say every team is protecting $100 worth of value. So the total value being protected is $1,000 (10 x $100). And while the total value being protected is $1,000, the total price spent is only $500.
So you subtract both numbers from $2,000 (the total amount of money to spend). $2,000 (total money available) minus $1,000 (value protected) equals $1,000 of value left.
Do the other one. $2,000 (total money available) minus $500 (total price protected) equals $1,500 of money left.
This means at the auction, $1,500 of money is chasing only $1,000 of value. So you now divide money left by value left. 1,500/1,000 = 1.5. This means every dollar in your league is actually worth $1.50.
This is your draft inflation price: 1.5. So let's say Brian Westbrook comes up for auction. And your trusty ESPN draft kit has him listed at $52. You quickly multiply $52 by 1.5 to come up with $78. That's his value in this league.
The bidding gets to $65 and people, seeing $52, drop out. That's 13 bucks more than he's worth, people say. But you know that's actually a bargain for Westbrook. You're saving $7!
This is an extreme example, but it should clarify the point. Draft inflation calculation is a bit time consuming and can be a little confusing, but if you want those money lists to actually help, you need to do this. Every dollar counts! And where it really helps is with the superstars. Because the prices get so ridiculous, many folks drop out, thus they end up becoming the biggest bargains.
OK, it's game day, baby. Time for the big show. Don't bother cramming on the way in or anything stupid like that. It's like a test. You know it or you don't. And if you don't, the next 10 minutes ain't gonna change that.
You want to project -- even if you don't feel it -- an air of confidence. Make others sweat. That's my first draft day hint.
1. Never show fear. Just be confident. You don't have to be cocky or a jerk, but occasionally sighing a breath of relief when the guy before you picks -- as if to say, "Thank God you didn't grab the correct guy" -- will do wonders to rattle your leaguemates.
2. You can wait on a tight end this year. I assume a standard 10-team league. People generally draft only one tight end, unless they are idiots. In which case, it's fine, because they'll drop one soon. Don't waste an early pick on Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates. They're terrific, but unless they're available in the late fourth or early fifth round, you don't want them.
Instead, you look at Jason Witten, Dallas Clark, Chris Cooley, Jeremy Shockey, Heath Miller and Kellen Winslow, who will all be very strong. I really like Tony Scheffler and Owen Daniels, and I know a lot of people really like Vernon Davis (I'm not one of them). Todd Heap might stay healthy this year and Donald Lee will be a nice safety valve for Aaron Rodgers. Plus Alge Crumpler for the Titans, Ben Watson of the Patriots and Greg Olsen of the Bears could very easily have big years. The point is, the reason folks take Gonzo or Gates so early is the perceived lack of depth at tight end, and it's not even close to being true anymore.
By the way, here's a fun stat:
Total touchdowns, 2006-2007:
Antonio Gates: 18
Chris Cooley: 14
3. If you find yourself getting screwed out of a position, don't panic! Say you've got pick No. 11 in a 12-team league, and you find yourself on the short end of a run on No. 3 running backs. Instead of reaching for a guy like Kevin Faulk just to have someone, grab another quarterback, even if you already have two. Or grab another decent wide receiver. Give yourself something to trade with.
Faulk will still be there a round later, trust me. But by getting a surplus somewhere else rather than just grabbing a warm body like Warrick Dunn, you'll be a lot happier. Last year, in one league, I had the last pick in a 12-team league and in the fourth round, I needed another running back. But there was no one decent left. So I grabbed Ben Roethlisberger even though I already had Carson Palmer. After the draft I was able to deal Palmer to a team with three running backs and no quarterbacks, and all I got was Willie Parker.
4. If you are at one end of a snake draft, grab what you need when you can. By that I mean: It's your pick and you really want a good No. 1 wide receiver. You see there are at least 12 left. So you grab a third running back. But one good run and you're screwed. It's 18 picks until you get to choose again, if not more. Don't wait. Grab what you need, get surplus later (unless you're in a situation like I described above).
5. Don't you dare take a kicker until the last round! You say it's obvious, but then, every draft I am in, I always see at least one person take a kicker before the last round.
Here are two numbers: 148, 125.
Let's put those numbers in context, shall we?
Kicker scoring, 2007:
Now, where did Crosby go in your draft last year? It's a trick question. He wasn't drafted. He sat on your league's waiver wire for a while.
Assuming you could have even predicted Crosby would be the No. 1 kicker, which you couldn't have, he is only 23 points higher than the 10th-place kicker (ostensibly, the guy you wind up with in a standard-size league).
Over the course of a 16-game fantasy football season, that's less than two points a game. Two. And that's assuming you correctly predicted who the best kicker will be. Two points a game ain't that much when you're passing up other guys.
Bottom line? The only thing I hate more than kickers are people who draft them before the last round.
6. Practice makes perfect. Yeah, it seems like I am a company shill and I sort of am, but the fact remains, the more you do something, the better you get at it. My career notwithstanding. We have free mock draft lobbies open 24/7. Jump in and practice drafting. Try different things. See what happens when you grab a quarterback in the first round. Or a wide receiver. See who you wind up with if you go wide receiver, wide receiver with your first two picks. The more scenarios you face, the less fazed you'll be when something screwy happens in your real draft.
7. Don't listen to anyone else at the draft! First -- and this is the secret that we fantasy "experts" hold tightly to our chest -- nobody knows anything! That's a quote from William Goldman about Hollywood and the ability of anyone to predict a movie's success, and it's appropriate here as well.
Yes, we experts probably spend a lot more time looking at stats, trends, players and teams and the like than you do, but that's because you have a life. And we've probably been playing a bit longer. I've been playing fantasy sports since I was 14 (I'm into my 30s now). But again, that's because you have a life. So we probably have a more informed opinion. But that's all it is, an opinion. An educated guess. Emphasis on the word "guess."
Listen, you've done the research, you've played the game, heck, you've read this far. You're into it. And your opinion is as good -- if not better -- than anyone else's in that room.
8. Don't be shy! We're here to listen, to advise, to commiserate and to help here at ESPN.com. Again, stop by our chats and our message boards, e-mail our columnists. Send in questions to our daily Fantasy Focus podcast, videocast, or our upcoming Sunday Morning pre-kickoff show, Fantasy Football Now. It's a long season and we're gonna be there every step of the way with you.
9. Have fun. Remember, we do this for leisure. We all (especially me) take it very seriously and play to win, but it's not worth ruining friendships over. Well, unless you've got a shot at the title. I mean, you can always get another friend
Matthew Berry -- The Talented Mr. Roto -- is ESPN's senior director of fantasy. He was just as surprised as you to find out it's a real job. He is a Sports Emmy winner for his work on Fantasy Football Now and a multiple award winner from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association, including a Writer of the Year award. He is also the creator of RotoPass.com, a Web site that combines a bunch of well known fantasy sites, including ESPN Insider, for one low price. Use promo code ESPN for 10 percent off.