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Preseason Schedule Analysis: RBs

It has always been my goal to be a trendsetter.

At this point in our civilization though, a different methodology on how to project game-to-game consistency and year-end totals in fantasy football isn’t likely to net me a Pulitzer Award or Nobel Peace Prize.

That said, last year, I finally had enough of the “experts’ way” of projecting year-end fantasy numbers and went about creating one of my own. Sure, I spent as much time as anyone making sure I was caught up on the latest developments, but when it came right down to it, I always thought I would take a look at the rankings I respected the most and then branch off from that. While it might work that way for some, it doesn’t for me.

Even the most highly paid fantasy football scribes are content to add or subtract 100-200 yards from a players’ total from the previous year and suggest he is in line for a certain amount of touchdowns and move on to the next player, with little regard as to how a player will achieve those numbers or a schedule he will face. (So, in the end, fantasy owners are left with a set of rankings and numbers that are derived from a small group of people who are paid, quite simply, to make sure they don’t deviate too far from the company line, or in this case, from the line of realism that most owners are willing to accept for the upcoming season when the harsh reality is that the NFL is not a realistic league in terms of numbers it produces. What do I mean by that? Half of the consensus 10-12 players that just about everyone believes is a first-round pick in any given season will disappoint.)

While the above approach of “towing the company line” may work for players who are content playing in the most lax of leagues, a player’s projected totals only tell part of the story. In competitive head-to-head leagues, it is paramount to gauge a player’s consistency, something my colleague, Matt Waldman, has done a fine job of in his years of work with “The Crank Score”.

I would like, at the very least, to complement his work with what I think is my own innovative approach.

In fantasy football, just as in life, we seek predictable consistency. While injuries, age or indifference on either side of the ball will skew numbers in ways that no one can predict, there are also many “good bets” that owners should at least be mindful of when they are deciding on a player’s fantasy prospects for the upcoming season, such as the run-stopping prowess of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Minnesota Vikings. With that in mind, why would any owner want their RB to face these teams, especially in the fantasy playoffs? Likewise, the Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins figure to have poor pass defenses, at the very least. Why would an owner not want to see those teams on the schedule multiple times?

I have found in my two years of using this method that it is only when one considers each player and each game on the schedule that one can get truly get a feel for just how easy or difficult it may be. A stretch of four tough matchups to start the season may weigh on an offense’s psyche to the point where they play well under expectations for the whole season while a slate of below-average run defenses may give an offense the confidence necessary to overcome even the stoutest of defenses when they face one near the end of the season.

Do I have every conceivable fantasy contributor projected? No. I have used this method on 230 players (not including kickers or team defenses) and I fully realize that about a handful of players will emerge from third- or fourth-string status (as Ryan Grant did last season) to achieve the admiration of fantasy owners. But if analyzing the schedule and breaking it down player-by-player helps me find two more players that capable of being starters in my lineup and helps me avoid busts (like it did with Lee Evans last season), each of my teams figure to be likely championship contenders.

What follows is my best attempt at factoring in as many variables into the season as I can in a semi-efficient but useful tool on draft day.

Step 1

Before I do anything, I spend most of the early part of the summer reviewing changes made to a team’s personnel. Did the team bring in a rookie QB? A new head coach or coordinator? If they did bring a new coach/coordinator, what side of the ball did he specialize in? Did the team change their offensive line coach? What draft picks did the team make and how quickly do I think they will impact the team? What free agents did the team add/subtract from the roster?

Those are just a handful of questions I ask myself while taking the first step in my summer-long journey, which is figuring each team’s yards per carry (YPC) allowed and yards per attempt (YPA) allowed.

The first question I would expect is: why would anyone care about YPC and YPA allowed? While many things in fantasy football are constantly in a state of flux, I have found YPC against for the running game and YPA against for the passing game to be excellent predictors of how successful a defense is (or in this case, will be).

Step 2

After setting up a blank spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel, I go through the painstaking process of entering in each player that figures to have fantasy relevancy throughout the season. (In other words, a team’s starting QB – and sometimes their backup, depending on the team – two RBs, three WRs (except in rare cases at both positions) and at least one TE. I then add the schedule and my projected YPC and YPA allowed under each opponent to keep my expectations in check.

While many fantasy owners want to talk about strength of schedule (in terms of what a defense did against a certain position last year), most do not take the time to speculate on what they may do this season. I believe this is one huge benefit to this system.

Since I will be concentrating on the running backs in this article, I will hone in on a player who is creating a fair amount of buzz in the fantasy community due to a highly-publicized switch in offensive coordinators – Frank Gore.

 Frank Gore
    ARI sea DET no NE PHI nyg SEA bye ari STL dal buf NYJ mia stl
    4 3.9 4.2 3.8 4.1 4.1 3.9 3.9 4 4 4 4.1 4.2 4.4 4
Frank Gore                                  
Ru TD                              
Re Yards                
Re TD                        

It is now time to highlight which teams I believe are superb matches for Gore (green) as well as ones I would prefer to avoid (red). Just because I think a game presents a bad matchup for Gore doesn’t necessarily mean that my projections will reflect that. More often than not, however, they will go hand in hand.

After seeing that just two defenses were highlighted as “avoid matchups”, an astute reader may notice that the Saints’ run defense is projected to have a lower YPC allowed than either Dallas or Seattle. What gives? A change I made from my original concept last season was taking individual matchups into account as opposed to just looking at the average, factoring in such things as home vs. road defense (Seattle has a tendency to play incredible defense at home) and expected play from players that will likely need to contain Gore (i.e. linebackers). While Jonathan Vilma should dramatically upgrade New Orleans’ LB corps, I believe the Cowboys’ will do a good job stopping the run plus keep Gore from wrecking too much havoc in the passing game.

Step 3

At this point, this is where the fun and prognosticating can begin.

 Frank Gore
  (1) (2) (3) (4)   ARI sea DET no NE PHI nyg SEA bye ari STL dal buf NYJ mia stl
            4 3.9 4.2 3.8 4.1 4.1 3.9 3.9 4 4 4 4.1 4.2 4.4 4
Frank Gore 252 1150 186 16.75   50 75 110 60 45 65 45 85 100 90 50 90 70 115 100
Ru TD 9 66 1 2 1 1 1 1 1 1
Re Yards 710 55 40 65 40 45 55 50 40 50 40 35 45 40 60 50
Re TD 2 1 1

Most of the numbers to the right of the blue line should be self-explanatory. They are the yards and TDs expected in a given game. Certainly, this model can be altered with (or added on to) for those owners in PPR leagues.

However, here’s a legend for the numbers on the left side of the blue line so you can follow my next level of madness.

(1) Total fantasy points scored,
(2) The projected 15-game totals expected from the player (as most league titles are decided in Week 16),
(3) The points scored from yards and points scored from TDs that lead to the total in (1),
(4) The projected average of points in Weeks 15-16 (most leagues’ playoff weeks).

(Remember, since I only chart through 16 weeks, the numbers on the left side of the blue line are 15-game totals and assume participation in every game. Don’t worry, this will be a problem I will address when I wrap up this three-part series.)

Let’s consider another example that incorporates more good and poor matchups.

 Larry Johnson: Good & Bad
  (1) (2) (3) (4)   ne OAK atl DEN car bye TEN nyj TB sd NO BUF oak den SD MIA
            4.1 4.4 4.3 4.4 4 3.9 4.2 3.9 4 3.8 4.1 4.4 4.4 4 4.4
Larry Johnson 242.5 1215 177 16.25 35 105 90 90 55 85 75 50 75 75 85 115 90 100 105
Ru TD 10 66 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 2
Re Yards 540 45 30 45 30 25 35 30 30 40 45 30 50 30 35 40
Re TD 1 1

With good reason, many owners seem to be down on LJ this year. But take a second to consider who he will be going against this season. He faces Oakland and Denver twice, Atlanta once and Miami in what will be Championship Week for most owners. He has a history of doing well vs. San Diego as well, meaning nearly half of his matchups could be very solid ones for him. Believe me, I am not a big fan of his offensive line (and I put as much weight into that when projecting RBs as I do anything, if not more so), but Johnson will get the touches and likely the lion’s share of red zone opportunities with Kansas City, even more than Tony Gonzalez and Dwayne Bowe.

This chart, if mostly accurate, would lend much credence to the notion that LJ will be like a good #2 fantasy RB in terms of consistency but a possible low-end #1 RB in terms of overall production. Owning LJ this season figures to be akin to a rollercoaster ride, but if his owners can get through the first half in good shape, they should be in for solid production in the second half. By that time, I would expect the combination of rookie LT Branden Albert and LG Brian Waters to be working more cohesively, making LJ a likely stud in the final weeks of the 2008 season. The biggest question for most owners will be whether or not he will remain healthy enough to get to that point. I tend to believe he will, as his foot injury last season certainly was not caused by his workload the previous season. That said, I put a fair amount of stock into the workload articles that have been published on this site, as they are not only good reads, but also serve a cautionary tale about putting too much faith into a player that has carried too much of the weight in a given season.

Either way, LJ makes for a great case study on why this analysis is well worth the time put into it. If I am reasonably confident that he post numbers close to what I have projected here and think he can make it back to me in the middle of the second round, I may be more apt to target a player at another position (Randy Moss?) with my first pick with the idea that the Patriots’ WR will far out-produce just about everyone else’s #1 WR while feeling very confident that LJ will match the production of a lot of #1 RBs selected in the first round. It is that kind of “acceptable” tradeoff that separates the also-rans in fantasy leagues from the championship teams.

Wrapping Up…

In the coming days, I will follow this with the second part of this three-part series where I discuss quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends. Sure, it would be wonderful if everyone agreed with my projections (in this article and in the upcoming ones), it is not necessary and does not take away just how large of a role matchups should play into the thinking of owners not only during the season, but also during the drafting process. Securing a “soft matchup” during the fantasy playoffs should not be an accident; it should really be something that an owner seeks to find in the draft.

The third part of this series will tie in all the positions, the ranking and tiering of the players as well as address the “participation issue” I mentioned earlier.