Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to inform you that I am not perfect. But, I promise you, no one is more disappointed by that fact than I.
I wish I were perfect. I tried my best to be perfect. But I was ultimately far from perfect. I made many fantasy-related proclamations last year, as I do every year, and many of those predictions failed to come true.
Throughout the offseason, each year, I log every prediction I’ve made in a “Decision Journal.” And then, sometime after Week 17, whenever I’ve worked up the nerve or enough self-loathing, I review those decisions, and I self-flagellate, but then I learn from those mistakes. Or at least, I hope I do.
That’s what we’ll be doing in today’s article. We’ll review five of my worst calls from the 2020 season and hope to learn something from those calls, to make us both smarter, wiser, more self-aware, and more accurate in the future.
1) Bell Cow or Bust: aka fade or heavily devalue non bell cow RBs in start/sit leagues
I still firmly believe this to be true, and for all of the reasons I expressed in last year’s article defending the strategy. But I no longer am so rigid in my approach.
But I also feel the need to defend myself a little bit. This was also a brutal outlier-ish year for bell cow RBs. In a typical season there’s about 5.6 running backs who play in at least four games and maintain at least 72.5% of their team’s RB snaps in those games. Last year, there was only one RB who met that threshold: Dalvin Cook. For perspective, in four of the prior five seasons at least six RBs hit that mark.
Bell Cow or Bust is the right approach in a vacuum, optimal over a long enough timeline, but it won’t work perfectly every year. That’s true for every strategy. There’s going to be some outlier years. Maybe even for late-round kicker. But, yes, I do think this was just an outlier year. Yes, I do expect to see a major bell cow resurgence this year. I am predicting a major regression to the mean.
Christian McCaffrey played in only three games last year, Saquon Barkley only two. They feel like locks to resume bell cow status in 2021.
Ezekiel Elliott might return to bell cow-status next season with a healthy Dak Prescott. He averages 80.1% of his team’s backfield snaps in games active across his career, but saw that number drop to a career-low 71.2% last year.
I don’t know why it’s taken so long, but Joe Mixon seems poised to finally reach bell cow-status this year, with scatback Giovani Bernard now in Tampa Bay. OC Brian Callahan told reporters in May: “I don’t want Joe to leave the field, personally, and I think he’s up to that challenge … Joe shouldn’t come off the field, he should be on the field every down. He’s aware of that.” And, remember, Mixon was an elite (very elite) receiver in college.
Fantasy RBs typically make a massive leap from Year 1 to Year 2, falling short of their career baseline average in Year 1 (87.5%) and then wildly exceeding that mark in Year 2 (115.1%). And that jump in production is typically spurred by a jump in volume. On that point, sophomore RBs Jonathan Taylor, Cam Akers, Antonio Gibson, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and maybe even D'Andre Swift have massive bell cow potential in Year 2.
And even among the rookies there’s some bell cow potential, which is especially the case for first-rounder Najee Harris. Last year was just about the only time in the Mike Tomlin-era Pittsburgh’s healthy RB1 wasn’t a bell cow. And, as I illustrated here, Pittsburgh made it abundantly clear why they drafted Harris; to be the Le’Veon Bell-esque bell cow they lacked last year.
I can keep going, but yes, I’m now far more acutely aware there are exceptions to the “Bell Cow or Bust” rule/philosophy. There are some non-bell cows I’d be excited to draft this year. Alvin Kamara, for instance, was always one of them.
He’s not a bell cow, but his RB/WR hybrid role is one of the most valuable roles in fantasy. Among all RBs to play in at least seven games, Kamara ranked second in XFP per game (19.2) last year. He totaled more rushing XFP than Aaron Jones and more receiving XFP than Corey Davis and Curtis Samuel. But he’s also an all-time freak outlier in terms of being consistently hyper-efficient. Volume is more sticky and predictive than production, and efficiency almost always tends to regress to the mean. There are very few exceptions to this rule. But Kamara is the exception to the rule. It’s rare to see a RB outscore his (XFP) expectation by 4.0 FPG or more in any given season. (There were only three such RBs last year.) And it’s even rarer to see a RB accomplish this feat more than once. But Kamara has hit this mark in three of his four NFL seasons (with an injury-plagued 2019 season being the only exception).
Adrian Peterson was a long-time bell cow outlier. He never quite saw enough target volume to qualify as a bell cow, and instead was something more along the lines of an elite (very elite) workhorse RB. Like Kamara, he was consistently hyper-efficient; a rare freak outlier. Like Derrick Henry, his rushing volume was enough for him to keep pace with the bell cows (who also saw heavy target-volume in addition to their rushing workload). And because he is such a freak talent, he wasn’t anywhere near as gamescript dependent or week-to-week volatile as a typical workhorse. Even when trailing, his team still force fed him the ball as the focal point of their offense.
Everything I just said about Peterson applies to Henry. He’s another bell cow outlier, and a generational talent. And playing on an 11-win Titans team (though they were projected to win just 8.5 games last year) helped insulate him against negative gamescript. (Henry averaged 24.8 FPG in victories but just 12.0 FPG in losses last year.)
Jonathan Taylor too might already be close to outlier status. Nick Chubb surely already fits that mold. But he deserves his own mea culpa.
2) Taking Nick Chubb in Round 1/Round 2 is one of the worst picks you can make in (PPR) fantasy drafts
Yup. I got owned.
I was wrong, but I don’t think my logic behind the call was wrong. Let me explain:
I didn’t like Chubb because I expected him to be stuck in a 50/50 committee with Kareem Hunt and for Hunt to lead the backfield in targets by a wide margin. Vegas was projecting Cleveland to win only 8.0 games last year. And they had PFF’s fourth-worst run blocking offensive line in 2019.
Well, I was right about the committee backfield. Chubb played on only 50.1% of the team’s snaps in games active. Hunt averaged 3.2 targets per game, Chubb averaged only 1.5. And yet, in spite of this, Chubb still managed to average 17.3 FPG (9th-most). Despite only playing in 12 games, he still finished as an RB1 (top-12), as did Kareem Hunt. But here’s what I mean about him being an outlier, and why I didn’t want to bet on Cleveland’s backfield being an outlier. Over the past 30 years there are only two instances of two RBs on the same team both finishing the year as RB1s: the 2017 New Orleans Saints and the 2020 Cleveland Browns.
Vegas’ projection was also off. The team won 11 games, helping to insulate Chubb against negative gamescript. Cleveland had a 0.750 win% in games Chubb played, far better than their implied 0.500. Although I didn’t have a lot of start/sit exposure to Chubb, I had a lot of exposure to Chubb in DFS in games Cleveland was heavily favored. And that paid off in a big way. (For his career, Chubb averages 17.6 FPG in wins but only 12.8 FPG in losses.)
And yes, Cleveland’s run blocking unit also dramatically improved, jumping from fourth-worst to best in the league. Sorry, I did not know Wyatt Teller would suddenly become a god, but that’s what happened. He ranked 56th among 82 qualifying guards in PFF grade in 2019. In 2020, he ranked first.
Basically, I thought everything needed to go right for Chubb to hit. And it did. But at the same time, I was sleeping a bit too much on his talent. Who is the best pure runner in football? It’s either Chubb or Henry, and whoever ranks third or fourth is a sizable distance behind.
3) General QB Misses
Well, first off, I was way too low on Josh Allen (my QB11). Simply put, I was skeptical of his talent. I didn’t see him making a dramatic leap as a passer, but boy did he ever. He averaged 9.2 passing FPG in 2018 (32nd), 12.2 passing FPG in 2019 (28th), and then 20.0 passing FPG last year (4th). Yup, I was just wrong. Stefon Diggs surely helped, but Allen was also just a lot better than I ever thought he could be.
Aaron Rodgers was too, for similar reasons. He saw his FPG average jump from 17.4 in 2019 to 24.0 in 2020. Don’t feel bad if you wrote him off as cooked and didn’t see him winning the MVP this year. I’m assuming GM Brian Gutekunst didn’t see this coming either, after drafting his replacement in Round 1. If it makes you feel any better, the ramifications from that mistake are a lot more dire than simply not winning your fantasy league.
Second, I encouraged you to go “Late Round QB,” as I do almost every year. That worked in 2019 with Lamar Jackson. That worked in 2018 with Patrick Mahomes. That did not work as well in 2020. Although my top target, Tom Brady, was fine, finishing eighth at the position in fantasy points scored, he wasn’t a league-winner either. Ryan Tannehill, whom I liked a lot, outscored Brady and was free in the majority of drafts. Justin Herbert too could have been a savvy in-season waiver wir -add as well. Or, of course, Allen or Rodgers would have been a lot better.
But yeah, for the most part, there were few landmines among the QBs being drafted early last year. Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, and Lamar Jackson were all great picks. As was Dak Prescott who led the league in FPG before suffering an injury. I don’t want to say “Late Round QB is dead,” because it’s not, but it’s certainly lost some of its efficacy. Why? Because we’re living in the age of the Konami Code.
4) Marquise Brown: Must-Draft
As you probably already know, I got really excited about Brown’s potential heading into Year 2, and I think the logic behind it was mostly fine. He averaged only 10.5 FPG as a rookie, but also fought through a myriad of injuries and wasn’t even a full-time player, playing on just 58% of the team’s snaps when active. He was fresh off of Lisfranc surgery, spent 9 of 16 games on the injury report listed as Questionable, played 15-20 pounds below his typical playing weight, and lost over 3.0 mph off his typical playing speed (23 mph vs. <20 mph) per GPS tracking. By all accounts he was finally healthy heading into 2020. So, to me, he looked like a massive injury discount and a sophomore breakout waiting to happen.
Like I said, the logic behind it was mostly fine. But then the hype train kept rolling, his ADP kept climbing, and I kept doubling down. That was a mistake. My own ego was partly to blame, and I know better than to succumb to groupthink (I usually do at least). A player’s value comes relative to the price to acquire. And for just about every player there’s a point at which they cease to become a value. Even Christian McCaffrey isn’t worth, let’s say, 50% of your auction budget. As Brown’s ADP rose I should have pumped the brakes a bit (nothing changed with him, only public perception).
But, more than anything, I think I overrated Brown’s talent and his ability to command heavy target volume. At 166 pounds, he’d have to be a heavy outlier in that regard.
There were some other factors as well, but all of which I thought I had already factored into the analysis. But still, I was massively overrating Baltimore’s offense, knowing full well it was a run-first offense and Lamar Jackson was due for a massive efficiency regression. That happened, with Jackson falling from 17.1 passing FPG to 13.1 in 2020. Baltimore also ranked dead-last in pass attempts last year, and on the few pass attempts thrown, Jackson ranked bottom-10 in accurate pass% (per PFF). So, Brown wasn’t set up for success, and it’s no surprise he wasn’t successful.
5) Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Cam Akers, and Diontae Johnson are league-winners
You can argue that I overrated Edwards-Helaire’s talent, or that I overrated the importance of his role (relative to talent) for fantasy, but you can’t argue that I overrated his role.
Through the first six weeks of the season, Edwards-Helaire ranked second among all players at all positions in XFP (averaging 19.9) and ranked fifth among RBs in snaps. Of course, he averaged just 15.9 FPG over this span, but he was also brutally unlucky in the touchdown department. (Note: I say “unlucky” rather than “inefficient” for a reason, explained here. Essentially, touchdown efficiency is far more driven by “luck” than skill.) On 12 opportunities inside the 10-yard-line, he found the end zone only once. Based on usage (XTD), he should have scored 5.3 touchdowns. Which is to say, if he was perfectly average in touchdown efficiency, rather than worst in the league and historically poor, he would have averaged 20.2 FPG.
Things fell apart after that, with Le’Veon Bell joining the team. Yeah, sorry, I didn’t expect the Jets to cut him midseason. Definitely didn’t see that coming.
Ultimately, I was wrong on Edwards-Helaire, but I don’t think the process was wrong.
Cam Akers and Diontae Johnson? Yeah, I think you know that I know (that you know I know) I wasn’t wrong about them either. But after 2,000 words of self-flagellation I just needed to cheer myself up a bit.
The Akers call was quite a rollercoaster ride. He earned 15 touches and the start in Week 1. Things were looking good. I was feeling good. He earned the start again in Week 2, but suffered a serious multi-week rib injury immediately after seeing the first three RB touches of the game. He struggled to see the field after that, was all but written off as a bust, but then burst back onto our radar in Week 12, turning just 9 carries into 84 yards and a score. From Week 13 on (including the postseason), Akers handled 72% of the team’s snaps, 86% of the backfield carries, and 58% of the targets out of the backfield. Over this span, he averaged 22.0 carries, 2.3 targets, 118.0 YFS, and 16.6 FPG. All of this culminated in a Todd Gurley-esque workload in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, playing on 48 of the team’s 50 snaps.
The entire justification behind my call was that if Akers was just 75% of who Gurley was from 2017-2018 then he’s a lock top-five fantasy RB. And even if he was just 60% of Gurley, then still should have been a fantasy RB1. Based on his usage at the tail-end of last year I’m highly bullish. His 2.3 targets per game are a far cry from Gurley’s 5.8, but by snaps, and carries, and YPC (4.58), he was damn close. He’s gotten a lot more expensive this year (ADP: RB11) but that’s also a price I’m more than willing to pay.
Johnson too dealt with some unfortunate injury luck. Due entirely to injury, he missed one game and fell under 50% of the team's snaps in Weeks 3, 5, and 14. He played on 76% of the team's snaps in Week 8 but clearly wasn't quite right after spending some time in the medical tent with an injury suffered in the first quarter. Including the postseason, but excluding those four games, Johnson saw double-digit targets in 11 of 12 games, with the lone exception being Week 17, the one game QB Ben Roethlisberger didn't play. Over this span, Johnson averaged 12.3 targets, 83.0 yards, 19.6 XFP, and 19.4 FPG. If extrapolated over the full season, those numbers would have ranked best (1.7 more than next-closest), eighth-best, second-best, and fourth-best.
Johnson wasn’t a league-winner last year, finishing outside of the top-20 WRs by fantasy points and FPG, but he will be this year. And is a clear smash-value at current ADP (WR22).