Upside of the End Game (2011)
By Jason Wood
August 27th, 2011

For many fantasy football owners, draft day is the best part of the experience. In many ways it's the culmination of all the preparation over the prior months all rolled into a few hours sitting around a room with your best friends. Nothing can beat the high of feeling like you've dominated your draft and have set yourself up for a championship run. But in order to really maximize your chances of a fantasy title, you have to understand that the draft is but the first part in a long journey. In spite of all the preparation, all the debates, all the shuffling of your rankings, there are going to be players that seemingly come out of nowhere to put up huge numbers. And that's why it mystifies me the way some fantasy leaguers treat the end game - those last few picks that you use to fill out your roster.

Let's say you're in a 10- or 12-team league with 20 roster spots. In that case, most people will draft two quarterbacks, and maybe a few will grab a third for insurance. Everyone will grab one or two defenses, a kicker (or two), and probably no more than two tight ends.

  • 2 quarterbacks
  • 2 tight ends
  • 1 or 2 defenses
  • 1 or 2 place kickers
  • 6 to 8 roster spots
  • 12 to 14 spots remaining for RB/WR
  • There's some logic in drafting more RBs and WRs because you'll usually have to start more players at those two positions. In a typical lineup, you'll have to start at least 2 RBs and 2 WRs, although we find at Footballguys that 2 RB / 3 WR lineups are more common. You might also have a utility spot which most fantasy owners would choose to deploy another RB or WR.

    This brings us back to the end game and how to master your draft day outcome. If you assume the average owner in your league will draft six or seven wide receivers that means you'll have 60-70 come off the board in 10-team leagues, and 72-84 in 12-team leagues. Do the math. There are only 64 projected starting wide receivers to start the season, and 32 projected starting tailbacks. That means you're going to have to draft a lot of backups to fill out your roster.

    And yet I always see owners in my leagues pull the "Michael Jenkins." It seems that every year, someone in my leagues will call out Michael Jenkins' name toward the end of our draft. I'll look at them askance and say, "Really?" To which they'll usually reply that they're happy to draft a "starter on the cheap." This is exactly how NOT to dominate your end game.

    Michael Jenkins' Career Numbers

    Year
    Team
    Gms
    Recs
    Yrds
    YPR
    TDs
    FPTs
    FantRank
    2004
    Atl
    16
    7
    119
    17.0
    0
    12
    135
    2005
    Atl
    14
    36
    508
    14.1
    3
    69
    59
    2006
    Atl
    16
    39
    436
    11.2
    7
    86
    50
    2007
    Atl
    15
    53
    532
    10.0
    4
    77
    58
    2008
    Atl
    16
    50
    777
    15.5
    3
    96
    41
    2009
    Atl
    15
    50
    635
    12.7
    1
    70
    68
    2010
    Atl
    11
    41
    505
    12.3
    2
    63
    75

    Jenkins is THE definition of a replacement level player. Sure, he has started for much of his career, but so what? He started and yet could barely muster a Top 50 fantasy ranking in most years. I could see drafting him in his first few seasons, thinking he was on the verge of breaking out. But at what point did the madness stop? It hasn't yet!

    Avoiding the "Michael Jenkins" - Aka, the Upside of the End Game

    The end game should be ALL about upside potential. While it's very risky to draft an unproven commodity in the early rounds of your draft, it's equally risky to avoid drafting long-shots late in the draft. History tells us that a good chunk of your roster is going to turn over during the season, so you shouldn't worry about finding the guys who are likely to catch 30-40 passes or get 100 carries. You need to focus on the guys who, if the opportunity presents itself, can explode onto the scene and be factors in your starting lineup. When you draft a guy like Jenkins, he's going to be the first person you look to drop when you make a waiver pickup. So if those late picks are likely to get cut anyway, why not take fliers on greatness? I would much rather be the guy who has Jamaal Charles or Arian Foster or Mike Wallace sitting on my bench than the guy who has to fight for them on waivers and risk being out bid.

    2011's "Michael Jenkins"

    Here are a number of players that I can guarantee will be drafted in most of your leagues, yet have little to no upside potential. Instead of taking these "Jenkins", I'm going to give you some younger, high risk/high reward players to fill out your roster. You'll thank me later.

    AVOID: (Starting with the obvious)...Michael Jenkins, WR, Minnesota Vikings (ADP: WR76)
    Jenkins started 64 games for Atlanta yet the Falcons couldn't part ways with him fast enough this offseason. Jenkins quickly landed in Minnesota and may even be a "starter" but he remains the poster boy for low-risk, low-reward picks that rarely help you at the end of your drafts. In seven seasons, Jenkins has never finished higher than 41st, and has failed to crack the top 60 (!) in each of the last two seasons.

    END GAME ALTERNATIVE: Andre Roberts, WR, Arizona Cardinals (ADP: WR77)
    Roberts, like Jenkins, is battling for the WR2 job on a team with a new quarterback. Unlike Jenkins, Roberts is young, uber-talented and could be in line for a breakout season if the dominoes fall into place. Lining up opposite Larry Fitzgerald is going to provide a lot of one-on-one opportunities, and Roberts need only hold off Early Doucet for a few more weeks to enter Week One as a starter. Roberts came into the NFL ready to contribute, and was a 3rd round pick in spite of playing for The Citadel - had he taken his same film and labeled it from an SEC school - he would've been a 1st round pick. He is going at the tail end of 12-team redrafts, but could EASILY be a guy that delivers top 30 numbers if Kevin Kolb is as good as the Cardinals hope he'll be.

    AVOID: Jacoby Jones, WR, Houston Texans (ADP: WR60)
    Every year someone in your league gets worked up about the "potential" of Jacoby Jones. At 6'3", 192 pounds and possessing blazing speed, with Andre Johnson on the opposite side and QB Matt Schaub under center, it seems that Jones need only to gain consistency to become a fantasy star. Yet, he's entering his fifth season and at this point the odds are stacked against him. His career highs in receptions (39) and yards (426) are pathetic, particularly for a team that throws for 4,000+ yards a season. Worse yet, Jones has TWO career TDs, in 59 games. With Kevin Walter still hanging around and a healthy TE Owen Daniels serving as Schaub's #2 target behind Andre Johnson, there are better options at the end of your draft.

    END GAME ALTERNATIVE: Arrelious Benn, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (ADP: WR63)
    Benn was one of my deep sleeper choices, and here are my reasons why. Benn was overshadowed by fellow rookie Mike Williams last year, but fantasy owners have been way too quick to dismiss his potential. Benn was a 2nd round pick (higher than Williams) and was considered a polished, physical receiver coming out of Illinois. At 6'2", 225 pounds, Benn has the potential to dominate opposing defensive backs, particularly in the red zone. Nagging injuries and a slow start in camp really hurt his potential as a rookie, but all bets are off this year. With Josh Freeman emerging as a great young franchise passer, Benn can easily take a major leap forward this year.

    AVOID: Devin Hester, WR, Chicago Bears (ADP: WR64)
    Every year fantasy owners seem to fall for the same song and dance. Hester is touted as a "starter" and we're told that he's worked on refining his game such that we're going to see him evolve into a true NFL caliber receiver instead of the league's best returner. This year, ironically, we initially heard the opposite, but since camp got underway Hester has been listed on the 1st team depth chart. Who cares? Watch him play and you see his limitations. He's DEADLY in the open field, but he doesn't run precise routes, cannot overpower defensive backs and lacks ball-tracking instincts. In five NFL seasons, he's never finished higher than WR44. More importantly, he finished as the 64th ranked WR last year playing for Mike Martz. With Earl Bennett, Johnny Knox and, yes, Roy Williams in the mix - Hester has precious little upside even as a late round pick.

    END GAME ALTERNATIVE: Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (ADP: WR79)
    Brown is likely off the radar of most of your league members, and that means you can grab him at the tail end of your draft. While it's true he's technically 4th on the Steelers depth chart, the key to this strategy is to draft talented players with genuine breakthrough upside. Brown fits that bill to a tee. He only caught 16 receptions for 167 yards as a rookie, but he's been explosive throughout the preseason. With Hines Ward turning his attention to dancing, and Emmanuel Sanders coming off another foot surgery, Brown could easily be the Steelers #2 receiver within a few weeks. He's a long shot, but if he gets his opportunity, he has the game, the system, and the QB to be a star.

    AVOID: Ben Obomanu, WR, Seattle Seahawks (ADP: WR71)
    Obomanu did yeoman's work last year when forced into the lineup, netting 30 receptions for 494 yards and 4 TDs over 15 games (6 starts), but his situation couldn't be less enticing. He's missed time in all four seasons, and is now behind Sidney Rice and Mike Williams. I honestly believe Mike Williams is one of the least inspiring NFL starting WRs...and yet there's been nary a hint that Obomanu is better. As if that weren't discouraging enough, the decision to acquire Tarvaris Jackson and build around him is a head scratcher. Even if Jackson proves the doubters wrong, he's going to be throwing to the starting wideouts and young Pro Bowl caliber TE Zach Miller over Obomanu.

    END GAME ALTERNATIVE: Jason Hill, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars (ADP: WR82)
    Jason Hill is the ultimate end game option. He's done next to nothing thus far in his four seasons to make casual fantasy owners notice him. Mike Singletary cut Hill last year in a fit of frustration, but I think we can now say that the 49ers issues extended significantly beyond Hill's disappointing tenure. Hill latched on in Jacksonville and had no time to acclimate to the offense, but still made plays (7 receptions for 145 yards in the final two games) based on his natural physical gifts. This offseason, the Jaguars had enough confidence in Hill to let Mike Sims-Walker depart in free agency without an offer, and installed Hill as the starter opposite Mike Thomas. Hill may not amount to much, but we'll know within the first week or two of the season. Drafting him gives you the chance of landing a starter with rare physical gifts in the last few rounds.

    AVOID: Tashard Choice, RB, Dallas Cowboys (ADP: RB58)
    Choice was forced into the starting lineup for three games as a rookie (2008), and surprised with 269 yards rushing, 16 receptions, 155 yards receiving and 2 TDs. That had a lot of fantasy owners figuring him as a perfect handcuff for Marion Barber in 2009; with some arguing he was the better option late in drafts than Felix Jones. Unfortunately for Choice, he's seen his role reduced with each season (from 472 yards rushing to 349 yards to 243 yards in 2010) and Dallas beat writers have started to speculate he may not even make the final 53-man roster. Even if he does, the Cowboys are committed to giving Felix Jones the feature role, and drafted DeMarco Murray in the 3rd round of this year's draft. Choice may get a shot on another team - he's talented - but he faces long odds to contribute much as a Cowboy.

    END GAME ALTERNATIVE: Ben Tate, RB, Houston Texans (ADP: RB60)
    If Ben Tate didn't break his fibula and tear ankle ligaments before his rookie season, we might have never seen what Arian Foster was capable of as a full-time workhorse. The Texans drafted Tate - a bruising 5'11", 220-pound Auburn Tiger - in the 2nd round and were ready to let him compete for a significant role. As fate would have it, Foster was too good to even consider forcing into a time share this year. BUT, Tate has looked fantastic since his return to practice, quickly vaulting ahead of Steve Slaton and Derrick Ward. If Foster got hurt, Tate has the pedigree and goodwill within the organization to get a shot at the feature role. Considering how well the Texans line blocked for Foster, that kind of opportunity cannot be discounted on draft night.

    AVOID: Donald Brown, RB, Indianapolis Colts (ADP: RB55)
    I had high hopes for the former UConn Husky after the Colts used a 1st round pick on Brown in the 2009 draft, but it hasn't worked out in Indianapolis. While some may argue I'm giving up on Brown too quickly sine he's only 24 years old, I have trouble seeing the upside here. He's averaged 3.8 yards per rush in two seasons, has had difficulty staying healthy, and even when healthy the coaching staff has been reluctant to play him. Remember that Indianapolis resurrected Dominic Rhodes last year and gave carries to Javarris James in key late season games instead of trusting Brown. This offseason the Colts re-signed Joseph Addai and drafted Delone Carter. Brown's goose appears to be cooked.

    END GAME ALTERNATIVE: Javon Ringer, RB, Tennessee Titans (ADP: RB57)
    Ringer is a 3rd year RB much like Donald Brown, but that's where the similarities end. Ringer has sat behind one of the league's best players - Chris Johnson - and will be virtually worthless if CJ2K is healthy and satisfied with his contract. But there's the opportunity. Johnson has held out and reportedly is seeking "Larry Fitzgerald" money (i.e., $50 million guaranteed). Even though the Titans have promised to make Johnson the league's highest paid RB, there's a WIDE GAP between that promise and $50 million guaranteed - as there should be. Johnson looks like a genuine risk to sit out regular season games, and you have to wonder about his conditioning regardless. Meanwhile Ringer has averaged 4.9 yards per rush in his first two years, and has looked every bit a franchise caliber back in camp.

    AVOID: Darren Sproles, RB, New Orleans Saints (ADP: RB45)
    The Saints were smart to part ways with Reggie Bush and sign Darren Sproles to play a similar role, for less money. But that doesn't mean fantasy owners are wise to draft the diminutive jack-of-all-trades. The Saints are as deep an offensive unit as you'll ever see and Sproles was signed to play a 3rd down role. Even if both Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas were to get hurt, New Orleans would probably use a committee of backs in their stead, just as they have in the past under Sean Payton. Sproles has never ranked higher than 34th among fantasy runners, and has ranked outside the top 40 in four of five seasons.

    END GAME ALTERNATIVE: Rashad Jennings, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars (ADP: RB46)
    Jennings is going one pick after Sproles, on average, yet offers much higher upside. Jennings - a 6'1", 231-pounder out of small school Liberty - is entering his 3rd season and is the clear cut handcuff to Maurice Jones-Drew. Although Jones-Drew claims he'll be fine this year, it's hard to give him the benefit of the doubt after offseason knee surgery. Jennings has averaged 5.4 yards per rush and 7.7 yards per catch in limited work, and has the confidence of the coaches. If Jones-Drew re-aggravates his knee, Jennings could produce fringe fantasy RB1 numbers - something you'll never get from Sproles.

    AVOID: Justin Forsett, RB, Seattle Seahawks (ADP: RB65)
    Forsett was a bit of a sleeper last year, as some projected him to be a full-time starter after a decent showing late in the 2009 season. New head coach Pete Carroll clearly had other ideas, and used him sparingly as part of a committee early in the season. After the Seahawks acquired Marshawn Lynch in a mid-season trade, Forsett became an afterthought: he had fewer than 10 carries in 11 straight games and scored just once. With Lynch entrenched as the full-time starter and Leon Washington healthy again (and being praised at every turn by the coaches), Forsett is going to have a tough time getting on the field. Given the sorry state of the Seahawks passing game, I'm not sure you want to bet on any SEA RB much less the one that seems out of favor with the coaches.

    END GAME ALTERNATIVE: Kendall Hunter, RB, San Francisco 49er (ADP: RB70)
    Hunter was the 49ers 4th round draft choice this year out of Oklahoma State, and the new coaching staff apparently loves his skill set. Frank Gore is going to be the engine of this offense barring injury, but let's be honest - Gore is hardly an iron man. If the door opens, I expect Hunter - not Anthony Dixon - would become the team's starting tailback (Dixon is playing more fullback), and that could be a recipe for fantasy gold. The 49ers want their feature back to catch a ton of passes, and Hunter is a fluid receiver with great after-the-catch ability. Hunter wasn't able to move the pile in college, and might not have been a perfect fit on other teams, but he is ideally suited for the 49ers offense.

    Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to wood@footballguys.com.

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