"...it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness."
Charles Dickens scribbled that bit of thought in A Tale of Two Cities. He was talking about fantasy football, probably.
Yes, friends, 'tis the season fantasy gurus come out of the woodwork to expound their philosophy, principles and theory of fantasy football. "I'm right, and everyone else is a tool," seems to be the prevailing attitude. If only it was that easy.
Everyone has an opinion regarding the correct way of planning for a fantasy football season, yet it's just like contorting a necktie: there are many ways to do it, and each looks and feels a little differently... but ultimately, they all end up in a fancy knot around someone's neck. That's the desired outcome.
In fantasy football, the desired outcome is a championship, of course. Although at times you may feel like tying a knot around your neck.
As I work on assembling my upcoming player rankings and analysis, I've decided, for the first time ever, to jot down a few of my own strategies for the annual fantasy player selection meeting. I confess I spend way too much time thinking about that event this time of year -- it is still several months away, but I've been a fantasy owner for a long time time now (this is my 25th season) and I get the same feeling of anticipation every June. And I love it.
I have found the pursuit for the grand prize is almost as fun as winning it, and the exhilaration over being a fantasy football champion comes from the reward of a lot of work... and the fact that it is not easy to do. Over the years, I like to think I've learned a few little nuggets. If anything, I've learned the wrong way of doing things! So why not throw in my own two cents into this $70 billion fantasy football universe?
After all, you can never have too much information, right?
So I proudly present, for the first time, The Lone Pylon's Fantasy Football Strateeegery. Enjoy!
Start Early. Very few fantasy owners can print out a list of players, walk into a draft cold and blind, and do well. Especially when mixed with Busch Light. But that's another story.
While there is an element of luck in fantasy football (don't let anyone tell you there's not), and I have seen a handful of owners draft good teams flying by the seat of their pants, it doesn't happen often. Please don't be that owner (but if you are going to be that owner, at least drink a quality microbrew).
So start early. As in, right now. And if you are reading this, you are clearly a fantasy football nerd like me... and you have started early! There are a hundred acres of murky swampland to cover in a fantasy preseason and the more thoroughly you understand players, trends, outlook, injuries and tactics, the greater advantage you'll have over your competition.
Make a Plan. Drafting today is much more unpredictable than it was "back in the day" for several reasons. First, up until about ten years ago, there was never a "flex" option (at least not in leagues I played). Fantasy starting line-ups were fairly rigid years ago, but now there are all kinds of alternatives, which makes drafting erratic. Heck, there are even "super-flex" leagues which require two starting quarterbacks. Obviously, you must tailor your plan to your league.
So have a tentative plan on draft day. Target specific players in the first three rounds, but always have a plan B, a plan C and a plan D. The draft is fluid and the unexpected always happens, so don't paint yourself into a corner. Often a player will fall to you which you were not expecting. Suddenly, you have a running back you didn't think you had a shot at and now the wide receiver you were planning to take is out of the picture.
Fifteen years ago, almost everyone went into the draft with the same philosophy -- draft two running backs in the first two rounds (Stud Running Back Theory). At the time, the NFL was a running back heavy league; running backs were the cash cows of fantasy football and there were plenty to go around in a 10 to 12 team league. But (in case you haven't noticed) NFL rules have evolved to accommodate a massive change in philosophy.
We now live in the age of pass, pass, pass and pass some more (Pop Warner is smiling down upon us). This is not to say you should draft Eric Decker if Jamaal Charles is available, but once the Big Five running backs are off the board (more on that later this summer), it is not unwise to start turning your attention to a monster wide receiver. Or (dare I say it?) even an elite tight end. You want a player who can score fantasy points and in order to do that, you must find a player who will touch the ball as much as possible. Which leads me to my next point...
Ranking Players. Do not go strictly by last year's yards and touchdowns. That's what the casual owners do. Pay special attention to targets (for receivers) and touches (for running backs) as these are critical when analyzing a player's ranking. Why? Because they indicate potential. The more targets/touches a players has, the more potential he has to score fantasy points (analyzing targets/touches is also crucial when looking at free agents during the season). I know this concept sounds painfully obvious, but so many fantasy owners ignore this simple -- and very important -- stat.
And don't forget about the previous year's injuries/suspensions (i.e. decreased playing time). For example, Jacksonville's rookie wide receiver Allen Robinson only had 81 targets/48 catches for 548 yards in 2014, which sounds mundane. But take a closer look. Suddenly you realize that Robinson played in just 10 games and started only eight. Those receiving yards do not look too shabby now.
Likewise, Odell Beckham had a terrific 130 targets, 1,305 yards receiving and 12 touchdowns. And he played in just 12 games. That should give you a holy sh*t moment when looking forward to 2015.
When ranking prospects, also investigate players on new teams and the talent around them. What will be their new role? Often players are reunited with former coaches or coordinators, who have maximized their potential in other scenarios. Lazy fantasy owners won't pay attention to these details, but if you dig deep, your research can turn a fantasy sleeper into a fantasy stud. Sometimes, that stud is the difference between just getting to the playoffs and actually winning your championship.
While you should be mindful of injuries, don't let it sway you too much (barring an amputation or something). I've passed on injured players in past drafts and deeply regretted it. Arian Foster, Matt Forte and Adrian Peterson have all slipped through my fingers over the years in nightmarish fashion because they were either coming off injuries or considered "hurt" at the beginning of the season. Heck, the experts said to avoid them (yes, the experts... can you believe that?)!
Most importantly, never forget miraculous healings of Biblical proportions often occur in the short interval between game four of the preseason and game one of the regular season.
Lastly, adjust rankings according to your gut. Stats give you black and white facts, but fantasy football is far more than just numbers. That's what makes it so much fun.
For example, let's go back to Doug Martin of 2013. Even though he had 1,454 yards and 12 combined TDs the previous season (and I won a fantasy championship with him), there was something in my gut that told me he was not in a position to repeat that. I had no facts to go by, nothing tangible. It was just intuition. I did not draft him (although I could have) and he ended up choking and sputtering his way through 2013. [Full disclosure here before I sprain my shoulder patting myself on the back: I've been equally wrong about other players; Dez Bryant in 2012 was one of them.]
Ignore Bye Weeks. It drives me nuts when I see a fantasy owner pass on the best available player because of a bye week conflict. No one knows what the NFL landscape is going to look like a few weeks into the season (injuries, arrests, etc.), so draft the best players possible; that is your goal as a fantasy owner. Don't compromise the quality of your fantasy squad because of a bye week clash. Deal with the bye weeks as the come. At the very least, you might have some good trade bait down the line.
Grow Thick Skin. Don't be afraid what other league owners think. If there is a player out there you want, have the moxie to draft him early. Now, I am not recommending taking Blair Walsh in the second round, but it's okay to reach for a player if you really have a gut feeling about him.
In 2012, Reggie Wayne was looked upon as yesterday's news. He was 34 years-old and coming off a pedestrian 2011 season (with Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky under center). His average draft position was mid-seventh round, but I had that intestinal feeling he would rebound with rookie Andrew Luck. When I drafted him in the fourth round, my league mates guffawed, threw pistachio shells at me and mocked, "It's not 2007 anymore, Sam!" But Wayne ended up with 1,355 receiving yards (top seven in the league) and five touchdowns. I had the last laugh because I stuck to my guns and my gut was right. And I ate all of their pistachios. Oh, and I won the league championship.
Mock Drafts. These are fun, but I think they are basically useless. I've yet to participate in a real draft that has had the slightest resemblance to a mock draft. I have found that most fantasy owners follow chalk in a mock draft, afraid to think independently; and let's face it, there are some real jerks out there who are exceedingly brave and love to ridicule as long as they can hide behind a computer screen. Again, you need to grow thick skin.
In 2008, I was drafting in the four hole. In mock drafts, I absolutely refused to draft Willie Parker at #4, even though that was chalk -- I had a strange premonition that Fast Willie, who came out of nowhere to take fantasy football by storm in 2005, was nearing the end of his rope. I was much more inclined to select Michael Turner in his first season with the Falcons; it was his first shot as a full time starter in the NFL.
Man, did I get excoriated in mock draft chat rooms. I was even accused of sabotaging drafts ("This is bullish*t." "What kind of retard are you?" "Why would you take someone unproven at #4. Idiot." were among some of the comments made). All because I stuck to my guns. I really wish I knew who those people were behind their tough-guy handles (BlackDeath87, you know who you are), because guess what? BlackDeath87 was dead wrong. And I was right. Michael Turner finished 2008 second in the league in both yards rushing (1,699) and touchdowns (17). Willie Parker? Just 791 yards rushing and five touchdowns. And he missed five games. The following season was his last in the NFL.
Know the Rules. This sounds pretty obvious, but it bears mentioning. First, know the scoring rules of your league and understand that no two leagues are the same. If you're in a league where quarterbacks score six points per passing touchdown, they suddenly become more of a premium than in a league which awards three or four points per passing touchdown. Is your league's scoring system based on performance? Strictly touchdowns? You must adjust your draft strategy accordingly.
Know the required weekly line-up in your league. I've been in leagues in the past with owners who had no idea they had a flex option or didn't know two running backs were required each week. If you're in a wide receiver-heavy league, it is smart to take receivers early. Likewise, you are probably better off not drafting Tom Brady and Drew Brees in back-to-back rounds unless you are in a super-flex league.
Don't Hold Grudges. This is a tough one for me and I've been burned by it. In 1997, my fantasy season was sunk by Terry Glenn. He was coming off a great rookie year, and I drafted him in his second season, thinking I had the new Herman Moore on my roster. But Glenn experienced a horrible sophomore slump, sitting out several games with a bump here and a boil there. I began to hate Terry Glenn to the point that I refused, for years, to draft any player from Ohio State. Yes, that was stupid.
Also, remember you are in it to win it. That means you must put you must put rivalries aside. I am a die-hard Vikings fan, but if Aaron Rodgers or Calvin Johnson or Jordy Nelson are available, I will select them. Why? Because they are great players! Yes, I feel dirty when I do it, but I feel even worse if I lose in fantasy football.
On the flip side, there's no room for "favorites" in fantasy football. Just because a player performed great for you one year does not mean he will do the same the next (go back to my Doug Martin example in 2013). When you start targeting players because you've had "good luck" with them in the past, you are going to get stung. You must draft without emotion and follow your head not your heart (there's a terrible '80s song in there somewhere). And yes, this is extremely difficult because under it all, we are football fans.
And football fans are passionate folks.
Lastly, Don't Be a Homer. Don't draft a player just because he plays for your favorite NFL team. Every fantasy league has an owner who is a homer and the homer's team usually ends up tanking because all the fantasy eggs were placed in one lop-sided basket.
I don't care how much you love the Cleveland Browns, please don't draft Johnny Manziel as your starting fantasy quarterback.