Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Fantasy Football: Best and Worst Picks of 2008

Fantasy football is by far the most popular fantasy sport around. This saddens me because, of the three major fantasy sports (baseball, basketball, and football), football is by far the worst. Its immense popularity can be attributed for the most part to its head-to-head format. Unlike baseball and basketball leagues, which utilize the Rotisserie format (whereby owners attempt to gain points in different categories, for the most part ignoring performance of other teams), in football two teams match up against each other every week. (Yes, I acknowledge that some baseball and basketball leagues employ a head-to-head system – I won’t get into exactly why this mechanism is flawed for those sports, but trust me that such leagues are reprehensible.) As such, every Sunday you wind up obsessively following not just your own team’s performance on an absolute basis, but how your players are faring compared to your opponent’s. Since you’re actively playing against a friend, sibling, or colleague, this mode of direct competition can be legitimately exciting.

Unfortunately, it is also completely unfair. The randomness inherent in head-to-head matchups often rewards inferior teams at the expense of superior squads, as teams’ schedules can be as crucial a component to their success as the talent of their actual players. By way of example, two years ago my friend Omar squeaked out an 8-6 regular season record and wound up making the playoffs, finished third, and won prize money; meanwhile, five other teams outscored him by greater than 100 points, only to finish 7-7 or 6-8 and watch the postseason from the sidelines (figuratively speaking). Similar inequities arise constantly in fantasy football – weighting matchups on a weekly basis will inevitably result in standings that range from mildly skewed to downright fallacious.

The natural counterargument, then, is to eliminate the head-to-head component and simply reward the teams with the most points. Sadly, this won’t work because nobody would play, and understandably so – when your guys only play once a week for 16 weeks, you damn well better get some enjoyment from watching them, and that enjoyment is derived from the head-to-head competition. This brings to light the other key issue with fantasy football, and that is sample size. The baseball season lasts 162 games, while basketball is 82 games; both are more than sufficient to constitute a statistically significant sample (trust me, I majored in applied math). But the regular season in fantasy football lasts just 14 games (Weeks 15 and 16 are reserved for the playoffs – Week 17 is omitted because many top players are often rested for the actual NFL playoffs). That’s hardly an adequate sample from which one can draw meaningful conclusions.

So, given all this grumbling, why am I writing this post? Popular demand, of course. Everyone loves playing fantasy football, including myself – despite my moral and mathematical objections, I get sucked into my league every year. And after analyzing the best and worst picks of my fantasy baseball draft, it’s only fitting for me to do the same for football. I’m a public servant, really.

(Oh, and if you’re skeptical regarding just how huge fantasy football is America, just walk into a sports bar on Sunday and sit down. If you don’t hear someone discussing their fantasy team within 30 seconds, you’re either deaf or in Pleasantville.)

Conducting the actual analysis, by the way, was less than stimulating for me. In Rotisserie leagues, people can endlessly debate players’ relative value based on how they contribute in different categories. In 2008, would you rather have owned Mark Teixeira (stud in OPS and homers, decent in runs scored, nothing steals), or Grady Sizemore (solid in OPS and homers, stud for runs, ton of steals)? That’s a subjective question, and answering it gave me an excuse to whip up some Z scores and apply some actual, nerd-level decision-making. Fantasy football, however, is point-based. You know how I know that Thomas Jones was more valuable than Michael Turner? Jones scored 287.5 points, while Turner scored 269.2. QED.

(For the record, my league’s scoring system includes a point-per-reception, and all touchdowns are worth seven points, including passing TDs. We start two quarterbacks, two running backs, two wide receivers, a tight end, a WR/TE flex, and a WR/TE flex. You’re probably in a league with a different scoring system and roster setup. I don’t care. Also, I’m ignoring kickers and defenses in this analysis, just because I can.)

So that isn’t all that exciting. Nevertheless, it’s still instructive – and, dare I say, a bit fun – to look back at the draft and see which picks were steals and which were stupid. On that note, remember that I tend to give injured players a pass on the “Worst Pick” label, since owners had the option to snag a replacement off the waiver wire. This is especially critical in football, when playing time means everything, and mere backups can become studs if the player ahead of them on the depth chart gets hurt. (Everyone who had Larry Johnson but not Priest Holmes two years ago is nodding happily.)

So let’s do it. The Manifesto presents the Best and Worst Picks of the 2008 Fantasy Football Draft:


FIRST ROUND

Best pick: Peyton Manning, Colts: The season started ominously for the NFL’s most commercially savvy superstar (and if you disagree with that assessment, try watching this without laughing). Multiple offseason knee surgeries – the first such operations of his career – led to rumors of a season-ending operation, and tossing four interceptions in his first three games did little to quell owners’ anxiety. They needn’t have worried. Peyton bounced back to do what he always does: 3,907 yards and 26 TDs to just 12 INTs (remember, we’re ignoring Week 17), ranking him seventh overall in the league. Apologies to: Brian Westbrook (1,276 combined rushing and receiving yards, 52 catches, 14 total TDs), LaDainian Tomlinson (1,440 total yards, 52 catches, nine TDs), Tony Romo (3,265 passing yards, 26 passing TDs).

Worst pick: Joseph Addai, Colts: Tom Brady is the obvious choice here, but he can’t really be blamed for missing the entire season. To be fair, Addai himself missed a handful of games with a shoulder injury; however, that fails to explain his dismal performance when he was on the field. He cracked 100 rushing yards just once and never topped 50 receiving yards, while finding the end zone just six times. As such, of all players in the league, Addai ranked just thirty-ninth among running backs and one hundred eighteenth overall. Pathetic. Sigh of relief to: Brady (injured).


SECOND ROUND

Best pick: Drew Brees, Chargers: My scoring system tends to favor quarterbacks, but in no way should that diminish Brees’ accomplishments this year. He obliterated the competition with 4,683 passing yards while throwing 30 TDs versus 16 INTs. All in all, he ranked as the second most productive fantasy player in the entire league. Apologies to: Andre Johnson (105 catches, 1,427 yards, six TDs), Maurice Jones-Drew (61 catches, 1,301 yards, 14 TDs).

Worst pick: Willis McGahee, Ravens: Carson Palmer was a complete bust, but his injury removes him from contention for this ignominious honor. Marques Colston ranked slightly lower than McGahee overall, but Colston played in just 10 games. McGahee appeared in 13 but disappeared in many, rushing for fewer than 20 yards four different times. He finished with just 795 total yards and six TDs, ranking him thirty-seventh among RBs and one hundred thirteenth overall. Sigh of relief to: Palmer (injured), Colston (40 catches, 637 yards), Larry Johnson (12 catches, six TDs).


THIRD ROUND

Best pick: Jay Cutler, Broncos: This is the part where the rest of my league gets upset, since both Manning and Cutler were my picks. Don’t blame me, blame the numbers. Cutler threw for 4,210 yards and 24 TDs – the ninth QB taken, he ranked as the fifth-best player in the entire league. Apologies to: Larry Fitzgerald (91 catches, 1,301 yards, 10 TDs), Donovan McNabb (3,741 yards, 21 passing TDs), Brandon Marshall (98 catches, 1,206 yards, six TDs).

Worst pick: Derek Anderson, Browns: Proof that not all quarterbacks are fantasy gold. Anderson’s 2007 season was astonishing, as he threw for 3,787 yards and 29 touchdowns. A repeat performance, however, was not in the cards, as he threw just nine TDs versus eight interceptions before giving way to Brady Quinn. As a fun anecdote, two picks after I took Cutler, my buddy Brian gleefully took Anderson, then spent the next two weeks ripping me for taking Cutler. Two weeks into the season, Cutler had 650 passing yards, six TDs, and just one interception, while Anderson had 280 yards, one touchdown, and two INTs. Of course, Brian managed to offload Anderson in a trade, since owners refused to give up on him. This became a recurring theme – in fact, Anderson was traded three times in the first six weeks of the season. Fantasy sports are strange. Sigh of relief to: Matt Hasselbeck (five TDs, 10 INTs, injured), Chad Ocho Cinco (53 catches, 540 yards, four TDs), Torry Holt (58 catches, three TDs).


FOURTH ROUND

Best pick: Anquan Boldin, Cardinals: Despite missing three games – two with a broken face – Boldin still piled up 1,105 yards and 11 TDs on 89 catches. He ranked as the third-best receiver in the game and fifteenth overall. Apologies to: Wes Welker (109 catches, 1,165 yards), Steve Smith (73 catches, 1,327 yards, six TDs).

Worst pick: Roy Williams, Lions: The pick before Boldin left the board, I snagged this troubled Detroit wideout. Whoops. Williams caught just 34 passes this year, and only two went for touchdowns. He ranked one hundred seventy-ninth overall, and 69 wide receivers scored more fantasy points. Nice trade, Cowboys. Sigh of relief to: Laurence Maroney (93 total yards, injured), Willie Parker (four catches, 688 yards), Kellen Winslow (43 catches, 428 yards).


FIFTH ROUND

Best pick: Philip Rivers, Chargers: When discussing Drew Brees earlier, I was all set to ridicule the Chargers for trading the QB who wound up as the second-best player in fantasy. Then I realized that Rivers, the guy they made room for, scored the most points in the entire fucking league. Tossing 32 TDs to just 11 interceptions, Rivers also threw for 3,802 yards en route to Fantasy MVP status. Not bad for a fifth-round pick. Apologies to: Thomas Jones (1,495 yards, 15 TDs), Michael Turner (1,532 yards, 16 TDs), Calvin Johnson (69 catches, 1,228 yards, 10 TDs). (Interestingly enough, the fifth round was loaded with talent, as all of these guys ranked among the top 20 players, making this the only round featuring four top-20 selections.)

Worst pick: Edgerrin James, Cardinals: For a guy who seemed to be declining in skills over the years, The Edge remained remarkably productive through the years – he ran for 1,222 yards last season, his fifth straight 1,000-yard campaign. This year? Not so much. With Tim Hightower and J.J. Arrington in the fold, James compiled just 493 total yards and caught only 11 passes (he had caught at least 50 five times in his career with the Colts), ranking him one hundred ninety-seventh overall (fifty-ninth among RBs). He sure looked good in the playoffs, but that’s little consolation to fantasy owners. Sigh of relief to: Jamal Lewis (four TDs), Santonio Holmes (52 catches, five TDs).


SIXTH ROUND

Best pick: Aaron Rodgers, Packers: While Brett Favre was terrorizing Jets fans in New Jersey, Rodgers quietly put up extraordinary numbers on an underachieving Packers team. In addition to throwing for 3,730 yards and 25 TDs, he also ran for four touchdowns while throwing just 13 interceptions. Count them all up, and he ranked as the third-best player in all of fantasy, behind only Rivers and Brees. Favre, taken 16 picks earlier, ranked forty-second. Apologies to: Greg Jennings (75 catches, 1,191 yards, nine TDs).

Worst pick: Selvin Young, Broncos: Every year Mike Shanahan destroys the value of every runner in his backfield (well, maybe not next year), but no one ever seems to learn. Young missed a number of games in 2008, but in those he did play he never topped 100 yards, and he caught just three passes all season. His final totals (319 yards, one touchdown) were abysmal for a sixth-round pick. Sigh of relief to: Vince Young (mentally injured).


SEVENTH ROUND

Best pick: Chris Johnson, Titans: A number of rookies put up stellar numbers in 2008, with this dynamo from East Carolina among the best. Johnson amassed 1,488 total yards and 10 TDs – the latter number is particularly extraordinary given that Johnson yielded the majority of goal-line carries to bruiser LenDale White (15 TDs). Running backs fly off of draft boards in fantasy drafts, but Johnson was the twenty-eighth back taken – he ranked seventh among RBs overall. Apologies to: Roddy White (85 catches, 1,338 yards), Tony Gonzalez (91 catches, 1,005 yards, nine TDs).

Worst pick: Matt Leinart, Cardinals: It’s one thing when a drafted player misses time due to injury; it’s another when he misses time because he’s just terrible. Over the first 14 weeks of the season, Leinart attempted exactly two passes, with the resurrected Kurt Warner leading the way for the Cardinals. (To be fair, the guy who drafted Leinart in my league – my buddy Jay – was somehow able to snag Warner four rounds later.) Sigh of relief to: Jon Kitna (five TDs, five INTs), Julius Jones (14 catches, two TDs).


EIGHTH ROUND

Best pick: DeAngelo Williams, Panthers: No phenomenon in fantasy football is more terrifying than that of the running-back-committee, and that was the modus operandi for the Panthers early in 2008, with Oregon rookie Jonathan Stewart all the rage among pundits. (Stewart went in round seven, 14 picks earlier than Williams.) Throw in the fact that the mercurial Williams had failed to top 750 rushing yards in either of his first two seasons in the league, and the public was generally down on the Memphis product. His stock didn’t improve three weeks into the season, at which point Williams had totaled a meager 159 total yards and had yet to find the end zone (Stewart, meanwhile, had already scored three TDs). So when my friend Frank traded J.T. O’Sullivan – a promising gunslinger operating in Mike Martz’s pass-happy offense – for Williams and JaMarcus Russell, my buddy Brian and I were incredulous, leading to an exchange that, courtesy of Gmail’s merciless archiving system, will be preserved for all time (the spelling and punctuation have been cleaned – the text, sadly, remains the same):

Brian: “I can’t believe Frank gave up O’Sullivan for DeAngelo freaking Williams. I would have given him more, but he just accepted it without checking with me. Why would you want anything to do with Williams?”

Me: “Dude, I know. Sharp thinking Frank.”

The next day I located a report from a Panthers beat writer indicating that Stewart’s role in the offense would be increasing shortly, thus damaging Williams’ questionable fantasy value even further. I immediately emailed the article to Brian, and together we scoffed at Frank’s poor judgment, bathing in the warmth of our intellectual superiority.

Well.

To be fair, Williams didn’t blow the roof off immediately afterwards – in his next game he gained just 63 total yards and again failed to score. And while he busted loose for three TDs his next game against the hapless Chiefs, he crashed and burned the week after against Tampa Bay, rushing for just 27 yards. The problem was that after that game, Williams scored a touchdown. He scored another the next week. In fact, to close out the fantasy season, DeAngelo Williams scored at least one touchdown in nine consecutive games. He scored two in two contests, and in two others he ran for FOUR. For the full season, he totaled an absurd 20 TDs to go with 1,458 total yards, ranking him as the fourth-best player in the entire league and the top overall running back.

And that, my friends, is why you never pass judgment on a fantasy trade too early in the season. Apologies to: Matt Forte (60 catches, 1,640 yards, 12 TDs, ranked second among all RBs behind Williams).

Worst pick: Joey Galloway, Buccaneers: Galloway, a former burner out of Ohio State, resurrected his career in Tampa Bay four years ago when he caught 83 balls for 1,287 yards and 10 TDs despite being 33 years old. Two more 1,000-yard seasons followed. This year, sadly, age caught up with him – he missed a handful of games and was highly unproductive when on the field, held without a catch multiple times. In total, he caught just 13 passes for 138 yards. Close the book on his career. Sigh of relief to: Rudi Johnson (12 catches, 325 yards, two TDs), Vernon Davis (28 catches, 351 yards, two TDs).


NINTH ROUND

Best pick: Hines Ward, Steelers: Proof that not all receivers yield to age, the cagey possession receiver put up another stellar campaign in his age-32 season. The thirty-fourth receiver off the board, Ward caught 75 passes for 977 yards and seven TDs, ranking him fourteenth among wideouts. Apologies to: Matt Ryan (3,280 passing yards, 15 TDs, only nine INTs), Kevin Smith (1,163 total yards, seven TDs).

Worst pick: Reggie Brown, Eagles: Though it pains me to place this dubious distinction on an Eagle, Brown’s uninspired performance this year left me no choice. Billed as Donovan McNabb’s top target heading into the year, he had difficulty staying healthy and was quickly passed on the depth chart, eventually serving as a healthy scratch. He caught just 17 passes for 245 yards. Sigh of relief to: Nate Burleson (injured), Tarvaris Jackson (817 passing yards, benched halfway through the year), J.T. O’Sullivan (eight TDs vs. 11 interceptions).


TENTH ROUND

Best pick: Vincent Jackson, Chargers: No one drafted in the tenth round put up electrifying numbers, but Jackson rewarded owners after he emerged as Philip Rivers’ top target in the second half of the year. He totaled 1,090 yards and seven TDs on 57 catches. Apologies to: Derrick Mason (74 catches, 960 yards).

Worst pick: Chris Perry, Bengals: I was pretty thrilled to snag Perry in the tenth round, especially once Rudi Johnson was released from the Bengals, positioning Perry as the starting tailback. The thrill wore off after it became clear that Perry simply sucked. He topped 50 rushing yards in a game only twice and finished the year with just 340 yards, eventually being passed on the depth chart by Cedric Benson. Sigh of relief to: Rashard Mendenhall (injured), D.J. Hackett (injured), Ahman Green (11 catches, 326 yards).

(That’s it for the “Worst Pick” section, we’re all positive from here on out.)


ELEVENTH ROUND

Best pick: Kurt Warner, Cardinals: After throwing 27 touchdown passes a year ago, Warner really had no business lasting this long, but no one expected him to perform as he did at 37 years old. The Christian with the Crazy Wife threw for an astounding 4,320 yards while firing 26 TDs to just 13 interceptions. Selected one hundred twenty-fifth in the draft, he ranked tenth overall at season’s end. Apologies to: Chad Pennington (3,453 yards, 17 TDs, just seven INTs).


TWELFTH ROUND

Best pick: Owen Daniels, Texans: The talent started thinning fast at this point, and Daniels was the best of a meager crop of twelfth-rounders. Though he found the end zone just twice, he caught 67 passes for 825 yards, solid numbers especially given how poorly tight ends performed this year (Daniels ranked fifth at the position despite being the fourteenth TE drafted). Apologies to: Justin Gage (651 yards, six TDs), Mark Clayton (648 yards, five TDs).


THIRTEENTH ROUND

Best pick: DeSean Jackson, Eagles: The Eagles’ most exciting rookie since Brian Westbrook, Jackson made headlines with his bone-headed play against the Cowboys early in the year, when he dropped the football on the one-yard-line while waltzing into the end zone. (Of course, when Asante Samuel did the same thing months later, no one cared.) He made up for it with steady production throughout the year, catching 60 passes for 962 yards and four TDs. The man-crush is growing. Apologies to: Jerious Norwood (749 yards, four TDs), Devin Hester (45 catches, 641 yards).


FOURTEENTH ROUND

Best pick: Joe Flacco, Ravens: Troy Smith’s early-season illness allowed this big Delaware product to step into the starting role, and he never relinquished it. The Ravens are hardly the ideal fantasy destination for a quarterback, but Flacco nevertheless threw 14 touchdowns and ran for two more while throwing for 2,674 yards. Expect even better numbers in his sophomore season. Apologies to: Isaac Bruce (59 catches, 824 yards, seven TDs).


FIFTEENTH ROUND

Best pick: Eddie Royal, Broncos: With super-stud Brandon Marshall suspended for the first game of the season, Royal showed off his skills right away, catching nine passes for 146 yards and a touchdown on the first Monday of the year. He slowed down little after that, finishing with 80 catches for 1,013 yards, ranking him seventeenth among receivers; in related news, 57 wideouts were selected ahead of him. (For the record, I howled in pain when my friend Laura took Royal one pick ahead of me. There are witnesses.)


SIXTEENTH ROUND

Best pick: Steve Slaton, Texans: The unequivocal steal of the draft, this is proof that focus during the latter rounds can pay huge dividends. After establishing himself as the starter in Houston, the tiny rookie out of West Virginia shredded enemy defenses, en route to 1,531 total yards and nine TDs. Slaton was selected at #181 overall, forty-eighth among running backs; at year’s end he ranked twentieth overall, eighth among RBs. Now that, my friends, is a killer last-round pick.

And as a little bonus:


BEST WAIVER WIRE PICKUPS

Quarterback: Matt Cassel, Patriots: Tom Brady’s season-ending knee surgery understandably sent waves of panic throughout New England, but it’s hard to imagine his backup acquitting himself to the pressure any better. Fitting comfortably into Bill Belichick’s scheme, Cassel passed for 3,615 yards and 21 TDs against just 11 INTs, also running for 251 yards and two scores, emerging as the thirteenth most valuable player in all of fantasy. Apologies to: Tyler Thigpen (2,417 yards, 17 passing TDs, four rushing TDs).

Running back: Pierre Thomas, Saints: Taking advantage of injuries to Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister, Thomas accumulated 909 total yards and an amazing 12 TDs despite getting just 160 touches. Apologies to: Kevin Faulk (57 catches, 985 yards, six TDs), Dominic Rhodes (45 catches, 840 yards, nine TDs), Derrick Ward (1,318 yards).

Wide receiver: Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers: Unemployed for the entire 2007 season, Bryant showed flashes of brilliance early in 2008 before simply exploding down the stretch: In the final three weeks of the fantasy season, he caught 21 passes for 435 yards and four TDs. For the full year, he finished with 80 receptions, 1,193 yards, and seven TDs. In related news, my buddy Chuck cut him in Week 5. Apologies to: Lance Moore (71 catches, 837 yards, eight TDs).

Tight end: John Carlson, Seahawks: With the exception of Tony Gonzalez, the tight end position was simply putrid in 2008. That said, Carlson managed nicely in his rookie season, catching 53 passes for 613 yards and five TDs. A healthy Matt Hasselbeck should only improve Carlson’s production next season. Apologies to: Visanthe Shiancoe (40 catches, 582 yards, seven TDs).


And that’s a wrap. Put your criticisms and snarky gripes in the Comments. I’ll be back in May with some exciting basketball analysis – till then, it’s Oscar season.

2 comments:

cbsavio said...

Basketball is not a fantasy sport.

cbsavio said...

7 of 16 "best picks" are QBs (5 of the first 6)! That is why I will continue to contest that QBs in this league are way too over valued.

It isn't really like that in football, I mean look at what the Titans have done with Collins and look at what the Eagles have done with that lame duck McNabb.