Sunday, September 4, 2011

Meet América’s Team: The Narcos of Fantasy Football

By Al Giordano

Saturday was draft day in the Authentic League, with ten team coaches all showing up on time and gobbling up almost every NFL player of evident value. 

Like most players, I’m happy with my draft. This can be a deceiving sensation. Just look around the table and take note: Almost everyone in every league, no matter how awful his or her draft went, seems ecstatic afterward. How often does one get to “own” some of one’s gridiron heroes, after all? 

Here in Narcos Stadium, there is some impartial backing for this feeling: According to the free Football Guys “rate your team” platform (which only ranks offensive players and the Defensive team slot, but not Individual Defense Players, or IDPs, of which teams in The Authentic League each have three), fantasy guru David Dodds’ rankings project that “with great in-season management” The Narcos have a 99 percent shot at a playoff berth in this league, while his colleagues Jason Wood and Bob Henry estimate our chances at 90 percent.

A half hour before the draft, the Yahoo computer doled out our draft positions. I had hoped more than anything that the Narcos - ¡América’s Team! ¡With an accent! - would land in the top four or five slots (there were four elite RBs I had coveted, and none of them named Arian Foster) but fate doled me the eighth position. Worse, my competitors all drafted running backs in the first round, leaving me with a choice between eighth-ranked LeSean McCoy (with Michael Vick vulturing so many red zone runs, Shady probably will end up a high end RB2 but less likely a top ten runner) or to pull the trigger and try out a strategy I’d been studying all summer: The Upside Down Draft.

Fantasy expert Matt Waldman has recommended that for those in late rounds of drafts that this strategy reaps more dividends than the old-fashioned “draft two RBs first” strategy that so many use. Running backs, after all, are the big-money point scorers of the fantasy world and in a league with a Flex position like our own, you can play three RBs every week. Waldman has done the math: While fantasy experts and websites make projections largely based on the previous years’ performances, the elite running back position has the highest turnover rate: Among top-12 RBs, there is, he calculates with data, a 64 percent change rate. That means that an average of 7.7 previous RB2s and even RB3s and sometimes a rookie or two, year to year, elevate to elite numbers, displacing the old. The trick is to figure out which are most likely to rise and haul them into one’s roster. 

So in round one I nabbed the near-consensus #1 QB, Packer Aaron Rodgers, and in the second round the near-consensus #1 WR Texan Andre Johnson fell to me (the latter might not end up number one, but he’ll certainly be in the Olympus of elite point scorers if he stays healthy), and I didn’t pick an RB ‘til the third round. By then all the “elites” – 14 of the top 14 projected backs - were gone, but lookie here at the RB army that now wears a Narcos uniform from the running back position:

QB: Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford
RB: Felix Jones, DeAngelo Williams, Mark Ingram, Ryan Mathews, Tim Hightower, Fred Jackson, James Starks
WR: Andre Johnson, Mario Manningham, Jacoby Ford, A.J. Green, Pierre Garcon
TE: Jared Cook
TD: New York Giants
LB: Patrick Willis
DL: Trent Cole
DB: Yeremiah Bell

The first four running backs are legitimate RB2s with potential RB1 upside. Panther Williams, Saint Ingram and Charger Mathews each play behind top-five run blocking offensive lines, and each are strong candidates to invade the elite tier this season: Odds are at least one of them will. 

Felix Jones, although not behind an elite line, is the last Dallas Cow-back standing after his competing teammates fell to injuries, free agency, or performed badly in the preseason. He’ll get most of the ground yardage and goal line touches while QB Tony Romo spreads out the defense with triple receiving corps threats in Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. Even sharing touches last year with Marion Barber, Jones grossed 1,250 yards on the ground and in the air. Now that Barber has moved on, it’s a great position for any explosive back to be in, and Jones has gained a lot of muscle this year and seems to wear it comfortably without losing his speed.

One of those four guys will likely blow up into top-ten back territory. And, as odds go, another will likely be plagued by injuries, a la Mathews 2010, another will likely be a bust, a la Williams 2010, and another likely ends up in a RB-by-committee (this could happen to Mathews, Williams and/or Ingram, but not as likely to Jones), diminishing his touches.  Truth is, these things will also happen to some of the elite tier backs drafted in the first round, making space for one or more of these guys to displace them.

The second tier of The Narcos RBs, Redskin Hightower, Buffalo Bill Jackson and Packer Starks, were more “swing for the fences” type of moves. In Washington, Coach Shanahan may burn through RBs like Spinal Tap did drummers, but he tends to get a good third-of-a-season out of the one he decides is his man before the guy gets ground down and wounded. Hightower – coming on from a strong preseason - will be an early season shocker-sleeper in the Flex position and I’ll ride him according to the match ups until he burns out. And that will buy me some time to watch how the rest of the RB corps shakes out in their own situations.

Fred Jackson is simply beating the hell out of C.J. Spiller for the touches on the Buffalo squad and last year’s exit by Marshawn Lynch to Seattle made that evident in 2010 when F-Jax put up big numbers. At 30 he’s older than most but he’s only played four pro seasons, making his legs 24 or 25 in mileage yet together with veteran smarts. Fielded in fantasy matchups against weaker run defenses, he’ll have some amazing scoring weeks.

And then there is the obscene luxury of taking Packer James Starks – I had only planned on taking six backs – but I could not help it. He was sitting there unpicked in the SIXTEENTH round, and he’s only a good game or another Ryan Grant injury away from becoming the RB1 in his bid to lead the Green Bay returning champs steamroller.

The problem, of course, with selecting seven RBs on a 19-man squad (7 of 15 offensive players) is that it leaves The Narcos weak at WR3 and at Tight End, as well as without a consensus RB1 until one or more of these guys steps up and proves he’s worthy. And god forbid what happens if injuries strike at WR, I may have to get out my magnifying glass and seek out a Domenik Hixon or a Victor Cruz on the waiver wire. Yikes!

The silver lining is that I’ve just dried up the RB pool for other teams that now are slotting WR4s in the Flex position. They’ll find out after one or two games what a losing strategy that is and my gambit is that then they will be open to trades which they will need to salvage their playoff hopes. (It also helped that at least one other team in the league, Dominic Corva’s Viva Tavaris, got RB greedy as well and now most other teams will be scrambling soon enough… There’s not a decent RB left on the waiver wire in this league.)

I also consider it somewhat of a miracle between gobbling up RBs plus an elite QB and elite WR that I nailed Matt Stafford (ninth rated QB according to my numbers-crunching) as backup quarterback (if he plays as I expect, he’ll be trade bait once somebody’s QB gets wounded, which happens pretty fast…).

Giant Mario Manningham – I was lucky to get him in round six - will be no slouch at WR2 now with Steve Smith gone to Philly and Hakeem Nicks drawing double and triple coverage. Even last year he was the 17th top WR fantasy scorer, with only upside at the threshold of the 2011 season.

I wish I felt as confident about Colt Pierre Garcon as my WR3, but I don’t, not until Peyton Manning gets healthy again and proves it, and thus am shopping for WR trades with my army of RBs-with-upside. But with Raider Jacoby Ford and Bengal rookie A.J. Green at WR4 and WR5, I should be able to tack together a decent week-to-week matchup play, or so I hope.

Titan Jared Cook at TE is The Narcos weakest link (even though certain fantasy experts, including Jeff Pasquino, who was rated best at TE projections in 2010, is touting him heavily now that the Titans have a Hasselbeck and not many WRs to which to throw), but week-to-week waiver wire pickups at TE are fairly easy, and there is a Patriot-happy coach in my league who drafted both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez who may determine that Stevan Ridley won’t do in the Flex position at least in the first part of the season and so why not trade one of those guys? And that’s what I like about this “Seven RB2 and Flex RB” roster: The Narcos have what six or seven other teams in the league are going to realize very shortly that they really, really need. And unlike some fantasy teams, we don't fear the trade; we hunt for it.

Finally, there are the Narco IDPs, one linebacker, one defensive back, and one defensive lineman. 49er Patrick Willis is by far the top LB in our league’s tackle-heavy system, and Dolphin Yeremiah Bell will be an elite DB as usual. I’m not so sure about Eagle Trent Cole (Giant Justin Tuck, Viking Jared Allen and Bear Julius Peppers fell to others before I could take them) but there are some other powerful D-linemen out there to cull from the waiver wire when and if the need arises.

As The Narcos team Defense, the Giants are a two-week fill-in strategy: They get the Redskins’ ridiculous QB situation in week one – can you say, "Sack City!" - and then the Rams on the week two Monday Night Football game (for some reason, my Jints’ D always fires it up for primetime national TV, usually wounding a QB, which is another reason why I grabbed Stafford and not the also impressive Sam Bradford in the QB2 position… stay away from QBs that NYG plays early in the season is a lesson learned from 2010). But by week three, when the Giants play the Eagles, I’ll probably have to work the waiver wire for a team defense that and most weeks afterward. The Narcos won our championship last year in part because we got good at that.

Anyway, in Week One of this season I will get to play my 2010 nemesis, league Commissioner Dominic Corva and his Viva Tarvaris team (note that the Seahawks fan didn’t actually DRAFT Tarvaris, although Jackson might do better than his starting QB Matt Schaub - #11 rated in a ten-team league - and certainly than his backup Cassel - #18 and sinking fast - before the season is done), and that’s going to be a tough fight. And if the Narcos lose it – and we might well struggle in the season opener – you’ll all underestimate us for a while.

Because in football, as in life, things do tend to go awry: and that’s when it gets interesting to rise to the challenges.

That’s when I’ll be hitting up all my readers at Narco News (and here!) up for penny-per-point pledges, based on our team’s weekly fantasy point totals, to benefit The Fund for Authentic Journalism based on the points we score each week.

Then again, we may pull it out starting in Week One. As Vince Lombardi said, “winning isn’t everything… it’s the only thing.” Football, glory, glory be, is back. And we’ll see what real-life lessons and benefits we can accrue in 2011 by watching this one-of-a-kind game called NFL football together all season long…


  1. For a guy who picked Andre the Giant Johnson so early, you sure are down on Matt Schaub : )

    ¡Viva Tarvaris! ¡Viva los pajaros del mar!