Becky: What are we going to do?
Fletch: Something that will seem extremely stupid at first…
This is about taking Darren McFadden over Drew Brees.
It’s a decision that from a pure football perspective is flat-out ludicrous. But fantasy football is a step or three removed from “real” football, with maxims like position scarcity and value-based drafting and insert your favorite statistical analysis here all coming into play—often in the background of your fantasy football psyche, without a true understanding of why you’re doing what you’re doing.
So that’s what this is about: why, in the third round of a current slow draft for an actual league I’m in, I passed on Brees and opted for McFadden.
Don’t worry, this won’t be a long, in-depth navel-gazing of a quarter century of player analysis and draft-day successes and failures and how they led me to McFadden over Brees 10 days ago. I’ve parsed it down to the three key elements that drove this decision.
1. Getting Comfortable with McFadden’s Risk
There’s no two ways around this one. McFadden has missed at least three games in each of his five NFL seasons, including four last season and 13 over the past two years.
Worse, there’s no clear-cut handcuff in Oakland so in selecting McFadden you’re walking the tightrope without a net.
But here’s the thing: when McFadden was healthy and operating in a power blocking scheme like the Raiders are returning to this season, he was putting up better than 16 fantasy points per game. That number would have made McFadden a top-five back each of the past three seasons; in fact, he was a top-five back—second, actually—in 2011.
And that’s actually the first step: trusting McFadden to return to pre-zone blocking numbers. It isn’t a huge leap, but it is a leap. The numbers certainly suggest McFadden is more comfortable in the power scheme—a yards-per-carry average north of five yards in his last two seasons in the power scheme, something hovering around three yards per tote in the zone—so I’m on board.
Then you have to—gulp—accept that it’s extremely possible you’ll only get a dozen games from McFadden. It’s a risk that gets easier to live with when the upside is three-fourths of a season of elite RB production.
It boils down to this: Would you rather have a mediocre back all year long (maybe)? Or would you prefer an elite back for 12 games, then take your chances with bench depth and/or the waiver wire for the other four? It should be obvious where I weigh in on this argument.
Of course, I made a living taking “Fragile” Freddy Taylor when no one else would touch him. Taylor missed 24 games over the first four years of his pro career (by comparison McFadden missed 19 over his first four and has missed 23 total) to “earn” that moniker. However, over the next seven seasons Freddy missed just a dozen games. Taylor also ranked as a top-20 fantasy back—that’s total fantasy points, mind you, not points per game—in five of those seven seasons, yet fear of those missed games drove away squeamish would-be fantasy owners.
Multiple seasons of success with Taylor has emboldened me to endure McFadden’s injury risk, with the tangy zip of top-five upside the potential reward.
2. Getting Comfortable with a Mid-Tier Quarterback
Despite the NFL’s clear-cut transition to a passing league, all the cool kids are waiting on quarterbacks in fantasy drafts this year. That’s why Brees and McFadden both sport third-round ADPs, though on average Brees goes off the board about a half-dozen picks earlier.
More and more fantasy owners are passing on quarterbacks in the first few rounds, instead choosing to take advantage of depth at the position and fill out the rest of their lineup before addressing the need for a QB.
To wit, in the McFadden v. Brees draft the first quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) didn’t go off the board until 2.12; Peyton Manning was the next signal-caller taken, three spots after I took McFadden at 3.04, and Brees went one pick later.
So after turning down Brees in Round 3—and in fact letting four rounds pass and a total of nine quarterbacks go off the board—who was I left with at quarterback? Colin Kaepernick at 7.04.
I can live with that. Especially when you consider that had I swapped the positions and taken Brees in the third, the running backs I would have been choosing from in Round 7 included Eddie Lacy, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Andre Brown. Even the most delusional rookie-loving Packer fan wouldn’t project top-five upside for any of those backs—and at least two of the three have injury rap sheets that rival McFadden’s.
3. Getting Comfortable with a Your Team
This was the final straw that sealed McFadden over Brees.
Just a week before this particular league’s draft kicked off I participated in a mock draft for USA Today. Picking out of the six spot I took Calvin Johnson—over Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, and C.J. Spiller, all still on the board despite the first five picks all being running backs.
Taking non-running backs in the first round is hardly a foreign concept to me. The first first-round pick I can remember—in my second year playing fantasy football; the first came during my senior year of college, so details are a little hazy—was Randall Cunningham, and long before “doing the opposite” was trendy or even invented I was consistently taking the best player available rather than falling lockstep into RB/RB.
So I felt perfectly comfortable taking Megatron in the first. And with no enticing running back options on the board in Round 2 I grabbed Dez Bryant. Surely such a formidable receiving tandem would be the building blocks to a dominant fantasy team… right?
Not so much. When the dust had settled I looked back on my team and came to the conclusion that this year the mid-tier running back pickings were so slim that I couldn’t afford the luxury of BPA.
And strangely enough, I reached that conclusion shortly after making my third-round pick of… Darren McFadden.
That admission might derail my run as resident McFadden apologist this season. But while I can live with McFadden as my RB2 and believe he has elite RB upside when healthy, I’m not comfortable with him as my RB1.
The same can be said for other backs on the board in Round 3 and later: DeMarco Murray, Le’Veon Bell, Reggie Bush. Complimentary pieces, sure, but I’d lose far too much sleep with them as my fantasy squad’s bell cow.
And ultimately that’s what all those metrics and strategies and such are all about: assembling a fantasy team you can live with. Fortunately for me this epiphany came as the result of a mock and not a real-life draft of a team I’d be forced to stomach all season long.
So, McFadden over Brees. Was it the right call? Feels right at the moment, even after going back over “what if” with the team in question. But we’ll know a whole lot more in December.