January 14 2011 Last updated at 12:00 PM ET
Fantasy Football 2011 Draft Prep: The Ryan Mathews Rule
2011 Draft? But the 2010 season hasn't even finished yet!
You're right, it hasn't. But that doesn't mean we can't start thinking about the things we did right and wrong this past season, and start incorporating them into our thought processes for 2011.
From the decisions we made on draft day six months ago, to what we saw transpire on the field throughout the season, it really isn't that difficult to see what we did right and where we went wrong. That's not to say luck didn't play a huge role in where we ultimately placed in our respective leagues, but we also had some measure of control over that luck.
For instance, you might say losing Maurice Jones-Drew in the fantasy playoffs was bad luck. You could also blame happenstance for Frank Gore's season-ending injury in Week 12. And yet, you knew that Gore was an injury risk before you spent that top-five pick on him (he hadn't played 16 games in any single season since 2006). You also chose to cast aside real concerns about MJD's knee/durability during the preseason.
These are extreme examples, of course, but the point remains: sometimes "bad luck" isn't just that. Sometimes, it's the result of a conscious decision on our part to ignore risk.
With that, let's take a look at some of the risks we took in 2010 and see if we can learn from our mistakes. The list below certainly isn't the be-all, end-all of risk management or draft strategy, but considering the 2010 playoffs are still in progress, I think it's a good start. Hopefully, we can all become smarter owners by the time next draft day rolls around.
Never draft a rookie in the first round (aka the "Ryan Mathews Rule")
There's a reason why Mike Williams (both of them), LeGarrette Blount, and Tim Tebow had value -- because you didn't have to shell out major coin for them. Remember, the Adrian Petersons, Matt Fortes, and Chris Johnsons of the fantasy world are the exceptions, not the rule. Nine times out of 10, a top real-life draft pick will not merit a top fantasy draft pick. Them's the facts. As for rookie QBs - steer clear altogether. Even the supposed "best" aren't worth it (Sam Bradford finished 27th in points per game among QBs this season; Matt Ryan finished 18th in '08; Peyton Manning finished 12th in '98).
Be wary of those late-season/playoff breakouts
Remember Devin Aromashodu's 22/282/4 over the last four weeks of 2009? Everybody's favorite sleeper receiver couldn't muster half that output in 14 games in 2010. What about the perception of Mark Sanchez as this burgeoning star after he led the Jets to road playoff wins against Cincy and San Diego? All Sanchez did was regress in his sophomore campaign (according to Football Outsiders, Sanchez was waaaay worse than his surface numbers showed). How can we forget about his teammate Shonn Greene? Pity the poor souls who drafted him in the second round based solely on a couple playoff games. They learned this lesson the hard way. Jerome Simpson, James Starks, and Tim Tebow lovers, consider yourself warned.
The preseason is where it's at
You know those exhibition performances we're always being told to take with a grain of salt? Well, they may mean more than we think. Wherever and whenever roles are up for grabs -- I can't stress this enough, it doesn't matter how impressive a backup is in the preseason if there's already a clear and established starter --- you have to take a close look at the guys who are getting it done in the preseason, as opposed to just the guy everyone expects to win the job. Look at Peyton Hillis. Who didn't assume that Jerome Harrison was going to be the man in Cleveland, leaving second-rounder Montario Hardesty and Peyton Hillis to battle for scraps? The people who watched the Browns during the preseason, that's who. Sure, an injury to Browns first-rounder Montario Hardesty had a lot to do with Hillis' emergence as a bona fide stud (as did the trade that sent Harrison to Philly), but Hillis had carved out a significant role in the Browns offense weeks before both those things happened. The prospective owners who recognized that early on likely reaped the benefits, as did the owners who saw what was happening in Texas with Arian Foster, in San Diego with Mike Tolbert, in Tampa and Seattle with both Mike Williams, and in New York with LaDainian Tomlinson. Suffice to say, the guys who drafted Ryan Mathews and Shonn Greene in the first couple rounds will be watching a lot more August football this coming season.
When in doubt, go where the talent is
Thomas Jones or Jamaal Charles? Felix Jones or Marion Barber? Michael Bush or Darren McFadden? Ahmad Bradshaw or Brandon Jacobs? Fred Jackson or Marshawn Lynch? These were the kinds of dilemmas we were faced with before the season began. We weren't necessarily forced to choose between two guys on the same team, but these types of dilemmas helped guide some of the decisions we made on draft day. For instance, we may passed over on Jamaal Charles in favor of Shonn Greene because of the presence of Thomas Jones. Or we we may taken Tim Hightower over Darren McFadden because of perceived health/roles. I can't guarantee this is a fool-proof solution -- injuries factor just as much as inept coaching staffs do -- but if you go where the talent is instead of worrying about who does or doesn't own the "starter" label -- again, this is only in cases where there isn't a clear and established featured guy -- let's just say you'll win out more times than not.
Saints skill players still can't be trusted
As potent as the Saints offense is, Drew Brees is still the only one worth banking on. The mess of a running back situation in New Orleans speaks for itself. You won't see me going anywhere near Pierre Thomas or Chris Ivory next season unless I can get them at flex prices. Reggie Bush can kiss standard leagues good-bye. At wideout, the "spread the wealth" philosophy will continue as long as Sean Payton's the head coach and Brees is calling signals. Robert Meachem and Lance Moore both had decent campaigns, but they're as hit or miss as any non-scrub receivers in the game. Even Marques Colston, who finished the season with over 1,000 receiving yards and seven scores, failed to reach pay dirt in 11 of 16 games. He caught fewer than six balls in nine of those contests, and was held under 70 yards 10 times. He got hot towards the middle of the season, but was hurt towards the end. His days as a WR1 were over three years ago; with the emergence of Jimmy Graham at tight end, you're probably looking at Colston as a low-end WR2 in 2011. That's still roster-worthy, of course; problem is, he won't come that cheap.
Thou shall not draft a tight end early
Remember when taking a tight end within the first five rounds helped you win a fantasy championship? Yeah, me neither. It's cliche at this point, really, but I think it's more relevant now than ever -- do not waste an early-round pick on a tight end. For starters, who knows if the top dog at the position -- a soon-to-be-31-year-old Antonio Gates -- will ever get over the foot injuries that have plagued him the last couple years? Are you willing to bet an early draft pick on him being around for the fantasy playoffs? In Indy, Jacob Tamme was better than Dallas Clark on a per-game basis in 2010. There's no way Tamme gets nixed from the equation just because Clark is healthy (which, let's be honest, he never is). Last year's tight end darling, Jermichael Finley, is coming off injury, Tony Gonzalez is aging, and who knows who Vernon Davis' QB will be? Guys like Marcedes Lewis and Rob Gronkowski outproduced Chris Cooley, Dustin Keller, and Zach Miller; Ben Watson, Aaron Hernandez, and Brandon Pettigrew out-pointed Brent Celek, Todd Heap, and Gregg Olsen. The position is as deep as ever, it's going to get deeper, and every year there will be guys who went undrafted who will outplay that guy you spent your fifth-round pick on. You're better off grabbing running back or wide receiver depth than you are trying to guess who will be a top-three tight end. Don't do it.
Forget about playoff schedules
Trying to predict performances 14, 15, and 16 weeks in advance is a fool's errand. Too many things WILL happen during the course of a season, rendering your crystal ball worthless. Injuries are always an obvious culprit, many people forget how quickly defenses can go from good to bad. For instance, Chicago went from the 10th-worst rush defense in '09 to the second best in 2010. San Diego went from 20th to fourth against the run, Miami 18th to seventh. Back on draft day, there's no way you wanted your receiver or quarterback playing the Jets in Week 16. By the time the playoffs rolled around, it wound up being a friendly matchup (Jets finished the season ranked 16th in terms of fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks). Same goes for the Broncos, who finished last season ranked third against the pass. They were the eighth-worst pass defense in 2010. You want to use it as an end-game tie-breaker, go ahead. Otherwise, shelve the strategy.
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