Cam Newton after scoring a touchdown

Takeaways from the 2011 Fantasy Football Season

Cam Newton after scoring a touchdownI pity the fool that doesn’t learn from his past mistakes, and 2011 broke a few of the fantasy football molds.

No Peyton Manning. The Texans made the playoffs. Rex Grossman is good? Okay…for a few weeks, he was good. And let’s not forget Reggie Bush was a feature back, and Cam Newton was a viable QB1 in his rookie season.

So what are we to make of this?

1. Rookies CAN dominate.

We can no longer claim that a rookie skill player won’t be a factor in their first season. Whether quarterback, wide receiver, running back or tight end, we’ve now seen rookies not only play well but absolutely dominate.

Cam Newton, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and DeMarco Murray will convince fantasy managers to invest in rookies like Trent Richardson and Robert Griffin III this season, and we can’t say they’re foolish for doing so.

2. The Gronk Rule: Tight ends MIGHT not be deep anymore.

The tight end position was considered deep in recent years, and many experts advised you to ignore Antonio Gates and wait on the TE position in your fantasy football draft. Then Gronkowski happened. He was an absolutely unstoppable force for most NFL tacklers and set records at the tight end position across the board.

With Gronk and Jimmy Graham separating themselves from the rest of the tight end pack so significantly last season, it forces us to consider drafting one of those two in the early rounds to get a jump on the other team in our league out of the tight end spot. If you do, I’ve already covered which tight end I favor.

Some of you may draft a tight end and a quarterback this year before you even have a running back on the roster. That’s just how much the tight end values changed in 2011.

In fact, Gronk’s out of this world stats (as impossible to repeat as they may be) may impact NFL offenses just as the Wildcat did just a few years ago. We may see the mythical “Wes Welker-like receiver” NFL offenses (other than the Pats) have sought give way to the search for a “Gronk” as part of a tight end tandem.

3. To the Air.

Quarterbacks matter more than ever in the NFL today, and we saw in 2011 that fantasy teams built around an elite passer like Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees could hang with any team in the league no matter who they were forced to start at running back.

Many fantasy footballers have experimented with drafting a quarterback in the first round with mixed results, but 2011 was the year that strategy paid off for a large portion of the fantasy community.

This year, you’ll have plenty of positions to consider in the first round, not just running back. But outside of the top three picks, you should definitely consider getting an elite passer.

I doubt we’ll see many teams make it to the fantasy football playoffs in 2012 without an elite fantasy quarterback on their roster.

4. Always Be Closing.

Despite a hot start, Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson cooled off a bit at the end of the season. That’s not necessarily to say anything about their play in 2011 as much as it is to remind us all how important it is to constantly be looking for trade opportunities to help our team.

This year, I’m going to be a little more aggressive about trading players, regardless of status, when a deal comes together. And if the value is there, I may look to unload players who have particularly difficult late season schedules before I am forced to ride out their dry spell.

4. Darren McFadden is worth the risk

I’ve been too concerned about injury to consider Run DMC in drafts prior to 2011, but his performance up until his injury last season has changed my mind. The same might go for Ryan Mathews, even though he’s already hurt again.

As long as you fortify your roster with strong backups at running back, it’s worth considering taking the plunge on these injury risk studs.

5. Handcuffs are a worthy investment.

On that same note, I’ve often avoided guys who were stuck behind studs because I didn’t think it was very likely they’d see the field. I’ve always preferred players that were more likely to get a shot to shine or had a better chance of starting for me multiple weeks throughout the season.

Not so much anymore.

With the injuries last season, owners of Felix Jones, Michael Bush, and C.J. Spiller really reaped the rewards of holding onto  a handcuff all season long. When it comes to running backs, as long as the offensive line is solid, it’s worth investing in a handcuff here and there, whether you own the starter or not, in case we see injuries like we did in 2011.

6. Inconsistency kills.

It’s not necessarily a new lesson, but the Jacksons (Vincent and DeSean) had their ups and downs in 2011. Both were drafted as top receivers, but on any given Sunday, they were as likely to score 30 as they were to score 3 fantasy points.

It’s hard to win a league when you can’t put a solid week together. So even though VJax won me more than one game last season with his phenomenal performances, I’m looking at consistency in 2012 — at the players that give me a chance to win each and every week.

There is a lot of depth at the wide receiver position this year, but don’t fall in love with 2011 total points without considering what they really did each week of last year.

If you didn’t make the fantasy football playoffs, this one’s for you

You’re probably hurtin’ right now. You’re probably thinking nothing could cheer you up. But it’s important to remember that we all fall down.

It’s the picking yourself back up that matters.

Sometimes, it just feels like you just can’t get over that hump, like you can’t break that bubble of Chris Johnson’s complete and utter failure of a season weighing you down, trapping you inside until you have no other option but to keep him. (I’m not bitter.) Do you know what that’s like?

Credit: Videogum via Reddit

Unfortunately, life fantasy football is like that. You get trapped in balloons, and not even the herky-jerky that almost causes you to lose your pants can free you from it.

Maybe a parade of Scarlett Johansson nudes would help?

Oh, I know. That was wrong to do. That was a dramatization…and a cartoon one at that. How fake of me, but at least I got a laugh out of it.

You know what? I can do better. This would put a smile on any face.

If that doesn’t cheer you up, I don’t know what will. Maybe this button?

The important thing to remember is that there’s always next year. Chicks dig scars. Dudes respect them. This is a game of inches. And at the end of the day, it’s how you played the game…

Badly, in your case, but nevertheless, you played.

So don’t take this too hard. Hold  your head high, and start planning your draft strategy for next year. The extra time and effort couldn’t hurt.

How to Tier Your Player Rankings for a Fantasy Football Draft Day Cheatsheet

Tiering your cheatsheet is, in my opinion, the most critical of all draft day preparations you can make before your fantasy football season.

Sure, you can read injury reports all day long. That helps. No one wants to draft a guy on IR. But the real edge to draft a better team than the other obsessive football fans in the room is your ability to identify — quickly and quietly — the most valuable pick left on the board.

In the heat of the moment, we often lose sight of where players have been missed. You’re looking ahead to decide when you can draft a quarterback…or maybe you’re focused on following your RB-RB-RB strategy for the first three rounds. That’ll keep you from noticing a WR1-level fantasy wide receiver falling into the third round, ripe for your picking.

Worst of all, if you don’t have a consolidated rankings sheet, you might miss out on a top-tier wide receiver simply because your wide receiver rankings were underneath your quarterback and running back rankings when it was your pick.

Regardless of the reason, you can only blame yourself for not tiering your cheatsheet if you miss out on draft day bargains.

It’s been a few years since I visited the topic, and in prepping for 2011, I thought it’d be worthwhile to revisit the best way to tier your player rankings  for your fantasy football draft.

Step 1, Start with rankings you like.

I don’t care if you prefer the rankings or projections from ESPN, NFL.com, Fleaflicker, or Yahoo!. What matters is that you’re comfortable with the rankings you choose.

I often prefer to start with aggregate or consensus fantasy football draft rankings from sites like FantasyPros or Fantasy Football Nerd. These give you a good starting point since the outliers are reigned in a bit when averaged together.

But if you prefer to go with the player rankings or projections of just one man and one man only…that’s your call. More power to you. Go you — and him, whoever that analyst or blogger may be.

One note: It will be a huge help if you choose a set of rankings or projections that includes an average points per week or total points for each player, either based on last year’s fantasy football scoring, several years of scoring, or projected points for the current season. If you don’t, you’ll have to do a little more legwork in Step 2.

Step 2, Add an average point per game projection or total points projection to each player in your rankings.

Foreshadowing. See, if you read my note on Step 1, you already know what you’ll need to do for this step.

If you don’t have any kind of average projected points per week or total points projection listed for each player on your current cheatsheet, it’s time to go get that info. You can pull these total or per week averages from sites like FF Today, CBSSports, or ESPN.

If they don’t provide a per game average, you don’t have to drill down to it. But you can just divide the total projected points for the 2011 season by 16. There are, after all, 16 games in an NFL season.

Step 3, Separate your rankings by position, if they aren’t already separated.

Pulling out just the running backs and just the quarterbacks into one ranking column will help you when you start locking in your tiers.

Step 4,  Adjust your rankings to your liking.

Now that you have your list, it’s time to make it your own.

With a points total or average attached to each player, start modifying those points as you see fit. Here’s where your research comes into play.

Upgrade the players who will excel, and downgrade the players that won’t meet expectations.

If your points total or average is based on a player’s performance in previous seasons and especially if it’s based off just the last season, be sure to update it based upon offseason moves and team system adjustments. If you like Matt Hasselbeck more as a Titan than a Seahawk, for example, make sure you adjust his point total accordingly.

Furthermore, if you’re player points are based off projections for the current season, feel free to bump them higher or lower depending on how you feel about players. Just be realistic. Micheal Vick will NOT score 500 points in a single season.

Look at a player’s schedule for the upcoming season, estimate the number of points they could realistically score, total those estimations up, and divide by 16 to get your average. You, of course, don’t have to adjust this for every player, but feel free to do so for the ones you feel are under  or over-projected.

Once you have your average points per game or total points has been adjusted for each player, sort by your projections and then adjust your rankings some more based on rankings alone.

You don’t have to be as rigid with the stat adjustments here. Spot a player a point or so to their per game average or 4-5 total points for a full season projection when you feel like they should move up a couple of spots in the rankings.

But like I explained when talking about adjusting projections, be realistic. Crazy cheatsheets make for a crazy draft.

Step 5, Tier it up!

It’s time to start assigning players to tiers. Look at your average points per game projections and start dividing whenever there’s a significant difference.

For example, you’ll probably section off all the quarterbacks averaging more than 17 points per game in your projections into your first tier. Then you might make those quarterbacks scoring between 17 and 15 points per game your second tier.

Just look for the significant breaks and run down your list. You want to have a few tiers of top players at each position, but leave everyone averaging 5 points or less in the final tier.

Step 6, Align your tiers

So you’ve got your players segmented by position, but how do you know when to take a quarterback in your second quarterback tier over a receiver in your top, or first, wide receiver tier?

Look at the tiers you’ve created and make the tier scoring universal across all positions. So, all of your players projected for 17 points per game or more would make up your top tier.

It’s okay to have one or no players from a particular position in a tier. For example, you might slot Aaron Rodgers as the only player in your top tier if you project him higher than anyone else at more than 19 points per game. That’s fine. Just make the tiers align as best you can.

(Bonus) Step 7, Tag your sleepers

You’re more of less done creating your cheatsheet at this point, but I do like to throw in this tip just for the more savvy drafters out there. Once you’ve got your tiered cheatsheet created, I usually go back and mark the players I feel are “sleepers” or undervalued at their current position.

I know we adjusted our projections and rankings in the previous steps to our liking, but if I feel one player in the third or fourth tier has the potential to be a top-tier player if circumstances break his way — Jonathan Stewart, for example, or Ben Tate — I’ll be sure to mark him as the one I want to look to draft in that tier.

If I like a guy more than a lot of experts, but I can’t reasonably increase his projected points enough to make him a second tier player, I’ll mark him as a priority for the third tier.

As long as you don’t go homer-happy, you can also take a second to tag your favorite players in each tier at this point since part of the fun of fantasy football is drafting the guys you REALLY wanted to draft.

Just make sure you use a different mark for favorite players than your sleepers. You’ll need to know the difference quickly when you’re making your picks.

Time to draft

When you’re finished creating this tiered cheatsheet, you’ll be able to see, in one quick glance, that four players projected to score 15 points per game or better are still available as your pick approaches in the middle of the third round.

And you’ll be able to use your tiers to determine position scarcity. For example, when it’s your pick and you see one second tier wide receiver and six second tier running backs remaining on your cheatsheet, you will be able to jump on that last second tier wide receiver knowing that one of the second tier running backs will make his way back to you.

Rather than panic during a run on tight ends and start looking only at your rankings for that position, you’ll continue to collect value and steal picks at higher tiers for other positions.

The value picks are the entire reason you tier your player rankings, and the tiers work wonders. Just give it a try.

Best Player Available Strategy

As far as your draft strategy goes, tiers work best when you go into your draft targeting the best player available in each round.

Let your need at QB, RB, or WR steer you when there are several players available at the same tier, but when there’s only one or two top-tier running backs left on the board, it’s time to draft them. Don’t let someone else capitalize on those value picks that fall to you.

Of course, you don’t want to draft five quarterbacks just because no one else was jumping on the second tier signal callers, but I might consider taking four receivers in my first six picks if they were the only players remaining in my first or second tier. Assuming your rankings system and projections are solid, you’ll be able to make deals to improve your running back or quarterback struggles once the season begins.

If you want to get tricky, you can also try tiers with the draft strategy I have used since 2009, my “cutting out the middle men from best player available” strategy.

As a final note, I always feel like I don’t have to say this, but just in case there are any first-timers out there, you should always know the scoring and roster rules of your league!

Some leagues restrict the number of quarterbacks you can keep on your roster or the number of running backs you can draft. You’ll need to know this to take full advantage of the best player available strategy without botching your draft.

When you’re ranking players and preparing your cheatsheet, keep in mind your league’s scoring rules and the value placed on each position.

So that’s how you tier your fantasy football draft cheatsheets. Any questions?

Leave ‘em in the comments, and if you’re lucky, someone amazingly intelligent will answer you. Otherwise, you’ll just get me.

5 Pieces to Winning Your Fantasy Football League

You’ll read a lot of fantasy football draft tips this time of year preaching that there is only one way to win, one quarterback worth grabbing in the first round, or one player that could change the outcome of your championship game. While there may, in fact, be one quarterback this season who could win it all for you, that’s not the only way to win.

Your fantasy football draft strategy is only the beginning, and it’s quite possible that the one player who contributes the most to your championship might not even be on your roster the day after you draft.

In this time of absolutes and must-haves pre- and mid-fantasy football draft, consider this a quick reminder that there’s more to it than the players you draft. It’s how you play the game.

Here are five ways to win that you must master to take home a championship this season. It’ll be hard to win it all unless you manage to top your league in more than one.

1. Draft the best team

Listing the draft as just one out of five ways to win your league might seem a bit ridiculous. But the draft is only the beginning, and even if you have a horrible team when you look up at that draft board, your season is not over.

The perfect roster doesn’t guarantee you’ll win, and there’s no way to predict injuries.

I’ve looked at draft boards after every draft I’ve ever completed, and the team that “wins” the draft rarely gets the championship trophy.

2. Win the waiver wire

Early in the season, there’s a ton of talent on the waiver wire. Some of the best players will go undrafted in most fantasy leagues, and they’ll be saviors for those who snag them up and start them the rest of the way. How many people won a league last season with Peyton Hillis or Michael Vick?

If you don’t draft a perfect roster, all is not lost. Just make sure you pay attention each week, and keep your eye on improvement.

Whether you’re in a league that uses a waiver wire or not, it’s also not a bad idea to put some thought into your free agent system  so that you don’t reward the lazy or punish the strong. Not too severely, at least.

Every good league has a solid system in place to award free agents.

3. Make a great trade

Some fantasy players never trade. They never trust a deal, even if it improves the quality of players they put in their starting roster each week. The truth is that almost every trade involves someone losing at least temporarily. You’re taking a chance that what you’re given ends up being more valuable than what you gave up.

If a trade can make the team you start each week better, it’s often worth the risk, even if you have to overpay. That upgrade at receiver could be the difference between a win or loss in the playoffs.

Don’t be afraid to let go of your most expensive assets. Your top quarterback or stud running back might seem like they’re carrying your team, but if you can cash them in for a more balanced roster, do it. Just make sure you get the return you deserve.

4. Play your matchups perfectly

No owner gets 100 percent efficiency out of their rosters. It’s just impossible to know when your players will have their best performances. But you can try.

There are always more factors at play (injuries, coach doghouses, trades, breakout performances) than we can predict, but if you follow the news on every player on your roster, you can maximize what you get out of them to take advantage of their best games and avoid their worst.

5. Get lucky

Finally, yes, you can just get lucky. Maybe you have the easiest schedule of all your leaguemates and a clear road to the championship game. Maybe the one guy you held onto all season comes back from an injury and destroys other teams during the playoffs.

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and fantasy football is one playing field that can always be leveled with a little good luck.

So why did I waste a post on this? I have to agree that it’s pretty basic. But why give you such a simple reminder (or primer) on how to play the game?

For one, a lot of people never understand all that goes into playing fantasy football each season, or they lose sight of options when their team starts to fade down the stretch.

Maybe by reading through this quick list, you’ll find a little more creativity and/or work harder this fantasy football season, even if the team you draft doesn’t immediately blow everyone out of the water. Maybe you’ll focus more on using your waiver wire pickups, even when your team is strong, or seek out trade opportunities when you need to improve your roster rather than phoning it in the rest of the way.

As you sit down at your draft table, remember that you won’t win a championship in one day. But if you manage to keep a handle on all five of these pieces to winning, you’ll have a good chance to take home a trophy.

Friends don’t let friends draft Ben Tate

It happens in almost every draft. It’s the magazine curse. Some league member — let’s call him Pete — is convinced that Ben Tate is going to be the next superstar after they read a profile of him that was written in June. Pete is excited. Pete gets busy with other things until draft day. And then…the unspeakable happens.

It’s kind of like watching a slow-speed accident — like watching two cars back into each other in a parking lot. Nobody wants to see that, but it’s also impossible to stop.

Approaching the draft board, Pete pulls a player sticker and slaps it up on the wall. As he turn around, he’s a little confused that he didn’t hear the gasps and sighs of a thousand voices as he took a “steal” in the mid-rounds. He was sure everyone was waiting for Ben Tate to fall to their next pick, but instead of sighs and complaints, all he gets are a few shocked faces, laughter, and a hand to the forehead.

“Ben Tate is out for the year.” Someone had to say it. Then you just feel bad for Pete. Really bad. It’s hard to watch that happen.

Sometimes in life you can save a buddy from this kind of shame and humiliation. You can take him away from the dance floor when he’s starting to think every girl in the room is attractive. You can warn him not to take that class with the crazy dictator of a professor. You can tell him when he has spinach stuck in his teeth.

That is, you have the option if you so desire, not that you HAVE to take that road. You still have the ability to jump in there and take them out of that situation. But when it’s a missed draft pick? He’s screwed. He just burned a mid-round pick on a guy that won’t play a single down in 2010. With the exception of this being a keeper or dynasty league, he just wasted a pick.

Depending on your league, you may get a chance to make amends. They may let you pick again over that “Ben Tate” you just burned, but in all fairness, you really shouldn’t get another chance. You struck out. Just sit down.

So don’t be that guy. I witnessed it firsthand in my draft this past weekend, and it’s not cool for anyone involved.

Here’s a list of other IR players you don’t want on your team this season unless you’re tucking them away in a dynasty league.

  • Ben Tate, RB, Houston Texans — Fractured right fibula AND torn right ankle ligaments, which sounds as serious as it is.
  • Sinorice Moss, WR, New York Giants — Groin injury
  • Jim Sorgi, QB, Indianapolis Colts — Apparently, patting Peyton/Eli Manning as they come off the field can get you a shoulder injury
  • Donnie Avery, WR, St. Louis Rams — Knee injury, and a general lack of the ability to stay on the field
  • Malcolm Kelly, WR, Washington Redskins — Hamstring injury from McNabb’s “Hell Week” will put him on IR, which, on the plus side for him, keeps him on the roster *technically* since he was on the bubble at the beginning of the preseason
  • Leigh Bodden, CB, New England Patriots — If you play IDP or if you were considering drafting the Patriots D/ST, which isn’t quite as good without its best corner

And some cautionary warnings…

  • Sidney Rice, WR, Minnesota Vikings — Out for at least half the season with a hip injury. Draft accordingly.
  • Vincent Jackson, WR, San Diego Chargers — Missing at least three games as of now and at least six if he doesn’t show up to sign and play by this Saturday
  • Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers — For generally being a creeper and getting himself suspended for four to six games to start 2010
  • Knowshon Moreno, RB, Denver Broncos — Some reports have him suiting up; others have him nowhere close. Either way, he’s not going anywhere quick with a hamstring injury.
  • New York Jets D/ST — Without Darrelle Revis and without Calvin Pace to start the sesason, this defense may not be the No. 1 unit everyone thinks it’s cracked up to be. I am not on this bandwagon without those two.
  • Brett Favre, QB, Minnesota Vikings — You probably like him less already with an ankle injury and without Sidney Rice, but hearing that the Vikings are going to “manage the pain” on a bone spur they recently discovered as well makes Favre even less safe as a QB1 this season.

Consider yourself warned. Don’t be that guy.

How to Win Your Fantasy Football League on Draft Day – vers. 2010

When it comes to fantasy football draft strategy, I’ve tried almost everything. RB-RB? Of course. Draft a quarterback in the first round? Sure. WR-WR? Most definitely. But all this trial and error has paid off.

After hammering out what I think is my best strategy to date last season in the “cutting out the middle men” fantasy football draft strategy and deciding how to play the first round, I think I’ve finally refined the best way to win your league on draft day this season.

And I’m going to share it with you.

What you need to win

Traditionally, we all took running backs because they were scarce. Not every team had a workhorse running back, and in a 12-team league, we needed to start at least 24 of them.

But now, there are 50+ running backs available since every team in the NFL has a time share. So after the five elite running backs are off the board — Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, and Frank Gore — we don’t have to use a first-round pick on a running back.

Not to say that you don’t need a decent running back. You just don’t have to pay a first-round price for one. It’s always nice to have a promising guy like Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, Frank Gore, Shonn Greene, Ryan Mathews, Ryan Grant, or Cedric Benson on your roster. But you can make do if you miss out on them.

You’ll notice I didn’t list Steven Jackson or Rashard Mendenhall on that list. I did that on purpose. They are on the cusp of what I would consider the top, reliable running backs, but they scare me more than they excite me this season. And much like the ladies, that’s not going to work for me when it comes to running backs.

Quarterbacks, while valuable, aren’t as scarce as running backs because each team only needs one. I love me some quarterbacks. Don’t get me wrong, but only a select few — Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, and Tom Brady — are worth taking in the first three rounds. If you miss out on them, you should wait. (But DON’T miss out on them. More on this later.)

That leaves wide receivers. If you’re following me so far, you understand that wide receivers are the new running backs. Receivers have become more reliable and valuable as the NFL becomes more and more passer-friendly. The top receivers are worth building a team around and can give you an advantage if you know how to draft your running backs late.

Guys like Andre Johnson and Greg Jennings are more consistent than the rest of the pack you’ll be able to draft later. My list of elites for this season also includes Randy Moss, Reggie Wayne, Miles Austin, Roddy White, DeSean Jackson, Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Marques Colston, and Sidney Rice with Larry Fitzgerald right on the edge of greatness. (I’m not a fan of Matt Leinart at quarterback this season.)

So draft your elite wide receivers early and often, and you’ll have an advantage.

Every team needs at least one of these top wideouts to “win” their draft, but you’re even better off if you can nab two of them to fill your starting roster. Of course, that’s assuming that you start two wide receivers. If you start three wide receivers, I’d still limit myself to taking two elites early because you can wait on the third just to make sure you don’t miss out entirely on running back value.

I’ll explain the strategy I recommend to make this happen, but before I do that, a side note.

Plans: Made to be broken

No draft ever goes exactly to plan. You can’t know whom the rest of your league is going to draft. Several teams could draft quarterbacks in the first round, or no one could draft a quarterback for three rounds. We really don’t know. So you have to be able to adjust to what your league is giving you. That’s why I recommend the tiered draft cheatsheets, and that’s why I can’t tell you exactly how to draft each position.

So much like my first round strategy from last season, this strategy is just a starting point. Deviate from it as you have to in order to draft the best team possible.

Strategy on draft day

In 2010, I believe a championship team needs one of the elite quarterbacks and at least two of the elite wide receivers. If you get a reliable running back, more power to you.

And it’s all about how you play the first three rounds.

If you have a shot, go with one of the elite five running backs. You can build a solid team around a guy that is highly involved in the offense. While you might miss out on an elite quarterback because you’ll have to look at wide receivers in the second and third rounds, you can recover from that.

If you don’t get a shot at one of the elite running backs, you have you’re pick of WR-WR-QB, WR-QB-WR, or QB-WR-WR in the first three rounds. I like these sequences this season, and I think they maximize the value you get in the first three rounds.

Don’t use QB-WR-WR unless you really want Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees or Peyton Manning this season and your league scores passing touchdowns at six points. I don’t think any of the other elite quarterbacks should be considered until the second round.

In the fourth round, when it comes time to draft running backs, try to take the two best guys on the board right away. More than likely, other members of your league have moved on to drafting what’s left of the wide receivers and quarterbacks. You’ll have your pick of a good group of mid-level running backs who have the potential for greatness.

As you enter the chewy center of your draft, I’d suggest using the “cutting out the middle men” fantasy football draft strategy principles. Draft value and aim for sleepers rather than “safe” and “dependable” guys. You got your safe picks at the top of draft. For example, I’d rather have Jamaal Charles than Joseph Addai. I’d rather have Beanie Wells than Clinton Portis or Ricky Williams.

Make a special effort to get a lot of running backs. Since you didn’t draft them high, you’ll best protect yourself by drafting more of them. You want to load your roster with as many guys as possible who have the potential to be a top performer even if they’re currently a backup on their NFL roster.

You can also draft a few sleeper wide receivers later in the draft to compliment your studs. These wide receivers could become trade bait or free you up to trade your studs for one of the elite RBs you missed out on earlier in the draft. You can find a few good ones in Chris Harris’ article on “moneyball” wide receivers at ESPN.

With this strategy, you’ll “win” your draft just like I won mine.

Should you draft Chris Johnson at No. 1?

Yes. So much yes. Don’t get caught up in the hype of this Adrian Peterson vs. Chris Johnson debate.

Sure, Chris Johnson had a phenom year. He broke 400 touches in 2009. He may not do that in 2010; in fact, he probably won’t. There’s a good chance he could suffer a setback or injury this season.

You could say all of that. You can even use history to back it up, but why not give him a chance? The Tennessee Titans offense, other than their center, is returning, and the offense can do nothing but improve around “Every Coach’s Dream.”

Vince Young will be the starting quarterback from Week 1, which should allow Chris Johnson some more freedom. The offense really didn’t open up last season until V.Y. went under center. Johnson won’t have to do everything. The offense will support him, not be all about him. That means his numbers might go down, but I’d still take a drop in production from Johnson over an unknown quantity from someone else.

Are you going to find a better deal at running back at the No. 1 pick? No, not really. Is Chris Johnson going to be the No. 1 fantasy player at the end of this season? Probably not. But do you know who is? No. You don’t.

You could guess that Adrian Peterson finishes the year at No. 1, but it’d be almost as risky as taking Johnson. Both backs will have the majority of the attention from opposing defenses, and both will see a lot of work this year. Now that Chris Johnson isn’t holding out, the main arguments for A.P. are Chris Johnson’s 400+ touches in last season and his size, even though reports claim that Johnson bulked up this season as well.

Forget these 10 reasons not to draft Chris Johnson No. 1 overall. Let’s talk 10 reasons not to draft A.P. instead…

  1. Brett Favre: Adrian Peterson had an 18-touchdown season with Favre at the helm, but what if Favre doesn’t return? Pre-Favre, in 2008 with Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback, he had just 10 touchdowns. Sure, he had more yardage that season, but they didn’t get it done in the red zone. That’s worrisome, no? [BREAKING: ESPN reports that Brett Favre will retire. Believe at your own risk.]
  2. Brett Favre + Sidney Rice: If Brett Favre does return, he makes Sidney Rice one stud of a wide receiver. Rice happened to rack up the yardage last season while missing out on the touchdowns. He left the ball at the 1 or the 2 yard line fairly often, and he gave Adrian Peterson some easy touchdowns. In his second year with the legendary gunslinger, Rice’s likely to improve on those numbers and take away scoring opportunities from Adrian Peterson.
  3. Brett Favre: If Brett Favre does return, and he falls apart faster than anticipated throughout the 2010 season, he could turn back into old Brett Favre, turning over the ball too often for his team to handle, which would also take opportunities away from A.P.
  4. The Williams Wall: The pending suspension of defensive tackles Pat and Kevin Williams could have a drastic effect on the Vikings this season. If the four-game suspensions end up being enforced, the Vikings could spend the first quarter of the season playing from behind and unleashing Favre (or Tarvaris Jackson/Sage Rosenfels) to make it rain rather than grinding out the game with A.P. They won’t benefit from a strong defensive front.
  5. Running Style: Peterson still runs too upright, which makes him prone to injury throughout the season when defenses are gunning to stop him. While he didn’t miss any games last season or in 2008, that might mean he’s due.
  6. Fumbles: A.P. had 7 fumbles last season. He had 9 in 2008. I’d say the slight improvement inspires confidence, but it doesn’t. His fumbles are a consistent problem, and they won’t stop.
  7. Contract Issues: We’ve talked all offseason about Chris Johnson and the possibility he might hold out for a bigger contract, but A.P. was also absent from offseason workouts this year. Brad Childress’ lack of information about his absence suggests the relationship between coach and star running back might be turning sour. A.P. isn’t holding out, but a conflict with Childress or the team about the way he’s being used or his contract could lead to issues during the season.
  8. Rookie Competition: What kind of issues? Minnesota drafted Toby Gerhart, a ground-and-pound runner who won’t fill the void Chester Taylor left as the back on third downs. Instead, he could vulture a touchdown here and there, especially if Adrian Peterson has ball control issues. There’s no telling how he might creep onto the field right now, and when he’s on the field, A.P.’s not getting you any fantasy points.
  9. Involvement in the Passing Game: He’s not involved enough in the passing game. Both Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew excel at catching passes out of the backfield. Even without Chester Taylor, A.P. won’t have as big a role in the passing game, which cuts into his value. If you’re going to draft someone other than Johnson, you should at least consider MJD instead of A.P.
  10. College Allegiance: He’s a Sooner. Isn’t that enough?

In short, I’m not saying you have to draft Johnson. The first pick is yours to do with as you please. Draft a kicker if you want. That’ll go over well. But don’t take a pass on Chris Johnson just because history tells us he won’t repeat his 2009 campaign.

Whatever Johnson does in 2010 is probably going to be good enough to anchor your team at the RB1 spot, and that makes him a safe pick, worthy of being taken first overall in the draft. When you get first dibs, you have to make sure you get consistent points every week from that star player, and Johnson should do that.

If he does what he says he will and breaks 2500 yards…yeah, that’ll work, too.

And while you’re kicking yourself for not drafting these guys in the first place

Here’s a look from Sports Data Hub at the top fantasy performers at each position as of the beginning of December. [Update: Link no longer available]

We all wish we could go back to the draft and change something, whether we want to draft Miles Austin or not draft Matt Forte, but looking at the cold, raw numbers after almost an entire fantasy football season shows us many of our mistakes (and in bar graph form, which makes it slightly less depressing).

Where did we get surprised?

Quarterbacks

The big surprise at quarterback this year for me was Brett Favre, who not only joined the ranks late but also became a fantasy stud down the stretch. He may be fading now, but he still established himself among the top at the position for another year. As much as I loathe him, I’ll give him credit for that.

Jay Cutler, on the other hand, bottomed out more than expected. Clearly, the receiver situation in Chicago isn’t to his liking, and he’s not comfortable in that offense just yet.

Time will tell whether the team takes a new direction by getting a new offensive coordinator or makes a move to acquire a top talent at wide receiver like Anquan Boldin. The only problem with the latter solution is all the picks they gave away to get Cutler in the last offseason.

Cutler’s performance against the Vikings on Monday Night Football could be a good sign that they’re getting on track for 2010.

Running Backs

Chris Johnson was an iffy top running back prospect to start the year. Some took the chance and were greatly rewarded. Others warned that LenDale White would still steal all his scoring opportunities. It’s clear he’s become a fantasy force, one who will continue to be highly drafted. He’s probably the No. 1 overall pick in your draft next season.

But the big surprise was Ray Rice (even though I predicted he’d be good, I didn’t know he’d be this good). He jumped from a murky Baltimore running back situation to become one of the top backs in fantasy, and he’ll probably stay among the elite with Willis McGahee on his way out.

Ricky Williams and Thomas Jones certainly have more staying power than any of us realized. They’re still getting it done, even at their advanced age. Williams owes his scoring chances early in the year to Ronnie Brown, who made the Wildcat a legitimate threat at the goal line throughout his reign of terror until he was injured.

It’ll be interesting to see what Miami and New York do in the offseason. Ronnie Brown is likely to assume the starting duties again once he is healthy, but New York could part ways with Jones if they so choose, opting instead to ride Leon Washington and rookie pounder Shonn Greene.

In recent weeks, they’ve given Greene more than his usual number of carries to see what they have behind Jones for next season.

Wide Receivers

DeSean Jackson came up in the world in a big way as McNabb’s favorite target this season. Is it finally safe to start a Philadelphia receiver? It seems that way for 2010.

The hot names to add to the list of the elite are Miles Austin and Sidney Rice. Both were touted for their physical attributes and explosive talents, but neither had lived up to expectations, falling victim to injury or being buried on the depth chart the past two seasons.

Rice broke out this season as the Vikings’ biggest threat in the passing game, and he’ll only get better, regardless of who comes in to quarterback Minnesota once Favre finally leaves — but will that EVER happen?

Austin should continue to be one of Tony Romo’s favorite, most trusted targets, and that’s extremely valuable with a quarterback as determined to make a play as Romo is every down.

Tight Ends

Vernon Davis, we hardly knew ye. He did it. He finally did it. All it took was a new coach and a new offense geared around his ability to separate from mismatches. Well done, sir.

Brent Celek also proved that the Eagles had really been missing L.J. Smith’s contributions in recent years when injury and ineffectiveness kept Smith from playing the part. Celek’s role at tight end in the Philadelphia offense only adds to the stockpile of weapons at Andy Reid’s disposal.

Kickers

Ha, just kidding. Nothing’s drastically shifted here, but there was a lot of musical chairs being played around the league as certain kickers lost their leg and teams were forced to make a change.

This year has been a surprising one once again, at least for me. A lot of players that we’d looked forward to seeing finally made a show of themselves. It’s safe to say I wish all my leagues were keeper leagues. The young talent we’ve seen this year should be a factor in fantasy football for years to come.

So now, armed with the knowledge of what’s altered the fantasy landscape this season, what can we say? Better luck next year?

Fourth & 1 Debate: How to avoid fantasy disappointments next season

Ah, the sadness comes in larger puddles of tears every week as we approach the fantasy playoffs. That first-round pick sure screwed you, didn’t he? But how, oh how, do you keep it from happening again next year? (Like it always does?)

Last week’s fantasy football roundtable covered that and covered it well. The question:

Thinking back to the players that you targeted in drafts at the beginning of the season, which one or two players have been the biggest disappointments? What kind of additional information do you think you could use to avoid selecting this type of underachieving player in 2010?

My answer:

The biggest two disappointments in my book are Matt Forte and Calvin Johnson. Both were drafted in among the top-three at their position, and both have been miserable for most of the season.

In Forte’s case, there was good reason to believe his role in the offense might be threatened. Chicago traded for Jay Cutler, bringing an arm to Chicago and taking away Kyle Orton’s compulsive checkdown passes. But that alone was not enough to scare off fantasy owners.

The decline of the Chicago defense, an unexpected factor this season, has also hurt Forte’s value. When the Bears get behind, they have put the game in Cutler’s hands and reduced Forte’s chances. Forte’s turned it around in recent weeks, but the damage has, for the most part, already been done to the owners who drafted him and their fantasy hopes.

Calvin Johnson was regarded as “quarterback-proof” coming into this season. No matter who was throwing the ball, he would get his yards and probably a score. He still ranked as one of the elite wide receivers in fantasy despite news that a rookie quarterback, Matthew Stafford would start for the Lions. With no legitimate threat on the other side of the field, defenses tried to take Megatron out of games, and a few times early in the season, they were successful. Even if you’re quarterback-proof, you can’t be “team-proof,” and the Lions were doing him no favors.

A knee injury prevented Johnson from seeing the field for several weeks. Now that he’s back to full health, he is contributing, but with only one touchdown and one 100+ yard game this season, it’s safe to say owners were hoping to get more out of him by this point in the season.

What info could prevent us from making these same drafting mistakes in the future? We must pay close attention to change in the offseason, and give special attention to teams with new quarterbacks. The quarterback runs the offense, and changes at that position can often mean big swings in fantasy. In their first year with a new team, quarterbacks must spend time learning the playbook and finding their rhythm with the receivers and running back. There are many variables in play there, and it creates risks in fantasy.

In Chicago’s case, Cutler brought that “gunslinger” mentality and a powerful arm to Chicago, which has allowed the passing game to be more of a focus on offense. He didn’t avoid using Forte, but Cutler had to understand how and when he could use Forte, which led to Forte’s slow start.

A rookie quarterback always has a big learning curve in coming to the NFL, and Matthew Stafford was no different. Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco’s exceptional rookie seasons may have warmed fantasy football players up to the idea of starting rookies, but the Lions were not nearly as complete a team as the Falcons and Ravens were last season. Stafford’s rookie struggles have held Calvin Johnson back, and an unexpected knee injury did the rest.

It’s unfortunate that new quarterbacks impact a team so much. Avoiding them as a rule can prevent you from finding some real value in your fantasy football draft (see: Vikings receivers like Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin), but taking a risk on teams with new signal callers can also cost you big, as we saw this year with Forte and Megatron.

The secret is to do your homework on them.

For the complete discussion and the rest of the debate’s answers, check out the full fantasy football roundtable on Junkyard Jake’s blog.

Preseason Fantasy Football Product Roundup 2009

From time to time, I get emails from folks within the fantasy football community telling me about their great products, and most of them really are useful. Unfortunately, I rarely get a chance to highlight them for you, the readers, because fantasy football talk, the heart of all we do here at Fantasy Football Fools, always comes first.

To make you aware of some of the cool fantasy football projects, applications and items out there, and to clean out my email inbox, I’ve decided to do the occasional product roundup post — starting with the one you’re reading right now if you couldn’t tell where this is going.

Many of them are products that I haven’t gotten a chance to test out. I’m just relaying the info to you. If you have any experience with them, if you like what they have to offer or if you want to take it upon yourself to review them for the fantasy football community, please, by all means, share your knowledge in the comments.

For Your Fantasy Football Draft

I know it might be too late already for some of these draft products, but if you like what you see, there’s always next year.

Free Footballguys.com Fantasy Football Magazine and Tools

Football Jabber highlighted the Footballguys.com free magazine offer earlier this offseason, but if you missed it, you should visit their free offering now before you draft. Footballguys.com provides some of the best analysis and fantasy football scouting in the biz, and if you’d rather have them speak it at you, their podcast, The Audible, provides you with more sound-bite-size nuggets of fantasy football information than you can listen to in any given week.

Not only is Footballguys.com giving away their 250-page magazine electronically, but they are also providing in-depth fantasy football tools like Rate My Team, which provides you with a complete analysis of your draft once you’ve assembled your squad. People love it. It drills down to which players might start for you each week throughout the season and where bye weeks could hurt you. I’ve enjoyed plugging in a few of my teams to see what they recommend.

For all this fantasy football research and more, visit the Footballguys.com free tools section.

iPhone Fantasy Football Draft App: Studs & Duds

I’m not an iPhone user, but the creator of the Studs & Duds Fantasy Football Draft Kit contacted us about testing it out, and it seems to be one of the good ones.

If you’ve used this app or any other iPhone apps to draft your fantasy football team, how did they stack up? The only person I’ve seen using an iPhone app cheatsheet thus far was a Houston Texans homer who drafted Matt Schaub in the third round. I’m guessing the draft app didn’t tell him to do that.

FanDraft Digital Draft Board

The first of its kind, FanDraft is a piece of software that projects your draft board onto a wall or television and allows players to select teams with all the excitement of the real NFL draft … but without the Mel Kiper — is that an upgrade?

The application looks pretty entertaining with team logos, an automated draft clock, a streaming ticker and sound effects. I’ve been tempted to try out a digital draft board, but most of my leagues are still in the dark ages — hauling that giant sheet of paper and cardboard stand into the draft room for players to select their teams with stickers.

The paper draft board for one of my leagues was actually pretty unreliable this year. They should apologize to “Steve Slayton” and “Austin Miles” (a.k.a. Miles Austin) for botching their names on the sticker sets.

If you’ve ever used FanDraft, I’d be interested to hear how you liked the draft experience.

Managing Your Team and Lineups

Sports Data Hub

Sports Data Hub is great as a draft prep tool and a hot spot for mid-season research. A friend of the Fantasy Football Fools, SDH has made some updates this offseason and exited beta this August. You can now import your Yahoo! leagues straight into the site and analyze player rankings and projections based on your own custom scoring rules.

They also offer instant projections via Twitter and a Facebook app so that you can continue to trash talk your friends and stalk your ex-girlfriends while you research your fantasy team. Just tweet “@SDHnow Player Name” to get projections on demand. I’m a fan of their work.

SDH requires you to subscribe for the really meaty material, but based on their free tools and various demos that I’ve seen, I’d say it’s worth a few bucks a month for the serious fantasy football stat addicts out there.

RallyCast

Rallycast Demo in LabAvailable in Best Buy on September 6, RallyCast allows you to view your scores and stats for fantasy leagues on CBS, ESPN or Yahoo! right on your TV screen. It’s for those times when sitting with a computer in your lap is impossible, such as binge eating … or drinking … as the case may be.

Apparently, you can view RallyCast on top of any channel, so you don’t even have to miss the in-game action — or the latest episode of So You Think You Can Dance — while you check your scores.

The app also allows you to post to Facebook and text message your friends from your remote control. It sounds like you never have to leave the couch on Sunday again, or move more than your little finger … Awesome.

For more on RallyCast, you can watch this handy little clip they put together to introduce it to the fantasy football world.

Impressing Your Friends

Fantasy Football Trophies: FantasyTrophies.com and iwonmyleague.com

Fantasy TrophiesIs it time for you league to upgrade your trophy? Or does your league even have a trophy?

In my most serious and bloodthirsty league, our trophy could probably use an upgrade, and both FantasyTrophies.com and iwonmyleague.com offer some very cool alternatives to the norm. I mean, a fantasy football trophy should stand out from all those trophies you collected by playing in little league every year, right?

It just doesn’t say fantasy football unless the trophy on your mantel contains a fat metal man in an armchair. That’s one that not only impresses your friends but also ruins your reputation at the same time.

Fantasy Football T-Shirts

You can find some of the most snazzy fantasy football t-shirts around at Art of the Fan if you want to sport your addiction on your chest. (Just note that these may get you beat up depending on where you wear them.)

I like the fantasy sleeper shirt.

Protecting Your Dough

Fantasy Sports Insurance

Playing fantasy football is risky, and I’m sure we’re all still feeling the hurt of losing Tom Brady in the first game of the season last year. But you can protect your investment in big money leagues with some insurance.

Oh, that’s right. Fantasy football insurance exists, and Chris Cooley is a fan.

If you draft a lot of Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams or Kansas City Chiefs, insurance on your entrance fee might not be a bad idea.

League Safe

If you’ve ever worried that your league commissioner spent your entrance fees on his last beer run or lost it in Vegas, League Safe might help establish that nice level of trust … by not trusting at all.

Fantasy Football Goat wrote up a great explanation of the service last season, and Football Jabber tried it out.

With League Safe, You can also collect your league dues online through their site so that your out-of-state buddy doesn’t skate by without paying when his team starts 0-4.

Fantasy Football Games and Hosts

FanSection Fantasy Football 2009 on Facebook

FanSection_FF2009HomeFanSection LogoCombining two things that fantasy football players love, playing it and flaunting your success in front of friends, Watercooler’s FanSection Fantasy Football 2009 Facebook application is a full-featured fantasy football management suite inside Facebook.

You can invite friends, get news updates from CBSSports.com and post your latest scores right in your Facebook news feed. The only knock I have on it is that it doesn’t offer free live scoring.

If you’re a Coors Light fan, you’ll like that the beer that tastes like licking a mountain has also sponsored the FanSection experience.

eCouchCoach

If you want a more custom-tailored approach to fantasy football this season, you might find what you’re looking for at eCouchCoach.

They offer custom league domains so that you never suffer from lag during the afternoon games on Sunday, and even if you don’t host your league with them, they offer a handful of useful Twitter bots to get your fantasy football fix on the go — or on the couch.

Fantasy Fat Cat

For instant gratification, Fantasy Fat Cat offers daily and weekly fantasy contests. I can’t vouch for it since I’ve never tried their games, but they offer free live scoring on your iPhone.

Fantazzle

A fantasy sports games site with some of the best rankings around as proven by Fantasy Football Librarian, Fantazzle not only gives you rankings but also a few games to test their rankings out on and win money. Isn’t that nice of them?

RapidDraft

If you always wanted to draft against the pros or just like Second Life avatars, RapidDraft is another fantasy football contest out there. Unlike the typical fantasy football league, you play in single-player mode at RapidDraft.

After buying a team, you draft against the avatars of 11 experts in the fantasy football industry. If you put together a winner, the grand prize is $250,000. If not, at least you can pretend Victoria is your girlfriend, right?

Share Your Reviews

Good luck this season, and if you’re drafting this weekend, prepare by reading our 2009 Foolish Fantasy Football Draft Kit.

As always, the comments are yours. If you’ve tried out any of the above products or have more info, please share your reviews with the foolish community.