Fantasy Football: Avoiding This Year’s Fantasy Traps by Drafting with Hindsight

by Nicholas Cicale (@nickcicale)

In fantasy sports, one of most intriguing things I look at every offseason is the draft recaps from previous years. Every few months thought the season I’ll see how my draft is stacking up to others, and in the offseason as I’m making my rankings I go through again to gather valuable and underutilized  information.

What was my strategy going into the draft? Where did I go right and where did I screw up? Where did I really reach for players and which players do I regret not going after? How can I capitalize on the tendencies of my league?  When looking at old drafts, you can answer a bunch of questions, but ultimately, it all tries to answer the same thing: What can I do differently this year to make sure my draft is more efficient?

In analyzing past drafts, there’s one very obvious thing that pops up time and time again, tripping up fantasy owners each after year.  People reach waaaay too early for players who have extremely high upsides and project really well, but who aren’t the least bit proven. Whether it’s a player on a new team, or in a new role, or one who broke out for a few weeks late the previous season, the early rounds are littered with shiny players that wind up being traps in the end.

(Some recent examples include Shonn Greene, CJ Spiller, Doug Martin, Montee Ball, Trent Richardson, David Wilson…the list goes on, especially for running backs, but could be extended to guys like Matt Stafford in 2012, and Cordarrelle Patterson and Percy Harvin just last year )

But not only do owners take these players with premium draft picks, they pick them when there are countless other great players still on the board, guys that are already sure-fire stars or are much more proven over their careers. People are more likely to try and grab “the next big thing,” to outsmart their competition, when there are plenty of already great players for the taking.

In the end, when looking through their old draft, the most common and frustrating thought to people who fall for the traps is usually “How the heck did I take Upside Player X when Proven Player Y was still on the board? What was I thinking?”

One strategy owners can use to combat this issue is to approach their drafts/rankings as if they were reevaluating their picks four months in the future, at the end of the season. Meaning, even if I’m projecting a hype or high upside guy to get a few more points, if there’s a proven player around I’ll tend to stick with the player I know. Owners have to take all projections with a grain of salt. What common sense is telling you is sometimes much more important.

Making some high-upside plays are an important part of constructing a fantasy roster, but they’re, by nature, the most risky picks in every draft. That’s why, despite what projections on high-upside guys might hint at, players like this shouldn’t really be drafted in the first few rounds.

CJ Anderson is a prime example of this kind of high-upside player. I currently project Anderson to be the 8th best RB this season with 252 points, and he’s getting drafted as such, going in the first round of ESPN leagues (eighth overall).  He played really well in the second half of last season, ran away with the starting gig, and is in the right situation as a back with Peyton Manning at the helm of a Gary Kubiak run-heavy offense. All signs point to a HUGE season, which makes him extremely tempting to take with the other elite options in fantasy.

However, if you want Anderson on your team, you’ll most likely have to take him ahead of perennial running powers Matt Forte (I’ve projected him 223 points in 2015) and DeMarco Murray (226), as well as Demaryius Thomas (228), Dez Bryant (228), Andrew Luck (454) and Calvin Johnson (211) if we open it up to other positions. Anderson could very well be worth a first round value at year’s end, but chances are he won’t over perform the other running backs and players drafted around him by much if at all, and his downside is much worse than someone like Calvin Johnson, who despite missing four games last year still ranked in the top 15 of a stacked receiver class. With all the upside, there are also plenty of question marks with Anderson. Will the new coaching staff like him as much as we assume? Will he be able to hold up under a full season’s workload? Will Peyton Manning be as dominant as he has been or will his game take another step back, putting more pressure on the run game? Will veteran Ronnie Hillman and highly drafted Monte Ball steal snaps from Anderson, especially if he starts the season slow?

If I draft Anderson as the number eight player this year, in three months I could own a top five back, but I think it’s far more likely that I’m kicking myself for taking him over proven players like Johnson, Thomas, and Forte, who are always good. I’m not saying Anderson won’t be better than those guys, but if you decide to draft Thomas instead,  and Anderson slightly over performs by season’s end, you probably won’t be too upset you missed out. Besides, you still got a really great player in the first round.

Let’s take this approach in another direction, staying with Denver. As it stands, Peyton Manning is being drafted as QB4 and 27th overall on ESPN, and QB5 and 36th overall on Yahoo. Manning is being drafted behind Russell Wilson, and, in some instances, Drew Brees, two really good QBs. I’m a huge fan of Wilson, who’s young, a running threat, is in an expanding offense that’s slowly leaning more on the pass, and surpassed Manning in fantasy last season. Most signs suggest you should take Wilson first, which is why he’s going earlier.

There’s is one thing to consider, though. IT’S PEYTON FREAKIN MANNING, the man that set all the records two seasons ago, and showed dominance again week’s 1-12 of 2014 before getting injured, and despite being hampered towards season’s end, he still managed a top-four finish at quarterback. Manning’s obviously an older player, so of course he can finally show a decline in skills and could post his worst season to date, but he has a much greater chance of excelling for the 100th season in a row than posting his first bad season, and has the weapons around him to succeed.

When push comes to shove, can you really take Wilson (projected 355) or Brees (342) over Manning (350)? Let’s look three months down the road again. Who’s more likely to disappoint? Manning has the potential to be the best QB this year, and probably won’t finish any worse than seven or eight in scoring. Wilson’s chances of returning his draft-day value are high, but not nearly as high as Manning’s, and his chances finishing out of the top 10 are much higher. When comparing Manning to Brees–another old QB but one who has shown more of a drop off recently and has far less to work with on offense–it’s hard to see Brees being the better value. Since Manning’s been in Denver, Brees has only outperformed him once. Again, I’m not predicting the demise of Drew Brees and think he’ll be a good player this season, but history speaks louder than offseason hype and storylines.  If I draft Manning this season and he does disappoint, I’m not going to be questioning why I drafted one of the best QBs in history, but if I take Wilson or Brees, and Manning is better, I’m going to be pretty mad at myself for leaving him on the board.

Preseason projections show us what should happen based on what we know right now, but that isn’t always what’s most likely to happen. Take Jonathan Stewart for instance, who’s ADP on ESPN is currently 46 as RB18, and is 77 as RB21 on Yahoo. I’m projecting him to get 165 points this year, putting him right around top 20 at running back, which should be a very valuable asset. All signs point to an increased work load, a healthier start to the season, and Cam Newton taking more pressure off the run game (hence, the high projection).

However, there’s one thing that all this overlooks. ITS JOHNATHAN STEWART, a player most people in fantasy have been disappointed in and avoiding for years after burning us before. Constant under performance, countless injuries, on the older end of the running back spectrum, and playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in football. Like most, I expect Stewart to miss time this season, and projected him to play 14 games. Nobody want to projects someone to miss half a season, but honestly, would it surprise anyone if that happened in this case?  Also, Stewart’s never averaged more fantasy points per game than he did last season (11). Do we really think he can do better than that this year? The projections say yes, but almost everything else historically tells us no.

If I look back in three months and see that I drafted Stewart in the 5th round, chances are I won’t be thinking to myself “Man, I got a really good value here.” More likely, I’ll probably ask, “How did I let Johnathan Stewart fool me into taking him at all?”  Is there a chance for the Jonathan Steward revival? Sure, but I’m not going to be devastated if I miss out.

There are plenty of other examples like this early in the draft.

Eddie Lacy and Jamaal Charles are both great players that should be good again this year, but they have downside, and if they don’t meet expectations could you live with yourself if you took them over Marshawn Lynch, one of the most consistent fantasy RBs out there? For me, the answer is no.

At receiver, Odell Beckham Jr. was the most exciting option to own last season, and produced historic numbers as a rookie. The upside is obvious, but not guaranteed, and he’s sometimes being drafted ahead of perennial superstars Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, and Calvin Johnson. OBJ’s upside isn’t that much higher than the other two’s, and his floor is way lower. Why pass up a sure thing for the chance at an extra 10-15 points throughout a season?

If you haven’t noticed by now, Calvin Johnson is a player that I feel is getting really under drafted. He’s WR6 on ESPN and Yahoo, but finished as WR3, WR1, and WR1 in 2013, 2012 and 2011 respectively before his injured 2014. I know how great the likes of OBJ, Jordy Nelson, and Julio Jones were in 2014 (and how tempting RBs like Jeremy Hill and LeSean McCoy are), but when Johnson starts doing what he always does again through 5 weeks, you’ll be wondering why you didn’t draft him sooner.

Mark Ingram was brilliant last season, but it was the first time in four professional seasons that he had any fantasy value at all, and still showed he’s an injury risk. Add that to the fact that the Saints added CJ Spiller in the off season, and his limited upside carries a lot more risk than, let’s say Alfred Morris, who’s a similar player with a much better track record, or Lamar Miler, who was better than Ingram just last year, both of which are getting drafted slightly later.

Brandin Cooks disappointed as a late-round pick last season, finishing as WR57, but now he’s being drafted even earlier, at 40 overall on ESPN and Yahoo. That a round ahead of DeSean Jackson (WR16 in 2014) and Andre Johnson (WR42), two rounds ahead of Brandon Marshall (WR30), and three rounds ahead of Mike Wallace (WR18), all of which have multiple season of being top-10 WRs under their belts and plenty of upside heading into the year.

To be clear, I’m not saying these guys should plummet down the draft boards, but I would move them closer to the bottom of their tiers. As I explained earlier. CJ Anderson (projected 252 points )  probably shouldn’t be taken above Murray (226) or even Jordy Nelson (a safe 201),  but I have no problem taking him above Morris (192) or T.Y. Hilton (174), who I have lower in my ranks even though I’m more confident in their production. There comes a point where the potential profits out weigh the security of other players.

There are plenty of high upside picks I like further down the draft, and that’s where I look for my value picks. By combining sure things at the top of the draft, with potential game changers in the later rounds, you should be one step ahead of the other teams in your league.

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