This article is the third in the ”Finding an Edge” series, a collection of musings on the “art” of winning fantasy football. While it is easy to become immersed in rankings, lists and other data, fantasy success generally flows from an owner’s use of creativity and judgment, both during the draft and while on the waiver wire throughout the season. Prior articles introduced “the replicator” and “lumps of coal” concepts. Today, we will discuss “Slug Theory” and why fantasy owners in redraft leagues especially should embrace this strategy to gain significant advantage over their opponents.
Too often, fantasy owners make the mistake of trying to hit the “home run” during their draft’s middle rounds. Tempted to show fellow owners how “smart” or “cool” they are, misguided owners select over-hyped players rather than simply identifying individuals likely to put up points on a consistent basis. Such plodding players, or slugs as I call them, are invaluable additions to a team’s middle and later round roster slots. Successfully identifying such slugs often propels what appears to be a “boring” fantasy roster to victory.
There are two types of desirable fantasy slugs. The first includes players who plod along in the shadow of a flashier or more media-obsessed star. The prototype slug in this category is the trusty possession receiver on a team featuring a burner-deep threat-diva or home-run-hitting back. The possession receiver gets lost in the shadows and, most critically, does not therefore inspire emotional reaction among potential fantasy owners who willingly overpay in drafts and auctions for the diva, while allowing our slug and his receptions, consistent yardage, and occasional touchdowns to fall right into the savvy owner’s lap. Many fantasy owners want to brag at the water cooler about how they nabbed Michael Crabtree or Dez Bryant in their drafts. Few run up seeking high-fives for selecting Donald Driver, Derrick Mason, or Hines Ward. Crabtree’s ADP consistently is higher than either Driver, Ward, or Mason, yet I’d certainly take my trusted slugs–Driver and Ward–over Crabtree and would consider Mason as well. Likewise, while fantasy owners consistently are drafting Bryant slightly higher than Mason, I would go with old faithful if I had to choose between the two.
Our second slug is the out-of-favor power running back. Note carefully the emphasis on power back. Burner types that go out of favor generally do so because they either have lost their wheels or their heart (or both). Rarely have such players suddenly rejuvenated themselves. In contrast, power runners who experience a change in coaching, change in scenery, or change in maturity often can reward the savvy fantasy owner with a dream season–lots of points for little investment.
One of the best all-time examples of the power running back slug was Antowain Smith. In 1998, Smith, a former first-round draft choice, posted 1,100+ rushing yards and eight TDs for the Buffalo Bills. Smith’s stats waned over the next two years; he ultimately left the Bills for New England in 2001. That year, Smith bounced back, rushing again for over 1,100 yards while adding 12 rushing TDs and one receiving TD. Smith led not only the Patriots but also my fantasy team to victory that year, a championship made all the sweeter given the mockery that fellow owners directed my way when I selected Smith in the 11th round of a 16-round draft.
Smith always will have a special place in my fantasy heart; while I certainly was fortunate in that he performed so well, his bounce-back was not pure luck, nor was my predicting it. All it took was a change of scenery for Smith and a little intuition on my part. Smith was a power back. He was joining the Patriots, a defensive-minded team at the time under Bill Belichick. Accordingly, Smith appeared poised to rebound via a projected emphasis on ball control. Smith was certain to get the goal line work, another plus. Finally, I was intrigued that Smith moved from one team to another in the same division. If he truly were washed up, I thought, wouldn’t a team that saw him play twice a year figure that out? If the Patriots thought he was worth signing, I reasoned, Smith surely seemed worthy of a late round pick as my fourth running back.
A more recent power-back-rebound slug is Cedric Benson. A celebrated first-round pick that disappointed in Chicago, Benson flourished last year in Cincinatti. Whether it was the new system or Cincinatti’s doctors’ discovering he had nutritional issues, Benson finally showed the form expected of him when he joined the Chicago Bears as a top-5 draft pick out of Texas. A power back, out of favor, in newer surroundings, with defensive-minded coaches and goal-line duties, Benson fit the bounce-back mold. While his success, as well as Smith’s, was commendable, a word of warning to fantasy owners–rarely does the rebounding power-back slug put together consecutive seasons of elite greatness. Rather, as was the case with Smith, he rockets back to fantasy relevance and then slowly fades away over a year or two or three.
By now, many readers already have dialed into this year’s projected power-back-rebound slug: LaDanian Tomlinson. Granted, fantasy players may not view Tomlinson with quite the same disdain that greeted Smith going into 2001 or Benson and Williams coming into last year. However, if one factors in how high Tomlinson once was viewed (i.e., the pinnacle of all things fantasy), and if one peruses various chat forums today, the disparity in Tomlinson’s present-day versus historic outlook is at least as great. Shonn Greene is “the man,” most pundits say, and he no doubt is talented. However, he is only in his second year and will face eight-man fronts consistently. Greene has some history of injury to boot. While Tomlinson may never resurrect his greatest seasons–some of which set all-time records mind you–he should produce serviceable RB3/4 numbers sharing a backfield with Greene in the Jets run-oreinted attack. Add in the possibility of injury to Greene as he wears down over a long season, and LT owners could be sitting pretty come fantasy playoff time.
Scott Rozmus is one of a growing number of fantasy experts who write for the Cafe. You can catch up with Scott in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of Goose.
Want to write for the Cafe? Check out the Cafe's Pencil & Paper section!