Fantasy Football Juggernauts
Written by: Shaun Bo
“The Evil Empires of Fantasy Football Pre-Draft Rankings”
The meteoric rise of fantasy football the last few years has levied unprecedented gains in the NFL’s popularity and now with an estimated 55 million people on the roller coaster ride in 2016, fantasy football greenhorns are more a part of the game than ever before. Unfortunately, newcomers often have to rely on hit or miss pre-draft rankings to aid them in their inaugural fantasy drafts and every year the most well-known rankings, “The Evil Empires of Fantasy Football Pre-Draft Rankings”, seem to always have those who follow them playing Russian Roulette with their top draft picks. Leading most veterans like myself to wonder why pre-draft rankings year in and year out almost always generically resemble that of other networks? Are these rankings intentionally set to deceive the general public in an attempt to aid in the emotional ups and downs in order to get more people hooked on a game that typically involves pride and money? Or is there just so much pressure on high dollar sports writers to make the right picks? So much they don’t dare veer too far off course from the computer generated rankings for the immense fear of public back lash that would be a direct result of having a terrible top 100 pre-draft ranking leading followers to seek out more reliable sources elsewhere.
Let’s start with comparing the wide receiver’s position, where they finished in 2015 when compared to pre-draft rankings of 2016 this year; ESPN.com had a lot of familiar faces in its seemingly, recreation, of their top wide outs for the following year. To be fair, it is still only 2 weeks into the NFL season and the current scoring leaders will balance out a bit with some falling back to the pack and some rising up to the front as it does every year. Although it supports the argument that pre-draft rankings focus way too much on last year’s totals, leaving writers to use their best judgment and try to figure out who will retain their top spots and who will fall which is evident in guys like Larry Fitzgerald and red zone monster Kelvin Benjamin not ranked in the top 15 at the position, which is mind boggling to me. However, when the script is programmed to use data that is largely based on last years’ scoring totals for fantasy players, it really gives you a false sense of security when using these rankings to select your roster on draft day the following year. The NFL is constantly changing colors, and to not account for those very REAL changes with proper analysis can lead to guys like Marvin Jones Jr being massively overlooked after he signed with the Detroit Lions in the offseason who, in the early drafts this year started out with an average draft position of 94 which is a laughable number for reasons I stated here in an earlier article and he appears to be well on his way to a major breakout campaign in 2016.
Being a fantasy football owner of 5 different league settings, which forces me to do individual break down’s of each player and finding which ones are better for each league setting and after realizing how pre-draft rankings are done I decided to start writing articles as a hobby the following year (this year). I have no degree in journalism nor do I even have a college degree, which is probably evident to some who have noticed that my articles contain grammatical errors but there is ONE thing that I know very well, NFL football. A game that is so hard to predict that Vegas makes millions off setting lines each week for the betting market, can you imagine how much it changes from season to season with an entire offseason to acclimate new pieces while changing failed strategies from the season before? Fantasy Football is very similar in this regard, winning a competitive fantasy league requires you to have some form of updated insight to the games changes before drafting commences and when combined with the luck that the fantasy gods bestow on your core producers to go injury free all season long, are typically the deciding factors that separate pretenders from contenders.
Furthermore, A guy like Todd Gurley was a very sexy pick coming into this season and you don’t have to be a rookie fantasy owner to get suckered into a players hype as the bandwagon fills, even though I was never in a position to draft him in any of my leagues, I did recommend him as one of the best running backs to own. Essentially ignoring what my research told me, numbers that noted the Rams’ 24th ranked o-line for rushing offense, and no passing game to compliment him on the ground, a bitter combination that forced Gurley to average a pitiful 2 yards per carry down the stretch of 2015. All clear warning signs telling me to avoid him yet I took a chance anyways and recommended him simply because he is an amazing talent and proved he can perform with this bad situation as he did last year. However, talent doesn’t translate into fantasy points and Gurley has been a huge disappointment this year ironically enough for the same issues that wore him down at the end of last season. Adding further fuel to the fire that the elite backs shouldn’t be taken highly ranked for the simple fact that backs get injured far more often than any other position group due to the amount of punishment those guy’s bodies take, which is a big reason why teams are trending to a running back by committee approach in an effort to keep their skilled runners healthier and is the main reason why three down backs are all generally accurately placed in the top 15 of any rankings, but in doing so you take a huge risk with the increased odds of injuries that comes with the position.
Generally speaking though the dominant position group is always going to be quarterbacks and it’s certainly not classified information to know that QB’s will have more points throughout the course of an NFL season which leads you to believe that they would be higher up in the overall rankings simply because the average fantasy QB could have around 350 points in standard league settings. With that being said, why are there are only 2 quarterbacks in the top 50 of these said rankings? Naturally speaking, if that position nets you the most points in a fantasy season then that position should be the most important position to your fantasy roster, right? The misconception here is, rankings are a list of who you should go for first in your draft when in fact they are merely blends of general projections from an overall value standpoint to their respective position groups and are not designed for you to take them in that order they are offered to you in, which is why most draft apps allows you many different ways to sort through statistics in an attempt to make finding the player you need more efficient. According to the current system, a work horse running back (A.K.A. 3 down back) or stud wide receiver is going to be far and away more valuable to your team, being that they are proven stat fillers who will complement the higher scoring QB position and hopefully put up numbers near to what an average QB does every week. While this is definitely true in PPR league settings, it is most definitely not true when it comes to more touchdown dependent leagues.
However, the fantasy football culture has clearly overblown some of its players when sorting the position groups into an overall format and has questionably undervalued the quarterback position especially when you consider the abundance of promising young QB options to choose from, whereas, last year there were not many elite QB options that carried over from 2014 so you had the elites ranked very high and then everyone else way down the list, most of these young guys were scooped up off waivers and thrusted into championship starting lineups in 2015, a strategy I wisely used while playing Kirk Cousins down the stretch and in fantasy playoffs over Aaron Rodgers and Carson Palmer. Quarterback play, in my opinion, is a little bit easier to predict in drafts since football is still and always will be the ultimate team sport and even great QB’s tend to rise and fall with the talent around them. At the end of the day, receivers have to catch, running backs have to run, and offensive lines have to block. Take Colts star QB Andrew Luck for example, he has a talented receiving core, and a very reliable running back in Frank Gore. Yet, since he doesn’t have that third important piece to the puzzle which is an offensive line, he goes off for 33 points in week one versus Detroit and then gets crushed for 10 points against Denver in week 2. Throwing behind a line that couldn’t protect Willie Wonka from a bunch of out of control 3rd graders from storming his Chocolate factory.
After reviewing all the quarterbacks with an average draft position behind Luck’s in an attempt to organize my draft approach this year, taking into account for each strength of schedule, 2015 O-line rankings, diversity of wide receiver talent, and offseason team personnel decisions. I inevitably came to the conclusion that of the QB’s behind him, I would have taken; Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Blake Bortles, Derek Carr, Jameis Winston, Phillip Rivers, and Matthew Stafford ahead of Luck this year, and when you add in Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers ahead of Luck’s ADP, in essence making him the 10th QB option on my board. Which pretty much convinced me I wasn’t taking him at where he was being drafted and it opened up my eyes to the supreme value of Melvin Gordon at 62, when I looked to see what value I would be missing out on and being able to have anyone of those other guys much later in the draft was a no brainer. Which is a line of thinking that goes entirely against how you subconsciously program yourself when studying the general cultures of the current rankings format. I took QB Derek Carr in the 12th round, which shouldn’t be a successful draft strategy when you take a QB that late in drafts, which is unfair for casual and rookie players because only those who can see past the flawed rankings can really use them as an opportunity to beef up their depth before not only selecting a quarterback for their team but also waiting to select a kicker which can be a solid 140 points for you when investing in the right leg.
Not to just completely pick on ESPN here because practically everyone’s top 50 pre-draft rankings were littered with players who arguably didn’t deserve to be there with receivers like; TY Hilton (no o-line to throw deep often & tough SOS), Sammy Watkins (Injury & in rushing offense), Allen Robinson (won’t air it out as much & QB turnovers), Dez Bryant (Injured with Rookie QB & RB), Demaryious Thomas (Coming off worst year of career & rookie QB), Keenan Allen (kidney/Injuries), and Golden Tate (Arrival of Marvin Jones) are all players who confusingly, are ranked with-in the top 25 at the position. Now, there are the select few situations like Keenan Allen’s, a guy who definitely deserves to be in the top 25 based on what he does game after game when he’s on the field, but is a guy whose problem IS staying on the field due to injuries, which is a huge problem in fantasy. Especially when you notice that these guys were all selected higher than red zone monster Kelvin Benjamin (WR 27), the Arizona Cardinals three headed monster in Michael Floyd, Larry Fitzgerald, and John Brown who all “coincidently” sit in at 28th, 29th, and 30th, a clear sign of not knowing the true number one, Fitzgerald. All while, Jordan Matthews, Marvin Jones, Michael Crabtree, Devante Parker, Stefon Diggs, Willie Snead, Travis Benjamin, and superstar rookies Corey Coleman, and Will Fuller, all who were ranked WR-31 or later. Adding perspective, to start the season only 8 of the original top 25 pre-draft WR’s are there currently which results in a 32% hit rating early on. To their credit, last year’s percentage was a lot better as they hit on 12 of the top 25 pre-draft rankings which netted a 48% hit rating and pretty much tells you, to not even waste a draft pick on a top 25 receiver while using those rankings.
The more I think about it, the more I am annoyed by the simple fact that if I am trying to win a championship in fantasy football THIS YEAR then why do people continue to promote a rankings list that is almost entirely based on last year’s final standings? Especially when you consider the fact that almost every year the league introduces multiple new receivers to the top 25 for fantasy points. Most of the big name outlets like ESPN, CBS, and NFL.com hold the Lion’s share of the market for traffic flow but are also widely viewed as some of the worst to follow for fantasy advice in the industry, with all but Mike Clay at ESPN.com (ranked 5th) finishing outside the top 40 in FantasyPros.com “ranking the experts” for top draft advice, even breaking down into position groups to show the experts strengths and weaknesses of how they rank. In conclusion, the flawed culture that is pre-draft fantasy football rankings needs to change if the industry is going to grow more than it already has and the big money sports writers need to do a better job and spend more time researching players and spend less time on television. At the end of the day they are the most well-known to even the most casual of sports viewers, leading these new players straight into a guillotine and a system that is computer generated based on last year’s numbers is bad for the game.