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Failure of first-round RBs

12/15/2013

Don't forget, I do a twice-weekly podcast called the "Fantasy Underground," where Field "Trust-O-Meter" Yates and I discuss what we've seen on film, and how it relates to your fantasy team. Subscribe on iTunes; that way you'll never miss a show! All right, let's get to today's topics:

Three In Depth

1. Looking backward, Part 1: "Looking Backward" is a novel written in the 19th century about a Rip Van Winkle type who falls asleep in the year 1887 and wakes up in 2000, and imagines the U.S. as a Marxist utopia and predicts things like debit cards, wholesale buyers' clubs and the Internet. (Kind of.) What if you, the fantasy football connoisseur, had fallen asleep in late August? Clearly, you'd be startled by the further proliferation of twerking and devastated to learn of the Jonas Brothers' indefinite hiatus, but what would you think of the fantasy landscape, and its implications on future strategies?

The knee-jerk reaction would be to examine the first-round running backs, request a fainting couch, and swear never to take a running back early ever again. Five of the top 10 RBs were twerk-level horrendous:

Top 10 RBs in 2013 drafts

If the season ended after Week 14, only four of these RBs would have been worth first-round picks. Proof! Proof, you say, that drafting a running back early is stupid! However, before we make the assertion, perhaps we should invoke some historical context:

Fantasy RB breakdown, since 2005

As you see, it's not all that uncommon for running backs selected in the first 10 picks of your fantasy draft to finish outside the top 10 in terms of VBD. And that would be all the more fodder for folks who think taking RBs early is stupid, except look at that last column. It is well nigh unprecedented to see so many first-round RBs completely flame out. In the average season, one or two of those backs fail to deliver even fifth-round value. This year, an incredible five have done so!

So this year has been an outlier. It's usually safe to invest in the very best RBs, because usually they don't kill you. This year, it was a minefield. That doesn't by definition imply that you must take RBs early. But it does mean that the moment you get tempted to dismiss the early-RB strategy because it burned you this season, please recall how unusual this season really was.

2. Looking backward, Part 2: Of course, if 2013 has engendered in you a steadfast refusal to draft a RB early, you're going to have to spend your early pick somewhere, right? Were the top QBs or WRs any safer this season? Are they typically? Here are the top 10 quarterbacks and wideouts drafted this summer, and how they've performed:

Top 10 QBs in 2013 drafts

Top 10 WRs in 2013 drafts

Kind of a mixed bag, but frankly, these full lists are beside the point. It's not fair or particularly relevant to worry about the ninth or 10th QB or WR in this context. The question really is: If you'd zigged with a non-RB when everyone else was zagging by going RB-crazy, would it have been smarter and/or safer? In the case of Rodgers, obviously not. He fractured his clavicle. In the case of Megatron, indeed, it would've been lovely, but of course, you'd still have needed to bet smartly on an RB somewhere down the road. (As it turned out this year, players drafted to be RB2s actually provided a better return on investment, but that's not typical.) Let's look at these two positions from a historical perspective:

Top 10 QBs in 2013 drafts

Top 10 WRs in 2013 drafts

I challenge you to look at the above two charts and contend that it's safer to take even the No. 1 QB or WR in the first round of your draft. In the past nine seasons, 15 QBs went in the top 10, and three of them justified that selection, while four of them crashed. In the same span, seven WRs went in the top 10, and one of them justified it (Megatron so far this year), while one crashed.

3. The return of the receiving RB? Last season saw a decrease in receiving production among the elite pass-catching RBs. (See item No. 3 in this column from last season for more details.) Darren Sproles, Ray Rice, Matt Forte, Arian Foster, Maurice Jones-Drew and Chris Johnson all saw their targets and receptions decrease from 2011 to 2012, and while injuries played a role in a couple of those cases, it was an interesting proposition: As NFL offenses took more downfield shots -- and as rules encouraged such shots in greater volume -- perhaps they were eschewing their elite RB receivers. Of course, there's a danger in making such pronouncements based on a single season's worth of data, so I thought I'd revisit that analysis. And now it seems clear that '12 did represent a blip.

First, let's examine this season's top RB pass targets, and see how they compare to the raw totals at their corresponding slot from last year:

Most-targeted RBs in 2013, Diff. from equal 2012 rank

The way to read the above chart is: Jamaal Charles is the current top target among all RBs, on pace for 108 targets. That's 13 targets more than the No. 1 targeted RB from last season (Sproles). So pretty much across the board, 2013's best pass-receiving RBs are outpacing 2012's, and are actually much more in alignment with numbers from 2011.

However, all is not rosy for our pass-catching dudes. It's alarming to see the decrease in receiving production from 2012's top RB receivers:

2012 RB target leaders vs. 2013 production

Now, Martin and DMC (marked by asterisks) are on their awful paces primarily because of injury; I've assumed no further advancement in their current totals. But Sproles, Rice, Reece, Richardson, McCoy and Bell are on pace to see their receptions drop by an average of about 10 (and that's to say nothing of Ronnie Brown, who's been replaced almost entirely by Danny Woodhead).

Lessons here aren't immediately obvious, other than '12 seems to have been an aberration, and for as long as they're starting NFL backs, players like Rice and McCoy are going to have tremendous PPR value and a palpable advantage over non-catchers in standard leagues. And changes in offensive system (Bush and Woodhead), being Peyton Manning's or Drew Brees' primary RB (Moreno and Thomas/Sproles), or playing for an NFL team that just can't run (Ogbonnaya) will help. But as we see with players like Brown, Reece, T-Rich and Bell, nothing is guaranteed from year to year.

Five In Brief

4. Shane Vereen gets top billing: Sixteen times this season, an NFL running back has caught eight or more passes in a game. Shane Vereen has done it three times in the past four weeks. (The other time, he caught five. Slacker.) If you're in a PPR league, Vereen needs to be in your lineup, period. He's a clear No. 1 RB, and probably a top-five option. Since he returned from his broken wrist in Week 11, he has the third-most fantasy points among RBs in a PPR league, behind only Jamaal Charles and Matt Forte. Yet even in a standard league, I ranked Vereen No. 8 this week. You could argue this is the kind of paint-by-numbers conclusion I typically eschew. Rob Gronkowski gets hurt, someone needs to pick up the slack, Vereen's receptions climb higher. And yet that scenario sounds plenty believable to me. Sure, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola should also see usage upticks, maybe Kenbrell Thompkins gets involved again, and heck, maybe Stevan Ridley has earned back some trust. But the only way I see Vereen not delivering a rock-solid receiving game is if Tom Brady and the New England Patriots implode as a whole. And that's possible (see also: Weeks 5 through 8), but I'm not banking on it. I'm starting Vereen.

5. RG Flee: The politics behind the benching of Robert Griffin III are unknown to all of us, and speculating about them just kind of seems unnecessary. It's not a football decision. It makes utterly no sense as a football decision. So I guess let's just accept that Kirk Cousins is going to start, and move on. What does Cousins playing versus the Atlanta Falcons mean for him and his skill players? It's hard to say. He's started one NFL game, Week 15 against a mailing-it-in Cleveland Browns squad last season. I went back and watched that tape (color commentary by Mike Martz!), and you know what Cousins was? He was Case Keenum. He took shots. He ran around (including a 17-yard scramble). He played pretty free and easy. The Redskins started him running almost exclusively out of the shotgun but he began poorly, and they mixed in lots of under-center looks thereafter. He connected on a bomb to Leonard Hankerson, got lucky on some field position because Brandon Weeden is bad, and also at times had some super-rookie-looking accuracy troubles. It was fine. It was one game, and it was a year ago.

The Falcons are themselves stinky, and when two stinky teams clash, who knows what we'll get? When you're ranking players under such a scenario, especially during the fantasy playoffs, you must ask yourself, "How willing am I to make a mistake with this kid and take one on the chin?" Personally, I'm not that willing. Of course I can see Washington coming out of nowhere and submitting a good game, adding murk to this already-nonsensical situation. But can I count on it? Do I know for sure what Cousins is? My guess is that he's a kind of athletic, kind of big-armed, kind of accurate passer of the genus that typically makes for a fine NFL backup. But that's what Keenum is, too, and he scored 28 fantasy points in a game this year. I would probably rather stay away from the whole circus, but if I've been relying on Alfred Morris and Pierre Garcon and don't have great ancillary options, I probably just hold my nose and take my shot.

6. Jay Cutler strikes back: Josh McCown was like finding money in your couch cushions, but that's apparently over now, at least until Cutler gets drilled again. The Chicago Bears' offensive line is much improved to look at, and after Week 6 Cutler was on pace to be sacked 24 times, after getting dumped 38 times in 2012 and 52 times in 2010. But he still finds a way to get hit hard, which is why I'm not dropping McCown just yet. Cutler has scads of Brett Favre in him. He just doesn't give a hoot. He will make that throw, and he is a human snowball rolling downhill. Good begets more good. Bad begets insane losses, like Week 4's disaster against the Detroit Lions. Yet Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, I'm expecting something of a triumphant return. I know Joe Haden plays for the Browns, but I still don't see enough pass coverage or pass rush here for Cleveland to put a kink in the Brandon Marshall/Alshon Jeffery Express. You can do it, right, Jay? Find No. 23 in brown, figure out which of your WRs he's covering, and throw it to the other one! There's playoff pressure, there's contract pressure, there's backup pressure … there's a whole bunch of pressure on Cutler in this one. But I'm choosing to believe he's a safe sub if you've been riding McCown. I mean, don't get me wrong, he's a Favre-esque heart attack. But I'd use him.

7. Jamaal Charles for Fantasy MVP? It's still a wide-open race, as Peyton Manning (Thursday night's rough outing notwithstanding) is neck-and-neck with Charles, and guys like LeSean McCoy and Matt Forte are well within striking distance, but the case for J-Mail as fantasy's MVP isn't a hard one to make. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Charles has at least 100 yards from scrimmage and a TD in 10 out of 13 games this season. If he does it again in Week 15 against the Oakland Raiders, he'll be the seventh player in the Super Bowl era to accomplish the feat 11 times in his first 14 games. The other six players are: LaDainian Tomlinson ('06), Shaun Alexander ('05), Priest Holmes ('02), Emmitt Smith (1995), Eric Dickerson (1983) and O.J. Simpson (1975). Those are some of the NFL's most historic RB seasons, but consider that every single one of those players is at least 11 pounds heavier than Charles (and guys like Alexander and Dickerson have more like a 20- to 30-pound advantage). Charles is an absolute mold-breaker: A slender sprinter who nevertheless slams it up between the tackles with relative frequency. Consider the difference between Charles and Chris Johnson; they're almost identical in size, and if anything, CJ1K might be faster, but J-Mail is the guy who tries to play it physical and will take the 5-yard run if that's what's there. I don't want to overstate the case, because I'd never proclaim that he's even a top-20 RB in NFL history, but Charles is almost completely unique.

8. Not so much with Jacob Tamme: Mike Klis of the Denver Post (@MikeKlis) tweeted this about 20 minutes before kickoff Thursday night: "TE Virgil Green starting for slot man Wes Welker tonight. So two TE sets with Julius Thomas. Julius working from the slot tonight?" Conventional wisdom (based on Week 13's win over the Tennessee Titans) was that the Denver Broncos would use Tamme in the slot in place of the injured Welker. Klis seemed to be indicating that it would be Green who'd see an uptick in playing time. In fact, neither guy played much. Rather, Andre Caldwell played Welker's role, scoring two TDs, and making six catches on a team-high 10 targets, while Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas (and, for that matter, Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball) struggled. I re-tweeted Klis' note without knowing exactly what the implications would be, so I sincerely hope you got Tamme out of your lineup. He wound up with one catch on two targets, only really getting on the field as the Broncos spread things out trying to play catch-up. Life sure can be brutal in the fantasy playoffs.