If you’ve been involved in fantasy football for a few years, you know that often there are one or two dominant players that everyone wants and you spend the draft hearing from a couple of guys who don’t have pick No. 1—or in rare years, picks No. 1 or No. 2— how their season is already over because of it. This happens when last year had a breakout star or there is a player so in the peak of his powers that everyone else looks like an also-ran.
The mid-aughts had this a-plenty. In 2006, you were supposedly doomed if you couldn’t get in the top three picks, two of which were Shaun Alexander coming off a record TD year, and Larry Johnson, who some people speculated could get 2500 yards and 30 touchdowns based on his last half of ‘05. In 2007, LaDanian Tomlinson was beyond coveted, having finished a season actually exceeding that touchdown level. The next year, running backs were still drafted first, but Tom Brady and Randy Moss were coming off the best QB-WR tandem season in history and broke into the top five in many drafts, a rarity at that time for non-running backs. And so on.
But the last couple of years, something’s changed. This year, there’s no one like that -- and last year, the top running backs had question marks creating a similar parity. I believe the top three running backs of Foster, Rice, and McCoy are almost interchangeable, and passing is so prevalent that quarterbacks will be drafted earlier than ever. When it comes to those QBs, Rodgers is the consensus No. 1, but you wouldn’t feel shortchanged by getting Brees or Brady. Similarly, Calvin Johnson is the clear No. 1 WR, but he will only break into the top five picks in a small percentage of drafts, all PPR, and I doubt he is multiple deviations better than Fitzgerald and company.
Therefore, there are no obvious No. 1 megastuds this year. And, that’s a really good thing.
For one thing, if megastuds came through with their expected performance, there wouldn’t be much drama to the season. Do you really want a league where someone was anointed with a playoff spot just because they had the first overall pick? Having more player parity leads to more strategy and that is always good. The better overall drafters -- and as the season goes on, managers and traders -- should, in theory, get to the playoffs more frequently than random. Personally, I think a good deal of the fun comes from having to decide whether Matt Forte or MJD is more likely to win you games, and they are close enough that deciding whom to draft depends on your league’s scoring system. To me, no-brainers are for wusses.
Just as importantly, however, is that megastuds are unicorns, mirages. Let’s say you got Shaun Alexander in 2006. You’d see his production drop over 1000 yards and 20 TDs from the prior year. You would have done better with Larry Johnson, who did have a solid 2006... and then was drafted top-3 in 2007 and never heard from again in fantasy terms. Both fell well below Tomlinson, who dominated all of fantasy that year, so drafters felt they just had to have LT the next year or their season was doomed. LT had an OK 2007 relative to the league, but his TD production was halved, his numbers were dwarfed by Brady and Moss, and in a PPR league, he was pretty much even with Brian Westbrook. For the record, Moss, and let’s throw in Westbrook, saw their numbers drastically decline in 2008. Brady -- who yours truly drafted in round one in 2008 -- played in half a game all season.
So, while past performance is the best predictor of future performance, breakout performance is not all that great a predictor. Most breakout performances are outliers in fantasy football and there is no such thing as a sure top player. The next time someone in your league goes on and on about how he has no chance because he didn’t get a top pick, remind him: the reason he has no chance isn’t that he doesn’t have the first pick; it’s that he’s not very good.