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Forecasting Factors - How to Project Player Performance
Joe Levit
August 17, 2004

As fantasy football grows ever more competitive, league owners look for any possible advantage to increase their chances of getting ahead in the draft, and in the game. Devising new techniques is one way to go about gaining that lead. Many magazines and websites now tout new and improved drafting strategies – elaborate systems that are designed to take some of the guesswork out of the game – which supposedly help the reader select the right fantasy player at the right time in a draft, every time.

These systems are fine as far as they go, but before they will work most of them require that you first create your own player rankings, complete with predicted statistical output for every individual player who might be drafted in your league. The problem is that none of these systems explain in a simple way the process of generating the compulsory statistics. 

The reason that no one explains that procedure is that fantasy football is still, at its essence, a guessing game. It is too difficult to guarantee a way to predict player statistics. The draft systems can eliminate some part of the guessing, which is why they are popular, but they cannot account for the random elements that end up defining a player’s season statistically – nobody’s method can.

Since it is still  necessary speculate upon these statistics, you can accomplish this by making an educated guess. There are a number of factors that will help gauge whether a fantasy player will have a better season than the previous one. Start with last season’s statistics as a base, and then subject every player you want statistics for through the following set of factors, to determine fantasy production.

Age – Optimum age can make a big difference in fantasy football. Most receivers and running backs peak at age 26 or 27, though rookie running backs can put up incredible statistics given the opportunity and blocking. Someone like Deuce McAllister, who will be almost 26 when the season starts and has improved every year he has been in the league, is ready for a career season, whereas age has become a real factor for older players like Jerome Bettis and Eddie George. As a rule, quarterbacks need time to mature before they tally the touchdowns. Many produce solid seasons well into their thirties.

Injuries – Small injuries don’t keep players off the field, but rather hinder their performance on it. If you know a player has a nagging injury going into the season, take that into account when you are predicting statistics, because you’ll end up having to draft him according to name value, not true value. Hamstring pulls have affected Koren Robinson and Donte’ Stallworth in recent seasons and Randy Moss must deal with plantar fascitis in his left foot this year, a painful condition that may affect his game.

Catastrophic injuries can prevent players from ever being the same – like Terrell Davis or Jamal Anderson – or force them into a long recovery (Edgerrin James).

Be able to get over someone’s prior injury history when determining statistics. Fred Taylor had a deserved reputation early in his career of getting hurt too easily. Two off-seasons ago he did something about it. He worked on stretching and fitness, and has now gone 32 consecutive games without serious injury. There is no reason to call him fragile Freddy anymore, or to avoid drafting him.

Personal situation – Outside circumstances affect players’ performances on the field. Loss of a loved one, unhappiness with a contract or a league suspension can all deduct statistics from potential. On the positive side, finishing an undergraduate degree, getting married or having a child can stabilize a player’s life and serve as the foundation of a fantastic fantasy season.

William Green illustrates both portions of this factor. He was arrested for violating the league’s substance abuse program and for driving drunk, ending his second season in poor fashion. This year, he has humbled himself, finished a rehab program and has the desire to succeed once more.

New team – Sometimes a big change is really all a player needs. Last year it looked like Corey Dillon was suddenly washed up when Rudi Johnson’s number was called. Now with the Patriots, Dillon will display his talents once again. Expect a solid year from him under Bill Belichick’s tutelage.

New Player Additions/Subtractions – Traded or drafted players can be a benefit or detriment to other players on his new team. The addition of Terrell Owens will make Donovan McNabb an even better fantasy quarterback, for instance, but the drafting of rookie running back Chris Perry certainly dampens the draft value of Bengals halfback Rudi Johnson.

New coach or offensive scheme – Wherever there is a head coach or offensive coordinator change, there is going to be a fantasy impact. Dennis Green’s new commitment to a three-receiver set in Arizona means that Josh McCown has a real chance to be a surprising fantasy player this season, especially with all of the receiving talent around him.

Competition – Players naturally work harder and pay more attention when their job is at stake, so look for veterans who will be pushed by newcomers. The sudden chip on their shoulder could carry your fantasy team. Think back to when the Bills surprised everyone by drafting Willis McGahee in 2003. It shocked a lot of pundits, and pushed Travis Henry to play through pain to post a fine season.

This year, if he can remain healthy, expect Marshall Faulk to really be a find for someone late in the first round of a draft. The Rams moved up to select Stephen Jackson, and that will put the pressure on Faulk, who always knew he was much better than Trung Canidate, Lamar Gordon and Arlen Harris.

To see these factors in action, take a  look at the final 2003 stat lines of an NFL player and predict his statistics in 2004.

Drew Bledsoe – 471 attempts for 2,860 yards and 11 TDs with 12 INT.

Bledsoe will benefit from factors like competition and player additions during the fantasy season. The Bills really suffered on offense without Peerless Price last year. They did not have a wide receiver that could stretch the field and take pressure off of Eric Moulds. Rookie wideout Lee Evans can do that, and make Josh Reed dangerous again as a third receiver. The bolstered passing game will make it easy for Bledsoe to increase his attempts, completions and yards. A 3,000-yard season is almost a given this year.

With J.P. Losman waiting in the wings, Bledsoe will go for the kill more often to show that he can still sling it. He won’t lose his job this season, but he will feel pressure because he knows what can happen if a young quarterback gets an opportunity (Tom Brady). Expect his touchdown total to increase. Based on his factors, Bledsoe should be ranked higher this year and produce at least 480 attempts for 3,000+ yards and 17 TDs.

You may not agree with the analysis regarding Bledsoe above, but suffice it to say there is no magic formula involved in predicting fantasy football statistics. Pay attention to these factors surrounding football and your ability to predict statistics and drafting skillfully simply will improve.