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Faceoff: Shallow Positions

The Footballguys staff discusses positions that lack depth and determine the best strategy at those positions

What positions lack depth this year? Does this lack of depth change your strategy at this position?

Stephen Holloway: The position with the least depth is running back. There are simply fewer running backs league wide with three-down opportunities that it seems ludicrous to not get one or even two of those players at the start of your draft.

Jason Wood: I think Steve is right on with running back, and that's as much a function of the changing nature of NFL offenses as any condemnation of the talent at the position. I think many RBs that are barely fantasy caliber today would've been workhorses years ago when coaches viewed the position differently. With the game being ever more focused on the passing attack, and a better job assessing the individual skills of players on the roster, there just aren't enough bell cows left to "set it and forget it" for your lineup.

Does that change my draft philosophy? Not really in that I've always used a value-based drafting approach and thanks to our Footballguys' tools, it's easy to adjust for the dynamic value of all remaining players in real time.

Heath Cummings: I'm going to take a little different view on this one. I'm not so sure it isn't tight end after the incarceration of Aaron Hernandez and the injury of Dennis Pitta. I want to clarify, because there are now a lot of players that could put up low TE1 numbers, but that's partially because the bar for low TE1 numbers has been lowered. Also, there are a lot of situations where there probably is no TE1 because of a shared load (Philly, Cincy, KC).

This creates a dynamic where there are very few tight ends that really make a difference and a whole bunch of tight ends that could fill in. When I look at my projections I see three elite tight ends (Graham, Witten, Gronkowski) and three tight ends that should be difference makers in your lineup (Olsen, Gonzalez, Davis). The diference between the next 10-15 tight ends is negligible.

As far as strategy goes it means I'll make more of an effort to land one of the top tight ends, because I want a team full of difference makers. It also means that if I miss out on one of the top six tight ends I probably won't take one until the end of the draft because the lower tier of TE1s is very weak.

Matt Waldman: I agree with Heath. It may not change my strategy a lot, but tight end is the shallowest of the pools. Because running back often has the highest amount of positional turnover in fantasy leagues within it's top 24 rankings from year to year, I think the perception of depth is a bit of a fool's gold proposition. The talent is far from shallow. Running back may be the deepest position in sports, if you ask me. The issue is the use of committees. While I'll also indulge in runners in the early ranges of many drafts this year and agree on the surface that if "no one gets hurt" you'll benefit with early picks, I'm not adverse to waiting until the middle rounds. There are some excellent runners, but it depends on how many runners a league starts and the type of flex action.

Shane Vereen, the Packers backs, Rashard Mendenhall, Joique Bell, Ronnie Hillman, and several others have the opportunity to produce as top-24 players or flex plays. Since I think WR is the deepest group on paper this year, I'm less likely to wait on runners as much as receivers in 2013.

Jeff Pasquino: Heath beat me to it. I thought stud TEs were deep, but after 5-6 names (Jimmy Graham, Gronk, Jason Witten, Vernon Davis and Tony Gonzalez) there are risks with the next batch of tight ends. I had Pitta in this group and of course Aaron Hernandez, but now both are gone. In TE premium leagues, the gap is even bigger to the next tier.

Clearly the other group to be concerned with is feature tailback. A team that winds up with two feature studs will have a big leg up on their competition.

Adam Harstad: I agree that tight end is ridiculously shallow this year. Gronkowski and Graham are basically fantasy WR1s with tight end eligibility, but after that the dropoff is swift and steep. I'm far less sanguine than most about Tony Gonzalez- even Hall of Fame pass catchers are a 50/50 proposition at age 37, at best. Jason Witten's huge reception totals last year have obscured the fact that he's been declining in effectiveness for years- his yards per route run has decreased for four straight seasons now, from 1.95 to 1.90 to 1.82 to 1.64 to just 1.59 last season. Also, last year's 658 pass attempts was by far the most in Cowboys history, a whopping 82 attempts more than Dallas's second best season (576 in 2010), and about 100 attempts more than Dallas's average during the Tony Romo era. Vernon Davis has averaged just 100 fantasy points in standard scoring over the last two years, which are extremely low-end TE1 or even TE2 numbers. Don't get me wrong- I agree with the consensus that these guys are the "next tier" behind Graham and Gronk, I'm just pointing out how huge the dropoff really is. I think those "second tier" TEs are a lot closer to the low-end TE1s or waiver wire gems than they are to the big 2.

It seems like a paradox, since tight end production is up across the board from several years ago. Whoever drafts the 10th best TE this year will get production that typically would have ranked in the top 5 at the position. In each of the last two seasons we've seen eleven tight ends top 100 points, after seeing an average of just six per season in the decade preceding. From 2002 to 2004, Jeremy Shockey posted 183/2095/10 and was considered a future Hall of Famer. From 2010 to 2012, Brandon Pettigrew posted 213/2066/12 and was a complete fantasy afterthought. It's a question of the shape of the distribution, though. You have a very large, relatively flat plateau of production from TE12 to TE4 or so, and then a massive spike from there up to TE1. The fact that the plateau as a whole is higher than it used to be doesn't matter; all that matters is the size or the slope of the spike.

To a much lesser extent, you're seeing the same phenomenon at quarterback, which is widely considered the deepest position this year. If you're one of the last owners to draft a quarterback in 2013, you're going to still land a name like Tony Romo or Matt Stafford, each of whom passed for 4900 yards last year. That kind of explosion in passing numbers from just two years ago is really hard to comprehend, and it begins to feel like everyone can have a stud at quarterback this year. The reality, though, is that if everyone has a stud, then no one does. The principles of VBD illustrate that studs aren't defined by hitting some arbitrary benchmark, they're defined by how much of an advantage they give you over their peers. By that metric, the answer for Tony Romo and Matt Stafford is "not much advantage at all". The two passers combined for just 39 VBD last season. Meanwhile, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady all posted 90 points of VBD each, after all topping 175 VBD in 2011. A year after finishing as the three most valuable players in fantasy, they all repeated as top-12 players in total VBD, regardless of position. The general level of the plateau has risen a lot at quarterback, but there's still a very steep spike at the top, and the difference between those top guys and the later guys is still massive. The dropoff isn't quite as steep as at TE- you might get 3-5 names before you fall off the cliff- but quarterback on the whole is not nearly as deep as initial reports would have you believe.

Ryan Hester: The combination of the lack of depth among premium running backs and at the tight end position as a whole dictates my draft strategy this season. Personally, my second tier of running backs ends right after RB12, and my third tier ends after RB17. In my eyes, the drop between Tiers 3 and 4 is much more sizable than the drop between Tiers 2 and 3.

Because of this, in all likelihood, I'm going to spend my first two picks on running backs unless a top-notch receiver (Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, A.J. Green) falls a handful of picks below his ADP. Due to the early emphasis on running back, I won't be getting an elite tight end. Therefore, I'll be waiting even longer to take a tight end - and probably grabbing as many as five or six backs before I do.

I know what you're thinking. If both positions are shallow, why the emphasis on early running backs over an early tight end? It comes down to the typical league's lineup composition. Just about every fantasy lineup needs at least two running backs but only one tight end.

Andy Hicks: Like most of the others I have to agree with tight end. You have two elite options in Graham and Gronkowksi, then a couple of guys that should do well like Vernon Davis and Tony Gonzalez and then a bunch of question marks.

Kyle Rudolph was heavily reliant on touchdowns in his 11th ranking last year. He doesn't get enough receptions. Greg Olsen is reliable, but not worth his current draft spot as his five touchdowns a year career average doesn't spell upside. And the last one I have in this area is Jason Witten and I don't think he's a safe choice at all as 31-year-old tight ends do not often get 100 or more fantasy points in a season. Over the last 15 years there has only been Wesley Walls at age 31 & 33, Shannon Sharpe at ages 32 & 35, Antonio Gates in 2011 at age 31 and of course Tony Gonzalez has done it 6 times at ages 31, 32, 33, 34, 35 & 36.

That takes me onto Adam's point about comparing him to Hall of Fame receivers. As we can see Gonzalez is in a class of his own at Tight End and that is what I'll compare him against. I'll give him the respect and latitude to get it done at 37, just like he has every other year in his 30s. ANY other Tight End, even a great one like Shannon Sharpe was up and down in his 30s. As for Witten, the drafting of Escobar puts a clear do not touch sign on him. Owen Daniels has the same problem as Witten - he's 31 years of age with younger players staking a claim.

The rest between TE9 and TE24 are virtually interchangeable.

Mark Wimer: I think Heath and Matt are right on that tight end has become the most shallow fantasy position - I think Heath is right on with his list of elite tight ends and would concur that there are only 3-5 other guys in the second tier (I'd add Martellus Bennett in Chicago to the second tier, for example - and I think Bennett could land in the top three by year's end).

Especially in TE-required leagues where the PPR scale is differential (.5 for running backs, 1.0 for wide receivers, and 1.5 per reception for tight ends), securing a top tight end is going to contribute to winning fantasy championships.

Jimmy Graham becomes especially valuable in light of the injury uncertainties around Rob Gronkowski as of early August.

Will Grant: I think that tight end has enough depth, especially in leagues that only require one of them. The top tier is pretty small, but I think you can make it up with solid drafting down the middle of the draft.

Running back is the position where there is some serious drop off after the top tier. I think the NFL shift to more of a two back system creates a lot of running backs with limited upside. This makes those top tier backs that see more than 70 percent of the total running back touches even more valuable. I think you're going to see a return to guys taking two or three running backs right out of the gate this year, especially if you have people reaching for quarterbacks and tight ends in the first two rounds. It would not surprise me at all to see guys in the top 3 or 4 picks of any draft to go RB-RB-RB this year, depending on the scoring format.

Sigmund Bloom: Tight end was thin to begin with entering 2013, now it's downright emaciated. Aaron Hernandez was the TE2 on most boards when he was lost indefinitely, and Dennis Pitta was close to the consensus TE6 when he went down. I believe Jimmy Graham is worth a late first round pick in PPR leagues, and Rob Gronkowski is still worth a third-round pick despite the risk of missed games early in the season. I am also more open to taking Vernon Davis, Tony Gonzalez, or Jason Witten in the fifth round. Tight end is going to be the hardest position to secure an advantage at this year, so that makes any edge you can get there more valuable.