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The Gut Check No. 273- Upside Down Strategy (Middle Pick)

It can pay to take the unconventional route. Matt updates his takes on middle and late-round RBs for the Upside Down Strategy for those with a spot in the middle of your draft.  

Note: If you read Gut Check No.272, the introduction to today's piece is the same. Skip to the subhead "Drafting From The Middle." 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 From the Middle (FROM THE six SPOT)

If you have the sixth overall selection in the draft, you have the most even distribution of intervals between picks. This is the spot where I get the most emails from readers wishing to try the Upside Down Strategy, but at the same time are trying to negotiate for my approval to take a running back with the first pick. You don't need my approval. If you believe a runner you projected as one of the best 3-4 in the league has fallen in your lap, take him. 

All drafts strategies are guidelines. You have to possess enough sense to recognize when you have to change the script. No one else can do it for you in that moment. 

Ray Rice fits this description for me. However, I'm not picking a running back here because Rice is considered by most the RB6 in 2013 and I want to show you what you'll get if you opt for non-running backs positions early in a draft where none of the top 3-4 runners on your board fall to you. 

Pick 1 (6th overall), WR Calvin Johnson or Dez BryantCalvin Johnson is regarded as the top receiver available and there's a good chance he'll be available to you despite the fact there's a contingent of drafters taking him as early as the fourth or fifth pick overall. If Johnson is gone before your pick, my recommendation is Dez Bryant. In fact, I think Bryant is poised to have the best year of any receiver in the league. However, Johnson, Bryant, and A.J. Green qualify as elite options. 

The second pick requires looking ahead with the ADP as your guide. At pick 18, you're likely to see these options with my VBD figures: 

  • Brandon Marshall (100) - One of the safest bets at the position because of the volume of targets he receives from Cutler.
  • Drew Brees (57.5) - Arguably the best fantasy quarterback over the past 5-6 years in and offense built for him. 
  • Julio Jones (78) - Physical talent to dominate, but hasn't proven he's the all-around receiver like his teammate Roddy White
  • Jimmy Graham (111.5) - Arguably the best fantasy tight end in the game.
  • Demaryius Thomas (114) - My No.4 fantasy receiver.
  • Peyton Manning (48) - My No.3 fantasy quarterback. 

I'd narrow the field to Graham, Thomas, Brees, or Manning. If you like the VBD angle, then it's clearly Thomas or Graham and I think this pick is a good time to show how you can wait for a quarterback (something you can do if you have an early spot, but I didn't show in the last piece). My choice of Thomas or Graham depends on what I should expect to see with the 30th pick in the third round.

Here are the options I'd chose from - once again with my VBD figures in parenthesis.

  • Andre Johnson (90) - Houston plans to throw it more so don't expect Johnson's totals to drop because of Deandre Hopkins.
  • Randle Cobb (67) - If you believe Cobb could catch 100 passes like Aaron Rodgers says, his VBD total will be the best of the group. 
  • Victor Cruz (66) - Safe play. 
  • Rob Gronkowski (42.5) - If he returns Week 1, he's a no-brainer.
  • Cam Newton (56.5) - My No.2 QB.

If Gronkowski is healthy, practices, and slated to start on opening day then he's the obvious pick because his projected totals get a bump and his VBD totals will be in Graham territory. However, so will his ADP unless your draft happens just after the news hits and your league is slow on the uptake. Most of you won't be so lucky, which means you have to assess your comfort with his risk. 

If you take Thomas and Johnson is still available, you'll have the best receiving corps in your league (on paper) and the fourth round targets are either Le'Veon Bell, Tony Gonzalez, Vernon Davis, Reggie Wayne, Marques Colston, or Dwayne Bowe. I prefer the tight end options after Graham if I can get Thomas and Johnson first.  

Gonzalez and Davis are well within the range of your fourth pick and most likely still there in the fifth round. In fact, there's a good chance that Jason Witten will also fall to you. If this happens, I'd take Witten, who is the best blend of Gonzalez's safety and Davis' upside. This means, wait on the tight end and take Bell as your first back if he's there. 

Pick 2 (18th overall), WR Demaryius ThomasIf you have Calvin Johnson and Thomas, there's a strong chance one of these players carries your team each week and frequently enough both players will hit big to make your lineup a consistently high-scorer. 

Pick 3 (30th overall), WR Andre JohnsonWhen you can say Johnson is your No.3 receiver, that's a third of your starting lineup with top-15 production at its position. 

Pick 4 (42nd overall) RB Le'Veon Bell: I know my buddy Sigmund Bloom is already rending his clothing in grief over his belief there's an impending disaster in Pittsburgh in 2013, but I think the offensive line will be better as a run unit and Le'Veon Bell will display why he's a better prospect than many have credited. Don't be surprised if Bell leads all rookies in rushing and has a top-15 fantasy season among running backs. Think of Bell stylistically as a young Eddie George. This might be the last year in the next three that he's a bargain. 

Pick 5 (54th overall) TE Tony Gonzalez or Vernon DavisI'd prefer Gonzalez for the safe, red zone presence and consistent targets on a team where he's routinely matched one-on-one due to the presence of Jones and White. However, we've all seen how dominant Davis can be against top tier competition. Davis will be needed more than ever this year, so his upside might be in the realm of Graham and Gronkowski. Again, Witten is my pick if he falls.

Pick 5 Alternate (Flex League) RB Eddie Lacy: There's also a decent argument to take Lacy as your second back.due to the projected red zone opportunities the Green Bay offense should afford him. If you take Lacy here, then you're likely waiting on a tight end until the seventh round. With Lacy as your RB2, Shane Vereen or Giovani Bernard are decent flex options as your sixth pick, but the sixth round marks another critical point where you're faced with the prospect of taking a quarterback. 

Andrew Luck, Tony Romo, and Russell Wilson all have top-five upside and likely won't drop below the top-12 at their respective positions. At the same time, if you take one of these three there's still a decent chance that Vereen falls to you in the seventh round and I'd take my chances on Atnonio Gates in the eighth if I don't opt for a tight end. 

Pick 6 (66th overall) QB Russell Wilson (Non-Flex and Flex Alternate Option): I believe his top-five fantasy play down the stretch was an indicator of where this offense is headed this year - with or without Harvin. 

Pick 6 Alternate 2 Shane Vereen (Flex League): I prefer Vereen in a flex league, because I think he's undervalued and capable of high-end RB2 production. Give me the trio of Bell, Lacy, and Vereen with Johnson, Thomas, and Johnson, and I think I can find good enough QB and TE play a little later and have a strong chance of beating any team I face.

Pick 7 (78th overall) RB Shane Vereen or WR Cecil Shorts or T.Y. HiltonIf I take Wilson and Vereen falls here, then I'm opting for the running back. But if Vereen is gone then I'm opting to build on receiver depth and take Shorts or Hilton - one of two players capable of top-20 production at their position. If they play to my expectation, but I'm in need of another running back, I can move one of my first three receivers to get a bigger name at running back early in the year. Building on strengths if you can't find a strong commodity at a position of need gives you more flexibility. 

First Check-in

Here's what your team looks like after the first seven rounds. 

RndPPRPPR FlexPPR Flex Option 2
1 Calvin Johnson Calvin Johnson Calvin Johnson
2 Demaryius Thomas Demaryius Thomas Demaryius Thomas
3 Andre Johnson Andre Johnson Andre Johnson
4 LeVeon Bell LeVeon Bell LeVeon Bell
5 Tony Gonzalez/Vernon Davis Eddie Lacy Eddie Lacy
6 Russell Wilson Russell Wilson Shane Vereen
7 Shane Vereen/Cecil Shorts/ T.Y. Hilton Shane Vereen/Cecil Shorts/T.Y. Hilton Cecil Shorts/T.Y. Hilton

If two of Bell, Lacy, and Vereen produce as top-20 runners, history suggests you'll have one of the stronger teams in the league because of the receiving corps - especially if Wilson continues his level of play that made him an elite fantasy option after Week 8 on 2012. If only one back hits then you should still be competitive and have the depth at receiver to package picks for a runner, if necessary. 

The eighth round is a great place to pick an upside tight end or more starter-caliber depth at running back.  Peeking into the ninth and tenth rounds, there's a lot of quality receiver depth and talented runners on good NFL depth charts. It makes the eighth round a straightforward decision. 

Pick 8 (90th overall), RB DeAngelo Williams, Daryl Richardson, Mark Ingram or Ronnie HillmanThis is the order I'd consider these backs. Williams and Richardson should see enough carries to produce as quality flex or bye-week options with RB2 upside. Ingram looks better than I've seen him since he was at Alabama - the burst is back, but will the workload follow?

I'm skeptical, but if there's a development that drops Williams' or Richardson's stock then I'm all over the Saints runner. Hillman comes into play if there's good evidence that he'll enter the year as the starter and no other runner is a factor to interfere with his workload as the lead back. Otherwise, I'll wait another round to see if Hillman makes it back to me. 

Pick 8 Alternate (Flex Leagues) TE Jared Cook: If you didn't opt for Gonzalez or Davis, Cook offers the best upside among the mid-range tight ends in a wide-open offense where he can be used as a big receiver more often than a tight end at the line of scrimmage. 

Pick 9 (102nd overall) RB Ronnie Hillman, Bryce Brown, Ben Tate, Bernard Pierce, or Johnathan FranklinThis is a talented tier of players capable of producing like strong RB2s if they earn a lead role due to injury or camp performance. Unless the situation provides a decided advantage (a clear starting role or entrenched committee shot for RB3/flex points), talent wins out at this point of the draft. In terms of talent, Brown, Franklin, Hillman, Tate, and Pierce is my order of preference. However, Hillman, Franklin, Brown, Tate, and Pierce is the order when adjusted to the current camp situation.

Although you might have Lacy at this point, there's no guarantee that Franklin earns a bigger role if Lacy gets hurt and the team still has one or two of James Starks, Dujuan Harris, and Alex Green. This is why Hillman and Brown are still strong considerations.Continue to monitor preseason developments.

Pick 9 Alternate (Flex) QB Eli Manning, Andy Dalton, Ben Roethlisberger, or Jay Cutler: If I'm seeking a QBBC, Roethlisberger fits the bill as a reasonable option if neither Manning nor Dalton are available. Personally, I'd wait a little longer because I think there's better value with Jay Cutler, Carson Palmer, and Alex Smith. However, Roethlisberger is a player you can probably get here and then wait long enough to pick one of the other three later as the best value becomes clear. If you like Cutler's prospects a lot, I'd also consider taking him here if you don't want to risk missing him in the 10th round where his average spot of selection is dead-on with your pick number. 

Pick 10 (114th overall) RBs Mikel Leshoure, Danny Woodhead, Pierre Thomas, or Jacquizz Rodgers, or WRs Golden Tate or Chris GivensIf you've been following this track, you at least three running backs and three receivers. Even if you got Vereen and had more running backs than receivers, I'd still take one of Leshoure, Woodhead, or Thomas. Woodhead may have more consistent production this year, but Thomas as more upside in the red area. Leshoure looked quicker in the preseason than I saw last year and he has the most upside.

Overall, Woodhead is the safer pick for a PPR format and could provide at least flex/bye-week production you can use while seeking a more permanent RB2 (if you're lacking).After Woodhead, I'd go with Leshoure. If Woodhead, Leshoure, and Thomas are gone and you feel you need a runner, Rodgers is probably your best PPR fit, but I'd recommend taking Tate or Givens first.

At that point I think you'd be better served to stockpile receiver talent and used it in a trade for a runner of greater value, because I believe Rodgers would have to cede a significant amount of opportunities to Jason Snelling whereas Thomas and Leshoure would be more entrenched in their respective offenses.

In fact, I'd reach a little for Vincent Brown over Tate or Givens. Monitor Brown's ADP before your draft to see if you need to keep this in mind. 

Pick 11 (126th overall) WR Vincent Brown or QBs Jay Cutler or Michael VickAs I mentioned in the first of these updates, Brown is the most underrated fantasy receiver in the 2013 preseason on an offense that will need to throw the ball a lot. Having him as your fourth or fifth option gives you the potential for extraordinary depth, but at an investment where his services are not needed if I'm dead wrong.

f you haven't grabbed a quarterback yet, Cutler and Vick have the potential to provide solid, low-end QB1 production. I prefer Cutler to Vick, but if you want to wait one more round, Carson Palmer has the best receiving corps of his career and his demise is greatly exagerrated. 

Pick 12 (138th overall) QB Carson Palmer or Alex SmithAmong the six sites we track, the 138th pick is the earliest average that Palmer is leaving the board. If you haven't picked a quarterback yet, I think Palmer and Alex Smith would be the two I'd target if I were going for a higher risk committee. Smith is likely available the next round, but with the good publicity he's earning in mainstream media you might want to check if there's a rise in his ADP between now and your draft before expecting him available in the 13th.

If neither are available or one is gone and you still need a second for your committee, consider Matt Schaub. The Texans quarterback now has four strong receivers who will force the defense to account for every level of the field.

Pick 13 (150th overall) RB Lamichael James, RB Ryan Williams, RB Shonn Greene, RB Michael Bush, or WR Cordarrelle PattersonAll four of these backs should provide some flex value with starter upside if called upon. I like James' big play ability and think talent-wise, he's second only to Williams on this list. However, the reliability factor starts with Greene and Bush and Williams is last on that order - and it's an important sequence to remember. Surprisingly, James, Bush, and Greene are the three backs I'd want here. If Matt Forte gets hurt in Chicago, Bush's receiving skills will serve him well in a Marc Trestman offense that loves to target backs in the red zone.

As for Greene, I think the Titans can block better than the Jets. Before Greene didn't play to his ability with the Jets, he was a dynamite-looking volume guy at Iowa who could do a decent Rudi Johnson impression. If none of these players are available and somehow Patterson is around, take him. I doubt it will be the case, because his preseason debut will likely get fantasy owners excited to take that one rookie phenom. Let them do it, because Robert Woods should be there 1-2 picks later and he has a strong chance to be one of the three most productive rookie pass catchers in 2013. 

Pick 13 Alternate (Flex) QB Alex SmithIf you didn't take a quarterback in the 12th, I highly recommend Smith. He looks like a natural fit in Andy Reid's offense. Don't be surprised if Smith has his best year ever in the NFL as a result. I don't expect elite fantasy production, but low-end QB1 stats aren't as unlikely as you think. I have him at 3775 yards and 27 touchdowns - good enough for 16th on my list right now. Considering 3-4 of the quarterbacks ahead of him will probably miss time, you'll see how he could be knocking on the QB1 door. 

Final Look

The rest of these picks are listed below. You can see the explanation for rounds 14-20 in the Upside Down Update for the those drafting with an early spot. 

RndPPRPPR FlexPPR Flex Option 2
1 Calvin Johnson Calvin Johnson Calvin Johnson
2 Demaryius Thomas Demaryius Thomas Demaryius Thomas
3 Andre Johnson Andre Johnson Andre Johnson
4 LeVeon Bell LeVeon Bell LeVeon Bell
5 Tony Gonzalez/Vernon Davis Eddie Lacy Eddie Lacy
6 Russell Wilson Russell Wilson Shane Vereen
7 Shane Vereen/Cecil Shorts/T.Y. Hilton Shane Vereen/Cecil Shorts/T.Y. Hilton Cecil Shorts/T.Y. Hilton
8 DeAngelo Williams Jared Cook Jared Cook
9 Ronnie Hillman Ronnie Hillman Jay Cutler
10 Golden Tate Golden Tate Golden Tate
11 Vincent Brown Vincent Brown Vincent Brown
12 Jay Cutler/Carson Palmer/Alex Smith LaMichael James LaMichael James
13 Shonn Greene 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

I wasn't sure I'd like this team as I began the process of assembling it, but I like the strength of the receiving corps enough that I think most fantasy owners can build a winner with this club with the surplus of pass-catching talent on this roster. Most people think that the object of the draft is to build the best team, but the true mission is to get the best players and use those resources to build the best team.

Next: Gut Check No.274 will feature a team assembled with the Upside Down Strategy picking from the late turn in a 12-team league.