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Sunday 22nd Oct 2017

Each Friday, the inimitable Lord Zola explores the grid iron, fantasy football, and other variations upon the theme.

Last weekend, I had the privilege of participating in the FLEX Standard League, a brainchild of Jake Ciely from the RotoExperts. He’s undertaking the daunting task of putting together the fantasy football equivalent of Tout Wars and LABR, and based on the motley crew he assembled, he’s probably going to pull it off.

My league is non-PPR without the usual kicker position and instead we use a second flex. After all, we are called FLEX (which stands for Fantasy League of Experts). It’s no secret I’m not fond of the X part, but Fantasy League of Industry Analysts just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

My strategy in football is even more conservative than baseball. My philosophy is to draft a team that is safe and competitive and then work the wire in-season to upgrade as many spots as possible. It has served me well in my home leagues but admittedly isn’t so effective in the high-stakes arena, as that’s really a total points contest disguised as a head-to-head format and my style plays best in head-to-head. My goal is to make the playoffs with a team that is better than I drafted.

And that’s what I looked to do in FLEX Standard. As such, there will be a couple of questionable picks but I’m fine with that. I should also note that with an extra flex, I wanted to make sure I had three, if not four running backs I would be willing to start as running backs and not just flex. I am fully aware of the zero-RB fad that is sweeping the nation and actually agree in principle that it can be an effective ploy – but not at the expense of a viable running back on the board. My feeling is I’ll take a wide receiver if I have him ranked above the available running backs; I won’t reach for the running back.

With that as a backdrop, here’s my squad. And no, we aren’t simulating the 2012 season, though I wish we were.

1.04 Adrian Peterson – coming into the draft, I was a little leery of taking Peterson but after talking to a few of the guys playing in the PPR league, I was assuaged. I was also told that in standard, I likely wouldn’t have to worry about it as All-Day would probably go top-three. LeSean McCoy went first, then Jamaal Charles. Demaryius Thomas was next, leaving me with Matt Forte or Peterson. I like Forte a lot and he’s my #1 guy in PPR, but based on the soothing words of some of my brethren along with group-source rankings in a non-PPR league, Peterson was the choice.

2.09 Doug Martin – this is my baseball philosophy bleeding over to football. This time last year, I could have been writing about Martin as the first round pick. Sure, he had a bad season and he’s not as explosive as some other runners, but I want solid and feel Martin will bounce back this season.

3.04 Frank Gore – if you didn’t like the Martin pick, you’ll hate this one. I’m not completely warm and fuzzy about it (especially since I failed to get Carlos Hyde) but with 2 flex spots, I took Gore since there really weren’t any wideouts I liked – or that I didn’t think I could get next. I know there’s talk of a reduced workload and a risk that Gore has carried the ball a ton the past several seasons, but I think when push comes to shove and the defensive-minded 49ers are protecting a lead, they’ll turn to the veteran to close things out.

4.09 Andre Johnson – the industry shies away from older players, perhaps rightfully so, but I suspect Johnson has at least one more good season left in the tank.

5.04 Julian Edelman – yeah, I know, it’s not PPR, but my goal early on is for steady, reliable production and that’s what Edelman will provide. Sometimes I think high-catch receivers are downgraded too much in standard; they still get yards and score touchdowns.

6.09 Vernon Davis – hey look, an upside pick. I was looking to pick off Dennis Pitta later but decided to take a shot at a difference-maker. Health is an issue but Davis could be the lead receiver on the 49ers and is a downfield threat as well.

7.04 Steven Jackson – I needed to get the average age back up there. I see Jackson much like Gore, but to a slightly lesser degree.

8.09 Reggie Wayne – I’m a big T.Y. Hilton fan but feel there’s plenty to go around in Indianapolis. Keep in mind that even though Wayne is my WR3, I’ve got the flex covered, thus this is akin to taking Wayne for my second flex and I doubt anyone would be all that upset about that.

9.04 Andrew Luck – love, love, love this pick. After the big-three, I like Luck next. I’m old school; while I love watching the running quarterbacks, give me a pocket passer every time. The fact he can move a little makes it even better.

10.09 James White – call it a homer pick if you want but after I fill in my active lineup is when I start taking chances. I missed out on Hyde as well as Andre Williams. White’s stock was rising at the time of the draft, so I jumped.

11.04 Robert Woods – my personal rule of thumb is to take a lesser receiver if he has a better quarterback as opposed to a better receiver with a lesser signal caller, but I went against that with the talented Woods. If EJ Manuel can do anything, Woods will likely jump up into my active lineup pretty quickly.

12.09 Brandon LaFell – I was hoping for Aaron Dobson as an Edelman hedge but opted for Plan B. Someone will emerge as Tom Brady’s go-to guy, and that’s usually a good guy to have.

13.04 Carolina Panthers – confession time, I was unprepared for this pick and while I won’t call it a panic pick since I really like the unit, I thought calling out a fifth skills position player that was off the board would be bad form. I forgot this was the quicker comeback pick and the imitable Eric Mack was putting on a show next to me.

14.09 Jacquizz Rodgers – I realize Devonta Freeman is the better handcuff to Jackson in non-PPR, but I missed out on him too (I was told after the draft that many thought the younger backs went early). Rodgers offers some measure of support in case Jackson is hurt to begin the season or gets hurt.

15.04 Kenbrell Thompkins – shoot, may we well get them all and increase the odds of lucking into a WR3/flex.

16.09 Miles Austin – I can’t imagine Josh Gordon gets off scot free and Austin stands to benefit.

There ya go – not the sexiest group but I promise I’ll have a better squad in 15 or 16 weeks when the fantasy playoffs begin.

Sorry to be so short this week but I am (believe it or not) entrenched in the preparation of our initial projection set for the release of the 2013 Baseball Platinum content, scheduled for December 1. Plus, the soon to be referenced research took a little time to crunch.

Earlier in the season, I spent some bandwidth waxing poetic on the strategy of drafting a defensive/special team unit late in the draft and playing the matchup game to maximize weekly point output. I have done this for three squads and I thought it would be fun to see how things stand after nine games.

Long story short is I don’t own (on the average) the lowest scoring D/ST in any of the leagues (all 12-teamers), but I’m in the 8-10 range. In fact, my aggregate score is lower than if I drafted the #13 defense and just played them every week. So on one hand I “came out ahead” so long as I was not the worst team, but on the other, I could have done a (much) better job choosing the unit I deploy each week.

Speaking of defenses, what the Chicago Bears are doing is historical as they are on the verge of matching the record number of defensive touchdowns for a season. Sure, the squad is good, but there is a great deal of luck involved with taking it to the house so many times when the other team snapped the ball. In fact, if you can find a taker, selling high on Da Bears isn’t the worst idea. Not only are they unlikely to keep racking up the pick sixes and fumble returns, but they have Houston and San Francisco in the next couple of weeks and Green Bay during week 15, which is no doubt a fantasy playoff week. On the other hand, they do have Minnesota twice along with Seattle in between, plus a juicy tilt versus Arizona in week 15, most Fantasy Super Bowls.

I’ll take kickers for $500 Alex.

And the answer is…

Lawrence Tynes, Matt Bryant and Blair Walsh.

Who are the top three kickers in the league after nine weeks?

Sorry, but I’ll never take a kicker before my last pick ever again.

That reminds me of a funny story, though I can’t imagine it will be all that humorous in this format, but I pinky swear it’s true. It was the fall of 1990 and I was about to try this fantasy football thing for the first time. It was a total points league and I was befuddled as the first six picks came off the board. My turn came at number seven as I was elated as the guy I wanted was somehow still there. So my first ever pick in any fantasy sports league was none other than Pete Stoyanovich, who I projected to lead the league in scoring, based on our system (which was basically a touchdown league). I still play in that league and am annually reminded of it every August, as well I should be.

One quick prediction: the newfangled strategy of drafting a QB early will be laid to rest after this season. With emerging ball carriers like Trent Richardson, Doug Martin and C.J. Spiller, the conventional credo will once again be running backs early.

Well, so much for my grand plan of uncracking the key to choosing defenses. Here is what I determined, none of which is particularly cutting edge analysis. As suggested last week, one or two D/ST units are going to pace the field, but determining which ones is at present a crapshoot, though I am convinced there are means to improve your chances. I just need more time to narrow in on the answer. As might be intuitively obvious, what separates the outlying defenses each week are defensive or special teams scores, which are fairly unpredictable. I suspect it may be just as important if not more so to focus on the opponent as opposed to looking for a defense good at scoring touchdowns. That is, the better call could be to find teams more likely to give up defensive scores and play that D/ST. Teams that turn the ball over are prime candidates.

But here’s the problem, at least for this week. We have juggled the publishing day and Fourth and Goal will now be a Thursday feature and I have not been able to put all the data together to really look at this. It doesn’t help that football data is not quite as accessible as comparable baseball data, so there is more grunt work and picking apart of box scores necessary.

That said, the real problem is this leaves me without a topic for today. But, my buddy Lawr says he and I have been doing this so long, we can write 1000 words on anything, so I guess this is my chance to prove him right – and I’m already up to 275 words!

So here are some random thoughts:

The knee-jerk reaction is to spend big FAAB bucks on the guys that produce during the first couple weeks of the season, but as my fellow writers Ryan Carey and Perry Van Hook have warned, this is dangerous. If you look, every week there are out of nowhere performances that will end up being the player’s best week. It’s just that they stick out so much during the first week or so. That said, we are beginning the time of the season where the players emerge that will in fact take hold of the job and run with it the rest of the season. Coaching staffs have a better feel for their team’s talent and identity and play to that.

An example of this could be Alfred Morris. One of my favorite terms is Shanahanigans – referring to Washington Redskins’ Coach Shanahan’s proclivity for messing with the heads of fantasy enthusiasts by being so unpredictable with whom he starts at running back. This sort of reminds me of Bill Parcells when he first came to New England. Tuna had the reputation of being a defensive minded guy, very much reliant on ball control and the running game. Enter first overall pick Drew Bledsoe and suddenly Parcells skippered a squad featuring a staunch aerial attack. The best coaches adapt to the situation as opposed to forcing their team to adapt to their style. Perhaps Shanahanigans is more a result of Shanahan not having a talented enough back to be the bell-cow and now he feels Morris can handle the job.

I admit to being old-school but put me in the minority of fantasy players that does not think PPR makes the game better. To me, it is a little like fantasy baseball adapting to the 5x5 format from 4x4, adding runs for hitter and strikeouts for pitchers. The result in both is to add a safety net to decisions, taking out some of the strategy of risk mitigation. I know both are supposed to add additional players to the available pool, and both of course do, but by doing so, your decision is made a little easier. Lesser pitchers are more valuable so long as they get innings and strike some guys out. Same for receptions, as running backs whose job it is to be a last resort when the offensive line breaks down and the primary receivers are covered downfield get rewarded. I know there are some receivers integral to the passing game, but they amass yardage so they get credit. I don’t know, it just bothers me that a 10 yard TD run is generally worth 7 points (including standard bonus) while a 10 yard TD catch is worth 8 in a PPR league.

We were very high on Matt Ryan coming into the season but I have to admit, he has passed my expectations. In the name of full disclosure, I am a Boston College season ticket holder and watched Matty Ice in person for his tenure at The Heights. It’s just weird to me that he is now being mentioned in the same breath as Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. I’ve been following football for almost the entirety of the near 50 years I have spent on the planet, and as long as I can remember, quarterbacks have always had a different aura about them – an ethereal presence if you will. I’m just having a tough time wrapping my head around the fact that Ryan could be approaching that level. It’s a little weird to realize that’s the same guy you saw play on Saturday afternoons.

I’ll end this rambling with a little pep talk. Unless you play in a high stakes league which may give the front of being head-to-head but is really a points contest, all you need to do is get into the playoffs. The season starts now. Hopefully you are at worst 2-3, but even if you are 1-4 or heaven forbid, 0-5, it is not too late to make a run and get in playoff contention. In 12-team leagues that have 6 playoff spots, inevitably there are 6 and 7 win teams that make the playoffs. If only 4 make it, usually closer to 8 or 9 wins is necessary, but there is always that division where the teams are really close, so a squad at or about .500 takes the division. With byes in full force, maybe you pick up some momentum due to superior depth. I’ve gone from 0-5 to 8-5 and a playoff run leading to a league championship birth. I lost in the finals, but the point is I made it. If I can do it, so can you. Expect you can win it all.

I thought I would finally dip my toes into the daily football leagues, using some of my winnings from the Draft Street Fantasy Baseball Freerolls to fund an entry this week. I opted for a salary cap format where you assemble a squad by keeping your lineup under a set dollar amount, using the salaries set by the site. Of course, the better players cost more and after perusing the numbers, Draft Street also takes into account the matchup and adjusts accordingly.

As always, the key to this set-up is identifying the low end entities that allow the deployment of high end studs. Unfortunately, while I have followed the season to this point, I admit I’m not as intimate with the inventory as usual so my ability to peg the break-out guy is going to be limited. My intention was to look for injury replacements, but dang it if Draft Street wasn’t all over that, elevating the prices of potential injury substitutes.

While I may make some alterations based on late breaking news, I am especially interested in the Andre Brown/Ahmad Bradshaw scenario, here is my initial foray into the daily football world.

QB: Aaron Rodgers – I usually start cheap and fill in with the stars, Rodgers was a must-have so I plunked him in there and built around him. I am a bit concerned that the Packer wide outs are a bit dinged up but Rodgers throws to laundry, he doesn’t seem to care about the name on the back of the uniform. So long as it is the same color as his, Rodgers is cool with it.

QB: Ben Roethlisberger – The Steelers are a pass-first squad now and Big Ben takes full advantage. Washington’s defense in vulnerable and I expect a huge day for Roethlisberger.

RB: Rashad Jennings – Going so strong at QB means I am going to be light at running back (which may propel me to enter a second squad with cheaper QB’s and top tier RB’s). Jennings is taking the spot of Maurice Jones-Drew and will be the bell-cow for the Jaguars for the next few weeks. I like the fact he will be active in the passing game and the Jags are going to need to air it out to (try to) keep up with Green Bay.

RB: Jonathan Dwyer – I don’t love this pick but due to salary constraints they all can’t give you the warm and fuzzies. If Bradshaw is out for the Giants, I may try to squeeze Brown into this spot, but short of that, I’ll take my chances on a starter going against a week D, even though I am already playing the Pittsburgh QB.

WR: Reggie Wayne – I was hoping Wayne would be in the bargain bin, but Draft Street had him priced with the elite, but I am still sufficiently bullish on the Colts’ receiver that I found a place for him. Wayne is showing that he was not just a product of Payton Manning. I expect another huge effort.

WR: Nate Washington – Here’s another salary cap casualty, though with Matt Hasselbeck getting another start, Washington has a chance to put up another solid effort, which is all I really need.

TE: Heath Miller – I wanted another piece of the Steelers’ passing attack and thought Miller provided a good bang for the buck, along with filling a positional need.

FLEX: Alex Green – My main hesitation with this pick is my bed of knowledge about Green is strictly from reading and hearing about him, I have yet to see him play myself. So I am relying on the optimistic ranking of the sources I trust, even though like Dwyer, I am also utilizing Green’s signal caller.

FLEX: Steven Jackson – Jackson is running with a purpose and with the Patriots’ sieve like defense, I expect Jackson to have a decent day and find the end zone.

D/ST: Detroit - Here is where I struggled the most as I kept bouncing in different defenses in an effort to maximize the flex spots. I looked at Cleveland and New England before finally settling on the Lions. The interesting aspect of D/ST scoring is you are docked half a point for each point allowed. This means you can’t just take the lowest priced unit and hope they sneak in a handful of sacks or turnovers. You have to be cognizant of the points they may allow.

So there’s my squad, pending injury or even weather changes. After writing it up, I am really considering going with an alternate squad with stud running backs and weaker quarterbacks. Good thing I hit on multiple baseball entries so I have the bankroll to experiment a bit with house money.

I admit it. I started the Arizona Cardinals defense and special teams in a couple of leagues this week, which means next to Chipper Jones, I am the second most bummed out guy in the country.

But, it got me thinking. I am a staunch proponent of defensive darts, the act of trying to find the best available D/ST on the waiver wire any particular week. After the St. Louis defense ran circles around the Arizona defense in a fantasy sense, I began to question this ploy, until I crunched some numbers. Now I know beyond a shadow of a doubt it is absolutely the smart play. I just need to figure out how to increase my chances of choosing wisely. We’ll do that next week. This week I’ll share the data I discovered in an effort to convince you never again to take a defense early, regardless of their reputation. Not only that, they present repercussion of this data screams don’t hesitate to drop your defense if they are on bye to pick up another one, there is no reason to carry more than one assuming you have weekly waivers.

To simplify things a bit, I am going to use a league I run as the experimental model. The D/ST is pretty standard with a couple of quirks. Sacks and turnovers are worth 2 points; TD’s are each six with those over 50 yards doubles. A modest five points is awarded for a shutout, three points given for 2-9 points, two points for 10-16 and one points for 17-20.

We’ll start easy and show the average points per team:

1 Detroit Lions 13.5
2 Baltimore Ravens 12.9
3 San Francisco 49ers 12.8
4 Chicago Bears 12.4
5 Philadelphia Eagles 12.3
6 Green Bay Packers 11.9
7 Seattle Seahawks 11.8
8 New York Giants 11.6
9 New England Patriots 11.3
10 Cincinnati Bengals 11.3
11 New York Jets 11.3
12 Houston Texans 11.1
13 Buffalo Bills 10.9
14 Denver Broncos 10.5
15 Atlanta Falcons 10.1
16 Jacksonville Jaguars 10.0
17 Minnesota Vikings 9.8
18 Arizona Cardinals 9.8
19 Dallas Cowboys 9.8
20 Kansas Chiefs 9.7
21 Oakland Raiders 9.4
22 Miami Dolphins 9.3
23 Tennessee Titans 9.3
24 Pittsburgh Steelers 9.2
25 Washington Redskins 8.8
26 New Orleans Saints 8.6
27 San Diego Chargers 8.5
28 St. Louis Rams 8.4
29 Carolina Panthers 8.1
30 Cleveland Browns 7.9
31 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 7.8
32 Indianapolis Colts 7.3

To be perfectly honest, this alone should suffice to make my point. On average, over the course of the season, the top defense averaged a whopping 2.4 more points than the twelfth ranked team. In other words, if you drafted the Lions and played them each week, you barely averaged more than two more points than your opponent with respect to D/ST scoring each week.

Now let’s share some data that is really intriguing. The following shows how many weeks each team finished in the top-12 of D/ST scoring last season.

1 Detroit Lions 8 1
2 Baltimore Ravens 10 3
3 San Francisco 49ers 11 1
4 Chicago Bears 8 1
5 Philadelphia Eagles 9 0
6 Green Bay Packers 12 1
7 Seattle Seahawks 7 3
8 New York Giants 9 1
9 Cincinnati Bengals 7 0
10 New York Jets 8 1
11 New England Patriots 8 1
12 Houston Texans 8 1
13 Buffalo Bills 6 1
14 Denver Broncos 6 0
15 Atlanta Falcons 6 0
16 Jacksonville Jaguars 4 1
17 Arizona Cardinals 7 0
18 Minnesota Vikings 6 1
19 Dallas Cowboys 8 0
20 Kansas Chiefs 4 0
21 Oakland Raiders 8 0
22 Miami Dolphins 7 0
23 Tennessee Titans 5 0
24 Pittsburgh Steelers 8 0
25 Washington Redskins 4 0
26 New Orleans Saints 4 0
27 San Diego Chargers 5 0
28 St. Louis Rams 4 0
29 Carolina Panthers 4 0
30 Cleveland Browns 4 0
31 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 5 0
32 Indianapolis Colts 4 0

While you may disagree, I find the fact that even the best team was only worthy of an active roster spot for half the season to be pretty compelling reasoning to play musical defenses. Granted, three teams were in the top-12 ten or more times, but even this equates to at most three-quarters of the season.

Now here's the data that really caught my eye and sort of ties everything together. Here is the average weekly points for the top-12 teams from last season:

rank points
1 29.5
2 22.6
3 20.3
4 18.2
5 16.9
6 15.4
7 14.4
8 13.2
9 12.8
10 11.6
11 11.3
12 10.7

I find it most interesting that every week, there seems to be a team that significantly outpaces the rest. Based on our data above, 13 different teams led the way in scoring that week, with only two teams leading in multiple weeks.

Why not roll the dice and try to be one of those teams? The chief reason this is so entertaining is there is limited downside. So you don't get it right. Chances are you still come close to choosing a roster-worthy defense (unless you chose the Cardinals this week) so you won't cost yourself the victory. On the other hand, you have a chance of gaining a significant edge if you can nail a top-three defense.

To me, that is the key. This game is all about risk and reward and there is limited risk but a healthy reward to playing defensive roulette. I suspect the same can be said for kickers, but that's a discussion for another time.

As part of this column each week, I have posed a series of "who would you start" matchups. In lieu of that, the homework assignment this week is to rank the top-12 defenses for the remaining games and offer some brief explanation. I will share mine in the forums and we can compare to the actual results next Tuesday.

As alluded to earlier, I am going to spend the week researching angles to best choose a defense which I will present next week. We'll then repeat the top-12 exercise to see if we fare any better.

Good luck this week and here's hoping your defense plays more like the Rams did Thursday and not the Cardinals.

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