I love it when a plan comes together.
- John "Hannibal" Smith, The A-Team
Think for a moment about a NASA launch -- remember when we used to do those? Just as every rocket that has ever blasted off from the Earth's surface has had a specific mission, so does your fantasy team. Your team's mission is to win your league's championship. To accomplish that mission, you'll need a quarterback, two running backs, two receivers, maybe a flex guy, a TE, K and defense that can put up more points than your opponents in each week of the fantasy playoffs (typically Weeks 14-16 of the NFL season). The guys that you select for that mission are your payload.
The rest of your team is like the booster rockets and other assorted parts that help deliver that payload by ensuring that your team does well enough in the regular season to MAKE the playoffs -- and, ideally, make it with a favorable seed. Going undefeated in the regular season or winning the regular season points title are secondary mission goals. They're great things if they happen, but there are times when choosing a guy with a slightly lower projected point total can give you a much better shot of achieving your primary mission.
Now, for this philosophy to have any meaning on draft day, it means that you have to be able to make some predictions about the upcoming season -- obviously about the overall talent and opportunities of the players you'll be choosing from, but also about the caliber of the opponents they'll be facing to help you distinguish an attractive matchup from a tough one. Smart fantasy minds have had vehement disagreements as to whether this is really possible, but it's my position that it can be done.
That's why this strategy series will include a download on all 32 NFL defenses with a focus on what has CHANGED from last year. A stout 49ers defense that returns all 11 starters is a real good bet to be stout again, but what are the chances that a 2011 Bills team that had been reduced to a mockery of a defensive line could field three Pro Bowlers and a double-digit sack guy in the trenches for 2012? You'll almost certainly want your receivers to avoid Darrelle Revis and feast on DeAngelo Hall, but which young corners turned it on after rough starts last year and profile to be much tougher matchups this season? This series will help you answer those questions and identify the matchups that will be tastiest to target this season.
Is it possible to do all this with perfect accuracy? Of course not. Even the best personnel minds actually employed by the league get surprised by the unexpected success or failure of rookies and other young players, and no single factor impacts NFL outcomes as much as injuries. However, if you're up on the likely outcomes you'll have two crucial advantages over your opponents.
The first advantage is obvious -- if you're right about things, your players will be facing attractive matchups when it matters most. The second is less obvious, but can be even more crucial. Just by thinking in this way and getting used to looking weeks or months ahead into the schedule, you'll be more prepared than your league mates to react to the unexpected and turn trades and free-agent pickups to your advantage. When a NASA mission launches, they've pretty much got what they launched with and adapting takes some real Apollo XIII-style moxie. You have the advantage of changing your payload and support systems on the fly through trades and pickups as new situations arise and new information becomes available. This series will also include a piece on how to get off to a hot start so you can trade from a position of advantage and best prepare your team for the playoffs.
To get down into the details of how the Total Team Construction idea works in practice, let's take a look at how a hypothetical team gets built with TTC concepts in mind. There will be an infinite variety of rosters this season, but teams will tend to take one of five major approaches over the first few rounds:
1) The Stud Running Back Theory -- Many believe that the rise of the passing game and the demise of the workhorse back has made this time-honored strategy passé. The counter-argument is that with a scarcity of quality running backs, if you have two of them, you're looking at a major advantage over your league with plenty of good WR's still available.
2) The Balanced Approach -- Grab a running back, quarterback and wide receiver over the course of the first three rounds in order to let the next several rounds of the draft come to you, taking advantage of opportunities to add value without getting caught up in making a ‘need' selection.
3) The Elite QB -- Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady bring both sky-high scoring and consistency to the table in a way that sets them apart from their quarterback peers. In most draft rooms this season, you'll need to spend a first rounder to land them, though, which may take a top running back off the table.
4) The Elite TE -- Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham re-wrote the record books last season, and while a little regression may be inevitable, they look to stand head and shoulders above the rest of the position yet again. Owning one may give you a positional advantage more pronounced than any other, but is it worth a second-round pick?
5) The Calvin Johnson -- Draft Calvin Johnson in the first round and let the chips fall where they may.
For now, let's use the example of a team that's drafting sixth in a 12-team snake draft. The scoring system is pretty standard, with four points for passing touchdowns and a half a point per reception, and defenses don't score a lot. Our owner finds himself adopting the Stud Running Back Theory as the draft unfolds. The first five selections go Arian Foster, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Johnson and Rodgers, and our owner decides that the prospect of a bounce-back season makes Chris Johnson an extremely attractive choice.
As the draft makes its way back, our owner sees that there's still a guy he considers No. 1 back quality on the board despite injury concerns in Ryan Mathews and snags him with his second-round selection. In the third, he considers Michael Vick but likes the quarterback depth still out there and takes the best receiver on his board, who happens to be Marques Colston.
Here's what the team looks like so far:
With the first three rounds in the books, let's check in on our first couple of Total Team Construction Maxims as well as how the roster is shaping up with respect to the ultimate mission.
TTC Maxim No. 1: Never take a player in the first three rounds that you're not excited to have.
While you may have a pretty good plan as to the kind of team you'll construct based on your analysis, be prepared to be flexible if the draft takes an unexpected turn. You can win your league in a variety of ways, so never let a positional run or something unexpected make you take a guy you're not fired up about in the first three rounds. For some owners, Vick could have been a fine choice in the third, but if you're concerned about a guy's injury potential or don't like him for any other reason, don't take him! There's too much talent on the board in the early rounds to saddle yourself with a guy you aren't sure about.
TTC Maxim No. 2: Pure, raw value should be your only concern with your first three picks.
Another piece in this strategy series will detail how to use an NFL draft-style ‘Big Board' to help maximize the value of each selection. For now, our hypothetical drafter stuck to this approach pretty well -- he thinks there's enough quarterback talent in the mid rounds to make a Chris Johnson + mid-round quarterback combo more valuable than a Brady + lesser running back. He had actually planned to go running back/wide receiver with his first two selections, but when Murray fell to him he adjusted and grabbed a guy that he felt was several cuts above the remaining running backs.
And sure enough, when the draft got back to him, he was able to get a lead receiver in Marques Colston, who he felt just as good about as several wideouts who went off the board in the second. With those first three picks in the books, now it's time to check our progress against the primary mission -- making it to and winning in the playoffs. Let's expand the view of our team to check out its playoff (Weeks 14-16) matchups:
Mathews' picture isn't ideal -- he's facing a pretty tough Pittsburgh run defense in the first round and what should be a Top Three run defense in the Jets in the Fantasy Super Bowl. That's some stale bread surrounding the delicious meat of a hapless Panther run defense in Mathews' playoff sandwich. Murray's picture is somewhat better, but it's not ideal either. He's got that same Pittsburgh defense (with a 3-4 nose guard itching to devour his incompetent center to boot) and what should be a significantly improved Saints' run defense and a Cincy defense that's made some solid additions to its line.
The picture is sunnier for Colston -- he'll be facing an iffy Giants' secondary and a flat-out bad Tampa bunch before a somewhat tougher test against Dallas' rebuilt cornerback corps.
All in all, it's not terribly distressing, but neither is it what you'd have ideally drawn up if you wanted to dominate in the playoffs. Does this mean our owner should have drafted differently out of the gate?
Nope. Time for Maxim No. 3!
TTC Maxim No. 3: Worry about matchups from Round 4 onward -- use the rest of your team to fix any problems.
When you're putting your Big Board together, by all means use playoff matchups (or the overall strength/weakness of a guy's schedule) to break ties or arrange guys WITHIN a given tier. Rarely should they be used to move a guy up or down from the tier that his overall risk/reward profile dictates, and rarely should they be used to justify reaching down to a lower tier when drafting (and NEVER in the first three rounds)! When our owner made his choice in Round 1, he knew about Mathews' non-ideal playoff outlook but didn't drop down for a guy like Michael Turner despite Turner's attractive playoff matchups. Your top three choices have to play double duty out of necessity when it comes to your mission. Not only are they responsible for helping you win in the playoffs, they need to do more than anyone else to help you GET there. There was much too big a gap between Mathews' total point production and Forte's for a drop-down to make sense.
But with those top three selections on the board, it's time to give matchups some more consideration as our owner tries to build the best-functioning total team that he can. And with some potential tough playoff sledding for his lead backs, playoff matchups get a little more consideration as the draft moves onward.
And onward we go! When the fourth pick rolls around, our owner is looking at choices at four different positions.
His pre-draft analysis told him that the next tier of quarterbacks were similar enough to one another that they probably wouldn't start coming off the board until round five. A quality third running back looks attractive, but he keeps this almost-maxim in mind:
TTC Almost-Maxim: Get your starting slots filled first.
The reason this is an almost-maxim is that depending on the shape your team takes, your particular starters and the developing rosters of the teams ahead of or behind you in the draft order, it can make more sense to grab a third running back before a second wide receiver, or to wait on a tight end or quarterback while you grab a high-end third wideout. But by and large, your picks in the first few rounds are going to be playing the most for you, and you want to maximize those points. In this instance, our owner feels like the wide receiver position is going to take a dropoff soon and wants an every-week starter rather than a third running back who may only start three or four games all season. While he expects big seasons from both Gates and Finley, they both had some question marks and there are several good tight ends available, so wide receiver it is. He had already rated Jeremy Maclin highest in that group due to his more favorable playoff matchups, so he ends up fitting in very nicely for the fourth-round selection.
In the fifth, another interesting decision comes up. Our owner is high on Matt Ryan's potential in a hurry-up, spread-em-out scheme with more passes to his dynamic receiving duo as well as guys like Jacquizz Rodgers out of the backfield. Ryan is available along with two similarly rated guys in Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. Thing is, two backs that he'd originally rated as going a round earlier are also still on the board in Michael Turner and Stevan Ridley. He thinks that at least one of the three quarterbacks will be there with his next pick while those backs won't.
With time ticking down, he takes a quick look at the three quarterbacks' playoff schedules. Manning and Rivers each have two ugly-looking matchups -- Atlanta's Asante Samuel-infused secondary and Baltimore's all-around excellence for Manning, and a tough Pittsburgh pass defense plus the even tougher Jets for Rivers. With the primary goal of playoff success in mind, Ryan looks very attractive. But can he pass on a solid third running back?
Fortunately, our owner has done some additional draft preparation. Based on projected points and schedules, he's identified some guys at the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 tiers that are a good fit for his starters' bye weeks and for supporting any rougher spots in their schedules. Mark Ingram of the Saints matches up well -- he's got attractive matchups in both Johnson's and Mathews' bye weeks, and our owner likes Ingram's playoff matchups as well. Besides, our owner is high enough on Johnson and Mathews that he doesn't think he'll be starting anyone else at running back outside of bye weeks or injury. In case of injury, he can use handcuffs a few rounds later. Ingram should be available in the next round, so our owner grabs Matt Ryan. When the next turn comes up in round six, Ingram is there, so he's the pick. In round seven, the Lions' Brandon Pettigrew looks attractive -- not the least because his 22 red zone targets last season were fourth among tight ends. Let's take another look at our squad with seven rounds in the books:
Our owner likes the way things are shaping up. His earlier playoff concern has been mitigated with the addition of Matt Ryan and Jeremy Maclin, and he feels that his overall group of starters matches up well with anyone's. What next?
TTC Maxim No. 4: Once your starters are secure, go looking for upside.
In most drafts, you'll hit a point where your starters are locked in and it's too early to draft most handcuff-type guys. Now it's time to try and hit a few home runs. While the "opportunity trumps talent" rule should guide your starting selections, in the middle rounds look for guys whose talent could open up big opportunities. You won't be starting these guys more than a couple of times unless A) your starters get hurt, in which case their handcuff can step in, or B) your mid-round talent play starts outshining your starter. That's probably not going to happen if you pick Anquan Boldin or Santana Moss, but it could happen if Titus Young grabs the No. 2 job in Detroit and puts up 1,000 yards, or David Wilson's electric speed earns him the lion's share of the carries in New York. Let best-case scenarios rule the day here.
In the eighth, he goes with Detroit's Titus Young. He's still third on the depth chart, but our owner heard that he'd been wowing the Lions' coaches in camp and could easily become a 1,000-yard guy with a little bigger piece of the pass-happy pie in Detroit. In the ninth, the choice is the Raiders' Denarius Moore. If things go well for Moore, he can basically take over the Raiders' No. 1 receiver job, haul in deep strikes from a healed-up Carson Palmer and put together production similar toTorrey Smith, who went three rounds earlier. When the 10th rolls around, some of the top defenses have already gone off the board. Is it time to nab one?
TTC Maxim No. 5: Are defenses worth it? Know your rules.
There may be no position with more league-to-league variability in scoring rules than fantasy defenses/special teams. The old "wait on a defense" theory was born not only from the belief that they're largely unpredictable (which we don't buy in to) but also from the fact that a lot of scoring systems pretty much ignore them. If you're only able to score points for sacks, turnovers and touchdowns, then a lot of the better defenses look pretty much alike. However, other leagues offer bonuses for scoring (and penalties for defenses that get scored on too much), yardage bonuses for return touchdowns, two points for a sack, or any other number of additions that can make good defenses score on par with a No. 2 wideout or better. In those leagues, it can be well worth it to grab TWO good defenses with complimentary matchups and go into almost every week with an advantage over your opponent. In our hypothetical league, however, there's not much in the way of defensive scoring, so our owner is fine with waiting. In the 10th, he grabs a back in Isaac Redman, who could start the first couple of weeks while Ryan Mathews might be out. In the 11th, he opts for more upside in the Bears' Alshon Jeffery. The rookie has been impressing in camp, and while he may get off to a slow start, he's a solid bet to develop into a red zone threat later in the season. In the 12th, he picks up Pierre Thomas. If Ingram gets hurt, Thomas can step right in and provide good RB3 production in the high-powered Saints offense. Why take Thomas over the backups for his starting running backs?
TTC Maxim No. 6: Grab your handcuffs once their expected value is right.
The time to take a handcuff is when their expected value to YOUR TEAM exceeds anyone else's on the board. For a lot of handcuffs, earlier rounds make sense. Guys like Michael Bush, Jacquizz Rodgers and LeGarrette Blount may be worth a mid-rounder to those who own Matt Forte, Michael Turner and Doug Martin. But not all teams' backup situations are created equal. While those backs have clear paths to the lead back role if their starters go down, the San Diego backfield is much more muddled. Lead backup Ronnie Brown is decrepit, but apparently ticketed for some third-down duty. Aging fullback/halfback Le'Ron McClain is on hand to maybe be a slower version of what Mike Tolbert had been in San Diego, while likely third running back Jackie Battle isn't going to impress anyone. This backfield likely becomes a muddled mess if Mathews goes down -- there's no clear handcuff to be had here.
He waited a while on a backup quarterback since he's confident in Matt Ryan's every-week performance (he rated Ryan's schedule as by far the most attractive of any QB) and durability, but in the 13th round, he pulls the trigger on Josh Freeman. Our owner's not too high on Freeman, but thinks he does have some bounce-back potential, and likes that Freeman has a shootout-type matchup with the Saints looming during Ryan's bye week.
In Round 14 it's finally defense time, and our owner plucks the Bills' defense off the board. They'll give up some points, but that doesn't really matter in this league. The prospect of the Bills' rebuilt defensive line is attractive, and as the defensive picture resolves over the first month, it should be easy to make waiver wire moves if need be. In the 15th round, there are still a few solid tight ends like Brent Celek and Jermaine Gresham on the board, but you know what? It's time for another maxim!
TTC Maxim No. 7: What do you need a backup tight end for, anyway?
It's much tougher to play matchups with tight ends than it is with running backs and wide receivers, and if you have a strong No. 1 tight end, then there's very little upside to carrying a backup on the roster.There's enough depth at the position that you can just grab a guy for your starter's bye week, and also probably find a guy you can survive with should your starter miss time with injury. There are some anomalous situations like Fred Davis' suspension that can make it worth drafting two tight ends, and if you waited on the position, it can make sense to grab two higher-upside guys like Jared Cook and Kyle Rudolph and see how things pan out. But on the whole, if you're happy with your starting tight end, then use that slot for a guy who's more likely to help out your total team concept. In the 15th, that's Austin Collie of the Colts. The late word is that he'll likely be cleared to start the season and should hold down the No. 2 receiver job in the Colts' standard two tight end/two wide receiver sets, and then move into the slot when Indy goes three-wide. That's a lot of time on the field for a team that's going to throw it a ton.
And now, we've reached the 16th round -- that bittersweet moment when the most fun night of the year draws to a close. That means it's kicker time!
TTC Maxim No. 8: Handcuff your kicker to a top starter -- within reason.
Most every publication will tell you to wait until the last round to take a kicker. The logic here is pretty much sound -- kickers' performance (both in terms of their scoring opportunities and accuracy) vary so much that it's hard to distinguish one from the other at draft time. Of course, Stephen Gostkowski is a lot better bet than Phil Dawson to score points, but within that upper echelon of guys it's as much a crap shoot as anything. If it's a crap shoot anyway, though, then why not get a guy who'll be best suited to help you attain the week-to-week consistency that ups your expected win total? If you have a lead back like Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy or DeMarco Murray, or a quarterback from a red zone pass-happy offense like Matthew Stafford or Drew Brees, a big part of your team's success is banking on their successful conversions in the red zone. But if Foster comes up an inch short or a pass skips off Marques Colston's fingertips, you're in better shape if you have the kicker who'll be coming out for a gimme three points. Three points isn't pretty compared to six, but in the immortal words of legendary Longhorns' coach Darrell Royal, "Ol' ugly is better than ol' nothin'." In most cases, your "lead dog" should be coming from a high-output offense anyway, so his team's kicker should be a solid choice. This approach by no means applies to Trent Richardson owners.
So, there you have it -- an example of how the Total Team Construction philosophy can help you assemble a roster where every part works together to help you bring the title home where it belongs. A final look at our owner's roster:
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