Fantasy Football: A primer on draft-only leagues and your 2014 Best-Ball All-Star Team

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If you’ve yet to participate in a best-ball league, I’d highly recommend giving it a whirl.  It’s a low-maintenance way to emphasize your drafting skills and show off the under-the-radar evaluation talent you’ve developed over years of playing fantasy football.

What is best-ball?  It takes its name, of course, from the golf format in which a player plays two balls per round, then scores whichever produces the best score.  Simply put, it’s a draft-only league, meaning there’s no roster or lineup management throughout the season.  Rather than setting weekly starters, your league system calculates each team’s optimal lineup; that is, your highest scorer at each starting position is counted as your lineup.  For example, if your rostered quarterbacks are Matthew Stafford and Ben Roethlisberger, the higher-scoring of the two will be calculated as your QB for the week.  It’s unconventional, and it has its quirks:

1. Since there are no week-to-week transactions, you can’t simply replace busts and long-term injuries.  If you lose Adrian Peterson for the season, you lose Adrian Peterson for the season, and you’re not afforded the opportunity to replace him with trades or waiver claims.  To cover for these eventualities, a best-ball league typically utilizes a long draft (22 rounds is the norm) to accumulate extended depth at all positions.  If All Day goes down, you’ve got 4-6 more RB options to pick up the slack. But beating your fellow owners to the waiver wire for Jerick McKinnon isn’t an option, so you’ll need to target him on draft day.

2. Upside matters far more here than it does in standard weekly leagues.  Face facts: in a standard league, you may load up on all of your beloved sleepers and supersleepers, but you’re almost never going to reap the benefits when it pans out.  You’re going to draft Ladarius Green this year, but until The Breakout finally comes, you’ll rarely have the minerals to start the guy.  Too much 6-110-2 potential to avoid, but too much 1-9 potential to start.  In a best-ball league,  You won’t find yourself poring over LB and SS depth charts, deciding whether to flip a coin on Green against the 19th-ranked pass defense.  Simply put: if he blows up that week, you’re likely to enjoy the windfall.  If he’s not part of the game plan or simply doesn’t put up numbers, you’ll be just fine, since you’ve also rostered other, more consistent options at the position.

Arguably the most exciting aspect of fantasy football is the calculation of upside, the evaluation of players we like more than others and the satisfaction of their success if/when it comes.  Since we’re flooded week-in, week-out with high-upside options, the best-ball format obviously values some players more than others.  Here, I’ve identified prospects who look to be more valuable in a best-ball league than in a standard weekly league, in which your certainty of week-to-week consistency is far more crucial.  In other words: target these guys a little higher in your best-ball draft than you normally would.

Your 2014 Best-Ball All-Stars

QB Cam Newton, Carolina – Cam is, of course, a low-end QB1 in any format.  But as an inconsistent passer who relies upon his legs for fantasy value, he’s a volatile QB1, just as likely to explode as implode on a weekly basis.  Cam was held below 240 passing yards in ten games last year, and failed to top 30 rushing yards in eight.  But close your eyes and imagine a world in which you can roster Cam and not even feel the impact of his duds.  If you’re in a best-ball league and not interested in waiting for your QB, feel free to target him at or a little ahead of his affordable 8.11 ADP, but maximize your chances of scoring Good Cam weeks by pairing him with the steady Philip Rivers two rounds later.

QB Russell Wilson, Seattle – Credit where credit’s due: Wilson is a talented signal-caller on an excellent team, and he makes the most of his many red zone trips, helping him to a 30-TD season.  But they come in bunches: Wilson threw zero or one touchdown in 22 of his 37 starts (including playoffs), and has averaged just 241 yards through the air.  He’ll be a monster at times, and his final count numbers will look QB1-worthy, but you don’t want to depend on him week-to-week.  Like Newton, Wilson is most valuable in a best-ball format, where his big weeks can tilt your matchup and the game-manager weeks will give way to your QB2.

RB Shane Vereen, New England – Extrapolate Vereen’s truncated 2013 (only eight games) over a full schedule, and you total 94 receptions, 1,330 scrimmage yards, and eight TDs.  Now, Rich Hribar has done extensive reporting on the impact of game flow on fantasy production, and Vereen’s numbers did benefit immensely from game situations in which the Patriots were trailing.  We can’t just project the kid to another 94-catch line.  Still, I’m expecting around 80, and he’ll be a sheer fantasy machine on a handful of weeks – he topped five receptions or 75 scrimmage yards in five of those eight games.  The dud weeks will happen, but that’ll be the case for most backs, and Vereen’s blowups will easily return on a third-round investment.

RB Stevan Ridley, New England – Perhaps this is justification from a guy who has taken the Ridley plunge in the middle rounds of more than one draft.  That said, assuming reliable Pats writer Mike Reiss is off-base and that Ridley remains in their plans, buy Ridley in your best-ball league.  The smart fantasy owner knows the Patriots run the ball at a surprisingly heavy clip, and when he’s not fumbling, Ridley remains the team’s best interior and short-yardage option.  Vereen and James White certainly don’t look like mail-carriers.  Big Patriot leads will mean big rushing totals and lots of red zone trips, so if Ridley is on the New England roster next week, you can probably pencil in a handful of 17-75 games with a healthy smattering of touchdowns.

RB Dexter McCluster, Tennessee – Check out Ken Whisenhunt‘s usage of Danny Woodhead in San Diego: 106 carries, 87 targets, and gobs of red zone work. It’s easy to project McCluster into a similar role in Tennessee, even with Bishop Sankey on board, which would make him PPR flex gold at his 13.02 ADP.  Like Woodhead, McCluster is a physically-limited player who will need heavy volume to attain fantasy relevance, but he’s well worth the flier.  There will be weeks of 7+ catches and 90+ scrimmage yards.

WR Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota – One of the most polarizing fantasy prospects of the year, Patterson is likely to see sporadic usage throughout 2013.  A manufactured-touch guy in the mold of Percy Harvin, Patterson may not be a perfect fit into Norv Turner’s downfield-oriented scheme.  As a result, Patterson will see weeks in which he’s not configured heavily into the game plan.  (Paul Thomas Anderson explored this in his dazzling 2007 opus, There Will Be 3-19s.)  But don’t lose sight of the monstrous week-to-week upside here.  Patterson closed 2013 by recording 23, 14, 14, and 22 points (in half-PPR leagues) over the final four weeks.  He’ll score touchdowns from all over the field in any offensive role, and will likely be a top-three wideout in at least two or three weeks.  He’ll singlehandedly tilt at least a few matchups this year, which is best-ball dynamite.

WR Wes Welker, Denver – Yes, Welker has suffered at least three concussions in the past calendar year. And yes, concussion histories make fantasy projections – and weekly lineup decisions – a serious hassle.  But neither thought process is quite as important in a best-ball league, where we’re only interested in the good times.  Investing in Welker lands you an upper-tier PPR wideout when he’s on the field, and detracts little from your win probability when he’s not, as you’ll hopefully be loaded with WR options.  Welker saw eight or more targets in 10 of his 13 games last year, and became a red zone staple for the Bronco offense.  And his price tag is dropping, dropping, dropping.  Hold your breath if you must, but take the plunge in the fourth round of your best-ball draft and revel in the handful of 7-75-2 lines he’ll post.

WR Rueben Randle, N.Y. Giants – Nobody knows quite what to do with this guy.  That’s extremely worrisome in standard leagues, but awesome in best-ball.  Randle’s ADP has dropped into the ninth round, likely due to questions about consistency, both his and that of the Giant offense.  But there’s no doubting two key factors here: Randle’s talent level (it’s through the roof), and the team’s near-certain reliance upon its top two wideouts.  New coordinator Ben McAdoo is installing a quick-hitting scheme (read: lots of snaps) that will funnel the ball to Randle and Victor Cruz, and the team has little proven talent beyond those two.  And Randle looks up to the task: in his two seasons, he’s produced a stunning 20 receptions of 20+ yards and nine touchdowns on just 60 receptions.  For reference’s sake, stack up Randle’s big-play production next to that of fantasy’s elite wideouts:

 RecRec of 20+20+ Rec RateRec TDRec TD Rate
Calvin Johnson2066230.1%178.3%
Demaryius Thomas1864725.3%2412.9%
Josh Gordon1374029.2%1410.2%
Rueben Randle602033.3%915.0%

The sample size is small, but wow.  What a playmaker.  While adjustment and week-to-week inconsistency are to be expected in the new offense, Randle is a big-play machine who will most certainly post some WR1 weeks.  Target him comfortably ahead of his standard-league 9.04 ADP and enjoy them.

WR Cecil Shorts, Jacksonville – It’s criminal, this ADP.  Shorts is being had at 11.02 due to his recurring injury woes and the Jags’ WR additions through the draft.  But rookie wideouts rarely make a huge splash, and Shorts has been exceptionally productive when healthy – extrapolate his per-game 2012-13 numbers into a full season, and you’ve got a 72-1,041-6 line.  He’s more than worth that low ADP for the healthy weeks.

WR Jermaine Kearse, Seattle – When Sidney Rice was lost for the year, Kearse immediately posted two usable WR3 lines; expect a few more now that Rice has moved on.  He’s the Seahawks’ best combination of size and play-making ability, and he has his quarterback’s eye: in the NFC Championship and Super Bowl, Kearse saw a combined 10 targets, posting a 6-109 line and scoring in each game.  Big-time sleeper here, folks, and he’s going undrafted everywhere.

WR Marlon Brown, Baltimore – As a rookie, Brown was an impressive touchdown producer, especially considering his undrafted status.  His usage was sporadic, a bit too much so to trust as a standard WR3.  But he’ll most certainly post a few WR3 (or higher) weeks, as he did last year, topping 70 yards and/or catching a touchdown in seven of his 14 games.  And rotoViz likes the guy as an essentially free pickup, which should pique your interest anyway.  Don’t concern yourself much over the arrival of Steve Smith; he’s dangling off the end of the line and has the look of a leadership/experience addition, not one designed to gobble up opportunities.

WR Da’Rick Rogers, Indianapolis – Rogers is buried on his depth chart; in a standard league, he’d likely rot at the bottom of yours as well.  Barring a meteoric rise up the Colts’ WR ranks, Rogers is far too speculative to project beyond a 25-350-4 line.  But he’s a talented guy with red zone chops, so half of those totals will likely come across a small handful of games, resulting in some WR2 weeks.  And he’s virtually free, as Fantasy Football Calculator shows no ADP and my LevelUp league just saw him languish on the board until the final (22nd) round.  I don’t see anyone else in that range with Rogers’ upside.

TE Rob Gronkowski, New England – I know, he’s a hassle.  We’ve all been burned at some point by Gronk’s body, which seems to be a construction of titanium alloy held together by string and rubber cement.  But don’t lose sight of the mammoth weekly scoring injection he brings when on the field. Take his 35 semi-finished games since 2011 – that’s no small sample size – and you get these extrapolations:

Rob GronkowskiTargetsRecRec YdRec TD
Raw totals285197290935
Per game8.15.683.11.0
Per 16 games13090133016
Jimmy GrahamTargetsRecRec YdRec TD
Raw totals457286371739
Per game9.76.179.10.8
Per 16 games15697126513

Yes, those numbers are correct, and yes, he’s better than Jimmy Graham.  Project a few missed games, sure, and maybe even a slow start as he works back from his ACL tear.  But there are few players more capable of winning your league singlehandedly.  Pair him with an established TE2 – think Charles Clay in the 12th – and Gronk looks like a near-lock to return on your top-20 investment.  Proceed with a solid – not unshakable, but solid – confidence in the second round.

TE Ladarius Green, San Diego – We don’t know the degree to which Antonio Gates will fade, but at 34 with an ultra-talented youngster on his heels, this seems like as good a year as any.  We also don’t know the extent to which Green will be involved in the Charger passing game, but he has nowhere to go but up. According to Pro Football Focus, Green was kept in to block on a stunning 59.5% of his snaps last year – stunning because he’s a remarkable receiver and not much of a blocker.  In any event, Green will see a markedly expanded role as soon as Week One – Adam Levitan notes that he hasn’t been blocking much this preseason – and he’ll have enough 6-90-1 lines to make a huge dent in fantasy matchups.  In a best-ball format, you want to come away with Green, so take your stab a few rounds ahead of his shockingly low 13.06 ADP.

TE Travis Kelce, Kansas City – A speculative pick for sure; Kelce has yet to play a regular-season snap, and I hate to bump a guy up my board because of a few preseason splash plays.  But he’s quite possibly the Chiefs’ most gifted pass-catcher (yes, I’m including this guy) and there’s no way you can talk me out of a big role, if only sporadically.  A similar talent to the overdrafted Jordan Reed, Kelce will post a few 6-85-1 lines, so take him at or before his discounted (13.06) ADP.

TE Joseph Fauria, Detroit – You know the book on Fauria’s rookie season: 14 of his 30 targets came in the red zone, resulting in seven touchdowns.  Even with Eric Ebron on board – a decent receiver, but not a red zone guy – expect similar usage in Fauria’s sophomore campaign.  That’ll mean sudden, unpredictable 3-30-2 lines, phenomenal for dud/bye fill-ins in a best-ball format.

K Dan Bailey, Dallas – Already one of the league’s best kickers, Bailey will spend 2014 kicking for a busy, busy offense.  The Cowboys are likely to field one of the league’s worst defensive units; combine that expectation with Scott Linehan’s arrival to the Dallas weapon stash, and you can bank on a bevy of 45-35 shootouts this season.  You don’t need me to tell you that that’s awesome fantasy news for any kicker, let alone an accurate one like Bailey.  If you’re playing best-ball, you’re going to love owning Bailey.

K Shayne Graham, New Orleans – A dome-based kicker in an offense that has produced 56 touchdowns a year since 2011? As the 14th kicker off the board? Sign me up.

DEF/ST New England – As usual, the Patriot defense looks poised to feast on a group of questionable offenses in the AFC East.  The Dolphins (17th in turnovers), Bills (19th), and Jets (22nd) coughed up the ball a ton in 2013, and none employ what we would term a dynamic offensive attack.  Facing those shaky quarterbacks five teams during the fantasy season (one of the Buffalo matchups comes in Week 17) is itself a huge boon for a defense, and it’s also safe to expect a sizable jump in overall play from Bill Belichick’s unit.  The additions of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner look to greatly strengthen the secondary, so expect their sack and interception totals to climb, especially as promising pass rushers Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins develop.  This has the look of a top-five fantasy unit – and one that will post some massive weeks, making them best-ball dynamite.

DEF/ST New Orleans – Snag this gem in the 14th and revel in a hot start, as the aggressive Saints defense – with new addition FS Jairus Byrd in tow – open the year by taking on Cleveland, Minnesota, Tampa Bay over the first five weeks.  And while the going does get tougher, this unit projects as one of the league’s most sack- and turnover-happy.

Lead photo: “Rueben Randle Giants at Redskins 9/25/14” by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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