When you’re in eight leagues and your day job involves breaking down the fantasy prospects of every player for every game, it’s inevitable that football is never far from your mind. And since many of the same dilemmas I encounter are ones you the readers bump up against as well, I thought it might make sense to share some of my thought processes with you. There’s no rhyme or reason to the topics to be discussed here, other than at some point they popped into my head, kicking to the side lyrics from some obscure ‘80s song (“She's a modern day Delilah/Keeps her scissors razor sharp”) and commanding my attention.
Peyton Hillis, fantasy stud. Top five fantasy back. I have to admit, it’s difficult for me to wrap my brain around these concepts despite the overwhelming pile of evidence Hillis delivers on a weekly basis.
On the “Fantasy Football Weekly” radio show I co-host Saturdays on KFAN 1130 AM in Minneapolis-St. Paul (also available at KFAN.com and on iTunes), the question was posed: if the season were to end today, where would Hillis rank on your preseason draft board? I made a quick pass over the rest of the way rankings and came up with 16 backs I’d at least consider alongside or ahead of Hillis when making my pick. That seemed a little harsh, so after digging inside the numbers a little further I reached the conclusion that Hills could be no less than a bottom-end top 10 back in the 2011 draft.
But that hits at the topic that’s gnawing at my brain this week: things we need to unlearn in order to make wise fantasy decisions. Take Hills, for example. Look at all the rules he breaks: fullbacks can’t be fantasy studs; Browns can’t be fantasy studs; and let’s face it, feature backs haven’t been white since... what, Craig James? John Riggins?
And yet there Hillis is, churning out almost 17 fantasy points per game—more than Frank Gore, Chris Johnson, Darren McFadden, etc., etc. Eventually you have to accept that Hillis is here to stay... or keep your head buried in the sand as the rest of your league passes you by.
So, what are some other things we need to unlearn this season? Here’s a few I came up with.
You can’t run on the Browns.
Again with the Browns! Apparently when a franchise has been down for so long, it takes a while to shake off the stink. Used to be you lined up your backs to face the Browns without even thinking about it; Cleveland finished among the 11 most fantasy-friendly defenses against running backs six of the last seven years and eight of the last 10.
This year, it’s a different story. Only six teams have given up fewer fantasy points to running backs—familiar names, mostly, like the Jets, Steelers, Packers, Giants, and Ravens—and the Browns have allowed a league-low two running back touchdowns this season. Going forward, that’s bad news for Maurice Jones-Drew, Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, Ray Rice, and Rashard Mendenhall—in particular Benson and Rice, who may have been drafted with the prospect of a cushy Cleveland matchup during the fantasy playoffs.
You can’t throw as easily on the Lions.
Two of the past three seasons, the Lions gave up the most fantasy points to quarterbacks; in the other year, they ranked fifth. So it’s not inconceivable that many fantasy playoff rosters were planned around quarterbacks and receivers facing Detroit.
But something unusual is happening in Motown. The Lions are getting pressure on the passer—they’re tied with the Giants for eighth in the league in sacks. And uncomfortable quarterbacks don’t rack up the yardage, which is why the Lions are positively middle-of-the-pack when it comes to pass defense. Not that 17th in fantasy points surrendered to quarterbacks is a stopper, but just one of the past five quarterbacks they’ve faced has thrown multiple touchdowns against them and only one of the past seven has thrown for more than 215 yards.
The Buccaneers may have the brightest “Big Three” going.
It’s been a while since we could bank on Bucs for fantasy help. Sure, Antonio Bryant had a big year while playing for a contract but that has proven to be a fluke. But right now, when you look around the league, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team with a better “Big Three” in place than the Bucs’ trio of Josh Freeman, LeGarrett Blount, and Mike Williams.
Let’s start with Freeman, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 2009. He took the reins midway through last year and after some growing pains—specifically, an average of two INTs per game as a rookie—he’s settling in as a viable fantasy option. Freeman ranks 12th among quarterbacks in fantasy points scored, right behind Michael Vick and directly ahead of Matt Schaub. After reaching the 20 point plateau just twice in eight starts last year Freeman has consistently hit that mark as a sophomore, including each of the last three games.
Blount has had an admittedly rocky road: he went undrafted, quite possibly because he was suspended for punching a player following a college game; he couldn’t stick with the Titans and was waived, to be plucked off the scrap heap by the Bucs; and while he has yet to technically start an NFL game he’s had 19 or more carries twice and produced 211 yards and three TDs in those two outings. Cadillac Williams clearly doesn’t have it any more, and the Bucs haven’t been shy about giving Blount a feature-back workload—with impressive results.
As for Williams, he wasn’t even the first wideout Tampa Bay drafted this year; that honor goes to Arrelious Benn, who is making a late run at fantasy relevancy himself. Williams saw his draft stock slide because of attitude concerns stemming from his days at Syracuse, but from the moment he hit the NFL he’s been a contributor. In fact, Williams currently ranks 13th among wide receivers in fantasy production—right behind Reggie Wayne and right ahead of Greg Jennings. That’s pretty solid company, but more importantly Williams has demonstrated his ability to go get the ball in a crowd in crunch time. And if Benn develops on the other side, defenses will have that much more to contend with.
They’re not Aikman/Smith/Irvin just yet, but when you consider we’re talking about an NFL sophomore and two rookies, the sky just might be the limit in Tampa Bay.