Roundtable Week 17

This week's topics: football lessons learned, offseason preparation, dynasty buy-sell, and 2018 predictions.

With another dramatic fantasy season in the books, our Roundtable staff reflects on the year, shares tips for offseason fantasy prep, engages in some dynasty shop talk, and offers some predictions for 2018:

 Let's wrap up the season with insights that our readers can carry over to 2018.

Football Lessons learned

Matt Waldman: What's the biggest lesson you've learned from the 2017 season that applies to your understanding of football? It can be strategic, technical, analytical, or even an off-field dynamic about the operation of the league. If you think it has a potential application to your fantasy work/play, share how.

Daniel Simpkins: The biggest thing I learned was to trust myself more and to act decisively. Let me give you my best example of how this principle helped me.

I watched All or Nothing in the 2016 offseason. This iteration of the show followed the Los Angeles Rams through the 2016 season under Jeff Fisher. You could see how poor coaching was pulling down a really solid roster.

If you watched the last episode of that series, you also caught a glimpse of what Sean McVay was already doing to the culture of that team. If you followed that to its logical conclusion, it meant the Rams would be a better team this year, and subsequently, the production of the players would follow.

I had very strong feelings about this and fortunately, I trusted my instinct instead of dismissing it as hype. In particular, I pushed my chips in on Todd Gurley in a lot of my leagues, including acquiring him in every single one of my dynasty leagues. I am happy to say it paid off, winning me a couple of titles and setting me up well for the future in those leagues where I did not win.

Was I wrong about a lot of things this year? Absolutely! Yet when I took strong stands based on evidence and trusting my gut, it generally paid off huge. 

Darin Tietgen: In re-draft formats, I learned to build depth with rookies.  You should know from the first few weeks which ones are going to stand out.  If you need to dump one during the bye weeks, you should be able to get away with doing so. 

I took fliers on guys like Kareem Hunt (prior to the Spencer Ware injury) and JuJu Smith-Schuster simply because I liked their talent and how they fit into their teams' offensive schemes.  I figured if they weren't getting regular snaps by the time bye weeks started, I could dump them.  

It turns out they were not only depth but quality weekly starts.  The trick is finding the quality talent that has the easiest paths.  Seems overly simple and there's some luck involved but if you study the rookie class, you can really separate yourself.

Adam Harstad: The importance of air yards. When it comes to predicting future performance, past volume, (carries, targets, etc.), is king. But Josh Hermsmeyer of Rotoviz has done some fairly convincing work this past year showing that air yards, (or the number of yards at the point of the target, whether the ball is caught or not), are superior to raw targets as a volume measure. A receiver who has five targets of 20 yards each would have as many air yards as a receiver who has eight targets of 12.5 yards each and our naive expectations for both should be similar going forward as a result.

Clayton Gray: Tight ends are wearing out. Guys like Jordan Reed and Tyler Eifert simply can't remain healthy — if they can even get healthy from their past punishment. Studs like Rob Gronkowski, Zach Ertz, Jimmy Graham, and Delanie Walker either missed games or had their practices managed this season. Travis Kelce had a concussion.

The position combines the strain of blocking defensive linemen at the line of scrimmage with jarring hits in the open field from linebackers and defensive backs. It's hard for tight ends to be on the field every week. And it's folly to bet on a tight end to be healthier going forward than they've been in the past.

Waldman: I learned several things this year. Some lessons were initially learned in the past but reinforced in a big way; others were new:

  • The Erhardt-Perkins offense has a shorter on-boarding time than the West Coast Offense: I wrote about this last year when Dak Prescott mania was at fever pitch and Jared Goff was prematurely considered one of the greatest busts in NFL Draft history. Learning a new offense can have similar difficulties as learning a new language. As a quarterback is presented with this undertaking, the process can sublimate his strengths because he's spending so much time thinking rather than engaging at the speed of instinct. This year, we saw Goff acclimate to the West Coast Scheme and benefit from a stronger supporting cast on the field and on the sideline.   
  • Quiet Feet: I never knew this term until Tony Romo used it to describe Goff's footwork during a broadcast of a Rams game. I recognized it but didn't know how to describe it. It doesn't sound like a big deal, but when given a term to describe a behavior, it also helps add context to the behavior, which solidifies other behaviors related to it. It will be helpful for future quarterback evaluation. 
  • Tensegrity: I'm gradually making my way through National Football Academy material. I'm a big fan of the work of Dub Maddox and Darrin Slack, a pair of coaches who have authored the R4 system. Tensegrity, as it applies to quarterbacking, is maintaining the tension between the upper part of the legs. This tension with the groin muscles keeps the hips tight and prevents quarterbacks from bending their torsos during the release of the football, which contributes to an off-balanced throwing motion and a loss of power and control. Goff, Tom Brady, and Matt Ryan often display tensegrity with their throwing motions.
  • "Young Talent Development" instead of "Rookies": In this week's Gut Check, I explain that the way we categorize players mimics the broad brush strokes that football entertainment outlets use to characterize talent. Despite dozens of examples to the contrary, we're bombarded with the idea that if a rookie doesn't contribute immediately, he wasn't as good as characterized. Instead of seeing the fantasy talent pool as rookies, veterans, and bench players, I've learned to group rookies with players with no more than three years of experience. Regardless of whether the young veterans were fantasy starters or never saw the field, opening one's mind to the idea that development isn't a one-year proposition reduces bias to information that indicates the player is developing or regressing.
  • Scheme-Based Fits: In the 2017 Rookie Scouting Portfolio, I created a second set of rankings for running backs — scheme-based fits. The origins of this lesson originated with David Johnson. My ranking of Johnson before the NFL was lower than my assessment of his talent. The easiest way to explain what I mean is that I described Johnson as a back with the potential to be an All-Pro and sooner than later, but there were lessons he needed to learn that could slow his development. One of those lessons was learning to make good decisions in a zone running scheme. I wrote that if Johnson landed in a gap-based scheme — ideally, the Cardinals or Colts — the staff could use him immediately. Johnson flashed in a major way as a rookie but as position coach Jen Welter verified at the Senior Bowl while we were arguing the same side of a debate with an on-air football personality opposing us, Johnson lacked the patience to run the zone scheme early in his career and it was why Chris Johnson was the starter. Even so, David Johnson developed quickly because the predominant scheme included its share of gap blocking that fit his skills and he had good coaching from the staff and his veteran peer. This situation combined with the fact that the running back position has a range of size, quickness, speed, and strength that encompasses the baselines for at least three if not four different positions on the defensive side of the ball. It supports the idea that running backs have a variety of roles and it depends on the team and scheme. While I still stack-rank rookies, it made sense to have a second set of rankings based on the player joining a team that will maximize his usage based on what he does well while minimizing what he doesn't. Two of my top scheme-fit backs in the 2017 RSP were Tarik Cohen and Alvin Kamara. While my overall view of both players was lower than many, the scheme-fit rankings allowed me to recognize where they could thrive immediately without compromising my standards for what constitutes all-around play. I drafted both Cohen and Kamara in a league this year because of scheme fit and both delivered — especially Kamara, who vastly improved his decision-making between the tackles by not trying to bounce runs unnecessarily.  

Jason Wood:  Strategically, I can't emphasize enough how important it's become to mock draft with a structure that matches your actual league. With the maturation of the industry and better software tools, we're seeing an ever-increasing variety of league scoring and roster requirements. As analysts, we are so used to mock drafting for months on end, but most fantasy football enthusiasts don't mock very much. They should absolutely avail themselves of tools like the Draft Dominator so they can get a feel for how their draft is most likely to go, which gives them a more innate ability to sense when to zig while others zag.

Mark Wimer: Over the years, I've come to value stability in an NFL team's front office/coaching staff. It is a useful indicator of the upside potential of any given team's offense and offensive players — especially their rookie talents.

Think about the teams that are strong year after year, and some of the teams you'll name will likely include New England, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Seattle. Think about teams that stink on an annual basis and you'll likely think about Cleveland, San Francisco, and Miami. One big difference between the former and the latter list is how long the current head coaches/front office have been in place and also how many times the general manager/scouting staff have turned over in the past decade. 

It takes time and a coherent vision to put together a winning team concept/personnel for that scheme in the NFL. Organizations that stay the course and build the necessary blocks of personnel (a good offensive line; a quality starting quarterback, etc.) tend to also develop successful fantasy players. Teams that flail around constantly restarting — Cleveland is the prime example of this dynamic — also fail to produce solid fantasy prospects that perform at the highest levels. 

Justin Howe: I’ve learned the folly of downgrading rookie runners too seriously. Many of them are NFL-ready guys who have risen to the top of the talent pool, and coaching staffs are often willing to showcase them off the bat.

I’m done sliding rookie runners down my priority lists. Four rookies (Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey) finished as PPR RB1s. Five others (Joe Mixon, Chris Carson, Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones, Samaje Perine) seized a lead role and posted some degree of success with it. 

Rookie wideouts didn’t see the same success, which was surprising considering the high draft stock spent on them. Typically, a top-10 wideout can be counted on as a fantasy WR2 off the bat, and we didn’t see that in 2017. However, this was an oddball year.
Injuries sabotaged Corey Davis, Mike Williams, and John Ross this summer. While it was encouraging that Davis rendered Eric Decker useless immediately, he would have caught 70 balls if he began the year healthy. There was a ton of rookie value that came from the lower reaches of the board. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cooper Kupp, Kenny Golladay, and a handful of others immediately stole snaps from more heralded veterans and produced to varying degrees.

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Offseason preparation

Waldman:  After you take some time away from fantasy football, what do you do to get ready for the 2018 season? Share some of your process and tips for those who may wish to do what you're doing.

Wood: After the Super Bowl, I shut off from football for about six weeks. Not to compare ourselves to the phenomenal athletes who take the field, but we can also succumb to the grind and cyclicality of an NFL season. Some subscribers may not realize this, but we are pretty much full go on the day following the NFL draft.

As one of the people who build our preseason projections, I have my first set of full projections — league-wide — built and submitted on that day after the draft. By the time most of our subscribers are drafting, I've tweaked my projections 100+ times over nearly five months.

As a result, I need some time away to recharge the batteries. I start getting back into things once the free agency rumor mill begins churning. I'll generally dust off my projections spreadsheets a week or two before roster moves get underway.

My first step is cleaning the data set for the upcoming year. That involves pulling all of the prior season's data out and archiving it and then establishing new baselines. I'll go through and update all the coaching and strategy (e.g., teams moving from a 3-4 to a 4-3) and research coaching tendencies. I'll assign a change percentage to a team.

For example, if a team like the Patriots returns with Brady, Belichick, McDaniels, and the bulk of the offensive line, there's little reason to forecast a significant delta from what's come before (over a multi-year rolling period). However, a team that replaces its entire coaching staff, starting quarterback and multiple other starters assuredly warrant a major change. The team may ultimately be almost completely different from the year before, essentially invalidating the predictive nature of what's come before.

Once the draft and free agency get rolling, I'll dynamically layer in those players into my spreadsheets and update projections accordingly. I'll also begin the process of discussing the league and situations with my FBG peers and other industry folks. That process continues and iterates throughout the preseason until we go live in September. 

Howe: I don’t particularly like taking time away from football; I’ll likely begin my early projections in March. And while I don’t expect everyone to construct their own projections, I do recommend that owners follow – but temper their reactions to – the March/April free agency bonanza. Potential roles get overblown, and glowing camp reports fly around like a swarm of bats. But most situations that are fluid in March stay that way through the offseason, and big March/April investments can lose their luster quickly. Those who wound up overweight on Mike Gillislee and Kenny Britt can attest. 

Gray: I don't take a break anymore and try to follow the news every day. Coaching hires and player acquisitions give me an idea of the offensive direction a team will take in the upcoming season, so keeping track of that personnel movement is important.

Wimer: Because I am so intensely immersed in the NFL and pro players, I do not have time during NFL season to watch many college football games or game tape on college prospects ready to jump to the NFL. So, during the NFL playoffs/NFL off-season when the NBA/NHL are in session, I intentionally ignore those sports (MLB, too, after opening day) and devote my time and attention to catching up on the upcoming NFL draft.

As soon as Matt Waldman's Rookie Scouting Portfolio is available I am reading that invaluable document as I know how many hundreds of hours of tape he watches to build that report; I listen to's podcast "The Audible" for Cecil Lammey, Sigmund Bloom and company's takes on the upcoming NFL Draft; and I seek out and read a wide variety of mock NFL Drafts to get a handle on the 32 NFL teams' needs. After the draft, Dr. Jene Bramel's injury analysis is vital reading, as are his annual Combined Rookie Draft Boards.

An incredibly useful search on the site during the offseason is on the keyword Rookie. Here we find a great Footballguys article already looking forward to Draft Season by Waldman (Gut Check No. 435 from December 26, 2017)

As you can see, there is a lot of research I do prior to the NFL Draft. Then during training camps, the number one resource I rely on is in-depth Training Camp Updates edited by Bob Henry and Jason Wood, providing weekly capsules on all 32 teams' training camp battles, rising rookie talents, and so forth. These reports synthesize the pre-draft research I've done with snapshots of how the various rookies are doing at competing for playing time with their new NFL clubs, and also how veterans are faring in the run-up to the regular season. 

Harstad: I think the word "process" implies a level of organization and intentionality beyond what I'd lay claim to. I keep a running list of questions that pop up that I didn't have the time or energy to dig into, and I'll randomly pick a couple when I have the time and dig into them to see if I can find anything interesting. In past offseasons, I've taken a look at player aging patterns or how successful owners are at playing match-ups.

If anyone else wanted to do what I was doing, it'd be pretty easy. It's mostly just about staying curious, asking questions, and being willing to dig through the data in search of answers. I try to take nothing for granted, questioning even the most consensus of wisdom. Most of the time I wind up in dead ends; conventional wisdom is usually conventional wisdom because it's right.

Sometimes, though, you find something cool, like that the entire way we think about how NFL players age is probably wrong. Fun things like that make all the time "wasted" running down blind alleys worthwhile.

Tietgen: Scouting the rookie class as soon as the combine starts — not only for dynasty purposes but to know which guys look to be real standouts if put on an offense that desperately needs them.

Waldman: Mark mentioned my publication (thank you) — a year-round endeavor that is at its peak intensity between December and May. The knowledge I gain about young talent is helpful for the second half of drafts. The film research that I do on the Top 10 not only helps me get familiar with the NFL landscape early in the season, it also informs my views of players for the following year. Watching NFL tape is also a vital part of scouting rookies. If you're not studying the NFL environment and comparing it to college football, how can you make a reasonable projection of the player?

Most people freak out when I share this but for as much college tape I watch every week, I don't keep up with the in-season narratives. I didn't know Lamar Jackson won the Heisman until late July.

I don't sit on my couch and take in the games like a fan, which means I don't watch pre-game shows or the games that are on that weekend. I study individual players and it could be some tape from late last year or a game that happened two weeks ago. If the hype around a player is big enough, it will be evident on social media. However, I also filter my feed to show things that interest me and that reduces the testosterone-fueled soap opera factor.

I'm also studying football. I've purchased books and videos that I've recommended here before. I have a dry erase blackboard in my office that I use to draw alignments, plays, coverages, and routes from memory and I'm slowly drawing my way through these lessons. 

Learning about the game helps me develop perspective so I can look at the analysis of others and better discern which has a chance to be right or wrong for the right reasons instead of right or wrong for the wrong reasons. This is vital for developing a stronger decision-making compass.       

Simpkins: Time away? Active dynasty leagues are a year-round endeavor! Sure, things will get a little slow at this time of year, but just like exercise, if you stay active, it won’t be so hard to come back and do it at a high level later. That’s my advice — certainly, take some time during this slow period to do some of the other things you enjoy in your life, but stay plugged in. Understanding the implications of coaching changes, the draft, and other offseason shifts will help you to be more prepared to play in 2018.

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Dynasty Corner

Waldman: Share your thoughts on the following.

  • 1-3 great buy-lows for a rehabbing dynasty squad. 
  • 1-3 sell-highs. 
  • 1-3 aging veterans who are perceived to 1-2 years (at most) from being too old to contribute but are worth acquiring if your team is in a win-now, championship window.
Let's begin with buy-lows. 

Tietgen: Amari CooperWith Michael Crabtree getting a lot of attention — and rightly so — you can make the case that Cooper has a long road back.  Again, he's just too talented to be held back and it's not like he has a bad QB throwing him the ball.  Still just 23, Cooper has a lot of tread left on the tires and should go back to being the "1a" to Crabtree's "1b" in 2018

Harstad: I love buying injured players. Sometimes the owner is savvy and doesn't overreact to the injury, in which case it didn't hurt to ask. Sometimes the owner panics and you can get injured stars for a song. It's a bit late now, but David Johnson and Allen Robinson had major buy windows this year, and there's a good chance Andrew Luck's owner is starting to freak out. Don't pay full price, but if you can get a good discount, buy. 
Howe: Will Fuller V heads my list. He’s not too low a buy, but he’s off the radar for many fantasy owners who have been burned by him of late. Let’s not forget that he was the top wideout drafted last year and that he’s a splash-play and touchdown machine. With Deshaun Watson returning next year, Fuller’s future is probably brighter than his owner in your league thinks.

Gray: It might be a bit late to get him cheap, but Jimmy Garoppolo will be a Top 10 fantasy quarterback in 2018.

Jordy Nelson is probably too highly thought of, but it's worth poking around to see if his owner is still miffed about the lackluster 2017 season. Nelson is a stud when Aaron Rodgers is healthy, and there's no reason to believe Rodgers won't be on the field next year.

Everyone remembers how terrible the Seattle running game was for most of 2017. But most have forgotten Chris Carson didn't look too bad before being lost for the season in Week 4. Carson was possibly dropped in your and would be a fantastic no-cost addition.
Waldman: For exactly the rationale Clayton stated about Chris Carson, I'm holding and buying Mike Davis. He's played well — and arguably better than Carson — behind this atrocious Seattle offensive line. He's a hard runner with cutback ability and excellent receiving skills. 
Terrelle Pryor will get another shot with a new team. The Gruden brothers have a reputation for reacting fast (good) and sometimes harshly (not so good) to young players who acclimate slowly. Pryor regressed this year, but he is known as a worker and I wouldn't be surprised if he winds up in a better situation and thrives. 
Bucky Hodges stuck around until the end of Vikings training camp and was waived with an injury settlement before the Panthers added him to its practice squad. They also recently cut Hodges. Cuts like these usually have to do with injuries more than talent. Based on my film study, Hodges was the best pass-catcher of the rookie tight ends who could be split wide from the formation. He made the most tight-coverage, 50/50 plays of the class. He also consistently earned separation on vertical routes that weren't 50/50 targets. All it takes is the right team to use Hodges like Jimmy Graham circa New Orleans and he could ascend quickly. 
Chad Kelly is one of my favorite talents from this 2017 quarterback class. Always known as an intense worker, he also has more time removed from the off-field situations that were most troubling that people think. If you're in leagues that don't know what the RSP is, you can get Kelly for pennies and little risk. I won't be surprised if Kelly is the Broncos starter by the end of 2018 and becomes one of the three best quarterbacks from this class. 

Wood: The best values in dynasty tend to come in two forms. One, the ultra-hyped young players who went high in rookie drafts but didn't produce in years one and two. Two, aging veterans who haven't yet hit the wall. Dynasty owners are, collectively, irrationally in love with the unknown (young breakouts) and irrationally averse to veterans. Use that to your advantage.

Don't be afraid to acquire veteran quarterbacks like Philip Rivers, Drew Brees or Tom Brady. Teams will view these guys are almost worthless, and if you can dangle a rookie draft pick at an owner, you would be surprised how many will bite. 
Wimer: I am on board the Joe Mixon train. I also think that Elijah McGuire has a bright future once Matt Forte is cleared out of the way in New York (depending on how the Jets draft and whether Josh McCown is back in New York). If McCown is back in New York, I love him as a "bridge" quarterback for a rebuilding dynasty squad while your favorite rookie QB cuts his teeth in the NFL next year. 

Waldman: Who are you selling high?

Tietgen: Le'Veon Bell. Ben Roethlisberger has to retire at some point and Bell's yards-per-carry average was a little troubling this season.  He still catches the ball and is a scoring threat each week, but if someone were willing to vastly overpay for Bell in a dynasty format, I would at least give a listen.

Harstad: I've written before about how much I hate the whole "buy low, sell high" frame. Sell players whenever someone is willing to give you more than you think they're worth. Sometimes that means selling high, sometimes that means selling low, sometimes that means holding. I feel like focusing too much on trying to time the market and sell for peak value is a losing strategy in the long run.

Waldman: I understand that completely. I don't take the concepts that seriously. It's just way to discuss valuation in easily digestible terms. 

Harstad: I think the Dede Westbrook and Juju Smith-Schuster love has gotten way out of hand. I've seen people trade Adam Thielen for Smith-Schuster straight up. The Derrick Henry love also seems a bit excessive; I'd prefer Tevin Coleman to him straight up, but I bet you could get an extra piece thrown in on that trade.

Gray: While Tom Brady plans on playing until he's 61, there were times this season he looked mediocre. At this level of play, losing just a bit of ability can lead to a dramatic decrease in production. Let someone else own that drop.

Wood: How about Mark Ingram II? He's going to be 29 years old next season and the Saints never seem to love the guy. It was only a few months ago the team signed Adrian Peterson and drafted Alvin Kamara. Ingram has been fantastic this year and it's not unreasonable to think the Saints keep everything intact, but with the way Kamara played, will Ingram's value ever be higher? 

Jarvis Landry is another. He's leading the league with 103 receptions, but yet again is averaging 8.7 yards per catch — akin to an in-line tight end rather than an outside receiver. Landry is going to break the bank in free agency and I could see him being this year's most overpaid, over-hyped NFL free agent. 

Simpkins: Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson, and Blake Bortles are players I’m selling high on in leagues where you start a single quarterback. If I have one of the top quarterbacks in a given year, unless I’m sure they will perennially remain there for years to come, I’m trading them. I don’t have that confidence in these three.

Positional scarcity is such in these formats that you can often find functional quarterbacks at affordable prices. The top performers can then be dealt for premium picks or players at much scarcer positions like running back or receiver. If you did this with someone like Matt Ryan or Derek Carr last year, you are probably pretty happy with the result.

Howe: Here’s a shocker — sell on Deshaun Watson. He looked dazzling as a rookie, or did he? Watson’s numbers benefited mightily from garbage time – his five-touchdown day against Kansas City, for example, was almost laughably bad until the final few minutes. I didn’t care for Watson as a prospect, and I’m still not sold.

He’s one of the weaker-armed newbies in recent memory, clocked at a pitiful 45 mph prior to his draft. It was the third-slowest measurement in the 10 years that velocity has been tracked, which is yucky – a top prospect never wants to be compared to Colt Brennan. Feel free to laugh off ball velocity, but it’s been arguably the best measurable of late to project NFL success.

I also take note of the fact that Watson regressed efficiency-wise at Clemson, which is never a good sign. It’s not that I’m just looking to discount his rookie success based on pre-draft data; if he’s turned a huge corner, he’s turned a huge corner.

But I’m generally more interested in the process than in the finished result, and if it leads me to whiff on a Watson here and there, I’m fine with it. And there are owners in your leagues who will pay massive, massive premiums for his absurd rookie stretch — even after tearing his ACL. If you’re offered, say, Joe Mixon and Philip Rivers for him this summer, I’d think about taking it.

I’m on board with selling high on Mark Ingram II, who’s likely peaking as we speak. Ingram is a fairly old 28 and prior to 2016, he had been wracked consistently by injury. We’re clearly seeing a changing of the guard in the New Orleans backfield, as Alvin Kamara could probably excel in any iteration of this offense and with Jonathan Moxon at quarterback.
Waldman: I'd consider selling high on Kareem Hunt. He's a good player, but there are still questions whether his talent is commensurate with his fantasy production. His pass protection improved with baby steps, which is a decent sign to expect more improvement heading into 2018. However, more will be needed if the Chiefs let Alex Smith go and opt for Patrick Mahomes, whose methods of buying time can be as maddening as the Brett Favre years. 
Hunt also struggled when his offensive line struggled and Mahomes gets off to a bumpy start — something we should expect from any first-year starter — opposing teams could stop Hunt to let the Chiefs take its chances with Mahomes. Hunt has shown that he's not the rare back who overcomes a paucity of line play. Based on what we've seen with Todd Gurley, rarities at the position are defined by generational talent, not seasonal. 
Despite my cautioning of Hunt as an automatic RB1 this year, I would only trade him if fantasy owners are offering elite RB1 value in return. Since I bet many will be based on the magical thinking of "second-year acclimation" and "another year of offensive line rapport" without truly defining how the situation has improved, he's on this list. 

Otherwise, I prefer to list two dynamics that should prompt you to consider selling high on a running back: 

  • Loss of a veteran starting quarterback and the replacement is a first-year starter.
  • Loss of a starting center, guard, and either a second guard or a tackle. If a line loses three of these options due to a combination of injury, retirement, and free agency and they aren't replaced by a top player via trade, don't expect that running back to have a good season — no matter how good he's been before. 
Running backs not only benefit most from interior line play (most run plays begin with center-guard combination) but from quarterbacks who can read the defense and redefine the direction of the play with an audible or redirection of the run from left to right or right to left. If you have a team in a championship window with a veteran back who you think is 1-2 years away from that cliff and the team is struggling with these situations during the preseason, it might be worth considering a sale.
Let's end this with 1-3 aging veterans who are perceived to be 1-2 years (at most) from being too old to contribute but are worth acquiring if your team is in a win-now, championship window.

Harstad: I mentioned earlier that one of my favorite findings is that we probably think about age the wrong way. This is a great example. We tend to think of players declining in predictable curves, but they don't. They basically maintain their level of play until they suddenly and unexpectedly fall off. Someone like Clinton Portis is terrific until he suddenly isn't anymore at age 28. Maurice Jones-Drew leads the NFL in rushing at 26 and is basically done as a top fantasy asset after that.

The point is that anyone in the NFL could be 1-2 years (at most) from being too old to contribute. Older players might be more likely to go over that cliff than younger ones, but everyone is at risk of catastrophic decline.

In some ways, it's kind of a freeing realization. If Larry Fitzgerald comes back for another season, go ahead and get him on the cheap. There's a good chance he becomes old overnight but there's also a good chance he doesn't. There's really no reason to fear older players who haven't shown signs of decline yet, especially if you have a robust backup plan in place behind them.

With all of this said, I'm also on record as being opposed to "win now" trades. Don't sacrifice value to chase short-term gains. Consistently improve the overall value of your roster and the championships will follow.

Simpkins: Greg Olsen is one of those guys at tight end. I think he’s not really showing signs of slowing down physically yet, but the age and foot issues he had all year are going to scare a lot of folks away. If I can get him for a late second or any third, I’m pulling the trigger.
We’re going to hear some talk about A.J. Green being washed this offseason due to his age, but I think that he was just on a team that had wearied of Marvin Lewis and his tired coaching style. Look for a rebound if the new regime is young, innovative, and willing to use the dynamic parts of the offense more effectively. 
Doug Baldwin is one I could see being in this mold. He has struggled with an injury for much of the year, but the fact he didn’t post eye-popping numbers in a year in which Russell Wilson has been fantastic in fantasy is what is going to take his value down a few notches. I think he’ll be fine for the next year or so.
Tietgen: I agree with Daniel about Olsen. He will be the first receiving option for Cam Newton in 2018 and maybe 2019 if they choose to resign him.  Devin Funchess has been a nice story but is not a No. 1 WR.  With the speedy Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel in the flat, Olsen will again destroy defenses by splitting seams and getting into the middle of the field.  Tight end will again be a more shallow position so if I'm looking to win in the next year or two, Olsen will be a guy I target.
Gray: I don't believe in targeting old players in trades. I do, however, like getting aging veterans as throw-ins. They can usually be serviceable starters during bye weeks or when younger players don't pan out. Guys like Mohamed Sanu and Ted Ginn Jr and Desean Jackson are far from glamorous, but they can be valuable all season long.
Wood: I'll refer to my answer about values and say Brees, Rivers and Brady. At running back, I tend not to overpay for veterans and none strike me as worth actively acquiring. At receiver, A.J. Green could be interesting if his owner is disgusted with this season. T.Y. Hilton still has big seasons left on his resume. Jordy Nelson isn't done. 

Howe: Young dynasty teams, especially start-ups, that lack a QB are, as Jason pointed out, in a good position to land a proven veteran. Few dynasty owners bat an eye at names like Tom Brady or Philip Rivers, yet both are worth the mid-round pick or “will he or won’t he?” youngster they’d cost you. Fill that hole with a proven stud, not through hoping the right NFL rookie QB will come to you.

Wimer: Eli Manning could be that guy at quarterback depending on where he lands during the offseason. There are some teams where the addition of Manning would be intriguing to me like Arizona with Larry Fitzgerald


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2018 Predictions

Waldman: Name your candidates for the following titles in 2018 and share your thoughts why you've named them: 

  • Over-hyped pre-draft (fantasy, not NFL) player.
  • Underrated pre-draft player.
  • Best fantasy rebound (injuries do not count — no easy David Johnson answers).
  • Best rookie.

Share all four with your "air-time."  

Howe: My over-hyped, pre-draft player is Kareem Hunt. He looks poised to tumble from his no-brainer RB1 perch. Andy Reid has his warts as a game coach, but he’s a gifted offensive mind who’s always ridden his stud playmakers appropriately. Yet he rarely sees fit to give Hunt more than a moderate share of his offense. He wouldn’t do it out of spite; Hunt can erupt in the right moments but is most likely a limited weapon that Reid won’t be turning into a workhorse next year.

My underrated pre-draft player is Joe Mixon. He got a horrible rap for his thoroughly uneventful rookie campaign, but oh how the deck was stacked against him. He spent most of the year deadlocked in a toothless offense that couldn’t keep defenders out of the box – and couldn’t block them, either.

As he began to uncork a bit, he went down with a frightening concussion that cost him much of his stretch run. But his 2018 outlook should improve. Mixon is an elite athlete with far more play-making ability than we saw as a no-hope rookie. Jeremy Hill comes off the books next season, and Mixon should stroll into 2018 as the clear-cut lead back. Some Bengals investment in the front line would open things up for him immensely.

My rebound candidate is Mike Evans. He is following an alternating pattern of world-beating and disappointing fantasy seasons. I think the pendulum swings back his way in 2018. He keeps drawing great volume but falling victim, every other year, to a handful of highly variable stats. But he remains a top-tier red zone guy (18 targets from inside the 10 over his last 30 games) and a per-target star (7.72 yards per target with Jameis Winston).

Assuming Winston’s 2018 health, Evans should again carry a 140-target floor, and at least some of those wonky numbers should return to WR1 status. And he’ll come at a moderate discount, too, after burning so many owners this year.

Saquon Barkley is the only rookie I'm currently (it's still December) tracking especially closely. Part of that is due to projected draft value —I think there's a strong chance he winds up the only RB taken in the top 20.

I do like Chubb, Guice, etc., but all seem flawed enough to wind up in uncertain situations. Barkley, on the other hand, looks poised to wind up a featured back off the bat. Now, I'm not sure he is that prolific featured back many project him to be.

He's not a power guy, and I don't think he boasts a Todd Gurley/Ezekiel Elliott outlook. But if he goes early to a team desperate to capture Christian McCaffrey's rookie kinda-success, he'll be worth an early rookie pick. And at the moment, that's all I can ask for of a soon-to-be-rookie.

Simpkins: My over-hyped pre-draft player is Kareem Hunt. Not only does he have the return of Spencer Ware to contend with, but I also didn’t see as much from him in terms of development as I would like this season. I think he will be over-drafted based on his strong start to this year and a strong finish in the fantasy playoffs.

My underrated pre-draft player is Joe Mixon. In contrast to Kareem Hunt, I saw much more nuanced skills when Mixon was the primary runner this season. People got very excited about him prior to this season and I think the pendulum is going to swing the other way, as he was one of the few rookie runners to not really return on his draft value. 
My fantasy rebound player is Corey Davis. And no, I’m not just saying that because I’m a Titans fan. People, self-included, thought he would do much bigger things this year. That never materialized, in part due to an injury in training camp and in part because Mularkey’s coaching and offense have taken a step back. At a minimum, we should see a change in offensive coordinator next season. Best case scenario, the Mularkey regime will be removed from Tennessee. Either way, we should see more emphasis on getting Davis involved, just like we saw begin to happen this last Sunday. 
The best rookie is going to be easier to guess at when we see team fits, but it would not surprise me if it were Saquon Barkley. The vision, footwork, and pad-level are all things that stick out when I watch him. Nick Chubb is also someone I see as having a potentially amazing rookie campaign. Like Barkley, his vision and footwork are also superb, but he seems a little bit more instinctive as a runner than Barkley. You will want shares of these two in your rookie drafts.

Harstad: Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson are over-hyped. Both lived on insane, unrepeatable touchdown production, which is both insane and unrepeatable. Both will probably be better NFL players last year, but they're going to be drafted as if they were 30+ touchdown producers, and I would not like to make that bet.

Adam Thielen strikes me as the kind of receiver everyone talks themselves out of taking every year, the next Emmanuel Sanders or Julian Edelman or Wes Welker. He had no draft pedigree, he took several years to hit his stride, he didn't rack up a ton of touchdowns, and he is not a dominant physical talent. In PPR leagues, as an honorable mention, I'll add any receiving specialist RB. Guys like Danny Woodhead and Theo Riddick are always tremendous draft-day values.

They've been hurt, but I think they still fit the spirit of your question...

Waldman: I'll allow it but only with a certain amount of ridicule...

Harstad: ...Corey Davis, Mike Williams, and John Ross. All were top-10 NFL draft picks, all dealt with injuries, all disappointed. Add in Corey Coleman and there's a lot of young receiver talent that hasn't had a full opportunity to shine yet.

I haven't watched a snap of college football in nearly a decade now, so all I can say is that I've heard of some rookie named Saquon Barkley who is supposed to be pretty good.

Wimer: As you can see above, I expect to hear a paean of praise for Saquon Barkley as the next great NFL back. However, I am old enough to remember Tim Biakabutuka and JaMarcus Russell. I am not going to get overly excited for Barkley unless and until he shows me NFL-level chops in training camp and preseason.

From what I've seen above from my colleagues, it looks like Deshaun Watson has a lot of doubters heading into 2018. I am not in agreement with their assessments. I think that Watson has all the talent, drive, and skills to be a generational player at his position — think Brett Favre or Jerry Rice.

Watson is going to be a monster fantasy player and a winner in the NFL — Houston is a club on the rise and should dominate the AFC South for years to come regardless of Andrew Luck's success rehabbing his troublesome shoulder. My only regret about Watson is that I didn't draft him often enough in my dynasty leagues last year, but I am thrilled at the prospects of playing him in those leagues where I did land him.

Julio Jones will once again challenge for the No. 1 fantasy spot among wide receivers next year. It is absurd that he has seen 137 targets for 83 receptions and 1,364 yards and yet, he has scored a bottom-of-the-barrel three TDs over 15 games this year.

Someone will bring offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to his senses during the offseason and we'll see Jones scoring much more often during 2018. It is plain stupid how few red-zone targets Jones has seen this year — 19 red zone targets with just five red zone receptions to date.

Gray: Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram II could be over-hyped. These guys have been amazing for most of 2017, but let's not just assume they'll be that again in 2018. Teams generally don't have two running backs performing at this level. They just don't. Betting it will happen again goes against the history of the NFL and is a bad play.

Everyone knows Aaron Rodgers is an elite quarterback, but recency bias will cause him to be underrated in 2018. In a lot of leagues, he'll probably be drafted behind Tom Brady simply because Brady played all season. Rodgers could also be behind Russell Wilson and Cam Newton after the outstanding 2017 campaigns those two veterans turned in. Further, lots of fantasy players will go for the shiny new toys in Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson.

Something was off all season with Carr and the Raiders. He's more talented than he showed in 2017 and will rebound next year.

Evans was a starting fantasy receiver in 2017, but he certainly failed to meet expectations as the entire Tampa Bay offense underperformed. More realistic expectations in 2018 and a healthy Jameis Winston will restore Evans' value next season.

Trying to pick a rookie before he's on an NFL roster is a crap-shoot, so I'll just take the running back who goes to San Francisco.

Wood: I see a few people mentioning Carson Wentz, and I would agree with that assertion given his unrealistically high touchdown rate (7.5%). However, my peers seem to be forgetting something. He tore his ACL in mid-December. He's not going to be ready for the start of the season, and I've never known a fantasy player to be overrated when he's guaranteed to miss the entire preseason and probably start the year on PUP. If anything, I suspect Wentz' health worries will force him into a high-end QB2 next year, which makes him an incredible VALUE.

My nomination for overrated quarterback defaults to DeShaun Watson. Watson is also coming off an injury but should be ready for the preseason if not certainly Week One of the regular season. Watson's touchdown rate — 9.3% — makes Wentz' look pedestrian, and yet no one thinks of Watson as a pinpoint passer. His size also makes his mobility a larger risk. Wentz is built like Cam Newton, Watson is built like Robert Griffin. 

At running back, I'll toss out Derrick Henry, especially if Henry runs wild on a backup-laden Jaguars team in Week 17. Henry is a good player, but I don't think he's a great one. And if the Titans part ways with DeMarco Murray, Henry will be THE choice as the next star-in-waiting.

I won't be sold because I don't know how this team reaches new heights based on what we've seen from Marcus Mariota. And I also can't see why Tennessee won't continue using a committee approach, with or without Murray. I suspect the decision to walk away from Murray would coincide with drafting another potent running back to share touches with Henry.

I'm torn between Alshon Jeffery and Marquise Goodwin for my receiver choice. Jeffery is armed with a new long-term contract with the Eagles and had a fine season. But he was essentially interchangeable with Nelson Agholor. Did you know Agholor has more fantasy points (PPR) than Jeffery this year? Jeffery has 188.1 points on 56 catches for 781 yards and 9 touchdowns versus Agholor with 188.7 points on 59 catches for 757 yards and 8 touchdowns.

Goodwin's story this year has been remarkable, but he has one touchdown. History is not kind to "breakout" receivers who put up big yardage without scoring. There's no reason to think San Francisco won't add better receivers to the roster now that they've found their quarterback. Goodwin is better suited as a WR2, and I suspect he'll end up that way by 2018 season's end. 

Harstad: Not impugning Woodrow, but when someone says "History has not been kind to...", my default reaction is to check the actual history. Again: question everything.

So let me quantify Jason's assertion that "History is not kind to "breakout" receivers who put up big yardage without scoring."

Since 2000, the following receivers have (A) topped 1,000 receiving yards after (B) never before topping 800 receiving yards, and (C) averaged more than 250 receiving yards per touchdown: Torry Holt, Hines Ward, Steve Breaston, Antonio Brown, Brian Hartline, Kendall Wright, Harry Douglas, Jarvis Landry, Terrelle Pryor, and, (if he gets ~70 yards this week), Marquise Goodwin.

There are some bad comps on that list. There are some great comps on that list, too. (Antonio Brown was once an undersized, late-round receiver coming off an 1100-yard, 2-touchdown campaign.) And as with any approach that has clear endpoints, there are going to be some interesting just-missed players on either side of the divide.

All in all, though, I don't think the comps seem any better or worse than the list you'd generate for any particular class of breakout wide receivers. A lot of breakouts are mirages. Goodwin's very well might be one of them. But I don't think his lack of touchdowns is a special cause for concern on that front. (I'd be more concerned by the fact that 1,000 receiving yards are about the weakest possible definition of "breakout" we can apply before the term loses all meaning.)

Wood: The easiest way to predict underrated assets are to focus on players who busted the prior season. Nothing creates value more than spurned owners. With that in mind, I'll say Jameis Winston will be the value quarterback. Drafted as a Top 10 option in most leagues, with some (myself included) predicting an MVP run, Winston combined injury and poor play to fall outside of the Top 20 fantasy quarterbacks. Owners will remember that and lump him in a sizable tier of the veteran, fantasy QB2s. I think that's a mistake, particularly if the Buccaneers improve the offensive coaching this offseason. Mike Evans hasn't forgotten how to play, and Chris Godwin should have been playing ahead of DeSean Jackson for months. The offensive line, when healthy, is also a plus unit. And I expect the team will add balance in the draft with at least one powerful running back. 

At running back, I'll suggest Devonta Freeman. Freeman was given a massive extension in the preseason and was a consensus top pick in drafts. He's been a victim of a rocky transition to OC Steve Sarkisian, not to mention a few missed games. Freeman has just 1,074 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns, which puts him at RB15 in PPR formats. Good, but a far cry from expectations. I don't see the Falcons being as good as they were in 2016 (the peak) but I also see them as better than 2017 (the trough), and Freeman is young enough, and financially important enough, to be the team's centerpiece in 2018.

At wide receiver, I cannot quit Allen Robinson. Robinson essentially missed this entire season, and fantasy owners will not clamor for his services after the Jaguars had their best season without him. However, make no mistake, a healthy Allen Robinson is demonstrably better than anyone else on that roster. He's better than Allen Hurns. Better than Dede Westbrook. Better than Keelan Cole. He is good enough to elevate his teammates, including Blake Bortles. I suspect Robinson will come off the board as a WR3/late WR2 after this year, and that would be an incredible opportunity. 

For reasons I articulated in the prior answer, Robinson is also my rebound player. I'll also say Jordy Nelson so I don't risk the ridiculing that Adam earned. We know Nelson to be a Top 6-8 receiver when Aaron Rodgers is healthy. No one will convince me Nelson shouldn't be the first Packers receiver drafted in 2018, yet there's a good chance he goes many rounds later than Davante Adams. Count me in on Nelson, if that's what the ADP shows. 

It's super-boring if I parrot everyone else and say Saquon Barkley, but how can we not be excited about this kid? He's NFL-ready and has the size, speed, and strength to be an every-down player. Plus, as we saw this year, rookie running backs can be elite workhorses. Barkley's abilities as a receiver make him a good bet to push for RB1 value immediately, as long as he goes to a team that isn't completely bereft of talent.

It's also hard not to like Derrius Guice (RB, LSU), Bryce Love (RB, Stanford), and Marcell Ateman (WR, Oklahoma State). Ateman is massive and has the physicality that other receivers in the OSU scheme haven't. 

Waldman: Brandin Cooks will be over-hyped again. He is a low-end WR1 and fantasy owners wanted to believe he was a bargain at that price because he was joining Tom Brady. There were two things I warned about Cooks before the season: 

  1. Cooks is not a strong receiver against tight man-to-man coverage. 
  2. Tom Brady's vertical accuracy has diminished during the last 3-4 seasons (Drew Brees is a better deep-ball thrower). 

For a receiver to ascend to elite fantasy territory, he must have a strong vertical passer and/or skill to beat tight, man-to-man coverage. There will be false narratives that a full offseason in New England heading into his second year with the Patriots will help Cooks improve his production. 

I expect greater efficiency, but not elite production. 

Marvin Jones Jr will be underrated because his 17.9 yards per catch as the No. 7 receiver will be seen as ripe for a regression. Those with that argument will likely cite one-dimensional route runners who benefited from a primary receiver and/or strong ground game that opened the field for them. Jones is a complete receiver paired with a good quarterback and he earned his production against the opponents' top cornerbacks. I doubt he'll be valued as a WR1 and I wouldn't be shocked if he's valued as a low-end WR2 who has the widest variation of picks above and below his ADP. 

Emmanuel Sanders is my rebound player. He's an immaculate route runner with a fantastic work ethic. He'll earn an upgrade at quarterback next year. 

Nick Chubb is my rookie. In order to explain why I have to broach Barkley. The Penn State back is a fantastic receiver with size, speed, agility, and creativity. He has the highest ceiling if he matures as a decision-maker, but he often makes 1-2 moves too many and doesn't stick with the blocking scheme. 

Many fans will point to the Penn State line as the problem, but I have already posted a video of Barkley runs that illustrate his tendency to ignore productive creases for high-risk choices. This is a common flaw with many elite athletes at the running back position. I've had these conversations with the likes of DeMarco Murray and other NFL backs learned early in their college or NFL careers that they had to become more discriminating with their choices.

The successful elite athletes at the position learned to base their risks on down-and-distance, field position, the score of the game, the blocking scheme, and the defensive alignment. These players include Murray, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, and Alvin Kamara

It took Reggie Bush a few years to stop trying so hard to break plays wide-open at the wrong time. C.J. Spiller, Laurence Maroney, Bryce Brown, and Bishop Sankey never learned. 

I like Barkley and there's a good chance we'll all love Barkley if he matures. However, if I'm predicting a rookie without the benefit of knowing his team, then I'm picking the back who has the mature game and the elite physical makeup — and that's Chubb. 

The best way I can compare Barkley and Chubb is to compare Marlon Mack and Frank Gore. Don't take this a literal comparison or you've got your engineer-accountant hat on and you'll miss the point. Mack was the drool-worthy athlete at the position who had fantasy owners and analysts counting the hours before he overtook the aging Gore. 

However, Mack's career at USF was filled with immature moments, ignorance about short-yardage running, and ball security woes. Most knowledgeable NFL running back coaches use Gore's tape as a teaching tool to young backs entering the league because Gore understands how to use his physical tools within the context of the field. 

Barkley has greater on-field maturity than Mack and Chubb is faster than Gore, but in terms of who has the most well-rounded game, it's Chubb and it's not a contest. Chubb actually reminds me of Gore in his prime but with more strength and breakaway speed. 

With the right fit, Barkley could have a Kamara-like year. Chubb belongs in the same conversation with Ezekiel Elliott as a talent.  

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