Free Fantasy Football Advice: 2015

All listed fantasy scores assume ½-PPR scoring, unless otherwise noted. Whether you play traditional or PPR or ½-PPR, the scores given should be pretty close to what your league uses.

For purposes of this column, large league means 12-16 teams. Small league means 8-10 teams.

My most important strategy in fantasy football is not to blow the first pick. You chase upside in the later rounds. At the top of the draft, you need to take someone solid. If they have upside, too, that's terrific, but almost without exception, you can't win if your first pick is a bust. In most fantasy formats, there's a consensus on the top five players for 2015: Le'Veon Bell, Jamaal Charles, Eddie Lacy, Marshawn Lynch, and Adrian Peterson. Two of those players seem especially risky; let's start with Peterson.

Adrian Peterson

Last year, I wondered whether Adrian Peterson should still be an early-first-round pick in fantasy leagues. The answer I came up with was probably not.

Obviously, that didn't anticipate Peterson's 15-game suspension, but there were other factors to suggest going in a different direction with your first-round pick. Today, though, Peterson is again a consensus top-five draft pick, first overall in some leagues. Is that a good idea? Last season, LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles had clearly surpassed Peterson in fantasy drafts, and now AP is 30 years old and hasn't played in 12 months. Peterson is an all-time great, but is he still worth a top-five pick?

Let's start with what I identified last year: Peterson was 29, and he had played seven seasons in the NFL. He was the 8th-best RB in fantasy in 2013, and he was the top scorer in 2012. I compared him to similar players:

1. Between 28-30 years old
2. Six to eight years NFL experience
3. Played 16-game seasons
4. Top-10 fantasy RB in prior season
5. But not top-three
6. Top-three fantasy RB two seasons earlier

Who else had a similar profile? I found nine comps for Peterson: Eric Dickerson in 1990, Thurman Thomas in 1995, Barry Sanders in 1997, Emmitt Smith in 1997, Ricky Watters in 1998, and Marshall Faulk in 2003, plus Clinton Portis, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Brian Westbrook in 2009.

In the table below, x equates to the year listed — 2014 for Peterson. x-1 is the previous year, Peterson's 2013 season. x-2 is the season before that, Peterson's 2012. The numbers in the chart represent fantasy points, divided by 16. It's basically points per game, but no breaks for players who got injured and missed time.


The players above all look like Peterson: they're the same age, similar wear-and-tear, all had recently been the best RB in the NFL (or close to it), and all had a pretty good season the year before, not the kind that indicates a player is washed up.

Barry Sanders was awesome in '97, the best RB in the NFL. But no one else on the list was worth a top-five draft pick, and only Watters was deserving of a top-10. Eight of the 10 dropped in value. Drafting Dickerson, Portis, Westbrook, or Peterson in the first round would have wrecked your fantasy season. That's a 40% flameout rate, compared to a 10% success rate. Drafting an aging RB two years removed from his best season has not yielded positive results. This happened to Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson ... great players aren't immune.

Peterson was the RB8 in 2013, and fourth among RBs from 2011-13 (behind Charles, McCoy, and Marshawn Lynch).

Top-Scoring Fantasy RBs, 2012-14

* 2011-13 values for Peterson

I don't see a basis for considering Peterson as the top overall pick in fantasy. He was the 8th-ranked RB in his last full season, he's 4th over the past three seasons (and that includes his legendary and unrepeatable 2012), and he's 30. Charles, Lynch, and Matt Forte are all younger than Peterson. They all have fewer carries. They all have more value over the past three seasons, and they've all had a top-five fantasy season more recently than Peterson. Why on earth would you draft Peterson before any of them? Memory of what he was as a young player?

Could the Year Off Help?

I've been curious for a long time about whether running backs might benefit from taking a year off. John Riggins and Ricky Williams are both high-profile RBs who missed a season for non-injury reasons, and both returned to play very well. Running backs have the shortest average careers of any position, and they tend to peak earliest. It's a brutal job, and it's intuitive that players might benefit in the long run from giving their bodies a break. Riggins and especially Williams returned to different situations than Peterson, but both had their best seasons several years after returning to the NFL, not immediately. I'm curious to see how Peterson produces in 2015, but not curious enough to bank a top-five pick on it.

I would not use a top-five fantasy pick on Peterson this year. I'd rather draft any of the other consensus-top-five RBs, plus I'd rather take Matt Forte or Jeremy Hill, and depending on the league, I would probably prefer a top wide receiver like Antonio Brown or Dez Bryant. Drafting Peterson is betting on the past, believing that the year off will do him good. I understand why fantasy owners aren't enthusiastic about Bell, Charles, Lacy, and Lynch, but that lack of enthusiasm shouldn't push anyone towards Peterson, who will turn 31 a month after the Super Bowl.

Le'Veon Bell

Bell would be the top overall pick in most leagues, except that he's suspended for Weeks 1 and 2. Bell is also listed among the highest injury risks by Sports Injury Predictor, with an 88% injury probability. It's hard to feel confident about spending a top-five pick on a player whom you know will miss two games, and who is likely to miss more with injuries. To make matters worse, Bell doesn't have an appealing handcuff whom you can use in his absence.

DeAngelo Williams is Bell's backup, and he should see the bulk of the work in Bell's absence. But Williams is 32. He hasn't had a 1,000-yard rushing season since 2009, and his rushing average has declined steadily since his peak in 2008: 5.5, 5.2, 4.1, 5.4, 4.3, 4.2, 3.5. Last year, Williams was Carolina's least efficient running back:

Fullback Mike Tolbert's average was even lower than Williams', but the point is that Williams' declining average is not a function of the team; Stewart and Whittaker averaged a full yard per carry higher than Williams. His effectiveness declined because he has become less effective. Furthermore, in the two weeks you know Bell won't be available, Pittsburgh has unappealing matchups, at New England and home against San Francisco. There are better options available, especially in small leagues where your RB3 should be pretty good.

Williams' Yahoo! ADP is 119.5. Consider these alternatives, available around the same time, instead:

Doug Martin, TB, ADP 98
Giovani Bernard, CIN, ADP 103
Alfred Blue, HOU, ADP 115
Devonta Freeman, ATL, ADP 124
Bishop Sankey, TEN, ADP 124.5
Benny Cunningham, STL, ADP 1,000,000

Martin hasn't played well since 2012, but he begins the year as Tampa's starter, with matchups against the Titans and Saints, neither of whom is likely to field a strong defense this season. Bernard is a backup, but he'll see playing time on third down, and he'll likely get extra work in blowouts. His Week 1 matchup against Oakland is appealing, and he has huge upside if Jeremy Hill gets hurt.

Blue is an obvious fill-in for the first two weeks, since he'll start while Arian Foster recovers from injury. The matchups aren't great (Chiefs, at Panthers), but Blue is probably still an upgrade over Williams. Atlanta's backfield situation remains unsettled, but Freeman and/or Tevin Coleman could get a lot of work in a Week 1 matchup against the fast-paced Eagles. Week 2 brings a matchup against a Giants defense that doesn't project to be very good. Sankey is poised to lead the Titans in carries, especially while David Cobb recovers from a calf injury, and he has appealing early-season matchups against the Buccaneers and Browns. Cunningham could be the Rams' starting RB while Todd Gurley and Tre Mason recover from injuries.

None of those players will produce like Bell, but for the price of a late-round draft pick, they should keep you above water while you wait for Le'Veon's suspension to end. That's assuming you don't already have an RB3 who can start for a couple of games. If you want to gamble on a top-five pick, I'd feel much better about rolling the dice with Bell than Peterson.

Running Back

After the top four RBs — for the reasons explained above, I don't believe Adrian Peterson belongs in the same group — my favorites are Matt Forte and Jeremy Hill. Over the last three seasons, Forte is the top-scoring running back in PPR leagues. That's number one. In many leagues, he's not drafted until the second round, after players like Peterson and DeMarco Murray. Fine, Forte won't catch 100 passes this year. He's got a new coaching staff and a new offensive system. But at his current ADP, you're not drafting him to be the top-scoring RB in fantasy — even though that fits his recent history — you're drafting him to be the RB5 or 6 or 7, or even 8. Does C.J. Anderson or Murray offer the same degree of confidence as Forte? I don't see it.

I drafted Murray last year, and traded him halfway through the season due to injury concerns (for Drew Brees and Randall Cobb, if that matters). Murray made it through the season, but here's a guy who had 392 rushes and 57 receptions in the regular season, plus 44 attempts and 4 catches in the postseason. The year-after record on guys with that kind of workload is very discouraging. He's also left a team with the best offensive line in the NFL, and new coach Chip Kelly has expressed interest in easing Murray's workload to keep him healthy. If you use the 6th pick in your draft on this cat, you deserve what you get.

There aren't a lot of RBs I like as sleepers this year, but in smaller leagues, Forte is a realistic RB2. I also like Lamar Miller a lot at his current ADP. I like Browns rookie Duke Johnson, but three-headed backfields are not a recipe for fantasy success, and I worry about whether he can stay healthy. My favorite rookie back in fantasy is San Diego's Melvin Gordon. I don't trust Todd Gurley to stay in the lineup right now, and I believe the Chargers will field a more productive offense than the Rams.


In smaller leagues, I don't like drafting handcuffs. A handcuff is someone you hope won't contribute to your team, and it feels like a waste to use your picks that way. I'd rather [1] hope my guy stays healthy, and [2] be prepared to blow half my FAAB budget if he doesn't. When I do want a handcuff is for a large league, especially if one of my top picks is injury-prone, and/or free agency works on waivers order rather than FAAB (free agent acquisition budget, typically $100 of fake money).

With that caveat, there are a few handcuffs and backups who interest me in the later rounds of the draft. I've already discussed DeAngelo Williams and Alfred Blue; I'm not especially interested in them except in deep leagues or in combination with Le'Veon Bell. Among the other top-drafted RBs (Charles, Lacy, Lynch, Peterson), I like Knile Davis, James Starks, and Jerick McKinnon. Davis and Starks are the clear, no-questions backups, both in line for plenty of work if the starter gets injured, and both have played well in the past. McKinnon's primacy is less clear, but he's a tremendous athlete and he could be a valuable asset if something goes wrong for Peterson.

I wouldn't draft a handcuff for Lynch. First of all, he's a far more reliable draft pick than Charles, Lacy, or Peterson, all of whom present injury risks. Sports Injury Predictor rates Lynch as the safest, least injury-prone RB in football (5% injury risk). Beyond that, it's not clear whether Christine Michael or Robert Turbin would replace Lynch if something did happen, and a committee is not out of the question.

Giovani Bernard is an appealing handcuff for Jeremy Hill: he's a young, talented player on a good offense, and he projects to have some value as a third-down back even if Hill stays healthy. But Bernard's ADP is prohibitive, and as much as I like him, you probably shouldn't draft a handcuff in the 8th round. The other handcuff who interests me is Denver's Ronnie Hillman. Any starter for the Broncos should offer some value to owners, and Hillman's strong preseason appears to have earned him some playing time. C.J. Anderson has a short track record and I wouldn't blame his owners for investing in an insurance policy.

A little lower down the draft, I would love to have an Eagles running back, but I don't trust DeMarco Murray or Ryan Mathews to stay healthy. Mathews has major upside, and I suppose if I'd drafted Murray I'd want to have Mathews, too, but investing draft picks in both those guys just seems like an unconscionable risk to me. Washington's Matt Jones could be a valuable asset if Alfred Morris gets hurt, but I can't imagine you'd spend a draft pick on him. If you play in a really deep league and you're looking for an upside sleeper in the late rounds, consider the Saints' Khiry Robinson. He doesn't project for much playing time right now, but if Mark Ingram disappoints or C.J. Spiller can't stay healthy, Robinson could become a valuable fantasy asset. It's not obvious to me that the inconsistent Ingram and the fragile Spiller are the best RBs on that team.


There are two quarterbacks who clearly stand above the others: Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers. If you can't get one of them, that's okay — please don't use your first-round pick on a quarterback. There are six QBs I like this year: Luck, Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and Russell Wilson. If those six are off the board, don't reach for a Tony Romo or Matt Ryan. The separation in the 7-12 range is not worth two or three rounds' difference. In Yahoo! leagues, Ryan is going four rounds ahead of Matthew Stafford. Cam Newton is going four rounds earlier than Philip Rivers. Why not wait, maybe grab a solid starter and a backup with upside in consecutive rounds toward the end of the draft?

In smaller leagues, Tom Brady is an interesting backup. He won't be available at the beginning of the season, obviously, and his fantasy numbers haven't been exceptional the last couple of seasons, but he's a proven performer and he's always reacted well to adversity. It's been a long time since you could get Brady as the 10th QB in your draft.

For dynasty and keeper leagues, I'm interested in Teddy Bridgewater and Jameis Winston. Bridgewater is the most promising sophomore QB in the NFL, and I prefer Winston to Marcus Mariota. Winston had an up-and-down preseason and apparently is nursing an injury, but he's got more upside and a better receiving corps.

Wide Receiver

There are lots of WR3-quality guys. Lots, without an obvious significant difference among them. Don't reach for backups at this position; you can get guys late who you'll be happy with.

There are five WR1 prospects whom I'm targeting this year: Odell Beckham, Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, Calvin Johnson, and Demaryius Thomas. I know Johnson's stock has slipped a bit, but the only concern there is health. Last season, Megatron continued to produce at elite levels when he was 100%. I view Julio Jones as a greater risk than Johnson. His talent is undeniable, but Sports Injury Predictor rates him an 81% injury risk, compared to 63% for Johnson. Don't get me wrong, 63% is a worrisome figure, but Julio has the scarier injury history.

I like all of the next four WRs on fantasy draft boards: A.J. Green, Randall Cobb, Alshon Jeffery, and T.Y. Hilton. If I got one of those players, I'd be happy. But there are a lot of WRs I'm comfortable with, and I wouldn't reach for someone like Jeffery or Hilton while the top RBs are still available.

Mike Evans, DeAndre Hopkins, Brandin Cooks, and Jordan Matthews all offer some appeal, especially in dynasty and keeper leagues. Hopkins, Cooks, and Matthews are all poised to benefit from the absence of veterans who led their teams last year. Hopkins is the clear top dog in Houston, following the departure of Andre Johnson. Cooks should see a massive increase in targets, since New Orleans no longer has Jimmy Graham or Kenny Stills. And with Jeremy Maclin in Kansas City, Matthews and his rookie teammate Nelson Agholor should see plenty of work.

But if I could fill my Flex, WR3, WR4, and WR5 spots with the likes of DeSean Jackson, Golden Tate, Brandon Marshall, Amari Cooper, Sammy Watkins, Vincent Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jarvis Landry, Steve Smith, Davante Adams, Nelson Agholor, Anquan Boldin, Charles Johnson, and Pierre Garcon, I would have no problem with that. In such a deep field, it doesn't make sense to reach for players at this position if you have other needs.

Tight End

I have never gotten Jimmy Graham in any fantasy league. This year, you can probably draft him in the third round of large leagues, maybe the fourth round of smaller leagues. Once Rob Gronkowski, Graham, Greg Olsen, Travis Kelce, and Martellus Bennett are gone, I'm done thinking about this position until the last couple of rounds, because I think there will be decent guys available late.

Owen Daniels probably won't produce like Julius Thomas did, but he's a proven talent in a good situation. For deep leagues, I'm also interested in
Eric Ebron, Josh Hill, Heath Miller, Tyler Eifert, Richard Rodgers, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and the top two Colts TEs, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. Last year, Fleener and Allen combined for 16 TDs. The Colts value Allen mostly for his blocking, and Fleener is expected to see limited targets on a team with Hilton, Andre Johnson, Donte Moncrief, and Phillip Dorsett. But Fleener has established himself as a valuable receiver in Indianapolis, and Andrew Luck is comfortable throwing to him; they were teammates at Stanford and that connection has continued in the pros. Fleener was the number six TE in fantasty last year, and he's going undrafted in many leagues in 2015.

Heath Miller is a safe pick who should be available in the last round of many leagues, while Ebron, Hill, Rodgers, and ASJ all carry significant upside. The Saints won't use Hill the same way they did Jimmy Graham, but if Hill stays healthy and doesn't catch 8 TDs, I'll eat my shoe. Rodgers is among the receivers whose fantasy stock may benefit from Jordy Nelson's injury.

Defense/Special Teams

My focus here is on FAAB leagues and one-week formats. In either one, you should play the matchups each week — don't draft one or two teams for the whole year. Last year, my friend waited until the last round to draft a defense and still had the best D/ST score in his league; every week, he picked up whichever team was facing Jacksonville.

Within the first few weeks of the season, it will become apparent which offenses you want to match up against. But to begin the season, I'll give you 10 teams with favorable Week 1 matchups, all of whom should be available in the last or second-to-last round of your draft. The number in brackets indicates implied points allowed derived from Week 1 betting lines; I realize that's not the only factor in fantasy scoring, but it's a good starting point.

49ers vs MIN [18.5]
Browns at NYJ [19]
Buccaneers vs TEN [19.5]
Bengals at OAK [20]
Chiefs at HOU [20]
Jets vs CLE [21]
Dolphins at WAS [21]
Panthers at JAC [21]
Titans at TB [22]
Colts at BUF [22.5]

All 10 of those defenses will be likely be available in the last round of small (10 teams or fewer) drafts; a couple of them might sneak into the round before if you play in a larger league or your competitors are stupid. Of those 10, several also have appealing Week 2 matchups:

Browns vs TEN
Dolphins at JAC
Panthers vs HOU
Titans at CLE
Colts vs NYJ

I like the 49ers, Browns, Bengals, Dolphins, Panthers, and Colts. If the rest of your league isn't streaming defenses, keeping your D/ST for at least two weeks might help to avoid tipping off the rest of the league about your strategy, and it could decrease some stress about finding a new defense in Week 2. But SF and CIN could be good picks even though you plan to drop them. The Titans have great matchups, but they're so bad, I don't have any faith in them.

If your league allows unlimited add/drops or uses FAAB, draft one defense, at or near the end of the draft, and change it every week or two to find appealing matchups. You don't need a great defense if you consistently face crappy offenses.

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