The key to success in fantasy football relies upon the same principle players and coaches use on the field: creating favorable matchups.
The application of this premise forms the foundation for the reasoning behind waiting to draft a quarterback; of the top 10 fantasy scorers last season in standard leagues, nine were signal-callers. The depth at the position is considerable. In a 12-team league, you can be the last person to take one and still win your league.
Taking Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers over Tony Romo or Eli Manning doesn't create a significant matchup advantage. But what those elite players do offer is critical to fantasy success: consistency. There are plenty of players who are capable of going out and getting 20-plus fantasy points on a given week, but doing it on a consistent basis is a whole separate beast.
It's why you see Jimmy Graham listed as high as No. 2 overall on some rankings. Based on matchups, there's an honest case for drafting Graham at No. 1 given that his production is so much greater than that of his positional peers, particularly this year with Rob Gronkowski's injury.
Gross fantasy stats can be misleading for this very reason -- there's no way of knowing when those points were collected and how. You can't predict when Doug Martin is going to score 50 points, but you know he's capable of it. Reel off a few monster weeks and at the end of the year the stats look pretty rosy. That makes the Muscle Hampster a sexy pick, but Martin scored 20-plus three times last season and scored single-digit points four times. More than 32 percent of his season total was scored in Weeks 8 and 9 combined. That's not a recipe for success throughout the course of the season, but he can single-handedly win a week.
Let's look at a few examples, broken down by position to see how this plays out:
Jamaal Charles and Trent Richardson were 8th and 9th, respectively, at the running back position last year in terms of total fantasy points, according to Fantasy Pros. Charles was a top-10 fantasy running back seven weeks, while Richardson scored top-10 fantasy points eight times over the course of the season. Pretty much even, right?
Not quite. Richardson was in the top 20 a whopping 11 times in 2012, while Charles was only in the top 20 eight times. That difference may not seem like much, but given that a fantasy season is only 13 or 14 weeks, three off-weeks may be the difference between making the playoffs or sitting them out.
Charles also had seven fantasy starts scoring just single digits, whereas Richardson -- who only played in 15 games -- only had four.
On the flip side, Charles scored 20-plus points three times; Richardson only did that once. Charles' five best scoring weeks were 20 points better than Richardson's best five. Simply put, when Charles is rolling, he's a game-changer and a week-winner; however, he's just not always rolling. Richardson isn't going to win you weeks on his own, but he's going to give you strong fantasy production every start.
The best running backs last season in terms of consistently scoring among the top 10 in fantasy points:
1. Arian Foster (11 times)
2. Adrian Peterson (10 times)
3. Marshawn Lynch (9 times)
T-4. Alfred Morris (8 times)
T-4. Trent Richardson (8 times)
T-4. Doug Martin (8 times)
T-7. Ray Rice (7 times)
T-7. Jamaal Charles (7 times)
T-7. C.J. Spiller (7 times)
Notice the only player being drafted in the first round based on ADP to not make the above list is LeSean McCoy, who was a top-10 back only twice last season. It's unlikely that will happen again, but consistent touches, particularly with a well-stocked backfield in Philly, could be a concern moving forward.
Previous success is not always the perfect indicator of future success, but the drop-off in talent beyond this list is pretty startling.
It should be somewhat obvious that the reputations players have on the field tend to match their fantasy production. For instance, Tony Romo is an incredibly inconsistent quarterback -- and therefore, fantasy player -- though luckily his big-game production is mostly irrelevant in discussing his fantasy value.
Last season Romo finished a slot ahead of Andrew Luck in the quarterback rankings, but was considerably less consistent. The Cowboys quarterback had more top-5 performances and more 20-plus fantasy performances, but in comparison, was the inferior player. Andrew Luck had eight top-10 weeks while Romo had just six. In fact, Luck, Russell Wilson and Matthew Stafford all had more weeks as top-10 quarterbacks than Romo, despite finishing with about the same number of total fantasy points.
When drafting a position as tight as quarterback, make sure to draft a guy you know won't be a Band-Aid in your fantasy punch bowl.
The most consistent fantasy quarterbacks from 2012:
T-1. Drew Brees (10 times)
T-1. Peyton Manning (10 times)
T-1. Robert Griffin III (10 times)
T-1. Tom Brady (10 times)
T-5. Aaron Rodgers (9 times)
T-5. Matt Ryan (9 times)
T-7. Cam Newton (8 times)
T-7. Russell Wilson (8 times)
T-7. Matthew Stafford (8 times)
10. Andy Dalton (7 times)
The most interesting part about that list is that Colin Kaepernick is not on it. In just seven starts, Kaepernick was a top-10-scoring fantasy quarterback only five times.
I remain down on Kaepernick and believe he'll struggle more this season, but the consistency he was able to show last season should give fantasy owners hope he can put together 16 games of solid play.
Also worth nothing is Dalton's appearance on this list. The maturation of A.J. Green makes Dalton a viable starter in deep leagues, although the division he plays in keeps him behind guys like Eli Manning. Dalton is the quarterback I've been targeting as my backup in just about every league.
What if I said Eric Decker was a more consistent fantasy wide receiver than A.J. Green? Or that TY Hilton was just as consistent at Victor Cruz?
It's true. No position fluctuates more week-to-week than wide receiver, which means finding players you can count on every week is vital.
Take the Packers' James Jones, who is the receiver-version of Jamaal Charles -- he will win you weeks by himself, or he won't even show up.
Head-to-head against Reggie Wayne, James Jones only outperformed Wayne six times, yet Jones had five top-10 weeks; Wayne only had three. Nine times Jones had 10-plus fantasy points, something Wayne only did seven times.
Guess who finished with more points? Wayne, mostly because in the weeks Jones didn't show up, he really didn't show up.
Jones ranked worse than 50th five times as a receiver last season, whereas Wayne only had one such week.
It's why targets are so important for receivers -- Wayne had almost twice as many targets as Jones. To wit, Jones could have received all of Greg Jennings' and Donald Drivers' targets last year and still not had as many as Wayne.
Wayne rates ahead of Jones, but if you have Jones, there's no reason to cry about it -- chances are two or three times this season he'll take care of a week on his own.
The most consistent wide receivers by number of top-10 weeks:
T-1. Vincent Jackson (7 times)
T-1. Brandon Marshall (7 times)
T-1. Demaryius Thomas (7 times)
T-3. Calvin Johnson (6 times)
T-3. Dez Bryant (6 times)
T-3. Eric Decker (6 times)
T-6. Jeremy Maclin (5 times)
T-6. James Jones (5 times)
T-6. Victor Cruz (5 times)
T-6. A.J. Green (5 times)
T-6. T.Y. Hilton (5 times)
It may be hard to believe a teammate of Wayne's was a top-10 fantasy receiver more often, but T.Y. Hilton was exactly that. His big-play ability was critical to Bruce Arians' offense, not to mention he opened up plenty of space underneath for Wayne. He is extremely underrated right now, and could be a difference-maker as a third wide receiver/flex or even a second wide receiver in a pinch.
The names not on this list show just how deep the receiver position is this year. Julio Jones, Roddy White, Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Randall Cobb are all being drafted as top-10 receivers.
Jones, in particular, is overrated given how much the Falcons spread the ball around, but he is the definition of a week-winner, much like James Jones. His teammate White is going almost a full round later, despite the fact that they were top-10 fantasy receivers an equal four times last year.
I'd rather have White a round later.
It's not quite worth doing a side-by-side player comparison for the tight ends given the relative lack of playmakers at the position. But looking at the top 10, it becomes obvious that there are very few tight ends who can contribute every week for your team -- especially this season. However, finding those guys offers a sizable advantage.
Additionally, six tight ends last season scored 20-plus fantasy points, and two -- Gronkowski and Dennis Pitta -- won't be healthy to start the year.
1. Jimmy Graham (9 times)
T-2. Rob Gronkowski (8 times)
T-2. Kyle Rudolph (8 times)
T-4. Tony Gonzalez (7 times)
T-4. Heath Miller (7 times)
T-6. Dennis Pitta (6 times)
T-6. Aaron Hernandez (6 times)
T-6. Jason Witten (6 times)
T-6. Antonio Gates (6 times)
T-10. Joel Dreesen (5 times)
T-10. Martellus Bennett (5 time)
T-10. Jermaine Gresham (5 times)
T-10. Greg Olsen (5 times)
T-10. Vernon Davis (5 times)
A number of the names on this list won't be starting the season on the field. Pitta won't play this season, nor will Hernandez -- but for different reasons. Heath Miller is coming off an ACL injury, and Gronkowski's dealing with a series of back and arm ailments.
To my earlier point about Graham's advantage, the gap in production between Graham and Davis in terms of consistency is the same as between Vernon Davis and Kellen Davis, who was cut by the Bears this past season.
What's more, if you can't get Graham, the rest of the tight ends are essentially the same, given that you may only get Gronk for a handful of regular season games. Rudolph isn't likely to get as many targets this season given the additions of Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson to the Vikings' offense.