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The New Reality No.1 - Surveying The Field

Navigating the ever-changing landscape of dynasty fantasy football.

This is the beginning of a long road together. There is no end in dynasty fantasy football leagues. While the redraft format closes its doors in early January and even playoff leagues are an afterthought by mid-February, the dynasty crowd does not sleep. January marks the time to begin the NFL draft circuit and a dynasty owner’s mind literally does not stop during the off-season football calendar, period. The technological advances of late have created an alluring buzz in the air at all times, whether it is the mating sounds of twitter discussion and news, the magical spell of advanced metrics, or the summit meetings of trade talks in each and every dynasty league. We as the ultimate fantasy diehards are now charged up, plugged in, and thirsty. This is a world of impactful and long-lasting decisions. While the startup draft is the thrilling first date of the league relationship, each decision from waiver wire moves to trades to the annual rookie grab can be THE decision, like real NFL franchises, that shapes a team for years to come. This is dynasty fantasy football.

As we prepare to embark on another season of a new dynasty landscape, first let us look at what the 2012 season and this offseason provided:

Quarterbacks: Bait and Switch

In 2011, many fantasy leagues were won by owning an elite option and the startups a year ago reacted strongly to that trend. Four quarterbacks had a top-15 average draft position (ADP) with Tom Brady not far behind. The 2012 draft class shot life into the position with Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III garnering top-50 ADP prior to playing a snap and backing up with a strong rookie season. The emergence of Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick in-season created a glut of quarterback talent. Now, like in redraft leagues, the standard 12-team, start-one environment in the dynasty format offers a variety of ways to address the position: grab a top-10 younger option (Drew Brees and Tom Brady also in that ADP mix) in the first five rounds or wait and grab a Tony Romo or Peyton Manning in the Round 8-10 area. This does not even account for upside plays like Sam Bradford or Ryan Tannehill drafted in clear backup territory.

The position is more stocked than ever with a myriad of options in their mid-20s, an enviable position for the long-term planning environment of dynasty leagues. The new crop of talent has already offset the future decline and loss of prior cornerstones Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and longer-off Drew Brees. The passing game in the NFL is being feed a nutritious diet and groomed to be the centerpiece in a game more wide open than the plains of South Dakota. The position as a is in good shape. In fact, the quarterback depth has created a dialogue this offseason about the transition to more 14-team leagues, start-two formats, or at least a quarterback flex position.

EJ Manuel and Geno Smith are the primary rookies added to the mix from the 2013 draft class. Manuel offers an intriguing blend of athleticism and a scheme that appears tailored to match. The Bills offense is one to monitor in the preseason, just like the Eagles, or the Chiefs, or the Rams from a 'we just do not know what will happen' standpoint. What will the Buffalo offense ultimately be and can Manuel, paired with C.J. Spiller in the backfield, be a Northeast version of Cam Newton?  Manuel is going in the startup range of Sam Bradford, Joe Flacco, and Michael Vick making him a worthy QB2 upside play. Geno Smith tumbled down the NFL draft board and landed in a defunct fantasy situation known as the New York Jets. I think few, if any, quarterbacks could succeed considering the Jets environment, so Smith is a very patient play for dynasty owners if he can weather the storm for a year or two.

The 2012 season resembled the 2010 season a lot more than 2011 in terms of quarterback tiers of production. While owners that drafted staples like Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton in the first round a year ago are not hurting at the position by any means, the teams that snagged Luck or Griffin in the mid-first of rookie drafts or Russell Wilson late or off the wire are the teams in the driver’s seat a year later.

Running Backs: Position in Transition

The title ‘New Reality’ is apt for the running back position more than any other. It is a true ‘what have you done for me lately’ position where the lifespan in the NFL and fantasy is short-lived. More so than in prior years, the backs that are considering safe are nearing the end of the historical prime production window like Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch, Chris Johnson, and Adrian Peterson. Owners are hoping older options like Darren Sproles, Steven Jackson, and Frank Gore can provide one-to-two more viable seasons as well. In terms of vibrant and talented youth, the cup does not overflow with options. Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, and David Wilson are the talented trio of first round NFL draft picks from 2012 with Lamar Miller not far behind. Bryce Brown and Bernard Pierce are two young talents in committee situations with more established veteran options.

The 2013 class has not excited dynasty owners like the rookies a season ago. Giovani Bernard has pushed his way up draft boards, now to top-40 startup ADP and frequently the 1.01 pick in rookie-only drafts. As a second round draft pick with ho-hum athleticism, many are banking that he is a pass-catching maven and grabs a solid hold of the Cincinnati starting job sooner rather than later. As a word of caution, since the 2000 NFL draft class only around 35% of second round backs have produced even one season of 12 points-per-game or more in their first three seasons. In terms of comparable second round picks of similar athleticism, dynasty owners of Bernard are hoping for more LeSean McCoy and less Brandon Jackson.

The lack of elite prospects in the 2013 class has thrust players like Le'Veon Bell, Eddie Lacy, and Montee Ball up draft boards. Second round picks, especially ones without oozing athleticism should not be top-5 rookie picks. Ball and Bell were not as highly regarding prior to landing in situations that seem to be conducive to early career opportunity. That is a valuation that is a very risky endeavor. Removing the situation uptick from the equation means that backs like Christine Michael and Knile Davis are undervalued compared to the quartet of second round running backs in perceived better situations.

The move towards committee situations, spread concepts, and the passing game means outside of the rare feature back, more running backs will be viable options along the way. Running backs with Danny Woodhead-type roles will be options as flex players or even make-shift RB2s more often. Outside of the top 8-10 backs, how dynasty owners approach backs like Demarco Murray, Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden, and Matt Forte compared to the 2013 rookies and 2014 rookie picks will have a large role in emerging a year from now unscathed. The use of the word unscathed is important as the running back position requires constant attention and maintenance in dynasty circles. Holding too long or valuing situation over talent has a way of catching the knife by the blade instead of the handle, causing a dynasty roster to bleed from both the roster value and production side of the position’s appendage.

Wide Receivers: Pick Your Flavor

There is a clear top tier of receivers with all the names we know well from the last year or two. Calvin Johnson has been in rarified air for quite some time in dynasty circles. Julio Jones and A.J. Green blew out the gates to their fantasy careers like a raging bull getting ready for an eight-second ride. Dez Bryant fulfilled his awaited destiny as a big-play beast that defensive backs simply cannot handle one-on-one or in the open field. And finally Demaryius Thomas, who was drafted ahead of Dez Bryant in the 2010 NFL draft, overcame an early career Achilles injury to officially break out in his first season paired with Peyton Manning.

The ordering of the next 20-30 receivers will vary wildly based on a dynasty owner’s preference for the established, the flashy, the futures, or the outright question marks. Those preferences enable any dynasty owner to leave a startup draft with at least three to four options they like quite a bit this summer. The position overall is in great shape. The oldies but goodies group include Roddy White, Andre Johnson, Wes Welker, Steve Smith, and even Anquan Boldin can provide some short-term production. Larry Fitzgerald, Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, and Brandon Marshall form a quartet of 29-to-30 year-old options with multiple impact seasons under their respective resumes. Will Carson Palmer resuscitate what has been missing under center for Fitzgerald since Kurt Warner left the desert? Will Josh Freeman step up or step down in Tampa Bay? Andy Reid has not had a big-bodied receiver since Terrell Owens nearly a decade ago. Will Bowe approach those types of numbers with Reid in Kansas City? Marc Trestman has bolstered quarterback and secondary receiver production in his coaching past. Will Brandon Marshall remain the apple of Jay Cutler’s eye in terms of elite targets?

Hakeem Nicks, Kenny Britt, and Torrey Smith are an interesting trio in their mid-20s. Hakeem Nicks just saw teammate Victor Cruz get paid by the Giants organization. Can Nicks follow suit with a healthy 2013 in a contract year? For two seasons Nicks was a top-15 dynasty asset. He has been drafted as third rounder this offseason in startup drafts amid concerns that he will perennially be one of those injury concerns and we have seen his best. Kenny Britt has held his value quite well considering his perpetual tease of high-level production. Britt has yet to eclipse even 800 receiving yards in a season, but his flashes have kept him a top-100 overall asset through four years of ‘what ifs’. The police blotter has been in hibernation for Britt this offseason and the buzz is beginning to grow once again for the talented receiver that, like Nicks, has a lot of money riding on 2013 in a contract year. Torrey Smith did not take the next step in his second year after totaling over 800 yards and seven touchdowns as a 2011 rookie. Anquan Boldin largely stole the show in the Ravens Super Bowl run in the playoffs last season. With Boldin out of the picture and Jacoby Jones and a group of young question marks behind him on the wide receiver depth chart in Baltimore, it is lining up to be Smith’s show. Smith is in elite company with a touchdown rate of greater than 14% in each of his first two seasons. Most consider Torrey Smith solely a deep threat, but he has been more than capable in the red zone.

The top 2013 rookie class receiver options of Tavon Austin, DeAndre Hopkins, and Cordarrelle Patterson are priced at a similar value to Justin Blackmon and Michael Floyd a year ago. Blackmon and Austin were both fifth to sixth round startup options as top-10 picks in the NFL draft. Floyd, Hopkins, and Patterson were in the sixth to seventh round range following their respective NFL drafts. One note about DeAndre Hopkins is he will barely be able to drink for Week 1 of his rookie year. That was the case for Josh Gordon last year as well, which is on the young side of the curve for first-year players. Considering Hopkins was drafted in the first round and is regarded as one of the more refined receiver prospects, that bodes well for his dynasty value in the coming seasons. My observation about rookies’ ages is within a tier take the younger option. They developed to a similar point at a younger stage of their football ‘life’ which gives them more room to elevate their game to a higher level. The statistical studies I have done on the subject have supported this theory, especially when searching for the true difference-makers with higher ceilings.

Tight Ends: Next Generation Search

The top of the rankings at the tight end position took a blow this offseason with the legal situation and ultimate release by New England of Aaron Hernandez and more surgeries for Rob Gronkowski. Jimmy Graham’s stock in redraft formats has benefited tremendously. Dynasty owners have cooled slightly on Gronkowski, but his ridiculous efficiency and upside, combined with being two-and-a-half years younger than Graham make his injuries more palatable when looking with a long-term lens.

Outside of Graham and Gronkowski is where the rubber meets the road at the position as 80-90% of dynasty owners will not have one of the two studs. Where is the smart money? Jason Witten has been a solid performer for years, but most tight ends do not age as gracefully as Tony Gonzalez has in their 30s; Witten is 31 years old. Greg Olsen and Vernon Davis look to be more involved than years past with a lone older receiver as their only speed bump to a windfall of targets in their respective passing attacks. Dennis Pitta is also in that group of being an older option, but one with reason for optimism regarding a short-term uptick in targets in Baltimore. Jared Cook was a priority signing in St.Louis by his former coach in Tennessee, Jeff Fisher, which is a positive sign considering Cook is like Kenny Britt, a player that has flashes during his up-and-mostly-down four NFL seasons. Will he be the Jermaine Gresham-esque weapon if St.Louis goes to an Oklahoma-themed attack like Sam Bradford exceled with in college?

The youth movement at the tight end position is going to be a fascinating group to track. There will be clear right and wrong answers over the next year or two. The position is ripe for the picking for an infusion of new performers. Tyler Eifert has been drafted in rookie and startup drafts this summer as an expected source of future TE1 production. Can he excel early in his career with Jermaine Gresham still in Cincinnati for the time being? What about Travis Kelce going to Andy Reid and Alex Smith’s offense in Kansas City? What will Ladarius Green show as the wheels officially fall off the Hall-of-Fame bus known as Antonio Gates in San Diego? Coby Fleener, like most rookie tight ends, showed little in 2012 and was outplayed by teammate Dwayne Allen in Indianapolis. Will they both progress in an offense void of proven targets outside of a 34-year-old Reggie Wayne? Tight ends, more than any other skill position, need a stud quarterback for top-shelf production. I have a feeling Andrew Luck will be churning out some very good fantasy seasons for his targets.

Zach Ertz was drafted highly by an innovative college coach, now in Philadelphia. Will Ertz emerge as the primary red zone option on a team with Desean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin as the starting receivers? Rob Housler is also in this young mix at tight end, but I cap his fantasy ceiling quite a bit with the presence of Larry Fitzgerald and an emerging Michael Floyd at receiver. Arizona would need to be a downright lethal passing attack, not to mention Carson Palmer on top of his game, for all three to be starting caliber in fantasy terms. Jordan Cameron is another hot name this offseason. Like Housler, I wonder if the Cleveland passing game is desolate enough to thrust Cameron among the elite tight ends. Like Carson Palmer, I have doubts that Weeden can support multiple passing game weapons. Josh Gordon is the high-ceiling weapon there, Greg Little is still growing into a receiver, and Davone Bess, at a minimum, will be active out of the slot. Let’s also not forget Trent Richardson, who could be among the league leaders for targets among running backs. That is a lot of hurdles for Cameron to leap in an offense that was in the bottom-10 in passing yards and had the fifth-lowest passing touchdown total a year ago.

Check out the Footballguys dynasty staff rankings complete with player commentary.

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