In search of consistency

Consistency. Reliability. Trustworthiness.

Pick whichever word you prefer, but these describe critical traits -- perhaps the most critical -- of a fantasy football player. Sure, we might all love the week-winning performer, the megastud who at any moment might explode with a 40-point fantasy day, but over a 17-week NFL season, it's the players who give you "start-worthy" stats week in and week out who truly win titles.

Ah, but there's that key word: "Start-worthy." What exactly constitutes a start-worthy player? And who are the ones who most often fit the description?

To find the answer, I've compiled three years' worth of fantasy football data, fantasy points determined by ESPN's standard scoring, and rated players by position in the charts below. Each player earned a "point" in three categories depending upon whether he met a predetermined benchmark: "start," which means his point total in the given week was worthy of having had active in an ESPN standard league; "stud," which means his point total ranked among the top at his position; and "stiff," which means his point total ranked among the worst at his position and that starting most any waiver-wire option would have been smarter. (Players were only classified as "stiffs" if they played the game; missing the contest instead earned them a point in the "sat" column.)

Here are these benchmarks by position ("stiff" benchmark meaning the player needed to finish with that number or fewer):

(For those interested in Consistency Ratings in PPR leagues, click here.)

Keep in mind that these statistical benchmarks remain constant from week to week and were determined using five years' worth of fantasy data. For instance, from 2006 to 2010, a 15-point fantasy performance by a quarterback most consistently would have qualified him for the top 10 at his position (top 10 equaling the number of active spots in an ESPN standard league). A 20-point performance by a quarterback, meanwhile, most consistently would have placed him among the two or three best at his position in a given week, while a two-point performance or worse would have ranked him behind numerous waiver-wire alternatives.

But that's not all: In addition to our start-stud-stiff-sat system, I'm also including an analysis tool called "stack," or how that player "stacked up" comparatively to his weekly matchups. How that works: A player's fantasy total is compared to the opposing defense's average points allowed to his position per game; running backs and wide receivers' weekly totals receive greater weight because of the number of those players an NFL team has active in a given week.

For example, Michael Vick dropped 49 fantasy points on the Washington Redskins in Week 10 of last season, and the Redskins' defense allowed 16.9 fantasy points per game to opposing quarterbacks; Vick therefore earned a plus-32 for that particular week. A higher positive number means the player greatly outperformed his matchups; a lower and/or negative number means the player underperformed or was a matchups product.

Although the charts below show Consistency Ratings for both the 2010 season and past three seasons (2008-10) combined, we'll also update these ratings each week throughout the 2011 season to help you unearth hidden fantasy gems. (Note: Team refers to current team as of Sept. 6.)

Players are ranked by the percentage of their teams' scheduled games in which their weekly point total was classified a "start":

Quarterbacks: 2010

Quarterbacks: 2008-10

Other than the obvious -- that "Captain Consistency" Peyton Manning is about to see his Consistency Rating drop because of his ongoing recovery from neck surgery -- Josh Freeman is the surprise success story on this list. He has been often criticized as a matchups product, his detractors pointing to his 31-point effort against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 16, yet he was actually the fifth-most reliable fantasy starter among quarterbacks in 2010 and had the seventh-highest "stack" rating, ahead of -- gasp -- Manning, not to mention Philip Rivers. Fantasy owners who landed Freeman in the mid-to-late rounds will be happy to learn of his reliability and should start him with confidence in Week 1 versus the Detroit Lions.

On the flip side, Matt Schaub's zero in the "stack" column is particularly disconcerting if you consider that his Houston Texans draw the AFC North -- with those stingy Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers defenses -- instead of the AFC West this season. Schaub's Consistency Rating might be high, fifth-best at his position during the past three seasons, but he surprisingly lacked the breakout potential in 2010 that he exhibited during his outstanding 2009. Something to consider: He'll battle the Indianapolis Colts in Week 1, and in five career meetings he has six touchdowns compared to eight interceptions against them.

Running backs: 2010

Running backs: 2008-10

You read that right: Adrian Peterson is the most consistently reliable fantasy starter in the game, having managed a "start" in 81.3 percent of Minnesota Vikings games the past three seasons combined, and a fifth-ranked -- among all positions -- 75.0 percent in 2010 alone. If you're among those worried about the Vikings' O-line problems, that nugget should help ease your mind.

Those who read my Peyton Hillis "32 Questions" know my opinion on his chances at a repeat performance, and you shouldn't regard his 99 "stack" rating, third-best among running backs, as reason to deem him underrated. The truth is that Hillis dominated the matchups he should have last season, including earning a plus-62 "stack" in his first eight games combined. Compare that to his final eight games' number (plus-37), however, or his final five (minus-7), and you'll see that he indeed cooled late.

It's pretty remarkable that Kansas City Chiefs teammates Jamaal Charles (plus-74) and Thomas Jones (minus-23) could have such substantial "stack" splits, and that Charles was the game's second-most reliable fantasy starter in 2010 speaks to his talent. He did that despite finishing second on his own team in carries (230, compared to 245 for Jones). But look closer at when Jones excelled: Three of his four best fantasy performances came against defenses that ranked among the 10 worst against the position (Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Arizona Cardinals). There's little doubt that Charles is the back the Chiefs need to rely on most in 2011.

Wide receivers: 2010

Wide receivers: 2008-10

Although Mike Wallace ranked only fifth among wide receivers and 22nd overall in terms of "start"-worthiness, his explosive fantasy potential should not be understated. Those seven "stud" performances are nothing short of extraordinary; consider that only four other players in the league had more in 2010: Arian Foster (10), Michael Vick (10) and Aaron Rodgers (8). I look at Wallace and then at Dwayne Bowe, another wideout you might describe as explosive, and see a greater split in fantasy value than the 11-spot differential in their average draft positions. Bowe had two "stiff" points -- three in PPR formats -- which is a heck of a lot for a top-tier wide receiver. Wallace, meanwhile, has had only one "stiff" performance in his first two seasons in the league.

Way to go, Brandon Lloyd! That 97 "stack" rating, not to mention a third-best 68.8 percent Consistency Rating, is all the evidence you need that he shouldn't have been forgotten in fantasy drafts this preseason. John Fox's arrival signals a greater emphasis on the run in Denver, yes, but Lloyd's skills won't go unused. Don't forget that he finished 2010 with three consecutive double-digit fantasy performances, all of those games started by Tim Tebow, whom you might have believed would have an adverse impact upon Lloyd's production.

Tight ends: 2010

Tight ends: 2008-10

Antonio Gates' 2010 Consistency Rating is tempered by the six games that he missed; calculate his performance only in the games in which he played, and he'd have managed 80.0 percent "starts," easily tops at his position, and 83.3 percent if you applied that to 2008-10 combined. He's as dominant a fantasy performer as anyone else in football; his 14 "stud" points the past three seasons combined are 12th-most of any player at any position, and no other tight end has more than 11.

I'd be a lot more worried about Brandon Pettigrew's minus-15 "stack" rating than I would his 56.3 percent Consistency Rating, at least in terms of projecting his 2011. Two of his three best fantasy performances of 2010 came against defenses that ranked among the five worst against tight ends (Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles), and Pettigrew's target totals were significantly lower in Matthew Stafford's starts -- 12 total, 4.0 per game -- than Shaun Hill's -- 99, 7.6. Until Pettigrew proves himself a regular weapon in Stafford's arsenal, he's a shaky fantasy starter.

Kickers: 2010

Kickers: 2008-10

What is there to say about kickers? They're as unpredictable as anything in fantasy football gets, and those Consistency Rating numbers prove it. Look at those 2008-10 numbers: Only one kicker was a fantasy "start" more than 50 percent of the time, and that kicker, David Akers, managed to rank only the 10th-most popular kicker in ESPN live drafts this preseason.

Thirty-one players had a better Consistency Rating in 2010 alone than the No. 1 kicker, Akers. Only four kickers were classified as "starts" at least eight times, whereas 64 players at the other four positions did it at least that often.

And, perhaps most telling, the No. 1 kicker in terms of fantasy points in 2010, Sebastian Janikowski, was as unreliable from 2008-09 as he was reliable in 2010: He was a "stiff" seven times in those two years combined and had a ghastly 37.5 percent Consistency Rating during those two seasons.

That's as compelling an argument for kickers being an out-of-the-question consideration before the final end of your fantasy draft as any.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.