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Keeper Player Considerations
by David M. Dorey
July 16, 2003
 

In leagues that have keepers or are in a dynasty "keep 'em all" format, considering the value of players in future seasons is a valid and necessary consideration. You play this season but will be effected in later years by your decisions now. How should this effect your player acquisitions and which players will have increased or decreased value considering what 2004, 2005 or more might hold?

If you only take one snippet of words from this discussion, let it be this:

"The current season is three times as important as any future year"

It does not matter if you only keep one player or you retain a roster of 24 players each season. By and large, your decisions must be for this year. Let me illustrate why this using a bit of history. Consider first that success in fantasy football is largely a product of having impact players - those proportionally higher scoring players in their position that yields a big advantage each season. Sure - having solid players that turn in respectable numbers each season is a good thing. It is also the route to a .500 season. "Good" is good but "Good" doesn't put the trophy on the mantle. The most common mistakes of fantasy teams are to reach on "projects" that they think will turn into studs in just one or two years, or to overvalue the performance of one season.

Don't misunderstand. It is critical to get players that will improve over the years and such is one good reason to have keeper rules. But that typically leads to players being overvalued thinking that Randy Moss is a stereotype as a rookie instead of being the extreme exception that he was. Or that the one big career year by a player after six years or more in the league means that he is just breaking out into stud-hood much later than most. Things often happen for one season and they are over.

History may repeat itself, but not nearly often enough for one player. Some other player will just fall into the same set of star-crossed influences the next year and look like the new hot guy. There are great players and then there are great seasons. Great players are "great" because they turn in many big seasons. Almost any player can have one great season - remember, these players were very successful in football their entire lives up until they reached the NFL. Out of 250 million people in the U.S., it is unlikely that only four people can rush for over 1500 yards in a season like last year. Great players make their own opportunities and are a part of a continuing good situation.

Let's do a comparison between the 2002, 2000 and 1998 seasons to see what changes just every other season for the top players in a common performance scoring system:
QB 1998 2000 2002
1 S Young D Culpepper D Culpepper
2 B Favre J Garcia R Gannon
3 Cunningham P Manning M Vick
4 S McNair R Gannon P Manning
5 J Plummer D McNabb D Bledsoe
6 P Manning E Grbac A Brooks

What we see in high keeper value for quarterbacks is notable. It is a fairly consistent position, at least in the top six players each season which are the true difference makers. Favre may never again be top 5, but he is a great one that will never fall flat. Culpepper, Gannon, Manning and McNabb have proven their value. There will always be the occasional Plummer, Grbac or Bledsoe sneaking into the top echelon because of the big season but considering the "keeper-ability" of a quarterback, you MUST consider track record and not just last season and definitely not the prospects of him breaking out next year. Let someone else take the small chance.

Top quarterbacks make good keepers because at least a handful of them are fairly reliable from season to season. They are also often undervalued in keeper leagues since many team owners think they need only one and there are so many out there still.
RB 1998 2000 2002
1 T Davis M Faulk P Holmes
2 J Anderson E James R Williams
3 M Faulk E George L Tomlinson
4 G Hearst M Anderson C Portis
5 F Taylor A Green S Alexander
6 E Smith F Taylor D McAllister
7 R Watters R Smith T Barber
8 C Martin R Watters T Henry
9 R Edwards C Garner C Garner
10 B Sanders C Martin E George

Runningbacks are highly valued and let me be the first to clue you on in a little secret. They come and go with astounding speed. Consider that of the top ten from 1998, only four of them were still top players two years later. By four years later, none of them were in the top ten. Four years later half of them are no longer in the league. As was shown in the five year lookback article, there is also an odd tendency for some runningbacks to turn in great seasons only every two years. Comparing 2000 to 2002, only Garner and George made it back to the top ten after two seasons and both were at the bottom of the top ten.

There is a lot of change that happens in this position and recognize that when you start coughing up huge bucks for the latest hot runningback. You need a great runner and the past season is a predictor of sorts, but in determining long-term plans you are much better off getting a quarterback to keep than a runner. They just do not have the legs of any other position. Keep them considering their value for one year but do not look much beyond that.

Keeping runningbacks is a play for greatness or for the league cellar. You take your chances and you have to hope lady luck does not zap your players with the injury stick. But considering their contribution to your team, it is a chance you must take. Just be realistic about their long-term prospects and know that if you burn that high draft pick or spend those big auction dollars - you better be right because you will be hard pressed to make up the difference if your guy fails.

WR 1998 2000 2002
1 R Moss R Moss M Harrison
2 A Freeman T Owens H Ward
3 T Owens R Smith T Owens
4 E Moulds M Harrison E Moulds
5 K Johnson D Alexander R Moss
6 T Mathis T Holt A Toomer
7 J Rice I Bruce P Price
8 C Carter E McCaffrey J Horn
9 J Galloway J Horn P Burress
10 R Smith C Carter D Driver

The keeper-ability of receivers is somewhat similar to quarterbacks. Guys like Moss, Owens, Moulds and Harrison hang out in the top level for a long time. Every season there are always nice surprises in the position too - guys like Mathis, McCaffrey and Alexander turned in monster years in the past but could not sustain that. A top receiver as a keeper is a goldmine because it can provide years of benefit in a position that has tremendous change in the midrange of scorers each season.

As was discussed in the previous article analyzing the draft position of players, consider that the best long-term keepers for receivers were almost entirely first round picks with just a few second rounders having the lengthy careers of note. Any player can have the big year - any player. The right situation can mix with a nice schedule and other variables unique to that season which will yield a great year for a player. Keeper considerations must take into account the longer term because you need to determine the likelihood that the player will continue to perform at the same level. That his past was because of him, not because of a great but temporary situation.

The reality of keepers - considering the dramatic change from season to season of impact players - is that you need to play for this year and make keeper decisions be a function to worry about later. The tendency of fantasy team owners is to overvalue certain players, particularly in dynasty leagues. Upside is important but a track record is more important.

The only difference between a redraft league cheatsheet and a keeper league cheatsheet is moving down players that are coming to the end of their career within the next year - two at most. Players that are old and on a definite downward trend as their career winds down. The only players that move up in a keeper league are the first or second year players that have given a good sign that their development is on pace to become a top player in their position but realize the risk is as significant as the hoped payoff could be.

In keeper leagues - play for this year. Next year there will be new rookie runningbacks and always a few receivers and quarterbacks that have taken the next step in their development that will be available. Play to win this year and the worst you will get is some players to trade if you do well.

Let's look at some of the players that do deserve some extra consideration in a keeper scenario:

Quarterbacks that fall:

Rich Gannon - At the age of 37, Gannon is the oldest starting quarterback in the league though he still obviously plays at a high level. His rushing yards has fallen each season for the past few years and it is unlikely he will play many more. Hard to pass a top QB, but his long-term outlook must be considered very limited. Then again - so what if he retires next year or 2005? You would get great play (unless he is injured) for at least a year and by then different QB's will be stepping up.

Brett Favre - Though only 33 years old, Favre openly hinted at retirement this season and then changed his mind. He has a lot of miles on the tires and has a ten year string of never missing a game. But his value is already depressed this season anyway.

Mark Brunell, Jon Kitna, Rodney Peete - These guys are merely placeholders this season for future quarterbacks and may not even make it through the season without getting replaced.

Lower Quarterbacks that rise:

Chad Pennington - After showing that he was the real deal last season, the Jets lost their #1 receiver in Lavernues Coles and face a tough schedule with two older receivers in Conway and Chrebet. In future years, Pennington is almost a lock to become a top echelon passer.

Patrick Ramsey - This pick requires a small leap of faith given the production of last season but with improved receivers and a coach that wants to turn the sky dark with passes, future upside moves him up.

Byron Leftwich, Kyle Boller, Carson Palmer - while there is a chance that none of the three will be playing this season, chances are almost zero that they will not get a chance by next season.

Runningbacks that fall:

Let's be serious here - as shown above this position has incredible turnover year to year anyway, so the only runningback that might fall in keeper scenarios is Emmitt Smith, Jerome Bettis, Antowain Smith and Garrison Hearst who have all been seriously devalued this season anyway due to their age.

Runningbacks that rise:

Another reality check - runningbacks normally do not "develop" over time, they either are good from the start or they never will be. The only players that qualify in this scenario are the rushers who are currently backups behind players that are either aging or often injured. This includes Lamont Jordan, Lamar Gordon, Larry Johnson, Chris Brown and Justin Fargas.

Wide Receivers that fall:

A good receiver can not only play well into their thirties, but can be productive doing so as long as they are a proven top player. A few receivers that can be slightly devalued in keeper leagues (but already have been in most rankings and drafts):

Jerry Rice - Eventually Rice will stop playing even though no one believes it can ever happen. But it will happen. Really. I mean, it has to happen. I think.

Tim Brown - Already a nonstarter in fantasy terms anyway.

Curtis Conway (32), Joey Galloway (31), Troy Brown (31), Ed McCaffrey (34), Keenan McCardell (33), Rod Smith (33) and Jimmy Smith (34) are all getting long in tooth but still could deliver a nice year this season. Move them down but only slightly.

Wide Receivers that rise:

In a position of much complexity and requiring perhaps as much or more development as any other position, changing a receivers rankings upward based on upside and potential is pretty hit or miss in accuracy terms. The only receivers that it would really apply towards are the first or second year players and at least half or more will never take that big step up into being a fantasy starter.

Players that might move up slightly and with more risk involved would be Deion Branch, Antonio Bryant, Javon Walker, Robert Ferguson, Charles Rogers, Taylor Jacobs, Andre Johnson, Bryant Johnson, Ashley Lelie, Reggie Wayne, Josh Reed and Donte' Stallworth. But again - outside of Antonio Bryant, Reed and Stallworth who have already shown a reason to expect better play, the rest are just big risks to draft differently because you can keep them.

Tight Ends are really unaffected by keeper rules since only in dynasty formats would anyone likely keep a player outside of the top three in the position. If you are keeping a kicker, you must be in a dynasty league as well since they are almost impossible to forecast for any given year, let alone their long term impact.

Keeper leagues are a fun nuance to use to keep team owners interested in the offseason and more likely to return the next year. The important factor in determining where a player is ranked or where you should be taking him in the draft is dictated by more important factors than their "keeper-ability". When you make your plans and decisions, always remember the guiding light:

"The current season is three times as important as any future year"

And I want to win now...