It's very exciting to get to the point in the offseason calendar when we start doing mock drafts and staking out our positions for the real thing later this summer. Before we throw ourselves 100% into that task, we should always look back one last time and try to keep the lessons of the previous year in our minds as we make our plans of attack for the next chapter in the never-ending saga of fantasy football and the NFL.
1. There’s no such thing as a safe quarterback play - The safest of all quarterbacks going into 2014, Peyton Manning, was a dud from Week 13 on. Drew Brees had a Week 14 let down. Aaron Rodgers was a Week 15 disaster. Andrew Luck was almost an auto-loss player in Week 16 championships. Ben Roethlisberger threw two interceptions against a Jets defense that only recorded six all season after he threw back-to-back six touchdown games. Russell Wilson was a Week 15 dud. Tom Brady was a Week 16 dud.
Plan for 2015: The knee-jerk reaction to this disappointment (STUD QB, You had one job! The fantasy playoffs!) is to switch to QB streaming, and the depth at the position this year makes it very enticing. You can start off with Sam Bradford or Carson Palmer and their combination of soft early season schedules and fertile fantasy offenses, and then use the usually deep pool of waiver QB options to play matchups if they falter. “Zig when everyone else is zagging” does dictate that maybe early QB isn’t such a bad strategy if Luck falls to the third or Peyton/Wilson fall to the sixth.
2. The rookie WRs are coming! The rookie WRs are coming! - Ten years ago, it was rookie RBs. Three years ago it was rookie QBs. Now rookie WRs are changing the landscape of fantasy football. Odell Beckham Jr swung championships. Mike Evans was a shooting star with his nine scores in the last ten games. Martavis Bryant, Kelvin Benjamin, Jarvis Landry, Brandin Cooks, Allen Robinson, and Jordan Matthews were all relevant fantasy performers in their rookie years. Heck even Allen Hurns and John Brown had extremely impactful seasons for rookie wideouts who weren’t drafted in the first round. If you weren’t open to rookie passcatchers affecting your fantasy fate, then you missed out in 2014.
Plan for 2015: Can lightning strike twice in the same place? If it wasn’t for the 2014 class blinding us with its brilliance, we would be very excited about the 2015 class. First-rounders Amari Cooper, Kevin White, DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor (my best value rookie WR), and Breshad Perriman all are set up to make big contributions early, and we should keep tabs on Phillip Dorsett, Dorial Green-Beckham, Devin Funchess, and Jaelen Strong, who all should have a shot to matter by the end of the season, if not from the word go. Bet on this trend continuing in 2015.
3. Rob Gronkowski is not human - We all gasped when Gronkowski’s knee bent a way that knees shouldn’t bend against the Browns in Week 14 of 2013. After needing extra time to heal from arm and back surgeries in the 2013 offseason, Gronkowski was headed for another offseason of rehab and potential missed games in the regular season, not to mention a ramp up to previous fantasy levels - if he could even get there by the end of the 2014 season. The Patriots and their all-universe tight end took four games to start firing on all cylinders, but once they did, they left destruction in their wake.
Plan for 2015: Gronkowski has had the healthiest offseason of his career. Jimmy Graham went from a pass-happy team to a run-happy team, so the gap between TE1 and TE2 is as big as ever. Tight ends going in the first round is mostly a new development in fantasy football. Tight ends going #1 overall (or at least top 5) is a brand new development, but Gronkowski can justify it. Don’t be afraid to build your fantasy team around him.
4. Philadelphia’s pass offense is more of a sure thing for fantasy football than their running game - Just ask anyone who spent a high pick on LeSean McCoy last year. McCoy spent too much time running parallel and not enough time running perpendicular to the line of scrimmage and only mustered mid RB2 numbers, with many lineup-killing weeks along the way. Nick Foles played like crap and Mark Sanchez played like a competent backup, and both still registered low QB1 numbers. Jeremy Maclin saved Chip Kelly any embarrassment from the DeSean Jackson release by being the same low WR1 Jackson was in the vertical receiver role.
Plan for 2015: Whether it’s Sam Bradford or Mark Sanchez, the Eagles QB will continue to be a viable option for streamers. Nelson Agholor and Jordan Matthews (and even Josh Huff) will get chances to fill the vacancy left by Maclin in free agency and all have a high ceiling for their current ADP. McCoy goes to a team that will feed him as much as the Eagles did, but with a much worse offense overall and an offensive line that is a big question mark. It might be time to end the denial about how poor McCoy played last year. He’ll fall to the second round in a lot of drafts this year, but his performance last year wasn’t even deserving of a fifth-round pick. Err on the side of avoiding him.
5. Don’t trust a Belichick back - This has been a fantasy truism for a while now, but 2014 took it to absurd lengths. One year after LeGarrette Blount rung up four scores on the Colts in the playoffs, unheralded UDFA back Jonas Gray did the same thing in a very similar fashion during the regular season. The Patriots found their closer for the cold weather games, Gray was the new Blount, and we could have some sort of predictability going forward with Stevan Ridley out of the picture now after suffering a torn ACL. The next week, Blount is released by Pittsburgh, signed to a dirt cheap deal by New England, and Gray oversleeps, missing a practice (which can be enough to get you cut from a Belichick team). Blount takes over, and the rest is history. History that will cause anyone who thinks they ever know what Belichick will do with his backfield to think twice (guilty as charged).
Plan for 2015: Blount is the only draftable Patriots back, and he’ll miss week 1. Unless the Pats get someone like Fred Jackson after a surprise cap cut or bring in say, Pierre Thomas, we’ll be mostly steering clear of this backfield despite its ability to create big weeks for both power runners and receiving backs, depending on the game plan.
6. Le’Veon Bell is a bad, bad man - No, this is about the marijuana DWI incident that has triggered a suspension for both Bell and his passenger, LeGarrette Blount. Once the Steelers got Martavis Bryant involved, Bell was far and away the #1 running back in PPR leagues. The advantage he provided down the stretch in the fantasy playoffs was almost unfair. Bell might not be the #1 back on your board, but once he returns from his suspension, he’ll be the #1 projected back in most weeks going forward.
Plan for 2015: Three games is not as big a deal as you think it is (http://subscribers.footballguys.com/apps/article.php?article=bloombellsuspension). Bell’s VBD should still eclipse every other running back, leaving for some possibility that Jamaal Charles stays 100% healthy all year or Adrian Peterson goes a 2012 level rampage through the league. Bell is still worth a first-round pick, and he still looks like the kind of player in the kind of situation that delivers championships.
7. Dallas has an elite running game - The Cowboys looked to be a dumpsterfire candidate after a horrendous preseason and disgraceful Week 1 performance. Then the offensive line gelled and Demarco Murray ran like a man trying to get the message that will win the war back across enemy lines. Murray suffered a broken hand in Week 14 and didn’t miss a game after coming into the season with an “injury-prone” reputation. Taking Murray in the first round was a move that was toasted by fantasy owners around the world.
Plan for 2015: The Cowboys have made this difficult on us after letting Murray walk to division rival Philadelphia and replacing him with no proven or trustworthy backs in free agency or draft. Murray isn’t quite the high first-round pick he produced like last year because his workload should be lightened a bit, and we always have pause buying into a back who had 450 touches BEFORE two playoff games. Feel free to throw a dart at Darren McFadden (who has looked his best in power running schemes), Joseph Randle (who has looked his best in relief in Murray last year, being kept around through incidents that would get a player released from a lot of teams), or Ryan Williams (who has looked his best before tearing a patellar tendon in 2011, but the Cowboys seem to see something they like here), but know that the leading rusher for the Cowboys might not even be on the roster right now.
8. Denver’s starting running back is going to produce RB1 numbers - While I never advocated spending a high pick on Montee Ball, I understood the logic. Knowshon Moreno produced low RB1 numbers in that offense. Certainly Ball could as long as he had the opportunity. Ah, but about that opportunity. Moreno was a healthy scratch before he became Denver’s starter over Ronnie Hillman in 2012. Then Hillman became the starter when Ball started slow and then got hurt. CJ Anderson was actually a healthy scratch the week Ball went down, and it took him five more weeks to show his talent and take over the job for good against the Raiders. Anderson was a strong RB1 down the stretch and led many teams late into the playoffs, if not to championships. Even if you drafted Ball, you could have profited by investing in his replacements on the waiver wire.
Plan for 2015: Don’t overthink this. Gary Kubiak should only improve the Broncos running game as the new head coach and Anderson is the undisputed starter heading into 2015. If he’s there in the second round, he’s more worthy of the pick than Ball was in the late first last year.
9. Great receivers can follow one career year with another career year - Antonio Brown, Jordy Nelson, and Demaryius Thomas all set the fantasy bar higher than they ever had before in 2013, and they followed up by doing it again in 2014. Brown in particular stands out after he bested his career high receptions by 41, career high yards by 390, and career high touchdowns by three in 2013. He beat those numbers by 19 catches, 200 yards, and five scores in 2014.
Plan for 2015: Don’t avoid players just because of “regression to the mean” when they posted career years in year N-1. The reality is that we don’t know these players true mean when they take those kinds of leaps. The poster child this year is Odell Beckham Jr Jr. Beckham’s production rate in 2014 was historic. Many are fading him this year on “regression to the mean”, but history told us that he never should have been able to do what he did last year. Mike Evans touchdown rate also applies here.
10. Age before beauty - The saying goes “it’s better to be a year early than a year late”, but anyone who recognized that it was indeed too early to write off Steve Smith, Antonio Gates, and Fred Jackson profited greatly from their knowledge. Smith was a useful WR3, Gates was a solid TE1, and Jackson was a solid RB2, even though they were available for a fraction of the cost of those roles in drafts. “Avoid all older players” is too overbroad to be a good strategy on draft day.
Plan for 2015: Andre Johnson and Frank Gore just got huge upgrades in surrounding offensive personnel (especially QB) in Indianapolis and could be the 2015 version of Smith. Vincent Jackson is going to be playing with an aggressive quarterback who knows how to feed his top passcatchers in Tampa. Gates is still being disrespected in early fantasy drafts, falling well past the top three TE numbers he produced in 2014. Make room for an old man or two on your roster.