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The Gut Check No.272 - Upside Down Strategy (Early Pick)

It can pay to take the unconventional route. Matt updates his takes on middle and late-round RBs for the Upside Down Strategy. 

At the day job, I interviewed an exec running one of the bigger number-crunching outfits on Madison Avenue. Although his firm didn't do the work, he heads up a team with the type of skill sets that helped a company like Target eerily predict pregnancy based on shopping habits. We talked about analytics - even touching on the stats movement in football. 

This man has extensive training with statistical modeling, but what he told me is that his fellow "quants" often fail to generate insights that make a difference in their respective businesses because of the way they use data. His criticism is that the quants use a lot of binary calculations and the results validate safe decision-making. 

Decision-making too safe for running a business where the mission is to win customers' eyeballs, hearts, and wallets with ad campaigns. 

He was speaking my language when he elaborated that playing it safe rarely creates exceptional results. There's only one winner in fantasy football, but I know owners - whether they know it or not - who draft like their primary goal is to make the playoffs. In fact, I'd argue most of us do.

The primary motivation is to build a team good enough to earn a playoff spot. Then as the playoffs get closer, focus on refining that roster to contend for a championship. I think the underlying thought is to make the playoffs so you don't look like a bad fantasy football player. 

Football fans who play fantasy football absorb the same mentality that NFL teams have: you're great if you win a championship; you're very good if you go to the championship; you're good if you make the playoffs; and you're not good if you miss the playoffs.

It doesn't help that most fantasy leagues award money for making the playoffs or scoring the most points. This is an incentive to be good, but not great; play it safe, but don't go for greatness; and win, but only if you don't have to risk losing big.

It's not a popular line of thought, but there's truth in those words.

In a year where the pervading thought is to take running backs early, acquire a stud tight end, and wait on quarterbacks and wide receivers, the radical approach is to acquire the best non-runners for your starting lineup and use the middle and late rounds to acquire a huge block of runners for your roster. The fundamental reason for this approach's efficacy is the short career span, high rate of injury, and fairly high turnover within the top-12 and top-24 rankings of running backs from one year to the next. I call this the Upside Down Draft Strategy. You can find details here

Most of you already get the gist of this strategy. You're here to find out which middle and late-round runners I'm touting for your drafts this month. I'm writing three articles to profile these backs within the context of walking you through multiple Upside Down Draft plans - the first one at the early turn (1st overall pick); the second with a middle pick (6th spot); and the final strategy at the turn (12th spot) - so you can see how it all fits together. 

I think this strategy is best-suited for the following league formats: 

  • PPR leagues with lineups of 1QB/2RBs/3WR/1TE. 
  • PPR leagues with lineups as above, but with a flex at RB, WR, or TE.
  • Premium PPR leagues with 1.5 points for TE and a flex at RB, WR, or TE. 
  • Non-PPR leagues with 1QB/2RB/4WR/1TE and a flex at RB, WR, or TE. 

The example below is for a 12-team league. 

Drafting Early (From The ONe Spot)

If you have the first overall pick in the draft, then you have your choice of any player. Even if you have one of the first 3-4 spots in a draft I think there's a strong argument to take a running back because in theory you should have a heightened opportunity to pick an elite player at the position whose floor is still RB1 production. 

Pick 1, RB Adrian PetersonNo explanation necessary.

If you're going the traditional route, your second-round options could be Maurice Jones Drew, DeMarco Murray, or Frank Gore. It could also be a wide receiver like Larry Fitzgerald, Roddy White, or Andre Johnson. If you're going Upside Down, then think it makes sense to go against the experts' recommendation to wait on a quarterback this year. 

I actually think there's just as much, if not more depth at receiver than there is at quarterback. Since Jimmy Graham is off the board, there are only 2-3 tight ends left who are low-risk, high-producing No.1 tight ends. Remember, your early picks with this strategy should be low-risk, high-reward players to complement your numerous investments in high-risk, high-reward runners later on. This seems to run counter to my introduction about not playing it safe, but once you adopt the strategy that you're no longer a lemming walking off the running back cliff then you realize you're getting to draft from unspoiled position pools like quarterback and tight end. 

So, which quarterback is still on the board who offers the least risk with the most upside for production? If you answered Cam Newton, you're only right if Steve Smith gets cloned three times over. If you answered Tom Brady, then you aren't accounting for the fact that perhaps 80 percent of his receiving corps on opening day will consist of new players with little to no NFL experience. 

Pick 2, QB Peyton ManningManning has three receivers capable of WR1 stats, a track record of elite QB1 production, and he's never been knocked out of a game in his career. Plus, you're at the turn and get a shot at one of the receivers I mentioned and your fourth pick is within ADP range of selecting some of the safest tight ends in fantasy football. 

Pick 3, WR Larry FitzgeraldI'm not going to argue with you if you choose White or Johnson ahead of Fitzgerald, but he's the highest-rated receiver on my board. I only have to look to Reggie Wayne's performance under Bruce Arians last year and see that Fitzgerald and Carson Palmer are as good, if not better fit together than Wayne and Andrew Luck. The Colts offensive line was poor - perhaps as bad as Arizona's last year - and Wayne was still the No.8 receiver in PPR leagues with a rookie quarterback. Fitzgerald is also a much better red zone threat than Wayne.  

Now we're at picks 4-5 and I recommend you consider a tight end. Rob Gronkowski is likely off the board. If he's not, then we've likely learned he's going to miss the first six weeks of the season and his stock as dropped. Again, you're looking for safe picks early. While one can argue that Gronowski is safe for 55 catches, 800 yards, and 10 touchdowns over 10 games because he's done it before, the Upside Down strategy is designed around having only one real hole in your lineup and that's the RB2 spot.

You may not have this hole - oftentimes you won't - but if you do, you don't want to be waiting half of the fantasy season for your tight end to return and have the added pressure for him to dominate. You also don't want to be drafting a second tight end at a point where you're focusing on runners and receivers. In my eyes, there are three quality tight ends capable of leading your league at their position.

Pick 4, TE Jason WittenI wouldn't argue with you if you took Tony Gonzalez here. He's great in the red zone and he's money on third down. He's also the best of all time at this position and his offensive scheme and play calling should remain consistent. However, what Witten did down the stretch last year after dealing with a spleen injury was just awesome. As Chris Brown of Smart Football fame pointed out, Witten is a master of option routes and the Cowboys offense thrives on these types of reads. Witten may not attain top-3 production, but I doubt he falls out of the top five.

The fifth round is where I think you can consider your second running back, but it's not mandatory. Pairing Reggie Wayne, Dwayne Bowe, or potentially Marques Colston or Jordy Nelson (if they drop) with Fitzgerald isn't sexy, but your weekly consistency might be the best in the league with your first five starters.

If you wait and take a running back, then your next tier or receivers is James Jones, Tavon Austin, and DeSean Jackson. All three could offer good WR2 production, but you might be able to get one of them as your sixth pick at the turn. If not, Cecil Shorts, T.Y. Hilton, Steve Johnson, and Anquan Boldin all look like strong WR3's to me.

So which runners in the fifth round offer equal or greater value than Wayne, Bowe, Colston, or Nelson? Le'Veon Bell has an ADP of 46, but most of the sites with mocks are showing him off the board earlier. ESPN's ADP skews the average higher than it really is unless you're playing in a league where the level of fantasy ownership is more casual than hardcore. If Bell drops to you, I'd take him.

If not, you're left with Montee Ball and Ryan Mathews in this tier. I'd also consider reaching for Eddie Lacy because he'll see a lot of red zone work. Still, all three players appear to be in a committee and aren't likely the third-down backs.

If you don't take Lacy, then I think you're hoping you can get Shane Vereen in the sixth round. If you can play a third runner as a flex and you're going with this strategy, I'd take Lacy now and hope for Vereen in the sixth round. If you're only starting two running backs then I think the wiser path is Wayne, hope for Vereen in round six, and then take a receiver in the seventh round. 

Pick 5 (no flex, PPR) WR Reggie WayneThe quintessential WR2 with WR1 production potential every week in PPR leagues. 

Pick 5 Alternate (Flex PPR) RB Eddie Lacy:  Lacy could have double-digit touchdowns and 250 carries this year. He has impressed in camp and he catches the ball well enough that he's not automatically on the bench in third-down situations. 

Pick 5 "Reach" Alternate (Flex PPR) RB Shane Vereen: I think Vereen's stock will continue to rise, which means it's not out of the question that the Patriots' runner/receiver won't be around at his current ADP of pick 75. I actually think Vereen is the safer pick than Lacy, so if you're in a league with knowledgeable owners, I'd reach for Vereen as my RB2. 

Pick 6 RB Shane Vereen or RB Giovani BernardIf Vereen is there, consider yourself fortunate. If not, Bernard is the choice. The Bengals have stated they will use Benard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis in a 50-50 split to start the year. This should keep Bernard's PPR value good enough to make him a low-end RB2 with upside as the season progresses. Regardless of the league formats, these are the two picks I like the most. 

Pick 7 WR James Jones, DeSean Jackson, Tavon Austin, or Cecil ShortsPersonally, I'd take Shorts, Austin, Jackson, and Jones in that order as opposed to this initial ADP order listed in bold. If you have Wayne, I'd probably opt for Shorts' consistency and big-play upside. Austin might be my first choice if I could only get one of Lacy/Vereen. Either way, you're looking at three big-play receivers with one PPR machine. Plus, there's enough depth later that I think you'll find 

First Check-in

After seven rounds, here's what your roster looks like, depending on the format:

RndPPR No FlexPPR FlexPPR Flex Option 2
1 Adrian Peterson Adrian Peterson Adrian Peterson
2 Peyton Manning Peyton Manning Peyton Manning
3 Larry Fitzgerald Larry Fitzgerald Larry Fitzgerald
4 Jason Witten Jason Witten Jason Witten
5 Reggie Wayne Eddie Lacy Shane Vereen
6 Shane Vereen Shane Vereen Giovani Bernard
7 Cecil Shorts Cecil Shorts Cecil Shorts

This marks the point where drafting running backs over receivers begins to look ugly, but you have to rely on the crux of the Upside Down Strategy: RB turnover is high and the new blood that replaces these established fantasy starters comes from the middle and late rounds. At the round 8/9 turn, the backs that might be available are Mark Ingram, Deangelo Williams, and Daryl Richardson.

Pick 8, RB Deangelo Williams or Daryl RichardsonOf the three, I think the clear choice is Williams because of his skills, Jonathan Stewart's injury woes, and the Panthers intention to use a more traditional scheme to run the ball.  Although Williams' ADP is a pick higher than the 96th overall pick, three of his six ADP averages I've seen are in the 104-109 range. If Williams is gone, then I think Richardson, Ronnie Hillman,Ben Tate, Bryce Brown, or Johnathan Franklin are your options. 

Talent-wise, Brown is by far the best of the lot, but Richardson has the best opportunity to see action weekly and neither Isaiah Pead nor Zac Stacy have impressed. Hillman and Franklin might be the safest picks, but with the most limited upside because they're in passing offenses with other players likely to earn red zone duty. If Williams is gone, I'd take Richardson. 

Pick 9, RB Daryl Richardson or Johnathan FranklinIf you get Williams, follow up with Richardson. If you don't, then I think Franklin paired with Lacy not only gives you some handcuff potential, but Franklin's use in the passing game is a strong likelihood so he'll have every-week value. 

Entering the 10th round, you now have at least four running backs - one more than your total receivers - despite going Upside Down. This may appear strange, but there's enough wide receiver depth that I think this strategy works just fine. Because at pick 121 the running back options are pretty dry: Isaiah Pead, Danny Woodhead, and Pierre Thomas.

Pead just doesn't look like he's ready to make the jump to NFL-caliber play. Woodhead's upside is capped as a PPR option who doesn't do much after contact. And Thomas might be the starter in New Orleans, but he'll need at least one of his teammates on the depth chart to get hurt for him to have a shot at solid RB2 production every week. I think you can get the same value as these three players two rounds later with LaMichael James, who is available at ADP 156 and might have more upside. More on this later. 

Pick 10, WR Golden Tate or Chris GivensIf Michael Floyd drops to your range, I'd consider him. Otherwise, Tate's average exit from the draft pool is your 10th round spot. I'm a fan of Tate's development and I think he's underrated this year because the casual fantasy owner is thinking that Percy Harvin's injury has left a hole in the Seahawks' passing game, meaning Seattle will simply run it more. I'm not buying it. Tate was a big reason Russell Wilson was an elite producer during the second half of the season - without a big-name free agent weapon like Harvin.

If Tate is gone, Givens is another underrated commodity with big play upside and unusual consistency as a rookie. With St. Louis adding more talented receiving options this year, Givens should continue to provide consistent production because defenses can't focus solely on him. Both players are perfect options as No.4 receivers for your offense. Especially when your 11th pick might be one of the most underrated receivers in the draft this year. 

Pick 11, WR Vincent BrownThe Chargers' wideout will be the primary wide receiver in this offense now that Danario Alexander is out for the year. Brown's average value is pick 142, but that's because CBS and ESPN's more casual fantasy audience is behind the curve and selecting Brown between 2-6 rounds later than the four other sites tracking ADP. Right now Brown's value is within range of this 10/11 turn and if it stays this way, you've landed a player I believe could provide you strong WR2 production. If I'm right, Brown will give you the WR depth you'll need to trade for an RB2 if necessary. 

Pick 12, RB Lamichael James: The second-year 49ers is a fine receiver and change of pace runner whose pass protection has improved "night and day" according to Frank Gore. James now weighs over 200 pounds and with Kendall Hunter still on the PUP, it's likely James will get the first shot to earn significant touches behind the best offensive line in football. James to me is potentially in Danny Woodhead's situation, but he's more talented and has more talent around him.

Pick 13, QB Alex SmithWith Manning at your helm, odds are you're set for the season. However, Smith should be efficient and an undervalued top-15 fantasy quarterback in a pass-heavy Chiefs offense under Andy Reid. I believe the Chiefs' extreme confidence in Smith is a reflection of the great fit between his skill sets and the scheme. He's worth the risk as your QB2 after Manning. If Manning gets hurt, you should have enough WR/RB depth to trade for a quarterback if Smith doesn't pan out. 

Second Check-in

Here's what your team looks like after 13 rounds.

RndPPRPPR FlexPPR Flex Option 2
1 Adrian Peterson Adrian Peterson Adrian Peterson
2 Peyton Manning Peyton Manning Peyton Manning
3 Larry Fitzgerald Larry Fitzgerald Larry Fitzgerald
4 Jason Witten Jason Witten Jason Witten
5 Reggie Wayne Eddie Lacy Shane Vereen
6 Shane Vereen Shane Vereen Giovani Bernard
7 Cecil Shorts Cecil Shorts Cecil Shorts
8 DeAngelo Williams DeAngelo Williams DeAngelo Williams
9 Daryl Richardson Daryl Richardson/Johnathan Franklin Daryl Richardson/Johnathan Franklin
10 Golden Tate/Chris Givens Golden Tate/Chris Givens Golden Tate/Chris Givens
11 Vincent Brown Vincent Brown Vincent Brown
12 LaMichael James LaMichael James LaMichael James
13 Alex Smith Alex Smith Alex Smith

After 13 rounds, you have four starters at running back and one change of pace contributor as well as three high-volume PPR options and two big-play threats at wide receiver. Paired with Manning and Witten, and I think this team has consistency and upside. 

At the 14/15 turn there are still a variety of good options available. Dustin Keller might be gone 1-2 rounds earlier, but his ADP has enough variation that if he's there, I think he's the best pick if you're going to take a second tight end. Personally, I think you can find decent tight ends on the waiver wire as needed. 

Greg Little, Knowshon Moreno, and Robert Turbin are also viable options as depth with upside. However, there are two starters who might be available at the 16/17 turn that I think you'd be better off taking at 14/15. Andre Roberts and Robert Woods

Pick 14, WR Andre RobertsIt's criminal that Roberts is here. He's not as talented as Michael Floyd physically, but he's more polished and he's capable of playing inside or outside. Like Fitzgerald and Floyd, he's a good receiver against tight coverage, but you haven't seen it since his days at the Citadel. Look for Roberts to make plays all over the field because he'll be the check-down option for Palmer and also the surprise vertical option versus certain defenses where Palmer reads a mismatch. The key is Palmer, whose willingness to stick the ball into tight coverage will click with a receiving corps capable of delivering. 

Pick 15, WR Robert WoodsAnother starter available late. The Bills rookie has looked like a "10-year veteran" according to his coaches. Based on what I saw of Woods at USC, he's one of the most NFL-ready receivers of the 2013 class. Don't be surprised if he provides WR3 fantasy production. Again, more depth to trade for that RB2 if the Upside Down approach doesn't yield one it the draft. 

Pick 16, RB Joique BellI have a similar view of the Lions runner as I do Andre Roberts. Both are talented players coming off years as fantasy producers who are getting drafted way below their previous season's value due to the emergence of another more heralded player. However, both the Cardinals and Lions have room in their schemes for both players to produce. Roberts should earn starter looks on a team that will have to throw and Bell is currently the RB2 in an offense with where Bush's touch count might not exceed 15 per game. 

Pick 17, RB Christine MichaelThis pick is about talent, upside, and fit with a good offense. If Chris Ivory can't get healthy before the season, Bilal Powell is a nice alternate choice if Mike Goodson is still on hiatus. 

Pick 18, WR Jeremy KerleyAnother late-round value. Kerley had over 50 receptions last year and should have close to 75 as a player who, much like Roberts, can play inside or outside. He's also the only consistent receiver on this team who is healthy.

Pick 19, DEF Browns Defense: I like Ray Horton's scheme and the young talent, but picking a unit here means I'm effectively renting a defense weekly. 

Pick 20, PK Steve Hauschka or Randy BullockQuality offense that should give Hauscka a lot of extra points away from the division and field goal chances in the division. But if you ask me, look at Mike Herman's rankings and take Randy Bullock of the Texans. I rely on Herman to get kickers right. He's obsessed. 

Final Tally 

RndPPRPPR FlexPPR Flex Option 2
1 Adrian Peterson Adrian Peterson Adrian Peterson
2 Peyton Manning Peyton Manning Peyton Manning
3 Larry Fitzgerald Larry Fitzgerald Larry Fitzgerald
4 Jason Witten Jason Witten Jason Witten
5 Reggie Wayne Eddie Lacy Shane Vereen
6 Shane Vereen Shane Vereen Giovani Bernard
7 Cecil Shorts Cecil Shorts Cecil Shorts
8 DeAngelo Williams DeAngelo Williams/Daryl Richardson DeAngelo Williams/Daryl Richardson
9 Daryl Richardson Daryl Richardson/Johnathan Franklin Daryl Richardson/Johnathan Franklin
10 Golden Tate Golden Tate/Chris Givens Golden Tate/Chris Givens
11 Vincent Brown Vincent Brown Vincent Brown
12 LaMichael James LaMichael James LaMichael James
13 Alex Smith Alex Smith Alex Smith
14 Andre Roberts Andre Roberts Andre Roberts
15 Robert Woods Robert Woods Robert Woods
16 Joique Bell Joique Bell Joique Bell
17 Christine Michael Christine Michael Christine Michael
18 Jeremy Kerley Jeremy Kerley Jeremy Kerley
19 Browns Def Browns Def Browns Def
20 Randy Bullock Randy Bullock Randy Bullock

The way I see it, you have a top-three QB, top-3 RB, top-10 WR, top-3 TE, and at least three backs with a realistic shot at RB2 or high-end flex value. I also think this team gives you a deep receiving corps filled with starters who should see a lot of targets. This squad should afford you depth to trade for help at RB2, or QB/TE if injury strikes. This is what a draft is about: Getting the best players you can and using them to start for your squad or exchange them for needs elsewhere. 

The next Gut Check: Executing the Upside Down Strategy from the 6-Spot.