Off Tackle: Un"chunking" Fantasy Football Information

A recent Sports Illustrated article caught my attention, and not just because it referenced Jennie Finch. Okay, it caught my attention because it referenced Jennie Finch but it was light on pictures and it was actually quite compelling.

Jennie Finch, for those of you without female softball players in your household, is a record-setting collegiate fastpitch softball pitcher and Olympic gold medalist. She’s also a striking 6-foot tall blonde, which likely garners more attention from this audience than her prowess in the circle.

The Jennie Finch tie-in referenced how she has faced major league hitters like Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds and none had been able to get a hit off her. The rationale, the article went on to explain, is that elite athletes have a sort of internal crystal ball that allows them to predict what will happen based on years of experience.

Pujols and Bonds can hit a 95-mile per hour fastball because they’ve seen them for years, thrown from 60 feet, 6 inches by pitchers with roughly the same delivery. But Finch, throwing windmill-style from 45 feet at 65 miles per hour—requiring roughly the same reaction time, by the way—presents a challenge Pujols and Bonds don’t have a familiarity with.

The article referenced several studies as to why elite athletes were elite; one of them noted that Pujols’ reaction time—which you might assume would be off the charts based on his ability to hit the aforementioned 95-mpg fastball—was barely above average. What helped separate he and others from the pack was that ability to know what would be happening based on a snapshot of information, and react accordingly.

Stay with me here; the point is coming shortly.

One reason elite athletes can take a snapshot of information—a defensive alignment, a pitch delivery, the open court on a fast break—and process it quickly enough to react accordingly is something called “chunking”. Chunking, as I understand it, is essentially grouping bits of information the average Joe has to process individually and processing it as a group—in essence processing the information 10 to 50 to 300 times faster and more efficiently than ordinary folks.

The article cited research that said it takes 10,000 hours of practice and game experience to reach an expert level, though obviously you have to have something to work with in addition to putting in the time.

Here’s the fantasy football tie-in.

When I do a fantasy football speaking engagement, I find that the best-received information is often a breakdown of the “chunks” of information I’ve grouped together in my head as background information as to why, for example, I believe Larry Fitzgerald will have a big season in 2013 and Reggie Wayne will not. Entering my 26th season of playing fantasy football and 15th season of writing about it professionally, I’ve logged well over 10,000 hours of watching, analyzing, drafting, and in many other ways participating in fantasy football.

Maybe that’s just a long-winded way of tying together the bits and pieces that make up this column. Whatever works, right? Without further ado, here’s a breakdown of some of that “chunking” that is driving my fantasy analysis and subsequent ranking and drafting this season.

* Reggie Wayne never had more than 176 targets prior to last season. With Bruce Arians calling the plays, Wayne saw 195 targets and produced 106-1,355-5. Bruce Arians is now in Arizona. Larry Fitzgerald has never had more than 173 targets. Larry Fitzgerald is five years younger than Reggie Wayne. Larry Fitzgerald has Carson Palmer at quarterback.

My takeaway: Larry Fitzgerald is looking to bounce back from last year’s disappointment to an elite-level season.

* Reggie Wayne’s 106-1,355-5 at age 34 ranked him 14th among fantasy wideouts. It was also the sixth-best season of his 12-year career. It also took 20 more targets than he’d ever had. Bruce Arians is gone, replaced by Pep Hamilton. The past two years at Stanford, Hamilton’s offense has ran more than it threw—including a season with Andrew Luck at the helm, bucking for a Heisman. A hefty 40 percent of the completions in Hamilton’s Cardinal offense went to tight ends and H-backs. Not only do the Colts have Luck, they also have former Stanford tight end Coby Fleener on their roster—an extremely familiar target for Luck.

My takeaway: If you’re treating Wayne as top-level fantasy wideout this year, you’re (over)paying for his name and not his potential production. The tight end thing also touches on why I’m skitting on TY Hilton, though if Darrius Heyward-Bey is hurt then Hilton sees more field than were he relegated to slot duty on a team that will use plenty of 2TE sets.

* Marc Trestman was the offensive coordinator in Oakland when Charlie Garner caught 91 passes in 2002. He has also had Derek Loville (87), Michael Pittman (73), and Larry Centers (69) post big pass-catching numbers on his watch. In eight seasons of Trestman NFL offenses, running backs have caught an average of 108 balls per season. Matt Forte has accounted for about 77 percent of Chicago’s running back receptions in his five seasons as a Bear. If you multiply 108 by 77% you get 83, which would be an improvement over Forte’s best season as a receiver by 20 catches.

My takeaway: Matt Forte is in store for a huge PPR season.

* Matthew Stafford obliterated the NFL record for pass attempts last year. It was also a 10 percent increase over his number of attempts in his other 16-game season. The Lions’ major offseason move was signing a running back, Reggie Bush. They also hope Ryan Broyles is healthy and takes some of the pressure off of Calvin Johnson. They also got rid of both of their starting offensive tackles.

My takeaway: While it’s cool to note that Calvin Johnson was brought down eight times inside the five-yard line, and I’ll concede that his TD total could go up, it feels like Stafford has maxed out on pass attempts. That puts a ceiling on Megatron’s catches and yardage numbers—especially if Bush and Broyles live up to their expectations and take a bite out of those numbers.

* The Packers haven’t had a 100-yard rusher in the regular season since October of 2010, a streak of 43 games that is the longest in the NFL since the mid-90s Bengals went 67 games without a running back hitting the century mark. Chase Stuart at Football Perspective analyzed the 34 previous times since 1970 that an NFL team has used two draft picks on running backs, with one of them being either a second- or third-round pick (but not a first-rounder) and the other coming within the next two rounds. None have scored more than 73 fantasy points in their rookie season since Alfred Anderson did so for the 1984 Minnesota Vikings. Over the past three seasons the Packers have 56 running back rushes inside the 10-yard line, resulting in 17 touchdowns. Over the past three seasons Aaron Rodgers has 24 rushes inside the 10-yard line, resulting in seven touchdowns. Over that same span Rodgers has 71 completions on plays starting inside the 10-yard line, resulting in 39 touchdowns.

My takeaway: Eddie Lacy will be hard-pressed to be a yardage contributor in Green Bay due to competition from Jonathan Franklin and DuJuan Harris and the Packers’ pass-heavy offense. He’ll also be hard-pressed to contribute as a short-yardage back when Green Bay’s better option would be to keep the ball in Aaron Rodgers’ hands. So he’s being dramatically overvalued in fantasy drafts and auctions.

* Andy Reid’s teams have attempted at least 542 passes in each of the last nine seasons. Andy Reid’s quarterbacks have averaged 20-plus fantasy points per game each of the last nine seasons. Prior to losing his job in San Francisco, Alex Smith was completing 70 percent of his passes.

My takeaway: Smith is adept at the short game and will see a volume of opportunities that allows him to be a solid fantasy QB2.