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The Gut Check No.274 - Upside Down Strategy (Late 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 at the end turn of your draft.  

Are you Down With . . .

The other night, Footballguys' Manager Clayton Gray emailed me his satirical paean to Naughty By Nature and the Upside Down Strategy with a link to the team he drafted in the 2013 Huddle Experts' League.

Gray, who won the league in 2012, told me he is 23-3 the past two years and hasn't drafted a running back before the fifth round.

Early round running backs are like pacifiers to some fantasy owners. But the illusion of playing it safe rarely creates exceptional results. There's only one winner in fantasy football, and 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.

And that's playing it safe.

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 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. 

Gray's team has Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, and Julio Jones and got these three receivers drafting from the 1.02 spot. Today we're looking at options from the opposite turn.


Personally this is one of my favorite spots to draft in almost any serpentine draft format. I think it's because if I were a boxer, I'd be a counter puncher at heart.

A fantasy draft can have the boxing element to it where an owner can assess the situation and react with a measured aggression to gain control of the situation. This is why the turn is the most natural spot for the Upside Down Strategy. However it's also the most flexible of the 12 spots to take a variety of approaches. It means today's post may feel like I'm guiding you through a labyrinth with more alternate paths than some may feel comfortable traveling.

It's important to note that all strategies are guidelines. You have to understand how you value players to recognize when and how you adjust to a draft. I can give you my takes, but no one else can incorporate them into your system that will blend for your value of players. I can only equip you with insights; you have to assimilate the information and pull the trigger. 

Rounds 1-2: The 12/13 Turn

The 12/13 turn offers a variety of options for an Upside Down Strategy - even an RB if you can justify it. What? Did Matt Waldman just say you can draft a running back at the back turn in an Upside Down Draft? You bet. Let's take Matt Forte as an example. 

Forte is the RB11 at this point in August ADP data, but I'm projecting him as my RB4. I believe Forte is capable of approaching 1800 total yards and earning double-digit touchdowns. I think what puts Forte in the top-five conversation in PPR formats is the Marc Trestman offense that loves to feed the running back the ball in the short passing game - especially in the red zone. I have Forte projected at 65 receptions for 500 yards receiving and 4 touchdowns. 

While this might be helpful to your perspective on Forte's value, the true point is that I have a justifiable reason why I think Forte or any player will be a top-five option in your league despite his lower ADP and you have calculated that his VBD number is a solid 12 points higher than the player below him, then it seems foolish not to take him if he's available at the 12/13 turn in a draft. 

At the same time, if your projected RB5 is available at the 12/13 turn, but his VBD value isn't even 10 points higher than the next 8-10 players, including your No.12, I'd prefer to take my chances on the best at non-RB positions because VBD is also a gauge of confidence level that you have in your players. If the confidence level in an RB doesn't separate that player from the pack at his position then I think it's a cue to consider taking a chance on that mid-round talent with upside. 

Picks - WR A.J. Green and TE Jimmy GrahamThe most likely approach will be to take Green and Graham. Using ADP values, A.J. Green is a great example of a player available at this turn with nearly 10 points of VBD value over the next-best receiver in my rankings (Demaryius Thomas). Jimmy Graham has a 39-point advantage over the next best tight end and is nearly even with Thomas in my projections. I also like the relative safety of both players as primary cogs in their offenses as intermediate/deep options with plenty of red zone targets, to boot. 

Alternate Picks: RB Matt Forte and TE Jimmy GrahamThe fact that Graham's VBD is on par with top-five receiver talent in my projects - and likely many others - makes him the pick of choice if I opt to take an exceptional case like Forte. If I'm in a league that has a flex option in a starting line up to give you the choice of a using three runners or two tight ends, this is the way to go. 

Rounds 3-4: Picks 36/37

Another compelling reason for choosing Graham is that he's not only the top tight end on my board, but his projected value is commensurate with a top-5 fantasy receiver. Considering that Rob Gronkowski's ADP is currently pick 38, one could make an argument to wait on Graham and opt or the big fella with the Patriots. There's and equally compelling argument to take both in some league formats. 

This is where the road forks into several outlets.

If I'm drafting with this approach in a PPR league with a two-tight end option, I'm monitoring Gronkowski's health status until it's the day, hour, and minute of my 36th pick in a draft. If Gronkowski is pronounced fit enough to start the season or only miss three weeks and that announcement comes within 24 hours of my pick I'm taking him here. If the news comes far earlier and by some stroke of luck the big fella practices during the late stages of the preseason, you can best believe he's worth almost as much as Jimmy Graham and a suitable alternate to Graham at your first turn if someone snipes Graham in the middle of the first round.

If Gronkowski goes on the PUP list and misses at least the first six games of the season then I'd prefer to see if he drops to 6/7 turn. If I haven't picked a tight end at that point, or it's a two-tight end PPR format then he's mine if he's there.  

If I opted for Green and Graham or I'm in a league that allows three running back starters and I took Forte and Graham, then this is a good point to consider two running backs because the turn offers the likes of David Wilson, Lamar Miller, Darren Sproles, and LeVeon Bell. However, in a three-RB league I'm betting only half of these players are available at this point. 

There is also a nice array of quarterback and receiver talent. Looking ahead to the 5/6 turn, there's still a decent shot of landing another quality running back prospect. 

Picks - QB Cam Newton and WR Marques Colston/WR Victor Cruz: This is another place in the draft where I would normally wait on a quarterback with three exceptions: Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Cam Newton. I realize that in theory there's a lot of depth at the quarterback position and you might even approximate the value of an elite passer with a committee approach. However, there are some things in life that are just worth paying the freight rather than trying to squeeze out every ounce of a discount.

It's a dynamic a little like automobiles. There are cars that are better than a Mercedes. And there are cars that cost less. But there aren't many cars with longstanding value. Manning and Brees fit the ball without a doubt. And I'm coming to the same conclusion with Newton despite the fact that he's not the same caliber passer as these two. Nonetheless, he emerged from the makings of a sophomore slump to light the fantasy world on fire down the stretch.

Newton is my No.2 quarterback and if he's available at the end of the third round then I have no choice but to take him, because your top 1-2 players at each skill position are players you should be projecting as performers with game-changing production for your lineup. Steve Smith and Greg Olsen are still viable weapons and if one of the Panthers' supporting receivers comes to the fore, Newton has the skill to have a dominant season. In fantasy terms, that adjective "dominant" in my lexicon means he has a commanding lead over his peers at his position. 

Colston is was the No.14 receiver in PPR leagues last year. If rankings tiers were a Monopoly board, Colston's football value would be Marvin Gardens with three hotels. He's not quite as scary as landing on the fourth side of the board loaded with developed property, but he'll help you pocket the cash from your opponents every trip around the square. 

Cruz is my No.13 receiver in PPR leagues and likely gone before you pick. Still he's within close enough range that he can drop in probably 35-45 percent of drafts with 12-team league formats. 

Alternative I - QB Cam Newton and TE Rob Gronkowski: If you get the word that Gronkowski is missing fewer than four games, I don't see how you play it safe in a PPR league where you can start two tight ends.  If your move works out, you get two tights capable of producing like top-10 fantasy receivers, which gives you a decided advantage with your WRs and TEs in the tale of the tape versus your opponents' WRs and TEs. This is the option if the puzzle pieces of the Universe click into sync just before you draft. 

Alternative II - QB Cam Newton and RB David Wilson/Lamar Miller: Considering the depth of the WR2/WR3 tiers, I think it's not a bad idea to take a chance on a fourth-round runner with upside and follow up with a wide receiver at the 5/6 turn. Wilson and Miller are in tight competitions for the lead role at this time - at least that's the lipservice the Giants and Dolphins are paying these camp battles. Both players have top-12 talent between the tackles, but pass protection and consistency can turn them in to RB3s in the blink of an eye. In fact, Alternate II is my preferred pick of choice at this spot. 

Alternate III - The non-Newtonian/Gronkowski path: If Newton is gone, you could consider Tom Brady or Matt Ryan - both safer quarterbacks. And I do believe Brady with a revamped receiving corps is still a safe bet. I wouldn't opt for either quarterback because I think the later opportunities to get Russell Wilson, Matt Stafford, and Tony Romo are good enough and at a better value. Ryan is probably the safest of the sure-things at QB1, but lacks the top-three upside, which means I'd rather opt for a different position if Newton is gone. 

If Newton is no longer part of the equation and Gronkowski is not ready to contribute within the the first three games of the season, then reaching for Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez, or Vernon Davis also has appeal but there's a solid chance you might get one of them at the 5/6 turn. So here are the options I'd consider at the 3/4 turn if niether Newton nor Gronkowski are available: 

  • Two of David Wilson, Lamar Miller, and Darren Sproles: You're still going to go RB-heavy, but start your mid-round block a little earlier and intersperse it with two picks at receiver between rounds 5-9. 
  • One of the above RBs and Reggie WayneWayne was last year's No.8 PPR receiver. I don't see him dropping beyond the top-15 this year and I still believe in top-12 upside in these formats. If you're looking for strong PPR options with less boom-bust potential, Sproles and Wayne are the safest bet of this Alternative III grouping. 
  • Two of Victor Cruz, Marques Colston and Reggie WayneA trio of Green, and two of these three with either Forte or Graham is a great core for a starting lineup. All are PPR factors with in pass-heavy offenses. 

Of the three options, I think I'd lean towards the back (Sproles) and Wayne, which I think gives me the best foundation for flexibility in the rounds to follow. There are players at each position I value significantly higher than the ADP and getting one of each at the 3/4 turn encourages me to continue along a flexible path of execution. 

Rounds 5-6: Picks 60/61

If I could pick just 8-10 of these players between rounds five and seven, and end my draft early with an incomplete roster to fill later with free agents, I'd make that deal with these players to choose from if the league offered: 

The closest to a must-have for me if I didn't take two running backs at the 3/4 turn would be Shane Vereen, who I have rated higher than Wilson and Miller in a PPR format. If I haven't gotten a quarterback yet, I think Wilson is the best value, but I'd understand if you think Romo and Luck are the last of the safe plays as mid-range QB1s on the board. If you picked Newton at the 3/4 turn then Antonio Brown and Steve Smith offer the best value among the receivers. 

Pick - RBs Eddie Lacy and Shane VereenIf you read the previous two draft strategy updates then you probably saw this coming. If I haven't selected a runner yet or I can start three runners then Lacy and Vereen are good mid-round bets once again due to their red zone prowess. Yes, Vereen has that prowess becuase of his receiving skill and burst to the perimeter on pitch plays. The Patriots like to use Vereen on fades, wheel routes, wide receiver screens, and pitch plays in the red area. Lacy may not start if Mike McCarthy's proclamations about Dujuan Harris are true, but he'll certainly earn red zone opportunities inside the five. And there will be enough to keep Lacy a viable option for an Upside Down starting lineup.

If you wind up with Graham and Gronkowski, I would probably still take two running backs because there's enough value at receiver to "rough-it' with a one-tight end lineup for the first few weeks of the season if your Gronkowski plan accounts for a three-week rest in September. I'd also choose this plan if you took two receivers at the 3/4 turn. 

Alternate Pick I - WR Antonio Brown and RB Shane VereenIf you have Forte, Newton, Graham, and one of Wilson-Miller, you need receivers but there's enough value later to just take one from this list. Brown and Smith are my top two choices on that list and provide big-play abiilty and potential for high reception counts each week. I'd also consider this route if you elected for the RB/Wayne choice at the 3/4 turn.  

Alternate Pick II - QB Russell Wilson and RB Shane Vereen:  If you haven't taken a quarterback, I'd go with Wilson and grab Vereen unless you have Forte and a second back from the 3/4 turn. At this point, I'd swap Vereen with Brown. 

OPening Rounds Check-in

RndPPRAlternative I (Flex)Alternative II (Flex)Alternative III (3RB)
1 A.J. Green Matt Forte Matt Forte Matt Forte
2 Jimmy Graham Jimmy Graham Jimmy Graham Jimmy Graham
3 Cam Newton Cam Newton Cam Newton Reggie Wayne
4 Marques Colston/Victor Cruz Rob Gronkowski David Wilson/Lamar Miller Darren Sproles
5 Shane Vereen Shane Vereen Shane Vereen Shane Vereen
6 Eddie Lacy Eddie Lacy Antonio Brown Russell Wilson

These are all good-looking teams, but if you want a straight-up, balls-to-the-wall upside down start, here's what I'd do:

No flirtations with running backs before the fifth round in this opening, but if you can't resist that pre-fifth runner another option I really like is Le'Veon Bell in the fourth round:

I think the quarterback options in rounds 3 and 6 both possess likely top-five upside while the rounds 3 and 6 alternatives at receiver present strong WR3 production with upside as a WR1 in PPR formats.

Rounds 7-8: PIcks 84/85

This is where your path becomes clearer after an assortment of paths between rounds 1-6. The majority of paths has you either light on receivers or running backs. The unlikely path is where you got Gronkowski early and eschewed Cam Newton, which means you still need a quarterback at some point.

Need a receiver? Miles Austin is as a third or fourth option sounds great, but his injury history makes him difficult to trust as a first or second option and that's what you're targeting in the middle rounds if you opened with tight tends, a quarterback, and picks. Mike Williams lacks a little of Austin's upside, but I think he's a safer option. The best mix of both worlds may be Kenny Britt, who was having a great camp before some knee swelling this week has quelled some of my enthusiasm. If it turns out to be a minor issue, Britt is my first choice. It might seem like a reach, but Lance Moore is a strong bet to earn WR2 production at a bargain. There are also 3-4 receivers at the next turn that I like as much if not more than the likes of Austin or Williams due to their upside. 

Need a runner? Andre Brown, Daryl Richardson, and DeAngelo Williams  all fit the profile of players with at least flex/bye-week value. You might have to throw Ronnie Hillman into the mix if you need two runners from this list who are slated for on-field roles entering the season.

Need a quarterback? Eli Manning and Andy Dalton fit within this ADP range, but with Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick, Jay Cutler, and Carson Palmer around I'm willing to risk by-passing the position for another round. So I'm not recommending you choose one - even if you lack one.

WR Track Picks - Lance Moore and Kenny Britt: This is a good mix of upside and safety with PPR value. If Britt's knees become a problem, I'd roll with Moore and Mike Williams because even if you haven't taken a receiver yet it means you have Graham and Gronkowski and that's like having two top-10 receivers. You just need consistent WR2 production to still maintain a points advantage most weeks.

RB Track Picks -  DeAngelo Williams and Andre Brown: Brown's red zone upside and Williams' skill win the day for me - especially as your RB3-RB4 options. Both have RB2 upside and I'm not sold on Richardson because I simply haven't studied enough of him to have a definitive opinion. The best upside player might be Ronnie Hillman, but I wonder if he'll even see as many red zone opportunities as Williams.

Rounds 9-10: Picks 108/109

Picks - RB Bryce Brown and WR Golden Tate: If you waited until the fourth and fifth rounds, I think continuing to stockpile talented runners is a smart hedge. Brown has RB1 talent and will see enough carries to provide potential as a flex option behind a healthy LeSean McCoy. If the Eagles' starter gets hurt, look for Brown to have Ben Tate/Michael Bush-like value as the substitute. Speaking of substitute, Tate is like the cool sub in Seattle's classroom now that Percy Harvin won't be playing until November. If you want a little more consistency than Tate, i think digging a little deeper for Chris Givens is a smart choice. I'd also consider Michael Floyd, but only if you take Lance Moore and Mike Williams instead of Kenny Britt from the 7/8 turn and you're seeking a little more upside at the risk of volatility.

Alternate Picks -RB Bryce Brown and QB Ben Roethlisberger or Jay Cutler: Brown's upside is too enticing to ignore and if you don't have a quarterback at this point, it'd rather stockpile the runner than the receiver. I actually prefer Cutler here although there is a chance he might drop to you at the 11/12 turn. The problem is the variability of his ADP, which is even greater in range the Roethlisberger. I'd rather wrap up Cutler now because Marc Trestman's offensive system has a precedence of making bad quarterbacks look good and good quarterbacks look like MVP candidates. Cutler fits somewhere in between right now, which means his potential ranges from low QB1 to elite QB1, depending on the offensive line and Cutler's discipline

Rounds 11-12: Picks 132/133

Picks - WR Vincent Brown and QB Carson Palmer: I'm keeping it simple. I value Brown highly and if I'm right, he'll be your WR3 with borderline WR1 productivity. Palmer is my No.2 QB of choice this year. Raiders fans can't get over the trade the organization made but from the number of games I studied during Palmer's tenure, the problem was the offensive line and most important, the lack of consistent, developed weapons at wide receiver.

Palmer is the type of quarterback willing to squeeze the ball into situations that allow good receivers to make great plays. The Raiders didn't have those type of receivers who could consistently make these plays due to injury or mental lapses with routes, and defensive reads. Larry Fitzgerald will have no such problem. Further, Andre Roberts is a lot like Lance Moore in the respect that he can play inside or outside and riddle defenses trying to take away the Cardinals' primary option. I like Palmer as a strong backup or quality lead-QB in a committee.

Rounds 13-14: PIcks 156/157

Picks - RBs LaMichael James and Shonn Greene: I think both backs will have a role in their respective offenses and if injury strikes they could provide solid flex-production with upside. Tennessee's offensive line is a better unit on paper than the New York Jets, which bodes well for Greene if Chris Johnson doesn't meet expectations.

Alternate Picks - RB LaMichael James and QB Alex Smith: If you need a QB2, Smith in the Andy Reid offense is too compelling to ignore this late. The volume of passes and Smith's efficiency makes him a solid pick with an inventive offensive mind in the short passing game like Reid. I've never been a fantasy fan of Smith, but this year I'm on board.

Final Look

As with the first two draft spots, the late rounds have more pick variability and I believe you can find similar players after round 14 that I targeted at the early and middle spots.  

RndPPRAlternative IAlternative IIAlternative III
1 A.J. Green Matt Forte Matt Forte Matt Forte
2 Jimmy Graham Jimmy Graham Jimmy Graham Jimmy Graham
3 Cam Newton Cam Newton Cam Newton Reggie Wayne
4 Marques Colston/Victor Cruz Rob Gronkowski David Wilson/Lamar Miller Darren Sproles
5 Shane Vereen Shane Vereen Shane Vereen Shane Vereen
6 Eddie Lacy Eddie Lacy Antonio Brown Russell Wilson
7 DeAngelo Williams Lance Moore DeAngelo Williams Lance Moore
8 Andre Brown Kenny Britt Andre Brown Kenny Britt
9 Bryce Brown Bryce Brown Bryce Brown Bryce Brown
10 Golden Tate Jay Cutler Golden Tate Golden Tate
11 Vincent Brown Vincent Brown Vincent Brown Vincent Brown
12 Carson Palmer Carson Palmer Carson Palmer Carson Palmer
13 LaMichael James LaMichael James LaMichael James LaMichael James
14 Shonn Greene Shonn Greene Shonn Greene Shonn Greene
15 Robert Woods Robert Woods Robert Woods Robert Woods
16 Joique Bell Joique Bell Joique Bell Joique Bell
17 Christine Michael Christine Michael Christine Michael Christine Michael
18 Jeremy Kerley Jeremy Kerley Jeremy Kerley Jeremy Kerley
19 Browns DEF Browns DEF Browns DEF Browns DEF
20 Randy Bullock Randy Bullock Randy Bullock Randy Bullock

Each team has 7-9 running backs, which I believe gives you a fighting chance to hit on at least one as a strong RB2 couched by WR1s and WR2s, elite QB and elite TE play, and enough WR depth to parlay your picks into a second quality RB if needed. If you take the approach that the draft is to build a team and the season is to build a winner, then a stockpiling approach like the Upside Down Draft can give you a lot of positive things to work with. 

Next Time: My draft tiers.