“Pick a Defense last” – The flaws of Fantasy Football advice

"Fantasy Football" T-Shirt from BustedTees.com

“Fantasy Football” T-Shirt from BustedTees.com

They play every week, and yet get no love.  And the secret is that they can make-or-break a fantasy team.  I’m talking about your Defense and your Kicker, among other players.

I have been in the same, very competitive, 12-team fantasy football league since 2003, which was also my first year playing.  It’s a Points-Per-Reception league, and, other than that, the only scoring difference between our league and yours might be that we award Defense/Special-Team 1 point for blocking punts and field goals (Passing TDs = 4 points).  We’re also a keeper-league, where a team can keep up to 3 players from their roster of 17, but must give back a draft pick that is 3 rounds before where the kept player was drafted the previous year.  Weekly starters must include a QB, RB, WR, RB/WR (Flex 1), RB/WR/TE (Flex 2), TE, DST and K.  There are no negative points for turnovers, etc, in our league.  The point totals from the charts below will be based on our particular scoring, but whatever service hosts your league should be able to provide you with similar charts for your scoring – the strategies below should be applicable.

Back in 2003, I followed my favorite team and knew the top players from being an avid SportsCenter viewer, but was a very casual football fan.  Beyond the top of the depth-charts, I did not know which WR2’s were better then their peers, and had a lot to learn.  Early on, my strategy was simple – draft the best player available – and it worked very well.  In my first 3 years in the league, I made the playoffs, lost the league Super Bowl, and then won it the next year.  After that, I started to believe-my-own-hype, and tweaked my team building strategy to one that focused on depth at running back and wide receiver.  A tack largely due to the belief that “you can always find a quarterback on waivers that will be fine”, reenforced by riding waiver-pick Jon Kitna to that first Super Bowl.  It’s not so much that this strategy was a mistake as it was a disaster, and, since 2007, I’ve largely fielded a .500 squad.

Going into the 2013 fantasy season, I changed strategy again.  I did not shift back to the best-player-available strategy, because I had been picking the best players available.  The flaw, I felt, was in my under-valuing players at every position other than RB or WR.  I know, I know, these are incredible important players for every fantasy football team, as is depth at those positions.  But the lack of top players at QB and TE, when compared to the number of top RB’s and WR’s – especially when factoring the relative similarity in scoring-output by the #10-25 players in the top 25 RB and WR – means that the ‘just get an adequate QB and TE’ strategy is doomed to mediocrity.  So far, I’m pleased with the results.  My team is 7-3, tied for best-record in the league, and the 3rd highest scoring team so far, about 3.2 points-per-week off the pace of the league leader.  So, what have I done?

The Top-6 Rule:
The number “6” in the rule is actually a variable, and a minimum value too, but the variable is simply half of the number of teams in your fantasy league.  In my case, there’s 12 teams, and half is 6.  The point is that, as fantasy football is based on winning position match ups to ensure the higher overall score, you need to have as many Top-X players at as many positions as possible.  If you do, and maintain, that over the course of the season, you should be able to go deep into the playoffs.  In this way, breadth of talent across your team, able to start every week, is much more valuable than RB/WR depth from players who are unlikely to start, and may very well end up dropped by week 4.

Talent-Scarcity at RB and WR is made up for by the numbers of them starting:
It is undeniable that there are a limited number of elite running backs in the NFL, as well as elite receivers.  But this is a problem that every team is going to face… everyone.  There’s usually 6 elite running backs (players separated by a touchdown-per-game from the top-scorer), and then there’s usually three times that number of running backs within a touchdown-per-game of the lowest-scoring elite back.  Here…

Running Back scoring YTD

Running Back scoring YTD

Running Back scoring, last 3 years

Running Back scoring, last 3 years

The exact same goes for Wide Receivers, and there are dozens of players within half-a-touchdown of the lowest scoring 2nd tier receivers like Fitzgerald and Maclin.  RB and WR may not feel deep, but the number say they are.

Wide Receiver scoring YTD

Wide Receiver scoring YTD

Wide Receiver scoring, last 3 years

Wide Receiver scoring, last 3 years

Yes, you need as many of the elite and very-good backs and receivers as possible.  But the teams with of the 6 elite backs are checked by the teams with the 6 elite WR’s, and everyone is sharing a pretty deep pool of very-good to good players at both positions.  Fantasy seasons are not usually won or lost in the match-ups between running backs and wide receivers, rather they are held.  The path to victory lies elsewhere.

The Importance of an Elite Quarterback:
No one should be afraid of drafting a QB early.  Simply put, they usually score the most points of any position and, if it’s the 3rd or 4th round of the draft, and you can get Andrew Luck or Russell Wilson, you have to do it… they are going to score almost 10 more points per game than any RB2 or WR2 available.  The charts tell the story…

Quarterback scoring, last 3 years

Quarterback scoring, last 3 years

Manning is a 5-alarm fire this season, with a giving-me-the-vapors average of over 37.6 points per game.  Brees is just a  4-alarm’er, nearly a 4-point-passing-touchdown above the 3rd best QB.  My strategy this year, and I think is a good one going forward, is drafting a Top 6 QB, and backing them up with a Top-12’er – that’s how important QB’s are.  This year I was able to get Stafford in the 5th round, and, other players going in the 5th were:  Shane Vereen, Hakeem Nicks, Daryl Richardson, Ryan Mathews, etc.    For more comparison, Stafford has scored 232.7 points this season, the next closest player from round 5 is A.J. Green, a keeper, and he’s still 30 points behind.  Also going in the 5th, DeSean Jackson is 46 points behind Stafford.  After grabbing Stafford in the 5th, I backed him up by keeping Russell Wilson in the 12th.

Quarterback scoring, YTD

Quarterback scoring, YTD

There are enough elite to very-good QB’s to go around in a 12-team league, but even the players at the bottom of the chart are nearly 2 TD’s per game behind the best-of-the-best.  You should not, you cannot wait on quarterbacks, because you don’t want to be the one tearing their hair out each week, trying to decide if you should start Carson Palmer or Joe Flacco.

The Critical Nature of the Elite Tight-End:
If the scarcity of elite players at QB is scary, tight-end is terrifying.  You cannot give up nearly a touchdown a game here if you cannot make that up, every week, somewhere else.  If RB/WE/Flex match-ups usually end up a wash, and there’s enough elite to very-good QB’s available for each team, then you’re league is going to be won or lost in one of three places:  TE, K or DST,  And the easiest place way to put your entire league in a hole, is tight-end.  Just look…  over the last 3 years there have only been 4 elite and 4 very-good TE’s, everyone else is blah.  If you’ve been starting, say, Heath Miller over the last couple of years, congratulations for only being competitive with the bottom 3rd of your league.

Tight-End scoring, last 3 years

Tight-End scoring, last 3 years

This year, Jimmy Graham is just-as-hot as Peyton Manning, averaging a touchdown-per-game more than the #2 TE.  I wouldn’t be surprised if 75%+ of all Super Bowl winning fantasy teams this year don’t have him or Gronk on their roster.

Tight-End scoring, YTD

Tight-End scoring, YTD

Even with the emergence of Thomas and Cameron, and the return of Gates and Davis, really, there’s Graham, Thomas and Cameron (and Gronk’s stats already have him in the Top 30 TE’s this season), and then there’s 11 guys who the Top 4 beat by between a touchdown to a half-a-touchdown per game.  You don’t want to be starting one of those 11.  Super-elite TE’s score at the same clip as super-elite WR’s these days, there’s just 75% less of them and they are worth a high draft pick (I took Graham with the 3rd pick in the 2nd round this year).  And, just like with QB’s, back them up with a Top 12 TE (I picked Greg Olsen in the 8th).

Defenses Are Not Lowly:
Poor DSTs, they rarely get any respect.  Fantasy expert after fantasy expert will admonish you for using any pick other than your last 2 for DST and Kicker.  Kicker I can somewhat understand, the important thing with them to just get one on a potent offense, or an offense that is good, but not always at scoring touchdowns.  Defense, however, gets a bum-rap.  I mean, look at this…

Defense/Special Teams scoring, last 3 years

Defense/Special Teams scoring, last 3 years

Now compare this to the players at the bottom third of the Top 30 running backs and wide receivers.  See how a top defense scores like them?  If your DST is beating your opponents by 3-7 points per game, that’s as significant as your TE or QB have a similar advantage.  Although the situation is not as bad as it is with TE’s, there’s still not enough elite to very-good DST’s to go around.  This year, it’s even worse…

Defense/Special Teams scoring, YTD

Defense/Special Teams scoring, YTD

There has been so much bad QB play, and butter-fingered RB’s and WR’s, this season that defenses are having a field day.  The Chiefs are as on-fire, relative to their position, as Manning or Graham.  Things drop off quickly after then Panthers, then again after then 49’ers, and, beyond that, you’re pretty much in trouble.  I’m not saying to grab a DST in early-to-mid rounds, but you need to get an elite one while they are available.  And, if a D run is going to start, it may as well a start with you.  I used one of my 3 keepers this year on the Seahawk’s DST in the 10th round, and it’s been one of the top steals-of-the-draft so far.

As I said before, so far this strategy is working.  Following this template, if you are able to have Top-6 players at 3-4 different positions, then you put your opponent at a disadvantage before the games even start.  Also, consistent top-level play at QB, TE, K and DST has allowed my team to better weather injuries to David Wilson, Ahmad Bradshaw and Danny Amendola, as well as the invariable inconsistent streaks from very-good to good RB’s and WR’s (I’m look at you Marques Colston, round 3 pick).

Mike Knotts

Mike Knotts was born in 1968 in a small town in southern Indiana. Even when very young, Mike showed a love for all-things technical and sci-fi. Moving with his family to California in the early 80's, he eventually graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in History. Rather than put that to good use, Mike continued to pursue his passion for technology by working for early, regional ISP's in the mid 1990's. He currently resides in the Pacific Northwest, where he works as a project manager for an Internet startup. Mike is a co-founder of Geekometry.

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1 Response

  1. DJ Rose says:

    this is 100% true. With the Seattle Def scoring an avg of 15+ points a game this year while I see others in the 2s and 3s this cannot be overlooked.

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