Ten things we learned in fantasy football this season

Friday January 3rd, 2014

Look for wide receivers like Demaryius Thomas to be higher on fantasy draft boards next season.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

There's an Abraham Lincoln quote that is possibly apocryphal, but certainly instructive for all fantasy owners as we look back on the 2013 season.

"I do not think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday."

Here are 10 things we learned about fantasy football this year. Read them, absorb them, and be wiser today than you were yesterday. Lincoln was one of our finest presidents, so you don't want to disappoint him.

1. The demise of running backs has been greatly overstated...

Everyone continues to harp on how the NFL is a passing league and how that development has made wide receivers the new gold standard in fantasy leagues. While it's true that receivers are more important than ever in our little game of make-believe, they haven't exactly been a death sentence for running backs. Among backs and receivers, the former contributed the five highest scorers -- Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Marshawn Lynch and Knowshon Moreno -- in standard-scoring leagues this year. Fourteen of the top 25 scorers were running backs, while 11 were receivers. Can you win fantasy leagues without a top receiver? Probably not. But running backs still deserve the top slots in most drafts.

2. ...but receivers are officially more reliable.

The top five backs by average draft position (according to Mock Draft Central) back at the end of August were Adrian Peterson, C.J. Spiller, Doug Martin, Jamaal Charles and Arian Foster. Of those, only Charles finished in the top 10 among all players and top five among running backs. Peterson finished eighth at the position, while Spiller, Foster and Martin were all outside the top 25. Meanwhile, the top five receivers by ADP were Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, A.J. Green and Brandon Marshall. All but Bryant were in the top five at the position, and Bryant finished seventh. You have to go all the way down to the No. 9 ADP spot, which belonged to Roddy White, to find the first true bust at wide receiver.

Put simply, there are far fewer busts at the receiver position. Come 2014, as many as 20 receivers could go in the first 40 picks of standard drafts.

3. You can still wait on a quarterback.

Chances are that most Peyton Manning owners did quite well this season. Recall, though, that Manning was typically ranked third at best at the quarterback position in the preseason. Manning outscored Drew Brees, the second-highest scoring passer, by 54 points in standard-scoring leagues. Brees outscored No. 3 Cam Newton by 60 points. After that, the margin between elite and solid was razor-thin. Just 42 points separated Newton from No. 12 Matt Ryan. That's an average of 2.6 points per week.

On top of that, the top 12 included guys like Andy Dalton, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, while preseason darlings Robert Griffin III and Tom Brady fell to the outside of the starting class. While there may be no replacement for a record-setting quarterback, you can still prioritize running backs and receivers over this deep position.

4. Drafting RB-RB is a losing strategy.

This refers back to the big-name receivers being generally more reliable than their running-back brethren. The top 20 running backs by ADP included 10 guys who underperformed their draft-day price, including some of the biggest busts in fantasy football: Spiller, Martin, Foster, Ray Rice, Trent Richardson, Steven Jackson, David Wilson, Stevan Ridley, Darren Sproles and Darren McFadden. Others like Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew disappointed their owners on a regular basis. For everyone who was able to get Lynch and Forte with their first two picks, 20 people ended up with a combination that included at least one bust.

We all have to survive a missed pick here and there, but it's awfully hard to do so when one of those misses comes in the first two rounds. If you take backs with each of your first two picks next season, you're making that an extremely likely scenario.

5. Jimmy Graham is a first-round pick

How high would Graham go if he had "WR" next to his name instead of "TE"? Would he be a top-10 pick? Top five? Graham finished the season with 86 catches, 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns. Over the last three seasons, he has averaged 90 receptions, 1,169 yards and 12 scores. That's good for 188.9 fantasy points per season, roughly equal to the No. 10 running back in standard-scoring leagues. When you consider the fact that Graham was better than the No. 2 tight end, Vernon Davis, by nearly 3.5 points per game, you see just how great an advantage you get from owning Graham. He may not be as valuable as the top running backs and receivers, but by time you get past the rock-solid options at those positions, Graham is as safe a bet there is in the league.

6. The new elite running back catches passes -- and lots of them.

Let's revisit those top-three backs we discussed in short a little earlier. Matt Forte was third among all running backs with 74 receptions. Jamaal Charles was fifth with 70. LeSean McCoy was a step behind, but he still posted an impressive 52, good enough for 12th place. The ever-increasing influence of the air attack has made pass-catching backs even more dangerous weapons, especially those in potent offenses. Knowshon Moreno scored the fourth-most fantasy points at the position, and his 60 catches likely had something to do with it. DeMarco Murray scored the sixth-most, and he had 53 catches. Of the top-10 fantasy backs this year, just three -- Lynch, Peterson and Eddie Lacy -- had fewer than 40 catches, and Lacy had 35 while missing one game entirely and significant time of another.

Running backs still deserve to go at the top of most drafts, but it's the ones who have a significant presence in the passing game that you'll want to target, especially in PPR leagues. That's why Charles, Forte and McCoy are my way-too-early top three for 2014, and why I'm projecting the subject of the next thing we learned as 2014's breakout star.

7. Le'Veon Bell will vault into the league's elite backs next year.

Along with Giovani Bernard, Eddie Lacy and Montee Ball, Le'Veon Bell was in the elite group of rookie running backs heading into 2013. Unfortunately, a foot injury suffered during the preseason clouded his status and ultimately knocked him out for Pittsburgh's first three games. He immediately asserted himself in his first career game, racking up 84 yards from scrimmage and scoring two touchdowns in a loss to the Vikings. While it may have been a disappointing season for the Steelers, they learned that they have one of the NFL's most dynamic, young weapons in their backfield.

Bell ended up running for 860 yards, catching 45 passes for 399 yards and scoring eight touchdowns in 13 games. He was 17th among all backs in receptions and 12th in receiving yards despite missing three weeks. After having such success in his rookie year, we can safely project solid growth in 2014. If he manages to play a full season, his counting stats will increase organically, as well. As we sit here eight months away from our next round of fantasy football drafts, I peg Bell as a mid-second rounder. That price tag could easily increase by the summer.

8. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery make up the new gold standard receiver duo.

In each of the last 10 seasons, at least one NFL team has given the fantasy community a pair of top-15 fantasy receivers. In all but two of those years, there were teammates in the top 10. Put another way, you can pretty much bet your life savings that two receivers from the same team will both be top 10 guys at the position next year. For my money, there's no pair I'd trust more than Chicago's Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.

Marshall was the No. 5 receiver this year, catching 100 passes for 1,295 yards and 12 touchdowns. Jeffery was three slots back at No. 8, hauling in 89 balls for 1,421 yards and seven scores. Yes, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker combined for six more touchdowns than Marshall and Jeffery, but there are more mouths to feed in Denver, and it took a historic year out of Peyton Manning for that to happen. The Bears' offense under Marc Trestman looks built to last, and Marshall and Jeffery are key cogs in that machine. Both will be inside the top 10 on my 2014 board, and chances are one, likely Marshall, will be in the top five.

9. Nick Foles is not a one-year wonder.

You'd probably guess that Peyton Manning and Drew Brees finished 1-2 in fantasy points per game at the quarterback position. Andy Dalton was third, while Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers tied for fourth. One half-point per game behind Stafford and Rodgers was Nick Foles, who finished the year having completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,891 yards, 27 touchdowns and two interceptions in 13 games. He also added three rushing touchdowns. In sum, he was the cheapest star among all quarterbacks, as his owner likely snagged him off the waiver wire after Michael Vick went down. Now that he's the unquestioned starter in one of the league's most potent offenses, he must be taken seriously in 2014 drafts. In fact, I'd only select the great triumvirate of Manning, Brees and Rodgers ahead of him next year.

Let's start off with his weapons. LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson are two of the most dangerous players in the NFL today. He made a reliable fantasy player out of Riley Cooper, and the tight end tandem of Zach Ertz and Brent Celek started to come on at the end of the season. Secondly, while his raw numbers jump off the charts, he also was very consistent from week to week. His seven-touchdown performance against Oakland inflated his final line for the season, but he posted just four games of fewer than 20 fantasy points. It's always fun when your quarterback throws for 400 yards and five touchdowns, but rarely would you lose a week in which he threw for 350 and four instead. The consistency Foles brought to the table is exactly what fantasy owners need out of their quarterbacks. That's why I'd take him ahead of Stafford, Cam Newton and the other quarterbacks who will eventually be ranked in the 4-8 range next year.

10. Auctions are way more fun than drafts.

This isn't so much something we learned, as it is my yearly public service announcement. Heading into the 2013 season, I was a big believer in Charles. I thought he was a no-brainer as the No. 2 pick, and thought there was a good argument for taking him ahead of Peterson. However, I didn't have a high enough pick in any of my drafts to get him. Where I was able to secure his services was in all my auction leagues. Not surprisingly, that's where I had my most success this season.

Auctions require far more skill and strategy than drafts. The chess vs. checkers strategy doesn't apply here. If drafts are checkers, auctions are international diplomacy. There really isn't an excuse for the seasoned fantasy player to still be conducting drafts. No matter who you are, you're a slave to your slot in a draft. In an auction, you can devise a strategy that you can reliably carry through to its completion. I don't know about you, but I prefer controlling at events rather than floating around at their mercy. Do yourself a favor next season and convince your league-mates to abandon the draft for the auction.

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