Last Year's Bums - NFL Style
This is a variation on a theme. We're always looking for an angle to find an underpriced asset in the market - call it a sleeper, or a buy-low, or someone under the radar. One such approach is to find players that performed below expectation last year, but don't have the conditions that caused that player to finish poorly this year. Our friend Gene McCaffrey from WiseGuy Baseball created the term "Last Year's Bums" for this category of a player. He's found that more often than not, a player with an established level of performance that underperforms that level in a given year is likely to bounce back in the subsequent season. While Gene applied that theory to baseball, I think it works in almost any fantasy sport. To that end, I'm hoping to find a class of players to invest in that could bring you good returns based on the cost.
Even though this concept may seem obvious, it works because many of us have a recency bias when it comes to ranking players. What's the first thing you look at when evaluating a player in the offseason? In many cases, your answer is likely going to be last year's stats. But is that always the best guide? So often, the highest fliers come crashing down to earth, and those that were downtrodden rise back up. A player that struggles often works harder to evaluate and correct his struggles, with the help of a motivated coaching staff. A player that dominated all season long in one year may not stay healthy the next, and will face defenses geared specifically to stop him.
This principle works best in the aggregate. Rather than trying to cherry-pick one or two players from this class, you'll find a greater success rate acquiring a handful of them. Doing so is easier to accomplish in an auction league, where purposefully avoiding the expensive players is a viable strategy. Of course, as with any strategy there is a failure rate - sometimes that player that's always fallen just short never really gets there, or another player's injuries are enduring enough that he never fulfills our idea of his potential. But the beauty of investing in such a player is that the cost is low enough that when one such player does fail, it's not devastating to your team.
With all of that in mind, here's a potential portfolio of Last Year's Bums by position, with comments here-and-there as I find the player interesting.
Eli Manning - Manning was 52 yards short of completing his fourth consecutive 4,000-yard season, yet was viewed as a disappointment in many circles, fueled in no small part due to bad games in his tour against the AFC North, plus his and the team's collapse in Weeks 15 and 16. Ahmad Bradshaw is gone, which won't help, but one might argue he was never really there last season. A full offseason working with Reuben Randle could prove profitable, as could the healthy return of Hakeem Nicks and the addition of Brandon Myers at tight end.
Ben Roethlisberger - Losing Heath Miller for at least part of the season hurts, but at least Roethlisberger himself should be healthy. Even in a down year he had 7.3 yards per attempt.
Michael Vick - I wrote about Vick for this year's sleeper article in our magazine. Of course, he still has to beat out Nick Foles for the job.
Philip Rivers - Rivers' targets and offensive line should be a lot healthier this season. Prior to last year, he had four straight seasons of 7.9 YPA.
Alex Smith - Even when he "lost" his job, he averaged 8.0 yards per attempt with the Niners last year, and now he pairs up with Andy Reid.
Jay Cutler - Cutler has a lower ceiling than the other QBs on this list, in no small part due to where he plays. But adding Marc Trestman should help, not hurt Cutler.
Matt Schaub - It's always a question of volume with Schaub. If the Texans' defense struggles as it did in the second half of the season, his attempts could be back higher, and he has more to work with following the addition of DeAndre Hopkins.
Chris Johnson - I confessed to Chris Liss my discomfort in drafting Johnson, but I'm warming up to the notion that he'll be a good value. Even with a number of disastrous games, his YPC were still 4.5. He's only 27 years old, and doesn't have a ton of mileage on him. Shonn Greene will probably poach some of his goal line carries, but he makes up for that in many cases with his home run potential, plus he catches passes. He's healthy now and has done it before - yeah, I've just talked myself into targeting him.
LeSean McCoy - I debated not including McCoy - after all, he's still a first-round pick in most leagues. But he was a top-three pick a year ago and he's healthy again now. The Eagles' new system shouldn't hurt McCoy - if anything, it should create more rushing lanes for him.
Darren McFadden - Because Fred Taylor once was "Fragile Fred" but then became "Durable Fred" later in his career. McFadden is still just 25.
Ryan Mathews - "I can't draft Ryan Mathews - that guy killed me last year." #ThingsSaidEveryYear. That there's a rumor of a committee in San Diego only depresses his price farther; I'd love to get him in the sixth round. Are you really concerned about Ronnie Brown or Danny Woodhead?
DeAngelo Williams - Jonathan Stewart's lingering ankle problems are a double-edged sword. It'll give Williams more playing time early on, but it will also raise his price at the draft table. But he's outrushed Stewart each of the last two years, and of course he's the one of the two that's had a monster season in this league. His injury history, the presence of Cam Newton and his age (30) are risk factors, but I still like the potential bang for the buck.
Jordy Nelson - Of course it's possible that Nelson's injuries from last season will signal that his health issues are chronic. But when he played last year, he still had elite-level YPT numbers (10.2). He'll never be a 140-target guy, but with Aaron Rodgers as his quarterback, another double-digit TD season seems likely.
Dwayne Bowe - It's possible that Bowe will be part of the "that guy killed me last year" crowd, but the primary factors leading to this (crappy QBs, lousy play-calling, and contract unhappiness) have all been addressed. It won't be a huge discount, but there should be some bargain on him nonetheless.
Kenny Britt - Has everyone already given up on Britt yet? For once, he doesn't enter a season with a pre-existing injury. The quarterback situation could be better, but we often see a leap between a QB's second and third season. Britt has three out of four seasons where he's averaged over 10 yards per target - the talent is there. Will the health (and the ability to stay out of trouble) come along?
Michael Floyd - I might be cheating to include Floyd on this list - he's been a trendy sleeper in my circles already. But I agree with those that are targeting him - high draft pedigree, big finish to the season last year, a new head coach and most importantly, a competent quarterback.
Jermichael Finley - It's not often that a team puts an ultimatum on a player to *add* weight, but that's the case with Finley. The drops from last year are a problem, but again, he's in an elite offense that lost one of its primary contributors in Greg Jennings. He's a good bet to regain the lost touchdown receptions from last season.
Dustin Keller - The change of scenery to Miami can only help Keller. The Dolphins' top two receivers, Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline, aren't big red zone guys, and Ryan Tannehill could actually be an upgrade at quarterback. He could be a sneaky good touchdown source for the position.
Marcedes Lewis - Quarterback play could be a problem here, but with Justin Blackmon suspended for the first four games, Lewis should get more red zone targets early on. It was three years ago that he caught 10 touchdown passes, so the ability is there.