Saturday, December 1, 2012

Secret Weapons

Three long months have finally paid off - we're about to enter the fantasy playoffs. Some teams will have gotten there through pure skill - a stud lineup that needs no substitutes. But most will have at least one or two holes that require critical decision-making over the next few weeks. So who can you trust to do the job? In no particular order:

1. Any DST facing the Eagles. No doubt, the Buccaneers are nothing special, but they should be close to that when they host the Eagles in Week 14. Turnovers are a way of life for the Eagles, with or without Vick, and turnovers yield defensive TD opportunities. Bryce Brown may actually be a better straight-ahead power runner than McCoy, but he's way more raw in terms of pass catching, pass protection, and ball security. And the only healthy threat at wideout is Jeremy Maclin. This team is not going to move the ball much, and they're going to give it away with regularity. The Buccaneers will be a fine play in Week 14, the Bengals even better in Week 15, and you might even consider the Redskins in Week 16, although that's a pretty big gamble for the championship game.

2. Bryce Brown. It sounds contradictory to the above, but he's clearly effective as a runner and will get a ton of touches simply because the team has few other options. Volume equals value.

3. Knowshon Moreno. Also a volume play, albeit in a much much better offense. He had 20 carries and four catches last week after having just eight carries and one catch total prior to that this season! He should have a monster game in store at Oakland in Week 14. At Baltimore in Week 15 should be tougher but still reasonable, and he closes with a home game vs. Cleveland. With Hillman still lacking the necessary veteran savvy for a playoff-bound squad, Moreno should continue to dominate touches. At least until he fumbles, misses an assignment, or gets injured, three very real possibilities for this talented but enigmatic running back.

4.Daniel Thomas. There's not a ton of upside here, but he should be at least reliable if you're in a pinch. He's used in a pretty even split with Reggie Bush, and gets the goalline touches. I don't like him in Week 14 (vs. SF) but you could do far worse in Weeks 15 and 16 in home games against bottom-feeding rush defenses in Jacksonville and Buffalo.

5. Colin Kaepernick. The guard has changed. This guy throws with authority and has no problem running the ball. Just two games into his tenure as a starter, he's still just scratched the surface. He's not going to be RGIII, but he'll be as good as any of the non-elite QBs. It's too bad he's on the road for Week 15 (at New England) - a home game against the Pats might be a semifinal-winner for owners.
6. Josh Freeman. He's not running nearly as much as he is able to, but he is becoming a better NFL quarterback, and he has the receiving weapons to maintain strong fantasy value. He gets the burnable Eagles at home in Week 14, is facing a potential shootout at New Orleans in Week 15, and closes at home with the Rams. I like his chances.

7. New England's passing game. A month ago, I was hesitant about this one, even though the Patriots had two home games before closing with an easy one at Jacksonville in Week 16. My concerns were that the home opponents were the elite defenses of Houston and San Francisco. But the Texans' secondary has proved highly highly vulnerable recently, allowing 800 yards and 6 TDs to QBs over the last two games. With the Texans still boasting a strong rush defense (and a robust offense), Week 14 should be a fully-loaded air attack for New England. You'd play Brady and Welker regardless, but you can boost your confidence in Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd and even Julian Edelman. San Francisco is a little tougher in Week 15, but their increased-tempo offense and run-stopping ability (just like Houston) again favors the pass for New England, especially in the red zone. Their is a potential pitfall in Week 16 against Jacksonville because New England has a good chance to be up early and may want to re-assert their dedication to the run after tough draws the previous two weeks.

8. Ryan Broyles. Titus Young is in the doghouse and ain't coming out anytime soon. Broyles is a crisp route-runner with high volume potential. The offense (and Matt Stafford) looked much better with Broyles than with Young. Shootouts in Week 14 (at Green Bay) and Week 16 (home vs. Atlanta) bode well. Expectations should be tempered for a Week 15 match at Arizona, but he still should see enough targets to be a solid play.

9. Cecil Shorts, Justin Blackmon and Marcedes Lewis. The team appears rejuvenated with Chad Henne aggressively chucking the rock. Even without MJD, the coaching staff seems unfortunately committed to stick a balanced rush-pass attack. But Henne has been highly effective with his limited attempts, 90 percent going to those three guys. The Jaguars get high-upside home dates against the mailing-it-in Jets in Week 14 and the pliable Patriots defense in Week 16, and they don't have to travel far for what should be a competitve game in Week 15 at Miami. With virtually no travel, they're set up for an even stronger fantasy finish.

This will likely be my last column of the year - good luck to everyone in the fantasy playoffs!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Deadline Decisions

With many fantasy trade deadlines looming in the next couple of weeks, it's a critical time for you to take very rapid specific inventory of your team - who you have and who you may need through the end of your fantasy playoffs to cover the potential for injury or poor matchups.

That is, IF you are headed to the playoffs. If not, thanks for playing. Good luck next year. Now spoil away. Play to the whistle. Don't close shop or mail it in simply because you're out. Continue to make competitive claims and set your best roster each week at least until your regular season ends. Otherwise, you're compromising the integrity of the competition and potentially annoying other owners who are expecting to compete to the end. Your lack of effort late in the season could hand a win to someone who doesn't deserve it at the expense of a more deserving owner. Put yourself in the gypped owner's shoes and do him or her the courtesy as you would like to have done for you. And don't forget about the fun of it. Go get (and play) the more marginal guys you've always wanted. Don't make stupid choices, but going with personal affection over logic as a tiebreaker between two players is OK at this point. And it's more fun.

If you ARE possibly headed to the playoffs, it's time to break out your abacus. This will help you calculate what needs to happen between now and then to make your dream trip a reality, and to figure out where your future pitfalls may lie. Depth at the middle levels of positions is critical here, so you can play to take advantage of the best matchups and avoid the worst. That's true throughout the season, but you should actually now go through and map out what you intend to do with your lineup week-to-week for the rest of the season. You may have two awful WR matchups in week 15 that you didn't see before, so maybe adding another WR that has a highly favorable matchup then would be a good insurance plan for one of those guys.

The sneakiest play here is at DST. Everyone knows DST value is frequently more determined by the opponent than the DST itself, so grab your playoff DSTs at your earliest possible convenience before other owners start thinking about it. The most generous opponents this year have been Kansas City (at CLE, at OAK, IND in Weeks 14-16), Jacksonville (NYJ, at MIA, NE), Arizona (at SEA, DET, CHI) and the Jets (at JAC, at TEN, SD.) Philadelphia is also in there (at TB, CIN, WAS), but the Eagles have a lot of weapons that can potentially do offensive damage that the previously mentioned squads do not, so they present a larger risk. Strong weekly DSTs like Chicago and Seattle may not be available in your league, and some of the others (most specifically Oakland) have been way too inconsistent or susceptible to trust in a playoff setting, but that still leaves you with plenty of good choices for the most critical weeks.

-My top recommendation for this week would have been Daniel Thomas, so I'm glad he's already played and I don't have as much egg on my face. Although Thomas did get just as many snaps and touches as Reggie Bush, the Buffalo defense was way stingier than they have been all season, and the game was not nearly as high-scoring as I expected. Thomas remains a great emergency hold for the fantasy playoffs.
-Danny Woodhead. He's back to being "vintage" Woodhead, as a very productive receiver out of the backfield. His matchup this week at home against Indianapolis should provide a favorable opportunity to continue that trend.
-Carson Palmer. His recent strong numbers probably disqualify him as a random plug-and-play, but don't be shy at all if he's available and you need a solid QB this week. The Saints are currently in the live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword mode of scoring and giving up points at will, so any offensive opponent (particulaly a QB) is a potential fantasy superstar. The same can be said for Andrew Luck at New England this week. Outside of the clear studs, those two are at least as good as any other option this week.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Your Guess is as Good as Mine

In one of the more intriguing dilemmas of the 2012 fantasy football season, owners were (and may still be) forced to choose between Marcel Reece and Taiwan Jones as the best option in the Raiders backfield, for this week and beyond. 

The potential here for either back is almost off the charts. The guys previously in front of them, Darren McFadden and Mike Goodsen, are both out with high ankle sprains. A notoriously lingering injury for two running backs that are both notorious for letting injuries linger represents a golden opportunity for Reece and/or Jones. Add in a cupcake rush defense schedule, starting with the newly-soft Ravens and the league-worst Saints over the next two weeks, and there is virtually no compelling reason to hold off on buying both guys. Granted, even with McFadden, the Raiders had one of the worst rushing offenses in the league, but some of that has to be attributed to McFadden's seeming inability to excel in the zone blocking scheme, which has proven the superior option throughout the league. Perhaps Reece or Jones can do more with it than McFadden could.

Which of these guys is going to be more valuable is the real question, and there are compelling reasons for both. 

By most accounts, Reece is the guy. He's a big strong fullback (6'1, 255) so he should have no trouble pushing the pile and getting an extra yard or two between the tackles, and will almost certainly be the best option near the goalline. He is trusted in pass protection, and the Raiders will be throwing a lot, so he will simply be on the field a lot more than Jones. And the bonus for this under-the-radar asset: he catches passes as well as anyone else on the roster, so not only will he be in there a lot, he will always be available as a dump-off outlet for Carson Palmer. Long forgotten is that Reece was a wideout in college at Washington, and consistently ran a 40-yard dash in the 4.40s. This is a multi-tool player.

Working against Reece is his lack of experience as a ball carrier, dating back to college. For whatever reason, he has just never been given much of a look in that role, which is somewhat strange given he has a 4.9 YPC average on 48 carries as a pro. And that's not because he had a few breakaway runs - his career long is 31 yards. But only twice in his career has he carried the ball more than three times in one game, once in a blowout win vs. Denver in 2010, and once in a relief role to workhorse Michael Bush late last season against Minnesota when Darren McFadden was on the shelf. In those two games combined, he had 13 carries for 84 yards, and was held to under four yards on only four of those. Get this guy in a rhythm and the opponent may be in trouble. But the sample size is just way too small to extrapolate over a full load.

And it is unlikely he will get a full load. For some reason, Jones is the assumed starter, even though he has even fewer career carries (17) than Reece. A whole slew of factors are working against Jones: lack of experience, lack of size, a history of fumbling (mostly in college), not trusted in pass protection, etc. At 6'0, 197, Jones isn't small, but it's a smaller frame than most NFL teams want for their starting RB. And he runs upright, making himself more susceptible to injury (he's had a lot) and fumbling. That upright style apparently gives him one big advantage over Reece - breakaway speed.

Noted as the fastest player on a fast roster, Jones just needs a few feet of space and a little confidence to take it to the house on any play. Like Reece, he is capable of catching the ball, though probably not with the same sureness. If he gets 10 touches, a conservative estimate, there's a decent chance that one of those goes the distance. But there's probably just as much chance that he doesn't get on the field enough, or lacks the confidence to put his special skills to work in limited opportunities. Reece does.

For that reason, Reece is the better play either as a starter or reserve for you. He will be useful even if Jones succeeds, whereas Jones will probably be relegated to the safety of the bench if Reece succeeds. Reece will always be used in comeback mode, in clock-killing mode, and at the goalline. The only way Jones becomes the better option is if his explosiveness finds immediate life in the new opportunity, particularly against slower defenses that can't catch him around the ends. Otherwise, the safer play for the Raiders and for fantasy owners will be Reece.

That's not to say Jones isn't worth rostering. He is, and with great reason. There are deserved comparisons to Jamaal Charles and C.J. Spiller. But if you have to pick, pick Reece.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Panic vs. Paradise

An old fantasy adage has never died its proper death: Make sure you have two stud RBs, or you have no chance.

Most savvy fantasy players have moved beyond that, prioritizing the stud QBs just as much, and finding plenty of favor with strong WRs ahead of supposed featurebacks (Michael Turner, for example). But that doesn't mean you should completely disregard the former basic strategy - it just means you shouldn't rely on it to take you to The Promised Land.

Ah, The Promised Land, also known as the fantasy championship. Four months of work yields eight months of glory. Totally worth it. And yes, you do need a couple of studs to get there, but the studs could just as easily be a DST (Chicago this year) as an RB.

I'm focusing on the RBs because a good portion of this year's top stock has not lived up to expectations. The usual big injuries have hit (DeMarco Murray, Maurice Jones-Drew) but even beyond that, several of the RBs generally drafted among the top 30 players overall have somewhat disappointed the owners that drafted them.

Fortunately, almost all have remained strong RB2s, which is why I say it's no time to panic. I invested a great deal in Ryan Mathews over multiple leagues, and his season has been a relative bust thus far. But he's not worthless, and his upside is still potentially gigantic. Same thing with Chris Johnson, Darren McFadden and Jamaal Charles. Worrying is one thing, but selling low is the wrong strategy when any of these guys could post a 20 on any given week. It's tough to sweat the multiple sub-5s that each has posted this season, but I think it's still the best strategy to ride it out unless you can get a more consistent RB2 in return, and there just aren't many out there. While studs like that struggle to be the dominant forces they were reckoned to be, old-school elite RBs (McGahee, Gore) and unexpectedly strong young guys (Ridley, Morris) are instead offering their owners more consistent value. Do you trade for one of those? Difficult, but conceivable.

I'm not ready to recommend trading one of your studs for Pierre Thomas, but the upside here is off the charts provided he can stay healthy. He's proven more adept in the running game than Mark Ingram, and definitely knows how to catch-and-run, though not as perfectly as prototype Darren Sproles, who could be out through the conclusion of your fantasy playoffs. He's an every week play going forward, and a legitimate threat to match the production of pretty much any RB not named Arian Foster. This is a risk-takers dream - if you can get him for a WR2, it's an easy choice.

The NFL is continuing to trend towards a passing league, and that leaves RBs as frequently a secondary commodity. Every year, the middle class of RBs is expanding, while the upper class continues to dissolve. Take that knowledge going forward to have faith in your guys, whether they be high draft picks that have struggled, or mid-level picks that you are afraid will fall off the map. Your RBs will not win you your league anymore. You're going to have to find your ticket to paradise elsewhere.

-Isaac Redman. You probably missed him already, but if he's somehow still available, there is no better option if you're stuck this week. Mendenhall and Dwyer are both doubtful, leaving the Steelers without options in the backfield. Going forward, Redman's value is at best a desperation flex play, but he should be a fine RB2 this week.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Where Have All the Tight Ends Gone?

At the start of the season, there were two tight ends that were considered above (or at worst alongside) the WR1 tier: Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski. After that, there was at least a full handful of mid-rounders and another full handful of late-rounders, many hyped as the next Graham or Gronk. A frenzied shopping spree ensued over the first week or two of the season, completely exhausting the supply. But why?

As it turns out, Gronk and Graham are indeed among the best, but only with about 10 fantasy points per game, well below the top WRs and only about four more than the best tight ends on the wire. That is unlikely to make much of a difference in a given week, certainly not enough to justify burning an extra roster spot for. Graham and Gronk may be two of the best options again for Week 8, but if you don't have one of those two (or perhaps the ageless Tony Gonzalez who is leading all tight ends), is any of the others even close to guaranteed to having a better week than say, Joel Dreesen or Brandon Myers? Not Kyle Rudolph, who has now posted back-to-back stinkers after bursting onto the scene with five TDs between Weeks 2 and 6. Ditto Vernon Davis. Not Antonio Gates, who didn't find the end zone UNTIL Week 6 and is on pace for less than 600 yards receiving. Certainly not Jermichael Finley, who is borderline droppable at this point.

The expected tight end explosion has simply not come to fruition. By the nature of the position, there is simply a lower fantasy ceiling, and while a lot more guys may be capable of filling your bye week gaps, few if any are going to make magic for your team this year. Get used to it, and adjust. And remember my credo of not trusting the opposition rankings as much when it comes to tight end - they're far inferior predictors to the ranks against QBs, RBs and TEs. The safest play is to go with the hottest hand or the greatest number of targets, regardless of what his name is or who he is playing.

DST Trap
If you're a big underdog this week, you may consider playing the Raiders DST, facing a Kansas City squad that has been so awful they are letting Brady Quinn take over under center. That seems like an even more enticing draw, but check the facts first. Although it hasn't necessarily been the case this year, the Raiders are traditionally very generous to opposing RBs and this week they draw superstar Jamaal Charles and a now-healthy Peyton Hillis. Playing to that strength, the Chiefs are going to run, run and run some more, virtually guaranteeing a reasonable yardage and point total, and significantly reducing the turnover and sack potential. Just last week, the Raiders hosted a similarly messy Jacksonville team that lost both its starting QB and starting RB, but still failed to put up a reasonable DST number. This week's game is on the road. If you don't need to rely on your DST for the win, look elsewhere, but if you need a big number like a 15+, Kansas City offers that more than any other opponent. But the Raiders are the worst DST in the biz, so don't be surprised if you end up with a 2 (or worse!)

-Donald Brown is the hot name here, although it's unlikely he was dropped for the two weeks he missed. Vick Ballard is a reasonable grab too if you can get him in time. Both have a great stretch schedule including this week. Ballard gets the edge this week, but I think it's back to Brown going forward.
-Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller are in the same boat as Brown and Ballard with favorable schedules this week and beyond. Unfortunately, neither is the starter. In a pinch for this week, I'd play Thomas, but the more explosive Miller may have the more significant role come fantasy playoff time and the great opponents it features (home dates against Jacksonville and Buffalo in Weeks 15 and 16.)

-Joel Dreesen or Jacob Tamme. Dreesen has emerged as a regular red zone threat, giving him real weekly value (although potentially hit or a miss.) In the Broncos last game, he actually outtargeted Tamme, 7-2, but that hasn't been the norm. Tamme is the safer option, but he appears to be being used in mostly a possession-type role, having only found the end zone in Week 1. Either is as good as most other tight ends this week in what projects as a shootout against New Orleans.
-Sam Bradford. Mark Sanchez just topped 300, a rarity for him, against New England, Bradford's opponent this week. The biggest obstacle for Bradford in achieving greatness is flawed pass protection. The Patriots have tender pass rush and an exploitable secondary. Bradford easily eclipses 300 and probably at least a couple of TDs.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

One Giant Mess (but in a good way!)

Ahmad Bradsahw owners everywhere (myself included) rejoiced again over the last two weeks as Bradshaw, finally crowned the featureback with the offseason departure of Brandon Jacobs, came back from another early season injury to thoroughly dominate in back-to-back weeks against tough run defenses in Philadelphia and San Francisco. The huge upside Bradshaw possessed in his situation with the Giants was finally being realized, as he overcame the adversities of both injury and opponent.
Unfortunately, the glory has been short-lived. Bradshaw is back on the injury report with his old foot problems recurring, and there's a chance he doesn't even play this week. Even if he does, his two backups have both proven themselves more than adequate, so either could end up being more valuable in Sunday's sure high-scoring contest against the Redskins. That doesn't mean you don't play Bradshaw, it simply means you lower your expectations - more in line with what they were last year when Jacobs was doing well in his limited role and thus capping Bradshaw's upside. And like Jacobs, this year's backups have value, particularly during these bye weeks. I don't think I'd feel great about playing David Wilson quite yet, but Andre Brown is a must-play if Bradshaw is out. If Bradshaw is in, both Wilson and Brown are desperation flex plays until one emerges as the better option. There's certainly a chance you see a version of the prototype NFL RB split, with Bradshaw the primary guy between the tackles, Wilson the around-the-edge guy, and Brown the value-sapping goalline vulture. But I still like Bradshaw the most by a lot because he's the best at both pass protection and receiving, and because Tom Coughlin defers to his veterans. Wilson's hit-or-miss value lies primarily in his demonstrated ability to do a lot with few touches. And from a dynasty perspective, Wilson is rapidly rising to the ranks of Doug Martin and even potentially Trent Richardson. Bid low now while you still can.

Now that Hakeem Nicks appears to be fully recovered, it's back to business as usual for the Giants wideouts and Eli Manning. Basically, Manning will consistently flirt with 400 yards passing, and Nicks and Cruz will regularly top 100 receiving. Where does the other 200 yards go? Right now, Domenik Hixon, making him a pretty reliable WR3. But there are others lurking in the shadows that could make a legit play for that role on any given week (Ramses Barden and Reuben Randle have already done it once each this season.) In a week like this, against a suspect secondary in what should be a high-scoring contest, Hixon is about as good a bye week WR3 as you will find. He may or may not find the end zone, but 6-7 catches for 80+ yards is likely. And please don't forget about Martellus Bennett. He's not exactly fully incorporated into the offense yet, but it's simply too great a situation to ignore. Low-end TE1 the rest of the way.

The Giants are on par with the Packers, Patriots and Saints in what I like to call Fantasy Gold. (I thought the Lions would be there this year too, but they're not there yet.) Basically, that means they score a lot of points and are able to spread the fantasy wealth among several players. In fact, in that regard the Giants are probably second only to the Packers, who have progressively made Cedric Benson, Randall Cobb, James Jones and Alex Green fantasy stars this year, making the struggles of Jermichael Finley even more of an enigma. The Giants' third wideout spot has become an annual coming-out party for whoever inherits it (Steve Smith, Mario Manningham, Victor Cruz) whereas for most other teams it's a desperation play at best. Additionally, the Giants have boasted two fantasy RB2/3s in each season since 2005. That's pretty impressive. Although fantasy and reality are regularly divergent, the Giants' amazing ability to reload with new names is no doubt a big reason that they have won two Superbowls in that same span. IDP owners know that that's true on the defensive side as well, where Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora started a great legacy that has now passed seamlessly on to Jason Pierre-Paul.