It’s time to wrap up our Positional Plan series. We’ve previously covered my plans for the QB, RB and WR positions. This article will be a little longer than those other features with three positions crammed into it, but my strategy involving each is pretty simple. Let’s look at the TEs first.
Tier 1: Graham-tastic
Common strategy has both Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski similarly valued, with both usually being selected in the middle of the second round in standard 12-team leagues. I think Graham is well worth the pick, but I’m a little worried about Gronkowski. While the New Orleans offense lost a part of their 2011 attack when Robert Meachem left, the Patriots in fact gained a pretty big weapon in Brandon Lloyd, a deep playmaker who may see some of Gronkowski’s scoring opportunities. Also, the Josh McDaniels offense has never featured quality TE production, and though one can make the (totally correct) argument that he’s never had TEs the caliber of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, it’s enough of a red flag that I would reconsider drafting Gronkowski in the mid-second round.
I just don’t see Gronkowski having the odds in his favor of repeating his remarkable 2011 season. First, Lloyd would have to completely flop and match Deion Branch’s pedestrian 2011 season, even though he’s been an asset when paired with McDaniels. Secondly, the tight end pair will have to approach the 2,200-yard, 20-TD performance they had last year. And finally, Gronkowski will have to get the lion’s share of that production in the TE tandem — remember, there’s another supremely talented TE on the roster that’s going to be on the field a lot. For this reason, I have Gronkowski closer to the Tier 2 than to Jimmy Graham.
Tier 2: A Sixth-round Jumble
If you’ve done like me and passed on Gronkowski, your next opportunity to pick up a tight end will come in the late-fifth round and throughout the sixth. There, we see Antonio Gates, Jermichael Finley, Vernon Davis, Hernandez and Jason Witten get selected. Which one is worth your sixth-round pick? Answer: none of them.
More than a full round later, we see Fred Davis and Jacob Tamme selected early in the eighth. These two guys provide the upside of everyone else in Tier 2, but don’t have the name value to bump their value too high for my taste. Davis came on strong last year and should benefit from improved QB play. He also has the ability to break a few plays open when linebackers and safeties step up to stop a mobile Robert Griffin III. Jacob Tamme gets the benefit of Peyton Manning, a familiar face from the QB’s time in Indianapolis. Manning should lean on Tamme early and often, even if he develops a strong rapport with his new receivers. Also, I would expect a lot of play-action in the red zone, leaving Tamme potentially wide open for a few TDs this year.
These two TEs make it critical not to reach for a tight end early in the sixth round. Feel free to take the Tier 2 TE of your choice late in the sixth or early in the seventh, if one sticks. Otherwise leap on these two sleeper TEs in the mid-to-late seventh, when you presumably have at least two RBs and three receivers as well as your third RB or starting QB on your roster.
Tier 3: Hit the Post-draft Free Agency Pool
After Tamme and Fred Davis are selected, it’s time to punt the TE position if you haven’t landed one yet. Play without a tight end? Of course not. However, unless your draft is right up against the beginning of the season, you’ll be much better off selecting a high-upside running back with the pick you would have otherwise used on a TE, hoping to land a back who lucks into a starting job during the preseason. Because once Tier 3 hits, there’s not much difference between the final TEs drafted and the ones available in free agency. If your rules allow it, take advantage of that by trying to score with a lottery-ticket RB. If you want to read about and discuss some of these quality end-game/free-agent options, check out this Cafe thread. In it, I name Owen Daniels and Jared Cook as two end-game options, but I’d be fine picking up a Dustin Keller or Kyle Rudolph a few days before the season starts, dropping one of my lottery-ticket RBs that didn’t hit.
Speaking of lottery-ticket RBs, I think you absolutely need to have one on your team post-draft instead of a kicker. As I discussed at the end of the Positional Plan: RB article, kickers are just too volatile to invest any type of pick in one, even a late-rounder, and think you’re getting any kind of certainty. Here’s a list of the top-five kickers over the last five years. I’ve highlighted kickers that repeat the feat in consecutive seasons.
2011: David Akers, John Kasay, Stephen Gostkowski, Mason Crosby, Dan Bailey.
2010: David Akers, Sebastian Janikowski, Adam Vinatieri, Matt Bryant, Neil Rackers.
2009: Nate Kaeding, David Akers, Ryan Longwell, Lawrence Tynes, Stephen Gostkowski.
2008: Stephen Gostkowski, John Carney, David Akers, Jason Elam, John Kasay.
2007: Stephen Gostkowski, Mason Crosby, Rob Bironas, Shayne Graham, Nick Folk.
None of the ‘07 guys were in the top five in ‘06. So, your choices are essentially to take David Akers (the exception that proves the rule) or Stephen Gostkowski (good most years) a few rounds before the end of the draft (they’re both gone on average by the mid-13th), or to take a pass and pick up a kicker from the FA list right before the season starts, dropping a lottery ticket that didn’t pan out. One other tangential byproduct of taking one of those top kickers is the fact that you’ll want to hang on to them through the bye week, forcing yourself to cut a potentially valuable skill-position backup to add a second kicker. What if the guy you drop is in store for a big December and could have helped you through the playoffs?
Also, unless you get a monster season like the one Akers just turned in, you’re only looking at a point or a point-and-a-half difference per week between the elite kickers in your league and the 12th-ranked kicker (essentially, the replacement level guy). So even if you can correctly identify the elite kickers, you’re only gaining a point or two from nailing it. However, if you land a RB that ascends to a starting role, either through injury or by beating out a mediocre guy in a battle to be starter, you’ll have a valuable commodity to trade (or keep). Which makes more fantasy football sense?
I’m employing the same strategy as I did with kickers and taking yet another lottery-ticket running back instead of a defense. Why? Elite defenses aren’t locks to repeat at the top of the defensive chart, for a few reasons. One, fumble recoveries and turnovers returned for TDs are fickle and hard to project, yet both boost fantasy scores considerably each season. The last time a defense managed to repeat a five-TD season the following year was 2007. A majority of teams are going to score between one and four defensive TDs this season, but there’s no telling when those TDs will happen or whether a team is on the low-end or high-end of the scale. You can read about the randomness of fumble recoveries at Football Outsiders (scroll down for the section on fumble luck; better yet, read the whole article).
The other reason I think elite fantasy defenses have trouble repeating dominant seasons is the fact that many of them were born in part thanks to easy schedules. This year, even if you pick up the 49ers and they do well, you’ll be sitting in your semifinal matchup hoping they can stop Tom Brady and the Patriots in New England in Week 15. Even though they have the easiest fantasy defense schedule in the league this year according to FF Toolbox, they rank just 26th in the league in Weeks 15 and 16, thanks to that Patriot matchup. Are you going to bench your elite defense in the playoffs? Probably not, but the smart move says you should, picking up a waiver wire defense with a much better matchup.
But if you can concede that this is the way to go in the playoffs, even if you have the league’s best defense, why should any other week be any different?
Think about it. Unless your league is incredibly large and/or employs more than one starting defense each week, you’re going to have at least half the competing fantasy defenses available to you each week. This almost assures that you’ll be able to find someone facing a bad offense. Would you rather have a good-to-great defense against a good offense (something that’s going to happen several times with any defense you pick), or a mediocre-to-good defense against a terrible offense every week? I’ve chosen the latter time and time again, and it’s worked out wonderfully.
In Week 14, you could have: the Bills at home (possibly in the snow) against the Rams, normally an indoor team; the Chiefs, in Cleveland, against a team that will likely be playing a rookie QB in an outdoor game in December (one that spent college down south in the Big 12); the Browns, against the Chiefs; or another team that happens to be facing an overmatched QB thanks to injury. Week 15 could feature the Dolphins (against the Jaguars in Miami), the Redskins (at Cleveland), etc. Week 16 brings you the Buccaneers (at home against the Rams), Patriots (at Jacksonville), the Broncos (at home against the Browns), etc. Any (or all) of these matchups could push the otherwise unassuming fantasy defenses listed to top-five numbers, right when you need it most.
So by the time my draft is done, I’m usually carrying at least seven RBs (and potentially eight or nine, depending on how WR depth and the TE position turns out). This could include names like Kevin Smith, Robert Turbin, Bernard Scott, Jonathan Dwyer, Rashad Jennings, Evan Royster, Delone Carter and more. Even definite backups like Javon Ringer, Ronnie Brown, Bernard Pierce and even Lance Ball or Mario Fannin should be considered — injury could strike anyone at anytime. The benefit of having one of these guys hit far exceeds the difference between late-round picks and free agents at other positions. Back in 2010, Peyton Hillis was undrafted in many leagues, yet he scored TDs in his first four games en route to a top-five season. Imagine if that’s the lottery ticket you hold on to this year.
That wraps up this series, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Check back with us on August 1 for my updated fantasy rankings at each position.
R.J. White is the head editor at the Cafe and has previously written for FanHouse, Razzball and FanDuel. Catch up with him in the forums under the name daullaz. Follow him on Twitter; don't follow him in real life.
Want to write for the Cafe? Check out the Cafe's Pencil & Paper section!