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Amendment to the Qualitative Guide; Subtitle: Can We Actually Perceive Talent and Opportunity?

There have been some good comments on my Qualitative Guide post here on the site, as well as on Twitter so I thought I should offer a follow-up.

I think the central reaction has perhaps rightly been: these things are difficult to predict and if you had done this in the past it would have been overly certain as to the assessment of which situations are actually good or not. Case in point: Odell Beckham. His situation looked bad after the draft as he was behind an entrenched star WR as well as a promising young player that the team had used a second round pick on recently. Those roadblocks ended up not mattering.

Talent vs. Opportunity

I tried to dance around this point, but my response is basically that some part of what we perceive as talent overcoming all, is actually just opportunity overcoming all. That’s why I used the Keenan Allen example. He would have been the Odell Beckham example if I had written this last year. But now I don’t think it’s fair to say at all that it was purely Allen’s talent that led to his meteoric rise (not just up the depth chart, but also up the fantasy leaderboard). Allen’s talent was a necessary condition but it wasn’t a sufficient condition. Also, Allen doesn’t look nearly as talented now as he did after 2013.

There are other examples as well. Brandon Lloyd had a huge season in 2010, a narrative formed around the idea that it was just opportunity meeting talent. Except then the talent part seemed to disappear pretty quickly when the perfect storm of garbage time passing, barely competent quarterback, and lack of competing receiving options also disappeared.

Josh Gordon is actually another example. It’s true that he’s uber-talented. But it gets glossed over pretty quickly that it was the mountain of targets that made Gordon the top fantasy WR in 2013. Sure, he had to be talented enough to convert those targets. But he required a league high pass tendency in Cleveland to do that.

Percy Harvin was considered one of the most uniquely talented WRs in the league when he was getting a ton of usage in Minnesota. But take away the volume and people’s perceptions changed pretty quickly. But then if Harvin was so talented to begin with, why didn’t we see a “cream rising to the top” situation play out in Seattle or New York?

If Antonio Brown is so innately talented, why did it take Mike Wallace leaving in free agency for Brown to become a WR1? Why didn’t he simply outplay Wallace and garner the majority of the targets? I realize that Brown was talented enough for the Steelers to eventually be fine letting Wallace leave. But what if they’d just decided that they wanted two really good WRs? Would Antonio Brown have ever become Antonio Brown?

Is Pierre Garcon an example of talent eventually showing through? Or is he an example of a player who eventually landed in a spot where the team would shoehorn targets to him for a couple of years? There’s lots of evidence that he’s not very talented, including his time catching the ball from Peyton Manning when he wasn’t good. Then there’s a short window of time when he looked like one of the best receivers in the league although that time is also coincident with target volume and a QB that was just good enough to make him fantasy relevant.

2014 Rookies

Let me get back to the 2014 rookie class so that I can address one other important issue. Would we have looked at them last year and felt like their situations were good? My personal top nine WRs went:

Player
S. Watkins
Mike Evans
J. Matthews
K. Benjamin
Brandin Cooks
Davante Adams
Allen Robinson
Marqise Lee
O. Beckham Jr.

I think you can see from that list that I was applying essentially the same framework I’m talking about here where I’m including opportunity as a variable. I upgraded Jordan Matthews due to situation, I pushed Kelvin Benjamin past Brandin Cooks for the same reason. Then I slid Marqise Lee past Allen Robinson, even though the draft order was reversed, because while I liked Lee’s opportunity, I wasn’t sure where things would eventually shake out.

Of course there are players I’d like a mulligan on, but when I make a mistake I really try to think about whether correcting that mistake will result in a better process over time, or if it’s just over-fitting. If you asked me to re-do the list today I would put OBJ in first. I would also upgrade Brandin Cooks based on the Jimmy Graham trade. I would downgrade Davante Adams based on Randall Cobb staying, and I would include Donte Moncrief, Martavis Bryant, and Jarvis Landry somewhere.

Maybe it would look something like this:

Player
O. Beckham Jr.
Mike Evans
S. Watkins
J. Matthews
Brandin Cooks
K. Benjamin
M. Bryant
Allen Robinson
Davante Adams
J. Landry
D. Moncrief
Marqise Lee

I think there’s an important point to be made. I’m re-ordering based on changes in what I see as being the near term predictable opportunity for each player. Only in OBJ and Marqise Lee’s cases am I re-ordering based on changing my assessment of their talent. Then, OBJ’s changed rating is still partially impacted by my change in outlook for his opportunity. If I thought that there was a roadblock to him getting nine targets per game (like a healthy Victor Cruz) then that would also impact things.

Also, as it relates to my re-ordering of Martavis Bryant, I would point out that a relevant event that’s taken place since the draft last year is that Bryant has shown that he can overtake Markus Wheaton on the depth chart. That’s some of my optimism for Bryant. But if we’re just talking talent then you would have to say that Wheaton would be the Steeler to own. Wheaton went in the third round of his draft, as the 10th WR selected. Bryant went in the fourth round of his draft as the 19th WR selected. Which one has more talent? You would say Bryant as of today but we also have the benefit of seeing how things played out.

I’m still rejecting the idea that talent drives all of the value. If that innate thing called talent were real then why wouldn’t Marqise Lee be at the top of this list? After his sophomore year of college he reportedly would have been a top 20 draft pick. He was coming off a 1700 yard season. The reason is because when it comes to talent we pretty much just look at the recent box scores and call that player as talented as the box score says. We’re always chasing the box score. Because opportunity is going to impact the box score, I just prefer to use some estimate of that opportunity to make my decisions.

2015 Rookies

Back to the 2015 draft class for a moment.  I want to be clear that I’m sure some draft picks will take place that will change my view of opportunity.

Let’s just say for the sake of argument that the Eagles make a draft day trade with the Giants and move up to the ninth overall pick to take Dorial Green-Beckham. Follow me on this hypothetical even if that might be overvaluing DGB. If that happens, I’m not going to bet against a 235 pound monster going into a high volume offense, and where they’ve demonstrated how much they covet the player by moving up to pick him. I would move DGB up to first overall in my rankings if that happens. When I posted the table yesterday I did so under the assumption that some amount of the smoke coming out of Philadelphia about Josh Huff is real. But if they make a move in the draft that betrays the rumors that they’re excited about Huff, I’ll change my view.

One of the commenters to the other piece also mentioned that Seattle could be a team that might trade into the first round to take a WR. I don’t consider that to be likely because I think they consider Jimmy Graham to be their WR1. Then, even if it does happen the WR they draft would have to compete for a smallish number of targets anyway. So I wouldn’t be that enthused about the WR. If they had simply used their first round pick to take a WR, instead of trading it for Graham, then I would have been all-in.

My assessment is that there aren’t a ton of plus situations for this year’s rookie class. Some of them will go into muddy situations where they won’t be obviously more talented than the players they’re competing with. I’m going to try to use that assessment to inform what I do with my draft picks. Will I be right about every situation? Of course not. But this is sort of like blackjack. You make a decision at each state of the game without knowing for certain what will happen in future states of the game. When you double down on 11 all you know is at that moment it’s a plus move. When a three comes out and you have 14, you’re suddenly negative. But the fact that you might later become negative based on a decision you make today doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make that decision.

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