I’ve been recapping the lessons I’ve learned from the completed fantasy seasons for over two decades, and by now you’d think that I'd have run out of takeaways to write about. But the NFL and fantasy games are a moving target that is constantly evolving and changing with the times, so most of the lessons I’ve learned over the last few years don’t even apply to those I wrote about 20 years ago.
In the science community, there’s a steady quest for knowledge that drives people‘s passion for future learning. I’m no scientist, but I have plenty of enthusiasm, and my motivation is simple: I just want to win and help others who listen to me win. I’m not really thinking long-term, either. I’m focussing on the here and now, so while the tips I’ve outlined below may help you for years and years to come, my primary goal is to adjust to all the lessons learned in 2021 and use them to put me over the top in 2022.
So my draft prep for the upcoming season is already underway, and it starts with making adjustments based on the mistakes I made last year, the lessons I learned, and the trends that I’m seeing.
At running back, 25 is the new 30
As a fantasy football ageist, I’ve understood that I will frequently be in a year too early on a breakout player, and that I’ll always miss out on some productive veteran players who appear “boring” to me but wind up having productive seasons, like James Conner this year. This approach started for me back in 1989, when I used the 10th overall pick in my league on a rookie named Barry Sanders, who would have been a third or fourth round pick had I overslept and missed the draft. Barry was the RB4 on the season and I’ve been hooked on drafting breakout players ever since. This approach worked back in ‘89 and it was greatly responsible for the success I enjoyed as an analyst and a player in 2021.
People thought I was nuts drafting the rookie Sanders at 10 that year, and they felt the same way back in September when I took RB Javonte Williams at 25 overall in my top league. It was a very aggressive pick, but I loved Williams’ talent and I actually wasn’t convinced he’d be there for me at 32 overall in the third round in this competitive draft. Williams was the RB20 off the board per the ADP, and I took him as the RB16, which doesn’t seem like a big overextension. But his overall ADP was 48 and I took him at 25, so it was ballsy. I was convinced he’d be a stud after studying him in the preseason, but I overpaid for him because he was 21 years old and I fully expected him to be a top-15 pick in 2022 (which he will be by the summer). At 25 overall, the number of young stud RBs is obviously dwindling, and to my point, the next RB off the board two picks later was Chris Carson. He was an older guy for his position with a lengthy injury history, and he unsurprisingly got hurt.
It turned out Williams wasn’t a great pick, but he sure as hell wasn’t a bad second-round pick (14T) as the RB17 for the season. I had him with 244 touches and he had 246, so I properly accounted for the presence of Melvin Gordon. But I clearly believed that Williams would take control of the primary role in this backfield during the season. He did not, but he should have, so perhaps that was one of the reasons the coaches who insisted on splitting the backfield down the middle got fired. Gordon was definitely solid and deserved a solid role, but he wasn’t a difference-maker like Williams, who showed it Weeks 12-16, where he was the RB3 in fantasy. Williams did get to carry the load for a game with Gordon out and, sure enough, he was the RB1 for the week with 29.8 FP in Week 13. Williams, thanks in part to the fact that he’s barely old enough to legally drink, led all RBs in broken tackles, and he averaged 0.31 missed tackles per carry, also tops in the league. I started Williams every single week, and while he didn’t hit the ceiling I thought he would outside of a few weeks, I still made it to the finals with him as my RB2, so I have no regrets. Gordon had missed multiple games in five of his six seasons heading into 2021, so it was fair to expect him to miss considerable time.
However, in this very same league, after I had convinced myself to overpay for Williams in the second, I also convinced myself to play it safe by taking Ezekiel Elliott over my guy Jonathan Taylor in Round 1, which is still painful six months later. There’s more on Taylor below in another lesson, but needless to say I still hate myself for playing it “safe” with Zeke. But I was high on the Cowboys, and I thought Zeke would pile up the TDs in a prolific offensive attack. Through Week 5, I was correct, as Zeke was the RB5 on the season with 6 TDs and 5.3 YPC. He had only 9/55 receiving total, so he could have easily been the RB3 through five weeks with his usual totals in the passing game. I knew Taylor had more upside, but I was locked into shooting for the stars with Javonte in the second, so I “settled” on Zeke, whose ADP, by the way, was higher than Taylor’s. My football analysis on Zeke was correct, and the numbers were there early on. Unfortunately, I ignored one key number: his age.
I give Zeke a ton of credit for his durability and ability to play hurt, it’s one of the reasons I took him, but thanks to a torn PCL, he was a shell of his former self the final 12 weeks of the season, averaging only 12.5 carries per game and only 3.6 YPC. In a sense, he proved how “safe” he was by playing all 12 games, and he was the RB12 in that span, which isn’t bad, but he was also just the RB23 in FPG, and he also had six games with fewer than 13 FP in PPR, so he was a problem. He also completely died in championship Week 17 with a measly 4.0 fantasy points.
I really don’t want to come across as an angry old guy comparing the players of today to those of yesteryear, but coming out of 2021, it’s hard not to. I’m the same age as HOFers Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders, who missed fewer than 20 games in their combined 23 seasons. Christian McCaffrey missed more games this season than Barry did in his entire career. Dalvin Cook missed more games this year than Emmitt did his first 13 years in the league. Saquon Barkley has dealt with three different serious injuries before his 24th birthday, and Emmitt and Barry combined for zero serious injuries while still in their 20s (18 seasons combined). And how about this one going back further in NFL history: HOF RB John Riggins rushed for more yards in his 30s than his 20s. Needless to say, that will never happen again.
I know these basic examples are anecdotal, but it’s pretty clear that the previous age 30 benchmark for RBs to be considered “old” has to be moved up. Less than 20 years ago, back in 2003, I don’t recall having major concerns about ranking 30-year old Curtis Martin as a top-10 RB, and Martin that year had 323 carries and well over 1500 total yards on 365 touches. In 2021, only two RBs had 300+ carries, and their average age was 22.5 years old (Jonathan Taylor and Najee Harris were both 22).
I do think the lingering pandemic has played a role in the proliferation of lower body injuries and any type of injury, as things have yet to return to normal in terms of NFL off-season programs and workout regimens. And obviously, injuries have been a big part of the game from day one. But when a guy like McCaffrey apparently can’t suit up unless he’s in pristine physical condition, or when superstars like Dalvin, Saquon, and Zeke can’t be counted at age 26 or older, it’s time to be even more skeptical with these RBs. Heck, even the one outlier guy, King Henry, who plays like it’s 1979 and he’s Earl Campbell, made it through only 2.5 seasons before suffering a serious injury.
I believe most fantasy players have already bumped up the expiration date on aging RBs from 30 to about 28 years of age. I know I have, so lately my biggest challenge at this position has been differentiating the proven studs who are in the 25-26 year age group versus the younger players who are less proven, especially the rookies. It made sense for Zeke Elliott to be going off the board at five overall well before Najee Harris at 15 overall, but Elliott had 1600 touches in the NFL heading into the season and Harris had zero (and a relatively low college touch total of 718). And Harris was the overall RB2 on the season despite playing behind one of the worst OLs in the league because he was able to handle 380 touches, due in part to being only 23 years old. I say, if you believe in the talent in a young player, the safest play is to go all-in on that young player.
Dealing with these RBs is certainly a tricky business, but from what I’ve seen lately there’s definitely a sweet spot for these guys in terms of age, and it’s usually in the 23-25 year old range. McCaffrey’s first few years are a good example. Year one was more than fine, and he expanded his role in year two at 22 years old. I said at the time, in summer of 2019, that CMC’s third season was going to be his best, since he had two full years of experience, yet was still only 23 years old. It was, but now he’s already fallen off a cliff since and is already a year-to-year guy. There are always exceptions, like Austin Ekeler this past season, but too many top-50 fantasy picks at RB in the 25+ age range came up small due to physical problems, like CMC, Henry, Elliott, Cook, Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and Chris Carson.
I may actually be inclined to lean into the old “Zero RB” thing more in 2022 given all the RB landmines the 2021 season presented us, especially if I didn't get a crack at the ideal RB target in Round 1 in Jonathan Taylor. But I’m an old school fantasy player who feels naked without at least one RB drafted in the first two rounds, so if I had the #2 pick in the 2022 draft, I’m willing to take Javonte Williams as early as pick 1.2. Otherwise, my targets in the first few rounds of my 2022 redraft leagues, excluding the rookies, will be Najee Harris, Antonio Gibson, D'Andre Swift, Cam Akers, J.K. Dobbins, Travis Etienne, Elijah Mitchell, Michael Carter, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Those guys all have one thing in common: they’re all currently 23 or younger.
Basically, and I’m obviously being general here, but if you draft a 25 year old RB in 2022 it’s the equivalent to drafting a 30 year old RB in 2002.
And also: get off my lawn.
At wide receiver, 29 is the new…uh…33?
If I didn’t offend you by telling you to get off my lawn above, let me now smack you across the head with a rake because it’s not just the RBs who are fading faster than ever in the NFL. The WRs are also seemingly hitting their expiration dates sooner these days. Now, looking just at 2021, it’s just one year, and the evidence is unscientific, but if you pulled out all the WR disappointments from the season, while also considering their ADPs, you’ll find that almost all the buzzkills came from older guys.
Again, I do think the pandemic has something to do with the increase of soft tissue and lower-body injuries, but there’s something going on when there was literally only one wide receiver aged 29 or older who didn’t let us down in a major way in 2021. Out of the top-25 producers in terms of total points, only one guy was aged 29 or older on opening day: Keenan Allen.
As for DeAndre Hopkins, Robert Woods, Adam Thielen, Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, and Marvin Jones, they all had problems, mostly with injuries. Woods tore his ACL, which, believe it or not, makes me feel better about him for 2022 compared to a guy like Hopkins, who struggled to get past his hamstring injury suffered in late October. That’s a bad sign for an older receiver, and it was made worse when he finally returned to action but then tore his MCL in his second game back in December. It’s unclear if the hamstring issue led to or made him more prone to suffering another leg ailment, but that’s often the case. When a durable receiver starts having hamstring problems later in his career, it’s a bad sign, as it was for Julio back in 2020. Yet, despite the major warning signs with his lingering hammy issue in 2020, Julio was drafted around 50 overall this past summer, ahead of quality youngsters like Deebo Samuel, Ja’Marr Chase, and Tee Higgins, to name a few. In Deebo’s case, fantasy managers were consistently passing on the eventual WR3 for the season with 1800+ yards and 14 TDs in favor of Julio, who was the WR93 with 334 yards and 1 TD. Note: If you read that last sentence 100 times, you may never again draft a wideout over the age of 30.
There are exceptions to most rules in the fantasy game, and I’ve recently ignored my ageist tendencies and have given love to Thielen, whose 20s ended before the 2019 season. It worked out well in 2020, when Thielen was the WR10 on the season at 30 years old, thanks mainly to his 14 TDs. Heading into 2021, I should have quit while I was ahead with Thielen, who saw slippage in some key categories like his YPR and yards-per-route-run compared to 2020. But his price tag was (again) so affordable in drafts that I could not pass on the buying opportunity, especially on a team that affords him a healthy target share (26% in 2020, 13th-best in the league) and features him in the red zone (third-most RZ targets in 2020). Most of Theilen’s numbers continued to decline, but he was still the WR16 in FPG with 15.4 (we had him as the WR14 in the preseason), and he was the WR28 on the season despite missing four games. But he was a lost cause after Week 12, so he’s a good example of the risks involved when you draft older players.
Similar to comparing the proven and still relatively young RBs in the 25-27 year old range to the rookies and the unproven players, it’s definitely a challenge to compare an older player still playing at a high level like Hopkins to a relatively unknown younger player like Justin Jefferson. But if the 2021 season taught us anything, it taught us to go young whenever we’re in doubt. D-Hop was actually ranked higher than Jefferson on most boards, and his ADP was higher, but I was wise enough to vote youth with Jefferson, who we ranked higher than Hopkins. I was also wise enough to pass on Julio in our startup Fantasy Points Staff Dynasty League back in May of 2020. I was very motivated to win the league in its first year, so I was very tempted to take Jones in the third round. Jones was coming off a WR3 season with 15 games played and a league-leading 13.8 yards-per-touch, but I passed on him for the 22-year old AJ Brown, and thank God I did because Julio was worthless less than two years later.
I hate to say it, but there will be some tough WR calls coming in 2021, namely Cooper Kupp. One of the reasons I wasn’t begging people to draft Kupp this year is his history of knee ailments. It’s easy to forget now, but 2021 actually started with Kupp missing their divisional playoff round loss to the Packers with a mysterious knee ailment, and Kupp also suffered a torn ACL in 2018. Kupp will likely be a top-5 overall pick this summer, but he’ll be 29 years old coming off literally the most active WR season in NFL history with 21 starts and an absurd 233 targets and 178 catches.
Considering Kupp’s outrageous cost in 2022 drafts, not to mention the fact that he’ll never come close to repeating his dream season, and what we’ve learned about player expiration dates these last two seasons, I’m inclined to pass on Kupp. I’ll definitely take a young, versatile stud RB ilke Javonte Williams over Kupp because Kupp’s already had his career season and Williams, seven years younger, could have his as soon as this year.
Forget QBs who don’t run or have 35-TD potential
I’ve been complaining about these types for a number of years now, and I’m to the point where I may never draft another one of them again.
I liked Baker Mayfield coming out of college, and he did have a strong rookie campaign in 2019 with 27 TD passes in 14 games (13 starts). But by 2020, the Browns were basically hiding him, which is surprising because he was the #1 overall pick just two years before. Mayfield got hot late and was the QB10 the final six games and that fact, coupled with his affordable 150+ ADP, prompted me to push him hard as a desirable QB2 or top-15 QB this past year. I can live with my Baker mistake because it was a worthy flier with way more upside than downside. He also got hurt in Week 2 and was beaten to a pulp all year, so that was a big problem. But now that I’ve taken a step back from the season, Baker’s 2021 campaign was yet another reminder that QBs with a small margin for error for fantasy can be overlooked.
The obvious culprits are the guys who don’t run, like Kirk Cousins. Kirkie was a solid ninth in the league in TD passes and finished as the QB12. He had eight or so really solid fantasy games, but it was tough to go to battle with him in crunch time because he also had numerous stinkers, especially in the fantasy playoffs. I didn’t want anything to do with him, but Ryan Tannehill was our QB12 in the preseason and he was, in fact, the QB12 for the season. Was I waiting for the other shoe to drop after two shockingly good seasons? Yes I was, because he has a small margin for error. His low margin for error wasn’t tied to his rushing production, either, as he somehow managed to score 7 TDs on the ground for the second season in a row.
It was due to his perilously thin receiver group, plus his own limitations without a dominant running game behind him. As much as I’ve always liked Tannehill, I’ve also understood almost from day one that he does not have a large margin for error. Derek Carr was the QB13 on the season, but did you care? No, you didn’t. And I know it kinda felt like Tua Tagovailoa had a decent fantasy year when he played, but he had only two good games and a handful more solid games, despite a decent 128/3 rushing, which isn’t enough. Tua wasn’t reliable for rushing or passing production. At least with new HC Mike McDaniel bringing in a proven and QB-friendly scheme, Tua might have a chance to play in a great offense in a year or two.
These are the quarterbacks who you’d generally prefer to pick up off the Waiver Wire for a spot start, and there’s usually at least a few of them available in most leagues most weeks. So at least in leagues that start only one QB, or unless the value is too ridiculous to pass up or the roster spot negligible, I’m only drafting QBs who I think have a chance to be undroppable. All these guys mentioned above in this lesson? Droppable.
Narrow down your QB search
Coming out of 2021, I’m still willing to give love to any QB if his ADP is low enough, but I’d like to narrow down my search at this position and focus on these three types of players:
- QBs whose game is built around their running and second-reaction ability.
- QBs in great offenses with 35+ TD potential.
- QBs who can do it all.
The running QBs are usually great, but a lot of the top running QBs got banged up this year, and I have more on that below in another lesson. They’re still appealing, but we learned in 2021 that these guys present more risk than we thought.
The players from the second group were basically Tom Brady (QB3), Matthew Stafford (QB5), and Joe Burrow (QB8). The poster child was Stafford, who ran for only 43/0 but threw 41 TD passes. These types aren’t always easy to find, but we were high on Stafford and he was easy to acquire in 2021, and at an affordable cost at the QB10 around 100 overall. I was confident in Brady, so I listed Over 37.5 passing TDs for Brady as one of my top preseason prop bets. He cost 1.5-2 rounds more than Stafford, but he also scored 2.4 more FPG. As for Burrow, I did have him as player to target in my Draft Plan, and I said repeatedly that he would have easily been my #1 QB target on the season had he not suffered a very serious knee injury the previous November. Burrow was usually around a 9th-10th round pick, and I’d guess he’d have been a 7th-8th rounder like Aaron Rodgers, which would have been more than fine because he probably would have finished as the QB4 (he was only 20 points off that pace as it was).
I don’t see enough 2022 ADP data to make a strong call on Burrow for 2022 just yet, but I’m guessing he’ll be a 6th-7th rounder for most. I expect to give that my endorsement, since 35+ passing TDs are very doable, plus with 3-4 on the ground another year removed from his knee injury. That puts Burrow in that third and most appealing group: the guys who can do it all. Most of these guys will do the majority of their damage with their arms, but they usually add around 1.5-2.5 fantasy points to their weekly totals with their legs. In 2021, Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers were great examples of guys who did it all. Of course, but they didn’t measure up to the king Josh Allen.
The cheat code is nice but…
To be clear, the cheat code is as powerful as ever for The King Josh Allen, who piled up 90+ FP on the ground for the fourth straight year with an average of over 100 points a season in that span. Allen, for now, seems unbreakable but you’d like to see his rushing attempts stick in the double digits (career high 122 in 2021).
To my point, a lot of the running QBs got banged up this year, like Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts, and Russell Wilson, among others. Hurts was a league-winner and the value pick of the year at the position for most of the season, thanks mostly to his running. But his 130+ rushing attempts eventually took a toll and he crushed people in the fantasy playoffs with only 14.8 FPG with only 9/51 rushing total as he was nursing a pretty serious ankle injury. Lamar didn’t play after Week 12 while nursing a bone bruise in his ankle, which is obviously a concern moving forward. Murray was very good when he played, but he got 0.0 FP Weeks 9-11 when he was also slowed by an ankle injury. Sensing a trend here yet?
To summarize, 2021 taught us that the old “cheat code” may not be the lucrative fantasy football hack we thought it was. Turns out, Lamar’s made of flesh and blood and carrying the rock in the NFL 150+ times a year four years in a row can take a toll. And as the hits pile up on smaller guys like Murray and Wilson, it’s not going to get any easier for them to bounce back.
I’m sure these factors will be considered by the masses as the 2022 ADP board forms all off-season, so these guys may be a little cheaper, and I might even back most of them strongly. But at the very least, I’m less inclined to use an earlier pick on the run-heavy guys like Lamar and Kyler in around the fifth or sixth round. I’d prefer a non-cheat code guy like Burrow a couple of rounds later.
Target three-down skill sets in fluid backfields
I had a version of this lesson a decade ago in this article, but this lesson comes from our guy Tom Brolley. I’ve always been about versatility with RBs, and that’s what bothers me about my handling of Leonard Fournette this past summer. I liked Fournette on this team heading into 2020 (hated him while he was a Jaguar that year), and I’ve always been a major Ronald Jones hater. But Fournette still didn’t interest me despite having a very affordable ADP around 110 overall. I knew Jones was a factor and that he could take over as the early-down back at any given time, which was one problem. The bigger problem was the addition of receiving specialist Gio Bernard. The Bucs seemingly searched the four corners of the globe to find a slick pass-catching back like James White for Tom Brady, and Gio was a very solid addition on paper. So in theory, Fournette wasn’t guaranteed anything in this backfield heading into the season. Fournette’s also a front-runner who’s getting older and just got a ring, but to his credit, and likely due to the presence of a certain G.O.A.T. and a good culture, Lenny brought it all year when he was healthy.
It didn’t seem like a big deal for a role player, but Gio turned 30 in November with 1300+ touches on his resume, so he may have been a little longer in the tooth than we thought. Gio didn’t assimilate very well in Tampa, and he missed five games, which opened the door for Fournette to crush it and end up as the RB6 in total scoring and the RB4 in FPG, this past season.
We know the early-down only RBs are a pain in the rear, but this was a good low-key lesson learned: if a backfield appears to be a fantasy quagmire that no one can figure out, we should default to the guy who has the best overall skill set. It’s fair to say this applied to James Conner in Arizona. Conner isn’t a better receiver than Chase Edmonds, but giving his solid receiving prowess plus his ability as a runner, he had the better three-down skill set and it was Conner with his preseason ADP of RB39 who got most of the fantasy glory in Arizona, not Edmonds, who was the RB26 this summer.
I’m still wary of RBs who come out of nowhere
This is a lesson re-affirmed, as I literally copied and pasted this heading from the 2020 version of this article, where I warned against believing in Miami’s Myles Gaskin in 2021 (plus JD McKissic and James Robinson).
Fantasy players were interested in Gaskin due to his breakout 2020 season, but also due to the fact that the Dolphins didn’t add anyone of note at the position to compete with Gaskin. He was affordable as the RB23 off the board per ADP, and he ended up as the RB25, so the fantasy community priced him well. Gaskin in 2021 had more touchdowns, rushing attempts, yards, targets, receptions, and receiving yards than he did in 2020 — but he was still a nightmare to roster. Gaskin came out of nowhere the year before and the reason he was a surprise is because he entered the league with zero fanfare as an undersized seventh-round pick, so he was miscast as their RB1. Since opportunity is a huge part of the RB equation, there are usually a handful of players who wind up with a lot more work than expected, and if they do well, they often get an opportunity for their team and love in fantasy drafts the next season. But it almost never pans out for them the next season. Obviously, I want my RBs to have a large role, but I often value pedigree over everything else because the cream usually rises to the top and non-pedigree guys are usually stopgaps and rental players.
I was fascinated by Mike Davis all summer because he fit the profile of a one-year wonder, so I was very skeptical despite the fact that he was clearly in line for a very large role, since the Falcons had nothing at RB otherwise. I felt Davis would really put this theory to the test while competing with some low-end guys like Qadree Ollison and UDFA rookie Caleb Huntley. Davis did get over 180 touches, but he got usurped by a guy who wasn’t even a running back in Cordarrelle Patterson. Once again, here was a RB who came out of nowhere one year and ended up being majorly overpriced the next (Davis’ ADP was 55). From Justin Forsett in 2016 to Raheem Mostert in 2020, to Gaskin and Davis in 2021, players who fit this profile seem to come around every year now. James Robinson did come out of nowhere in 2020, and was more than fine while he was healthy. But the Jags did everything they could to add him to this list by using a #1 pick on Travis Etienne, who surely would have seriously disrupted Robinson’s fantasy fortunes.
This trend has been so consistent, that I’m now starting my search for my RB fades by looking for these types. That means I’ll be out on Patterson if he’s considered a RB. I may even be wary of drafting Elijah Mitchell, who was great when he played but may not have the frame to hold up, which could explain why he was only a sixth round pick.
Breakout receivers can’t break out by themselves
As I’ve mentioned too many times to count over just the last few years, I’ve been obsessed with finding breakout NFL players and fantasy sleepers since the late 80s. But I sometimes wonder if I’m so preoccupied with isolating a breakout player, that I occassionally lose sight of the forest through the trees.
A great example from 2021 would be Jerry Jeudy, the third-year wide receiver for the Broncos. I’ve been sold on him from day one, and I’m still sold on him as a talent, so if they get an upgrade at QB, I’m going to be all-in again in 2022. But while I ranked him exactly at his ADP of WR24 this summer, I was pushing Jeudy as a breakout player and a strong pick. I’m not upset about my talent evaluation with Jeudy, who has yet to show us the best he has to offer, but I regret feeling as optimistic as I did given Denver’s shaky QB situation.
My rationale with Jeudy was that Teddy Bridgewater supported two different 1000-yard receivers the year before in Carolina (and almost a third in Curtis Samuel, who had 851 yards in 2020), and that if Teddy got hurt again at least Drew Lock wasn’t hopeless. Jeudy did have some solid games with Lock in 2020 with performances of 7/125/1, 5/140/1, and 6/61 to name a few. Of course, I knew Jeudy’s catch rate with Lock was awful in 2020 (46%), so I was hoping for Teddy this past summer for Jeudy’s sake. We did get Teddy to open the season, and Jeudy’s catch rate did improve to 68%, which is a big leap. Jeudy missed seven full games, which was a big part of the problem for him this past year, but the bigger problem, of course, was his team’s poor QB play. Jeudy had only 56 targets on the season, plus he did not score a TD, and despite opening the season with 6/72 on seven targets in the opener before getting hurt, he would never hit 70 yards again this past year. Denver had multiple 1000-yard candidates at receiver, and their sorry QBs couldn’t help produce even one.
If you scan the consensus top-50 WRs from this past summer, there is a clear trend with many of the underwhelming wideouts: they all suffered through poor QB play. Terry McLaurin was sixth in the league at WR in terms of snap share, and he was 19th in the league with a 25% target share, yet he underwhelmed as the WR25 on the season, and he was only 33rd in FPG, mainly because his QBs stunk. Allen Robinson’s Bears did see improved QB play, but Andy Dalton and Justin Fields still weren’t good enough to boost Robinson, who did also have his own issues. One of my worst WR calls this year was giving Chase Claypool love, and while he had his own issues (maturity, perhaps), I’d have to look at Ben Roethlisberger as the main reason Claypool failed to deliver. There’s no doubt in my mind that DeVonta Smith is good, which is why I ranked him about 10 spots higher than his ADP of 81 this past summer, and I had him at WR29 when he was WR35 off the board per ADP. DeVonta played all 17 games, and he was actually WR30 on the season, but that was not a win because Smith was maddeningly unreliable while playing with Jalen Hurts, who left a ton of plays on the field this past year, many to Smith.
The list goes on and on this past season: Robby Anderson was a bust, and after a hot start DJ Moore fell off a cliff because Sam Darnold was hot garbage. Kenny Golladay was hopeless, and so was Daniel Jones. DJ Chark didn’t do much when healthy and Laviska Shenault was droppable all year, same with Trevor Lawrence. Courtland Sutton died with Jeudy, etc.
As basic as this lesson is, and as easy as it is to say now that you shouldn’t draft receivers with shaky QB situations, fantasy managers in August were still willingly selecting McLaurin over Cooper Kupp, A-Rob over Mike Evans, and Claypool over Ja'Marr Chase. There’s always a lot of moving parts and numerous angles to consider for any player’s analysis, and a stud player can produce with volume with a low-end guy at QB. But clearly, if you came up with a list of the top WR busts this past summer and listed only guys aged 30 and older and/or with low-end QBs, you would have nailed it.
So at the very least, since these guys can’t throw the ball to themselves, if you’re struggling to decide between two receivers, as I’ve said for 20+ years now, your tie-breaker is the QB.
The “system” or “scheme” HCs can be annoying
If you’ve consumed my content over the last two years, you probably know that I’ve loved Jonathan Taylor like a son from Day One. But I’ve also been frustrated at times by his lack of touches, especially when he was struggling his rookie season in 2020. I said at the time he just needed the ball more, and that was the case, yet there were still commitment issues with Taylor early in 2021, despite his incredible success at the tail end of 2020.
Frankly, I’m convinced the best thing to happen to Taylor in 2021 was Carson Wentz’s ankle injuries from early in the season. Shockingly, Taylor actually had a game with only 11 touches in 2021 (Week 3). And through the first three weeks of the season, Taylor was only the RB28 on the year. Now, the Colts did also have some OL injuries and some bad vibes dating back to the preseason, but 11 touches for Taylor was ridiculous. Colts HC Frank Reich knows more about football than I ever will, but it’s clear to me that he prioritizes his system, play-calling, design, analytics, etc. over common sense. It’s almost like he loves to show off and use like 12 different skill players every week just because he can. Head coaches who have staples are easier to predict, but Reich’s staple is that he has no staple.
So while he was giving Nyhiem Hines damn near half the snaps the first three weeks of the season, there sat Taylor, a legit MVP candidate in 2021, in a timeshare. Call me crazy, but I like coaches who take full advantage of their best players, so I was glad to see the Colts open the season 0-3. But after Week 3, with Wentz dealing with a pair of sore ankles, it was like Frank needed to be reminded that Taylor was a stud who demanded touches, even though most of us already knew that. JT never had fewer than 15 touches in a game starting Week 4 and the rest was history.
I’m a huge fan of Kyle Shanahan, but he can be a little maddening. We know he’s all about the run, which is often great because we know what’s coming, but he does also work in a lot of backs at times. He’s running the ball every week, regardless of the name on the back of the jersey. But when it comes to a man whose jersey reads “Kittle,” it’s clear that Shanahan doesn’t necessarily think he commands the ball on a weekly basis. Unfortunately for George Kittle owners, the worst of it came during the fantasy playoff weeks, when Kittle posted 3/50/0 total Weeks 16-17, followed by a 5/10/0 day in Week 18. Kittle carried people three or four times this year, but he was also held to 50 yards or fewer in eight of his 14 games and to single-digit fantasy days in six of his 14 games. I’m sure there are many reasons he’s been a volatile performer, but I also think it’s clear there are times when Shanahan feels his system/scheme/approach trumps all, and I’m starting to notice that, when a coach believes in his system as much or more than his players, it’s not great for fantasy. Shanahan also has a very large doghouse and he’ll make some good players reside there, as we learned with Brandon Aiyuk, so he’s very willing to NOT use some of his key players.
It was discussed often during game broadcasts this past fall how some NFL coaches are deviating from certain norms, like traveling a top shutdown man-to-man corner against a stud wideout and opting to often play a guy like Jalen Ramsey in the slot. In one instance, FOX’s Troy Aikman was incredulous when Eagles QB Jalen Hurts continued to ignore stud rookie DeVonta Smith, who was lined up out wide and singled up in man coverage. Per Aikman, he’s throwing that ball to Michael Irvin 100% of the time back in the day. Was that the QB or was that more about HC Nick Sirianni and his offense? Well, considering Sirianni coached below Frankie Reich for damn near a decade, I’m guessing the latter.
We’re still gathering up information about many of the league’s young HCs/OCs like Sirianni, Zac Taylor, Arthur Smith, Kevin Stefanski, and Matt LaFleur, plus all the new hires in 2022. Led by members of the Shanahan/Sean McVay coaching tree, my guess is that we’re witnessing a shift toward more trust in the system, which now includes embracing analytics in many cases. The nerds are taking over, and it might not be great news in terms of being predictive for fantasy football. Rest assured, with more time to evaluate all the coaches this year, if I see a situation where scheme may suppress a player’s value, I’ll be all over it.
A lack of fantasy production can start at the top
I’ve spent much of the last 25+ years looking for clues to help me predict fantasy production and I thought I had left no stone unturned when it comes to the myriad angles to consider. But a new one came to me in 2021. Looking at the organizations in full is something I’ve always done, I don’t recall consciously considering a specific team owner/group as an element that affects fantasy production. But I’m ready to say it’s a factor.
Certainly, it’s fair to say that having a particularly bad owner increases the odds of a team having a bad record, and we generally don’t like drafting players on bad teams. But I think there’s a difference between Detroit Lions bad and, say, Jacksonville Jaguars bad. The Lions are a typically poor team, yes, but they usually aren’t hopeless, and they usually aren’t dysfunctional (sans the Matt Patricia years). The current Jags ownership, on the other hand, has made nothing but bad hires at GM and HC. These guys stink, and their terrible decision to hire Urban Meyer was damaging, both to the organization and to fantasy people who drafted their players.
In Washington, it’s not a coincidence the team has mainly been a fantasy wasteland, averaging a pathetic 17.7 TD passes a season the last four years, and their owner is a huge asshat. And how about those Giants? These ding-dongs fired a two-time Super Bowl-winning coach and hired a guy who showed up to his introductory press conference wearing a suit that didn’t remotely fit him and looked like he had just bought it at Wal-Mart that day. That guy (Ben McAdoo) was fired after starting his second season 2-10. Pat Shurmur and then Joe Judge were also abysmal and they brought their fantasy assets down by their overall ineptitude and some poor decisions by their GM (who “retired” after 2021).
There’s also Stephen Ross in Miami, who allegedly offered money to his HC to tank it. Tanking it makes sense, but it also hurts the integrity of the game, and if Ross did what’s alleged, he should be punished. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, but the “fire” in Miami I care about is the fact that they’ve basically sucked for over a decade on Ross’ watch. Coincidence? Probably not. I certainly do want to give new Dolphins HC Mike McDaniel a fair chance, and I’m rooting for him because I think he’s cool, but I also liked Brian Flores a ton, and I’m not alone, and look what happened there. I do also think the Giants got it right with Brian Daboll, but nothing is a given with those guys these days.
As I alluded to above, I’ve definitely considered organizations as a whole as I’ve formed my fantasy opinions and vibes, but after witnessing 2021, I’m going to be less inclined to give these shaky owners and organizations much benefit of the doubt, which will trickle down to my fantasy analysis and rankings. For example, the Jags did everything they could to ruin Trevor Lawrence last year by hiring Meyer and his coaching staff and their solution was Doug Pederson? This is a guy who was unemployed for 389 days after being fired by Philly in January of 2021. His predecessor and mentor, Andy Reid, was out of work for only four days after being fired by the Eagles. Pederson’s offense was broken in 2020, and I’ve been of the opinion that Pederson isn’t very good, a notion that only strengthened for me after he was hired by an awful Jags regime that is 0-for-4 on head coaching hires with a record of 41-118. I know I’m being a little harsh here but it’s just business.
BE PATIENT WITH ROOKIES WITH UPSIDE
I absolutely loved Elijah Moore this summer, and I drafted him in my #1 league, a competitive 14-teamer. Through Week 7, he appeared hopless, but I repeatedly said on the radio that I refused to drop him because he was a stud, which is why I took him in the first place.
I came close to cutting bait, but I stuck with him and for a five-week period from Weeks 8-12, Moore was the WR5 of the season, and I greatly enjoyed playing him. I didn’t think Amon-Ra St. Brown had Moore’s upside, but I liked him a lot, and patience was needed there, obviously. Moore’s teammate and fellow rookie Michael Carter was another good example. He was relatively worthless the first three weeks of the season, but then he was the RB14 with 17.1 FPG Weeks 4-10 before landing on IR, which was quite nice. If you draft a rookie or young player, unless he was dirt cheap, there was probably a lot of talent and a good opportunity for the player. And in these instances, despite their slow starts, all these guys eventually showed why you backed them, so patience is advised.
RUNNING BACKS WITH ADPS OF 50+ CAN ALMOST BE IGNORED
One of my goals for 2020, and I wrote about this in my 2021 Draft Plan article, was to resist the temptation of drafting a RB once the truly appealing options were off the board. As I wrote, I refused to take a RB just for the security of taking a RB, so I ended up with zero shares of Zack Moss, for example. There’s definitely a correction between Moss sucking and him being available 100 picks into drafts this past summer, so it was a good plan not to bother with guys like Moss, Ronald Jones, Nyheim Hines, and Jamaal Williams, typically drafted in the middle rounds. My plan last summer was to attack RB while the getting was good, and then to grab some good stash-and-hope options very late. That’s exactly what I did, and it worked. In my top league, a 14-teamer, I opened my draft going RB-RB, and then I didn’t take another back until the eight round, 110 picks into the draft. I really liked James White this past summer, but picking White obviously didn’t work out (injury). After securing White, I didn’t use another pick on a back until the 12th round, or 165 picks in. I’m a big RB guy and with over 150 picks in the books, I had only three of them, which is a low number for me. But my plan worked in that I got a great stash-and-hope guy in Darrel Williams, who ended up starting for me more than half the time. I made it to the championship and got a huge game from Williams, the RB58 in the preseason. But I lost in the ship because my opponent picked up Boston Scott (RB70 in the preseason) from the WW scrap heap and he dropped 25 fantasy points on my ass. Basically, it’s easier to pick up impactful RBs off the Waiver Wire than it is to find them in drafts 75+ picks in.
IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE ALL-OR-NOTHING WITH THE RBs
I’ve never been into the “Zero RB” theory, but I understand why fantasy managers are squeamish when it comes to investing valuable early picks on players who take a pounding on a weekly basis. My wife calls me “All-or-nothing Boy.” which is often accurate because I tend to be all in on things, or completely out. But when it comes to drafting RBs, I don’t think it’s smart to be all in on the position in the earlier stages of a draft, and I also think being all out, or Zero RB, isn’t the answer, either. I prefer a balanced approach, and there are usually enough quality RBs on the board to give me at least one good option with one of my first two picks. And over the last few years, the RBs have been pushed up the board, which has also pushed the wideouts down the board, so Zero RB made even less sense to me. Yes, more of the top RBs were a nightmare in 2021 than the year before, but it’s not like there were a lot of great long-term options on the WW other than Elijah Mitchell and Cordarrelle Patterson, who wasn’t even a damn RB. The rest of the WW options were short-term solutions, which will always be available on the wire.
HOW ABOUT ZERO WR?
Again, I understand why someone would be wary of using their top draft capital on a RB, given the rigors of the position. But in my opinion, going Zero RB is the opposite of drafting with an eye on position scarcity, which I believe in. I believe I can avoid some of the pitfalls to drafting RBs by drafting the right RBs, namely the young ones. So I will draft Javonte Williams over Cooper Kupp this year, not because I think Williams will pile up more points (although he easily could), but because there are so few young studs at RB and so many WRs with big-time potential. If you went all-in on Zero RB to open your draft in 2021, it actually could have hurt you, since receivers like Calvin Ridley, DeAndre Hopkins, and Darren Waller came up small. And guys like DK Metcalf, Terry McLaurin, AJ Brown, and CeeDee Lamb, underwhelmed. Allen Robinson outright ruined seasons. To be fair, the bust rate with the top receivers was lower than the RB bust rate, per usual. But if you picked your RBs wisely, you could have come away from your draft loaded with studs at RB and WR, since three of the top-5 WRs on the season, Cooper Kupp, Deebo Samuel, and Ja’Marr Chase, were drafted outside the top 40 overall. If anything, 2021 may have been a great year to go Zero WR. There’s never a right or wrong answer with any of these draft strategies, and there are many ways to build a winning team, which is all the more reason to stay flexible with the goal of forming the best starting lineup possible. For example, let’s say you were picking in the 7 or 8 spot this past summer, and you opened with Jonathan Taylor. In Round 2, you likely had a crack at Najee Harris, or at worst Joe Mixon, and then you could have taken advantage of the great WR depth and loaded up on the position. You could have even taken a stud QB like Josh Allen or a stud TE like Mark Andrews the next 3-4 rounds along with wideouts like Deebo, Kupp, and Chase. That sure looks better to me than opening a 2021 draft with Tyreek Hill, DeAndre Hopkins, AJ Brown and someone like David Montgomery.
GADGETY GUYS NEED TIME
There are always myriad factors involved that determine whether a player will produce or not, and I don’t want to give out bad advice by generalizing too much, but I have noticed that it often takes time for coaches to figure out how to use these “gadgety guys.” And in some cases, the coaches never figure it out. I think it’s a sign of a great coach when these ancillary guys are used well, and entering the 2021 season, I wasn’t convinced that Kliff Kingsbury was a great coach, so I had little interest in rookie WR Rondale Moore. Moore was a late pick with an ADP of 135, and that late it’s all about upside, but I think we should be generally skeptical of guys like Moore until they actually produce. Tyreek Hill may be the most electric player I’ve ever seen and he played for one of the best offensive minds of our time in Andy Reid, yet Tyreek averaged only 9.7 YPR as a rookie and 7.1 YPT. In his second season, those numbers soared to 15.8 YPR and 11.3 YPT. I wasn’t in this past year on Curtis Samuel, and while he barely played and it was a moot point, we should soon find out if OC Scott Turner can maximize him. In 2019, Samuel under Turner in Carolina had a terrible 51.4% catch rate despite averaging only 11.6 YPR. The next season, with Turner in Washington, Samuel had a similar YPR average of 11.1, but his catch rate shot up to 79.4%, largely because he was utilized better and closer to the line of scrimmage.
BET ON TALENT AND YOURSELF
You’d think by now that I’d be impervious to outside influences, but it’s hard not to be in the age of Twitter, and while I usually keep to myself and try not to be swayed by the groupthink that plagues this business, it’s impossible for some of it not to seep into my brain. If I’m being perfectly honest, when I ran my initial projections for the site last spring, Jonathan Taylor was my RB2. But since this is a collaborative effort, I gather feedback from all of the staff, and I adjust if there’s some disagreement with my stances, and the rest of the guys didn’t sign off on Taylor that high. This is all fine and healthy in the grand scheme of things, and I had the same concerns they did, but I also failed to pull the trigger on Taylor with the fourth pick of my #1 league. I don’t think I have pumped up a RB more from Day One as I have Taylor, so I let outside influences sway me. Sure, I let the bad summer vibes and the HC’s inclination to use multiple backs as my rationale, and those were viable issues, but I also said before the season started that Taylor was “RB perfection,” and I was right, so I should have gone all in and lived with the results. In another instance, I did have a strong feeling about another player, and I did go all in on him. In August, I pushed out a video naming Darnell Mooney as my breakout receiver for the season. I highlighted him as a great target and ranked him 20+ spots over his ADP, so I pushed him to the point where a TON of people who listened to me got him. Things didn’t work out quite as well as I thought, but Mooney was clearly a guy to go to bat for, and I’m glad I did. I actually also did a video last summer pushing Amon-Ra St. Brown, who I really liked as a late, late pick. He had a couple of decent games early, but when he fell off in October and was dropped in my top league, I wasn’t aggressive enough on WW to get him. Obviously we all know how that worked out down the stretch. If you know talent when you see it, if you have a good “gut” for fantasy, or even if you just have a strong feeling for the player, it’s always best to go with it. It will always feel better to get your own call right than it does when you hijack a good opinion from someone else.
And finally….some quick hitters:
NFL Beat Writers can help us, and hurt us in many ways. They can help us by giving us good information, and they also help us by causing panic in the fantasy community with negative reporting, as we saw with the Bengals this year and the reporting on Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase. I didn’t buy it and I was still on the key Bengals as targets, as you can see here, and I’d credit my experience for that one. But the next time I see some serious BS out there on twitter, I’ll make sure to point it out if I think it’s creating a buying opportunity, as it did with Chase.
NFL coaches can also help us and hurt us in many ways. I didn’t listen enough when Charger OC Joe Lombardi basically told us that Mike Williams was going to be a big factor, yet I listened too much to former Charger HC Anthony Lynn when he pumped up Jamaal Williams all offseason. All we can do now is try to learn from our mistakes and do a better job of sifting through their coachspeak to help get the answers to the test.
Injury catastrophes like Saquon Barkley should be avoided if they’re being taken over other GREAT players early in drafts. So I’ll be out on Saquon and Christian McCaffrey, most likely.
Don’t overreact when a high-end talent is presumed to split work evenly in a backfield. I did have D’Andre Swift on my list of player targets, but I was also pretty high on Jamaal Williams at his ADP, and I thought he'd be a bigger factor than he was. He had some injuries, but for most of the season, the Lions defaulted to talent, and they defaulted to Swift.
Be careful not to overrated receivers who move onto new teams like Kenny Golladay in 2021. The recent track record here is not good. Yes, we all underrated Stefon Diggs in 2020, but that’s a rare exception of a stud player being teamed with a stud QB in an ascending offense. DeAndre Hopkins was also good his first year in Arizona, but he’s also a certified stud. Otherwise, the recent track record of wideouts on new teams, like Julio Jones this past year, isn’t very good.
Enough of Miles Sanders already. He’s tricky because he’s very talented, but his receiving and goal line skills are suspect, and he’s also had injury problems. He’s always capable of logging a great season, but as of right now he can’t be counted on to suit up, catch passes, or score touchdowns, so he’s officially in Anti-Gurrite.
Derek Carr won’t throw it to you if he doesn’t trust you. We certainly learned that this past year, when Carr mostly refused to even look at Bryan Edwards because he was looking for Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller on every drop back.
If an NFL team has two really good TEs, they probably won’t have one good fantasy TE. The Pats did have a good fantasy TE for more than half the season with Hunter Henry, but he ended up being droppable once he stopped scoring TDs. All summer I tried to figure out who the TE to pick in New England was, and the answer was basically neither. I actually like Jonnu Smith, which was terribly wrong.
Some Subscriber Lessons
Be more patient with young players especially in dynasty leagues. I drafted St Brown, Elijah Moore and Van Jefferson in a lot of leagues and either traded or cut them half way through the season. #ScoreMore— Jeremy Miller (@Miller88Jeremy) February 10, 2022
Be patient on certain players. Don’t cut guys too early in the year. Loooong season. Gurrrrrriiiffffcccccaaaaaaaa— Winny from MA (@magiicrat1967) February 10, 2022
I will not draft anymore Tight Ends or QB’s before the 4th rd. Also high end WR’s are going to be drafted much earlier for me over questionable RB’s— matt rust (@elmattador3976) February 10, 2022
Zero RBs are dead. WRs is so deep, remember you can get good and startable WRs in the later rounds. Very tough to get those startable RBs in the later rounds. Example I was able to get Deebo late as well as Mooney. As for RB I was reaching to take someone like Ty Johnson.— John Filippelli (@Flip0077) February 10, 2022
Teams with new offensive coordinators take half the season to get up to speed. Also, draft talent over position. Too much credence was given to RB in round one— Alan Heckel (@aheckel1) February 11, 2022