About Draft Sharks
Confessions of a Fantasy Expertby Lenny Pappano, Draft Sharks
Here's an axiom (and confession) that might shock some folks: All fantasy owners are more often wrong than right when it comes to doing preseason player projections and rankings. From "experts" to novices, from league champions to cellar-dwellers, it is a demonstrable fact for any fantasy player willing to be honest with himself. Or to any fantasy writer who has his preseason rankings printed in magazines for hundreds of thousands of fantasy fanatics to read.
I've corresponded with hundreds of fantasy owners who insist on their brilliance. Every player projection is 100% right. Might as well take their projections in August and mail them to Stats Inc. with a note: "Don't bother waiting until the end of the year to see how it all turns out. Just print this!" From experts to rookies, we all need to take a reality check. Drop the facade, take your thorazine, and make this admission: "My name is ___ ___, and I'm a fantasy football junkie. And I'm more often wrong than right in my player rankings."
If you need some convincing, simply take a look at a few consensus rankings prior to the 2007 season. They are in order by position according to last year's Fantasy Football Pro Forecast Magazine Experts Poll: QBs Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Marc Bulger. RBs LaDainian Tomlinson, Steven Jackson, Larry Johnson, Frank Gore and Shaun Alexander. WRs Steve Smith, Chad Johnson, Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt, and Terrell Owens. TEs Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, Todd Heap, Jeremy Shockey and Kellen Winslow. Do you realize 8 of those 20 players did not live up to their top-5 billing at their respective positions? And some were outright duds. The year before, only 9 of the projected 20 fulfilled their top-5 billing.
Now take heart, because there is a corollary to the axiom that you are more often wrong than right. That corollary is simply this: Championships are won by those who suck the least at making projections. It might not sound as inspiring as Draftsharks.com's tag line, "Championships are won on draft day!" but it is nonetheless true.
To draw a comparison, think of baseball hitters. What's the difference between a guy who gets a base hit only 32% of the time, and one who gets a base hit 28% of the time. The obvious answer is "4 percentage points." But look a little deeper. A guy who hits .320 every year will play in a whole bunch of All-Star games, and probably wind up with a bronze bust in Cooperstown, while the .280 hitter is destined for few accolades. Even though both hitters produce outs far more often than they produce hits (read: they are wrong more often than they are right) the player who performs only marginally better is a Hall-of-Famer! That is to say, "he sucks the least."
That marginal difference holds the key to winning in fantasy football, as well. Just think back to last summer for a moment. Everyone was wrong last year in predicting that Donovan McNabb would finish in the top-10 at his position. We missed on him badly too. And who would have thought that Marshawn Lynch, a rookie on a bad team, would crank out top-15 numbers (except Draft Sharks, he was 15th on our board though 23rd or 24th everywhere else) in that offense? Absolutely no one predicted that Steve Smith – with the 3rd most fantasy WR points from 2005-2006 – would barely make the top-20. Or that special teams ace Earnest Graham would tickle the top-10 RBs? Warrick Dunn, Rudi Johnson, Reggie Bush, and Kevin Jones combined for three 100-yard games - while Justin Fargas put up four of them. WRs Wes Welker and Patrick Crayton (a Draft Sharks sleeper) had 15 TDs between them, one more than Darrell Jackson, Joey Galloway, Santana Moss, and Donald Driver had combined! Willis McGahee was coolly received by most fantasy experts when he became a Baltimore Raven. He was ranked 15th in Pro Forecast, but we tabbed him our Comeback Player and ranked him 7th. McGahee finished 8th and was quietly stout with 100 combined yards or 1 TD in each of the first 12 games. Conversely, our Bust pick was Brian Westbrook and he went absolutely bonkers with 2,104 combined yards and 12 TDs! Ouch! WRs Shaun McDonald and Nate Burleson finished around the top-25 and neither were drafted in any fantasy league. TE Alge Crumpler was ranked 6th or 7th in most preseason polls. We ranked him 13th. He fell flat at #15 for the year. No one liked LenDale White but us – some sites didn't rank him in the top-40 – but we tabbed him #26 as a solid RB3 selection. He fought for 1,108 yards and 7 TDs amidst a terrible offense. Overall some 20 of the industry's top-30 preseason fantasy RBs were busts to some degree. 2007 was the most topsy-turvy fantasy season in modern history. The list of examples could go on and on.
Frankly, we weren't much better than the consensus in overall prognosticating. We were high on guys like Jay Cutler (9th on our board) and that one tanked, plus some other big RB blunders in Frank Gore (3rd) and Reggie Bush (6th). We missed low on Brett Favre (down at 15th on our board) and Fred Taylor (slammed down to 34th). We had Lee Evans up in the stratosphere (7th) but aside from one 4-game stretch he was useless. Roy Williams, our famous 2006 Breakout pick, broke down last year with 63 catches for 836 yards & 5 TDs. Draft Sharks was a huge Vernon Davis fan – going into 2007 as 4th on our board – and he got hurt again. Randy McMichael was our 10th ranked TE. Yikes. Hit-and-miss.
Here's a nice one that went ignored by many: Draft Sharks was the only fantasy football site in the country to rank Tom Brady #1. That one turned out quite nicely for many customers using our MVP Draft Board. Of course we didn't predict 50 TD passes and a bazillion yards, but nevertheless, we said draft him before Peyton Manning. Quite the unpopular suggestion. We also pegged Ben Roethlisberger as one of our 5 big Breakout picks and he reciprocated with 32 TD passes! He was ranked 7th on our QB list, higher than anyone in the industry. Draft Sharks was lower on Marvin Harrison and higher on Clinton Portis than most sites, both calls working out well. No one else was as high on Reggie Wayne (2nd) or Braylon Edwards (9th) than Draft Sharks and they both finished as top-5 fantasy receivers.
Again, hit-and-miss. Staff faves like Santonio Holmes and Chris Cooley were terrific. Other staff picks like Reggie Brown and Ben Watson didn't deliver. Talk about flat choking, our #3 QB pick was Marc Bulger. Gulp. And our contrarian views on Tony Romo (too low at #13), Jerious Norwood (way, way too high at #23), and Derrick Mason (we thought he would flat suck… he didn't.) really hurt some of our customers' drafts. T.J. Houshmandzadeh totally caught us flat-footed too. However, we ranked the San Diego defense #1 (Woo-hoo!) but had Cincinnati at 9th (Doh!). The salient point is that we were marginally better than the consensus on a larger handful of players.
Midseason adjustments are a huge part of effective fantasy management. Sticking our neck out for Jamal Lewis in our November Buy/Sell/Hold Report was huge. Up to that point he had that one 215-yard game vs. Cincinnati and not much else. We issued a "Buy" order and many customers acquired him in a cheap trade. Lewis blew up. He averaged a whopping 113 rushing yards over his last 7 games, scoring 5 TDs. He was the 4th best fantasy RB in that span and our email inbox was flooded with love. Conversely, a November "Sell" order on Jesse Chatman was a great move. At the time he was proving to be a sweet waiver pickup with 407 total yards and 1 TD in a 4-game stretch filling in for Ronnie Brown. We said to sell high – and it worked, as Chatman completely fell off a cliff with 162 total yards and 0 TDs in the last 6 weeks. When Brandon Marshall started to catch fire most fantasy GMs hesitated to get him in their lineup. Draft Sharks had already plugged Marshall as a top-10 weekly play as early as October 22nd. "Marshall's flying a little low on radar because of a 4-game scoreless streak but he's still paying fantasy bills," we said. "Cutler or Ramsey, it doesn't matter, Marshall is a great fantasy play regardless of matchup." It's the little things, folks. I don't want to make this an exhaustive list, but much like the .320 hitter vs. the .280 hitter, we did marginally better than the consensus. And that marginal advantage is, in practice, a huge advantage in this industry.
The same holds true for hundreds of thousands of fantasy league champions across America. The guy who busted his hump digging up information during the summer was probably only marginally better than the guy who ripped out a magazine cheat sheet the day before the draft. But that marginal difference probably won a championship for the guy who started thinking about his draft in early-May. Remember, football - especially fantasy football - is a game of inches.
Let me draw another comparison. Fantasy football drafting is like one of my favorite pastimes in its elements: It's like playing Texas Hold 'Em poker. In fact, it is almost exactly like poker in some respects. Poker is made up of 70% "luck" and 30% skill. What separates the winners from losers is that the consistent winners focus on getting better at the 30%, while the losers whine about the 70%. When our co-founder, Michael Hiban, and I played a lot of poker, we would sniff out the tables where players asked the dealer for a "deck change" because the cards were "cold." Cards are neither hot nor cold. They are distributed randomly each hand. If you sit at a poker table long enough, you'll get your share of "bad" cards, and your share of "good" cards. Such is the nature of random distribution. When guys asked for a deck change, we knew we were playing with "fish" -- players who focused on the 70% luck, rather than the 30% skill.
It's much the same in fantasy football. Everybody will get their share of "bad" luck if they play long enough. Just look at last year. The entire fantasy community suffered when countless RBs caught the injury bug – Steven Jackson, Frank Gore, Ronnie Brown, Larry Johnson, Rudi Johnson, Travis Henry, Cadillac Williams, Kevin Jones, Ahman Green, Deuce McAllister, they all had problems. And many times you get kidney-punched in Week 1 before you've cracked your first beer. In St. Louis they lost Orlando Pace on the 32nd offensive play of the season. Bulger-owners were screwed from the get-go. Some people felt Cedric Benson was a popular sleeper pick (though not at Draft Sharks) after all the RB studs were gobbled up. He averaged 2.2 per carry in the opener and never got on track. Remember Tatum Bell? He was a DS sleeper who carried 15 times for 87 yards and 1 TD in the opener. By Week 5 he was on the bench, never to be heard from again. Some fantasy GMs like to load up on one or two teams and ride the wave. That works if the surf's up, like in New England, Green Bay, Dallas, and Indianapolis. But other popular teams in fantasy like Detroit, San Diego, and St. Louis failed to crack the NFL's top-18 offenses. Cincinnati barely slipped in at 10th after the meaningless pasting of Miami in Week 17. Who woulda thunk it?
Bad luck, indeed. Aside from the aforementioned RB injury plague, Jake Delhomme's elbow exploded. Anquan Boldin busted his hip and went in and out of the lineup. Matt Schaub started out pretty hot but ended up in the hospital three times. Andre Johnson was hotter than Randy Moss before he got hurt. The Jets inexplicably decided not to give Thomas Jones many carries and he couldn't buy a TD either. Hines Ward, Mr. Reliable, had typical veteran knee-cartilage issues and didn't score his 2nd TD until Week 8. In fact, Ward never had a 100-yard game all year. Neither did Jerry Porter, a popular sleeper grab. D.J. Hackett, a big Draft Sharks fave, wrecked his ankle in the opener. He came back in Week 9 and ripped off 23 catches for 295 yards & 3 TDs in a 3-game span, then hurt it again. Jeremy Shockey dragged down a lot of fantasy teams with his erratic production. He only scored in Weeks 5, 7, and 10. One of the worst fantasy scenarios was Willie Parker. He ran like a hell-beast all season with eight 100-yard games. He was unbenchable, right? Yes, but he only scored 2 TDs! That's just bad luck.
But you'll also get your share of "good" luck as evidenced by last year, as well. Braylon Edwards, often the 25th or 26th WR picked last year, caught 16 TDs and helped carry a lot of you to fantasy titles. Two of the best value picks in recent memory, Adrian Peterson and Marion Barber, fell to the 5th round sometimes. They put up 1,609 and 1,255 total yards respectively, with 13 and 12 TDs as well. Earnest Graham was plucked off the wire when Cadillac went down, and you couldn't find a better all-around back down the stretch. From Weeks 7-15 Graham averaged 120 total yards and scored 7 times. Roddy White was a late-round fantasy gem who blossomed with 83 catches for 1,202 yards and 6 TDs. Larry Fitzgerald wasn't often mentioned in the "Stud WR" chats last summer but he went crazy with 100 catches for 1,409 yards and 10 TDs. Ol' steady Matt Hasselbeck, a fantasy backup, filled in for a lot of you when your starter was hurt or ineffective: in a 6-game midseason stretch Hasselbeck averaged 290 yards and threw 11 TDs. Sweet. Of course, anyone who took Drew Brees or Marques Colston – and stuck with them through a rough September – was rewarded with big bags of fantasy points. Ryan Grant was simply the Fantasy Free-Agent of the Year. Congrats if you jumped on him! And there were countless other free-agent gems like Brian Griese, Sage Rosenfels, Chris Redman, Aaron Stecker, Derrick Ward, Selvin Young, Kenny Watson, Bobby Engram, Reggie Williams, Dwayne Bowe, Kevin Walter, Andre Davis, Anthony Gonzalez, Donald Lee, and Tony Scheffler. Some of you used 3 or 4 of these guys at one point or another. Way to grind it out. You actually created some good luck.
These "luck" players are basically spread out randomly, just like those poker cards. And, for better or worse, they dominate (but do not decide) fantasy football championships every year. As I've said, fantasy football is 70% "luck." But the champions pull ahead on 30% skill. So what exactly constitutes skill?
Before I define "skill" at fantasy drafting, let's start with this historical premise: The turnover in the top-ten at each position is greater than 50% each year. That means that if historical trends hold up for 2008, the majority of the players at each position who were in the top-10 last year will be replaced by other players this year. In 2007, there were only 17 players out of a possible 40 at QB, RB, WR, and TE who repeated their top-10 performance from 2006. The year before, there were only 22 players out of a possible 40 that repeated top-10 numbers from 2005. Each year around 50% of the top-10 QBs, RBs, WRs and TEs stay at the top. I won't bore you by tracking the trend back through the decade, but I've done it -- and with very few exceptions, the turnover rate for top-10 performers is about 50% from year-to-year. Think about that...
Here comes the skill. Your job is to identify roughly 3, 4 or 5 players who will either slide out of the top-10 at their position, or climb into the top-10. Admittedly, this is a difficult task, both from an analytical point of view, as well as from an emotional point of view. But you should stay focused on the payoff. If you're close to being right on some of those players, you're going to have a championship season. This is going to take a lot of thinking, a lot of research, and a lot of guts. You're going to look at your rankings and start to think to yourself, "This just doesn't FEEL right." Don't back down.
Look at last year. Would it have felt right last year to drop Maurice Jones-Drew all the way out of the top-20 coming off a season where he was ranked #8 and had almost 1,400 total yards with 16 TDs? It felt right to Draft Sharks. We ranked him #21 on a gut feeling he'd come down to earth. It wasn't a popular move. Would it have felt right to raise Brandon Jacobs up to #14 when he was totally unproven at the pro level? We watched his 2006 tapes over and over and decided he was going to be the guy, not Reuben Droughns as many sites anticipated. A knee injury derailed Jacobs early but he still rushed for over 1,000 yards in 10 ½ games – and managed to scrape into the top-20 fantasy RBs. The big guy really stepped up when it counted with 503 total yards and 3 TDs in the last 4 games. He also scored 4 TDs in 4 postseason games. And don't tell anyone, but Jacobs averaged 91.7 rushing yards per game in 2007, behind only Adrian Peterson (95.8) & LaDainian Tomlinson (92.1). Injuries are a concern, yes, but Jacobs delivered more than most people thought he would. The point is, Jacobs' #38 ranking in 2006 didn't mean you automatically projected him that low in 2007. Be careful about regurgitating last year's rankings as this year's predictions.
Are you going to be wrong with some of your bolder picks? Absolutely. In fact, you'll be wrong with quite a few. But do NOT be afraid to fail. We're known for taking chances and taking aggressive views on players we like. We've hit big on some of them. I remember Eddie George was our "First Round Bust" guy in 2001, coming off a career-high 16 TDs and 2,000 total yards? You should see some of the scathing e-mails we saved from that summer. "You guys are Draft Dorks!" is my all-time favorite. But we had a reason to rank him so low... George had averaged over 400 touches for three straight years and insiders told us his toe was giving out. Jon Kitna on our 2006 Sleeper list? Going to Detroit this guy was a career 58% passer who was often bailed out by super-talented running backs like Ricky Watters, Corey Dillon and Rudi Johnson. Kitna played gutsy football for Mike Martz, throwing for 4,208 yards with 21 TD passes and 2 TD runs. Yes, his 22 INTs were a big liability in performance-scoring – but he was a terrific addition to fantasy rosters for most of the year.
Of course, some of your bolder picks can get you smacked upside the head. Just four years ago we tagged Priest Holmes as our "Bust" due to his injury/contract issues. Thousands of our customers avoided him accordingly. It completely backfired because that was the one year Holmes put it all together. He flat steamrolled the NFL with over 2,000 total yards and 27 TDs. We were the goat. But are we fazed by that botched call? Remember, barely 50% of players will repeat top-10 performances.
Draft Sharks will remain a consistent prognosticator among the experts because of our willingness to accept change. In the annual fantasy magazine polls, we consistently have strong showings despite some unusually bold and dynamic projections. In the Fantasy Index Experts Poll we took 1st, 4th, 2nd, and 4th (out of 25) from '99-02, then fell to 10th in 2003 thanks in large part to that (gulp) Priest Holmes call. We also had a 16th place finish. DS won the Draft Book Magazine Experts Poll three times from 2002-2006, but we finished last once and back to 2nd last season.
We're still not afraid to fail if the alternative is to run with the herd. You don't have to swing for the fences on every pick. You don't have to rank players perfectly either. You only have to do it better -- marginally better -- than everyone else. And in order to do that, you have to use educated-but-contrarian thinking. Gut feelings play a big part.
You know how all your buddies like to grade each guy's draft when it's over? "I like Frank's draft, he's stacked from top-to-bottom… good value picks at WR, I'd give him an A." Well, in my experience, those consensus ‘A' drafts often sit near the bottom of the standings by October. If the herd likes your draft, chances are you just played it safe and tight. I actually like it when they bag on my draft a little: "Lenny is OK at running back, but what's with Braylon Edwards in the 4th round, isn't that a reach?" Hee hee, it sure was. I remember when our chief editor John Miller traded up from 4.9 to 4.3 to snag Randy Moss in a experts draft last summer. I think he swapped his 5th rounder for a 7th rounder to make the deal. We received a few email flames. "Draft Sharks, didn't you learn your lesson last year with the Moss-hype? I would have stayed put," one guy wrote. "Are you ignoring the hamstring?" warned another guy.
My principle complaint about many writers in the FF industry is that they tend to play "last-year's-stats-equal-this-year's-stats" when creating their rankings. In part, I understand why. There is a paradox in doing player projections that most experts do not bear in mind. On the one hand, players will roughly produce as they have in past years - unless factors (coaching changes, personnel moves, etc.) impact that production either upward or downward. On the other hand, we know that barely half the players who finish in the top-10 at each position will repeat their top-10 performance the following year. Remember?
Listen to fantasy expert Tony "The Prognosticator" Holm, who offered this observation in a column written six years ago:
"A magazine, or on-line draft list, often times is nothing more than a politically correct public opinion poll. There are exceptions of course and some of the publishers/webmasters out here really do post what they think and do not give a snot about what other people think. Be sure to scrutinize each list for players that look a little odd where they are placed. If you find one, you will have found yourself someone who truly thinks for themselves."
Amen! So why don't many experts follow the historical trends and really try to predict the major shifts in players instead of playing it safe? There are probably several reasons.
The first is that some guys just don't want to spend time digging. It takes a lot of research and a lot of thought to do projections, and most "experts" do not work at fantasy football as their full-time job. Secondly, nobody wants to really stand out from the crowd and be WRONG. And when you offer your opinions to thousands of people and you're WRONG, they will let you know it. It's human nature, or at least the law of the fantasy football jungle, to smack-talk like crazy when someone is WRONG, especially when it's a self-appointed fantasy expert...
Tony Holm offers a third reason, and I'm inclined to agree with him. Money. Tony says that he had a conversation with the owner of a major fantasy site a few years ago in which the owner admitted to following the herd because he didn't want to chase away customers. "I can't afford to look like an idiot because who will come to my site if I don't have LT at #1 like everyone else." Tony quotes the site owner as asking. "How can I call myself an expert if I don't have the consensus #1 pick on top of my draft board?" But it's true... offering an opinion that differs with the consensus of experts will indeed cost you money. I have absolutely no doubt of it.
This should be the part where I say all the other experts really suck, and you should cough up some cash to hear Draft Sharks' sage opinion and advice, and ignore everyone else. The truth is, we know fantasy and we cover it with a unique style like nobody else. But you should always look for a diversity of opinion. Search out fantasy football writers who are doing research and thinking for themselves (they still exist) -- even if you don't agree with their analysis. Ultimately, a diversity of viewpoints will help you sharpen your opinion of players.
I can make you one guarantee. If you follow the consensus of experts this year, you will not win a championship. No way. You're a lamb being led to the slaughter, not a shark in search of prey. As for me, I would rather have Draft Sharks go broke than bend our research and opinions to be more palatable to potential subscribers. Don't be forced in line by the fantasy thought police. Frankly, far too many experts are doing a disservice to our hobby by regurgitating "last-year's-stats-equal-this-year's-stats..."
This article took the 2005 "Best Web-Based Article" award from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. It's been revised to include updated stats and player analysis, but the thrust remains the same.
Lenny PappanoExecutive Director
Lenny Pappano is co-founder of Draft Sharks, as well as a co-founder of The World Championship of Fantasy Football. In his 12 years of experience in the fantasy football business Pappano has won many awards including several Fantasy Expert leagues and polls since 1999. He also took the FSWA's award for "Best Fantasy Football Article" with his acclaimed piece, "Confessions of a Fantasy Expert." Pappano has written articles for countless FF magazines and he's one of the biggest names in this industry.