The Reality of Fantasy Football: A Player’s Guide to Guaranteed Victory

And by guaranteed, of course, I mean… odds are somewhat in your favor. Pretty much all fantasy football players rely on a column of sorts to help them with draft advice, waiver wire pickups, matchup statistics, etc. The writers of these columns bill themselves as experts. But are they really? They make weekly predictions, about half of which hit, and the other half usually ends up being farcical in its collective awfulness. But, as they say, that’s part of the game. Still, isn’t it funny how they never really talk about their credentials? How do you know they aren’t just good writers with clever senses of humor? Yes, ESPN’s Matthew Berry, I’m looking at you, among others. Berry is an EXCELLENT writer and has an endearing sense of humor replete with self deprecation that you can’t help but like. But is a he a real expert? Maybe. Or maybe his status as an expert is more due to his ability to write insightful and entertaining columns… which in the large scheme of things is something to be much prouder of than having won your league last year, but I digress.

In this column, or series as it were, I will be highlighting players to grab and avoid by position, starting wtih quarterbacks. But first, let me tell you about me in a few brief sentences. I play fantasy football every year, and have for about the last ten years. The last five years or so, I have taken the game a bit more “seriously,” if that term can even be used. I play in at least three, but never more than four leagues every year. And in my worst years, I have still never had a team not reach the finals in one of the leagues, and never missed the playoffs with more than half of my teams. Sure, I’ve had a few bad seasons. Injuries, poor decisions, Mike Shanahan, and your opponent’s kicker hanging 21 points on you on Monday night happen. Obviously, I lack the financial clout to make you any kind of iron clad guarantee of winning your league, or finishing in the money even. But what I can guarantee you is this: Stick to a few very simple principles of fantasy football and you will be okay:

1) In the earlier rounds of your draft, points are points. Don’t make a panic pick of Eli Manning in the early second round because everyone else in your league is making a run on QBs. Of course, if you can get Rodgers, Brady, or Brees early, you do. But if not, fine. Take the best player available (not necessarily on a print out from Rotoworld or ESPN, just the best player). Do you think Adrian Peterson will be healthy? If not, stay away. But if you do, he’ll be available in the second or third round, and if you missed out on a top quarterback, don’t panic and take Tony Romo here. Peterson, or whatever running back you want to plug in here that gets the majority of his team’s carries and red zone opportunities, is way better. It’s okay to have three running backs and two wide receivers after five picks. Ben Roethlisberger behind a vastly improved offensive line will still be available. Points are points, regardless of where they come from.

2) Play it safe early. Your first 8 picks are not for taking flyers. Like Trent Richardson? Great. Get him… if he’s available in the fourth round. Sure, T Rich, Doug Martin, and company may turn out to be awesome, but most rookies don’t turn out awesome right away. And unless you’re in keeper or dynasty league of sorts, there are much safer plays. Let your buddies fight over RG3 and Andrew Luck. Veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick will still be on the board long after those two are gone, and he was great before finishing the second half of 2011 with a rib injury, something no longer hampering him. And an improved Bills defense figures to land them better average starting field position.

3) The last and second to last rounds are NOT for your kickers and defenses. It’s a popular and trendy axiom people spout, that anyone who takes a kicker before the last round is an idiot. Of course I’m not advocating taking a kicker anywhere in your first 8 or 9 picks, but why not in round 11 or 12? The difference between a David Akers, Matt Prater, Sebastian Janikowski et al and the rest of the Steven Hauschkas and Nick Folks of the world can be immense. Take your 11th or 12th round pick, and target a kicker with a decent resume, if possible one who kicks indoors, and if also possible one on a decent offensive team. People make a huge deal out of double digit fantasy games. What does two 40 yard field goals and two extra points add up to? That’s right, a double digit fantasy game.

3a) It’s not as big of a stigma that follows you if you take a defense a bit earlier, but still. Don’t jump the gun but don’t wait to the end. When your starting line up is complete, start looking at defenses with a strong defensive line and ignore points allowed in leagues that reward you for sacks. In actual play, the Rams’ defense may be a laughing stock, but with 4 very strong pass rushers up front, they will get lots of sacks and force bad throws that result in picks. Sure, they will give up some points, if they grab you a few sacks every week and the occasional pick or fumble return for a score, the good outweighs the bad by miles.

4) Handcuffs are for criminals. Drafting Isaiah Pead just because you have Steven Jackson and he may get hurt is a waste of a pick. You should have enough viable running backs to slot someone in in the event of an injury, bye week, whatever.

5) Make a list. You are not a savant that can remember every player you may want. Write down a group of players for each round that you would want if they are available. Write down your flyers. Write down your guys to stay away from. When you get late into your draft and still need a tight end, and the clock is running down on you, you’re 7 beers deep, and your top 300 list you printed out has so many doodles and chicken scratches on it that it looks like an Etch a Sketch after a 9.7 earthquake, are you going to remember that tight end’s name on the Titans who a lot of guys are saying is going to put up better numbers than Antonio Gates this season? Maybe. Maybe not.

6) Never, ever, get insulting with your trash talk. If you crushed a guy, a little ribbing is called for. But rememember, you may need to make a deal or two over the course of your season, and people are way more willing to help out the nice guy than the douchebag. So after you just clobbered the guy, rather than, “Suck it, @#$%!!!!!” go with something like, “I thought you’d be walking a little funnier after this weekend! But don’t worry, we all take an ass kicking at some point during the year. I hope you don’t take out your revenge on me in playoffs. Let’s grab a beer, I got the first round.”

7) Check your line up Sunday morning. You can make changes up until just a few minutes before kick off and you don’t want a last minute scratch due to injury giving you a donut in your box score. If you can’t get to a computer on Sunday morning, do it Saturday night, and anyone with a “Q” next to their availability, just park ’em on the bench and play someone else. Take it from the guy who kept Roy Helu active in last season’s finals over Ahmad Bradshaw. Don’t ask what the final score was. Just… don’t.

So, without further ado, let’s get to the signal callers:

Positional Depth: (A to F grading system you would know better if you hadn’t ditched 90% of highschool) B. There’s a huge gap between the elite and the bottom feeder starters, moreso than any other position. However, in a ten team league, the tenth quarterback chosen still ought to post decent numbers.

Guy to Stay Away From: Robert Griffin III. Rookie, rookie, rookie. For every Cam Newton, there’s a half dozen JaMarcus Russells. You’re much better off with Carson Palmer who is going later in drafts. I can’t believe I just said that. Honorable mentions; Michael Vick, Peyton Manning, Matt Flynn. It’s perfectly fine to take a late pick on a guy with huge upside but who is injury prone, or a guy who has shined in limited action, but never seen full time duty. But these guys will be gone way before they should be.

Breakout Year: Andy Dalton. Decent line? Check. Super stud receiver? Check. Good ground game? Ch… ok, no. But starting as a rookie last season, he showed poise, accuracy, surprising arm strength, and durability. Don’t take him above the proven studs, but if everyone in your league is gobbling up quarterbacks like it’s a game of hungry hungry hippos, get your points with horses at other positions knowing that Andy will be available for you much later in your draft. Don’t wait too long though. Your buddies may have read this article.

Tip to Remember: Good quarterback doesn’t always mean good FANTASY quarterback. The two often do overlap, but just as often they don’t. Even though I’ve won a league with Joe Flacco as my primary quarterback, he should never be a target for you in your draft. In the “Nice detective work, Officer Obvious” department, neither should Alex Smith. He was terrific for a good Niners team last year, but borderline awful in fantasy. I’d rather take a terrible quarterback like the aforementioned Palmer, knowing that he hucks it down the field and just suffer with the interceptions.

Don’t Forget About: Phil Rivers. Remember when this guy was a fantasy behemoth? Of course you do. It was only two years ago. He wasn’t great last year but he’s much closer to the 2010 version of himself than the 2011 version. That’s an aggressive attack there in San Diego, and Vincent “The Most Overrated Receiver in Football” Jackson’s departure will only help Rivers. Honorable Mentions; Matt Schaub and Tim Tebow. When Schaub is healthy, which granted is only about as often as Haley’s Comet makes a visit, he has a terrific arm and an array of attractive targets. He has the ability to go on stretches of consecutive 300 yard games, but buyer beware. Because of the injury risk, only take him late in drafts and only if you already have another qb outside of the top 12 guys. No need for a backup if you have Brady. Also, Tebow is virtually a lock for 50 yards rushing when he starts, and who knows, may end up with the starting job. Not like Mark Sanchez is a sure thing. Sure, he’s pretty awful from a technical standpoint, but he had more good fantasy games than bad ones last year. Like Schaub, target him late and only if you don’t already have a stud.

That about does it for our quarterbacks. Stay tuned for running backs coming up… sometime before the season starts.

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