I am nothing if not consistent.
Every Tuesday when I stroll over to that fine place they call "Lunch-Lady Land," I place the same order: "Large Chicken Parmigiana sandwich, side of chips, two pickle spears, please." (My apologies, Mr. Sandler, but sloppy joes are just a tad too far down the nutritious-foods spectrum for me.)
It's a routine that dates back to college, though back then I was known as "the guy who always orders the chicken parm sandwich, rye bread toasted on the side." I've had the same person cut my hair since 2004. I always order orange juice with pulp (but none of that "extra pulp" nonsense), because that's the way it was meant to taste if fresh-squeezed. And when I celebrate my birthday, it's always with a delicious slice of ice-cream cake (because that's the perfect marriage of two age-old birthday traditions, ice cream and cake).
All of those things might seem silly or strange to you, but there's something comfy about having routines. Variety is all well and good, but when you can stroll into a place, sit down and utter the phrase, "the usual," and get something you like, well, few things make you feel more at home.
I'm much like that when evaluating fantasy football players. Upside players, risk/reward types, they're all well and good, but when I'm formulating my rankings, I give the consistent types, the guys you know will rest comfy-cozy in your lineup each and every week, an added bonus. They give your team a reliable core of point-getters who will keep you in every weekly matchup, and if you sprinkle in the right boom/bust candidates where appropriate, chances are you're going to have an above-average chance at getting into the playoffs.
But how does one determine whether a player fits the "consistent" description, or is more of a "risk/reward" performer?
His past statistics, of course.
Using 2006-08 numbers, I calculated what I call a player's "consistent starter percentage" (which measures the percentage of his games played during those three years that he scored a fantasy point total worth having in your active lineup) combined with his "boom/bust percentage" (which is pretty self-explanatory but measures the percentage of his games that were either especially good or especially bad). How are these good, bad and starter-worthy point totals determined? The chart below lists the criteria for each, based on historical averages. For example, a "good" quarterback needed to have at least 13 points because that's about how many the No. 10 option at the position had in a typical week.
The most consistent performers over the past three seasons are ranked by position in the charts below. The lists exclude any player who didn't appear in at least two of those seasons, and include the percentage of his team's games in which the player played and his percentage of each type of game listed above.
There's as convincing an argument as any for why Peyton Manning has, for the most part, been considered the consensus No. 1 quarterback in fantasy football for a decade. Sure, maybe the case could have been made for why someone else -- a Daunte Culpepper or Brady -- should have been one spot ahead of him in certain seasons, but Manning hasn't missed a game in his 11 NFL seasons and, outside of four Week 17 contests in which he sat most of the game, has passed for zero touchdowns and fewer than 200 yards only 10 times in 172 career games. Now that is consistency.
But you knew Manning was a special quarterback. It's two less-obvious fantasy picks whose ranking on the above list surprised me: Cutler and Palmer, neither of whom are widely regarded as a guaranteed top-10 option. Cutler actually finished with double-digit fantasy points in all but seven of his 37 starts with the Denver Broncos, failing to complete a passing touchdown only six times. In spite of an injury-marred 2008 and what most considered a disappointing 2007, Palmer still had double-digit points in all but 10 of 36 starts the past three seasons combined. People discuss the two quarterbacks' relative weaknesses, but I'd consider their consistency strengths. If you plan to wait on quarterbacks, and can nab either Cutler or Palmer as a late-No. 1 option, or even more preferably as a high-end No. 2, I think you'll be happy with either player's reliability. (That is, of course, if Palmer manages to stay healthy; keep an eye on his preseason.)
Sure, we've got Peterson, Michael Turner, Jones-Drew and Matt Forte as our top four-ranked running backs at the onset of training camps, but would you believe the No. 5-ranked back, Jackson, topped the consistency list? Despite playing for a dreadful team, Jackson has been starter-worthy almost nine times out of 10, and even if you discredit him the eight games he has missed the past two seasons combined, his consistent starter percentage would have been 72.9, which would still have ranked him 10th. The missed time matters, and it's why we ranked him where we did, but let's not forget that the guy will be the prime age of 26 with only 1,224 carries on his legs, and never more than 346 in a single season, come Week 1 of the 2009 season. He has a lot of career left to play.
Speaking of Forte, while he didn't qualify for the list, know that he had an 93.8 consistent starter percentage (with an NFL-leading 15 "starter-worthy" games out of 16) as a rookie, has never fallen into bust territory and went boom seven times. And with the aforementioned Cutler, who likes to throw to his running backs, now in the fold, Forte's numbers don't seem likely to slip.
Another rookie whose numbers might surprise: Kevin Smith of the Lions, who had a remarkable 68.8 consistent starter percentage (11 of 16) despite playing for a poor team. Three of his final eight games in 2008 were of the boom variety and only one was a bust. Now that he is further honing his skills at the NFL level, a huge step forward isn't improbable.
Yes, Bowe's No. 6 placement on the above chart is a generous ranking, but upon closer examination, 75 percent of his games (12 of 16) in 2008 were starter-worthy, which tied for second-most among wide receivers. Plus, with new pass-friendly coach Todd Haley in Kansas Cit and tight end Tony Gonzalez no longer around to thieve his targets, Bowe's numbers might develop only greater levels of consistency in 2009. He might be in store for a huge season, but at the worst you'll feel safe having him active each week.
The ranking that surprised me most: Holmes'. He tends to never warrant top-20 consideration in the fantasy community, despite the fact that he's 16th on my consistency list over the past three seasons. Even in what was considered a largely disappointing 2008, he had a 60 consistent starter percentage, right in line with the 61.5 number he had in his encouraging 2007 and higher than his number from 2006-08 combined. Holmes does miss time. He sat out four games total the past two seasons, but he's 25, has a skilled quarterback throwing him the ball and a No. 1 receiver ahead of him on the roster that is beginning to get up there in years. He might yet be a bargain-rate breakout candidate.
For those of you wondering, I ran the numbers for two more wide receivers who have yet to ink contracts with new teams but might be factors in 2009: Plaxico Burress and Marvin Harrison. Harrison would have placed 10th on the above list and Burress 18th (19th if Harrison is also included). Here are their specifics:
Ah, tight ends, how consistently inconsistent they are. Incredibly, after the top five, kickers as a whole were more consistent from 2006-08 than tight ends (as you'll see below). Not that it means you should be racing to draft kickers, who still belong only in the final round of your draft, but it demonstrates the value of the top-tier players at the position as well as how quickly the rankings drop off after the top few are selected. Don't fall prey to a position run here.
One name stands out way above the rest: Winslow, who is a recent addition to the Buccaneers. Gonzalez might be the most productive tight end, but Winslow, outside of his six missed games because of injury last season, was the most consistent when healthy the past three years. Even in his down 2008, Winslow had a 50 consistent starter percentage, ninth at his position. He gets a fresh start in Tampa Bay in his prime, so the probability of a bounce-back campaign is high.
John Carlson, excluded from the list because he was a rookie in 2008, ranked second among all tight ends last season with a 62.5 consistent starter percentage (10 of 16), driven largely by eight performances that fell in the 5-8 point "good" range. Seattle might not have a great team, and it added Houshmandzadeh to eat into Carlson's targets, but the sophomore might actually benefit from there being a viable deep threat to enhance the passing attack.
Lower-level kickers might have been about as consistent the past three seasons as lower-level tight ends, but that's more damning of the lower levels of both of those positions than it is a credit to kickers. A fast fact to underscore the crapshoot that is the kicker position: Only three kickers have appeared in all 16 games in each of the past three seasons and had at least a 50 consistent starter percentage. Those kickers: Jason Elam, Robbie Gould and Matt Stover. Not one kicker had a 60 percent or higher in all three years, and if you look at the boom column in the chart below, you'll see that the best kickers in that category fall well short of their counterparts at the other positions (including team defenses).
The moral: Don't waste higher than a 16th-round pick (in an ESPN standard 10-team league) on a kicker. Period.
Team defenses/special teams
Though the numbers below might hint at defenses being fairly consistent, think again. Only one defense in the NFL has managed at least a 60 consistent starter percentage in each of the past three seasons: The Chicago Bears, who have had a 68.8 number each year. Most everyone else has bounced around from season to season, yes, including Baltimore, the Giants, Pittsburgh and Tennessee.
What the numbers do emphasize is that consistency can be found in a team defense/special teams unit during a season, meaning that if you land a good one at the draft table, your best in-season strategy is not to exploit weekly matchups to maximize your point potential, but instead ride that red-hot defense every single week. Problem is, you might not know which defenses fit the term "red-hot defense" until after the season starts, but on the bright side, at least when you're asking the question, "Do I believe in so-and-so's hot-starting defense," you have your answer.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.