Any fantasy analyst who is even kind of competent will tell you it is important to watch the games. You can learn a lot about a player from watching games and hearing what the broadcasters have to say about him. That applies to all sports, but I think it is especially important for fantasy football.
No matter how hard we try, we have not developed any stats that are able to accurately portray a player's performance independent of his teammates. The only way to get a somewhat accurate picture of a player's actual talent and skill is to watch the games.
It is extremely important to get an idea of how good these players are, because of two related factors.
- Player's situations change drastically from year to year, not to mention during the season. And on top of that…
- We are terrible at predicting what situations are good before the season starts.
Remember at this time last year, when everyone thought the Bears were going to be the new Rams, and set the world on fire? How’d that work out for Mitch Trubisky or his weapons? Tarik Cohen and Trey Burton were solid, but Allen Robinson finished 40th in fantasy points among wide receivers, Trubisky ranked 15th among quarterbacks and the Bears finished 20th in Offensive DVOA. I would rather fill my team with players I think are good and hope they wind up in a good situation instead of drafting players I don’t think are good in the hopes that their offenses will drag them to fantasy production. I believe the best way to tell which players are good is by watching them, as opposed to crunching the numbers.
The perfect example of the importance of watching the games versus basing your analysis on the numbers happened in July when it was reported Melvin Gordon would hold out and request a trade if he did not get a contract extension. Nearly immediately, we had people on Twitter asserting that Austin Ekeler was one of the best running backs in the league and that Melvin Gordon isn’t as good as the numbers indicated last year. Those takes are only possible if you did not watch them play, or if you completely ignore the context in which those stats were accumulated.
The second tweet linked above is correct, 2018 was the first year Melvin Gordon had more than 4.0 YPC in his career. It was also the first time in Gordon’s career the Chargers ranked better than 23rd in Adjusted Line Yards according to Football Outsiders. If you want to argue that Gordon is dependent on his offensive line and thus could regress from last season, when the Chargers ranked fifth in Adjusted Line Yards, I could potentially get behind that. But if you watch Gordon’s 2018 touches, which I did for this article, you will see that he is not just a passenger along for the ride.
Gordon reminds me of Matt Forte in that he may not be great at anything, but it looks to me like he is good at everything. Gordon is a patient runner, with the quickness to make a cut as soon as a hole opens up and the acceleration to get through it. While he isn’t going to split out wide and start running routes on the regular, Gordon is a good receiver, and his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield is a part of the offense. He isn’t just catching 50 check-downs like Carlos Hyde did that one season in San Francisco. Gordon is a legit weapon in the passing game.
The worst part about the above take is that unlike a lot of popular backups, we have actually seen Austin Ekeler fail as a feature back when Melvin Gordon was hurt last season. In the three games Ekeler played with Melvin Gordon out, Ekeler averaged 43 yards per game on 13.3 carriers with another four receptions for 25.3 yards per game. Ekeler had one total touchdown in those games.
On tape, Ekeler is fine. He is a small back who is pretty quick, and while he is a good receiver, the overwhelming majority of his work is on swing passes. He is well-suited to his role as Melvin Gordon ’s backup, and it makes sense the Chargers would lean on Ekeler in obvious passing downs. That being said, I didn’t see him put a single play on tape that I thought to myself “Melvin Gordon couldn’t make that play.” And that, boys and girls, is why it pays to watch the games.
I like statistics as much as the next person (more so, probably), but football is not an individual sport like baseball or, to a lesser extent, basketball. It is nearly impossible to draw any sort of conclusion about a players’ future performance based on past statistics. A player’s performance is dependent on play calling, blocking, defense, health, and other factors we probably don’t realize. Look at Todd Gurley . Do we really think he was a bad player in 2016 who just got better in his third season? And if so, where can you find that in the numbers? Isn’t it more likely that his situation has been better the last two seasons, but he’s the same player he’s always been? That’s certainly what it looks like on tape.
I feel like the other running back who is getting knocked down by the people who don’t watch film is Le’Veon Bell. It is widely accepted that Pittsburgh has had a very good offensive line for the last five years or so, and that is cited as one of the main reasons people are sliding him down their draft boards. There is no denying he has benefited from playing behind a good offensive line, but he’s also one of the two best running backs in the NFL. If we all expect Saquon Barkley to excel despite what will probably be a bad offense with a suspect offensive line, why would we expect Le’Veon Bell to be much different?
NFL statistics present an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, it’s truly shocking how many people still rely on yards per carry to evaluate a running back’s performance and predict what he will do the following season. On the other hand, a lot of people have put a lot of time and effort into finding new statistical measures for player performance. Those measures generally have two fatal flaws.
The first problem with most NFL statistics is we are dealing with small sample sizes. Even an entire 16-game season represents a small sample. You wouldn’t make big, sweeping judgments about MLB players 16 games into the MLB season, would you? I hope not. Sure, you can learn some things after 16 games, but it’s hard to know what is real and what isn’t. On April 16, Cody Bellinger led MLB with a .570 wOBA through 18 games. Mike Trout was second, Christian Yelich was fifth and Pete Alonso was ninth. On the other hand, Willson Contreras was fourth, Yasmani Grandal was sixth, Tim Anderson was 8th and Austin Meadows was 10th. Don’t believe an entire NFL season is a small sample? How do you explain Julio Jones scoring just three touchdowns in 2017? Because for all of the hand wringing, we did a year ago, his eight touchdowns and 1,677 receiving yards were more than good enough for anyone who drafted him.
The other problem is you cannot isolate a player’s performance using statistics for football the way you would for baseball or even basketball. The way we know that is that most football stats, even advanced stats, vary wildly from one season to another. JuJu Smith-Schuster ranked sixth in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement in 2017 but fell to 17th in 2018. Did he get worse? Or did his circumstances just change slightly? More importantly, do we expect him to have a similarly strong ranking in 2019, with Antonio Brown no longer beating man or press coverage on the outside and opening up the middle of the field for JuJu? It’s certainly possible, but I doubt it. More to the point, I don’t know of any football stat that can account for JuJu’s changing circumstances and allow us to predict how he will fare in 2019. I do know, from watching his tape, that he had it easy in 2018, and I don’t expect that to be the case this season.
From a practical standpoint, the reason to watch the film, or at least get your fantasy analysis from people who have watched the film, is to gain an advantage over the people who don’t. That way, you can avoid overpaying for Derrick Henry , and you can buy low on Dante Pettis . You can get a better idea of which players could bust out if they’re just given the chance, and which ones will flame out no matter how many chances they are given. That could easily be the difference between winning your fantasy league and missing the playoffs.