For the most part, succeeding at fantasy football means getting the big questions right.
Should I take Ray Rice or LeSean McCoy fifth overall? Is it best to grab a premier quarterback with my high second-round pick or wait out the position's depth? Is Shonn Greene really going to be the bell cow this year, and thus be worth a second-round pick? And, after the season has begun, is that hot-starting receiver really the next Austin Miles and a smart waiver-wire claim?
Of course, some fantasy players choose to look deeper into the details, trying to find clues that will help them answer the big questions. Some of these details include:
- Bye weeks…in our mind, not worth worrying about until your grabbing your backup quarterback or tight end, to make sure you don't get two players off the same week.
- Teammates…potentially critical – think Arizona receivers last year with that team's post-Kurt Warner QB roulette – but often not worth worrying about, especially with running backs.
- Matchups…in our opinion, definitely worth considering, particularly in regards to the fantasy stretch drive and playoffs in November and December.
In relation to that last topic, fantasy guru Michael Fabiano recently wrote on NFL.com that some of the elite running backs have more favorable schedules than others. For instance, while Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson and Arian Foster all might have legitimate claim on the top spot among fantasy backs, Fabiano considers the schedules for Johnson (#2 on this particular list) and Peterson (#3) to be quite a bit more promising than that of Foster (#18). Michael Turner comes in first on this list of favorable schedules, which could certainly be something to keep in mind if you're trying to decide whether you like the Atlanta back better than, say, Jamaal Charles or Frank Gore in the middle of the opening round.
LeGarette Blount is 19th on Fabiano's running back schedule list, but the NFL.com fantasy editor still says the Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back has "early-round value as a No. 2 fantasy runner." On similar lists for quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends, Fabiano has Freeman ranked 19th, Mike Williams 21st and Winslow tied for 14th. Obviously, these numbers are coming from a similar avenue of analysis for all of the Buccaneer players, based on the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the defenses they will face. In his Freeman write-up, Fabiano says that Freeman's schedule is neither "favorable or unfavorable overall."
That may be true considering the defensive rankings in 2010 of the Buccaneers' 2011 opponents. For instance, Tampa Bay will play the defenses ranked fourth (New Orleans), fifth (Green Bay), eighth (Minnesota), ninth (Chicago) and 13th (San Francisco), with two games against the Saints…but also those that finished 23rd (Dallas), 26th (Tennessee), 28th (Jacksonville) and 30th (Houston). Still, it's possible to look a little closer at the strengths of these defenses and the Bucs' other opponents to get a more complete look at how difficult the schedule is for Tampa Bay's fantasy studs in 2011, and just where it might have some soft spots.
Let's look at the Bucs' top-ranked fantasy player at each of the four positions listed above: quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end.
QB: Josh Freeman
With the quarterbacks and pass-catchers, of course, we're going to be a little more concerned with the opposing pass defenses, though that doesn't tell the whole story. A team with a stellar rush defense (such as Pittsburgh) will put more pressure on the quarterback in most games and that could affect his overall effectiveness.
In his 16 games this season, Freeman is slated to play only three of last year's top-10 pass defenses (though one of those three, New Orleans, accounts for two games). On the other hand, he has four games against teams in the bottom seven spots of the rankings: Houston (#32), Tennessee (#29), Jacksonville (#28) and Dallas (#26). And those confident fantasy players who assume they are going to be in the thick of the playoff race should take note of this: All four of those matchups come in Week 10 or later. From the 10th week of the season on, Freeman will play five games against teams ranked 22nd or lower, two against the 11th-ranked team (Carolina) and one against the fifth-ranked team (Green Bay).
Of course, those rankings are based on yards allowed, and a lot of a quarterback's fantasy value is tied into how many touchdowns he throws and how well he avoids interceptions. In that regard, it looks like Freeman has a good shot to keep his incredibly low interception totals from last year on the same trend, as he faces several of the worst pick-off teams in the league in the first half. That includes two games against the Saints, who had the fewest INTs in the NFL last year, one against Indianapolis (ranked 30th), one each against Detroit (19th), San Francisco (tied for 17th) and Minnesota (tied for 17th).
In terms of the opponents who gave up the most touchdown passes last year, Freeman's schedule is all over the board. He has two games against the Saints, who surrendered the fewest in the league (surprisingly, given their terrible interception ranking), and also must face Chicago, which ranked second in that category. On the other hand, he gets to face the two worst teams in giving up TDs in the second half of the season: Houston (Week 10) and Dallas (Week 15). Again, Freeman could be set up to duplicate his very strong finish to last season. Anyone who started Freeman in Week 16 last year – which is often when fantasy leagues are playing their championship games – probably has a title in hand, as he threw a career-high five touchdown passes in that contest.
It may also be in Freeman's favor that two of the Bucs' last five games this year will be against Carolina, an opponent he dominated in 2010. In two games against the Panthers last fall, Freeman completed 62.5% of his passes, racked up a very high 8.73 yards per attempt and threw four touchdown passes against no interceptions. His passer rating against the Panthers was 118.3. Take note: The Buccaneers and Panthers will face off in Week 16 this season.
Freeman wasn't as strong, statistically, against the Falcons last year. In his two games against Atlanta he completed 50.0% of his passes, had 6.17 yards per attempt and was an even 3-3 in his TD-INT ratio. Three interceptions in two games isn't terrible, but that happened to account for half of all the picks he threw last season. Of course, one of the Bucs' two games against Atlanta is in Week 17, by which time most fantasy leagues have already wrapped up their seasons.
As Fabiano correctly noted, Freeman's overall schedule doesn't sound as particularly favorable or unfavorable, but there is reason to hope that the Buccaneer quarterback will have a chance to shine in the fantasy stretch drive once again.
WR: Mike Williams
Obviously, Williams' opponent rankings are going to be pretty much the same as Freeman's. Still, the explosive Buccaneer rookie was a fantasy gem down the stretch last season, and it's worth noting some of the defense's he'll be facing at a similar time in 2011.
As alluded to above, the Bucs have some supposedly favorable matchups in November and December. Here are the 2010 overall defensive rankings of the Buccaneers' opponents in Weeks 12-16 in 2011: 26th, 18th, 28th, 23rd and 18th. (Again, Atlanta's 16th-ranked defense in Week 17 isn't going to be relevant to most fantasy leagues). Against the pass, those same five matchups are against defenses ranked 29th, 11th, 28th, 26th and 11th. That 11th-ranked team the Bucs will face twice is, as mentioned above, Carolina. Williams caught only six passes in two games against the Panthers but averaged 20.3 yards per grab and scored one touchdown.
In the last five games of last season, Williams scored five touchdowns, making him a must-start for most of the fantasy owners lucky enough to have him on the roster. Obviously, we have to concede that one of those five came in the unimportant (fantasy-wise) Week 17 win at New Orleans, but it was still a pretty spectacular finish to his first fantasy campaign.
Also, if you have reason to worry about Freeman in the Atlanta matchups this year, don't assume that Williams' value will drop in those games, too. In his first two career games against the Buccaneers' bitter NFC South rival, Williams caught 10 passes for 157 yards and caught a touchdown toss in each contest.
In terms of opponents who gave up touchdown passes most frequently last year, we echo our thoughts from above, as Williams' schedule is all over the board. In two of the first five weeks, though, he'll face teams that tied for 21st in such rankings, giving up 25 TD passes each Minnesota in Week Two and San Francisco in Week Five.
RB: LeGarette Blount
Like his counterparts in the passing attack, Blount looks to be facing a tougher schedule in the first half than in the second. Four of his first eight opponents will feature teams that finished in the top 10 in rush defense last year, beginning in Week Two at Minnesota. The Vikings ranked 9th, Atlanta (Week Three) ranked 10th, San Francisco (Week Five) ranked sixth and Chicago (Week Seven) ranked second.
Down the stretch, Blount will get to play some supposedly more bendable rush defenses, including Tennessee (20th), Jacksonville (22nd) and Carolina (23rd) twice. Those all fall in the same Week 12-16 stretch that is starting to make the Bucs look like they will be a very important player in the fantasy playoff drive this fall. The matchup against Atlanta's 10th-ranked rush defense doesn't come until Week 17, which will hopefully be an important game for the Buccaneers but probably won't matter to your fantasy team.
It should be noted that rushing and passing defensive rankings (which are based on yards allowed) can occasionally be misleading. Sometimes a team struggles so mightily against one or the other that opponents focus on that part of their offense and don't bother testing the other half of the defense as frequently. For instance, Carolina finished 2-14 last year with the NFL's 11th-ranked pass defense, in part because they ranked 23rd against the run and had major offensive problems. The best approach for most opponents was to keep the ball on the ground, knowing they probably didn't have to score 25 or 30 points. An opposite example was Houston, which had such a hard time stopping the opposing passing game (32nd in the league) that they weren't run on as often and finished 13th in that category.
That's why it's also instructive to look at yards allowed per carry when deciding which matchups are favorable. For instance, Atlanta had the league's 10th best rush defense last year but they were just 27th in yards allowed per carry. This indicates that the Falcons rush defense might have been more vulnerable than expected, if teams had the opportunity to test them.
That sheds a slightly different light on Blount's chances right out of the gate. Here are the Buccaneers' first four opponents and their rankings last year in yards allowed per carry: Detroit, 22nd; Minnesota, 9th; Atlanta, 27th; and Indianapolis, 25th. Blount will also get a crack at the team ranked 30th in that category, Jacksonville, in Week 14.
Another reason to find a way to get Blount into your lineup right away this year: The opening-day opponent is Detroit. Though the Buccaneers fell in overtime to the Lions last December, Blount had a magnificent game against them. On just 15 carries he racked up 110 yards, averaging 7.3 per tote and scoring one of his six touchdowns on the year. Down the stretch, Blount owners may be pleased to see his two late games against Carolina; he got to face the Panthers just once last year but ran 19 times for 91 yards (4.8 per carry) and a touchdown.
TE: Kellen Winslow
There isn't room for much new analysis in terms of opposing teams' rankings, as we've covered that in the Freeman and Williams sections. Suffice it to say that the most favorable matchups tend to be bunched near the end, including Tennessee in Week 12, Jacksonville in Week 14 and Dallas in Week 15.
One can dig a little deeper into fantasy analysis and see which teams seem most vulnerable to certain sorts of attacks, such as the tight end, but ranking systems can differ from one fantasy league to the next. Still, judging by one popular scoring system, Winslow could have some very favorable matchups down the stretch.
In a fairly standard fantasy setup, the Houston Texans were the team that gave up the most points to tight ends last year, and Winslow will draw that opponent in Week 10 next year. The next week, he'll get Green Bay, which gave up the eighth-most fantasy points to tight ends last year. Tennessee (Week 12) and Jacksonville (Week 14th) rank ninth and sixth on that list, respectively.
Winslow, of course, has an NFL fantasy history that predates the Buccaneers, unlike Freeman, Williams and Blount, given his six years with the Cleveland Browns. Some of those seasons were marred by injuries, but Winslow had 44 games with the Browns before he arrived in Tampa.
One of the teams he has played pretty frequently is the Atlanta Falcons. Winslow has five games against Atlanta, and three have occurred at the Georgia Dome. In that venue, he has an average of five receptions for 67 yards, and 13.5 yards per grab. His numbers at Bank of America Stadium, where Carolina plays, are almost identical: five for 69, and 12.9 per catch. In neither venue, however, has he caught a touchdown to this point. Perhaps he will remedy one or both of those shutouts in the Buccaneers' season-ending games at Carolina and Atlanta.