The NFL preseason is nearing an end and if you are in Washington, DC it’s time for the late summer optimism which comes along with each and every preseason. However, each season, Charlie Brown lines up for the kick and Lucy pulls the ball from in front of him and he goes flying. This season may be different with the introduction of Robert Griffin III to head the offense, so maybe that ball will stay lined up just long enough for Charlie Brown to boot it through the uprights.
As I did with fantasy baseball, I will lead off the draft season with some strategy. Then, we’ll move on to “longs” and “shorts” for each position including Individual Defensive Players (IDP). Finally, we will wrap up with our penny stocks for each position – those players who don’t seem to have any value right now, but could help you in the long run.
I will also try to cover Survivor Pools (or Eliminator pools) each week as they have gained in popularity over the last few seasons.
The focus of our football content will be on head to head (H2H) leagues as the vast majority of football leagues use that format. If you participate in another type of league and want to see information for your setup just leave a comment or send me a note on Twitter.
If you feel you don’t need a refresher on strategy or think you already know all there is to know about fantasy football draft strategy, feel free to skip down to the player evaluations.
Preseason statistics are worthless. Meaningless. You can glean nothing from them. You are better served not paying attention to any of the numbers generated in the preseason. That’s not to say that the preseason is useless as you can garner some important information from these exhibitions.
In the preseason, you are looking for a couple of things when targeting players.
- Playing time – Specifically, you want to see who is playing with the first team offense or defense and not players who are racking up numbers against third string players who likely won’t make a roster. In the preseason, repetitions (or plays) are more important than the numbers generated
- Health (or lack thereof) – You want your players to be healthy if they are coming back from offseason surgery or other injury. And, if the player has been injured in the preseason, you want to see he is being rested and is given sufficient rest to recover. If the player is trying to make the team, he may push himself beyond his limits and could be a candidate for re-injury.
In general, if a player holds out for a significant portion of training camp, I will cross him off my list. This was a much bigger issue prior to the new CBA as rookies would hold out for lengthy periods. Now, a rookie holdout is rare. My concern over holdouts and missing training camp is that the players are not getting hit. They aren’t getting back into the rhythm of tackling, getting up, recovering, etc. They can work out all they want, but this isn’t baseball where a player can perform all of the activities a baseball player needs to in order to be ready to step on to a field and play.
This year, there are two players who I’m not drafting in any league because they’ve held out for so long. Mike Wallace of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars won’t be on any of my rosters. Here is a quick look at yardage totals for recent hold out RBs. Certainly not definitive, but Jones-Drew worries me due to his size. He’s been a workhorse (299 or more carries each of the last three seasons) and at 27 is starting to hit the downward part of the RB curve in the NFL.
Two quarterback leagues or quarterback-flex leagues
The strategy for two quarterback leagues (or those leagues where you can flex a second QB) changes a bit (especially in 12 and 14 team leagues). If your league uses, draft two quarterbacks as early as you can – preferably in the first two or three rounds. The QBs will score significantly more than any RB or WR in the league. In flex QB leagues, you are now comparing QB scoring to that of RB, WR or TE and the QBs will almost always outscore other positions unless your scoring system is much different than normal.
Defenses and Kickers
If you don’t have to have a full roster when your draft is done, don’t draft a kicker. Don’t do it. There is no need to. No one has yet figured out how to handicap kickers and, in general, the top scoring kicker won’t score a significant amount more than the tenth or twelfth rated kicker. I’d rather take a flier on a high upside WR or RB than sit with a kicker on my roster up until the season starts.
As for defenses, wait on those as well (though I do suggest drafting one). However, do not go after the top defenses from last year. It is rare that defenses can continue to perform at a high level year after year after year. For most teams, I suggest a matchup play for each week. To that end, if you have a deep enough bench, it makes sense to draft two defenses so that you have swap one to the waiver wire when necessary. Defenses are not matchup proof (that is, they can be quite volatile week to week) so that Ravens defense that scored you 20 points last week, might end up with negative three this week.
Individual Defensive Players (IDPs)
The use of IDPs has increased over the last few years. It adds an additional challenge for fantasy players. Generally, leagues that use IDP have only one per position. In those leagues, it is generally best to leave IDPs until the end of the draft (or as $1 players in an auction) as there will be more than enough players to replace an injured or worthless player.
In deeper leagues (perhaps three players per position or leagues which field an entire defensive squad of 11 players), the strategy changes a bit. I’ve recently come around to the idea of taking defensive linemen early in the draft. The spread between the first and tenth best defensive linemen is generally bigger than the gap for DBs or LBs. Even with that difference, I will still hold off to the middle rounds (get the starters for QB, RB, WR and potentially a backup or two before going for defense) in deeper leagues.
The Long and Short of It
Everyone wants to know the big sleepers or busts – the players to avoid and those to reach to draft and the preseason waiver wire period. To that end, we will look at those players to long (invest in) and those to short (sell or avoid). The players below will be a mix of early, middle and late round choices. I will look for players who are generally drafted to start in standard leagues (based on ADP at Mock Draft Central) and move them up or down.
Long: Joe Flacco is being drafted as the number 18 quarterback overall in standard leagues. There is no doubt that he will finish in the top eight in fantasy scoring for quarterbacks. There are two reasons, one of which I will share here and the other will be seen further down this list. The main reason is the move to a no-huddle based offense by the Baltimore Ravens. The move shows confidence in Flacco’s ability to read and react and lead a game. Moreover, successful no-huddle offenses (see Patriots, New England) can rack up fantasy points in bunches at a variety of positions. Draft Flacco after the top three tiers of QBs go off the board and enjoy better production than many of those QBs.
Short: Michael Vick of the Philadelphia Eagles is being drafted as the sixth overall QB in standard leagues. I wouldn’t take Vick in the top ten for a couple of reasons. First, he’s going to miss games due to injury. Vick is who has always been – a very talented NFL QB who plays with great abandon. Unfortunately, his body is not one that can handle those hits. He’s already been hurt twice in the preseason.
Second, since he is hurt so often, you will need to either have a solid backup (perhaps wasting a pick on another QB) or be quick on the waiver wire to pick up his backup. Moreover, you may need to spend an inordinate amount of team management time just waiting to see if Vick will be active week to week. Finally, you risk Vick getting hurt early in a game and leaving you with zero points for the week.
You will notice this as a theme. Injuries happen in football more often than in almost any other sport. I’d like to stay away from players I’m relatively sure will be hurt to attempt to mitigate those risks.
Long: Darren McFadden’s biggest problem has been health not talent. It’s arguable that if we knew he would be healthy for all 16 games he’d be the top running back off the board. I will say that I would take McFadden over any RB on the board except for Ray Rice and I expect McFadden to be a top three RB this year. (And as an aside, Taiwan Jones is his handcuff and not Mike Goodson or Marcel Reese).
Short: Michael Turner is being drafted as the 13th overall running back off the board. He’s going to slow down sometime and as a 30 year old RB with three 300+ carry seasons in the last four years, I believe this is the year. He’s not looked great in the preseason and even though he averaged for 4.5 yards per carry last season, he slowed significantly in the last six games. His game against Tampa Bay in Week 16 can be seen as an anomaly. The Atlanta Falcons are continuing to move towards a pass heavier offense. I don’t think he’s a worthy top 20 RB this year.
Long: Torrey Smith of the Baltimore Ravens has the talent to be a top 10 WR in fantasy. With the change in offense, we could see a superior season for Smith. The University of Maryland product only scratched the surface of his talent last year. He’s being taken as the number 23 WR off the board, but I believe he will be a top 10 WR this year and have a similar season to Mike Wallace’s last year (72 catches 1193 yards and 8 TDs). In fact, I think we should see double digit touchdowns and 80+ catches.
Short: Greg Jennings recent concussion puts doubt into my head regarding his ability to stay healthy for the Green Bay Packers this season. I also believe there will be fewer balls to go around as Cedric Benson will take some repetitions away and the Packers have Randall Cobb and Donald Driver beyond Jordy Nelson to keep content. I see Jennings (being drafted in the top five) ending up outside the top 12 WRs for the season.
Long: As you will see below, I’m long just about any other TE, but I will give you two here to focus on. Kyle Rudolph of the Minnesota Vikings has all of the physical tools to perform at a high level in the NFL. Christian Ponder seems to have latched on to him during the preseason. I expect big things from Rudolph and could see 750 yards on 65 catches with seven TDs this season.
Brent Celek had only 13 catches through his first six games of 2011. He picked up 49 over the final 10 games with almost 700 yards and 4 TDs. Perhaps more importantly, Michael Vick seemed to be more comfortable with him as the season progressed. I could see 2012 being just a tick below his 2009 where Celek caught 76 balls for 971 yards and eight TDs.
Short: Anyone not named Jimmy Graham. I would still draft Graham as the number one overall TE this year and I see a significant gap between him and the rest of the field. Graham is the only TE option in New Orleans as opposed to the duo of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski in New England. Moreover, the offensive line issues in New England make Hernandez and Gronkowski (especiallyas Gronk is usually the in-line TE and thus called on to block more if necessary) risky early round picks I would rather let someone else take.
Finally, the NFL (as much of life in general) is all about copying the latest, greatest thing. The TE came into focus last year and this year you will see more and more offenses focus on the TE and look to exploit the talents of their existing TEs (the Washington Redskins even converted Niles Paul from WR to TE in the offseason to attempt to take advantage of his athleticism).
No more is the TE a sixth offensive lineman; a hulking big-boy player with limited speed and athleticism. No, he is a power forward with strength and skill and grace. There will be more than enough TE points to go around this year, so unless you get Graham early, wait the TE game out.
Long: Oddly, you want a kicker on a good, but not a great offense. You’d like to find a kicker on a team that is great between the 20s, but struggles in the red zone to score touchdowns. You want field goals, not extra points. You’d certainly prefer a kicker in a dome versus one whose home is outdoors. There aren’t hard and fast rules, but a general guide. Is there kicker that jumps out at me? Not really.
However, if you want to go for a kicker who likely won’t be drafted, but could put up top 10 fantasy points I would look at Billy Cundiff. He was cut by the Baltimore Ravens and was picked up by their Beltway rivals the Washington Redskins. The Redskins have a rookie QB and a bit of a mess in the backfield. I have a hunch that they will be able to move the ball, but could struggle in the red zone. Moreover, Cundiff’s issues as a kicker surfaced in a playoff game last year and as long he has recovered mentally from the miss, he should be a solid choice.
Short: Again, don’t draft a kicker before the last round unless you have roster restrictions in a keeper league which allows you to sneak a long term QB, RB or WR play into that last round. As for who to short of the kickers? Short the leading kicker from last year – David Akers. He’ll go first and he won’t repeat his performance from last year.
Long: The Seattle Seahawks have the makings of one of the finest defenses in the league and it’s likely going unnoticed because it’s happening 3000 miles away from ESPN and the NFL headquarters. I see them as a top ten defense for the year as they have a favorable schedule (the Rams and Cardinals twice, the Dolphins and Jets) and a tough home stadium to visit. They are probably a top 10 defense for the season and have a shot to be in the top five when the year is done.
Short: As I alluded to earlier, I think Joe Flacco has the chance to be a special fantasy QB this year. The second reason beyond the change in offensive schemes is that I believe Ravens defense will be average at best this year. The core of the defense (Ed Reed and Ray Lewis for example) is another year older. Moreover, if the Ravens do move to a no-huddle offense that will likely mean more plays on defense for the Ravens. As a result, I believe the Ravens defense is not a top 10 defense for the year in fantasy) and are only a mix and match team.
Long: Chris Long has fallen down draft boards and I cannot understand why. The St. Louis Rams defense has improved this season with addition of Michael Brockers. Now, Brockers will miss a couple of early season games with an injury, so his full impact won’t be felt until Week 3 and as a result we may not see Long get off to a great start. However, Long had 13 sacks last year and has increased his sack total each of the first four seasons in the NFL. I like him as a top five defensive lineman for the season.
Short: Cliff Avril missed the first ten days of training camp waiting for a contract which never came. He signed his tender and made his way to camp. I think the missed camp time makes Avril an injury risk and I think he finishes outside of the top 20 of DLs.
Long: Sean Lee has shown a nose for the football over his first three years with the Dallas Cowboys. And the stories coming out of Dallas this preseason talk about how Lee is taking a leadership role for the Cowboys this year. Lee is primed for a breakout year and should end up as a top eight LB this season.
Short: London Fletcher has been a tackling machine for the Washington Redskins for years. However, he is 37 years old so the end of his NFL career should be near. His age isn’t the only concern. The Redskins also have a young inside linebacker named Perry Riley who will likely cut into his production as well. I see Fletcher ending up outside the top 20 in LB production.
Long: George Wilson should have a lot of opportunities this year to make plays. He’s being drafted around the seventh or eighth DB. However, I see an improved Bills defensive line giving him more chances to make plays and as a result see him as a top four DB for the season.
Short: Troy Polamalu is a fantastic player to watch play the game. He plays with an abandon that is pleasant to the eye. However, it is not pleasant to the body. Polamalu is 31 years old and plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers a favorite of many in fantasy leagues. Polamalu is just around the top 10 in draft position and will likely end up outside of the top 20 as I do not see him playing a full complement of 16 games.
It might be better to call these pink sheets, but I believe these players have a modicum of an iota of a chance to provide some value this year and no one is drafting these players. These players are all on the final 53-man roster, but there aren’t guaranteed any regular playing time right now.
Most of the QBs are known quantities to fantasy players so I don’t think there are any “penny stocks” here. I will highlight Russell Wilson for the Seattle Seahawks. His athleticism is off the charts and it sounds like Pete Carroll will give him time to develop. He has a chance to be a dual threat QB with enough speed to run when necessary and pick up a few rushing TDs along the way.
As for backups, the easy choice is Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles based on his solid preseason and ichael Vick’s injury history. Foles was a 2012 draft pick of the Eagles and it seems that everyone was surprised how quickly he progressed in the preseason. I think he’ll see more than a couple of starts this season and I could see Foles supplanting Vick at some point in the season.
Travaris Cadet (New Orleans Saints) – The New Orleans Saints running back situation is very similar to the Redskins one. However, there is one back who has clear cut value (especially in PPR leagues) and that is Darren Sproles. Cadet showed this preseason that he can do a fine Sproles impersonation – 30 catches for a league leading 246 yards over five games. The stats are meaningless except for they show how the Saints envision using Cadet. Should Sproles get hurt (he missed all of 2006 with a broken ankle, but has been injury-free otherwise) Cadet would step into that role and could light up fantasy leagues.
Phillip Tanner (Dallas Cowboys) – Tanner is currently listed as the third string tailback for the Dallas Cowboys. However, I think if something should happen to DeMarco Murray, Tanner would be elevated to the number one spot. The Cowboys know that Felix Jones cannot hold up to the rigors of being a full time tailback in the NFL.
Cedric Benson (Green Bay Packers) – Benson is not quite as deep a pick as the other two, but I like Benson a lot. The Packers are a great offense, but they haven’t had a solid RB in a few years. Benson is not flashy, but he is reliable. I can see him picking up six touchdowns to go with a 1000 yard season if he stays healthy all season.
Kevin Broyles (Detroit Lions) – Broyles was a 2012 draft pick of the Lions and he fell to the second round because he missed his senior season with a torn ACL. He is a superior route runner and if healthy would be a perfect complement to Calvin Johnson’s big play ability in Detroit. He finished his college career as the all-time receptions leader in Division I history (or the FBS as they call it now).
Greg Salas (New England Patriots) – This is a deep pick for PPR leagues. Salas was just dealt to the New England Patriots for a future 2015 draft pick. He is buried on the depth chart now, but could move up quickly as he knows the Patriots offense from his time with the Rams last year. He showed a bit of promise in the six games he played in last year (including eight and seven reception games). He was injured in week six and missed the remainder of the season.
Leonard Hankerson (Washington Redskins) – Someone has to fill the shoes of Jabar Gaffney in the Redskins offense. I foresee Hankerson being that player. Gaffney was a useful bye week fill-in for PPR players and had some value beyond that in some leagues. Gaffney averaged nearly six catches and 78 yards over his last six games with three TDs scored (he missed Week 12). Hankerson showed what he could do last year, but was felled by a hip injury. He’s got a lot to prove this year and I think he could be a serviceable player if he can take over the Gaffney role from 2011.
Garrett Graham (Houston Texans) – Graham is currently second on the depth chart behind Owen Daniels. Daniels has a long history of injuries and as a result Graham has a chance to produce as a TE1 should Daniels succumb to injury. The backup TE for the last few years for the Texans was Joel Dreessen who averaged five TDS and just over 30 catches the last two years so Graham’s floor is set there. His ceiling is possibly 50 catches with seven or eight TDs for a full season.
I’ve probably written enough about kickers. Well, okay, one more. Rookie Blair Walsh was a draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings so I imagine he’ll get a long leash. Plus, he’ll be kicking in a dome for at least half of his games. I could see him being a top 15 kicker.
It’s tough to pick a deep sleeper out of a pool of just 30. However, I’d go with the Buffalo Bills as the pick here for a couple of reasons. First, their first week matchup is great as they play Mark Sanchez and the New York Jets so you should get a good view of what they can do. Second, I think the signing of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson will provide them a pass rush they have lacked for many seasons and open up the rest of the defense to succeed. They have a great playmaker in George Wilson at safety. I think they are a solid sleeper for the season.
For IDPs, the gems are often found in the rookie class. To find sleepers, it’s often not much more difficult than taking the first three rounds of the prior year’s draft and looking for the defensive players. Then, armed with those names, you can track the reports from training camp and preseason games to gather information.
Derek Wolfe of the Denver Broncos was drafted with the 36th pick of the 2012 draft. He was a defensive tackle in college and was destined for that role in the NFL until fellow DL Jason Hunter tore his triceps in training camp. Now, it looks like he will be a three down lineman playing defensive end and defensive tackle. He’s got a chance to have solid tackle totals for a DL and be able to pick up eight to ten sacks.
D.J. Smith is moving into the starting lineup at inside linebacker for the Green Bay Packers with the injury to Desmond Bishop. Bishop was an IDP monster last year and as I have noted earlier, opportunity is even more important than talent level when gauging the skills of IDPs. Bob McGinn says it all in this tweet – Smith is a three-down player exactly what you want from a LB. He’ll have high tackle numbers and will also play on third downs with a chance for interceptions on those passing downs. He had a little audition near the end of last season averaging nine total tackles in the three games he started along with an interception.
Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers has a chance to be a special player in the NFL along the lines of Brian Urlacher. However, he is blocked currently from taking the MLB spot for the Panthers. I do not think this will last long and Kuechly should end up as a top 10 LB this season.
T.J. Ward of the Cleveland Browns struggled with a foot injury for much of the season and ultimately landed on IR after playing only 8 games. However, in 2010 he had 105 total tackles and two interceptions. The Browns should be terrible again this year meaning that their defense should be on the field a great deal which should lead for a lot of tackle opportunities for T.J. Ward. He’s got the pedigree as he was drafted at number 38 in the 2010 draft.
Mark Barron was the seventh overall pick in this season’s draft by the Tampa Buccaneers. The Bucs had a black hole at safety last year. Barron will likely be on the field for the majority of defensive plays. The Bucs have improved a bit on offense, but not enough to be a great team so Barron should get a ton of opportunities.
Most survivor pools work the same way. Each week, you must pick one team to win outright. Once you’ve chosen a team, you can’t choose that team again for the remainder of the season. Sounds pretty simple, right? Actually, it’s not. I’ve been in pools that have gone beyond the regular season and into the playoffs. I’ve seen pools end in four weeks because that big favorite got crushed at home by a dog.
For a primer, I’d suggest checking out Chris Liss from Rotowire on this video. It’s a good starting point and if you are in a larger pool, his ideas each week are great. He uses math so some people are intimidated. Rotowire is a subscription site, but you can get a free 10-day trial in myriad ways to check the full site out.
As for my rules when it comes to Survivor pools, I have a few I follow:
- Survive and advance – Do not worry about next week when choosing this week’s team. The NFL has so many injuries from week to week that it is impossible to “save” a team for a following week. If Tom Brady goes out and gets hurt in Week 1, are the Patriots that great of a team moving forward? Probably not. So, use a team when you can.
- Home teams – If all else is equal, take the home team. Indeed, look at the schedule and focus on the home teams initially to look for your best play.
- Vegas is usually correct – There is a reason bookmakers make money. They know how to set lines to get action which is advantageous to them. The simplest way to start to pick a winner is to take the largest home favorite each week. For the first couple of weeks, this can be a simple way to move past the land mines that are out there before trends start to emerge.
Week 1 selections
Week 1 is the toughest of all weeks. We are coming off of preseason where the information is poor. In general, we have an idea of who the best and worst teams are, but we have no on-field evidence to prove it. So, for Week 1, I go with the biggest favorites entering the week with preference to big home favorites. My three choices for Week 1 are:
- Houston Texans – The Texans welcome the woeful (on paper) Miami Dolphins for week one. The Dolphins have a huge talent deficit and I do not believe they have an offense that can overcome the Texans swarming defense. It is a tough spot for Ryan Tannehill to debut. I give the Texans a 75% chance to win.
- Detroit Lions – The Lions still don’t seem to have a running game which always makes the Lions a dicey selection for survivor pools. They are prone to comebacks as they cannot salt away early big leads. That said their opponent, the St. Louis Rams were awful last year. Their defense is improved, but I don’t think they have enough offensive fire power to keep up with the Lions. I give the Lions a 70% chance of winning.
- Chicago Bears – The Bears are a big favorite in Andrew Luck’s NFL debut for the Indianapolis Colts. And Luck is what gives me pause over putting the Bears at the top spot. He looks to be someone who could lead a team to victory on an given Sunday. I give the Bears a 65% chance of winning.
If you get some sort of bonus for choosing a road team, I might take a look at the Atlanta Falcons in Kansas City. Kansas City is tough place to play and the Falcons are a poorer team away from the dome. However, the Chiefs look like they will be banged up on defense and could be susceptible to the high powered attack of the Falcons. I give the Falcons a 60% chance of winning.
I would also stay away from the New Orleans Saints as a big favorite against the Washington Redskins. I’d like to see one week of the Saints without Sean Payton on the sidelines before I put my neck on the line for them.