Against the Grain: A Profile of Two Outliers
By Matt Waldman and Mark Wimer
July 22nd, 2010

Finding players who are in a position to exceed their generally perceived value requires a willingness to take positions on players that aren't in favor with other owners. How do you stick to your guns and pull the trigger on a controversial pick in the face of your league's scorn?

Mark Wimer and Matt Waldman have a reputation among the Footballguys community for views that often differ from the consensus. Their positions on players frequently spark debate and some wonder if they do it for shock/entertainment value. We asked them to discuss their philosophies behind maintaining views against the grain, their successes (and failures) and why it is important for all fantasy owners to holding these views at least some of the time.

Identifying and acquiring undervalued players while avoiding those that are overvalued.

That is the fundamental definition of a winning fantasy football strategy. It's a simple concept, but its execution isn't. Every fantasy article you read is intended to help you do so.

Mark and Matt believe that discerning value often requires a willingness to take positions on players that aren't in favor with other owners.

Here is what they had to say about their philosophies.

What do you believe leads to success in fantasy football?

Matt Waldman: I believe that excellence is a deviation from the norm, so I'm always looking for information (news or stats) that stands out. If I can find some thing or several things that indicate a player has a good chance to be a difference maker (or the opposite) and I believe in those things, then I'm going to go in that direction with my projections and rankings.

To me, success isn't about avoiding failure; it's about being willing to fail numerous times until you get it right. Some of my most successful teams were squads comprised of players where I was more willing to risk failure on draft day or free agency than others.

Mark Wimer: Matt makes a great point about the connection between failure and success. If one isn't willing to risk failure, then becoming truly excellent at any given pursuit is highly unlikely, in my opinion.

Granted, fantasy football isn't astrophysics, but nobody likes to fall short in front of his or her peers/colleagues at work. However, being willing to perhaps make a bad pick will greatly increase your chances of finding an undervalued/high performing player where others don't see an opportunity. Successful fantasy owners learn to have a thick skin and shrug off criticism from others.

So are you purposely trying to be different or does it happen naturally, because your views are often contrary to others?

Wimer: In my case, it is and has always been my approach to avoid reading other writers' analysis of players in the months after the Super Bowl so it's natural that my views are often different.

Starting the day after the Super Bowl until I do my first set of initial projections in late March before the NFL draft I keep up on the breaking news of trades, free agency and coaching changes, but I do not seek out other thinkers' analysis of these events as they occur. I actively try to insulate myself from outside opinions until I've come up with my first set of league-wide projections.

So, until I've generated my "first cut" of rankings/projections, I am essentially relying on the data/memories I amassed during the previous regular season. I write the early Monday injury report each week, and do the preliminary drafts of the rushing/passing match ups each week for every team, so I've looked at each team in fine-grained detail for the preceding 17 weeks and the postseason (for those that advance). When I DO start comparing my conclusions to other Footballguys staffers/message board members, I often have a wider divergence from general opinion on certain players.

Look at Jamaal Charles - I find his late-season heroics for Kansas City a lot less impressive and compelling than most other fantasy owners/commentators because I know/remember just how suspect the majority of the defensive fronts he faced in the second half of 2009 were by the end of the season. I have more skepticism regarding his full-season prospects during 2010 because of the context in which I viewed his (undeniable) accomplishments during 2009.

Waldman: While I don't agree with Mark about Charles (laughter), I'd say that my work process is pretty cloistered. This is very true for me when I am watching games for the Rookie Scouting Portfolio and working on my preseason columns. This analysis is the backbone for my rankings. You could say that my writing is how I "show my work" behind my rankings. While I occasionally look at what others are saying about players, it's not something I do until I have at least completed my own analysis first.

If I use other opinions as a guide before I do my own work, then I'm basing my work off other's assumptions. I don't like doing it that way because I might be working off assumptions that I might have otherwise questioned.

Until I began doing my own work (studying games and analyzing stats), the opinions I heard on television or read in print from well-spoken/written analysts, commentators and writers were taken as gospel. Now that I do the work, I'm more selective about whose views I take seriously.

Sometimes I find myself yelling at the TV, "Have you ever seen him play?" Although I haven't gotten an answer from the TV yet (when I do commit me…), I realize that trying to analyze a game in real-time without benefit of the unlimited opportunity to break down plays can create some false ideas about what's going on. These commentators have a tough job in this respect. It's amazing how many people, including in the media, take what they hear in the moment as gospel.

Wimer: Matt mentions an area that is one exception for me: One of the areas where I do actively seek out other expert opinion is on the incoming NFL draft class - Footballguys has several outstanding analysts of the college ranks, and I also have some favorite commentators from outside our staff.

I do not incorporate rookie rankings/projections in my baselines/team projections until after the NFL draft has gone down and then I can evaluate how well the new personnel "fit" on the teams that they are joining. All my analysis of the incoming draft class is done in the context of how much opportunity I think each player will likely receive with his new NFL team, and how well positioned the team is to provide quality opportunities to any given player.

Waldman: Mark's point about looking at other opinions for rookie analysis and collecting them touches upon one of the philosophical approaches to fantasy football. I think there are basic ways people come to an opinion about players and it often reflects how in line they are with everyone else.

I know many people that are "opinion collectors." They read as many news articles or views about a player they can find. They weigh the optimism or pessimism about the player and make a value judgment on the source of the analysis – a fantasy owner, beat writer, former player, teammate, coach, etc. Then these opinion collectors begin to develop their own thoughts about that player.

I believe Sigmund Bloom is a good example of a discerning opinion collector. He uses that information very well to generate his own views on players while incorporating other methods of analysis (including stats) to reach a decision. Considering that Bloom – in addition to his own extensive analysis of players – works on the news wire, interviews a variety of people on The Audible, and has established a presence on Twitter – spending a lot of time asking beat writers follow up questions to their tweets – it makes perfect sense.

I have friends in long-running leagues that essentially do the same thing, but just not at this level of sophistication.

Others are stats geeks. They project every player and try to incorporate as many quantitative factors as possible into their algorithm to spit out players that will help them navigate a draft. Footballguys co-owner David Dodds has that number-crunching streak in him.

It's not to say David or other number crunchers don't watch games, evaluate players and follow news to complement this approach. I know David watches a ton of football and he has great opinions about players based on what happens on the field, not just the box score.

I think most people fall between these two poles and then there's another dimension, which has to do with how risk adverse is your personality. I think I'm probably somewhere in the middle on the stats-opinion collecting spectrum, but I have a high tolerance for risk and my opinions and rankings will sometimes reflect it.

If I have a strong opinion about a player's potential then I tend to make sure my rankings reflect it rather than keep him in the pack with my peers and comment on his value. They way they do it is perfectly acceptable, but it's not my preference. There are pros and cons to either approach.

Both of you have Mike Wallace much lower than common opinion - What factors have depressed his value in your opinions?

Wimer: The suspension of Roethlisberger for six games is, in my opinion, a major hit for the passing game in Pittsburgh in general…

Waldman: Absolutely, Mark. Roethlisberger is one of the very best improvisers in the game today. His ability to buy time, get into a position to throw, and use that cannon of an arm was a big reason for Wallace becoming an effective deep threat.

There are maybe two or three other quarterbacks in the league that can do what Roethlisberger does. Opposing defensive backs watching the QB in deep zone can't help but assume that the quarterback maneuvering the pocket under pressure won't be able to throw the ball 60-plus yards on the move. Since almost every quarterback in the league couldn't make that kind of throw, they allowed Wallace to get behind them.

Wimer: Also, Matt, the team seems to be re-tooling for a return to a more powerful running game - which may lead to more down-field blocking assignments for the wide receivers and less receptions.

Waldman: With Roethlisberger gone they will have to run more. Byron Leftwich, Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch lack the combination of arm, accuracy and mobility of Roethlisberger – maybe two out of the three, but not the right two out of three to make Wallace as dangerous as he is when No. 7 is under center.

Wimer: In addition, Wallace had three or less receptions in 14 of 16 games last season - he hasn't yet proven to me that he can be highly productive on a regular basis (there was only one 100+ yards-receiving game to his credit last season). He is the early favorite for the No. 2 wide receiver position in Pittsburgh, but in my opinion it remains to be seen if he'll cement that spot during training camp (and I'm not enthused by the prospects for WR No. 2 in Pittsburgh, especially during weeks 1-6).

Waldman: I like Wallace as a talent. I watched him at Ole Miss and I saw him several times with the Steelers. He did an impressive job of working his way back to the quarterback, making clutch plays and using his terrific speed to burn opposing defenses. But he did all of this with Ben Roethlisberger as the quarterback.

I don't see Wallace as a poor man's DeSean Jackson just yet. He'll catch underneath routes and he'll be targeted on vertical plays, but still comes back to quarterback play. Leftwich takes too much time in the pocket and his cumbersome release is why he fell out of favor as a potential starter in the NFL. Combined with his lack of mobility, and he's just a black and gold bull's eye for opposing pass rushers.

Dixon has great mobility but he is still learning the game and his accuracy isn't as strong as Leftwich or Batch. And Batch is a short and intermediate-range passer without much mobility. If these quarterbacks are going to throw the ball deep, they need to do it quickly and you won't see Wallace waiting on a ball 50-60 yards downfield.

Which were your greatest hits that were outliers to common thought?

Wimer: When Larry Fitzgerald entered the league during 2004, I was very impressed with his skill set, attitude/work ethic and also intrigued by his close bond to coach Dennis Green (Fitzgerald had been a ball boy for the Vikings/Green during Green's Minnesota days). I was much higher on Fitzgerald's 2005 prospects than most Footballguys/fantasy owners, and he proved me right by landing at No. 2 on the WR board by year's end.

I have also been on-target in my skepticism of Steven Jackson as a top-five fantasy prospect during 2008 and 2009 - not because of his personal level of elite talent, but because the Rams' offense has fallen apart around him in recent years.

Waldman: Matt Forte, Joseph Addai, Brian Westbrook and Ray Rice are examples of players where I felt I had a good bead on their talent and situation when they entered the league despite the majority of folks stating the contrary due to lack of size, speed, big-time school, etc. I know people that still think Forte and Addai aren't true talents, but I think some of those people have a very limited definition of what talent is supposed to look like.

I was pretty steadfast about Percy Harvin, Steve Smith (NYG) and Hakeem Nicks just last year when various people I know and respect told me they didn't see the same things – especially with the two rookies in their first season. Last year in IDP leagues I was on-target about Brian Dawkins having an elite year when most were writing him off.

I would also say I was appropriately less enthused about players like Matt Leinart and Darren McFadden than most. There's a chance both players could develop into quality pros, but I think I can safely conclude that I was correct about their initial struggles.

Which were your greatest misses?

Wimer: Ironically, one of my greatest misses was on Jackson - I never saw his third-place finish during 2006 coming. He blew up with 16 TDs, over 2,300 total yards and 90 receptions that season, far beyond what I anticipated. I was off-target about Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain last year - McGahee ended up generating almost all the rushing TDs that Ray Rice didn't, whereas I expected McGahee to fade out during 2009 with McClain claiming the short-yardage role.

Waldman: I have definitely had my share and always will. I thought San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jason Hill was the next coming of Isaac Bruce. The fact that Mike Martz was high on Hill fueled my persistence about the WR, too. I also liked Rashaun Woods and Brandon Lloyd – maybe I just need to stay away from receivers the 49ers like – but I still think their lack of success had nothing to do with their physical talents.

I thought Xavier Omon, the small school tailback from Northwestern Missouri Valley State, was an NFL talent that would surprise. Former NFL scout Russ Lande was also high on Omon's skills, so it fueled my hubris to throw caution to the curb about him making the jump from small school college football to the NFL. I was told at the Senior Bowl this year that Omon was proving not to be a diligent worker since he entered the league. There was speculation that Omon had issues sustaining confidence while trying to fight his way up a depth chart and it affected his work ethic. He looked pretty ordinary, at best.

I didn't think Sidney Rice and Robert Meachem could develop their hands well enough to make an impact in the NFL.

Is it difficult to stand by your views when someone questions them?

Waldman: Sometimes. When someone makes a compelling argument for the opposite stance, I'm tempted to change my mind. In fact, there are times I have changed my stance. One example was Rashard Mendenhall. When I first watched him play at Illinois, I wasn't that impressed with him. Only after listening to some cogent points others made about him did I make the decision to watch the same games from a different perspective. I came away with a different view of Mendenhall and I learned something about the game I didn't know.

If it weren't for the fact that I had a different view and shared it publicly, I wouldn't have learned something new. And I benefited in my fantasy leagues. I fielded a 13-0 team in the Footballguys IDP league and Mendenhall (Rice and Dawkins) was big part of the reason why.

However, it takes solid points to sway me, not a volume of opposing views or strong sarcasm. Although those can be entertaining!

Because you share your views publicly, do you ever feel the danger of staying locked into your viewpoint after your perspective has been tested?

Waldman: I think its human nature to question whether you're being stubborn. When you hold a view contrary to the norm you're testing yourself and others. However, you have to be willing to take a stance and be wrong to learn the difference between being steadfast and stubborn. You also need to be willing to risk failure if you want to succeed and there's nothing worse for me in fantasy football when I had the correct bead on a player or situation and I either didn't pull the trigger or I reversed my stance.

Wimer: Until training camps open and we grind through the preseason games, I do tend to be very stubborn about my opinions. I've polished my initial set of projections three or four times by early July, and clashed with the other staffers/message board members enough to sharpen my opinions/perspectives.

However, the proof is always in what happens on the field. If a player doesn't look strong during camp or a young player raises his stock with repeated, outstanding performances, my rankings are always open to revision at that point.

Nobody is right about every player on his or her board - I expect to make major revisions during camps either due to any given player falling short of or exceeding my initial expectations, or because of unforeseen injuries along the offensive line or at quarterback changing the outlook for any given offensive unit. If you're going to have the best draft possible, you must be able to adapt your boards dynamically as breaking news/events warrant.

Are you guys just holding outlier views for "shock value" or to create controversy for the sake of controversy? Do you really draft according to your rankings/projections?

Waldman: If something I think in regards to fantasy football shocks people, fine – it's not a motivation. Sometimes I anticipate my perspective will be surprising and I'll play it up to tease people into reading further, but I'm too busy trying to provide information that I hope will help people sharpen their game to get lasting thrills out of "being different."

Wimer: Same here. I never take a position I don't believe in - my rankings and projections are my honest, best effort at providing a snapshot of any given position at a certain moment in time. Controversy is to be expected in this hobby/pursuit, but I don't court controversy for its own sake.

Waldman: As a fantasy football writer-analyst, I believe my job is to help people learn more about players and strategies. Sometimes it comes from helpful advice, other times it comes from reading the documentation of my experiments with strategies or philosophies.

I write about topics, players and strategies I want to learn about. I have learned that if I am invested in the topic then it's more likely others feel the same way. It is much easier to plumb my own thoughts than try to guess what is in the minds of dozens, hundreds or thousands others.

My rankings are a reflection of what I learn and since I'm trying to find deviations from the norm in the positive sense, I think it is normal that I will have some outlying views.

Wimer: I also craft my draft strategies around my own rankings/projections. However, I am usually very aware of when I have an opinion that is a major outlier. When that is the case, I take the outlier into account and use it to help "slot" the player where I am most likely to a) Acquire his services, but b) Maximize his value to my team.

For example, this year QB is very deep, and a lot of players are waiting until late rounds for their starter. In a recent mock draft, I was at the turn (picks Nos. 12-13) and I knew that Aaron Rodgers would never last until my next set of picks at the very end of the third round/start of the fourth.

I "reached" for Rodgers at the end of the first even though I knew most of the other QBs wouldn't go until after the premium rounds. I wanted him on my team, so I paid a high price to ensure I retained his services.

Waldman: I think Mark brings up a good point about "reaching." Many fantasy owners are too static in their definition of "reaching." Mark's example to me isn't a reach; it's an appropriate anticipation of value and proper analysis of your draft position.

I might have thought Ronnie Brown and Ray Rice would be top-flight backs in 2009 but I didn't draft them exactly where I ranked them. Why should I? I knew that their average draft position was much lower. However, Jene Bramel can tell you that I was willing to go has high as rounds 3-4 to take Rice to ensure I got him when he was still a 5th or 6th round pick in many drafts. Like Mark, I did this because I knew that Rice wouldn't return to me for my next set of picks.

I approach rankings as a guideline rather than an absolute. I think many writers approach it this way, but rather than ranking Ray Rice as their No. 10 RB they rank him No. 24. They list him as an "upside pick," and tell you how much they really like him. Often their comments about the player provide a clearer reflection of the player's value than the ranking.

I prefer to rank some players where I envision them to perform and allow those looking at the rankings to have the wisdom to incorporate my thoughts into a draft strategy that considers the average place these players are taken. When I ranked Ronnie Brown No. 3 last year, it was based on my thoughts about the Miami offense and his projected involvement. Brown's health issues certainly were a valid argument to keep his ranking lower but when you combine his production with Ricky Williams, you see why I had a Miami runner ranked so high.

Is it difficult to stand by your views when someone questions them?

Waldman: I question my own stance on a regular basis - you don't learn anything if you don't. But you don't learn anything if you simply go along with the crowd, either. I've become better at anything I have done in life from my mistakes. While I might occasionally worry that I'm making a mistake because so many others think differently, I'm not going to let it prevent me from going my own way if I believe in my views.

Wimer: On the contrary, I think it makes a person a better fantasy owner if your assumptions/presumptions are challenged. I have often ended up moving a player up even higher on my draft board after being criticized for an outlier high ranking as often, in the course of my defense, I solidify my reasoning for being optimistic about any given player. If a fantasy owner is confident in their reasoning/analysis, they should be able to withstand contrary opinions and benefit by them.

What do you think about to maintain your stance when you feel strongly about a player but seem to be alone?

Wimer: I was always (and I still am) critical of Michael Vick's professionalism and dedication to his craft as a quarterback. Yes, he had freakish athletic gifts at one point, but he failed to translate his superior gifts into consistently superior results.

After his disgrace and banishment from the NFL, Vick candidly admitted to being lazy and selfish during his years in Atlanta (last one in the building, first one out, etc.). When he felt like giving his full effort, Vick was almost unstoppable. But his character flaws (an intangible that fantasy owners must weigh for themselves) and immaturity kept him from becoming the elite NFL quarterback that his phenomenal physical skills could have led him to become. I will always view his career as an example of wasted potential.

He's the guy I remember when others assert that I am "crazy" for being down on player X, or that player Y is a "lock" to be top ten.

Waldman: It's two things, really. First, I have had too much success with what I do to question my overall approach. Second, I have learned not to put too much weight in others' opinions - especially popular, media-driven opinions.

I have interviewed people that I know study the game. They will tell you that some of the media personalities with the most popular opinions know far less about the game – and its players - than you might expect. I trust the work I do. And when I'm wrong, I trust that because I did the work, I'll do a better job of learning from my mistakes.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to wimer@footballguys.com or waldman@footballguys.com.

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