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The Gut Check No.467: Dynasty Building

Matt Waldman ends the season with more dynasty league analysis through the lens of a dynasty IDP championship winner after a lengthy rebuild.

This analysis of a championship dynasty team is the example of a slow build due to the trading away of stud veterans much earlier than their demise and failing on the early draft picks that I got in return. As a result, this team got stuck in a limbo of an also-ran; not good enough to contend and not bad enough to earn early draft picks.

Before getting to the team, let's review the idea of Player Windows.

The Gut Check devoted December to a series on players he's targeting in various dynasty leagues. Each article begins with an explanation of Player Windows — one of the things I've created to assess the strengths of my teams:

The average NFL career is a little less than three years in length. Early-round picks tend to bolster the length of the average whereas late-round and undrafted players tend to weigh it down.

Using three-year increments to assess the value of your depth chart is a good way to begin evaluating your dynasty team. These three-year increments are called Player Windows. Here are the criteria for each window length (you can adjust them as you see fit):

  • One Window: When projecting the player's value beyond three years is an even greater fool's errand than normal.
    • UDFAs who haven't earned any traction on an NFL depth chart.
    • Players coming off a significant injury with a bad track record for successful rehabilitation.
    • Veterans performing at an age where the majority of long-term starters at his position have already retired or lost starter skill.
  • Two Windows: These players should have at least 4-6 years of starter skills left as long as they stay healthy and have a quality supporting cast.
    • A young running back or receiver with less than four years in the league and has a good track record of health.
    • A top quarterback or tight end with less than seven years in the league.
  • Three Windows: Players with at least 7-9 years of starter skills left as long as they stay healthy and have a quality supporting cast.
    • Rookie running backs.
    • Quarterbacks and tight ends with no more than five years of NFL experience.
    • Receivers with no more than three years of NFL experience.

You should assess every player with these windows and then add the value assessments to each window type:

  • Anchors (these players can have one, two, or three windows)
  • Fine Wines (strictly one-window players)
  • Starters (capable of one, two, or three windows)
  • Contributors (capable of one, two, or three windows)
  • Emerging Forces (capable of two, or three windows -- most will have three)
  • Futures (capable of two or three windows -- most will have three)
  • Rookies (most will have three windows but could have two if enter the league with an injury history)

When you do this exercise, it should give you a clearer idea of the state of your dynasty roster. It will help you determine the strength of your team. Is it centralized and deep at a small number of positions or is it strong at the top of the depth chart at a few positions but spread thin?

This exercise should also help you determine how you should build or maintain your team. For example, this team, which is leading the league in scoring and now a serious contender, was blown up several years ago — trading away the likes of Marshawn Lynch, Peyton Manning, Antonio Gates, and a few other players about three years too early. As a result, it floundered as a below-average team and yours truly compounded the issues by trying to pinpoint specific positions from a draft spot that didn't warrant the picks.

Once yours truly opted to assess his team with this method, it became clear that for this team's situation, stockpiling quarterback talent was better than taking a chance on lesser talents at position need was a better way to go. Although none of these talents (Jared Goff, Patrick Mahomes II II, Russell Wilson, and Lamar Jackson) have been traded away for additional resources because the team has improved through the draft and free agency, the stockpiling is hurting other teams in need to quality passers. Eventually, this talent will lead to trades when the need arises.

This exercise should be enough to not only help you assess the players you need but the ones you can actually afford to target without hurting the overall mission of your team-building strategy.

This week, the Gut Check will perform this assessment one of his teams that won a championship after a long re-build.

The Also-ran-turned-champion

This IDP-dynasty champion is a league with 45-player rosters, full IDP, and PPR (and 1.5 PPR scoring for tight ends). Teams must start 1 quarterback, 1-2 running backs, 3 receivers, 1-2 tight ends, 1 kicker, 1-2 defensive tackles, 2 defensive ends, 3-4 linebackers, 2 cornerbacks, and 2 safeties.

Well examine the roster by position and discuss the performance of the player, acquisition strategy for each, and development plan for the depth chart.

Team History

This squad began this league as a loaded roster. It had Peyton Manning (Colts), Marshawn Lynch, Antonio Gates, Chad Ocho Cinco, Ricky Williams, Jonathan Vilma, LaDainian Tomlinson, Von Miller, and Patrick Willis as many of its stars. I blew this team up in the worst way possible — trading away Manning at his injury low-point, giving up Lynch too easily before one of his greatest seasons, giving up on Gates after his foot injuries and prior to his fantasy rebound, and giving up Von Miller (my fourth-round pick in 2010) before he became a superstar.

Willis retired along the way.

This team descended into that range of performance where it would perform just well enough to contend for a playoff spot by year's end and not good enough to earn a postseason bid. It meant that this team earned only one top-five pick during the past 5-7 years and mismanagement on my end with the transactions above also included future draft picks.

I had to tear it down and re-build with mid-round picks, free agency, and patience. This year, the team became the league's top scorer and won the championship against a pretty strong field — including a stacked team in the semis that rebuilt by trading away its players and dominating the draft with a majority of the league's picks in the first, second, and third rounds from 2016-18.

Here's a position-by-position look.

Quarterbacks

Patrick Mahomes II II Stolen off Practice Squad (Paid 1st round 2018 pick in 2017) 4-5 Windows QB1 and No. 1 scorer overall
Russell Wilson 3rd-round pick 2-3 Windows QB11 and No. 18 scorer overall
Jared Goff 1st-round pick 4-5 Windows QB8 and No. 9 scorer overall
Lamar Jackson 2nd-round pick (via trade of 2019 first and Nick Vannett) 4-5 Windows QB32 and No. 22 scorer overall since Wk 11
Chad Kelly 5th-round pick 4-5 Windows Cut after arrested for trespassing days before an impending announcement that Kelly would be the starter.

When this team fell apart, the only quarterback I had was Russell Wilson. I went a few years with him as my only starter while addressing wide receiver, tight end, and defensive end. After fortifying those positions, it became clear that stockpiling the quarterback position was the best solution for this steam because it could not get its hands on a stud running back due to its draft position.

As a talent evaluator with a view of quarterbacks that have been successful against the conventions of the position, I decided to trust it. It didn't start well because I took a shot on Johnny Manziel with one of three second-round picks in 2014.

However, I took Goff early and after a shaky start, it paid off in Year Two. When the team stockpiling draft picks placed Mahomes on its practice squad in September of 2017 I invoked our league's rule to steal Mahomes at a price that I believed would prove a bargain.

After all, Mahomes was the highest graded quarterback I studied in at least five years. With Goff ascending, I could eventually parlay Mahomes or Wilson into a stud running back if needed. This year, I traded into the second round to acquire Jackson — another passer many weren't as excited about as I.

I now have four starters and three of them are only in their first window of what is hopefully careers spanning 12-15 years. Wilson's well into his second career window but still going strong — especially with a re-tooled offensive line.

If necessary, I have the resources to trade for a strong starter at other positions. However, I'm happy about keeping them all because then next 2-3 quarterback classes aren't as strong as recent ones and the top veterans are nearing retirement. If I wait 3-4 years, I could have even more value because the competition will be thirsting for quarterback talent.

As a post-script on this section, I've held onto Kelly because I've had the luxury to do so and I'm waiting to see the outcome of his court case. He has the talent to start in the NFL and there are some quarterback-needy teams that will be disappointed with the next 1-2 drafts that might be willing to take a chance on the quarterback if clears his off-field hurdles.

Running Backs

Peyton Barber Free Agent 2 Windows RB29 (219th overall)
Isaiah Crowell Trade: Shane Vereen and 2016 2nd-round Pick for Crowell and a 2016 3rd round pick 2 Windows RB28 (205th overall)
Chase Edmonds Free Agent 3 Windows RB67
Keith Ford Free Agent 3 Windows RB115
Justin Jackson 4th-round 3 Windows RB70
Duke Johnson Jr 2nd-round 2 Windows RB37
Spencer Ware Free Agent 2 Windows RB58
Chris Warren III Free Agent 3 Windows IR
Ryan Nall Free Agent 3 Windows N/A

This squad didn't have much luck with running backs. The recent history is riddled with bad luck and failed picks.

Jonathan Franklin was my 1.13 pick in 2013 and he retired with a career-ending neck injury after a fine debut on opening day against the Bengals. Considering what we learned about Eddie Lacy, Franklin could have been the answer for the Packers ground game that wouldn't have necessitated the acquisition or use of Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones.

Zac Stacy was another failed pick (1.14 in the same season) despite one decent year. Funny enough, I also picked Rex Burkhead with 5.06 that year but didn't hold onto him long enough for him to become a sometime-ish thing in New England.

The next year, KaDeem Carey (2.14) and Marion Grice (4.03) underwhelmed.

In 2015, I took Duke Johnson Jr (2.06) and Zach Zenner (5.07). Johnson has been a solid but unspectacular option for this PPR squad ever since. The rest of my running back picks have been free agents.

I've had no choice unless I wanted to give up the depth of my wide receiver and tight end classes and my quarterback depth chart hasn't become a strength until last year. Even so, the demand for passers wasn't strong then and probably won't be until next year or the year after.

It means I'm scavenging at the position. That's ok. One of the important lessons I've learned over the years is that with larger formats like these, you're going to have a weak spot. Considering I only have to start one running back and tight ends and receivers have greater value, I'm ok with scavenging at this position.

The Stacy-Franklin picks set this team's development back 3-4 years, especially when I had opportunities to rebuild my receiving corps earlier. If I have an opportunity to trade for a runner, I'll consider it but I'm not overpaying for a running back. He'll need to be an Ezekiel Elliott or Todd Gurley type of talent and I'm not giving up wide receivers for him.

At this stage, I'd rather take my chances in the middle to later rounds and stockpile my strengths until there's no reason not to trade a quarterback, wide receiver, tight end or other position for a quality runner.

Chris Warren III and Justin Jackson are my current hopefuls from late-round category who I'll designate as patience plays. I added Keith Ford in Week 16 based on his opportunity but I know enough about his skills that he could wind up a patience-play in 2019-20. Because of the likelihood of Buffalo investing in a high-round running back in the next year or two, I doubt it but he has developmental potential.

Scavenging isn't easy because you often identify worthwhile talents who can fill up your roster and not provide timely production. Chris Thompson spent a lot of time on and off this roster over the years.

Wide Receivers

T.Y. Hilton Trade 1-2 Windows WR14 and No. 45 overall
Michael Thomas 1.05 2-3 Windows WR5 and No. 23 overall
Adam Thielen Free Agency 1-2 Windows WR7 and No. 25 overall
Marvin Jones Jr Trade 1-2 Windows WR61 (IR) and No. 300 overall
Paul Richardson Jr 2.08 2 Windows WR107 (IR)
Deon Cain 3.09 3-4 Windows (IR)
Martavis Bryant 2.10 2 Windows WR121 (IR-Suspended)
Allen Hurns Free Agent 1-2 Windows WR111
Richie James 5.09 3-4 Windows WR153
DeAndre Carter Free Agent 2-3 Windows WR131
Byron Pringle Free Agent 3-4 Windows (IR)

Not all my trades were bad ones. Jones and Hilton have been quality additions 4-5 seasons back and when Jones and Richardson return to health, they'll provide excellent depth as rotational starters in my three-receiver lineup based on their matchups.

Thielen was a steal and a player I knew nothing about until watching him perform during the preseason. He was one of those speculative additions you make when you see quality work on the field and have room to see if his career takes an upward climb. This year, I was offered Le'Veon Bell for him straight up and turned it down.

Allen Hurns, a player I knew a lot about, was one of those free agent additions during his rookie year who I thought might have a Thielen-like career before I added Thielen. It was Hurns and Bryant who I thought might pace this receiving corp with one of Jones or Richardson as my rotational third option.

Funny how things work out — even if not remotely as planned.

I'm most excited about Cain returning to Indianapolis and working opposite Hilton on a team with a great young offensive line. Cain reminds me of Davante Adams in style and talent.

When examining the Windows for my roster, it's clear that I'm in a nice situation for the next 2-3 years but if I'm wise, continuous draft-day investments in wide receivers will remain a priority. In 2-3 seasons, I could see half my depth chart turn over.

And as we know, drafting a receiver doesn't make that receiver a guaranteed success. There are a lot of receivers that didn't stick — including second- and third-round picks: Jeremy Gallon (4.05), Kofi Hughes (5.03), Marquez Manuel (5.05), Mike Thomas (3.01), Marquess Wilson (2.14), Ryan Swope (4.13), Charles Johnson 4.06), Tyrell Williams (5.05), and Darius Davis (5.06).

Tight Ends

Travis Kelce 1.16 2 Windows TE1 and No. 5 overall scorer
David Njoku 1.09 3-4 Windows TE18 No. 106 overall scorer
Robert Tonyan Free Agent 3-4 Windows TE78

One year after taking Kelce, I selected Eric Ebron as my 1.03 in the 2014 draft but traded him away for picks that netted me C.J. Mosley, Paul Richardson Jr, and Jeremy Gallon. Although Richardson has been a spot-starter at best, Mosley has netted me greater value than Ebron when comparing their career production.

This depth chart is strong as long as I can start both tight ends. It creates a situation where I don't need great running back play. However, it needs more depth at the position and the 2019 draft class offers a player or two that I may target. Losing one of these two tight starting ends leaves me at a scoring disadvantage. I had Nick Vannett last year for a while traded him and my 2019 first-round pick for the second-round pick that turned into Lamar Jackson.

Having Kelce since 2013, you can see why I made Mahomes a priority — especially knowing what Kelce could be if given a quarterback not afraid of aggressive target opportunities.

Kicker

My kicker is Mason Crosby, the No.5 fantasy option at the position. I got him as a free agent and his opportunities have been a product of an inconsistent Packers offense. I'm not attached to kickers. If I find an opportunity to land a better one, I'll take it. The only kicker I'd probably hold onto tightly in recent years would be Justin Tucker.

Defensive Tackles

Eddie Goldman and David Irving comprise this depth chart. Both have been oft-injured but neither were anything more than free agent selections. Irving is an excellent pass rusher. If he can reclaim a role in Dallas, he offers big-play upside. If not, he could deliver it elsewhere. Both offer at least two dynasty windows.

The truth about my defensive tackle roster is that I drafted Leonard Williams as a hopeful defensive tackle stalwart and then the Jets transitioned from a 4-3 front to a 3-4 and Williams got stuck outside. If Ed Oliver is available at the right place and time, I could make a play for him in the next rookie draft.

Defensive Ends

Brandon Graham 15.06 (startup draft) DE34 1 window
Randy Gregory 3.06 DE51 2 windows
Melvin Ingram III Free Agent DE16 and No. 367 scorer overall 1 window
Chris Jones Free Agent DE4 and No. 90 scorer overall 3 windows
Derek Rivers 4.09 N/A 3 windows
Leonard Williams 2.10 DE41 3 windows

When I picked Williams and Gregory back-to-back in 2015, I hoped I'd have a tackle and end I could rely on. Gregory is getting his life straightened out and flashing the promise of a dominant edge rusher. Williams is misplaced as a 3-4 DE and could be dominant as a pass-rushing defensive end.

Misplaced players have been the theme of this depth chart. Graham was locked up as a 3-4 OLB for half of his career until the Eagles finally returned to a 4-3. Jones would be even better as a 4-3 defensive tackle in this scoring system but he's been a monster this year even as a 3-4 DE.

Melvin Ingram III got the Graham treatment for a time with the Chargers but now he's quality No.2 starter in this league. This has been the most difficult position for me as a manager because I picked talented players who get stuck in alignment changes.

However, the situations have stabilized and the production is coming. My team should be in a position to take shots on 2-3 quality prospects in the draft over the next 2-3 seasons and transition the older players off my roster as needed.

Linebackers

Vontaze Burfict Free Agent LB131 2 Windows
Tremaine Edmunds 2.09 LB20 and No. 131 scorer overall 4 Windows
Reggie Gilbert Free Agent LB105 3 Windows
Nicholas Morrow Free Agent LB109 4 Windows
C.J. Mosley 2.01 LB46 and No. 245 scorer overall 3 Windows
Kyle Van Noy Free Agent LB33 and No. 178 scorer overall 2 Windows

When healthy, Edmunds, Mosley, Van Noy, and Burfict are a competent foursome. However, Burfict is always hurt or suspended. Fortunately, Edmunds has elite LB1 potential and he's only 20-years-old. Linebackers will remain a priority for the next 2-3 seasons. If I can land a second backer in the mold of Edmunds and Mosely returns to his LB1 production of 2015 and 2017, it could go a long way towards making this roster a consistent scorer that's not as dependent on huge weeks from its offensive stars.

2019's draft prospects include a promising linebacker class. Without a first-round pick, I probably won't land the ones I have my eyes on but I might be able to move up to the early second.

Cornerbacks

Morris Claiborne Free Agent CB25 1 Window
Justin Coleman Free Agent CB32 3 Windows
Stephon Gilmore Free Agent CB26 1 Window
Kenny Moore II Free Agent CB5 and No. 231 overall scorer 3 Windows

I never draft cornerbacks. There are too many factors outside of these player's control that influence their opportunities. It's best to assess from the waiver wire:

  • Who is starting opposite of them?
  • Does the lack of a pass rush earn them additional work?
  • What kind of defensive coverages do they play?

This depth chart has been a mix-and-match situation on a weekly basis with the exception of Moore, who I've been fortunate to have played well enough that I can start him and forget him.

Safeties

Antoine Bethea Free Agent S3 and No.96 scorer overall Year-to-year
Curtis Riley Free Agent S22 and No.209 scorer overall 2-3 Windows
Tedric Thompson Free Agent S59 3-4 Windows
Eric Reid Free Agent S47 1-2 Windows

I've always subscribed to finding old safeties who are deemed ancient but manage to squeeze elite production from their cob-webbed frames due to their placement on teams that are struggling. 34-year-old Antoine Bethea in Arizona is a great match.

Riley isn't old but he fits the struggling team scenario. Reid could be a long-term bargain as a 27-year-old who only played 12 games this year. He should stick in Carolina and give me a shot at S2 production in a two-safety lineup.

Thompson flashed talent in between moments of undisciplined rookie play. I don't expect to get the same production from this crew next year but with this position, I also play the waiver wire as hard as I do with the cornerbacks.

Overall Thoughts

It shouldn't be lost on you that Patrick Mahomes II outscored the next best quarterback by an average of 4.5 points per game in this league and that Travis Kelce outscored all but four fantasy quarterbacks as well. It's not lost on me that I acquired a fantastic advantage with a game-changing player and it elevated my team's standing.

However, it wasn't the reason my team went from losing a tiebreaker to reach the playoffs for the two years prior and winning a championship this year. It likely put me over the top but this team was headed in the right direction. The addition of David Njoku, Tremaine Edmunds, Michael Thomas, Adam Thielen, and Antoine Bethea all made a difference. So did the breakout of Chris Jones.

This is a team with excellent strength at quarterback, wide receiver, tight end, and emerging strength at defensive end, and linebacker. It's weak at running back and defensive tackle and will need to remain vigilant on the waiver wire for defensive backs.

The construction consisted of helpful trades (none of them were lopsided deals in my favor), a massive steal (Mahomes), and a few free agent successes (Thielen, Jones, and Bethea). I learned a few things from this experience that I believe applies to most teams:

  • Blockbuster deals aren't the way to go: Make small deals involving one player and 1-2 draft picks.
  • Don't give up on top players in exchange for draft picks: Even as they age, it's probably best to get established players in return. Giving up known for the unknown is always a bigger risk.
  • When in doubt, stockpile a depth chart: If you've targeted 3-4 running backs for a draft and none of them are available, I'd rather take the less risky player at a position like wide receiver, tight end, quarterback, or linebacker that I don't need than the "next best" runner I don't value. When you have an abundance of "known" commodities, it makes it easier for you to acquire known commodities in return.
  • Don't worry about having a weakness: My running backs aren't good right now. I still had the top scoring team in this league this year. They probably won't be good next year, either, but my team is in a good position to challenge again.

As you can see, there are several ways to build a winning team. The common factors are assessing talent, determining strengths and weaknesses, and focusing on areas you can address and building on those strengths to minimize your weaknesses rather than obsessing over a weakness.

Once again, thank you for reading my work this year. As I do year-round, I'm posting daily analysis at www.mattwaldmanrsp.com if you want to keep up with the game during the offseason.