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Fantasy Football Links: Running Backs, Regression, and Consistency

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Jonathan Bales

Fantasy Football for Smart People is flying off of the virtual shelves. You can buy the book in PDF form or paperback (as well as my rankings/projections). Let’s take a look at a few guest posts I’ve done of late:

My latest post at the New York Times was an interview with Michael Fabiano of NFL.com. I respect Michael’s fantasy analysis, and that’s coming from someone who trusts the views of almost no one in the fantasy football world. Here’s a snippet from the article:

What sort of draft strategy do you use? Do you take the best player available or use more of a value-based system?

Fabiano: I use a combination draft system. You can’t get stuck into using a single draft strategy or saying ‘I’m going to target this position in this round.’ Your draft strategy needs to be flexible. Still, I’m always looking for value, no matter where I’m picking.

I used to always draft running backs early, but those times have changed. I still think you should consider elite running backs in the first round, but I often take a quarterback there now. One of the main reasons for that is because quarterbacks are so safe. I know what I’m getting with Aaron Rodgers, and that consistency is valuable in the first round. You can’t be sure of what you’re getting with some of the running backs, even a guy like Ryan Mathews.

You listed Brady as the best choice at No. 5 if Rodgers is off of the board. What’s the reasoning behind him over Calvin Johnson or Ryan Mathews? Is it an attempt to minimize risk?

Fabiano: Yes, I want the safest players in that area. One thing I know is that I won’t be taking a wide receiver in the first round this year. The only option anywhere in the round is Calvin Johnson, but he’ll be gone by the time I’d take him in the back of the first round. He’s going around the fifth pick, and in that range I’d be looking for a quarterback.

The reason I’d take Brady there (or Rodgers, if he’s available) is, again, consistency. I know Brady is going to put up big numbers if he’s healthy. He’s done it for years, and he’s just a safe bet. There’s really no risk there. Even a great receiver like Johnson has some risk.

That’s the reason I have Rodgers ranked No. 2 over all on my board. Even though there are a few elite running backs, I just can’t pass up the sure thing in Rodgers. He’s unlikely to get hurt and I know he’ll be a top quarterback.

Last week, I posted a section from a chapter of my book over at Fantasy Knuckleheads. Here is Part II of the chapter:

Running backs who garner a large number of touches in a season are generally more likely to see a drop in production and health in the following year, but this information is both insignificant and irrelevant.

Think about what it takes to acquire nearly 400 touches in a season. For one, a running back needs to be healthy. Really healthy. Secondly, chances are he is running efficiently. Running backs who average 3.5 yards-per-carry over the first half of the season don’t generally continue to see the 24 carries a game needed to break the 370 threshold. Thus, our sample size of high-carry backs is skewed by those performing well.

This is where regression toward the mean comes in. By filtering out injured and underperforming backs, selecting those with a high number of carries means we are selecting the outliers in more areas than one. We aren’t isolating the numbers based on carries, but rather based on health and efficiency as well. So when we make conclusions concerning health and efficiency, all we’re really saying is players who have unusual health and a higher-than-normal YPC are likely to have worse health and a lower YPC the following year. Uh, yeah. . .no crap.

I recently did a post on Kendall Wright’s 2012 fantasy value for Music City Miracles:

  • Rookie wide receivers possess little value.

In my book, I talk about the risks of drafting rookie receivers. Take a look at the top rookie wide outs from the past five seasons. Even in today’s pass-happy NFL, rookie receivers simply don’t make much of an impact. Going into 2012, second-year receiver A.J. Green is getting selected as high as the third round in fantasy drafts. Still, Green-2011’s top rookie receiver-was just 14th in points among all receivers.

And Green is actually an outlier. In 2010, the top rookie receiver was Dez Bryant. He checked in 41st among all receivers in fantasy points, meaning he wasn’t even good enough to start in three-receiver leagues. In 2009,Percy Harvin led all rookie receivers, but still managed to total only the 25th-most fantasy points at the position.DeSean Jackson led rookie receivers in 2008 at 29th place, and Dwayne Bowe set the pace the previous season at 24th. Even the great Calvin Johnson was the 35th-ranked wide receiver in his rookie year.

Simply stated, you can’t rely on rookie receivers in the short-term. At best, the draft’s most elite rookie receivers can be counted on as low-end third options at the position.

A big part of my book is using season-to-season consistency ratings to generate accurate projections. I showed an example of how to do that at RotoWire, where I used the consistency of a few stats to show you how to make quarterback projections:

Volatility isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Let’s take a look at Joe Flacco, whose passing stats are as consistent as that of any player I’ve ever witnessed. Over the past three seasons, Flacco has thrown for 3,613 yards, 3,622 yards, and 3,610 yards. As Peter Griffin would say, “holy freakin’ crap.” Further, Flacco’s touchdown totals have been 21, 25, and 20, and his interceptions have added up to 12, 10, and 12. When I project Flacco for 3,600 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in 2012, I can be pretty darn confident in that prediction.

In the stats world, Flacco’s projected fantasy output has a very low standard deviation. Simulate 1,000 seasons, and chances are Flacco would come close to 3,600/22/11 more often than not. As a late-round pick, however, that isn’t a good thing. When risk is low, we want to fill our rosters with guys whose play is more volatile, and thus possesses more upside. If our 14th-round pick is a bust, it doesn’t have the same negative impact as missing in the first round.

I just did a guest post over at Gang Green Nation comparing Tim Tebow to Mark Sanchez as a backup fantasy quarterback. I actually think Tebow is a superior option. He’s set to get a ton of looks in the red zone, and he could win the starting job at some point during the season. Here’s a preview of the post:

At the time of this writing, Sanchez and Tebow are getting selected at almost the exact same spot in fantasy drafts (29th and 28th among quarterbacks, respectively). Even if you project Sanchez to score more points than Tebow, Sanchez shouldn’t be on your radar. In the late rounds, your goal as a fantasy owner is to maximize upside. Whereas you want to select safe players early, you should actually seek volatile players with high ceilings late in your draft.

If everything goes right for Sanchez in 2012, he might be a good No. 2 quarterback on your team. Since you’ll be drafting him as a backup anyway, there’s little chance that Sanchez outperforms his draft spot by a wide margin.

In comparison, Tebow has legitimate No. 1 quarterback potential. If he throws for only 75 yards, rushes for 70 yards and scores a touchdown on the ground, he’d score the same number of fantasy points as Sanchez passing for 250 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. Simply put, Tebow has more ways to score. His average game is the same as Sanchez’s elite game from a fantasy perspective.

My last post at Pro Football Focus was a comparison between running backs’ average draft position and their 2011 efficiency. From the article:

To determine efficiency at the running back position, I created a measure called Efficiency Rating. Shown in the graph below, Efficiency Rating is calculated as follows: (Overall PFF Grade/Snaps)*100. By dividing a player’s overall production by his snaps, we can get a better sense of how efficient he was while on the field. I multiplied by 100 simply for the sake of obtaining more usable ratings. Below are the results of the top 30 running backs in terms of overall PFF grades. All ADP figures are courtesy of My Fantasy League.

Head over to PFF to check out the rankings. Some of them may surprise you.

Finally, I did a guest post over at Music City Miracles detailing Kendall Wright’s fantasy football value in 2012 and beyond. As I explained in my article on Justin Blackmon, I tend to avoid rookie receivers. Here’s my assessment of Wright’s dynasty value:

Dynasty/Keeper Leagues

There are monumental differences between redraft and dynasty draft strategy, and Wright’s value to dynasty owners is sensational. Here’s why. . .

  • Wright has a supporting cast.

One of the biggest mistakes made by fantasy owners is drafting wide receivers who play in weak offenses. Whereas running backs can benefit from an abundance of touches, receivers put up fantasy points through efficiency as opposed to bulk looks. Total carries are far more strongly correlated to running back fantasy points than targets are to wide receiver points.

Take a look at the premiere fantasy wide outs from 2011; Calvin Johnson, Jordy NelsonWes Welker, andVictor Cruz led the league in points. The Lions had a breakout season, the Packers racked up 15 wins, thePatriots are the Patriots, and the Giants won the Super Bowl.

With Jake Locker at the helm, Chris Johnson in the backfield, Kenny Britt outside, and Jared Cook patrolling the middle of the field, Wright will always have people to take off the pressure.

  • Wide receivers get selected too late in dynasty leagues.

Fantasy owners often don’t deviate too much from their redraft strategy in dynasty leagues. This means they wait on rookie receivers because the first-year value isn’t there. If you’re willing to draft a young gun and wait it out, you can acquire great career value with rookie receivers. You’ll lose a late-round pick in 2012, but Wright could begin producing starting-caliber fantasy points as soon as 2013.

BUY THE BOOK MO’FOs.

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