The 2014 fantasy football season is in the books. Some laughed, some cried, but we should all learn. Which strategies worked? Which didn’t? What changed about the game this year that we can apply to next? Let’s take a look at twelve takeaways from this season:
1. Get what you can out of lottery ticket (suspended or hurt) star players if your team is struggling.
Josh Gordon this year, Percy Harvin in 2013. If your team was sitting at 1-3 in week 4, you should have been looking to trade these players for immediate help. Their late-season returns won’t help you if you’re already out of the playoff race by the time they come back. I unloaded Gordon and a struggling Lesean Mccoy to the undefeated first place team (after week 3) for A.J. Green and Kelvin Benjamin. The solid WR production from those two gave me a huge boost down the stretch.
2. Be wary of drafting a running back high solely based on opportunity. Drafting wide receivers based on their opportunity is much safer.
Every year, unproven running backs go in the middle to high rounds because of a perceived opportunity for success. Sometimes a player being named the starter is enough to get them taken in the second round, even if they’ve never produced at all. In 2014, we had plenty examples of players like this: Montee Ball, Toby Gerhart, Zac Stacy, Ben Tate and Bishop Sankey. Every single one of them busted. We can’t expect a bust rate that high every year, but the turbulence of the position makes it incredibly risky to draft players like this. Some things to consider:
- That player was only named the starter for the first game, not the whole season. One bad fumble or missed block and the job could be gone.
- Running backs are expendable to teams now. They don’t invest that much money into them, and have no problem going with the hot hand.
- Running backs are very injury prone. The stars are susceptible to injury too, of course, but they are usually guaranteed to get their jobs back. Injured players with no track record might never see the field when they come back.
- If a player isn’t any good, those guaranteed carries aren’t going to mean much (see Bishop Sankey).
Wide Receivers that were being drafted high based on perceived opportunity, on the other hand, seemed to be much more productive in 2014. You had your guys being drafted in the middle rounds because they were being put in high-volume positions on high-powered offenses (Jeremy Maclin, Emmanuel Sanders, Golden Tate) and they exceeded expectations. You also had some unproven rookies thrust into #1 roles (Kelvin Benjamin, Sammy Watkins), and they also produced. This is a small sample size but I think it is a trend that is likely to continue for the WR position.
3. Follow the rules of handcuffing RB’s
Handcuffing your running backs (owning the starting and backup RB on the same team) can either save you from disaster or waste valuable roster space. Players like Jeremy Hill, Knile Davis, and Alfred Blue stepped up and provided valuable production in place of injured stars this year, but if you held on to many other numerous backups, you got nothing out of it. These are the rules I follow when deciding whether or not to acquire a running back’s handcuff:
- The backup role must be clearly defined. Hill was clearly Giovanni Bernard’s backup going into the season, so he was worth owning. It is unclear whether Christine Michael or Robert Turbin would get the start if Marshawn Lynch went down, so a handcuff for Lynch is not worth owning.
- The backup should have enough talent to actually produce when given the chance. Players like Knile Davis have shown that they can produce when given the work, so they are worth owning.
- The offense must be good enough to support a backup running back if they do get the start. If the offensive line isn’t clearing any holes for the talented starter, why would it get better for the backup?
- The league size is big enough (10+ teams) that there aren’t decent starting RB’s available.
Based on the above criteria, the only handcuffs that should have been owned this year would have been Jeremy Hill, Carlos Hyde (until you realized that the SF offense was garbage), Joseph Randle, Knile Davis, Alfred Blue (only after he proved he could play) and James Starks.
4. Running back is still King.
After a first round full of mainly RB busts in 2013, and the obvious transition of the NFL into a more pass-friendly league, many fantasy players were reevaluating the strategy of taking running backs early in 2014 (myself included): “Wide receivers are safer, tight end is incredibly shallow, and the elite quarterbacks could win you your league.”
While those three statements are technically correct, nothing gives more of an advantage in fantasy football than having an elite running back. Most players that took running backs in the first two rounds in 2014 are happy with their picks, as the busts were few and far between (Adrian Peterson doesn’t count) and after the top 8 or 9 elite guys at the position, the dropoff gets HUGE. The same can’t be said for the wide receiver position. We knew that this year’s crop of pass catchers was deep, but we didn’t know it would be THIS deep.
Add 6 or 7 surprisingly productive rookies to the mid-round talent that took the next step this year (T.Y. Hilton, Sanders, Maclin, Tate) and you had about 30 starting-caliber receivers active every week, compared to only 15-20 running backs. The prevalence of backfield committees and pass-oriented offenses make the elite running backs far and away more valuable than any other position. Use those first round picks wisely.
5. Beware the decoy.
We’ve all heard the mantra “start your studs”, but when your stud is injured, all bets are off. Calvin Johnson and Jimmy Graham burned fantasy owners this year by playing hurt and being nothing more than decoys, and Roddy White did the same thing in 2013. You’ve got to be very careful of starting receiving options that are obviously injured, no matter how good they are. Quarterbacks and running backs are different, in my opinion, because they’re not going to be put out there as a decoy. If they’re in the game, they’re usually healthy enough to do their jobs (see Jamaal Charles).
6. Pay attention to cornerback matchups when deciding which WR to start.
Most people know the big-name corners (Darrelle Revis, Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson) and are wary of playing their wide receivers against them. There’s much more to it than that, though, and although making start/sit decisions based on the talent of the opposing cornerback is a good idea, there are a lot of things to take into consideration.
- How good is that corner actually playing? Peterson has the big name and huge contract so fantasy players have been wary of facing him, but he has been burned deep quite a few times over the last few years. Meanwhile, lesser-heralded players like Vontae Davis and Chris Harris Jr. have been shutting down opposing receivers all season. These things change fast with injuries and age so you have to keep up weekly.
- Is there a type of wide receiver that the elite corner struggles with? For as good as Sherman is, small receivers with elite speed have given him some trouble, but he completely shuts down bigger guys. Don’t bench a guy like T.Y. Hilton against him, but consider it for most other receivers.
- Are you sure that cornerback will be covering your receiver? Sherman stays on one side of the field. He’s not a lock to cover the #1 guy. Revis moves around sometimes and doesn’t always cover the #1 guy either. Keep an eye on how their teams have been playing them.
7. Don’t get complacent about improving your roster.
Even if you’ve got a perfect starting lineup, you should always be looking to improve your bench. You might have A.J. Green and Jordy Nelson as your starting WR’s, but speculating on young guys with potential could result in someone like Odell Beckham Jr. on your roster, which means he’s not scoring points against you, even if you don’t think you can use him. Don’t waste a roster spot on a low-ceiling guy that you’ll never start when there are high upside lottery tickets in free agency. Don’t just look at your bench as backups to the starters, also look at them as players you want to keep away from other teams.
8. Fantasy defenses can win you weeks (and championships). Have a good strategy for acquiring and playing the right ones (but don’t draft one high!)
There are too many factors when it comes to fantasy defenses (injuries, personnel and coaching changes, scheduling, flukey plays, etc) to make it worth drafting them high. They are nearly impossible to predict and their weekly value fluctuates wildly based on who they are playing.
Seattle went first in 2014 drafts, and although they came on strong in the second half of the year, if you started them throughout the whole first half you didn’t get much production at all. Carolina was the second defense off the board, and they were absolutely awful throughout the first half of the season. If your whole league hasn’t caught onto it yet, streaming defenses is a great option.
Picking up weekly defenses allows you to play hot defenses that have great matchups. Pay attention to injuries to key players and home/road splits to find the best defense every week.
9. Know your scoring rules and how that changes the value of certain players
Most experts create their rankings based on a standard or 1 point per reception format, so you can gain an advantage by taking the unique scoring into account if the rest of your league is following the expert’s opinions.
For example, some leagues award points for return yardage. This makes players like Antonio Brown, Jarvis Landry, or Benny Cunningham more valuable than expert rankings would have you believe. Having passing touchdowns worth 6 points instead of 4 will inflate the value of traditional passing quarterbacks and deflate the value of QB’s who get many of their points on the ground.
Make sure to adjust your rankings and pick up free agents accordingly.
10. No need to avoid rookie wide receivers anymore, but don’t overvalue them either.
The 2014 rookie wide receiver class looked fantastic before the season started — and historic after it ended. Traditionally, it takes wide receivers a year or two to acquire the finer skills required to play the position at a high level. Experts warned us about expecting too much from rookie pass catchers, and their draft statuses mostly reflected that, but after this season in which a decent amount of rookies produced at a veteran level, things have changed.
It’s hard to evaluate rookies, so it’s usually advisable to take a proven veteran over them, but no longer is it advisable to completely avoid them until the later rounds. Kelvin Benjamin showed us that a raw player with size in a position of high volume can put up numbers, and Odell Beckham Jr. showed us that neither injuries nor a slumping offense can slow down unreal talent. We definitely can’t expect production like this every year, so temper expectations, but the “avoid rookie receivers early” rule has been broken.
11. Don’t overvalue your own players.
You drafted your guys for a reason, so you want them to succeed, but make sure you maintain a good sense of awareness about where they rank compared to the rest of the league. If a player on the waiver wire is outplaying a player you invested in at the beginning of the year, don’t be afraid to pull the trigger. The sunk-cost fallacy (the mind set that you need to stick with a player that you’ve spent a high draft pick/big trade on) tanks a lot of fantasy teams without their fantasy owners ever knowing it.
12. Be wary of running backs whose NFL team drafted another running back high.
When a team drafts a running back in the first three rounds, they either don’t trust their starter, couldn’t pass up on the talent of the draft pick, or are planning on going with a RB committee. Either way, it’s not great news for the starter. For example, Jeremy Hill and Tre Mason were early round picks that eventually supplanted the incoming starters (Giovani Bernard and Zac Stacy) this year. Carlos Hyde never supplanted Frank Gore for the starting job, but he did eat into his workload.
Looking back, we should have been more concerned about these draft picks before taking Stacy and Bernard in the third round in 2014 fantasy drafts.
What did you learn this year? Let me know in the comments!