We often dabble in ideas here which run the gamut from the ridiculous to the absurd. We spend a lot of time talking about guys who will never see the field. Probably a good rule of thumb is that the time we spend on prospects is inversely related to their actual chances of getting on the field. So why is this? It’s because the higher that we are on a prospect, and the less we see anyone else talking about him, the more we’re going to talk about that prospect.
I suppose in some sense that could be problematic given that we could be wasting a lot of time. But I don’t think it is and I’ll explain why.
The guys we end up spending the most time on are usually available almost for free in fantasy leagues. They are cheap options. The guys that we talk about cost so little, and yet we only talk about them if we think they have a lot of potential. By the time Jon Moore pet project Charles Johnson came off the NFL draft board, 215 other selections had been made. That meant that Johnson was about as close as he could get to actually being free for the Green Bay Packers to acquire. That’s changing in fantasy drafts as Johnson’s name becomes more popular. But you can still get him for the cost of a back-up receiver and he’s typically a lot more physically talented than the back-ups that are being drafted immediately before him. When will Johnson see the field? Who knows? The key part of his value is his physical upside, combined with low cost to acquire. As he becomes more expensive to acquire, the value calculation changes because you’re no longer looking at something that is pure upside.
Let me relate this idea to another player and address a potential criticism of some of the things that we’re doing here. Last night on Twitter Sigmund Bloom made a point related to Aldrick Robinson that I think could be paraphrased fairly as being “What reason do we have to expect that he’s any good?” Bloom made the point that Robinson’s production last year came off of busted coverage and if we had taken the time to watch the games, we would know this. Additionally Bloom pointed out that Robinson eventually was relegated to no roll with the Washington offense.
Addressing how Bloom’s criticisms fit into what we do at RotoViz requires that I go big picture instead of addressing the potential points he has related to Robinson, so I have to start there. Bloom is probably absolutely right that taking a team’s intended use of a player into account is appropriate for updating our expectations for that player. But let’s think about how we might apply that information to the two inputs in the fantasy football scoring formula, which are talent and opportunity. A team’s intended use of a player (i.e. the fact that the Redskins didn’t play ARob much down the stretch) factors heavily into the opportunity side of the equation. A team’s perception of their own players, along with injuries and game plan, make up most of that side of the equation. But when it comes to parsing out the talent side of the equation, I pay very little attention to which guys a team plays.
Recall that HOU had a full year to look at Arian Foster in 2009, including some games that Foster had played well in, and yet HOU drafted Ben Tate with their first round pick in 2010. They were ready to make Tate their feature back if not for a broken ankle before the 2010 season. What happened after that? Foster became one of the best running backs in football. So should we have read between the lines and assumed that HOU selecting Ben Tate meant that they knew from a year of watching Foster that he wasn’t good enough to roll with?
Following the 2006 season, Randy Moss was traded from the Raiders to the Patriots for a 4th round pick. The Raiders presumably couldn’t get anything more for Moss and had no interest in keeping him on their roster. He was only the best WR in football, and the Raiders got to watch him every day in practice. But they gave him away.
No team thought it was worth using a draft pick to acquire Victor Cruz. He only got on the field because Steve Smith got injured. If you asked the Giants now which guy they would rather have, I’m sure they would say Cruz. But what are the odds that the Giants move Cruz ahead of Smith on the depth chart if Smith doesn’t get injured?
Mike Vick started the 2010 season as a back-up QB and then went on to have one of the best fantasy seasons in recent memory. Should our perception of his ability to score fantasy points have been tempered by the fact that PHI chose to start Kevin Kolb that season? Couldn’t we have crafted a narrative in our minds that would have been something like: “Andy Reid knows quarterbacks and he knows that he can’t win with Mike Vick. Vick is so bad that Reid would rather roll with the unproven Kevin Kolb.”
Teams passed on Alfred Morris 172 times before he was picked by the Redskins. Should we have let Morris’ draft slot impact our perception of his talent level? I think it’s fair to let it impact our expectations of his usage, but I don’t think it says anything about his talent.
C.J. Spiller primarily got on the field because of injuries to Fred Jackson. The Bills used a high draft pick to acquire Spiller, then didn’t want to play him, then had to play him and he was one of the best running backs in football. The Bills essentially missed on both sides as it relates to Spiller’s talent. They overvalued him in the draft and then undervalued him once he was on their roster.
Jamaal Charles didn’t get onto the field very much until a broken down Larry Johnson was finally suspended. Even after Jamaal Charles had been the 2nd best back in football at the end of 2009, the Kansas City Chiefs gave the ball to Thomas Jones almost 400 times during the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
My point here is that I don’t think that usage really matters as it relates to talent. I do think usage matters as it relates to usage. But that’s tautological isn’t it?
If we extend to NFL teams the assumption that they are playing the best guys, then the internet’s growing population of semi-professional 2nd guessers (this site fits into that group) can pack it up and go home. If the NFL is an efficient market, there’s not much point to what we do. But there’s the rub. No one really thinks it’s an efficient market and everyone feels like their pet guys, waiting just below the surface to break out, are more talented than NFL teams think they are.
Now I’ll get back to how the things that we do at RotoViz do have utility.
My experience is that talent tends to exist on a spectrum between really talented (Jamaal Charles) and not very talented (Thomas Jones at the end of his career). But usage tends to be more binary. Guys either get on the field, or they don’t. Sometimes guys get on the field because their teams have no other choice. See: Arian Foster. When we write articles at RotoViz, we’re trying to pick out the guys that have what we perceive to be a lot of talent, but whose situations mean that no value is being assigned to them in fantasy leagues. All that needs to happen then is that the opportunity/usage switch needs to flip from “off” to “on.” Predicting when that usage switch will flip isn’t easy, but if you don’t know who the guys are, you’re never going to be able to pounce on them just before they have value.
To get back to guys like Aldrick Robinson, what you can expect from us is that we’ll do a good amount of yelling and screaming about players that we feel are undervalued and then it’s up to you to monitor their situation so that you can make up your own mind as to whether they make sense on your roster. We can’t predict whether Pierre Garcon’s foot will be a problem, or whether Josh Morgan will be the player that the coaches will roll with when Garcon is out. What we can predict to some degree is that when players like Aldrick Robinson or Charles Johnson get the ball thrown to them, they’ll have a decent chance of scoring fantasy points based on the data points that we monitor here.
Another important point for Robinson and other players of his size is that whether or not they score fantasy points is also largely related to the coaching staff’s tolerance for boom/bust. Bruce Arians has an appetite for boom/bust so the speed receivers like TY Hilton and Mike Wallace have done very well under Arians. I would argue that the number of teams that passed on those guys in the draft didn’t say very much about those teams missing the players’ talents. Their talents can be measured in one drill at the combine and so they are impossible to miss. It comes down to whether teams want to spend a lot of time throwing deep, which carries all sorts of additional risk including increased risk of being sacked and also increased risk of interception (deep passes are intercepted more than twice as often as short passes). In the case of Aldrick Robinson it would be totally understandable if the coaching staff wanted to rely instead on their bigger receivers and play a lower variance game. But that’s really the case with all teams and we still see players like DeSean Jackson, TY Hilton and Mike Wallace score fantasy points. Again, our point is that if ARob gets on the field, fantasy points are likely to follow based on his history of producing in college, his speed, and a tiny sample of plays in the NFL.