The blood drained from my face.
The feeling came almost immediately, as regret often does.
What had I just done?
It was the last day of April, a few days after the NFL draft, and I was in a room full of people when I blurted it out.
"I'll take Calvin Johnson."
That's what I said. But what I thought was "Crap."
The occasion was our annual fantasy football rankings summit, an annual tradition we started in 2007 when a bunch of people from all over ESPN -- all of our fantasy analysts and editors, some Stats & Info studs and some folks from ESPN The Magazine, among others -- convene to discuss, argue and analyze every player of interest, to come up with a set of rankings that will serve as the initial, official ESPN rankings.
It was during that session that we held a mock draft for our fantasy football guide, which is on the newsstands now. I had pick No. 7 of this 10-team mock and, with six running backs off the board, I chose Megatron.
And I quickly knew I shouldn't have.
It's not often you can draft Calvin Johnson -- he of the 3,600 yards and 21 touchdowns the past two seasons combined -- and feel bad about it. I mean, I can, I'm neurotic. I can feel bad about anything. It's my special gift. But for most people, you don't feel bad about getting him on your team in the second half of the first round; if anything, you're doing backflips.
But this year is different. This year has wrinkles. Let me explain. No, there is no time. Let me sum up.
Actually, Inigo, let's take the time. This is not something we want to rush. Prepping for the draft is not only important, it's half the fun. You rush a miracle man, you get rotten draft results. Or something like that.
We want to take our time, breathe it in and submerge ourselves in it. Really prep. So sit back, my Internet friend, kick up your heels and bite into a nice MLT -- mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe -- and get ready for the 15th annual Draft Day Manifesto.
We do it every year, with a mix of new and updated concepts, and this year, we will talk about general team construction. Consistency and probability are going to have starring roles, and it wouldn't kill you to brush up on your "Princess Bride." We'll look at the general state of the various positions, we're going to talk about what you need to do this one time a year to help you win a weekly game, and we'll explain why I sat there, heading into the second round that fateful Tuesday afternoon, angry at myself for drafting Calvin Johnson.
I probably shouldn't admit this. If I had ever bothered to look into my "How To Be a Fantasy Football Analyst" handbook, which is currently propping up my kid's high chair, I'm sure it would say: "DON'T ADMIT TO MAKING A MISTAKE! ESPECIALLY IN YOUR BIGGEST ARTICLE OF THE YEAR! AND DEFINITELY NOT AT THE TOP! IF YOU HAVE TO, DO IT AT THE BOTTOM! THEY'LL JUST SKIM THE SECOND HALF! ALSO, DON'T USE ALL CAPS!"
But I ain't your typical analyst, so I'll tell you right off the bat that I think it was a mistake. First pick, first mock of the year and "whiff." What can I say? Maybe I was a little distracted. I was still knee-deep in baseball at that point and had just handed in the last draft of my book. "A book," you ask? That's right. When I was your age, television was called books. And this is a very special book. It's called "Fantasy Life" and it comes out July 16. I know what you're thinking: "Wait, you're taking time out to hawk a book? In the intro? Really?" And the answer is yes, really. I already told you we have plenty of time here and besides, I just admitted to screwing up the Calvin pick. Why are you so anxious to get to the advice?
This is my first football piece of the year, so I'll apologize in advance for the book pumping that's to come this summer. I will try to keep it somewhat restrained. But I'm very proud of the book. It took over two years to do and it's the best thing I've ever written. If you like my stuff, you'll love this book. If you hate my stuff, you'll tolerate this book. If you love to hate my stuff, think of all the new, never-seen-before stuff to hate, now in convenient to-go form!
I didn't want to write an entire book about "Here's how you win a fantasy league!" That's what articles like this are for (and we're getting there soon, I promise). I wanted to write something fun. Something that celebrated everything I love about fantasy football. Winning is fun, of course, but I also love the trash talk. I love the insane punishments for losing a league. (Would you get a Justin Bieber tattoo if you lost at fantasy? Because I know someone who did, and I've got pictures.) I love the incredible obstacles people have overcome to draft; I love the trophies; I love the special camaraderie you have with the people in your league that only you guys understand. I love stories that start with "You're not gonna believe it, but this one time ." Team names, weird rules, heartbreaking losses; I love it all, every single nook and cranny of fantasy football. So I wrote a book about all that, threw in some personal stories about me, and it comes out July 16. If you'd like to get some cool exclusive extras for preordering, you can do so at the book web site. Or just click the link to the right in that little box. And if that's not for you, just skip to the next paragraph, which contains the secret of winning at fantasy football. And at life. But mostly at fantasy football.
At its fundamental level, fantasy football is about minimizing risk and giving yourself the best odds to win.
Everything leads back to that. Everything. I'm going to repeat it, and this time I'm going to put it in all caps (told you, never read that handbook).
AT ITS FUNDAMENTAL LEVEL, FANTASY FOOTBALL IS ALL ABOUT MINIMIZING RISK AND GIVING YOURSELF THE BEST ODDS TO WIN.
That simple. Say it loud, memorize it, have your kid create a wacky meme about it using Willy Wonka. This preseason, there will be millions of articles, tweets, podcasts, TV shows, magazines, radio segments and Facebook posts all trying to top each other with stats and scouting and sleepers and busts, and some of it will be quite good. And some of it won't. But either way, there will be a lot of it. Tons. And as you sift through it all In fact, before you make any decision this year about whom to draft, trade, pick up, start, bench or waive, ask yourself these three key questions: How risky is the move, does it give me a better or worse chance to win, and what is most likely to happen?
As my good friend Joe Bryant likes to say: It's an oblong ball made of leather. Weird stuff is going to happen. At this time last year, no one thought a running back less than a year removed from ACL surgery would rush for the second-most yards in NFL history. That Mike Shanahan would stick with one running back the whole season, let alone a sixth-round pick, and that that back would score 13 touchdowns. That Eli Manning would score just four fantasy points more than Sam Bradford. And Bradford didn't have that good a year! That Mikel Leshoure would outscore LeSean McCoy. That the Broncos D/ST would have more fantasy points than Julio Jones, Matt Forte or a healthy Andre Johnson.
I cannot predict the future. Have never claimed to. Neither can you or anyone else. So don't try.
Instead, stack the odds in your favor, put yourself in the best possible position to succeed and hope for the best. That's good advice for life as well, incidentally. As is never to get involved in a land war in Asia or go against a Sicilian when death is on the line. Do nothing but remember those three pieces of advice, and you'll be all right. Of course, that's all well and good, you say, but how do you decide what's most likely to happen? Well, we're gonna spend the rest of this article figuring that out.
Eight is the magic number
The first thing you should know is that there is no magic bullet. What we are discussing here is not about your only chance to win, but merely what gives you the best chance. Honestly, there are lots of ways to do this. Last year, you could have drafted a kicker and a defense in the first two rounds, not drafted a running back until the fifth round -- and not even drafted a second running back -- and won your league going away. Nobody would ever do that? Nonsense! You only say that because no one ever has. But what if the kicker was Blair Walsh, the defense was the Bears', if you grabbed Doug Martin in the fifth, picked up Alfred Morris on waivers and gotten players like Robert Griffin III, Randall Cobb, James Jones and Mike Williams late? You also could have won last year if you went QB in the first round like I advocated last preseason. Going wideout/running back would have worked well, too, if it was Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson you snagged. The truth is, you can cherry-pick examples for any "system" to show it works (or that it "doesn't work").
The one thing we can all agree on? It's a weekly game. No duh, right? My droning on about my book is looking better and better, isn't it? I bring this up because in analysis, especially preseason analysis, you often hear about season-long stats and overall numbers and, while that's all well and good, it's not how the game is played. It's a weekly game. I play one other person every week. I just need to beat that team. Period. And if I do that enough times, say seven to 10 times a season, I'm in the playoffs and I have a good shot at the title. Seven to 10 wins in 13 games -- that's a very solid and easily achievable goal.
So I asked the great Mike Polikoff, who oversees our 100 percent free-to-play, fully customizable, mobile-accessible, even-the-live-scoring-is-free league manager product to pull data from last year's standard 10-team leagues. I asked Mike to tell me the average number of wins and average weekly point totals for the four teams making the playoffs in ESPN standard scoring leagues. Here's how it played out this past season, and we've found that, year over year, these type of things tend to be generally the same.
Average wins and points
Average record and scoring for teams in ESPN standard leagues by post-Week 13 standing.
First, let's look at the wins. On average, you needed eight wins to get into the playoffs. Not shown in this chart, incidentally, is that every team that won at least 10 games made the playoffs. There were some nine- and eight-win teams that didn't make the cut -- it's an average, after all -- but if you won 10 of your first 13 games in a standard league last year, you were in the playoffs.
Ten wins, however, is a lot. Let's stick with eight. Eight wins got you in 95 percent of the time. The other thing you'll notice is point totals. The totals from the four playoff teams average out to 94 points per week. Again, we're speaking in generalities, but average 94 points in the first 13 weeks this upcoming season and there's a pretty good chance you're going to win at least eight times. Enough to make it likely -- not guaranteed, but likely -- that you're in the playoffs.
So that's our goal. 94 points. That, and to find the six-fingered man. But that'll take an entirely different plan, so let's stick to 94 points.
Now keep in mind, you start nine players in an ESPN standard league lineup: a quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, a tight end, a flex, a defense and a kicker. So now we can break it down even further. We can get to 94 points a lot of ways. You get 51 points from Doug Martin one week, the rest of your team doesn't need to do a lot of heavy lifting. But we're looking for the most likely way to get to 94 points. So just to throw out one scenario, let's break it down like this in ESPN standard scoring. Here's one way to get 94 points in, say, Week 1.
QB: 17 pts | RB1: 13 | RB2: 10 | WR1: 11| WR2: 10
Flex: 10 | TE: 7 | D/ST: 8 | K: 8 | total = 94
How did you get to those point targets by position?? I must know. Get used to disappointment. But really, there's no big secret to it. Could you get 20 points from your quarterback and only need 10 points from your RB1? Of course. But I chose these benchmarks because I thought they were reasonable and mostly balanced. You don't want to have to count on any one player to carry you every week. So to figure out what a balanced team could look like, I turned to the great Tristan H. Cockcroft's Year-End Consistency Rankings, a terrific read I highly recommend. Tristan has a metric he uses called "stud," which keeps track of how often a running back or wide receiver was top-five at his position, or a quarterback top-two at his. Adrian Peterson topped the list at eight games, Marshawn Lynch had six, no other player had more than five. Using a different example, even the highest-scoring player in fantasy last year, Drew Brees, had only 11 games in which he was top-10 at his position. All that serves to show what those who have played fantasy for a while already know: It's highly unlikely you'll find a player who can single-handedly carry you week after week. So we want depth and balance, so that every week at least a few of our guys will go off.
You can play with these numbers all day long -- looking for more from your quarterback and less from your flex, for example, but just for giggles, let's say that those are our targets. Which brings me back to that draft in April, when I went with Calvin Johnson in the first round. The problem wasn't that I drafted Calvin per se, it's just that I hated what I was staring at in the second round as my first running back. I ended up with Steven Jackson. Now, I love Steven Jackson this year and think he's gonna have a monster season in Atlanta. But I want him as my No. 2 running back, not my No. 1. Let me explain why.
The return of the running back/Running back
Since we're dealing in what's most likely to happen and we're aiming for, at a minimum, eight wins, I took a look at how many running backs had at least 10 points (ESPN standard scoring) in eight different games last season. Here's what the Consistency Rankings revealed: Arian Foster, 14; Adrian Peterson, 13; Doug Martin, 12; C.J. Spiller, 12; Alfred Morris, 12; Marshawn Lynch, 11; Ray Rice, 11; Frank Gore, 11; Trent Richardson, 11; LeSean McCoy, 10; Stevan Ridley, 9; Matt Forte, 9; Jamaal Charles, 9; Darren Sproles, 9; Chris Johnson, 9; Michael Turner, 8.
Sixteen running backs. That's it. Sixteen running backs were good enough to be a No. 1 or No. 2 running back at least half the season. And many of them (cough, Michael Turner, cough) were touchdown-dependent. Now, were there running backs who, once they got an opportunity, were consistent like that? Sure. Knowshon Moreno had five games of 10-plus points. Same as Vick Ballard. And we'll get to those kind of guys in a while as well.
But, not surprisingly, there is a shortage of running backs that consistently score in double digits. If you look at our projections this season (or, frankly, anyone else's) it is a similarly sized list. When there is a shortage of something, class, there will be a run on them and you need to get them early.
Because here's the other thing: Touchdowns are insanely unpredictable. LeSean McCoy went from 20 in 2011 to five last year. Calvin Johnson went from 16 to five. Adrian Peterson, despite 162 more touches and averaging 1.3 yards per carry more, had the exact same number of touchdowns: 12. The amazing Jason Vida of ESPN Stats & Information offers up this nugget on the repeatability of touchdowns year to year:
"Double-digit touchdowns one year is no guarantee of 10 or more scores the next. Over the 10-season span from 2002-11, a player had at least 10 rushing/receiving TDs in a season 200 times. Nearly two-thirds of them failed to score 10 rushing/receiving TDs the following season (132 of 199 – not including Corey Dillon, who didn't play the year after he scored 13 TD in 2006).
"On average, those players saw their TDs drop by 36 percent the season after reaching the end zone 10 times, from an average of 12.9 TDs to 8.2 TDs."
Players with 10 rush/rec TD in season, 2002-11
So this tells me two things: First, that of all the non-quarterback positions, running backs who get a lot of touchdowns are the most likely to get as many the following year. And second, if we are looking for consistency, it's going to be in the yardage. More from Vida:
"It's much easier to repeat a season with 1,300 scrimmage yards than a season with 10 TDs. From 2002-11, a player had at least 1,300 yards from scrimmage 219 times. Just over half of them failed to reach 1,300 scrimmage yards the following season. (112/215 – not including Tiki Barber, Ricky Williams, James Stewart and Domanick Williams, who all did not play following a season with 1,300 scrimmage yards)."
"On average, those players saw their yards from scrimmage drop by 21 percent the following season, from an average of 1,585 yards to 1,255 yards."
Players with 1,300 scrimmage yards in season, 2002-11
>>Only 2 TEs had 1,300 scrimmage yards (Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham in 2011)
Say it again, it's that important. "Yardage is more repeatable for running backs than for wideouts," (or tight ends) and it stands to reason; who gets yardage? The guy touching the ball. And who consistently touches the ball the most during a game? A running back, of course. Now, there are a lot of teams with uncertain running back situations, with time shares, with a "goal-line specialist," with, frankly, situations that are a pain in the butt for fantasy owners.
Yes, there are lots of running backs going in the later rounds that I like. Could David Wilson and Lamar Miller step up to be fantasy studs now that Ahmad Bradshaw and Reggie Bush are gone? Can Bradshaw and Bush stay healthy and find success with their new teams? What about the rookies? Can Montee Ball, Le'Veon Bell, Eddie Lacy or Zac Stacy win starting jobs outright and be rookie studs in the Doug Martin mold? Sure. Very possible. Likely, even, in some cases. But none of them are sure things. There are question marks galore all over the running back landscape.
Question marks in terms of role and who is definitely getting the majority of carries (Arizona, St. Louis, Giants, Jets, Miami, Pittsburgh, Denver and potentially Green Bay and Cincy), plus the situations in which there is a significant injury history for the player we expect to be the main guy: Rashard Mendenhall in Arizona, DeMarco Murray in Dallas, Darren McFadden in Oakland, Ryan Mathews in San Diego, Bradshaw in Indy, Chris Ivory with the Jets. Add to those the places where there are time shares -- thus limiting the fantasy upside of any of the running backs -- like New Orleans, Detroit and Carolina, plus potentially the already mentioned St. Louis, Jets, Giants, Arizona, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Miami, Cincy and Indy. All in all, those are 18 situations with some sort of question mark. And that's before we discuss the possibility of Frank Gore's touches declining even more this year, or what if Shonn Greene cuts into Chris Johnson's carries in Tennessee, or what if Bernard Pierce steals more work from Ray Rice than we expect? Plus, if you felt a little nervous about Trent Richardson's knees, Maurice Jones-Drew's ability to come back from injury and/or overcome Jacksonville's Jacksonvilleness, or are acutely aware that Steven Jackson celebrates his 30th birthday this July, it'd be hard to blame you.
I'll say that if MJD is healthy in training camp I'll be moving him up, I'm not worried about Greene and feel Johnson has a bounce-back year with the new offensive line and no more Chris Palmer calling plays; that it's June, so I can't speak to T-Rich's knees, but despite his failings as a head coach, Norv Turner is a great offensive coordinator who will make full use of Richardson; and I feel the Pierce concerns are overblown. Rice will still get his. I don't have those questions, but I get it if you do. The point is, there are really only about 14 or so running back situations you can feel good about. Those guys will be gone in the first two rounds. Ideally, you want to go running back-running back and get two of them on your team. I mean it. Anyone want a peanut?
A wide range of wide receivers
You see, it's not just about the scarcity at running back, it's also the abundance of talent at the other positions. Let's move on to wide receiver. It's not significantly deeper, but it is deeper, especially since our thresholds are lower. My take on wide receiver this year is that there is a small tier of super elite guys (Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall and Dez Bryant) and then a ton of guys who are very good and could be elite if everything falls right.
Look at this list of guys with at least 10 points in at least five games last year (or just under a third of the season), again courtesy of Tristan Cockcroft.
Calvin Johnson, 11; Brandon Marshall, 10; A.J. Green, 10; Demaryius Thomas, 10; Dez Bryant, 9; Cecil Shorts, 9; Julio Jones, 9; James Jones, 9; Randall Cobb, 8; Eric Decker, 8; Vincent Jackson, 8; Wes Welker, 8 ; Roddy White, 8; Victor Cruz, 8; Mike Williams, 8; Miles Austin, 8; Steve Smith, 8; Reggie Wayne, 7; Lance Moore, 7; Andre Johnson, 7; Steve Johnson, 7; T.Y. Hilton, 7; Michael Crabtree, 6; Marques Colston, 6; Malcom Floyd, 6; Torrey Smith, 6; Percy Harvin, 6; Mike Wallace, 5; Larry Fitzgerald, 5; Golden Tate, 5; Brandon LaFell, 5; Danario Alexander, 5; Jeremy Maclin, 5; Jordy Nelson, 5; Sidney Rice, 5; Brandon Lloyd, 5.
What we're really looking for is eight double-digit games, but let's be honest: Touchdowns are so fluky, especially for wide receivers, that eight may be asking for too much. As I already mentioned, Calvin Johnson, the best receiver in the game, had 47 more targets and 26 more receptions in 2012 than 2011 yet had 11 fewer touchdowns. In fact, here are Calvin's touchdown totals since coming into the league: 4, 12, 5, 12, 16, 5. And that's the guy who led the NFL in targets! I could do it all day, but hopefully common sense, or remembering the Jason Vida stat from above (over the past decade, 76 percent of wide receivers who had 10 or more touchdowns failed to get double digits the following season), or just basic trust that I've done the research, will lead you to this conclusion: Touchdowns, especially receiving touchdowns, are inconsistent year to year.
Would I be shocked if James Jones has 10 or more scores this year? No. I also wouldn't be surprised if Jordy Nelson stays healthy all year and gets back to double digits, Randall Cobb (whom I love) has a huge year, if Jermichael Finley does a little better, the Packers are more effective running the ball with Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, and just like that, Jones finishes with five or six scores instead of 10.
Let's loosen the parameters a little bit. Last season, 22 different wideouts who played in at least 12 games averaged nine points or more, 23 if you include Percy Harvin, who played in only nine. (Averaging nine points a game is different from scoring at least nine in eight games or whatever, but the point is the same.) Many of the guys on that list have the talent, quarterback and scheme to be a top-10 wide receiver. Just depends on those fluky touchdowns.
So let's look forward. I've mentioned the elite tier, and then a ton of guys who could be very good. Let's give them names. Is there anyone on this list of guys that I didn't list as elite who, assuming health for all 16 games, you'd be shocked to find in the top 10 at the end of the season?
Demaryius Thomas, Roddy White, Percy Harvin, Randall Cobb, Larry Fitzgerald, Jordy Nelson, Julio Jones, Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, Vincent Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Andre Johnson, Marques Colston, Mike Wallace, Steve Smith, Cecil Shorts, Reggie Wayne, Greg Jennings, Dwayne Bowe, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Torrey Smith, Steve Smith, Antonio Brown, Eric Decker, Danario Alexander, T.Y. Hilton and Tavon Austin.
Now, I like some of those guys more than others and some are bigger stretches than others, but the point remains: All of these guys -- except the lone rookie, Austin -- have performed at a high level in the NFL before and all have some combo of talent/quarterback/situation/offensive scheme that, if touchdowns landed the right way, could easily be top-10 wideouts. None of these guys would cause you to be like "Whoa! Where'd that come from??" It's 30 different guys after the top four. Thirty guys, before even getting to the random guys we know will emerge this year, like Danario Alexander or Cecil Shorts did last season.
Thirty-four (30+4) guys is a lot when you're only trying to find two who will combine to get you 20 or so points a week. Picking which guys to start is a whole 'nother matter, but for now, I just want to underline the point that the position is both very deep and a bit random after the top four. Ranking them is all about personal preference for much of the top 20.
Quarterbacks? Keep the change
Let's move quickly now to quarterback. Last year in this space I advocated going early on quarterback because it was by far the most consistent position, getting an elite one gave you an advantage at the most consistent position, and because productive running backs and wide receivers came into the league with much more frequency (via injury, etc.). And certainly, with Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady being the top three fantasy scorers last year, you weren't hurt if you went QB early, especially if you got Peterson or Lynch in the second round or managed to snag a later-round runner like Martin, Spiller, Morris or Stevan Ridley. But like I said, you can cherry-pick examples of any system working or not working, so let's move things forward instead of looking back. The big difference between last year and this year? More stud quarterbacks. Many more.
This season, we no longer have to wonder if Peyton Manning can successfully come back from neck surgery, if Cam Newton was a fluke, or if young running quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick can play in the NFL. Add a very successful rookie campaign for Andrew Luck and Matt Ryan taking another step forward and you've got unbelievable depth at the position, and that's before you even get to Matthew Stafford, Tony Romo or Ben Roethlisberger, all of whom averaged 16 fantasy points per game last year. In fact, 10 different quarterbacks averaged 17 or so fantasy points per game last year. Two more averaged around 16 and No. 13, Andy Dalton, averaged 14.9. Seven others averaged 14 points a game. The quarterback position is the deepest I've ever seen it for fantasy purposes. In a league in which only 10 guys are needed to start each week, there's simply no reason to be the first one to grab a quarterback if doing so means bypassing one of those 16 running backs.
Playing fast and loose with tight ends
Let's turn once again to Tristan Cockcroft's Consistency Rankings. Now the idea of his consistency rankings is, well, consistency. Again, we play the game over the course of a year but truthfully, it's actually 13 weekly games and then the playoffs. So how many of those weeks was a particular player worth starting? Under Tristan's system, a tight end was considered a "start" if his point total made him top 10 at his position. And the third-most consistent tight end last year was the Vikings' Kyle Rudolph, who finished the year as the ninth-highest-scoring tight end.
Now, Tristan also gives out a "stiff" rating, defined as the number of weeks a player's point total ranked among the worst at his position. In other words, since his article is about week-to-week consistency, what top-10 tight end had the most weeks in which he was brutal, the most weeks in which you would have been better starting pretty much anyone else off the waiver wire? Kyle Rudolph, with seven such games. In fact, Rudolph had four different games with zero, count 'em, zero fantasy points. Might as well have left him on your bench and started me instead.
Think about that. The third-most consistent tight end last year was also a guy who was among the worst at his position in half the weeks. It's inconceivable! And while I'm not sure that word means what I think it means, and I also think this was a bit of a stretch to fit in this particular reference, it does illustrate my take on tight end this year; Jimmy Graham is a stud. Rob Gronkowski is a stud but obviously has health concerns [Editor's Note: this paragraph has been updated to remove references to Aaron Hernandez, who was released by the Patriots on June 26, following his arrest]. Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten are very solid, if unspectacular. And after that, they're all the same. Oh, there are guys I like more than others -- I'm a big Dennis Pitta believer this year -- but really, after those four, it's just a bunch of Kyle Rudolphs. They'll be great some weeks, disappear in others, and it's really a weekly guessing/hoping game that they find the end zone that week.
The top 10 tight ends last year collectively averaged 7.9 points per game. That's why I'm trying to count on only seven points out of that position; basically 70 yards or 10 yards and a touchdown. Eight tight ends averaged 6.7 points per game or more, and 14 different tight ends last year averaged at least 5.9 points per game, or basically within one point of our target. When you draft, as you keep track of your target points (we'll get into how to do that in a little bit) you can adjust that number up a bit to more than seven per game (if you go TE early) or a little less, say five to six points a game, if you wait. But aiming for seven points is reasonable to start, until you see what you get. Just remember this: I either want to be one of the first guys to get a tight end in my league, or the very last.
Kickers can win games, but they don't win fantasy titles
OK, let's get kickers out of the way. You're waiting to draft one in the very last round. Last year, the average draft position of the first kicker taken was Stephen Gostkowski, at pick 102.5. The 11th round. Among some of the other players who were being drafted in the 11th round or so, that people were bypassing for Gostkowski? Alfred Morris, Michael Crabtree and Danny Amendola. It's not that Gostkowski was bad. He had another great year, finishing second at his position with 160 points. Or 25 points better than the No. 10 kicker, Dan Bailey. Less than two points a week. Once more, per Tristan's consistency rankings, the No. 1 fantasy kicker last year, Blair Walsh, was top 10 at his position in eight different weeks. Eight. It's been proven every year. There is no significant statistical difference between the top 10 kickers, and that's if you could accurately predict who the top 10 kickers would be. You're not bypassing a lottery ticket like Morris or Crabtree this year for a kicker. Wait until the last round.
Now, what is that kicker worth? The top-scoring kickers averaged 117.5 fantasy points for the first 13 weeks last season, or just under nine points a game. But that assumes you are starting one of the 10 best kickers, which, according to our start percentage metric, you were not. The league average is about eight fantasy points per game per kicker, and that sounds closer to correct for me. Two field goals, two extra points let's call it eight from whatever kicker you remember to start, and anything beyond that is gravy. Mmm, gravy.
Don't get defensive
Check out this list of the 18 defense/special teams that scored at least eight points in just under half their games last season:
Bears D/ST, 12; Broncos D/ST, 12; Patriots D/ST, 10; Texans D/ST, 9; Bengals D/ST, 9; Chargers D/ST, 9; 49ers D/ST, 9; Seahawks D/ST, 8; Packers D/ST, 8; Steelers D/ST, 8; Jets D/ST, 8; Falcons D/ST, 8; Vikings D/ST, 8; Cardinals D/ST, 7; Ravens D/ST, 7; Rams D/ST, 7; Bills D/ST, 7; Redskins D/ST, 7.
Thirteen, count 'em, 13 different D/ST's scored at least eight points in eight weeks. Eighteen defenses scored that many in at least seven weeks. Now check this out -- here's a list of how many weeks a team scored 10 or more points:
Bears D/ST, 9; Broncos D/ST, 8; Bengals D/ST, 8; Seahawks D/ST, 8; Texans D/ST, 8; 49ers D/ST, 8; Patriots D/ST, 7; Chargers D/ST, 7; Vikings D/ST, 7; Rams D/ST, 7.
Ten different defenses had at least seven games of double-digit scoring. And for those who like to play the matchup or "streaming" defense way, it's worth noting that if you just started the defense facing the Cardinals every week last year, you would have had the highest-scoring fantasy defense in football, at 14.2 points a game, just better than the Bears at 13.3. And if you had started the defense always facing the Jets or Chiefs, you'd have had a better D/ST than any other team except the Bears. Which is another reason why I and others advocate waiting to draft a defense.
Last year, the top 10 scoring defenses all averaged eight points or more a game. I could have set the number we want for defense at 10, but I went a little low purposefully. Defensive touchdowns are so fluky, you hate to count on them. Point in fact -- the Chargers scored nine touchdowns this past year after scoring three the year before. The Lions scored zero D/ST touchdowns this past year after scoring seven the year before. Take away all the touchdowns from Chicago and Arizona last year and the Bears are only 2.5 points per game better than Arizona over a 17-game season. You can't count on a defensive score, certainly not going into any given week, so we'll call it eight points a game, and be happy on the weeks when we go over.
Let's put it all back together
Let's look at our handy little scoring goals chart one more time.
QB: 17 pts | RB1: 13 | RB2: 10 | WR1: 11| WR2: 10
Flex: 10 | TE: 7 | D/ST: 8 | K: 8 | total = 94
By now, it should be clear how we -- and by we, I really mean me and the imaginary hand puppet I talk to, Fantasy Franco -- came up with those point totals. It's basically the average points per position based on availability of certain positions. Average. As in what's most likely to happen. You can play with it, of course, but setting too high an expectation on any one position does two things: It puts a lot of pressure on that one player, and it supposes that either what happened last year will happen this year, always a dangerous assumption, or that you can truly tell the future, which is inconceivable. And this time, I do think it means what I think it does.
Could we set our grid at 20 points a week for quarterback and shave some points off our running back targets? Sure. Twenty points is what Rodgers, Brady and Brees averaged last year. But now you've taken all potential profit out of the position; they have to average at the highest end of their position just to "stay the course" for you. The reason to do that, you might argue, is that it allows you to go cheaper on running back and need only one who averages better than 10 points a game. The problem is that 10 points a game is an average. There will be some weeks when your boy will come in much lower, and if it doesn't coincide with your quarterback going off, you're probably going to lose that week.
There should never be any hard and fast rules in a draft -- you always have to adjust to what's going on around you -- but in every mock since that first one, I've done two things and been very happy every time with my team in 10-team standard leagues:
1. I've gone running back/running back in the first two rounds.
2. I have not drafted a QB in the first three rounds.
Let's sum it up. Go running back early and often, wait on quarterback. There are four elite wide receivers and then a sameness, so don't reach. Be either one of the first guys or the last guy in your league to draft a tight end. Defenses and kickers are for the end game.
And now, a word about tiers
Actually, more than one word. Here's a fairly simple exercise that will help you understand the depth at all the positions and see what I mean about roster construction.
Take the season projections from a source you like and trust. Obviously, I'm a company man, but there are a lot of people who do good work in this arena, and I swear, this will work with any set of well-thought-out projections. Once you've got them, see what their weekly fantasy point average is projected to be for each player.
Remember, we're aiming for 94 points. And if we get higher than that even better. But we need to leave the draft with a team that will average about 94 points a week. That 94 points is our GOAL. Or, for you "futbol" fans, your "gooooooooooooooooooooooooal!"
Let's start with running backs. I'm using the ESPN ones listed here, which are based on ESPN standard scoring. Here are their projected weekly point totals for 2013: Adrian Peterson, 16.4; Arian Foster, 15.3; Marshawn Lynch, 13.7; Ray Rice, 13.6; Doug Martin, 13.3; Jamaal Charles, 13.4; C.J. Spiller, 13.3; Trent Richardson, 13.3; Alfred Morris, 12.9; LeSean McCoy, 11.8; Steven Jackson, 11.3; Matt Forte, 10.7; Stevan Ridley, 10.6; Frank Gore, 10.4; Chris Johnson, 10.1; Maurice Jones-Drew, 10.1; David Wilson, 9.6; Darren McFadden, 9.9; Montee Ball, 9.5; Darren Sproles, 9; DeMarco Murray, 8.9; Reggie Bush, 9.1.
So there you have it. Twenty-two running backs who get within 10 points or so. Ten running backs who get within 14 points or so (I think there's upside in Morris' and McCoy's projections, but that's just nit-picking). Now let's go back to our target list:
QB: 17 pts | RB1: 13 | RB2: 10 | WR1: 11| WR2: 10
Flex: 10 | TE: 7 | D/ST: 8 | K: 8 | total = 94
I want you to have this handy during your draft. And I also want you to have a points-per-game average on whatever rankings/cheat sheet you use. You can also tweak the projected points, obviously, to whatever you feel is a legitimate target.
So let's say you get pick No. 6, running backs are taken in the first five and you go ahead and pull the trigger on C.J. Spiller at six. You look at our handy sheet and see ESPN projects him for 13 points a game. So we go to our sheet and write it in:
QB: 17 pts | RB1: Spiller 13 | RB2: 10 | WR1: 11| WR2: 10
Flex: 10 | TE: 7 | D/ST: 8 | K: 8 | total = 94
Now in Round 2, you decided to go running back again and Stevan Ridley is there. You grab him and now we have this (we're going to round our numbers to keep things simple, which you want to do in a draft):
QB: 17 pts | RB1: Spiller 13 | RB2: Ridley 11 | WR1: 11| WR2: 10
Flex: 10 | TE: 7 | D/ST: 8 | K: 8 | total = 95
Now Round 3 comes around and you look at the expected weekly point average of wide receivers. Here's a partial list:
Calvin Johnson, 13.8; A.J. Green, 11.8; Dez Bryant, 11.9; Brandon Marshall, 11.5; Julio Jones, 10.9; Demaryius Thomas, 10.5; Percy Harvin, 10.4; Roddy White, 10.4; Vincent Jackson, 10.3; Andre Johnson, 10.4; Randall Cobb, 10.1; Larry Fitzgerald, 9.8; Wes Welker, 9.1; Victor Cruz, 8.9; Marques Colston, 8.8; Reggie Wayne, 8.8; Jordy Nelson, 9.1; Mike Wallace, 9.1.
So you check this list and because most people went running back early, Roddy White is hanging around, so you grab him and once again, write him in:
QB: 17 pts | RB1: Spiller 13 | RB2: Ridley 11 | WR1: White 10| WR2: 10
Flex: 10 | TE: 7 | D/ST: 8 | K: 8 | total = 94
Right now, we're right on target, but even if we were off by a point or two, at this juncture, it wouldn't matter too much. In Round 4, you've been planning on going with another wide receiver but Cam Newton keeps falling. You look at two things:
One, the entire list of wide receivers, and see that there are still 15 or so left who will be in the neighborhood of 10 points a game. And there are 10 more after that who are in the eight-point range and some of them, like Dwayne Bowe, Cecil Shorts and Antonio Brown, you think are going to have big years (preview of some guys who will make the "Love" list this year), so your list is even deeper than ESPN's. Second, the expected weekly point average of quarterbacks. Here's another partial list:
Aaron Rodgers, 20.7; Drew Brees, 19.6; Tom Brady, 19.8; Peyton Manning, 19.1; Cam Newton, 19.0; Matt Ryan, 18.5; Colin Kaepernick, 18; Russell Wilson, 17.3; Robert Griffin III, 15.8; Matthew Stafford, 17; Andrew Luck, 16.5; Tony Romo, 16.7; Eli Manning, 13.7; Ben Roethlisberger, 13; Joe Flacco, 12.7.
So you go ahead and roster Cam Newton. Now we look at our targets once again:
QB: NEWTON 19 pts | RB1: Spiller 13 | RB2: Ridley 11 | WR1: White 10| WR2: 10
Flex: 10 | TE: 7 | D/ST: 8 | K: 8 | total = 96
Now, we have a couple of points to play with if we want, but truthfully, we're not really concerned about 96 or 93 points or anything like that. The difference could just as well be in the rounding. What you've been doing is following a roadmap, a quick way to see abundance and scarcity, to be able, at a glance, to make sure you are constructing a balanced team while also allowing you to adjust on the fly.
You want an example? As you wish. Let's say you once again went Spiller in the first, but in the second you're considering taking Jimmy Graham, so you don't have to deal with weekly TE roulette. Now you look at your little list and see that you've slotted seven points a week from the tight end spot:
QB: 17 pts | RB1: Spiller 13 | RB2: 10 | WR1: 11| WR2: 10
Flex: 10 | TE: 7 | D/ST: 8 | K: 8 | total = 94
Now, you look at our projected weekly averages for tight end:
Jimmy Graham, 10.2; Rob Gronkowski, 10.2; Tony Gonzalez, 7.8; Jason Witten, 7.2; Vernon Davis, 6.7; Dennis Pitta, 6.7; Kyle Rudolph, 5.8; Owen Daniels, 5.8; Greg Olsen, 6; Antonio Gates, 5.8; Brandon Myers, 5.8; Jared Cook, 5.5; Martellus Bennett, 5.5.
So you draft Graham and now you have 10 points at your tight end spot rather than seven (frankly, I'd put Graham at 12 points a week, if not higher, but we're going with these numbers). Now your sheet looks like this:
QB: 17 pts | RB1: Spiller 13 | RB2: 10 | WR1: 11| WR2: 10
Flex: 10 | TE: GRAHAM 10 | D/ST: 8 | K: 8 | total = 97
You can now adjust (if you want) one of the positions down three points. For example, you can take out a point at WR1 and two from Flex:
QB: 17 pts | RB1: Spiller 13 | RB2: 10 | WR1: 10| WR2: 10
Flex: 8 | TE: Graham 10 | D/ST: 8 | K: 8 | total = 94
Having adjusted my targets beforehand, I can now continue to realistically look at the player pool and see where and when I should strike, position by position. After all, it was going to be a stretch to find a wide receiver with 11 points and still get a No. 2 running back who could score me 10, and because I'm now not going to be one of the last to get a tight end, I'll be picking from a pool of flex players a round later than I would have had I not taken a tight end. By adjusting my flex player to eight points, I have a more realistic idea of whom I need to roster, and I won't panic when the potential flex players start to dwindle. Knowing what my goal is now -- eight points -- expands my list of potential targets and will help keep me from reaching if, for example, I'd rather take a running back handcuff than my flex at a certain juncture. How will you keep track? It's all fairly simple math and should be easy to do on the fly, but you'll want to make sure you get used to it and practice this a few times with mock drafts, etc. Nothing is worse than losing track of a draft because you're busy doing paperwork.
So, about the word "often"
I said earlier that you need to go running back early and often. Why? I mean, isn't the whole point of going running back in the first and mostly second round so we don't have to worry about running back?
Well, yes, but running backs get hurt, (he said, shocking no one). And players can sometimes underperform. And the more you have of a scarce commodity, the more options you have when it comes to trades or lineup construction. That 10 (or 8) points from the flex position is going to be the hardest to come up with on a weekly basis, especially during bye weeks.
In fantasy baseball, one of my big slogans for years in mixed leagues has been "Don't pay for saves." The reason is that there is a lot of turnover at that position, for a variety of reasons, and saves always come into fantasy leagues via the waiver wire or by sleepers panning out.
I feel the same way about running backs. Go back to the part in this article where I talked about the various situations at running back. As I write this in mid-June, we don't know who will be the guy in Green Bay or Pittsburgh, or if Lamar Miller and David Wilson can seize opportunities, or whether McFadden can finally stay healthy, or the answer to a million other questions. We don't know that now, but eventually we will.
We don't know who'll be this year's Alfred Morris, C.J. Spiller, Doug Martin or Stevan Ridley. We don't know who'll be this year's Knowshon Moreno, Marcel Reece, Vick Ballard or Bryce Brown. The guys who will be crucial to us for a few weeks in the middle of a season to help get through injuries and bye weeks. There will be guys like that. There always are. I could use a huge chart showing that, over the past four years, over 40 percent of the running backs who finished the year inside the top 20 were not drafted as such, but frankly, at this point, I expect you'll just take my word for it. I think we've had enough charts for today. I can assure you, top-20 running back production comes into the league more than any other position. Plus, if you've played a few years, you already know it's true; there are always guys you grab on waivers who become fantasy stars, be it for an entire season like Morris, or for just a few weeks like the Browns (Andre and Bryce).
I call them lottery tickets. And I want as many of them as possible.
So here's how I want to construct my roster in a 10-team, or even a 12-team league.
• I want one quarterback. Maybe you grab a backup if you wind up with a risk like RG III, but otherwise, I'll play the waiver wire if something happens to my stud and address it during his bye week.
• I want one tight end. Maybe you grab a backup if you end up with Gronkowsk, who is a risk, but otherwise they are all the same at a certain point, and you'll drive yourself nuts trying to decide which one to start on a weekly basis. Pick one guy and just roll with the ups and downs.
• I want one kicker and one defense, and those will be whatever I can get with my final two picks.
The rest of my roster is all running backs and wide receivers. And when in doubt, go running back. In an ESPN standard league, with 16 roster spots (nine starters, seven bench) I ideally want seven running backs and five wideouts. If I have super-strong running backs and I don't love my wideouts, maybe I'll go six and six to try to catch lightning in a bottle at wide receiver, but you have a better shot of finding a productive wideout on the waiver wire in Week 3 than finding a running back.
Running backs are scarce. They are to be collected, petted and called "my precious" in a creepy voice. Yeah, that's right: They're so scarce I had to go off-theme to find the appropriate movie reference.
Fifteen rules of drafting, 2013 edition
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. It's like dropping off your date at the end of the night. If you don't know what you're doing now, the next 10 minutes aren't going to help. 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. You've read some of these before, but I added a bunch of new ones, just to make things interesting.
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 "Fortunately, you didn't grab the correct guy" -- will do wonders to rattle your less-confident league mates. If you really want to rattle them, however, you might want to try the ol' "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." Note that this is particularly effective if your name is, in fact, Inigo Montoya.
2. Have a plan. Ideally, you'll know which pick you have before the draft, so run through scenarios: What guy are you likely to get, what guy would you hope falls to you, and what happens if you have pick No. 9 and there are only eight guys you really like in the first round, and they all go before you pick? I've given you the tools to formulate a plan, but drawing that plan and then following it, adapting as the draft unfolds, that's all on you, and the better prepared you are for each situation, the better you'll do.
3. Practice makes perfect. Yeah, I'm a company man but the fact remains: The more you do something, the better you get at it. My career notwithstanding. We have free mock draft and mock auction lobbies open 24/7. Jump in and practice drafting. And try picking from different spots. Try different things. See what happens if you don't go running back/running back. If you get Graham in the second. If you draft Calvin or Rodgers in the first. The more scenarios you face, the less fazed you'll be when something screwy happens in your real draft.
4. If you find yourself getting squeezed out of a position, don't panic. Say you wait too long on quarterbacks in a 14-teamer. Instead of reaching for someone like Sam Bradford, grab yet another running back. Or the last decent tight end. Give yourself something to trade with. Bradford, or someone just like him, will still be there a round later, trust me. But by getting a surplus somewhere else rather than just grabbing the best available at a depleted position, you'll be in a position to help yourself later.
5. If you are at one end of a snake draft, grab what you need when you can. Let's say it's your pick and you really want a good wide receiver. You see there are at least eight guys left you could live with since they have the expected weekly point average you need, so you figure you can wait a little longer and proceed to grab your third and fourth running backs to start your stockpile. But one good run and you're screwed. It's 18 picks until you get to choose again (in a 10-team league). Don't wait. Grab what you need first, get surplus later (unless you're in a situation like I described above in No. 4).
6. Don't sweat bye weeks. So much can happen during a season in terms of injuries, role changes and what a good or poor matchup is, you're not gonna know what you want to do in a given week until you're setting your lineup that week. So get the best player, period. There's even an argument to be made for trying to have every player have the same bye week. Yes, you take it on the chin one week, but you're at full strength every other week and all your opponents are not. Ken Daube calls this "bye week stacking," and if it has a kicky name, it has to work, right?
7. By that same token, I never worry about things like whether a player is on the same team as another guy I've already rostered. You're trying to get the best possible team, period. If the next-best guy available is the wide receiver for your quarterback, so be it. Don't get cute or overthink it.
8. I also never really worry about playoff schedules or schedules in general. We just don't know how defenses will perform. I remember getting questions at this time last year about avoiding the Jets and the Eagles in the playoffs. By the time those weeks came about, you prayed you were facing those teams. Same thing happened with the Ravens in the middle of the season last year; with all their injuries, they weren't making you second-guess starting your running backs against them. Draft the best team possible.
9. Please realize that all rankings -- including mine -- are guidelines and not hard and fast. They are not designed to be followed dogmatically. I'll often get a question like, "I have the second pick and I really want LeSean McCoy. Is that too early?" While yes, I have McCoy toward the end of the first, the answer is it's your team. McCoy will not be there when you pick in the second round, so if you believe Chip Kelly is going to bring him back to his 2011 glory days, grab him there and don't listen to what anyone else says. Of course, this is yet another reason auctions are better.
10. I like to look at average draft positions so I have a general idea of where guys I am targeting are going. I don't necessarily recommend reaching, but in the later rounds, when you're looking for upside, if there's someone who makes your heart go pitter-pat, knowing where he normally gets drafted can only help.
11. Regarding those last two points, understand that the default ranks on whatever website you play on greatly influence the average draft positions. I would love it if everyone played on ESPN, but I am aware that there are other places to play. So say ESPN ranks Wes Welker 38th overall, as we currently have him. His average draft position is going to be somewhere in the mid- to late-fourth round. Now, on another site that offers fantasy football, Welker's rank is 56. So on that site, he'll go somewhere in the sixth round in most drafts. Just understand that as you take our content and apply it elsewhere.
12. My take on Rob Gronkowski is that he's worth the risk in the fourth or fifth round. I have Jimmy Graham as my No. 1 tight end; Gronk is still No. 2, but much lower in the overall ranks. We just don't know what we're dealing with in terms of Gronk and it's not like the Patriots are gonna be real forthcoming with anything. His upside is so great and there's such depth at other positions that if I had two good runners and one good wideout, I'd probably take a chance on him in the fourth, depending on how the rest of the draft is going. Even eight or 10 games out of Gronk, plus a replacement-level guy for six games or whatever, is gonna give me a better shot at eight wins -- not to mention a possible major advantage in the playoffs -- than just about anyone else out there.
13. My only thought on kickers, besides using your last pick to get one, is that, if I can, I like to choose one with a late bye week. That way I don't have to waste an early week (and often crucial) waiver move/claim on a replacement kicker. It's not a huge deal, but it just gives you more time to not have to deal with it.
14. Once you've read this manifesto, everything else you read will be player-based. Guys I like and love, those I dislike and "hate" and all that. So I won't get into player stuff here. But I will quickly say that I feel our overall point totals are a tad too conservative. Now, this is a good thing -- it forces you to aim high when constructing your team -- but depending on what you're comfortable with, feel free to add one point (or just round up) to each player's weekly projected average points.
15. Have fun! When I was writing my book "Fantasy Life" (am I really slapping one more plug in? You're damn right I am), fun was one of the themes that kept coming back to me. Whether it's having weird rules, great trash talk, weekly traditions, an amazing trophy or outlandish punishments for losing (getting your belly button pierced do anything for you? Because I've got a guy in the book who lost his league who had to do that!) the important thing is to have fun.
It's about loving it when your running back vultures a touchdown, getting five field goals from your kicker, being able to call your buddy on Monday morning and just laugh into the phone for five minutes. It's about hilarious team names, cursing your favorite receiver for dropping a touchdown, and deciding that you don't care if it's a boy or a girl; you're naming your next kid Dez.
Remember, we do this for leisure. We all play to win, but it's not worth ruining friendships over. Well, unless you've really got a shot at the title. And it's not that good a friend. I mean, come on, you can always get a new friend. Or wife.
Good luck storming the castle.
Matthew Berry -- The Talented Mr. Roto -- has been known to fight gangs for charities and stuff. He is the creator of RotoPass.com, a website that combines a bunch of well-known fantasy sites, including ESPN Insider, for one low price. Use promo code ESPN for 10 percent off. You may have also heard: He's written a book.