The Gut Check No. 257 - Rehabs and Startups: Building a Dynasty
By Matt Waldman
August 14th, 2012

I love dynasty leagues. The only fantasy football situation I love more is inheriting a reclamation project of a dynasty team and rehabbing it into a perennial contender. Even if you only play in re-draft leagues, the advice I'm dishing out in this article will help many of you become a better player. I'll address the re-draft angle at the end of each section.

I'm outlining concepts that fantasy owners should be thinking about when building team in re-draft or dynasty leagues as well as taking over a dynasty reclamation project. Some of these points you already know, but presented in a holistic way that you might not have thought about before.

Think in Windows of 2-3 Years: The career life span of the average NFL player is between 2-3 years. I realize we can name plenty of football players with 8-12 years of starter production, 5-7 Pro Bowl seasons, but even with these players three-year windows are helpful. Think of a player's career having five potential stages:

  • Prospect The first 2-3 years of a player's career in the league.
  • Prime This begins the year a player reaches top-12 or top-24 production at his position.
  • Veteran This is the stage of sustained fantasy starter or flex-play production outside the top-12 (QB) or top-24 (non-QB).
  • Decline When a player suffers a significant drop in production and becomes a role player on his team. Think Ladainian Tomlinson or Ricky Williams in 2011.
  • Retirement
  • If that player manages to experience each stage of this cycle with an average of 2-3 years in each stage, his career will last between 10-15 seasons. Generally, injury or ineffective play takes a player from any of these first four stages directly to retirement.

    Let's use Broncos running back Terrell Davis as an example. His 1117-yard, 7-touchdown rookie year cycled from the Prospect stage to his Prime within the span 14 games. From 1996-1998, year's two through four of his career, Davis was producing in his prime, with no less than 1848 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns. Injuries between 1999-2001 took Davis' career cycle from Prime to Decline and subsequently Retirement.

    The problem is defining the stage a player is in. It is often difficult to tell when a player has progressed from Veteran to Decline. In other words, how close is the player to that cliff? I don't have an answer for it. Even Chase Stuart, who studies the numbers as well as anyone, tells us that the best way to look at this phenomenon on a player-by-play, and year-to-year basis.

    How does this apply in re-draft leagues: Look for healthy players ranked lower than their career stats deserve and consider if they are undervalued this year. Steven Jackson, Reggie Wayne, and Frank Gore are three terrific players that I think have bargain value this year. If you can spot enough of these bargains in re-drafts, it can help you devise tiers in your rankings that provide enormous draft day flexibility towards building a competitive team.

    I suggest building a cheat sheet with ADP data next to the player's name. Make sure the ADP data is an average of mock drafts from the past 7-14 days and a high enough volume of drafts to be meaningful. If you do this, you'll begin to recognize that how you personally value a set of running backs might include players in the same tiers with ADPs ranging from the first round to the fifth round. If you feel confident that you have 2-3 players in a tier at the bottom range of that ADP that means you have enough depth to be flexible with your draft strategy.

    Continuous Assessment of Player Stages: When it's all said and done, it's vital to attempt this type of assessment with players in order to gain some level of clarity with your approach to building or overhauling a roster. Ideally, I want a team that is always weighted with a majority of players in the Prospect and Prime stages. Let's use a 25-man roster for approximate percentages of what I consider acceptable distribution:

  • 25-30% Prospects: 5-8 players
  • 35-60% Prime Players: 9-16 players
  • 5-15% Veterans: 1-4 players
  • 0-5% Declining players: 1 player at most
  • No one really wants declining players on a roster, but you have to account for the fact that no one really knows if a player is truly in decline without the advantage of hindsight. You're hoping you make enough accurate assessments with the Veteran stage players that at most, only one of them is truly in decline during the season they're on your team. If that's not the case, it's time to make adjustments through trades and the waiver wire. Personally I wouldn't get too mathematical about assessing my team, but if you're new to dynasty leagues using this template to analyze your distribution of talent is helpful.

    I believe assessing players in two- or three-year increments is a good rule of thumb to gauge a player's development, peak, and decline. This will help you determine whether your team is competitive or in rebuilding mode. It will also help you draft a roster balanced with players that can help you now and prospects that will pay off later.

    That said, it's still good to counter balance this point with understanding that certain positions have a longer shelf life than others once they hit their stride. While I still view these players in two- or three-year increments, I keep in mind that quarterback, wide receiver, and tight end can have careers 1.5 to 2 times as long as running back. This leads to my second point.

    Research and Buy "Anchors": I believe certain positions can be the anchors of a consistent and competitive dynasty roster and this gives the team a broad window to contend for a title. An elite quarterback is tops on my list. These players have long and productive careers that are often 2-4 times longer than the careers of starting running backs and receivers.

    Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James, and Joseph Addai were good, if not great fantasy running backs, but Peyton Manning has played with all three and he's still competing and a viable QB1. Brett Favre had Edgar Bennett, Dorsey Levens, Ahman Green, and Ryan Grant. I'm sure I left a few out.

    Even Tom Brady has played with Corey Dillon, Antowain Smith, Laurence Maroney, and several other high-round picks. You get the point. With an elite QB, you can set him and forget him for the next decade while stockpiling other positions.

    Tight end is another good anchor position. Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, and Jason Witten are good examples of elite tight ends with longevity. They are usually the best all-around athletes on the field and offenses that feature tight ends don't veer away from the strategy enough to see these players go from starter to non-starter. This is another "set it and forget it" position, and a position that can compensate for depth issues at receiver or a flex position depending on the league.

    "No.1 receivers" Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Brandon Marshall, Reggie Wayne, and Andre Johnson are all great examples of receivers that provided strong production for years. Even if they have an "off-year," that off-year is still likely earning starter production. Calvin Johnson, Roddy White, and Hakeem Nicks are all good examples of No.1 receivers likely to still be strong fantasy starters after players like Ray Rice, Maurice Jones Drew, Chris Johnson, and Arian Foster are gone from the league. Best yet, they tend to decline slow enough that if your team continues to develop young players, these receivers can serve as valuable depth.

    Middle Linebackers: Think about how long London Fletcher has been a productive fantasy player. Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher, too. Patrick Willis will have a good shot as well. Think of anchor linebackers as the fantasy wide receivers of the defense.

    Stockpile These Positions: Running Back, Wide Receiver, Linebacker, and Defensive End

    There's great depth of talent at all three positions in the NFL. These positions also suffer enough injuries that you want to carry enough players for three reasons: talent development, injury depth, and trade currency. In my opinion, these four positions fluctuate more in value in dynasty leagues than any other. If you think of players as stocks, then you'll begin to see how buying low and selling high can help you.

    When to buy low and sell high is the hardest part of the process. Most owners act too late. However, if you are cautious enough about having strong depth at these positions, you will have a lot of leverage to make deals. Personally, I don't make a lot of trades once I get to a place where I have a depth chart filled of promising youth, but this is just a matter of ownership style. Some owners are excellent wheelers and dealers. I'm better at cultivating depth through the draft and free agency.

    Re-draft angle: These four positions are also more liquid commodities when trading with owners in re-draft leagues. While you this doesn't work if your stockpile is a junkyard, the winning side of this approach is when you acquire talented depth. Every year I see or am those fantasy owners with good, but not great teams transform into champion rosters through the waiver wire and key trades after midseason because they do a strong job of stockpiling one or two of these positions.

    Try to Avoid Trading Offensive Players for Defensive Players: This is a general rule. If you can get Jason Pierre Paul for Kevin Kolb, I high recommend you pull the trigger. However I think it's wise in most leagues to make fewer trades for defensive players with the use of offensive prospects. Most leagues have competitors that don't know the defensive side of the ball as well as the offensive side. Therefore, you'll have better opportunities to select quality defensive starters off the waiver wire. League scoring systems also tend to favor offense. Making trades for defensive players in this environment can be a waste in the long run.

    Don't Avoid Older Players: Steven Jackson, Peyton Manning, Randy Moss, and Antonio Gates can be great players to own in dynasty leagues. The key is if you can honestly say that you're team's time "is now." If you have the horses to compete for a title this year, these players are good enough to help you get there.

    I prefer to only have a handful of one-year-at-time players like these as my starters, but avoiding them can delay your window of opportunity to get over the top. Sometimes if you wait for the Lee Evans, Laurence Maroneys, and Knowshon Morenos to put it all together while bypassing an offer for a guy like Steven Jackson or Frank Gore, you may still be waiting for that championship window to open.

    Jackson, Manning, Gates, and even Moss fit in the assessment stage of Veterans. At any moment their value can plummet, but while they are on the field they are capable of starter production that can help a team. As long as you're not sacrificing multiple Prospects and Prime players that have a potential to be Anchors for your team, having 1-3 of these Veteran "my time is now," players is acceptable, if not a good idea.

    Re-draft angle: Your time is now, don't avoid players due to age. Only avoid if there's a clear talent decline, poor fit with an offense, or they begin to head-butt spouses.

    Dynasty Rehabs and Dynasty Startups How to Approach the Rookie Draft

    Whether you're in a new league or inheriting a rehab project, it's a good idea to develop and execute a draft strategy well before the startup or rookie draft. Two general courses of direction involve how you approach draft picks: stockpile or trade away? There's no right answer. Just have an answer and execute it well.

    A great way to stockpile picks in new leagues is to engineer draft day trades in the startup draft. As my colleague and friend Sigmund Bloom says, the urgency for a draft pick is never higher than when the draft is in full swing. It is the same mentality that drives people to pay top-dollar on a car lot. Exploit this tendency.

    Identifying teams in that "my time is now" window is also a great way to stockpile picks. If you're willing to trade away veteran players with QB1, TE1, WR1 production left that are in the year-to-year stage of their careers rather than a two- or three-year window, you can earn future value from a team that knows it's just one or two players away from contending.

    I often rehab teams by trading away picks. Remember, this is coming from a guy who writes 900-1000 pages on rookie prospects every year. I'll frequently trade picks or players and rely on free agency to acquire youth. Denarius Moore and LeGarrette Blount were undrafted rookies I acquired in a competitive dynasty league filed with fantasy football writers.

    I like to identify players in the Prospect stage of their careers that might be testing the patience of their owners due to injuries or initial struggles performing to expectation. Even last year, Matt Stafford was a good example of a player that fit this description in some leagues.

    Steve Smith was another player I targeted on the cheap when he was still a year away from a break-out year in New York. Because I stockpile depth at receiver, and acquired anchor players at quarterback, and tight end, his subsequent injury hasn't eliminated my team from contention.

    Another way to generate picks is to stockpile depth at a position that might not be as liquid as running back, wide receiver, linebacker, or defensive end, if the opportunity is there to do it. I've had leagues where, due to a combination of skill and luck, I had the opportunity to stockpile quarterbacks and tight ends and later use that depth to acquire players I wanted at other positions.

    If the pickings are slim at other positions when initially building a team, but you get a shot at Tom Brady or Antonio Gates even if you have Philip Rivers and Rob Gronkowski, take the deal. Why forego these players when your only option at running back is a deal for Cedric Benson or BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Remember, veteran anchor players at quarterback and tight end will have just as much or more shelf-life as a veteran running back, which makes their trade value higher.

    Take Chances

    Don't be afraid to take a risk. Remember that fantasy football is a game and most likely not your profession. Don't approach risks like your mortgage is on the line. If it is, you're beyond any advice I can give you in a fantasy football article.

    The willingness to engage in risk often pays. It's those that get twice shy after they were burned once who lose the most. I've made lots of moves that didn't pay off. I tried to build a startup three years ago with "win-now players" like Peyton Manning, Randy Moss, Chad Johnson, and Antonio Gates as my "short-term" one-year window players. After a promising start, the team was a complete loser in two years and I'm trying to rebuild.

    On the other hand, I took a one-win team and turned it into a playoff team with Jimmy Graham and A.J. Green as anchors. I just acquired Peyton Manning this spring as my one-year window player. Sometimes timing is everything. Keep plugging.

    As always, feel free to provide comments or suggestions to waldman@footballguys.com.

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