timbersfan's WunderBlog

Historic win in Mexico provides mental value for U.S. going forward

By: timbersfan, 12:26 AM GMT on August 31, 2012

MEXICO CITY -- On the night the U.S. made history, goalkeeper Tim Howard walked slowly up the tunnel of the Estadio Azteca, one of the most famous stadiums in sports and a house of horrors for U.S. Soccer from the time it was built more than 40 years ago.
As he moved forward, Howard passed by all the signs that have been posted on the tunnel walls, one per country, showing the all-time records of Mexico against its international opponents.
Howard was headed toward the U.S. bus, but he decided to stop at the sign bearing the Stars and Stripes flag, "Estados Unidos," and a string of misery in the form of U.S. results here over the decades. U.S. kit man Jesse Bignami pulled out his cell phone and snapped a picture of Howard in a triumphant pose next to an artifact that was no longer accurate.
"Time to change the sign," Howard said, wearing a proud smile. "Time to change the sign."
CREDITOR: U.S. player ratings
Until Wednesday, the U.S. had never beaten Mexico in Mexico in 24 games over 75 years going back to 1937. Until Wednesday, the U.S. tally read 23 losses, one tie and zero victories. Until Wednesday, the thought of this U.S. team finally winning in Mexico seemed close to impossible, not least because so many regulars were missing from the quickly assembled squad: Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Jozy Altidore.
And let's be honest: For most of Wednesday's game, it seemed likely that the U.S. would go home on the losing end again. Mexico dominated possession, spent most of its time in the U.S. end and forced the U.S. back line into a near-constant protect-and-defend mode. But the U.S. held firm, absorbing the pressure, with center back Geoff Cameron in particular having a standout game shutting down Mexican star Javier (Chicharito) Hernández.
In just his sixth U.S. appearance, Cameron played like taking on Mexico in the Azteca was no big deal.
"I tried not to think about it much, because the more you think about it the more worried and nervous you get," said Cameron, who just joined Stoke City of the English Premier League from Houston. "I was sweating profusely coming into the game, but I just tried to focus on myself and do the things I know how to do well."
As the second half progressed and the score remained 0-0, Howard thought maybe, just maybe, the U.S. could hold on for a tie.
"I was saying to myself at 75 minutes: If someone wants to stop the game, we'll take it," he said.
WAHL: U.S.' defensive stand, more post-match thoughts
But everything changed in the 80th minute. After a U.S. throw-in, Kyle Beckerman passed to Brek Shea on the left wing. After a breakout year in 2011, Shea had fallen back to earth hard in 2012, so much so that he was a surprise pick to even be on this U.S. squad. When he's on his game, though, Shea runs right at defenders like a Texas-bred running back, and that's exactly what he did, nutmegging Mexico's Severo Meza, barreling into the box and firing a pass to fellow substitute Terrence Boyd.
Boyd, a supremely confident German-American, surprised the Mexicans with an audacious back heel in the box that found Michael Orozco Fiscal free in space. It's fair to say that Orozco Fiscal had dropped off the U.S. radar even more than Shea had, and it's likely he was selected for this team mainly because he plays in Mexico. Orozco Fiscal had come upfield for the throw-in, and even though he's a defender, he stuck around in the Mexican penalty area.
"Shea took him one-v-one," said Orozco Fiscal, "and I was like, 'I'm gonna stay here and see what happens.'"
His first-time shot beat Mexican goalie Guillermo Ochoa, sparking a raucous U.S. celebration at the corner flag.
Mexico 0, United States 1.
The Mexicans staged a mad scramble to come back. Yet Howard ended those hopes with two remarkable saves on Hernández, including a point-blank header.
"I just tried to get a full hand on it, and it ended up hitting the top of my thumb, which gave it spin," Howard said. "I thought, 'Here we go again.' But we deserved a little bit of luck."
The ball stayed out of the U.S. net.
For years we wondered: What would the scene be like in the Azteca when the U.S. finally won a game here? When the whistle blew, we finally knew. The restless murmurs in the gigantic thunderdome dissipated into an eerie quiet. Some areas of the stadium turned angry, hurling projectiles onto a small U.S. fan section until police had to evacuate the American supporters. But outside the stadium the majority of Mexican fans merely set about going home. The general anger would likely have been higher had it been a World Cup qualifier instead of an exhibition game.
Years from now, though, people won't remember that Mexico had more possession in this game, or that it was "just a friendly." They'll remember one thing: on Aug. 15, 2012, the U.S. beat Mexico on Mexican soil for the first time in 25 tries. There's value in that for coach Jurgen Klinsmann as he tries to build a team that can compete at World Cup 2014, not just when it comes to playing good soccer but also when it comes to having the mentality to win difficult games.
"It's important to us to understand that we can compete with big teams at their stadiums," Klinsmann said. "With Azteca it's like when you play at Wembley in England or the Stade de France or in Berlin. Those are very special locations, and I want the players to appreciate that. I want the players to understand and take it all in, because you never know if you'll get another occasion like that. We told the players: You have nothing to lose here. Give it all you have."
In March, Klinsmann's U.S. men pulled off a 1-0 victory against Italy in Genoa, a historic result in a tough environment. And on Wednesday they did it again in the Azteca. Next year, results willing, the U.S. will return to the Estadio Azteca for a World Cup qualifier, and things will be different as a result of this memorable night -- on the field, in the players' minds and, not least, on a specific piece of printed posterboard in the stadium tunnel.
It's time to change the sign.


Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/gran t_wahl/08/16/usa-mexico-tim-howard/index.html#ixzz 254xMdfLl

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The Designated Player: The Curious Case of Peter Wilt

By: timbersfan, 12:20 AM GMT on August 31, 2012

I like to think that somewhere in deepest Wisconsin there’s an equivalent of the Bat Signal, but bearing the logo of the defunct Miami Fusion. It’s linked by Bluetooth to the Big Soccer message boards, and now and again, in cases of dire emergency, enough frenzied postings from MLS fans will send its beam arching into the sky while a siren made of old Ray Hudson samples yells ‘Peeeeeeetaaaaaaaa!” into the night …

Peter Wilt is a curio within the world of MLS. To a certain vintage of fans, he’s an iconic figure who stands for a perceived Golden Age of club-fan relationships — setting a romantic standard that subsequent generations of execs can only fall short of as the game grows. As former general manager and president of the Chicago Fire, Wilt helped usher the first MLS expansion team into the league, to great success on and off the field. He was at the forefront of, if not a downright pioneer of, many of the tropes we now associate with MLS 2.0, from dedicated stadia to supporters' sections — and even a prototypical version of the designated player, in signing Hristo Stoichkov before such a thing as a designated player existed. Yet despite the fan clamor for him that always arises when a senior management position opens up in MLS, Wilt hasn’t held a senior MLS position since being forced out of the Fire in 2005.

When I spoke to the man himself last week, he ruefully acknowledged that in terms of getting back to a position of genuine power, he may be popular in all the wrong places:

"You go on the message boards, it’s almost humorous. Whenever a team’s general manager or president is let go, or things get really contentious between the fans and a team’s leadership, my name often comes up. This is hyperbole, but I mentioned to my wife the other day that, if it was up to the fans, I could likely be running 19 different MLS teams."

It is hyperbole, but not by a huge stretch. Just a few weeks ago, when former NBA exec Chris Heck failed out of the New York Red Bulls, it took about five minutes before fans on the main New York message board were calling for Wilt as a replacement — more in hope than expectation, it should be said. The Red Bulls, as emblems of a top-down global lifestyle brand, are probably anathema to Wilt’s very particular philosophy — one that’s built on local context and a sense of shared ownership and transparent communication with the fans.

Perhaps to the alarm of would-be corporate employers, Wilt’s style is all about transparent communication. Within hours of that first "get Wilt hired" post going up in New York, the man himself had not only been alerted to the existence of the thread, but was contributing to it: defending his record, answering questions, and linking to articles he had written on how to run a front office, how to create a sense of tribalism, and how to build a team that people will connect with. For anyone else, it would have been a remarkable and probably ill-advised move — and as the thread unfolded and Wilt persisted, some posters were indeed questioning how advisable it was for a would-be senior exec to apparently be touting himself to the groundlings — but Wilt has always done this. Even as president of the Fire, he would routinely appear on message boards, or at fan forums, to argue or explain a point of team policy, or just exchange views, as part of a personal credo of transparency that dated back to his own childhood encounter with an earlier Chicago sports figure.

"My personal hero, as a kid growing up — and in some ways my mentor — was Bill Veeck, the owner of the Chicago White Sox. His engagement with the fans was my inspiration to do the same thing. I wrote him a "nastygram" when I was in school, complaining about the White Sox hiring a former Cub as a manager, and I expected it to go in the garbage can. I was just being a kid writing out of spite and I never expected a response, and then he wrote me back … and I wrote him back … and he wrote me back. And it inspired me. I made a mental note that if I would ever be in a position to address fans’ concerns, I wouldn’t ignore it — I would write back to them in whatever was the medium of the day. And it was really because of Bill Veeck."

As the story suggests, Wilt wasn’t originally a soccer fan. Casting around after college for a career, he’d abandoned an early desire to be a sportswriter in favor of the more lucrative PR and business side of sport, but soccer hadn’t been on the radar till a chance encounter with the game. As it turned out, Wilt’s first pro soccer game was an epic and infamous 6-5 Chicago Sting victory over the New York Cosmos, in the Sting’s 1981 NASL Championship season. It’s an iconic game for Chicago soccer fans — a then-record crowd of 30,501 showed up at Wrigley Field (though rather like the Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, if you added up all the people in the city who later claimed to have been there, you could multiply that figure several times over). Wilt was hooked, and via stints at the indoor Milwaukee Wave team, then the pre-MLS A-League side Minnesota Thunder, found himself interviewing for the mooted Chicago MLS side in summer 1997. In a neat piece of symmetry, the recommendation to future Chicago Fire owner Phil Anschutz came from original Chicago Sting owner Lee Stern.

Wilt would stay with the Fire for eight years, during which time the team would win an MLS Cup and Open Cup double in their 1998 expansion year, plus two more U.S. Open Cups in 2000 and 2003 and the Supporters Shield in 2003. They would also finish as runners-up in MLS Cup in 2000 and 2003, as well as U.S. Open Cup runners up in 2004. This was a successful team. Perhaps the greater success, though, was the foundations laid off the field in building the side’s identity. As Tom Dunmore, Wilt’s co-host on the Pitch Invasion podcast, as well as the editor of the new soccer magazine XI Quarterly, and a former chairman of the Section 8 supporters group, points out, "Most importantly, it was a team that won. Nothing means more to fans than this … But equally important in the long-run for the club, the team's identity had been shaped to have meaning and a lasting impact in Chicagoland." This meant everything from the team logo to that fabled transparency about all aspects of the club’s culture.

Wilt again: "We created a real sense of tribalism within the front office, the players, the staff, where we all felt we were making an important contribution to the outcome of the team on and off the field and creating a sense of ownership. And that translated to the fans … The line in Chicago is 'Tradition. Honor. Passion.' And certainly because of what we did on the field, but also because of the honorable relationship with the community, and nurturing a young supporters organization, we were able to create that sense of tradition and passion in very short order.”

Wilt enjoyed a great deal of autonomy for many of his years in Chicago. The Fire were part of Phil Anschutz’s Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) and he served as founding Chairman of their Soccer Management Council from 1999-2001, during a period when AEG owned the L.A., San Jose, Colorado, and Chicago teams. Wilt worked for several different bosses in his time at the club, without apparent difficulty, until the arrival of Shawn Hunter as head of Anschutz Soccer in 2005. Hunter and Wilt “never hit it off” and not for the first or the last time, New York would figure into his fate.

By 2005, AEG owned the MetroStars (the side that would eventually be bought and rebranded by Red Bull), and Bob Bradley, Chicago’s first and to-date most successful head coach, had already left for New York. But with the Chicago team themselves preparing to move to a new dedicated stadium at Toyota Park, in a $100 million deal significantly brokered by Wilt, the president unexpectedly found himself forced out by another New York connection — as Hunter favorite and MetroStars executive John Guppy took over, first as president, then as general manager. Having been AEG’s point person throughout the selection and building process and having overseen the ground-breaking on the only 100 percent publicly financed stadium in MLS, Wilt was on his way out less than four months later, in favor of a man from a larger media market, deemed to be more capable of monetizing the new home.

The move was greeted with dismay by many Chicago fans, particularly the hard-core of Section 8 — the supporters group that had been named for the dedicated standing area at Soldier Field, established by Wilt with original supporters group Barn Burners 1871. At the next home game after Wilt’s replacement was announced, Section 8 supporters wore black, waited until eight minutes after the game had started before taking their seats, and draped the entire section in black fabric, in a show of solidarity with Wilt. When I ask current Section 8 communication director Dan Martin about the vehemence of the reaction, he says, “The vast majority of all Fire fans, not just one supporters section, was one of total shock. He was just incredibly well-respected — he was like an open source club director. He’d talk to people on Big Soccer all the time. I’ve since looked into it and the longest threads on the Chicago Fire boards were Peter Wilt–related — because he was on them answering questions."

Given his popularity at the time, it must have seemed that Chicago fans’ loss would immediately have been another MLS team’s gain, but instead Wilt found himself on the outside of the league looking in for the next seven years — a development he refuses to be bitter about, even as he speaks of a desire to have another shot. He’s worked continuously since leaving the Fire and is currently fund-raising for two start-up sides in two different markets, working with an investor on bringing an expansion team into the re-vamped NASL and “in discussions” with one MLS team (not New York) about helping on a consultant basis, as well as contributing to the Pitch Invasion blog and podcast and working on a book on his 25 years in the game. But he would like another chance at the top league and emphatically refutes any inference that his time has passed, or that his template for success is a purely parochial, non-transferable one (and short of an unlikely blackballing, that seems to be the prevailing explanation as to why he hasn’t returned elsewhere).

As it is, Wilt has watched any number of modish management ideas and MBA (and indeed NBA) sales gurus subsequently fail to replicate anything like his success, without getting another chance himself. As we’re speaking, because of one such high-profile failure, I ask him what he thinks the problem is with New York. He’s swift to offer the caveat that his perspective is an outsider one, but equally swiftly points out that “there has never really been a passionate and broad connection between the team and the community.” He cites the example of New York’s Empire Supporters Club (who were actually founded before the team was) — calling them "passionate and dedicated" — arguably more so than any group of fans in Major League Soccer because of the challenges they’ve faced in their support", but points out that there aren’t enough of them, or that “more concerning has to be the apathy of the general market. You’d rather have the fans be angry with you, than apathetic … Supporters don’t care enough about MLS in that market and the goal should be to get them to care enough to call for the coach’s head or the president’s head if needs be.”

For the New York fans glancing wistfully at Wilt’s résumé, his assessment pretty much tallies with their experience. When I speak to Brent Gamit, an Empire Supporters Club original and sometime chant-leader in their supporters' section, he says, “From his Chicago days he seemed very fan-friendly from the outside and I was a little envious. It’s kind of astounding that Red Bull, or the MetroStars for that matter, didn’t have this kind of philosophy when it came to marketing the team, or even having the personnel in ticketing and marketing. If Peter Wilt, or someone with the same approach could run that part of the team, it might make the difference between having the stadium at 65 percent and 80 percent capacity and that 15 percent could be an extra revenue stream for the team. Since Red Bull Arena was completed, it seemed like it might be the last piece in the jigsaw, but it’s missing that marketing guy, that savvy guy — he [Wilt] may not be the ideal, perfect piece, but honestly I think he’s pretty damn close.”

As another ESC board member, Tim Hall puts it, “You need someone who gets supporter culture. You can’t market an NBA team like an MLS team — they’re two different beasts, especially in this market, which is one of the most competitive in the U.S., if not the world. You look at the purchases of Henry, Cahill — the on-the-field product has been greatly improved, inarguably. But we want more in terms of filling the stadium. It does reflect poorly on us when people tune in to the game on TV and you see the midfield empty and the area behind the goal (the supporters section) full. We as long-term fans can proselytize, but when you see a Wednesday 1 p.m. kick-off in July on the schedule, what incentive do you have?”

That lunchtime kick-off experiment was widely seen as the nadir of Heck’s tenure, for its misreading of both the cultural and physical aspects of the game. Yes, people take half-days for summer baseball games, but not generally for treks to New Jersey for soccer. More significantly, and unforgivably, top flight players run 10–12 km a game, with peaks of intensity for sprinting and making high impact turns and changes of direction. The game in question was one of three games similarly scheduled by Heck that week, and kicked off in 101-degree heat in intense humidity. It was potentially dangerous to players’ health and the senior players’ visible disgust at being asked to play in these conditions was probably the final straw for Heck — he was gone days later. He has been replaced, thus far, by a reallocation of existing staff resources, rather than a like-for-like appointment (which in symbolic acknowledgement of a structural problem, if not yet a long-term solution, may genuinely represent progress for the club).

It’s extremely doubtful such an all-round antagonistic experiment would have been attempted on Wilt’s watch, but of course, without a recent MLS record that’s speculation. And perhaps that’s key to Wilt’s particular folk appeal — there’s no doubt that his absence from MLS, coupled with the Fire’s competitive drop-off after his departure, has helped mythologize his contribution. While fulsome in his praise for Wilt’s achievements at Chicago, Tom Dunmore says, “Time certainly adds to it, and seeing many MLS clubs embrace supporter culture the way the Fire and D.C. United did early on (and let's not forget Peter learned much from the example set in D.C., by the way) has certainly added to his reputation … And yes, I think that does mean he plays a role as a contrast to executives who get it wrong. Fortunately, many more executives in MLS are getting it right these days compared to just five years ago.”

Wilt himself mentions a couple of those executives and owners, such as Robb Heineman at Sporting Kansas City and Merritt Paulson at Portland Timbers. Of the latter’s occasionally abrasive Twitter style he says, “It’s easy to communicate with the fans when things are going well. It’s not so easy when the team are struggling and you’ve had to replace your coach — and Merritt has shown the willingness to communicate in the good and the bad times in Portland.”

Speaking of bad times, why does Wilt himself think he’s so routinely invoked by fans in times of crisis? He laughs when I mention the Bat Signal image, but after some back-and-forth on transparency and respect, he says “I think it’s a quality of common sense — and I don’t know why that phrase exists, because it’s not that common. You’d think it would make logical sense to be transparent and honest with fans, and communicate with them, and too often it’s not … taking decisions that are good for the fans or the team should be a redundancy. In virtually all cases, a decision that’s good for the fans is good for the team.”

And with that, he’s gone. Back to his life in Wisconsin, with one eye on the skies.

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A Hundred Facts: Unabridged

By: timbersfan, 12:23 AM GMT on August 30, 2012

If you see a kid selling lemonade on the side of the street, you stop and buy a glass. No matter what.

Don't buy chocolate milk. Buy milk, buy chocolate mix, make the chocolate milk. How lazy are you? Mixing it is half the fun.

It's thin crust over deep dish, and it's not even close.

The best action movie of all time is "Die Hard."

It's also the best Christmas movie ever.

There is no movie sequel that is better than the original. With one exception. "Superman 2" is a better movie than the original Superman. Kneel before Zod, indeed. Feels like more fantasy teams should be named that.

The best novel ever written is "The Princess Bride," by William Goldman. It's also my favorite movie.

If you enter a public restroom and only one stall is taken, you choose the stall as far away as possible from that stall. You don't choose the one right next to that stall. Or attempt to talk to the person on the other side.

The best live concert is done by Bruce Springsteen.

The best overall concert experience is a Jimmy Buffett show.

The best band you've never heard of is called Suburban Legends. It is a small band from Orange County that I absolutely love. And it's also third wave/ska, which by association makes me seem less of an old man despite my referencing two old men bands above.

Everything you just read above is an opinion. Specifically, it is my opinion. I can't prove any of it -- it's just how I feel. And it's also the last opinion contained in this article.

Every single thing you are about to read, from this point forward, is a fact. A cross-checked, heavily researched, undeniable, can't-argue-with-it, right-there-in-black-and-white, pure, unadulterated fact.

Let's start with a quick game of "blind résumé." Here are two completely true player profiles. Which guy do you want this season?

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Player A: Over the past two years, of running backs with at least 300 carries, no one in the NFL has a higher yards-per-carry average than this player. He's explosive; over that same time frame, only three qualified players have a better big-play percentage than this guy. In a league with so many running backs by committee, he is the unquestioned lead back, averaging 19 touches a game last season. He's a touchdown machine, scoring in over half his games, and his 5.4 yards-per-carry last season was better than the averages of Maurice Jones-Drew, Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster, among many others. Since he came into the league, no running back has a better yards-per-catch average (10.3) and in that time frame. He is a top-10 back in terms of both receptions of more than 25 yards and receiving yards per game. Plus, he lost only one fumble all of last season. Adrian Peterson averaged 16.4 fantasy points per game in the games that he finished last season. Our guy: 16.6.

Player B: He entered the league with a lot of hype, but is it justified? Last year, he didn't get the ball much at the goal line (eight carries inside an opponent's 10-yard line) or anywhere else on the field (24 percent of his team's rushing attempts). Even one of his big calling cards, his pass-catching ability, took a hit, as his receptions and yards per reception (19 catches for 154 yards, 8.1 average) hit career lows in 2011. He seems to have an aversion to the end zone, scoring just five touchdowns last season, and wasn't even a top-30 fantasy running back. After his team hired a new coach, the front office went out and traded for another rusher. Not exactly a vote of confidence.

Which player do you want? You want Player A, right? And you're avoiding Player B, correct? I mean, it should be clear that when you go into your draft, you definitely want to target Player A, Darren McFadden.

And make sure you don't get stuck with Player B ... who is also Darren McFadden.

Yeah.

Again, everything I wrote about McFadden in both instances is, in fact ... factual.

They are also, by design, wildly misleading. Especially since the biggest issue about McFadden -- his health -- is not mentioned in either write-up; misinformation by omission, if you will.

As you prepare for a pre-draft stat bombardment of red zone targets, yards after contact, attempted air yards against five or more rushers, new offensive schemes, rumors of this guy being in the best shape of his life while this other guy is in the doghouse, average draft position and blah-blah-blah, it's vital that you understand just one thing: Remember a few paragraphs ago when I said everything going forward would be a fact, and that the opinion about Suburban Legends was the last one I'd offer in this piece? I lied.

Oh, this is still an article filled with facts. But the part no one tells you is ... facts are opinions. Or, at least, they are used as opinions.

Because I'm not the only one who lied to you. Every single person who does any kind of analysis or is paid to give their opinion does it. The dude in the cube next to you presenting before the board next week? He does it. The teacher you trust to impart wisdom to your kids does it. Every fantasy analyst you read, every political pundit, every pop-culture commentator, everyone who's ever appeared on one of ESPN's many debate style shows, everyone.

They present facts. But they only present some facts. The facts that support whatever OPINION they have. They mislead you. And they do it on purpose. They do it because they have to. It's impossible -- and I mean impossible -- to get a complete statistical overview of a player. Potential value changes with every game, play, personnel grouping and scheme. So to make sense of the chaos, we have to make choices as to which stats we believe are important. Choice is opinion, and that shapes the way the facts are presented. As long as we're doing nothing but the facts here, the truth of the matter is there's very little in this world I'm actually good at. But two things I am fantastic at? Researching statistics and then completely manipulating them to make a point.

I study all the stats, do the research and talk to as many folks as I can, then I choose which stats I want to show/discuss/butcher. If my research shows I should like the guy, I tell you positive stats. If it's the other way, I highlight the negative.

I can talk up or talk down anyone; I just have to choose the right stats for the job. Or rather, I just ask John Parolin of ESPN Stats and Information to get me the right stats for the job, as I did at many different points throughout writing this. John's a statistical stud.

Want me to talk about an injury-risk quarterback who hasn't played all 16 games for two straight seasons and now has to worry about a scaled-back offense (second-fewest pass attempts of his career last year)? Because I just described Aaron Rodgers.

Or perhaps you need me to talk up a promising young quarterback who's on the cusp of being the next big thing, as he averaged 300 yards passing and 19 points a game last season in every full game he played? Because you just bought Chad Henne.

Everyone does it. And those who say they don't? They do it the most. Your job is to figure out who you trust and who you don't and then make your own call. Because that's all any of us are doing: taking small pieces of the big picture and making a call.

Everything that follows is 100 percent accurate. Some are about football players, some are about teams and tendencies. And not one of them tells the whole story.


AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
Your opinion of Cam Newton can be shaped by one of two sets of facts: his statistics from the first half of the season, or the second half. I've presented them here in a way that lets you know what I choose to believe.
1. Over the first eight games of 2011, Cam Newton averaged 299 passing yards per game, fifth best in the NFL.

2. His 8.34 yards per attempt in those games was also fifth best.

3. Over the final eight games, Newton averaged 207 passing yards a game, 18th over that time.

4. Newton's 7.21 yards per attempt over the season's second half was 14th best in the NFL and worse than, among others, Matt Moore's average.

5. Quarterbacks who averaged more passing yards per game than Newton in the second half of the season: John Skelton, Mark Sanchez and Alex Smith.

6. As colleague Christopher Harris would be quick to tell you, since 1991, 21 quarterbacks have rushed for at least six touchdowns in a season, but only one has rushed for at least six touchdowns two years in a row: Tim Tebow (six in 2010 and 2011).

7. The Panthers have DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert on their roster.

8. Peyton Manning has played 111 games indoors.

9. In those games, he has 230 touchdowns (6.2 TD percentage) and 97 interceptions (2.6 INT percentage).

10. Peyton Manning has played 97 games outdoors.

11. In those games, he has 169 touchdowns (4.9 TD percentage) and 101 interceptions (2.9 INT percentage).

12. Assuming he plays all 16 games this season for the Broncos, Peyton Manning will play 15 games outdoors.

13. In his last eight starts last season, Carson Palmer was fifth in passing yards, seventh in completion percentage, ninth in completions, 10th in attempts, fourth in yards per attempt, tied for second in passing plays of more than 25 yards and tied for 12th in touchdown passes, and he had Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey on the field at the same time in only five games.

14. Palmer was also tied for eighth in interceptions, and Oakland has a new offensive coordinator and head coach, but still. Palmer is going 21st among QBs in early drafts on ESPN.com.

15. In the two years with Mike Shanahan as head coach, the Redskins have been in the top five in passing attempts each season.

16. If you combined the stats of Donovan McNabb, Rex Grossman and John Beck over the past two years and made them one quarterback, that QB would have averaged 3,843 passing yards and 20 touchdowns.

17. In 41 games at Baylor, Robert Griffin III had 2,254 yards rushing and 33 touchdowns.

18. Understand this for the rest of the season in everything you read, hear and see from me: I am not rational when it comes to Robert Griffin III.

19. This offseason, Bills coach Chan Gailey revealed that Ryan Fitzpatrick played the final nine games with two cracked ribs.

20. Prior to that injury, Fitzpatrick averaged 248 passing yards and two touchdowns for 15 fantasy points a game. He also completed 67.7 percent of his passes.

21. After that injury, he completed 58.2 percent of his passes.

22. Mark Sanchez had 84 overthrows last season, fourth-most in the NFL.

23. Jets wideouts had 18 drops as a group, tied for seventh-fewest in the NFL.

24. Tim Tebow is currently the "backup" quarterback for the Jets.

25. Since 2008, Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked an NFL-worst 168 times.

26. He has been sacked at least 40 times in three of the past four seasons.

[+] Enlarge
AP Photo/Denis Poroy
It must have been a frustrating season for Philip Rivers. His fantasy owners can relate.
27. Over the final five games last season, no quarterback had a higher QBR than … Philip Rivers (94.4 out of a possible 100).

28. Last season, Mike Tolbert and Vincent Jackson had 12 drops in 186 targets.

29. The rest of the Chargers had six drops in 354 targets.

30. Mike Tolbert and Vincent Jackson are no longer with San Diego.

31. Michael Vick missed (under- or overthrown passes) on only 14.8 percent of red zone attempts last season.

32. Among quarterbacks with at least 50 red zone attempts, the only one with a lower miss percentage was Drew Brees (13.7 percent).

33. Only seven of Josh Freeman's 22 interceptions were on under- or overthrown passes (31.8 percent).

34. There were only four quarterbacks last season with a lower percentage of interceptions due to missed throws: Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, Tom Brady and Drew Brees.

35. Before his 172-yard, two-TD game against the last-ranked and injury-riddled Tampa Bay run defense in Week 17, Michael Turner averaged 56 rushing yards -- 3.3 per carry -- over his five previous games.

36. He had single-digit fantasy points in four of his final six games.

37. He scored only once from Week 12 to Week 16.

38. Six of Turner's 11 touchdowns last season came in just three games: Week 4 at Seattle, Week 6 versus Carolina and the aforementioned Week 17 versus Tampa Bay.

39. Turner had only six 100-yard games last season. Half of those were when Julio Jones was out.

40. Since Marvin Lewis took over as Bengals coach in 2003, his lead running backs have averaged 1,124 yards, eight touchdowns and 282 carries a season.

41. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has never had more than 229 carries in a season.

42. He has also never fumbled.

43. Those Bengals averages (1,124 yards and eight scores) combined with no fumbles and assuming no receiving yards would have been worth 160 fantasy points, or 15th among running backs, just 10 points out of the top 10.

44. Among running backs with at least 30 red zone carries last season, only Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster and Marshawn Lynch had a higher yards-per-carry average in the red zone than Green-Ellis (2.72).

45. Only five teams ran the ball in the red zone more than the Bengals last season.

46. Green-Ellis had 11 and 13 touchdowns, respectively, the past two seasons, with all but one coming from the red zone.

47. He is currently going in the sixth round.

48. Over his final three years at Tennessee, new Rams head coach Jeff Fisher's teams had 6,518 rushing yards, fourth best in the NFL.

49. The Titans had 56 rushing touchdowns (second in the NFL), a 4.6-yards-per-carry average (third in the NFL) and 1,413 rushing attempts (eighth in the NFL).

50. Of course, the Titans also had Chris Johnson. but still. What are the Rams going to do, throw it?

51. Steven Jackson is just 29 years old and has missed only two games for the Rams in the past three seasons.

52. From 2006 to 2010, Frank Gore averaged 14 games played and 51 receptions a season.

53. Last season, Gore played all 16 games.

54. He had 17 receptions.

55. Over the past six seasons, Gore has averaged 254 rushes and 45.3 receptions a year.

56. The only player in NFL history to have seven seasons with at least 254 rushes and 45 receptions is LaDainian Tomlinson.

57. Frank Gore is not LaDainian Tomlinson.

58. Brandon Jacobs, LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter are not blocking backs.

59. Over the second half of last season, Donald Brown had 492 rushing yards, 16th in the NFL and more than LeSean McCoy, C.J. Spiller, Frank Gore and Roy Helu had.

60. Last season, the first that both Arian Foster and Ben Tate were healthy, the Texans ran the ball 52.2 percent of the time, second most in the NFL.

61. Through Nov. 15 of last season (the last week Matt Schaub played), the Texans had 292 pass attempts, ninth fewest in the league.

62. Andre Johnson has missed 12 games the past two seasons.

63. Johnson has never had double-digit touchdowns in a season.

64. Jeremy Bates coached quarterbacks for the Broncos in 2007 and 2008.

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65. In 2007 and 2008, with Jay Cutler as his quarterback, Brandon Marshall had 351 total targets, the most in the NFL and 31 more than second-place Larry Fitzgerald.

66. In 2007, Marshall had 102 receptions for 1,325 yards and seven TDs, and in 2008, he had 104 receptions for 1,265 yards and six TDs. They were the two best seasons of his career.

67. Since 2007, Marshall has played with nine different quarterbacks.

68. Marshall hasn't had fewer than 1,000 yards receiving since 2006, when he had 309.

69. His quarterback this season is Jay Cutler. And the Bears' quarterbacks coach is Jeremy Bates.

70. Dwayne Bowe had seven drops and seven interceptions on passes intended for him last season.

71. The 14 combined drops/interceptions were tied for second most in the NFL.

72. Since 2008, there have been 20 receivers with more than 65 targets of at least 21 yards downfield. The only one not to drop a deep ball? Brandon Lloyd (88 targets).

73. Over the past two seasons, with Josh McDaniels as his head coach or primary offensive coordinator, Lloyd was the most targeted receiver on throws deeper than 20 yards downfield, with 73 such targets.

74. Calvin Johnson was second with 64.

75. Lloyd has done this with Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, A.J. Feeley and Kellen Clemens as his quarterbacks.

76. Lloyd's quarterback this year is Tom Brady. And his offensive coordinator is Josh McDaniels.

77. A.J. Green was fourth in the NFL last season with 12 receptions of at least 30 yards.

78. Of Green's 19 end zone targets, he caught only five (26 percent).

79. If his rate went up to, say, just 53 percent of caught end zone balls, Green would have finished with at least 174 fantasy points, seventh most and two more than Roddy White.

80. Roddy White led the NFL last season in third-down receptions for a first down.

81. The second-most third-down catches for a first down? Antonio Brown.

82. More Brown: Starting with his Week 7 breakout game against Arizona (seven catches, 102 yards), he was 12th in the NFL in targets and tied for 17th in receptions, and he had the eighth-most receiving yards.

83. Over that same time frame, Mike Wallace was tied for 40th in targets, tied for 44th in receptions and 32nd in receiving yards.

84. Wallace did have more touchdowns than Brown over that time frame.

85. Four touchdowns to two.

86. Wallace is going, on average, four to five rounds ahead of Brown.

87. Last season, Torrey Smith was targeted at least 30 yards downfield 20 times. He caught just five of those balls, with two touchdowns.

88. Smith dropped only one pass (5 percent of targets, better than Calvin Johnson, Hakeem Nicks and DeSean Jackson).

89. Joe Flacco had 18 overthrows on deep balls.

90. From 2008 to 2010, Flacco averaged just nine overthrows, and he had just six in 2010.

91. The Packers wideout with the best receptions-per-target percentage last year: Randall Cobb.

92. Cobb caught 25 of his 31 targets (80.6 percent) and led Packers receivers with 7.5 yards after the catch.

93. He's currently going outside the top 160.

94. Since 2008, only Drew Brees has thrown more balls and completed more passes to a tight end than Peyton Manning.

95. Manning's 71.8 percent completion rate to tight ends is second among quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts to tight ends.

96. Jacob Tamme, Manning's former teammate in Indianapolis, is now on the Broncos.

97. Among tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham were tied for first in end zone targets last season with 17. Third in the NFL with 15 end zone targets? Brandon Pettigrew.

98. Pettigrew dropped only one pass in the end zone, the same as Gronkowski, Graham and Jermichael Finley.

99. Had Pettigrew had the average completion percentage for a tight end in the end zone, that alone would have made him the eighth-best fantasy tight end last year.

100. Only Jimmy Graham had more games last season with five or more catches than...Tony Gonzalez.

Permalink

The 2012 Draft Day Manifesto

By: timbersfan, 12:22 AM GMT on August 30, 2012

For the record, I bought the big salad, OK?


Whether you have read me for years or for just two sentences, it should come as no shock to you that I am a flawed human being. A list of all my failings and shortcomings would be a whole different 10,000-word article but for now, let's just focus on one area that still has plenty of room left for personal growth.

I am a petty person. Kissing cousins to bitter, my pettiness right now reminds me of "The Big Salad" episode of "Seinfeld." If you've never seen it, George is walking to lunch with his girlfriend when they run into Elaine. She asks George to buy her a "big salad" at the diner. After lunch, George pays for the big salad but the waitress hands the big salad to the girlfriend. Back at Jerry's apartment, the girlfriend then hands Elaine the big salad and Elaine thanks the girlfriend, not George, for the big salad.

George spends the rest of the episode bitter about the fact he didn't get the credit for being the one to buy the big salad. I understand these bitter, petty feelings. Because I was half-right, dammit.

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Actual conversation I had a month ago:

Random guy: Hey, you're Matthew Berry, aren't you?
Me: I am.
Random guy: I took Vick No. 1. Thanks, genius.
Me: You realize we're in the bathroom at a Springsteen show, right?

Given we were both in front of urinals and that the Boss was about to go on, I thought there were at least a couple of issues that were, um, at hand and more pressing than a fantasy football pick from 10 months ago. But no, he wanted to talk. Because the Vick pick, as it happens, did not work out.

I was glad he brought this up, because I had no idea it didn't go the way I expected. Really. I was completely unaware. What happened, exactly?

Don't worry; this isn't about to be some long, whiny piece about the Vick pick. No, I already copped to that one not working out. Instead, this is to be a long, whiny piece about the other big tenet of last year's Manifesto.

It's that other part that is my big salad. I don't mind that I got Vick wrong. Say what you want but the reasoning was sound and if you employed the strategy, you agreed with me that the risk was outweighed by the enormous potential reward.

So the problem isn't that it didn't work out -- it's not my first blown call and won't be my last -- it's that it is the only thing folks remember. The thing that, 10 months later in a bathroom in New Jersey, less than 20 minutes from Badlands, mind you, is the first thing out of a random dude's mouth.

No one -- and I mean no one -- remembers the other part, which was not nearly as flashy but proved very true: that you need a stud quarterback last year above all else. That quarterbacks and tight ends had a much better chance of returning draft day value than running backs and wide receivers. My fundamental roster-building theory last year ended up totally correct. Get a stud quarterback and tight end, and then draft a ton of running backs and wide receivers in the middle rounds, knowing that some of them will pop. And as 2011 turned into the Year of the Quarterback it worked like a charm.

I just chose the wrong poster boys for it.

So that's the crux of my bitter pettiness. I take the lumps with the bad calls, it's part of the gig, but I'd be lying (and not human) if I said I didn't want a little love when it does work out. Especially when I know I will see tons of articles this preseason all about how you have to draft a quarterback early and why there are a bunch of quarterbacks in the first round. About how it's all about the consistency of quarterbacks and tight ends and to be aware of the unpredictability of running backs. And they'll all be right. A year later. Sigh.

OK, thanks for bearing with me. That was then. This is now. Let's see if we can't keep you one step ahead of the competition again this season. So without further ado, welcome to the 14th annual heart-stopping, Bruce-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, QB-taking, winner-making DRAFT. DAY. MANIFESTO!

They say winning starts on draft day, but they lie. Winning starts way before, when you are prepping for draft day. So let's get you ready. We're gonna be here for a while, so sit back, put your feet up and start with one basic understanding. Underline it, read it aloud and make it your Facebook status update: At its fundamental level, fantasy football is all about minimizing risk and giving yourself the best odds to win.

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AP Photo / Marco Ugarte
Just like a butterfly flapping its wings in Kansas can have far-reaching meteoroligical effects, every draft pick you make will affect every other pick you make, the ultimate results of which won't be known until the end of the season. Deep.
Everything leads back to that.

Everything.

I wrote it last year and I'm gonna keep writing it until it's not true. It's that important. So let me repeat it.

At its fundamental level, fantasy football is all about minimizing risk and giving yourself the best odds to win.

Period.

Remember that simple rule for this entire season. Before you make any decision -- whom to draft, trade, start and sit -- make sure you are following that basic principle: How risky is this move, and does it give me the best chance to win?

No one saw Cam Newton, as a rookie with a short training camp, having the greatest fantasy season ever for a rookie QB. No one thought Darren Sproles would have just five fewer fantasy points than consensus top-two pick Adrian Peterson. That Victor Cruz would outscore anyone else in the New York Giants' receiving corps. And Larry Fitzgerald. And Roddy White. That Laurent Robinson and Nate Washington would finish with more fantasy points than Greg Jennings or Dez Bryant. That Rob Gronkowski would have more touchdowns than top-10-drafted tight ends Jason Witten, Vernon Davis, Dallas Clark and Owen Daniels combined.

I can't predict the future. Don't claim to. Neither can you or anyone else. So don't try to.

All we can do is put ourselves in the best possible position to win then hope for the best. There are going to be things that surprise you along the way. Like, did you know that butterflies taste with their feet? That's what we're all about at TMR HQ: Info-tainment!

But don't get distracted by cocktail party trivia (A snail can sleep for three years!) as I want all of us to focus on one thing and one thing only: Everything we do from this point forward -- from draft day to the end of the season -- is entirely about putting ourselves in the best position for success. More specifically, giving ourselves the best odds to win every single week. That simple.

While we hear talk about total points and overall season performance, the truth is that fantasy football is a weekly game. Every week we pick up new players, we set our lineup, we try to construct our team to win that week, while keeping an eye on the rest of the season and the playoffs.

The difference between trying to win every week and trying to win every season is the difference between Steve Smith's and Roddy White's seasons. Smith scored 176 points. White scored 173 points. Both played 16 games, so essentially, Steve Smith was 0.18 points better than Roddy White every week, right? Wrong. In fact, White outscored Smith in 8 of the 15 weeks in which they both played. So which one actually had the better season?

Info-tainment! Sidebar
As a kid, I loved those "Schoolhouse Rock!" videos. I linked to this last year and am doing it again as a tribute, while adding this obscure piece of TMR Trivia: I once went to a bar in L.A. to see Bob Dorough in concert. Bob, of course, wrote and performed all of the "Schoolhouse Rock!" songs. So yeah, don't wanna brag or anything, but I've actually seen "Conjunction Junction" live.

Because three is a magic number and all, there are three overarching themes we'll discuss in constructing your team; consistency, probability, and the fact that nobody knows anything. By the end, you should have a pretty good idea of how to construct a roster with an eye toward the ultimate goal of winning week to week.

Before we give you that foundation, let's understand the league in its current state.

A word about offense
Quick impression. Who am I?

"Yawwwn. Whateves, dude."

I'm every person in America when Tom Brady passed Dan Marino's 1984 record of 5,084 passing yards. Brady finished with 5,235 yards (276 of which went to Chad Ochocinco!). It was an amazing season for Brady and he bested a mark that Marino had held for almost 30 years.

And no one cared.

Because Drew Brees had already broken the mark (and finished with 5,476 yards) and, in fact, if you count Eli Manning's 4,933 yards as "close enough," there were four different quarterbacks to get to 5,000 yards last year. Four! Entering 2011, only two quarterbacks in NFL history had ever passed for 5,000 yards in a season (Marino, and Brees had also done it once, with 5,069 in 2008).

I know, I hear ya. "Yeah, yeah, Berry. The league is becoming more offensive. We get it." But I don't think you do. It's not more offensive, it's the most offensive it's ever been. Quarterbacks were to the NFL in 2011 what Howard Stern was to the radio in the '80s. The offensive stats from last year are video-game level ridiculous. League-wide passer rating (84.3) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (1.472:1) were both at historic levels, topping the records that were set just the year before.

Got more mind-numbing numbers for you. Games averaged an all-time high of 693.7 total net yards per game, surpassing, once again, last year's record. Not surprisingly, high-flying passing offenses fueled much of that, with an average of 459.4 net passing yards per game, also an all-time high (443.1 in 2010). We had three quarterbacks throw for more than 40 touchdowns. No other season had ever had more than one quarterback throw for 40-plus scores.

Last year, there were 121 individual 300-yard passing games, which was, say it with me class, the most in any NFL season ever. Dude. One hundred and twenty one! That's a lot. There were also a record-setting 18 individual 400-yard passing performances.

More records: 11,356 points were scored and games averaged 44.4 points, the highest average in 46 years.

For those who say that you can't draw conclusions from just one year, I say fair enough. We know to be wary of small or polluted sample sizes when drawing big-picture conclusions. But, as a way of leading to our first big theme, the quarterback position, I offer this little stat, courtesy of Jason Vida of ESPN Stats & Information: There have been five seasons in NFL history when quarterbacks completed at least 60 percent of their passes: 2007 to 2011. As in, the past five seasons. At some point, kids, it stops being random and it starts being a trend.

Not only are QBs completing more passes, they are throwing more in general. Per Vida: Teams dropped back to pass on 59.1 percent of scrimmage plays in 2011. In 2010, it was 58.8 percent. In 2009, it was 57.7 percent. In 2008, it was 57.0 percent. In fact, QBs averaged a combined 7.20 yards per pass attempt in 2011, the highest since 1963.

Personally, I think it's a result of superior talent, advanced coaching and the fact that, if a defender breathes on someone more than 5 yards from the line of scrimmage, they'll throw a flag on it. But whatever the reason, it's a QB league. And you're gonna need a good one. Why? I'm glad you asked.

Quarterbacks
In an ESPN standard 10- team league, not every quarterback is likely to be rostered, so, the thinking goes, you can not only wait on your starting quarterback, but you don't even need to draft a backup since you can always grab one from the waiver wire during a bye week or injury, right? [Editor's Note; the preceeding paragraph was altered on June 25 to better reflect the author's intended advice.]

Well, sort of. You can. But the problem is, so can everyone else.

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Chris Trotman/Getty Images
To this day, nobody has ever regretted drafting Aaron Rodgers. This year, you just have to do it a bit earlier than ever before.
Simply having a good quarterback isn't enough anymore because good is the new mediocre. You need a great quarterback. It's the same phenomenon we discussed in fantasy baseball this preseason; yes, starting pitching is deep, but it's deep across the board. Everyone is going to be able to get good pitching, so if you don't want to end up in the middle of the pack, you've got to have outstanding pitching. It's the same with quarterbacks in fantasy football.

Your best bet at ensuring a weekly edge is at quarterback. Very simply, it's not so much about the fact that they are the highest-scoring players, it's that, as a whole, they are more consistent year to year and week to week than any other position.

In last season's Manifesto, I looked at the top 10 quarterbacks who were drafted on ESPN.com in each of the previous three seasons. Then I looked at the top 10 scoring quarterbacks for each of those three seasons. Let's update the results now to include 2011.

In 2009, seven of the top 10 drafted quarterbacks finished the year as top-10 QBs (Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Matt Schaub and Donovan McNabb).

In 2010, once again, seven of the top 10 drafted quarterbacks finished the year as a top-10 guy (Brees, Rodgers, P. Manning, Brady, Schaub, Rivers and Joe Flacco, who was drafted ninth among quarterbacks and tied for tenth in scoring with Eli Manning).

Last year? Six quarterbacks drafted in the top 10 finished the season as top-10 guys (Rodgers, Brees, Brady, Rivers, Romo, Matt Ryan). And, ahem, Michael Vick finished 11th in QB points despite missing three games. On a per-game basis (he added defensively), Vick averaged 17 fantasy points a game and was a top-10 QB. Anyway, not counting Vick, out of a possible 30 quarterbacks drafted top-10 the past three seasons, 20 finished in the top 10.

Certainly, some players returned more value than others in terms of where they were drafted and what they produced, but at the end of the day, we're talking a 67 percent success rate. And look at the names: Rodgers, Brady, Brees, Rivers and Romo show up on all three lists. Schaub shows up on two of three, as does Peyton Manning, and he missed an entire season.

I did the same exercise for running backs and wide receivers. (We'll address tight ends in a bit) Over the past three years, only 16 of 30 (53 percent) of the running backs drafted in the top 10 at their position finished the season as such. I chose top 10 because those are the guys you are spending the first- and second-round picks on, but fine, you want to expand it to top 20 since we play two running backs? Now we are at 35 of 60, or 58 percent. Better, but still more of a crapshoot than quarterbacks, and with much fewer names showing up on all three lists (it's only Adrian Peterson as far as drafted and finishing in the top 10 all three seasons, and you're not spending a first-rounder on him this year).

For wide receivers, results were a little better, but similarly short of quarterback success rate. For top-10 drafted wideouts, 15 of 30 finished in the top 10. That's 50 percent. And only Roddy White made all three lists. Expanding to the top 20 brings better results. Another 35 of 60 in this case, for 58 percent.

To put this all in perspective: Over the past three years, 42 percent of the running backs and wide receivers who finished in the top 20 at their position were not ranked so in the preseason. Conversely, only 33 percent of quarterbacks drafted outside the top 10 QBs finished as top-10 QBs. And many of them -- guys like Eli last year, Matt Ryan in 2010 and Ben Roethlisberger in 2009 were drafted just outside the top 10 and were not huge surprises. Every year, some quarterback has a surprisingly good season -- Cam last season, Vick in 2010 and Brett Favre in '09 -- but we see running backs and wide receivers come out of the woodwork, so to speak, much more often. (And don't say Stafford was out of nowhere; I was touting him as a sleeper last year as much as I was waving the flag for Vick. Grumble, grumble, big salad, grumble.)

Now let's move to week to week. As I said up top, so much of preseason discussion revolves around yearly totals, but the fact is we don't actually play yearly. This is a weekly game played out over the course of a season, and that's an important distinction.

They say football is a game of inches, and the same thing can be said in fantasy football. With that in mind, I asked the great Mike Polikoff, who oversees our league manager product (Still free! Still free live scoring! Auction capabilities, accessible from any mobile phones, all the bells and whistles, sign up now!) to pull the data on week-by-week points scoring for winning and losing teams last season. In 2011, the average ESPN standard league team scored 89.69 points per week. Sounds right, doesn't it? About 90 points a week. And in any given week, an average winning team scored 101.82 points and an average losing team scored 77.58 points. But again, that's a yearly average. This game is played out week after week. Averages don't tell the whole story.

Lotta numbers coming at you now, so look alive, kid. This is important. It probably won't surprise you to know that when a team scored between 61 and 80 points, they won their games a hair more than one out of every five times (20.35 percent)? Or that teams that scored between 101-120 points lost a hair less than one every five times (19.59 percent)? And it's not shocking that an average team, scoring between 81 and 100 points, was actually a hair better than average, winning 51.23 percent of the time.

So let's do the math. Is it better to build a team with big-time upside and a huge downside? That is, a team that's as likely to score between 61 and 80 points as it is likely to score 101-120 points in a given week? Or it is better to aim for the middle, getting consistent excellence week to week, getting a guaranteed 81-100 points time after time. After all, if you can still win once every five times by scoring fewer than the average, you have to like your chances to win big all the other times, right?

Not so fast, my friend. According to our percentages, that train of thought just doesn't add up. In a 10-team league with a 13-game schedule, if everyone is average and scores the average number of points, then you can reasonably expect five teams to be 7-6 and five teams to be 6-7. The four playoff teams will almost always come from the 7-6 teams, while the 6-7 teams will be left bemoaning that one win that got away. So what is your best chance to get to 7 wins?

Info-tainment! Sidebar
One out of 20 people have an extra rib, which is roughly the same percentage as teams who won while scoring 41-60 points, or lost while scoring 121-140. Coincidence? I certainly hope so.

Winning percentage for a team scoring 81-100 points every week: 51.2. That's 6.65 wins.

Winning percentage for a team scoring 61-80 points in half their games, and 101-120 points in the other half (so an average of 6.5 times each): 50.3. That's 6.54 wins.

Winning percentage of an extreme high-and-low team, scoring 41-60 points in half their games and 121-140 in the other half: 49.8. That's 6.47 wins, which makes you more likely to finish with six wins than seven.

Remember our mantra from the beginning. What's most likely to happen? That is what we are shooting for. Even if the odds of something happening more than something else are slim, they are still more. And we want every edge we can get. We can agree on that, right?

OK, but I can still see your mind churning. Seriously. You lips move when you do it. I know you're thinking that since 13 doesn't divide neatly into two, it's worth taking a chance that you'll score on the high end seven times and the low end six times, and you'll beat the odds, or you end up with an "average" week and you've got a 51.2 percent chance of winning. Really, the only way you lose this game is if you end up "busting" that swing week. Great. How do you avoid doing that?

To find the answer, we turn to Tristan H. Cockcroft's end-of-the-year consistency rankings.

Tristan tracks all sorts of stats. A crazy amount, really. He's an animal. An animal with a spreadsheet. In my next life, I want to come back as a kid who sits next to Tristan all through school. Would totally cheat off him.

Anyway, Tristan has looked at data of every game for five years and came up with certain thresholds based on scoring trends. His definitions: A start is a player whose point total in a given week was worthy of having had him active in an ESPN standard league. A stud was a player whose point total ranks him among the top at his position. A stiff is a player whose point total ranked among the worst at his position, making almost any waiver-wire option a smarter choice.

Tristan Cockcroft's Consistency Rankings Points Benchmarks
QB RB WR TE K D/ST
Start 15 8 8 6 9 10
Stud 20 17 15 12 13 18
Stiff 8 4 4 3 4 2
Now, let's assume a "boom" week is one in which you get an average performance out of three players and starts from everyone else. In almost any combination, that equals 100-120 points. A "bust" week is one in which you're getting "stiffed" by at least three players. You'll have a hard time getting over 70 points that week. Now, which is more likely to happen, getting studs or getting stiffed?

Among all the players Tristan tracked, there were 575 "stud" performances. And 3,664 stiffs. OK, fine, you say. That number is skewed by the likes of Blaine Gabbert or Kendall Hunter, whom you'd never start if you could help it. So, to be fair, I cut down the list to the top 15 QBs, top 30 running backs, top 30 wide receivers, top 15 tight ends and the top 15 defenses and kickers, in terms of consistency. You figure, any given week, your starting lineup will be made of guys in those thresholds. That leaves us with 407 stud performances and 397 stiffs. We're still splitting hairs here. But guess what happens when we take the quarterbacks out of the equation? Studs 318. Stiffs 368.

I think we're on to something.

Here's a full list of the players who had a stud performance at least eight times last season; which is to say they were studs at least half of the time.

Info-tainment! Sidebar
A rabbit is not able to vomit. Therefore, a rabbit is able to recall how it sat Cam Newton for his first two games of last season, losing both, without incurring the natural reaction.

1. Aaron Rodgers (14 times)
2. Drew Brees (12)
3. Tom Brady (9)
4. Cam Newton (9)
5. LeSean McCoy (9)
6. Arian Foster (9)
7. Calvin Johnson (9)
8. Rob Gronkowski (9)
9. Matthew Stafford (8)
10. Ray Rice (8)
11. Jimmy Graham (8)
That's it. That's the list. Eleven guys. Of the 11, there are three running backs, two tight ends, one wide receiver and five, count 'em, five quarterbacks.

Only 11 guys in the NFL made this list, and almost half of them were quarterbacks. Your best shot at having someone dominate the week for you is from the quarterback position. And the fact that Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy and Ray Rice make this list is one reason why they are among my top picks this year.

"OK, fine," you say. "I get it. I need a good quarterback. But whatevs, dude. There's so many good ones, I can get one later." Maybe. But like I said earlier, a good quarterback is the new mediocre. Check this out as we go back to Tristan's consistency list.

Here are last year's top nine scoring quarterbacks, along with their point totals.

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Nick Laham/Getty Images
Eli Manning ended up with more points last season, but Michael Vick had just as many "stud" performances despite playing in three fewer games. (Big. Salad.)
1. Aaron Rodgers, 385
2. Drew Brees, 380
3. Tom Brady, 352
4. Cam Newton, 333
4. Matthew Stafford, 333
6. Eli Manning, 273
7. Tony Romo, 265
8. Matt Ryan, 260
9. Philip Rivers, 246
OK, now let's look at that list again but add their "stud" weeks. The weeks they had more than 20 fantasy points in ESPN standard scoring.

1. Aaron Rodgers, 385 -- 14 stud games
2. Drew Brees, 380 -- 12 stud games
3. Tom Brady, 352 -- 9 stud games
4. Cam Newton, 333 -- 9 stud games
4. Matthew Stafford, 333 -- 8 stud games
6. Eli Manning, 273 -- 7 stud games
7. Tony Romo, 265 -- 6 stud games
8. Matt Ryan, 260 -- 5 stud games
9. Philip Rivers, 246 -- 3 stud games

Other names worth noting: Vick had seven "stud" games, Ben Roethlisberger had three and Matt Schaub had two.

As good as Eli was last year -- and he was terrific -- he had just half the number of stud games Rodgers did. You look at 385 for Rodgers and 273 for Eli and you're like, "Eh, 102 total points -- that's a lot, but it's not a crazy amount over an entire season. I can live with Eli if I get a stud running back." And if that running back is Foster, Rice, McCoy or Jones-Drew, I agree with you. But anyone else?

Look, in an ideal world, you want your first few picks to carry your team and help you win weeks by themselves, More often than not, the highest scorer on every team is going to be a quarterback and you want your quarterback to be better than your opponents'. If Eli is only half as "studly" as Rodgers, see what happens when you get even deeper, with guys like Matt Ryan.

All this boils down to this: You need a stud quarterback. And this year, the rock-solid list is Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees.

There's other guys I like a lot but who have slight question marks: Can Stafford stay healthy again? Are Cam's rushing touchdowns repeatable? And if not, is the decline in vertical passing over the second half something the Panthers can fix? And I am positive the year after I am all about Vick is the year he's gonna go off, but he still has the injury question, as does Tony Romo and, obviously, Peyton Manning. Plus, Manning has a new team and is playing a full season outdoors for the first time in his career. Peyton's brother Eli, for all his yards last season, has never had more than 31 touchdown passes in a year and has only one season with more than 29 touchdowns. And finally, does the loss of Vincent Jackson and the ongoing health issues for Antonio Gates keep contributing to the interception problem Rivers had last season?

That's your list, and you can probably go 7-6 with any of them. But I really think you want one of the big three, if at all possible, which is why I've got all three in my top 10 this season. And if you don't get one of those three, I think you should hope for a repeat of the magic and draft Stafford, Vick or Cam.

You can hope to have everything break your way with your running backs and wideouts and maybe you find this year's Cam/Vick/Favre (RG3?), but if we are playing the "what's most likely to happen" game and, if you've read this far, that's exactly what we're doing ... your best odds for winning are to pay for a stud quarterback and hope to get lucky with your running backs, not the other way around.

Personally, I'll be taking a quarterback in the first three rounds every chance I get, and usually within the first two. Once I'm set there, I'll feel ready to take a whack at the giant pi�ata that is the running back position.

Running Backs
You know how, on New Year's Eve, people who never leave their house all year suddenly decide to go out, live it up and then, after three wine spritzers, are loaded by 8:30? Well, that's the running back position this year: It gets ugly quick.

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Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US Presswire
As many leagues as Marshawn Lynch won for his owners last season, he could lose by busting as a top-10 running back. And I like Marshawn Lynch.
So many questions. The health status of previously explosive backs like Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles and Rashard Mendenhall are unknowns. Was last year the real deal or just a one-year fluke for Chris Johnson (bad) and Marshawn Lynch (great)? Can Ryan "six games missed in two years" Matthews and Darren "12 games missed in two years" McFadden stay healthy? Will Matt Forte hold out? How much do we believe in DeMarco Murray, coming off a season-ending injury suffered after so few games as a starter? How much does C.J. Spiller cut into Fred Jackson's time? How much does Michael Turner, Steven Jackson and Frank Gore have in the tank? Do we trust a repeat for Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles? Is this finally the year for Shonn Greene or Beanie Wells? Can Trent Richardson overcome the "Clevelandness" of the Browns? And we're not really trusting Mike Shanahan on Roy Helu, are we? Show me a running back not named Arian Foster, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy or Maurice Jones-Drew, and I'll show you flaws and uncertainty. Which are fine ... in the middle rounds. But not in the first and second.

Remember that stat from earlier? Over the past three years, 42 percent of players who finished as top-20 fantasy running backs were not drafted as such.

Many years ago, my friend Joe Bryant created a system called Value Based Drafting (or VBD for short). It was, and remains, a groundbreaking piece of draft strategy that has been written about extensively. In essence, the idea of VBD drafting is that, as Joe wrote: "The value of a player is determined not by the number of points he scores, but by how much he outscores his peers at a particular position."

Applying it to an ESPN standard 10-team league, the idea is not how good Aaron Rodgers is, but how much better Rodgers is than, say, the 15th-best quarterback, a guy you can get off the waiver wire? (The answer last year was 190 points). You then take that 190 points and compare it to every other player. How does Rodgers at quarterback compare to, say, Maurice Jones-Drew compared to a running back you can get off the waiver wire? (last year, MJD was 165 points better than a replacement level RB). So, if faced with Rodgers or Jones-Drew staring at you on draft day, VBD tells you to take Rodgers.

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The dot that appears over the letter "i" is called a tittle. Hehehe. I said "tittle."

VBD makes a lot of sense, and many people I respect swear by it. Here's my issue with it: For VBD to work, the projections have to be correct. According to VBD, Chris Johnson should have been your No. 3 overall pick last year. How'd that work out for you?

Now, accurate projections (or lack thereof) is a flaw with any ranking system, of course. Johnson was as high -- or higher -- in many non-VBD ranking lists as well. So I'm not trying to beat it up, but there's a reason I am not a slave to it the way I see some folks are. It's a tool that helps, especially with position scarcity and valuation, both important factors on draft day. But it's not the be-all and end-all, especially because it also deals in season-long stats. This guy is 120 points better than that guy over the course of the season, etc, etc. But again, we don't play season-long. We play week to week over the course of the season.

So if the issue with VBD and other ranking systems is flawed projections -- we know things are not going to happen exactly as we expect -- then what are we to do?

The answer is really simple. Give ourselves as many chances at getting it right as possible. And those chances are going to come at the running back position.

In baseball, one of my big slogans for years in mixed leagues has always been "Don't pay for saves." The reasoning is that there is a lot of turnover at that position, for a variety of reasons, and that saves always come into fantasy leagues via the waiver wire or by sleepers panning out. In the new pass-heavy NFL, I feel the same way about running backs.

Remember the stat I quoted about running backs when comparing them to quarterbacks as far as consistency: Over the past three years, 42 percent of running backs who have finished in the top 20 of fantasy point-getters at that position were not drafted among the first 20 running backs.

It probably seems elementary to some of you, but I continue to see way too much emphasis on running backs early in the draft in mocks that I have done. All right, so we know there will be guys at the end of the year who will wind up in the top 20 that weren't drafted, but again, we play this game weekly.

So just for kicks, here's a list of running backs who had weeks as top-20 backs and were drafted outside the top 20 last season, with the number of said top-20 weeks in parentheses.

Marshawn Lynch (10), Darren Sproles (10), Reggie Bush (9), Fred Jackson (9), Michael Bush (9),Willis McGahee (8), Beanie Wells (7), Ben Tate (7), Shonn Greene (6), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (6), Pierre Thomas (6), DeMarco Murray (5), Roy Helu (5), Toby Gerhart (5), Mike Tolbert (5), Cedric Benson (5), Mark Ingram (5), C.J. Spiller (4), Felix Jones (4), James Starks (4), Jahvid Best (4), Brandon Jacobs (4), Marion Barber (4), Donald Brown (4), Kevin Smith (4), Dexter McCluster (3), LaDainian Tomlinson (3), Maurice Morris (3), Khalil Bell (2), Tim Hightower (2), Daniel Thomas (2), Ryan Grant (2), Evan Royster (2), Kendall Hunter (2), Jackie Battle (2), Lance Ball (2), LaRod Stephens-Howling (2), Isaac Redman (2), Chris Ogbonnaya (2).

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Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
... Actually, in the edition of this column that I'm emailing to friends who play against me in leagues, I am totally advocating a draft strategy centered on acquiring guys like Maurice Morris and Chris Ogbonnaya.
Crazy, right? Thirty-nine different running backs last year had multiple weeks in the top 20. Am I advocating a draft strategy centered on acquiring guys like Maurice Morris and Chris Ogbonnaya? Of course not. But the point is, between my experience, research and Tristan Cockcroft's consistency rankings, I can tell you top-20 running back production comes into the league more than any other position. And that, by having a rock-solid quarterback that you don't need to back up, you can use even more of your bench to stockpile running backs. Backs that you drafted and backs that you pick up during the season can give you, week in and week out, based on matchup and playing time that week, multiple top-20 options. It won't always be the same guys, but that's OK. You've got lots to choose from, and as long as you win that week, you've accomplished your goal.

Just to drive this point into the ground, I want to go back to Tristan's consistency ranks one more time. Remember the stat he calls "stiff"? This is the number of times a player's point total for the week ranked among the worst at his position, making almost any waiver wire add a better option that week. For running backs, that's four points or fewer, and you have to have played, so it's a true measure of how many times you were let down by the player. So here are the first 20 running backs drafted last season, per average draft position, and the number of games in which they were stiffs in parentheses.

Adrian Peterson (0), Arian Foster (1), Chris Johnson (4), Jamaal Charles (did not finish Week 1), Maurice Jones-Drew (0), Ray Rice (1), LeSean McCoy (1), Rashard Mendenhall (4), Michael Turner (2), Frank Gore (4), Steven Jackson (2), Darren McFadden (1), Peyton Hillis (3), Matt Forte (1), Jonathan Stewart (5), Ahmad Bradshaw (2), Knowshon Moreno (5), LeGarrette Blount (6), DeAngelo Williams (9), Ryan Mathews (1).

Fifty-two times last season. Forget not being a top-20 guy for the week. Fifty-two times, a top-20 running back couldn't manage 50 yards without a fumble. What?!? (I, uh, may have also loved LeGarrette Blount last year. Yeesh. Sorry 'bout that.)

Meanwhile, I won't list them all, but among the top 10 quarterbacks drafted last year? It only happened 11 times, total. For a quarterback, the "stiff" benchmark is eight points or fewer, and no quarterback had more than two "stiff" starts (Rivers, Romo, Ryan, Schaub and Vick all had two each, and Eli had one). And among the elite guys, they combined for zero.

Quarterbacks = consistent. Running backs = not so much.

Some might say, well, because there's so few "sure thing" running backs, shouldn't we grab one of them early? And I say yes. Foster, Rice, McCoy and Jones-Drew are all top-six guys for me. But after that? I'm waiting a few rounds.

I don't know who this year's Fred Jackson, Marshawn Lynch, Darren Sproles, DeMarco Murray and Reggie Bush are going to be. I have some ideas, of course, and you'll read about them in Love/Hate and other things I write this preseason, or hear about them on the podcast or in a video & we'll spend a lot of time trying to figure this out. Because what I do know, for a fact, is that some running backs will pop. In fact, more than some. Close to 40 will be usable at some point during the season.

Do you know how many (at least sometimes) fantasy-useful running backs played all 16 games last year? Here's the list, alphabetically: Donald Brown, Michael Bush, Toby Gerhart, Frank Gore, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Shonn Greene, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, C.J. Spiller, Darren Sproles, Jonathan Stewart, Pierre Thomas, Michael Turner. That's it. Only 14 running backs. And if we pare the list down to those drafted in the first two rounds, the list is now Gore, Johnson, MJD, Rice and Turner. Five guys! That's it. And it's not just last year. You know this. One last time; 42 percent of top 20 running backs at the end of the season the past three years were not drafted among the first 20 running backs taken. And when you expand it to a weekly list -- because we care about who is the top 20 for a given week -- it becomes a much longer list.

And then, you look at the list of useful fantasy quarterbacks who played all 16 games: Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton, Tony Romo, Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, Mark Sanchez, Alex Smith, Joe Flacco, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton. And Aaron Rodgers played 15 games, missing only the very last week, and you knew well in advance. Quarterbacks do not get hurt and/or have nearly as much turnover as running backs. If you get a stud quarterback, chances are you are set for every week but the bye. There's value in that. Because you don't need a backup -- unless you have a guy like Vick who is an injury risk -- I want you to only use one roster spot on a quarterback. You'll also be using only one roster each on a kicker, a defense and a tight end. And the remaining 12 roster slots in an ESPN standard league need to be running backs and wide receivers, which we'll get to in a moment. I personally like a seven-running-backs-to-five-wideouts ratio, but depending on which wideouts you get, I'm OK with just four, as long as you've got some studs.

With seven or eight running backs? You got a pretty good chance of hitting a winning lottery ticket, and that one or two of those mid- and late-round runners you're rostering will be this year's Marshawn Lynch or Fred Jackson (both on last year's "love list" as posters boys for this theory last season, he said, holding his big salad above his head and scaring all the women off).

Wide Receivers
It's crazy deep this year. You basically have three types of players: Your studs (Calvin Johnson, Roddy White, Greg Jennings, Mike Wallace and crew), your new guys that emerged (Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Victor Cruz, Jordy Nelson and the gang), and then your former studs coming off down years due to injury or something else, but who have a pretty good chance to bounce back (Andre Johnson, Miles Austin, DeSean Jackson and friends).

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AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
Ancient chinese wisdom confirms that for every pass that is thrown, there is a potential catch to be made.
It stands to reason that there are so many good receivers; remember all those crazy passing offensive stats we talked about? That would translate to record-breaking receiving stats, too. I'm not the best analyst in the business for nothing, folks.

And just like at other positions, there are players like Calvin Johnson who are a significant cut above. But for the most part, there's a general sameness to the lot of them. Here's a little exercise I like to do this every year. Super simple. Let's look at how many wideouts had at least five 100-yard games last season. Touchdowns are so hard to predict -- I mean, Lance Moore and Eric Decker had more than Hakeem Nicks last season -- so I like to look at yardage. And five 100-yard games aren't that many, right? Once every three games, basically. And in a crazy record-setting season like we just saw, there should be a ton of guys who had a bunch of big games, right? So let's see...Thirty-two teams, three main wideouts on each team, and the answer is ... nine.

Calvin Johnson and Wes Welker had eight, Victor Cruz had seven, Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Smith had six and Brandon Marshall, Jordy Nelson, Julio Jones and Roddy White had five. That's it. That the whole list.

In 2010, also a big offensive season, there were only seven guys. And there's only one guy who was on both lists: Roddy White.

The good thing about the position being so deep is that you know you'll get someone good, even if you wait. The bad thing about it is, it's so deep, everyone else is going to have really good wideouts and there will be a lot of weeks where your guys don't show up.

Back to Tristan's consistency ratings. Every player gets an overall consistency percentage. It's the number of "start" performances divided by scheduled team games. So, in other words, even if a player is injured, it's divided by 16. Which is fair. If a player is hurt, he's not producing for you, and it's another week he hasn't done anything for you.

In Tristan's ratings, a "start"-worthy performance is at least eight fantasy points. Anyway, among wide receivers, guess how many have a start percentage of 75 percent or better? Forget being a stud -- just how many WR were worth starting at least three of every four games last year?

Only one. Calvin Johnson.

Lower it to 68 percent, and we get six more: Welker, Green, Jennings, Nelson, Cruz, Smith and Steve Johnson. Seven guys.

OK, let's lower it to 50 percent. I mean, just half the time, he's worth starting. Not amazing, just eight points or better. How many for fifty percent?

Exactly 20. Fitzgerald, White, Nicks, Wallace, Marshall, Brandon Lloyd, Percy Harvin, Laurent Robinson, Santonio Holmes, Dwayne Bowe, Dez Bryant and Antonio Brown now also make the cut.

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Not all polar bears hibernate; only pregnant females polar bears do. But that still doesn't explain what the heck happened to DeSean Jackson last season.

Just 20, and several, of course, were not drafted as top-20 wide receivers.

You need one stud wideout. I'd be drafting one wide receiver in the first three rounds, but then I'd probably be loading up on running backs (and taking care of my tight end) until the middle rounds. I mean, seriously, it's deep this year, and there's not a ton of differentiation once you get past the really elite guys. I've seen guys like Jeremy Maclin, Steve Johnson, Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Brandon Lloyd fall out of the top 20 in mock drafts.

One last thing to note about wide receivers: While they aren't among the most consistent positions, they are more consistent than running backs in general.

They are not, however, more consistent than ...

Tight Ends
Here's another position at which I picked the wrong poster boy for last year (Gates said he was healthy, and I foolishly believed him), but I had the right idea. After quarterbacks, tight ends are the most consistent performers, from a fantasy perspective.

Over each of the past three years, six of top 10 tight ends drafted have finished as top-10 scorers at the position. Sixty percent isn't a ton, but it is a little better than the return you get on running backs and wide receivers, but not significantly so.

The thing that does it for me, however, is that the same names pop up every year. Unlike the running back or wideout list, there are guys like Antonio Gates and Jason Witten who have been there three years running, and there's lots of guys (Tony Gonzalez, Dallas Clark, Vernon Davis, Kellen Winslow, Chris Cooley, Jermichael Finley) who made two of the three lists.

Use of the tight end, and specifically of the two-tight-end sets, has become more and more en vogue these days in the NFL, as two sets have become in vogue. Once again, here's Jason Vida of ESPN Stats and Information:

Plays with 2-plus tight ends on the field
Season Plays Pct of plays
2011 11,285 35.17
2010 10,564 33.18
2009 10,362 32.68
2008 10,274 33.01
Note: Does not include kneel-downs or spikes to stop the clock
As you can see, the number of plays with at least two tight ends on the field has gone up each of the past three years, jumping two points in 2011 to top 35 percent.

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AP Photo/Matt Slocum
Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez rode the Patriots two-tight-end system to a combined 360 fantasy points, finishing first and third, respectively, in tight end scoring.
But that barely tells the whole story. It's not just the number of tight ends being deployed in the NFL, it's the quality. Let's talk about two of the biggest names in fantasy last season; Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham.

Gronkowski set a single-season tight end record for receiving touchdowns (17) and receiving yards (1,327). Jimmy Graham's 1,310 receiving yards were the second-most ever by a tight end. No tight end had ever had 1,300 receiving yards in a season entering 2011. Also, Gronkowski became the first tight end ever to lead the league outright in touchdown catches.

Many people question whether Gronkowski's touchdowns are repeatable, and the answer is probably no. But he is a matchup nightmare, and he's in a prolific offense that has run more two-tight-end sets than any team in football the past two years, so if anyone has a shot, it's him. But here's the thing: Take away every single touchdown Gronk had last year. Every single one. And he's still the second-highest scoring fantasy tight end. Second to -- you guessed it -- Jimmy Graham.

Every year, I do an article called "100 facts you need to know before you draft." It's basically a cleverly disguised sleeper and bust column, as I use facts and stats to highlight different players that I like or don't. Here are facts 12-14 from the 2011 edition.


12. John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information tells us that, last season, the New Orleans Saints attempted 661 passes, second most in the NFL.

13. He goes on to tell us that 23 percent of the time, the pass was to the tight end, 12th in the league.

14. Jimmy Graham is going in the 12th round.

This season, Jimmy's going to go a lot higher than the 12th round, but considering he had 149 targets last season, the fifth-most in the league, I feel fairly confident in his role in what should still be one of the most prolific offenses in the league, their troubled offseason notwithstanding.

Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham are impossible matchups for defenses, and only Roddy White had more red zone targets (29) than Gronkowski and Graham's 26 each.

Graham and Gronkowski are so much better than anyone else at their position, they are both worth second-round picks. That's gonna be pricey for some folks, but history tells us that tight ends are, in general, more likely to retain draft day value than running backs or wide receivers. Even if you don't get Gronk or Graham, you want to invest in a tight end earlier than later. I will say I really like Jared Cook as a sleeper, but in general this season, I want a stud tight end, and I'm willing to pay for it. Then, just like with quarterback, I don't bother backing him up -- I'll start him every week and take care of the bye week when it arrives -- and the rest of the time? I'm drafting running backs by the half-dozen.

Defense
Wait until the second-to-last round. Seriously.

Every year, people reach for defenses. Every year, they are disappointed.

The top two picks for defenses last year were the Steelers and Packers. They finished 10th and 13th respectively. The top two picks in 2010? The Jets and Ravens, who finished at five and eight among defenses. That sounds OK until you realize the Ravens averaged 7.9 points per game, or just 0.8 points per game more than the No. 11 defense that year, the Titans, who averaged 7.1 points per game. In 2009, the top two defenses picked were the Steelers and Giants, and they finished 16th and 26th that year.

Trust me here. History has shown us that reaching for a fantasy defense blows up in your face more often than not, and on the rare occasions that you get a solid defense, the advantage is negligible over replacement-level defense. You'll do a lot better drafting a seventh running back before you draft your first defense.

Kicker
Info-tainment! Sidebar
A cat's ear has a total of thirty two muscles. Which is exactly the same number of kickers which should still be available at the onset of the final round of your draft.

I'm embarrassed that I have to include this section every year. But did you know that last year's No. 1 drafted kicker, Nate Kaeding, had an average draft position in the 12th round? And if it's an average draft position, that means some people are taking him even earlier, like in the 11th!

Someone has reached for a kicker in pretty much every league I've ever played in.

And before you say, "eh, 12th round, who cares?", here's a list of some other players who went in the 11th through 13th rounds last year: Jimmy Graham, Matthew Stafford, C.J. Spiller, Michael Bush, Julio Jones, Roy Helu and ... Rob Gronkowski.

Kickers are such a crapshoot, you can't even get an edge by drafting guys from high-octane offenses. According to Tristan Cockcroft's consistency rankings, the kickers for last season's No. 1 (Saints), No. 2 (Patriots) and No. 3 (Packers) offenses by yards -- John Kasay, Stephen Gostkowski and Mason Crosby -- were startable between 50 and 57 percent of the time. The same threshold as the kickers for the No. 16 (Redskins) and No. 17 (Titans) offenses, Graham Gano and Rob Bironas.

Listen, I've heard plenty of good arguments for eliminating kickers from fantasy football: too many of them to choose from, they're a total crapshoot. I've never heard a good argument for taking one earlier than the final round. I'm using my last two picks on a defense and a kicker, in that order. There's no statistical reason not to do that.

Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.
1. Get an elite quarterback. Ideally, one of the caliber of Rodgers, Brady or Brees, but definitely one of the top six.

2. Get an elite tight end. Ideally Gronk or Graham, but definitely one of the top five.

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Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
Your job isn't so much to know who this year's Fred Jackson will be, it's to collect as many possible Fred Jacksons as you can. Bushels of Fred. Heaps of him.
3. Your roster should have just one kicker, one defense, one elite tight end, one quarterback (unless you feel like you need Vick insurance, in which case you can grab a nice arm late) and the rest need to be nothing but running backs and wide receivers. We know players will pop, we know they'll likely be running backs and wide receivers -- we just don't know who they'll be, so the idea is to maximize your chances at getting one of those players. Panning for gold, as it were.

4. Your first four picks should include one quarterback, one wide receiver and either Gronk/Graham or two running backs.

5. Your next 10 picks will be the best available running backs and wide receivers, with the only exception being one of the other elite tight ends in the fifth or sixth round if you don't get Graham/Gronk, and potentially a backup quarterback if you wind up with Vick.

6. Your last two picks will be a defense and kicker.

That's my theory. There are tons of others written about elsewhere in this draft kit, and as your draft (or auction) unfolds, you'll have to adjust on the fly. This is why I highly recommend our mock draft lobby (now with eight-, 10- and 12-team leagues) to practice different strategies. There's lots you can do to prepare for draft day, but this year I have cut out a lot of the basic "Fantasy 101" stuff that has been in previous editions. If you're a new reader or simply want a refresher on how I prepare, how to do keeper league inflation or any of the yearly staples of this article, you can check out last year's Manifesto and, um, just skip the whole "take Vick No. 1" thing.

Draft Day: 10 rules to success
OK, it's game day, baby. Time for the big show. Don't bother cramming on the way in or anything stupid like that. It's like a test. You know it or you don't. It's like dropping off your date at the end of the night. If you don't know what you're doing now, the next 10 minutes aren't going to help. You want to project -- even if you don't feel it -- an air of confidence. Make others sweat. That's my first draft day hint.

1. Never show fear. Just be confident. You don't have to be cocky or a jerk, but occasionally sighing a breath of relief when the guy before you picks -- as if to say, "Thank God you didn't grab the correct guy" -- will do wonders to rattle your less-confident leaguemates.

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A monkey was once tried and convicted for smoking a cigarette in South Bend, Indiana. Not all rules may make sense to you, but they should still be followed.
2. Have a plan. Ideally, you'll know which pick you have before the draft, so run through scenarios: What guy are you likely to get, what guy would you hope fall to you and what happens if you have pick No. 9 and there are only eight guys you really like in the first round, and they all go before you pick? I've given you the tools to formulate a plan, but drawing that plan and then following it, adapting as the draft unfolds, that's all on you, and the better prepared you are for each situation, the better you'll do.

3. Practice makes perfect. Yeah, it seems like I am a company shill (and I sort of am), but the fact remains: The more you do something, the better you get at it. My career notwithstanding. As I mentioned above, we have free mock draft and mock auction lobbies open 24/7. Jump in and practice drafting. And try picking from different spots. Try different things. See what happens when you grab a quarterback in the first round. Or a wide receiver. See who you wind up with if you go wide receiver/wide receiver with your first two picks. The more scenarios you face, the less fazed you'll be when something screwy happens in your real draft.

4. If you find yourself getting squeezed out of a position, don't panic. Say you find yourself on the short end of a run on elite tight ends. Instead of reaching for a guy like Vernon Davis (assuming you like him; I don't necessarily), grab the last "elite" quarterback, even if you already have yours. Or grab another wide receiver or running back that you do like. Give yourself something to trade with. Finley, or someone just like him, will still be there a round later, trust me. But by getting a surplus somewhere else rather than just grabbing the best available at a depleted position, you'll be in a position to help yourself later.

5. If you are at one end of a snake draft, grab what you need when you can. Let's say it's your pick and you really want a good wide receiver. You see there are at least eight guys left you could live with. So you grab your third and fourth running backs to start your stockpile. But one good run and you're screwed. It's 18 picks until you get to choose again (in a 10-team league). Don't wait. Grab what you need, get surplus later (unless you're in a situation like I described above).

6. Don't sweat bye weeks. So much can happen during a season in terms of injuries, role changes and what a good or poor matchup is, you're not gonna know what you want to do in a given week until you're setting your lineup that week. So get the best player, period. There's even an argument to made for trying to have every player have the same bye week. Yes, you take it on the chin one week, but you're at full strength every other week and all your opponents are not.

7. By that same token, I never worry about things like if a player is on the same team as another guy I've already rostered. You're trying to get the best possible team, period. If the next-best guy available is the wide receiver for your quarterback, so be it. Don't get cute or overthink it.

8. Please realize that all rankings -- including mine -- are guidelines and not hard-and-fast. They are not designed to be followed religiously. I'll often get a question like, "I have the second pick and I really want Calvin Johnson. Is that too early?" While, yes, I have Megatron in the middle of Round 1, the answer is ... it's your team. Calvin will not be there when you pick in the second round, so if you want him, grab him there, and don't listen to what anyone else says. Of course, this is yet another reason why auctions are better.

9. I like to look at average draft positions so I have a general idea of where guys I am targeting are going. I necessarily recommend reaching, but in the later rounds, when you're looking for upside, if there's someone who makes your heart go pitter-pat, knowing where he normally gets drafted can only help.

Finally ...

10. Have fun! During the 12 years that I've been doing this professionally, I've probably given hundreds of interviews to various newspapers, radio stations, blogs, etc. about fantasy football. I get the usual stuff all the time: How did I get my start? Do I really make a living at it? And seriously, what's with the hair?

But the No. 1 question I have gotten in every interview, without fail, is "why?"

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Robin Marchant/Getty Images
Word on the street is that Heidi Klum just hit the waiver wire ...
Why has it become so popular? Why should people who have never played it try it? Why are people so obsessed with it? Why, why, why?

Because it's fun, I answer.

It's about loving it when your running back vultures a touchdown, getting five field goals from your kicker, being able to call your buddy on Monday morning and just laugh into the phone for five minutes. It's about hilarious team names, cursing your favorite receiver for dropping a touchdown, and deciding that I don't care if it's a boy or a girl -- I'm naming my next kid Marshawn.

Remember, we do this for leisure. We all play to win, but it's not worth ruining friendships over. Well, unless you've really got a shot at the title. And it's not that good a friend. I mean, come on, you can always get a new friend. Or wife.

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Defending my 2012 rankings

By: timbersfan, 12:19 AM GMT on August 30, 2012

It was weird.


It was awesome.

It was uncomfortable.

It was informative.

It was a milestone.

But mostly, it was unlike anything I had ever experienced.

This past weekend, I was at a fantasy football event. I do them every August, these fantasy football talks, in different cities across the country. I'm in Dallas this weekend, for example, for an ESPN Radio event on Sunday after a kickoff party Saturday night at The Owners Box Sports Bar at the Omni Hotel. Come by, say hi.

So yeah, I do them all the time, right? I actually enjoy them. You talk fantasy football, get to meet fellow fantasy players, see different cities. They're always a blast, and they're usually much the same.

Except this one event last week.

Usually, at these things, I talk a bit and then field some questions. But this time I was on a panel. With athletes. Named Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy.

You know, if you bend a little at the knees, you can pick up those names I just dropped. Um, yeah. It was mostly for Eagles fans, obviously, but they wanted a fantasy guy on the panel, and, for whatever reason, they chose me. (I suspect maybe my staunch fantasy support of Vick and McCoy might have had something to do with it.) It was hosted by ESPN Radio Philadelphia's Mike Missanelli, and, after a few questions to Vick and McCoy about the offseason and thoughts on the upcoming Eagles season, Missanelli pulled out my Top 200 rankings and immediately had a question … for Michael Vick.

"Michael, how do you feel about being the No. 6 quarterback on Matthew Berry's list?"

And just like that, every reaction I talked about in the paragraphs above flew through me and continued for the rest of our 45-minute presentation.

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First, it was awesome. I'm sure I'm supposed to be above all that and act cool and everything, but whatever; we both know I'm not cool. I was psyched. When I began in the fantasy sports industry, I never imagined there would be a time when someone who gave fantasy football advice would sit at the same table as current NFL superstars. And be taken seriously. I've interviewed plenty of NFL players, but this was different. We all were getting interviewed. Vick, McCoy and -- gulp -- me. It was very different. Maybe others have had that kind of experience, but for me, it was a milestone moment.

It was also informative. After explaining how the fantasy scoring worked, I asked Vick point-blank which Eagles receiver I wanted this year. Kudos to Vick and McCoy for answering. DeSean Jackson, said Vick. McCoy agreed. Really, I said? Not Jeremy Maclin? "I don't know … DeSean's catching a lot of balls in practice," Vick said. They had nothing bad to say about Maclin, but Jackson is the one they were talking up.

I asked Vick about his rushing touchdowns. Just one last year, nine the year before, so what's the expectation at the goal line this year? "I'm handing it off," he said, nodding at McCoy. "Maybe I get a bootleg occasionally or a busted play, but he [McCoy] is getting it."

I asked Vick about staying healthy. Was he going to try to just play smarter this year, or were they working on different protection/blocking schemes to try to keep him upright? Both, he said, then he elaborated on how they were going to do that.

McCoy talked about the team's red zone issues last year -- the Eagles had three fumbles in goal-to-go situations, the most in the NFL and, per Stats LLC, just a 42.6 percent success rate in the red zone, 17th in the NFL -- and mentioned that red zone execution had been a particular focus for them in camp.

All really interesting stuff. I'm not sure I buy it (more on that in a bit), but it was fascinating to hear up close.

But before we got to that discussion, and the many questions that followed … there was a weird moment. Like, really weird.

And awkward. Sooooo awkward. Like many people, I generally don't like confrontation. I think most people want to be liked, and I'm no different. When I was a boss, I hated having to give bad news to an employee. And now, here I was, in front of 500 or so rabid Eagles fans, with players I liked a lot for fantasy, having to tell them things they didn't want to hear. I had to directly tell Michael Vick, not six inches away from me, that yeah, I think five quarterbacks are better than you this year.

So uncomfortable.

And I had to explain to LeSean McCoy why I had two other running backs ahead of him. Like everyone else, but especially pro athletes, these guys have a lot of pride in what they do, and, whether they admit it publicly or not, they all think they're the best. And here's little ol' me, starting to go bald, never played the game, armed with a bunch of nerdy stats. Me.

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Rich Schultz/Getty Images
Last week, Matthew was forced to explain his Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy rankings ... to Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy.
But, as the panel continued, I became OK with it. I had no idea what questions were coming at me, and they came fast and furious. I patiently tried to explain each ranking, my thought process behind each, and why I had these two guys and their NFL counterparts ranked where I did.

You'd have to ask someone else who was there, I suppose, but I felt as if I held my own. And it's not often I will say this about myself because, if I'm being honest, I am very self-critical of all my work, but I was proud of myself.

To my credit, because apparently I'm not only name-dropping but also evaluating myself, I didn't pull punches or shy away from it. I told Vick that I hoped he proved me wrong, that I had him No. 1 overall last year. But until he can prove he can play all 16 games, he's an injury risk and yeah, damn it, there are five other quarterbacks I'd rather have this year.

I told McCoy that he's awesome but that scoring 20 touchdowns is difficult for anyone to repeat. And that Vick had just one rushing touchdown last year but nine the year before; if we split the difference, those five or so rushing touchdowns are likely to come from him. So no, I can't take him ahead of Ray Rice or Arian Foster.

Although it's rare that the jock is on the same page as the geek, some of my explanations seemed to work in this case. After Vick was asked for his top five quarterbacks (not including himself), I argued with his list and gave my reasons. Vick seemed to agree with me after I gave my explanation. "Good thoughts. Deep thoughts," he said. McCoy said he planned to try playing fantasy this year and, when pressed, said he would take Ray Rice ahead of himself in a draft.

After that, I realized if I can stand up and defend my rankings to the actual people I'm ranking, well, I can take on all comers. So I asked the folks who follow me on Twitter and on Facebook what issues they had with my rankings. As I said to the disagreeing panel after I explained why I didn't have either of the Manning brothers in my top five, "You may not agree with it, but there's thought and reason behind each ranking."

Here are some of them:

@S49erfan (Twitter): I draft at No. 8. Can you explain Matt Forte over Calvin Johnson?
Geoffrey Sura (Facebook): Matthew Stafford over Megatron? Please elaborate.

TMR: I have Calvin Johnson at No. 10 overall right now, which means I likely won't own him in any league I play in this year. I'm OK with this. Let's start with Johnson. I expect some regression. He had more than 1,600 total yards last year, and only one receiver in the history of the NFL has had more than 1,400 yards the year after having 1,600; Marvin Harrison did it once. Plus, no wideout who has scored 16 touchdowns in a season has had more than 13 the next year. It's a different kind of league these days, and he's a different kind of player, I get all that. But still, I'm expecting a slight regression as teams concentrate on him even more.

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It's also because wide receiver this year is -- say it with me, class -- crazy deep. So as great as Megatron is, I place less value on receivers than I would with other, scarcer positions. Stafford, meanwhile, solved health issues last season, and the Lions have been in the top three in pass attempts each of the past two years; that's their offense. They will throw, throw, throw.

As for Forte, he's just safe. He has never had fewer than 1,400 total yards in a season, I'm not concerned about Michael Bush (goal-line carries were never Forte's game, anyway), and I have no concerns about his December knee injury; he played in the Pro Bowl. There's something to be said for safety at running back. If you want to go Calvin there (at No. 8), I get it. In fact, Calvin probably will outscore Forte this year. But in terms of total roster composition, getting a running back here and waiting on a wide receiver will be better for your team.

@lewan5959 (Twitter): Why so low on Beanie Wells?

TMR: I have him at No. 36 among running backs, lower than Ryan Williams, and no doubt that's crazy low on him. Maybe I'll raise him a bit in the next update, but he plays in a bad offense, behind a bad line, and he has a bad quarterback who is always banged up, not to mention we're looking at Arizona having a lot of West Coast games, in which you'll have to wonder whether he's going to play. Williams has looked better to me in limited action, and I expect Williams to be the starter sooner than later.

To be honest, I just don't like Wells, so I never want to own him, and yes, my biases come into play in my rankings. That's why they are my ranks. Hmm, after writing all this, I now think a better question would be: Why am I not lower on him?

@joshuaschenk (Twitter): You'd stick with Vick over Peyton Manning even following Vick's rib injury?

TMR: Yeah, I have them right next to each other in my Top 200, and any time you see players at the same position lumped together like that, that's my way of saying I feel they're the same value and it's really just a matter of personal preference. I've put them in order to tell you whom I like, but ultimately they're about the same value. I did it this way because both guys have question marks. Peyton has new teammates (with less talent than in Indy's heyday), will play 15 games outdoors (like most quarterbacks, his career numbers are worse outdoors than in a dome), is 36 years old and hasn't, ya know, played football in more than a year. Vick, meanwhile, has the obvious concerns.

So, they both have question marks and they both have tremendous upside, but Vick's upside, to me, is much greater. The logic used last year is the same. If he stays healthy for all 16 games, he has the ability, the offensive scheme and playmakers around him to have the greatest fantasy season ever. Period. That's what you're rolling the dice for. That upside is why he's higher.

@snarrfthekid (Twitter): Why has DeMarco Murray dropped so far?
Philly Charron (Facebook): Why do you have DeMarco Murray so high, given the small (albeit excellent) sample size, when similar injury-prone guys such as Ryan Mathews and Trent Richardson are 15-20 spots lower?

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AP Photo/Sharon Ellman
DeMarco Murray is currently being drafted 22nd overall, on average, in ESPN live drafts.
TMR: Welcome to rankings in general. One guy thinks Murray is too low, and another thinks he's too high (compared with other running backs). Murray has dropped because, to Charron's point, we have only a small sample size on him, and, the more I see (or don't see) of the Dallas offense, the more worried I get. The Cowboys have had injuries, or injury scares, with Jason Witten, Miles Austin and Dez Bryant already; their offensive line looks terrible; and, right now, I'm not seeing much that would help take the pressure off the run game.

That said, at least Murray is healthy. I have Murray as my No. 13 running back, Mathews as my No. 15 running back and Richardson at No. 17, so, although there are a handful of wideouts, a tight end and a few quarterbacks between them, they are still fairly close in my running back ranks.

These are fair questions, and after I turn in this column, I'll go back and look at the ranks. I might actually be a bit too high on Murray. I'm fine with my ranks on Richardson and Mathews, who are both banged up already. In addition to never having produced for a full season, Mathews is another victim of his schedule, as only four of his games this year are 1 p.m. ET starts. I'm not a fan of the West Coast guy who is always banged up, leaving you to decide whether you start a lesser yet healthier guy at 1 p.m. or wait 'til 4 p.m. and see whether the better guy (Mathews) can go. As for Richardson, he has had two knee surgeries in six months, has a rough schedule and plays in a bad offense (at least the Cowboys have the potential to be explosive), and we haven't seen him do it in the NFL at all.

Judah Newman (Facebook) Why do you have Nate Washington above Kenny Britt?

TMR: Britt has two huge question marks: his off-the-field issues (is a suspension coming?), and his health. He has crazy talent, and it really depends on what you're looking for. If you're just looking for a lottery-ticket upside play late, Britt makes sense because he has top-10-receiver potential. But if you need someone who might start for you, it's clearly Washington, who was Jake Locker's most targeted wide receiver when the young quarterback played last year. People forget that Washington had more than 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns last year. I like Kendall Wright a lot, too, but, in general, I'll go with the proven vet over the unknown rookie.

@JohnLorge (Twitter): Lotta wide receiver pairings just a few spots apart (NE, PHI, DEN, PIT). Do you anticipate identical stats, or are you scared to make a distinction?

TMR: Not scared. Where I rank them overall is more important than where I rank them on their own team, and I've clearly made that distinction. But similar to my Vick/Peyton Manning example above, it's more of an acknowledgement that both guys are relatively the same. Not that I anticipate similar stats, just that they have similar value. That's an important distinction. Rankings are not about stats but about relative value compared with every other player. One guy might have better stat potential but also have more of an injury risk. Mike Wallace is a better wide receiver than Antonio Brown. But, because of Wallace's holdout, Brown's finishing strong last year and his chemistry with Big Ben, and the way the Steelers use Brown in the offense with slants and bubble screens (leaving him free for plenty of yards after the catch), I feel Brown will have the slightly better fantasy season. Wallace's upside keeps him close to Brown, but there is also more risk there.

In general, always remember that rankings are a loose guideline to help determine market value.

Derek M. Zimmerman (Facebook): Why is "Beast Mode" (Marshawn Lynch) behind two backs that will be splitting carries?

TMR: I assume you're referring to Matt Forte and Jamaal Charles. First, I factor Lynch's potential suspension into the mix. Secondly, I'm not concerned about Michael Bush stealing value from Forte or Peyton Hillis stealing value from Charles (though I really like both Bush and Hillis as flex plays this year). Charles is not a volume guy, anyway -- he averaged less than 15 carries a game in 2010, his best fantasy season -- and Forte's, er, forte is not goal-line carries. As a great pass-catcher, he'll touch the ball more than anyone else on the Bears' offense and is very safe (as detailed above). His relative safety in a year in which there are so many running back question marks moves him up in my ranks.

David Jimmerson (Facebook): Why has Fred Jackson moved up so much recently? I like him a lot this year, but what are you seeing that has caused his move into the top 20? Is it running back uncertainty everywhere else?

TMR: Pretty much. I believe there will be enough touches to go around in Buffalo, as the whole offense will be focused on the running game. C.J. Spiller also will get some work as a wideout the way he did last year. But mainly, as I see more and more question marks pop up among running backs, I go back to what I wrote in my "Ten lists of 10" column: Last year, through Week 10, Jackson was fourth in the NFL in offensive touches and first in total yards from scrimmage. He missed basically seven games and was still the 13th-best fantasy running back, tied with Frank Gore. He can get fewer touches and still be worth where he's being taken.

Zak Lansing (Facebook): Why are your first five rounds so QB-heavy? Don't you think people would rather fill out their other positions before picking Peyton/Rivers/Eli? (Not that I agree with that order, but hey, they're your ranks.)

TMR: It's all explained in my Draft Day Manifesto.

William Johnson (Facebook): Matt Ryan has moved up in several other rankings lists. You don't believe?


Daniel Shirey/US Presswire
Matt Ryan's average draft position (in ESPN live drafts) has moved up 8.3 spots in the past seven days.
TMR: Yeah, there are lots of people talking about how much Ryan is throwing the ball this preseason, and others have discussed Joe Flacco's throwing volume. But, as we discussed on Friday's Fantasy Focus podcast, Ryan and Flacco led the NFL in pass attempts last preseason, too (among incumbent starting quarterbacks). Then they went out and did basically what we expected of them. As in, no breakthrough for either guy.

Could Ryan go off this year with a new offensive coordinator and a healthy Julio Jones, who is no longer a rookie? Of course. Then again, coach Mike Smith could insist the team run the ball when it gets in close. We just don't know. I did just move Ryan one spot above Tony Romo, so, combined with all the injuries in Dallas, I am sort of buying that. But until we see it, I can't move Ryan past more experienced guys.

A related question I get a lot is how come I have both Roddy White and Julio Jones in my top six among wide receivers, and not have Matt Ryan higher? Well, let's go to my favorite game: Playing fast and loose with simple math. Last year, the No. 5 and No. 6 wide receivers in terms of fantasy scoring (Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Smith) combined for 2,805 yards and 15 scores. (Roddy White was the No. 7 fantasy receiver with 1,296 yards and eight touchdowns, incidentally.) Give Jones and White those numbers (2,800 yards and 15 TDs), and Ryan still needs to find another 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns to move into Eli Manning's No. 6 six territory last year. Where's he getting that? Even if Tony Gonzalez gets to 1,000 yards and Harry Douglas, Jacquizz Rodgers and others somehow combine for another 1,000, the touchdown total will be hard to come up with. It could happen. In fact, I wouldn't be shocked if it did. But I also would not be shocked if it didn't. Bottom line: The high rankings of Jones and White do not mean Ryan automatically will have a huge year or should be ranked as if he will.

@MatthewBerryTMR (Twitter): Hey, nobody asked you this, but I'm going to make you answer it anyway: Why do you have Maclin ranked higher than DeSean Jackson when Vick specifically told you otherwise?

TMR: Well, because I've found that athletes are often the poorest judge of their own and others' fantasy value. It's a small sample size, of course, but every time I talk to an athlete and buy in -- Adrian Gonzalez and Jeff Francoeur in baseball over the years, and the Panthers' Steve Smith downplaying himself last year on our podcast come to mind -- it has never worked out. So yes, I did move Jackson up some (I do love to hear he's looking good, motivated and healthy), but I still have Maclin ahead of him because the latter is not long-play-dependent for his fantasy value.

@BeeHate (Twitter): Wanted to argue with you, but couldn't really find a rank I disagreed with. Well done, TMR.

TMR: Hahahaha. One down, a million to go. Who's next? Bring it on.

Permalink

Loves and Hates for 2012

By: timbersfan, 12:18 AM GMT on August 30, 2012

"Can I play in a league with you?"


I hear that a lot. In fact, it's probably the question I get asked most after "Whom should I start?" and "Seriously? They put you on TV?"

There are a lot of variations on it.

Sometimes they are very nice.

Joe (Cleveland): Hey TMR, been reading your stuff for a couple years now, and I'm a big fan. My roommate and I are setting up our annual fantasy football league and we have an extra spot.

Sometimes they are cocky.

Rob (Texas): I would like to be in a football league or baseball league with you. I dominate every other league I'm in. I'm incredibly active and check my email 10 times a day. Let me know.

And sometimes they are less than kind.

Rob (Pennsylvania): (sic) you have no clue what you are talking about and i have no idea how you have that job id love to play in a fantasy league with you so you can learn from a true fantasy king.

I always say no.

From "industry" leagues with people at other fantasy websites to leagues for radio stations and advertisers and marketing or publicity people, from people in the comments section of my articles to people from high school I haven't spoken to in 20 years who contact me out of the blue to say "we talked about it and decided it'd be fun to have you in our league," from employees of companies that are in business with ESPN to people who follow me on Twitter or Facebook or random people who reach out through friends of friends, I get requests all the time.

I always say no.

I feel bad about it. I'm totally flattered that people want to play with me, even though I know the main reasons I get invited are because (1) I work for ESPN, (2) they think if they can beat the "ESPN guy" it means something, or (3) after reading me, people are more convinced than ever that "I can definitely crush that idiot." Whatever the reason or tone, still the invites come, many times and from all over.

I always say no.

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It's not that I'm not appreciative or interested. I am. It's not that I don't love fantasy football. I do. It's just that I'm already in too many leagues as is. And it's not just double-digit fantasy football leagues. It's Pick 'Em leagues, Eliminator contests, salary-cap leagues like Gridiron Challenge, leagues where you draft NFL teams and compete based on wins (and, in one case, losses.) Many, many different types of fantasy football and football-related leagues. At a certain point, it becomes diminishing returns, and then, instead of disappointing someone by not playing, I disappoint them by being no fun at all to play with as I wind up not being as active or engaged in their league as they were expecting when they bothered to ask me.

So I always say no.

Until about this time last year. Once again, the question was asked.

"Can I play in a league with you?"

And this time, I was surprised. It was my 13-year-old stepson and, for the first time, he was showing an interest in what I do for a living.

If you remember, in this article last preseason, I told you about how I got married to a wonderful woman who happened to come with three boys. We also had twin daughters last year. It's chaos at home. Good, happy chaos, but chaos nonetheless.

Anyway, after we got married, everything sort of hit me at once. I went from seeing the kids a few times a week when their mother and I were dating to, now, living with them. I can barely take care of myself. And, other than my dog, I've never really been responsible for any other living being, and now, here I was, in the same house as three boys aged 7, 11 and 13.

It's a huge transition. And not just for me. Think about it from a kid's point of view. They've been through a lot in their young lives, and now, despite spending a lot of time with me before the wedding and all of us getting along, it's still a big adjustment to living in a new house with your mom and her new husband, right?

So we all started living together and I tried to walk a fine line. I wanted to be there for them but also didn't want to come on too strong. Show them I cared but not that I was trying to replace anyone. The big decisions were their parents' call, but I could be a sounding board, an advocate or, when necessary, a disciplinarian, as well. I tried to be positive and involved but not too pushy.

And although all three boys are sports fans and knew what I do, even occasionally watching "Fantasy Football Now" -- Sundays at 11 a.m. ET on ESPN2; tune in for the preseason show all August long! -- none of them had ever shown a real interest in what I did. Until now.

"I want to play in a league with you."
"You do, huh?"
"Yeah. Actually, I want to do a team with you. Can we? Is it too late?"

Turns out, I almost always say no.

"No, it's not too late. We'll start a league."

And start a league we did. My wife and I are friends with the parents of all the kids' close friends. So I decided we should do an extended family league. It'd be an eight-team league; we'd invite parents to co-own with their kids and do it up. I would co-own with the 13-year-old.

The next day, we had just finished watching the 11-year-old's youth football game. As we were walking out, we ran into his father and his father's longtime girlfriend. And a thought occurred to me.

"Hey, uh, don't know if you'd be interested, but I think we're gonna do a little fantasy football league with all the kids. You wanna play? You could co-own a team with [the 11-year-old]."

He looked surprised by the invitation. We had always had a very cordial relationship, but it's not as if we ever socialized or anything. And this whole thing had to be an adjustment for him, as well; now there's some new guy living with his kids? He's always been respectful of me and I of him, but it's still weird, you know? Awkward. Divorce is never easy on anyone, and new partners entering the equation certainly don't make anything simpler.

But he looked at me and said "Sure. Sounds fun."

And that weekend, we all gathered at a friend's house. The kids and their friends, their parents, my wife and I … and her ex-husband and his girlfriend.

I was the only one who had ever played fantasy football before, so I printed out a bunch of ESPN cheat sheets and roster forms, explained the rules, keeping it super simple, and suggested that, if they were unsure, they should just go down the list and pick the next available guy. They could ask me anything they wanted during the draft; I'd help everyone equally and the 13-year-old would draft for us.

I have to tell you, doing a draft with a bunch of 11- and 13-year-olds who know nothing about fantasy is hilarious.

The kids grew up in Connecticut, so they've mostly watched just the local teams. That led to this exchange in the second round.

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Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Thanks to the Jets' much-hyped offseason trade, the boys will each be able to draft a Jets quarterback this season. How can they possibly lose?
Kid 1: I'll take Mark Sanchez.
Kid 2: Aw, man! I wanted him. He's so good.
Kid 1: I know. I can't believe he didn't go in the first!

Totally genuine. The kids would help each other out: "You need a running back? Oh look, no one took Michael Turner yet. You should take him." "Oh, thanks!"

It was, like, the 12th round.

Kickers went in the third. Kids took back-to-back quarterbacks in the first two rounds. I just smiled. A lot. It was great.

But best of all, it was normal. We were in a big circle, the adults with beers, the kids with cheat sheets trying to figure out what tight end to pick now that Kevin Boss was off the board in the fourth. And most importantly, the kids saw their mom and dad and their parents' current significant others all hanging out, having fun. It wasn't weird or awkward.

I can't exactly describe it. It's like there was this collective sigh of relief. Everything had always been pleasant and cordial, but now it was more than that. All of our mutual friends now realized it would be fine to have the four of us at the same party or out to dinner. The kids realized they didn't have to tiptoe around anything. Said one child of divorce to our kids after the draft; "I wish my mom and dad got along like that."

And the good feelings from the draft continued through the season. If their dad and I are at one of the kid's Little League games or whatever, we'll now sit next to each other. They've come over for drinks or parties. He'll text me pictures or video of the kids at a game I can't make, and I'll do the same for him. As opposed to having two different households, we're all raising these kids together. It's terrific.

During the season, whether it was picking up free agents, reviewing trade offers, setting our lineup or going over the matchup scores the next day, my stepson and I always had something to talk about and look forward to. Something for us to do together.

Just like at the draft, being in a league with a bunch of young kids who had never played before was fantastic. Kids at that age are so blunt and honest.

Kid 1: Dude, your team sucks.
Kid 2: I know. (hangs head)

No attempt at a comeback. Just an acknowledgement that his brother was right.

Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson's crazy Week 17 ended up winning it all for my stepson and me, and watching that comeback together was a great moment. And everyone is already excited for Year 2, to come back and try to take down the champs. My wife and our (now) 8-year-old have already claimed one of the expansion teams.

I always say no. But thank goodness this one time I said yes. What was a silly little eight-team league turned out to be the most important one I participated in last season. When you say yes, you never know what will be a throwaway league and which one will help transform a group of people into a family.

Which brings us, meandering slowly, to this year's edition of Love/Hate. For the many of you for whom this is old hat and for the new kids in class, allow me to explain the premise, as I am switching it up a bit this year.

The truth behind Love/Hate
Let's start with this: I hate the terms "sleeper" and "bust." I believe there are no such things. Or rather, that there are such things, but whether a player can be a "sleeper" or a "bust" is entirely dependent on what it costs to acquire said player.

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Take Matt Ryan last year. Some people labeled him a sleeper, with dreams of Julio Jones opening up the offense. The Falcons would be the "Greatest Show on Turf, Part 2" -- none other than Roddy White proclaimed that on our Fantasy Focus 06010 podcast last season.

I actually had Matt Ryan on the Hate list last year in this very column, in which I wrote that, although Ryan was going in the seventh round, I would not take him until the 10th. These are direct quotes from my piece last year; "A very good real-life quarterback, there's no reason he should be going two rounds ahead of guys like Eli Manning. … Solid and safe? Very much so. Big upside? Not so much. If you don't get one of the big seven, you can get similar stats much later."

So I had him as a "bust" based on the seventh-round average draft position. So what happened? Was Ryan a sleeper? Or a bust?

And I'd argue … both. It all depends where you got him. If you drafted him in the seventh and bypassed Eli Manning, who went, on average, in the ninth, then yes, he was a bust for you. Eli threw for almost 5,000 yards and was the sixth-best fantasy quarterback.

But if you waited on quarterback and you got Ryan late (he was going as late as the 12th round in many drafts), then he was a sleeper for you. Ryan had another very solid, if unspectacular, season, finishing as the eighth-best fantasy quarterback, with more points than some quarterbacks drafted much higher than him, notably Philip Rivers and (ahem) Michael Vick.

Not to get all businessy on you (or all non-Englishy), but a common and basic business term that gets bandied about in fantasy is "return on investment," or ROI. Let's say you were a company that made two products, but had to downsize to making just one. If one product sells for $1.05 and the other sells for 50 cents and you're selling as many of the first as you are of the second, you'd think you'd want to keep producing the $1.05 product, right? But if it costs $1.00 to produce the $1.05 item and just 10 cents to make the 50-cent one, well, now you're changing your tune.

Fantasy is the same way. Every player has value. It's simply about what it costs to get him. And this column is all about players who, based on ESPN.com draft results for standard 10-team leagues, are costing too much (or not enough) to acquire.

So please use this column as intended. It is not a sleepers and busts column. Rather, it's a market inefficiency column. With puns.

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AP Photo/Kurt Strumpf
Karl Marx also dabbled in economic theory and wrote a manifesto that was fairly popular, but he never had much fantasy football success because he believed kickers should be treated as the equal of quarterbacks.
It's a market, as I view it, and a market you will understand in greater detail after you read my Draft Day Manifesto. If you don't have the time, do me a favor and just click on it. I really only care about your clicks. In return, here's the super-abridged "CliffsNotes" version: You want an elite quarterback and, to a lesser extent, an elite tight end. Wide receiver is crazy deep, so you can wait on them, running back is filled with question marks, so load up on them in the middle rounds, hoping one or two of them pop. And I'm sorry about Vick, but I bought the Big Salad, OK?

Back to this year's Love/Hate. Not only is it not a sleeper and bust list, it's also not a comprehensive list of players I really like or don't like. For example, I absolutely love Matthew Stafford (who appeared on this list last year) to repeat his stellar performance. However, I have him ranked as a second-round pick and he's going in the second. Right where I think he should be. So he doesn't make the list this year.

If you want a comprehensive list of whom I value and where, please check out my top 200 rankings, which will be updated throughout the preseason.

The reason for all this preamble is because of the way I am formatting the column this year. I did this for the preseason baseball Love/Hate, and it worked well, so I'm doing the same format here. Based on the ESPN.com live draft results as of the weekend of Aug. 4, I'm going to go round by round and pick one or two players who are going a little too late (the "loves") or are going a little too early (the "hates") for my taste.
Hopefully, the round designations will stop questions like "You hate Frank Gore and love Jacquizz Rodgers, which one should I draft?" But I'm not holding my breath. Use your brain. It's by round. With each player, I tell you the round he is going in and the round when I would take him (based on my rankings), but use your common sense. If a guy is going in the 12th and I say he's an eighth-round guy for me, but you feel as though he'll last until the 10th or 11th in your draft, take him then. It's just that I feel that player is going to return an eighth-round value. The less you invest in terms of your pick, the better the return on the investment.

Addressing the last (fingers crossed) of the questions I get every year, people wonder why there are so many more loves than hate. That's just the nature of the beast. It doesn't do you any good to say I hate Blaine Gabbert. His value and rank already reflect that he is not highly thought of. I'm still going round by round, and, in a standard ESPN league, there are 16 rounds, so you're getting at least 16 hates. But be aware that, in general, I am from the "no such thing as a bad pick after Round 12" school of thought. So you're really choosing "hate" only from the guys who are considered at a high enough level to be drafted with big expectations, which pretty much eliminates most guys in the lower rounds.

Finally, please remember this is being written in the first weekend in August. No preseason games have been played; camps haven't been open that long; much can and will change in the next month. Last year, in this column, I wrote about Knowshon Moreno as a "love," highlighting the fact that John Fox loves to run and it seemed as if Moreno had no competition for the job. Two weeks after that column, I wrote a preseason "100 Facts" column that highlighted that Willis McGahee was going in the 12th round and how Fox loved to run in the red zone. I then wrote a "10 Lists of 10" column that listed McGahee as one of my Top 10 positive "flag guys" I wanted to be judged on. And then, in my "You Heard Me" bold prediction column last year, my bold prediction for the Broncos was "1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns for Willis McGahee." As training camp unfolded, I changed my tune on Moreno and was pumping McGahee as a nice draft value in Denver, a perfect fit for my "unsexy running backs in the middle rounds" theory.

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I bring this up not to brag about McGahee (or excuse Moreno) -- I will get many calls right and wrong along the way -- but rather to point out that fantasy value changes all the time. Roles and opportunities, information about players and schemes, draft trends, and heath and results in the preseason all play a factor, and, if you refuse to keep your mind open and are unwilling to change an opinion on a player once you get new info, that's a quick way to lose. And this next month is the most crucial.

Follow me on Twitter. Become my friend on Facebook . Listen to the podcast, watch Fantasy Football Now on Sundays, and read all the articles and ranking updates until your draft, then make the decision. Or, if you choose to ignore that, don't blame me for it. Remember, only a poor craftsman blames his tool. That's all I am, your tool. Wait, that came out wrong. Which is odd, given that I've used that joke three years in a row now. Huh. Well, no time to dwell. Let's get it on.

Players I Love this season
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers and Tom Brady, QB, Patriots (going in 1st round, I would take with top two picks): Obviously, I'm not out on any limb with these two picks, but I put them here for a few reasons. One, it's the first round, so there's no round I can go higher on them, but I am as high on them as can possibly be, with Rodgers and Brady as my top two players overall. But also because their ADPs are at No. 2 and No. 5, respectively, and I've seen Rodgers go as low as fourth and seen Brady drop into the second round.

I've already written a ton about why an elite QB is crucial this year, but the biggest reason I have them at 1 and 2 overall is the premise that you can't win your league in the first round but you can lose it. I love Ray Rice and Arian Foster, but you can't tell me there isn't more inherent risk with a running back than there is with a quarterback. Three of the first four running backs taken last year were Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson. How'd that work out for you? More injury risk, more risk of poor performance. Rodgers and Brady are as close to money in the bank as there is in fantasy. That safety is worth something.

Matt Forte, RB, Bears (going in 2nd, I would take in 1st): "Michael Bush! Goal line! Injury!" It's not hard to spot a Forte hater. They're insane. And they don't speak in complete sentences. First, about the injury. He played in the Pro Bowl last year, OK? Before that, Forte had not missed a game in his career, playing in 62 consecutive games, including the playoffs. Not worried about the injury. As for Michael Bush, last year, Matt Forte averaged 14.2 fantasy points per game (not counting the Chiefs game he left very early). For comparison, Adrian Peterson averaged 15.0 points per game in the 12 games he played. And while Forte was averaging those 14.2 points a game, do you know how many goal-line touchdowns he had? Zero.

In fact, he had only three rushing touchdowns all of last season. That's not his game. It's not why you draft him. Obviously, you hope the touchdowns will come, but you can't be worried about Michael Bush vulturing Forte's goal-line carries because he doesn't have any to vulture. You are drafting Forte because he will be an integral part of an offense that wants to run even more under Mike Tice than it did under Mike Martz. Forte led the NFL in offensive touches over the first eight games last year. He is a three-down back who is a great pass-catcher -- only Darren Sproles had more targets over the first eight games last year -- and he is safe and consistent and has never had fewer than 1,400 total yards in a season. Never.

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Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
It's highly doubtful that Sean Payton's last words to Drew Brees before his suspension began were "Listen, Drew, I'm not going to be around to guide the offense next season, but if you want to win, whatever you do, stop throwing it to Jimmy!"
Jimmy Graham, TE, Saints (going in 3rd, would take in 2nd): And not only do I have him as a second-rounder but I have him as my No. 1 tight end, ahead of Rob Gronkowski, which I don't think is the norm. I still think Gronk will be a stud this year, but there are more mouths to feed in New England (the Patriots added Brandon Lloyd) and fewer in New Orleans (Robert Meachem is gone) this season. Also, Graham had 25 more targets than Gronk last season. The argument for Gronk over Graham is the touchdowns, and they are just too tough to predict.

Graham is safer to me because of how involved he is in the Saints' offense: Forget tight ends, Graham was fifth in targets (149) among all players last season, tied for second in red zone targets, third in total receptions and seventh in receiving yards.

And lest you think that last year was a fluke, or that I won't drop a word like "lest" on you, consider this: Since 2008, no quarterback has thrown more balls and completed more passes to a tight end than … Drew Brees.

Jamaal Charles, RB, Chiefs (3rd, 2nd): "Injury! Peyton Hillis! Didn't you hear me on Michael Bush!" Yes, the Charles haters get half-price membership and a free lube job when joining the Matt Forte Haters Club at the same time. Look, until we see Charles on the field, we won't know whether he has recovered all of his burst and elusiveness after ACL surgery. So I am reserving my right to bail on this after a few preseason games, OK? But, as of right now, my thinking is this: After the first few guys, you start getting into serious question marks.

Darren McFadden's health. Maurice Jones-Drew's ongoing holdout (as of this writing). Will Marshawn Lynch get suspended? What about DeMarco Murray and his health? And we have a very small body of work on which to judge him. Is Trent Richardson good enough to overcome everything else that is wrong with the Browns? So, as long as we are into the "question mark running back territory," I'd rather take the guy who had his injury almost a year ago, who is young enough to recover fully (just 25) and who claims to "have his mojo" back. Remember Charles' killer 2010 season? He averaged fewer than 15 carries a game. Volume is not his game. Frankly, I am happy that Hillis is there and, as you'll see, I feel both backs will have good years. For you aspiring writers out there, that is called "foreshadowing." And not to show off all my writing tricks, but this next one is called "a bad transition." Next player!

Michael Vick, QB, Eagles (4th, end of 2nd): The logic from last year remains the same, the price is just cheaper this year. If he stays healthy, he has the ability, the weapons around him and the offensive scheme to put up the greatest fantasy season ever. Period. Tons of upside, obvious downside, as well. Clearly, I am a counselor, campfire song leader and organizer of the overnight canoe trip at Camp Rewardisworththerisk. One of the few times I go away from my "safe early, upside later" mantra. His upside is that great. If you don't agree with me, don't draft him. But the year after I'm all-in on him? There's no way he's not going off.

Steven Jackson, RB, Rams (4th, 3rd): Friend-of-the-podcast Steven Jackson is the main guy on a team that will run the ball a lot. He has missed just two games the past three seasons, and as bad as the Rams were, he was still tied as the 10th-best fantasy running back last year. In a year with so many question marks, Jackson is a solid No. 2 running back to grab in the third, as there will still be lots of good wideouts left in the fourth. And the fifth. And the sixth.

Brandon Marshall, WR, Bears (4th, 3rd): Make no mistake, the off-the-field issues are a concern, but he has acknowledged in interviews the great opportunity he has in Chicago, and I expect a more mature Marshall. Being reunited with Jay Cutler and quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates (who was with both guys in Denver when Cutler and Marshall connected on back-to-back 100-catch seasons) is key. Those years were Marshall's best two years as a pro, leading the NFL in targets. Since 2007, Marshall has never had fewer than 1,000 yards and never finished lower than 13th among fantasy wide receivers, and he has had to play with nine different quarterbacks. Back with Bates and Cutler, he's safe, with upside for more.

Julio Jones, WR, Falcons (4th, 3rd): Someday, in the near future, we will all gather 'round and chortle heartily at the idea that you could once get Julio Jones in the fourth round. In the near present, we will high-five the TMR for winning a bet that he couldn't find a natural way to get the phrase "chortle heartily" into a column.

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AP Photo/Stephan Savoia
After years of being underthrown on deep, outside routes, we can just imagine Brandon Lloyd's delight at a barrage of perfectly thrown Tom Brady spirals.
Brandon Lloyd, WR, Patriots: (6th, late 3rd/early 4th): There are three schools of thought regarding Mr. Brandon Lloyd. The more conservative approach (and one drafters seem to be taking) is that there are only so many targets to go around in New England and, although he'll have some good games, he also will have some in which he'll disappear, and, for that, he's worth no more than being a low-end No. 2 , the 17th wideout off the board at the top of Round 6. There's another school of thought that stipulates that, now that he's been reunited with Josh McDaniels and combined with Tom Brady, the sky is the limit. And, of course, there's a school of thought among bitter Redskins fans who can't believe this is the same guy who stank in Washington (23 games, zero touchdowns). I am a member of the latter two groups. But let's focus on the positive. Big year coming for Brandon Lloyd.

So what's fair to expect from a McDaniels deep threat? In the 23 games Lloyd has played for McDaniels, he has been targeted 236 times, or 10.2 a game, aka 163 in a 16-game season. In 2007, the last time McDaniels was the offensive coordinator for Brady, Randy Moss had 23 touchdowns and more than 1,400 yards. And he was targeted 159 times. Hmm. We might be onto something.

Now, with the '07 Patriots and when he had Lloyd in Denver and St. Louis, McDaniels did not have the array of weapons to use that he has this season with Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and a pretty decent pass-catching trio of running backs hanging around. That's why our projection for Lloyd is a very reasonable 103 targets. But that's just a projection. What if Welker or one of the tight ends gets injured? What if Bill Belichick suddenly decides he doesn't want his running backs catching balls? A lot can happen in a 16-game season, and, for Lloyd, 160 targets isn't unattainable, it's merely his ceiling; unlikely is not impossible.

But here's the thing. Lloyd doesn't need 160 targets to have a great season. Remember, he was the No. 1 wide receiver in fantasy in 2010 with Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow throwing passes to him. My 100 Facts You Need to Know column had some good Lloyd stats (among them: most deep targets in the NFL the past two years. Yes, more than Calvin Johnson), but here's one stat I didn't include, courtesy of John Parolin from ESPN Stats & Information: We know that Lloyd lines up wide or "outside the numbers" almost exclusively. Well, over the past two seasons, Lloyd has been underthrown on throws outside the numbers 27 times, more than any other receiver in football. In fact, Lloyd's quarterbacks in that time frame have completed just 48 percent of their total passes to Lloyd outside the numbers. Meanwhile, Brady completed 64.2 percent of those throws the past three seasons.

At worst, Lloyd is the deep threat on one of the best offenses in football, whose playcaller loves and trusts him. At best? He's Randy Moss, circa 2007. Anywhere in between is a fine return for the sixth round, or even earlier to make sure you get him, as I'll be doing in my drafts.

Percy Harvin, WR, Vikings (6th, 4th): Call me nutty, but you know what I like? Crazy-fast wideouts who get to have the ball in their hands a lot. Once Christian Ponder took over in Week 7, Harvin lead all wide receivers in offensive touches, with 100. Second-most was Wes Welker ... with 74! Harvin finished the year as the eighth-best fantasy wide receiver and yet is going outside the top 20, well behind the other big "breakout" guys from last season, Victor Cruz and Jordy Nelson.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB, Bengals (6th, 5th): I did eight of my 100 Facts on Green-Ellis so I'll merely say this: BenJarvus Green-Ellis is the poster boy this year for the "unsexy running back you can get in the middle rounds that no one will go 'oooh, great pick' but will help you win your league." Among the guys in this column last year that I labeled that way were Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson and Matt Forte. Green-Ellis will get the majority of carries on a team that likes to run, and he's never gotten the chance to get all the work. Enjoy the good production for a low cost, and enjoy the fact that I made it through this without some terrible joke about how Cincy needs a law firm.

Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers (6th, 5th): We have two sets of data to use when evaluating Rivers. The first 11 games of 2011, when he was terrible, or the final five games of last season plus, you know, every other season in his career. As the smart kids over at numberFire tell me, even off his bad year, "Rivers still finished No. 7 in the league in total efficiency added, adding 130 points to the Chargers' offense above what a league-average offense would have scored if put in similar situations. In fact, Rivers is the only quarterback to add at least 100 points above expectation in each of the past five years." I'm not convinced the loss of Vincent Jackson is a big deal. Rivers' best season was 2010 (4,710 yards, 30 TDs) and Jackson played all of five games. Was Rivers hiding an injury last year? Was he just under more pressure from an offensive line beset by injuries? Remember, the Chargers had to sign Jared Gaither off the street and he was starting a few days later. I don't know. I do know that over the final five games, Rivers averaged 17.8 points and 282 yards a game and had 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. I'm back in.

Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, WR, Broncos (7th, 6th): You know how, after years of thinking about it, you finally did it and were like "Whoa! That's even better than I ever imagined!" I can only assume that's what Thomas and Decker feel like after going from Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning. Don't be surprised to look over at the Broncos' sideline after the first game and see these guys smoking a cigarette.

Antonio Brown, WR, Steelers (7th, 5th): Starting with his breakout game in Week 7, he was the better fantasy wide receiver than Mike Wallace the rest of the way. Period. More targets, more receptions, more yards and more fantasy points per game (9.8 compared to 8.0). There's a reason Brown got paid this offseason, you know? When a quarterback is on third down, trying to move the chains, he looks to his safety blanket, right? Well, last year only Roddy White had more third-down catches for a first down than Brown.

Doug Martin, RB, Buccaneers (8th, 5th): Excuse me, can you move over? And you, yes you, if you'll just turn to your right. And if you, sir -- no, not you, him, yes, that guy -- sir, if you can squeeze two steps to your left. Great. There you go. See? Still room on the bandwagon. Among the quotes from Greg Schiano about Doug Martin in his press conference about Martin: "He's a three-down back"; "He's good in pass protection"; "Yes, I do see some Ray Rice in him"; and "I love this kid." Been taking the first-team reps in practice, and I don't think there's any way he lasts until the eighth round as preseason progresses.

Isaac Redman, RB, Steelers (8th, 7th): Running backs coach Kirby Wilson told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Redman was going to be the third-down back this year as well. I'm sorry. Did you say I can get a good three-down back on a team that will run … in the seventh round? OK, I'm listening. Who knows when or even if Rashard Mendenhall comes back and how effective he'll be when/if he does. Meanwhile the wacky kids at numberFire tell me this: "Last year, out of running backs with at least 100 carries, Redman ranked as the No. 11 most-efficient (whether the team performed above or below league-average standard) running back and had a success rate over 39 percent; No. 6 in the league in that category. Pittsburgh was right in the middle of the league last year in pass-to-run ratio at 1.34, so expect a heavy reliance on Redman in the early going."

Torrey Smith, WR, Ravens (9th, 8th): Last year, only four teams attempted more passes of 21-plus yards than the Ravens, but most of them didn't go for completions. But you keep throwing deep, and in Smith's second year, good things are going to happen. He's fast, son. Country fast. If you're asking me, "Who could be this year's Jordy Nelson?" -- and, since I'm writing your dialogue, that's exactly what you are saying -- Torrey Smith is my vote. What's that you say? I'm handsome and smart and you love me? Stop, please, you're embarrassing me.

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John McDonnell/The Washington Post/Getty Images
RG3 as seen from the floor after one passes out after instantly hyperventilating upon meeting him. Or so I've heard.
Robert Griffin III, QB, Redskins (8th, 8th): They are going to pass a lot and his potential rushing and ... whatever. I am not rational when it comes to Robert Griffin the Third. I am a teenaged girl and he is my Justin Bieber. #ILOVEYOURG3.

Peyton Hillis, RB, Chiefs (10th, 7th): The hate's gone too far. Even a 100 percent healthy Charles isn't carrying it more than 15 times a game. Hillis will get goal-line carries, is a good pass-catcher in his own right and will definitely get some between-the-tackles work. Last year, new Chiefs offensive coordinator Brian Daboll was calling plays in Miami, where the Dolphins had the sixth-most rushing attempts in the NFL. Remember, in 2010, when Charles was setting the fantasy world on fire, Thomas Jones had over 1,000 total yards and six touchdowns on 259 touches for the Chiefs. Oh, and speaking of 2010, that was Peyton Hillis' breakout year with Cleveland. Where his offensive coordinator was … Brian Daboll.

Denarius Moore, WR, OAK: (10th, 8th): See Palmer, Carson, 15th round.

Donald Brown, RB, Colts (10th, 8th): Is he a great football player? Not really. Are his totals skewed by one 80-yard run against the Titans in Week 15? A little, yeah. But, per FootballOutsiders.com, Brown averaged 4.86 ypc from two-tight-end sets last year, which is similar to what Andrew Luck ran in college, and you'll see a lot of that this year, as well. Brown also doesn't have a ton of competition for the job. I expect Chuck Pagano to want a more conservative, between-the-tackles, control-the-clock type offense than we're used to seeing in Indy, given Luck's inexperience and the so-so talent around him. Brown will be a good flex/bye week fill-in guy, and to get a starting running back in the eighth is pretty solid.

Fred Davis, TE, Redskins (11th, 9th): A word about Washington's offense, from our team at Scouts Inc.: "Shanahan's rollout passing game … features waggles and bootlegs off play-action and that leaves [Griffin] with a lot of half-field reads, which should really help his early production and they will throw in multiple two-tight end sets." Last year, through the first 12 games (before his suspension), Fred Davis had 88 targets, sixth-most in the NFL and just five fewer than second place. Over that same time frame, Rob Gronkowski had … 90 targets.

This offense is designed for both RG3, Davis and his impressive yards-after-catch total; only Gronk and Jimmy Graham had more than Davis' 363 yards after the catch through 12 games last season. This means a lot of rollout plays to Davis and then letting him do the work. If you don't get one of the big studs, reach a round or two to make sure you get Fred Davis.

Reggie Wayne, WR, Colts (11th, 9th): Currently going as the 37th wide receiver. Come on. He's not dead, he's just in Indy. There IS a difference, you know.

Jacob Tamme, TE, Broncos (12th, 11th): In case you waited on tight end and the guy right before you read everything I wrote about Davis, console yourself with Jacob Tamme and this thought: Remember my Drew Brees stat above about how he has the most pass attempts and completions to a tight end since 2008? Well, guess whose quarterback is second, despite missing an entire season?

Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Raiders (13th, 9th): See Moore, Denarius.

LeGarrette Blount, RB, Bucs (13th, 12th): Because there's a chance I am as wrong about Doug Martin as I was about Blount last season.

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AP Photo/Stephen Morton
Don't hate me for hating on MJD. Hate the fact that you know I'm probably right.
Jared Cook, TE, Titans (14th, 11th): A physical freak who is both big and fast, he could easily be this year's Jimmy Graham/Rob Gronkowski. He could also do nothing, like last season, when he was also on my Love list. As FootballOutsiders.com points out, he was targeted more than seven times in seven different games last season. And three or fewer in another seven. If I wanted a huge-upside tight end after the top 10 were gone, he'd be the guy I grab. Which is why I list him here. His upside is very much worth an 11th- or 12th-round pick. But I'm also going to give this caveat: I wouldn't want to go into the season with only him as my tight end.

Brent Celek, TE, Eagles (14th, 11th): This is crazy low. Is he amazing? No. Nor does he have the upside of some others, but he's also a bit safer. We know he's been a stud before, and he seemed to get back to that toward the end of last year. Over the second half of the season, he was top-10 in the NFL among tight ends in targets, receptions, yardage (fourth!) and touchdowns. Nowhere to go but up for Philly's offense this year.

Ryan Williams, RB, Cardinals (15th, 8th): Tore his right patellar tendon last year. Still healthier than Beanie Wells.

Carson Palmer, QB, Raiders (15th, 13th): From Nov. 6, which was the first game that Palmer started for the Raiders last season, he was top-10 in the NFL in passing attempts, completions, completion percentage, yards and yards per attempt. In fact, he was first in pass plays of more than 25 yards. And 11th in touchdowns. New offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp loves short passes and crossing routes and, luckily, Palmer has two burners in Moore and Heyward-Bey, along with a hopefully healthy Darren McFadden. Palmer could pad those yardage totals without throwing as many of those interception-making deep passes that he loves.

Randall Cobb, WR, Packers (16th, 12th): The best yards-after-catch average of any Packers wideout last year, he's initially going to be tough to count on week in, week out. But a young burner with talent and Aaron Rodgers throwing to him? Rather take a late gamble on a guy like him, who could easily blow up, than a "safer" guy like Nate Burleson, who is what he is at this point. In the late rounds, you want upside. And Randall Cobb has it by the bushelful. Do they still sell bushels? They do, right? At least in Green Bay? Go look that up while I get to the next guy. Let me know. Thanks.

Jacquizz Rodgers, RB, Falcons (undrafted, 12th): We know some backup running backs will pop at some point this year. So if we're placing bets, gimme the guy behind Michael Turner.

Vincent Brown, WR, Chargers (undrafted, 14th): Every time I've seen this guy, I like what I see. I have the opposite reaction to Malcolm Floyd and Robert Meachem.

Kyle Rudolph, TE, Vikings (undrafted, 14th): You can't teach 6-foot-6.

A love so deep …
So, standard ESPN leagues draft only 160 players (10 teams, 16 roster slots) and 20 of those are defenses and kickers. So you're really dealing with 140 players who can be drafted. Now, obviously, I know some people play in deeper leagues; this list is for you. Here are some deeper guys who are not being drafted in ESPN standard leagues but who I have inside my personal top 140. I've divided them up into sections, since toward the end of your draft you're probably looking for "one more wideout" or "a backup tight end" or "that last piece of pizza or the leftover ribs?"

Quarterbacks:

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills: Was among the hottest things going, averaging 248 passing yards and two touchdowns a game for the first seven weeks. Then he hurt his ribs. The ribs are better. (That is also the answer to the pizza question).

Matt Cassell, Chiefs: Nice weapons, good dump-off options, and Brian Daboll is a really good coordinator.

Running backs:

It's all about the backup, of course; you're hoping for the starter to put on a poor performance or to get injured (just slightly, don't really wanna root for injury, but hey, it's the NFL -- it happens). See my ranks for specific order, but here are the backups with the best upside in terms of who is in front of them, and who I believe would have success if given the carries.

Rashad Jennings, Jaguars: how is no one drafting MJD's backup? MJD could easily hold out into the season.

Mike Goodson (and Taiwan Jones to an extent), Raiders: Darren McFadden, but I can't "like" him to good health.

Bilal Powell, Jets: Contrary to popular belief, Tim Tebow is not the Jets' third-down back.

Phillip Tanner, Cowboys: If something happens to DeMarco Murray, I believe Tanner, and not Felix Jones, would be the guy.

Tim Hightower, Redskins: Currently running with the first team in Washington but being drafted behind Roy Helu and Evan Royster.

Wide Receivers:

Danny Amendola, Rams: Was a sleeper last year, too. Doubling down.

Greg Little, Browns: A better PPR guy than for standard scoring; at some point the Browns have to throw it. Little was top-20 in the NFL in targets last year.

Kendall Wright, Titans: Hearing great things, and you know Kenny Britt-le will provide opportunity. (I warned you there'd be puns.)

Leonard Hankerson, Redskins: So sue me. I'm an optimistic Redskins fan. It only happens once every decade. Liked what I saw in limited time and they will be throwing.

Steve Smith, Rams: Hearing really good things about "the other Steve Smith."

The Baldwin Brothers: Doug in Seattle, Jon in KC and Alec on planes. All ready to show some growth this year.

Austin Collie, Colts: See Wayne, Reggie.

Tight End:

Coby Fleener, TE, Colts: Luck's security blanket. And has been for a while now.

Players I Hate this season
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Jim Brown/US Presswire
Jared Cook is what we in the industry like to call low-risk, high-reward. This kind of player is way more desirable to own than its counterpart, the high-risk, low-reward player.
Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jaguars (being drafted in 1st, I would draft in 2nd): You wanna talk about something I hate? I hate putting MJD on this list. A great guy, a great promoter of fantasy and obviously a great running back. But he's holding out. We saw what happened to Chris Johnson last year. Has any player ever come back from a holdout and had a better year than the previous? I don't think so. Even if you ignore the usage last year (386 offensive touches, most in the NFL), the new offense MJD has to learn and the fact that defenses are likely to focus on stopping him and make Blaine Gabbert beat them (hehehe -- dammit, I almost got through that without laughing and everything), you're still left with the fact that Maurice is a proud guy (rightfully so) and may very well hold out for a long time. You can't take that risk in the first round.

Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals (1st, 2nd): It's not that I hate Larry. He's awesome. No matter who is throwing to him. I have him at 17 overall, my No. 2 wide receiver this year. I just have a tough time taking any wideout (even Megatron, whom I have at 10) in the first round given how deep wideout is. Seriously. Jeremy Maclin and Steve Johnson are going in the seventh round and outside the top 20 of wide receivers. Seventh round. Maclin and Johnson. And Antonio Brown, whom I love. Any one of them could end up as a top-10 guy. Crazy. Deep.

Andre Johnson, WR, Texans (2nd, late 4th/early 5th): This one is not just about depth at the position; 12 missed games the past two years, he has never had double-digit touchdowns in a season, and the Texans ran 52.2 percent of the time in '11, 2nd-most in the NFL.

Mike Wallace, WR, Steelers (3rd, 5th): I promise, I'll get off wideouts here in a second, but again, if you're gonna use a third-round pick on a wide receiver, how about getting one who isn't holding out and wasn't even the best wide receiver on his team over the second half of last season?

Eli Manning, QB, Giants (3rd/4th, take in 5th): Great year for Eli. Really great year. Threw for almost 5,000 yards, the sixth-most in NFL history. And he still wasn't a top-five fantasy quarterback. He's thrown more than 30 touchdowns once in an eight-year career. And with Mario Manningham being replaced by rookie Reuben Randle (whom I like, but still), I don't see that trend being broken. So now it's about his yardage. Here's the percentage of pass plays the Giants have called under Tom Coughlin the past five years.

2011 -- 60 percent
2010 -- 53.6 percent
2009 -- 56.4 percent
2008 -- 50.8 percent
2007 -- 54.9 percent

One guess which season was the outlier? The Giants are traditionally a power-running team, and this year they will get back to that, controlling the clock and yes, Eli's fantasy value. And that's before we even get to Victor Cruz.

Victor Cruz, WR, Giants (4th, 5th): So as our player profile observes, last year Cruz scored touchdowns of 4, 24, 25, 28, 68, 72, 74, 74 and 99 yards. I agree with Christopher Harris, who wrote all the profiles; the repeatability of long, crazy, acrobatic touchdowns will be tough, especially now that he's on everyone's radar and the Giants will be throwing less. Think he's pretty good, don't think he's this good.

Michael Turner, RB, Falcons (4th, 4th): I reserve the right to take him off this list soon. We're dangerously close to "the hate has gone too far" territory. I still like the upside of Jaquizz, and Turner will be on other people's teams in most of my leagues, but there does come a point where you're like, so what if he's slowing down, had tons of touches and was bailed out last year by a few big games but overall wasn't a great fantasy contributor? He's still the main guy on a good offense. But until we reach that point, he's on the wrong side of 30, the miles have piled up on him by now, and his late-season numbers (excluding the Tampa Bay game) looked brutal.

Frank Gore, RB, 49ers (4th, 5th): Pick a stat, any stat. As the notes on our player cards, er, note, Gore's touches went down last year (and significantly so in the second half). Pro Football Focus notes that, using their metrics, Gore was "near the bottom of the league with a 23.8 elusive rating and a plus-2.1 overall rating last year". FootballOutsiders.com notes that using DVOA, their metric, Gore was lowest among running backs with at least 275 carries and that "he had just 12 broken tackles last year, very low totals for a starting back." And then there's the Matthew Berry metric that points out he's had just one season with double-digit scores and only two seasons with all 16 games played (those late West Coast games with Gore listed as questionable are always fun to deal with) -- and the 49ers just added Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James to their backfield, and they already had Kendall Hunter. Gore's stuff percentage was third-highest in the NFL on runs between an opponent's 1-9 yard line, and six of his eight scores last year came from 5 yards in, which isn't something you want to count on for your touchdowns. Receptions were way down (after 40-plus receptions for five straight years, he had just 17 last year). I always say, I'd rather jump off the bandwagon a year too early than a year too late. I'm off the bandwagon.

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AP Photo/Stephen Chernin
No fantasy points are scored for football lineage, "Saturday Night Live" appearances, or commercials in which you and Deion Sanders dress up as faeries.
Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos (4th/5th, 6th): Archie, if you're reading this, I swear, I don't hate your kids. Just where they are being drafted. You can't tell me Peyton isn't a risk. He's 36, off four major neck surgeries, has missed a year, has new teammates, at least some slight changes to the offense and 15 of 16 games will be outdoors. There is upside there, of course; he's Peyton Manning. But there is also upside with Tony Romo and Philip Rivers. All three guys could have injuries or regress, all three have 4,700-yard/35-TD upside. Only difference is Romo and Rivers are going 1-3 rounds later than Peyton.

Vernon Davis, TE, 49ers (6th, 11th): Two. Because of last year's playoffs, people will forget the number two. As in, last year, Vernon Davis had just two games in which he scored more than five fantasy points without also scoring a touchdown. (Tony Gonzalez, by comparison, had six such games last year.) I hate a tight end who is so touchdown-dependent for his fantasy value. And I don't believe the playoffs are a harbinger of things to come; the 49ers are not going to win with Alex Smith throwing it 42 times like he did against the Saints (he averaged 27 attempts a game last year). Davis was only 10th in targets among tight ends, as the 49ers went with a ball-control, running offense last year. And as our player profile, er, profiles, Vernon's 6.7 yards at the catch was outside the top 20. So not a ton of looks his way, comparatively, and they're not throwing deep when they do. Remains to be seen if Mario Manningham and possibly Randy Moss open things up for Davis or take that many more balls away, but my projection is that he'll score a handful of touchdowns over the course of the season, but those will be hard to predict. You can get that kind of tight end much later. For where Davis is being drafted (No. 4 at the position), he needs to be much more than that.

Roy Helu, RB, Redskins (6th, 9th): Current reports have him third on the depth chart. That changes every second with Mike Shanahan, but that's the problem. He's a Redskins running back. Don't trust the lot of them.

Vincent Jackson, WR, Buccaneers (6th, 7th): He's just so many things I hate: A guy who just got paid, who has never really proven he's worth it; he's on a new team with a new playbook and quarterback; he has downgraded his QB and he's a fantasy whack-a-mole; he'll have huge games and then disappear. And with V-Jax, be it injury or contract or controversy, it just seems there's always something with him. Considering that guys like Harvin, Maclin, Steve Johnson, Antonio Brown and Demaryius Thomas are being drafted after him and can be had cheaper, Jackson won't be on any of my teams this year.

Stevan Ridley, RB, Patriots (7th, 11th): Just can't imagine a scenario where I'd ever feel good about starting a Patriots running back. Lotta mouths to feed in their run game, which takes a back seat to their pass game; he's as good a guess as any to have the most value of any New England back, but good luck trying to hit that lottery.

Jonathan Stewart (7th , 9th) and DeAngelo Williams, RBs, Panthers (9th, 10th): See Ridley, Stevan. Barring injuries that thin the herd, would never feel confident starting either guy.

San Francisco 49ers D/ST (8th, 15th): Really, guys? A defense in the eighth? Also going in the eighth round as of this writing: Doug Martin, Robert Griffin the Third, Isaac Redman, Aaron Hernandez, Ben Roethlisberger. Really, guys? Really?

Jahvid Best, RB, Lions (9th, 14th): Can't stay healthy. Even if he could, the Lions can't run. Even if they could, there's competition there. Too many question marks to be going ahead of guys like Hillis, C.J. Spiller or Michael Bush.

Santonio Holmes, WR, Jets (10th, 12th): Well, unless your league gives points for blocking on the QB option.

Stephen Gostkowski, K, Patriots (11th, 16th): All you 49ers defense-drafting fools I just insulted? All is forgiven. Sigh.

Sidney Rice, WR, Seahawks (12th, 16th): When a team says, "You know what? We think the drama of an almost-40-year-old Terrell Owens is a better option than having you as the undisputed No. 1 receiver," that's a hint. Lotta wideouts with more upside and less injury risk and better quarterback situations going later than Rice.

Felix Jones, RB, Cowboys (12th, 16th): Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me every single season…

Andy Dalton, QB. Bengals (13th, wouldn't draft): Very tough division, conservative offense, single-digit fantasy points in three of his final five games. He doesn't have the fantasy upside of Carson Palmer, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Joe Flacco or even Andrew Luck, all of whom are being drafted after him.

Kellen Winslow, TE, Seahawks (14th/15th, wouldn't draft) As our player profile, er, notes, yes, that's it! As our player profile notes, he's never had more than five scores in a season, has gone an insane 39 starts with just one 100-yard game and now he's on a new team trotting out a new offense with questionable quarterback play. He's going ahead of much higher upside guys like Jermaine Gresham, Kyle Rudolph, Dustin Keller, Scott Chandler and Martellus Bennett, whom I should have mentioned in the love section above. I actually think Bennett could have a nice year in New York, free from the shadow of Jason Witten.

And there we have it, Love/Hate for the 2012 preseason is in the books. Many more updates, articles, podcasts, video, "Fantasy Football Now" episodes, rankings, mock drafts, tweets and Facebook posts coming your way before we kick the season off, but in the meantime, when you saw this link and any other link to a something I've done … thank you for saying yes.

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'You Heard Me'

By: timbersfan, 12:17 AM GMT on August 30, 2012

"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." -- Western Union internal memo, 1876.


"You ain't goin' nowhere, son. You ought to go back to drivin' a truck." -- Jimmy Denny, manager of the Grand Ole Opry, to Elvis Presley in 1954.

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." -- Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.

"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." -- Ken Olson, president, chairman, founder of Digital Equipment Corp, 1977.

"He has a shot at winning (the Giants') 4th receiver role." -- The 2011 ESPN Fantasy Football profile of Victor Cruz.

"Don't quit show business. Who could ever make a living at fantasy football?" -- Pretty much everyone I talked to in 2005.

Most of these examples, and many more, can be found in this piece from Herbert I. London, where the lack of an open mind and the eternity of the Internet have captured forever the embarrassing lessons all these people learned the hard way. As any self-respecting fantasy football player has known for a long time, speaking in absolutes only sets you up to look stupid. Because "never" is a bad word. "Unlikely" is much better.

Just because something is not probable to happen doesn't mean it can't happen. Because as anyone who owned Cruz, Laurent Robinson, Cam Newton or Rob Gronkowski last season will tell you, unlikely is what helps win fantasy football leagues. Or, as Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson owners will testify, it also helps you lose them.

"At its fundamental level, fantasy football is all about minimizing risk and giving yourself the best odds to win." -- Matthew Berry, the 2012 Draft Day Manifesto.

Did I just quote myself? You're damn right I just quoted myself. This article is not about following form or being proper and pretty. No, it's messy. It's the exact opposite of smart decision-making, of minimizing risk, of giving yourself the best odds.

In fact, this column is about going against the odds. Long shots. Lottery tickets.

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Generally speaking, there are two types of predictions: likely to happen and unlikely to happen. Different degrees within both, to be sure, but they all boil down to one of the two.

For example; Likely to happen: Drew Brees will throw for at least 4,300 yards and 34 touchdowns, as he has done for each of the last four seasons. Unlikely to happen: With no Sean Payton calling the plays, no more Robert Meachem and pressing too hard to justify his $100 million contract, Brees struggles and falls out of the top 10 of fantasy quarterbacks.

There's a reason Brees is one of the top draft picks year after year. He's actually had at least 4,300 passing yards every season he's been in New Orleans. I have him at No. 6 overall this year, so you know I believe he makes it seven straight seasons in 2012.

But could the second scenario also happen? Of course. Another consistent guy, Philip Rivers, went from averaging 11 interceptions a year over the past three to throwing 20 picks last season, contributing to his fewest touchdown passes since 2007.

You never know.

Our official ESPN fantasy projection for Brees is 4,921 yards and 43 touchdowns. It has been researched, studied, thought about in-depth, and, given Brees' track record, is completely believable and reasonable.

The rest of ESPN's fantasy analysis -- our draft kits, our rankings, podcasts, videos, Fantasy Football Now episodes, even my other columns -- are the same way. You might not agree with the conclusions drawn, but every single thing we offer up, given the full scope of data we have to work with, is likely to happen on some level.

Everything except this. This is my bold predictions column, and the reason they are bold predictions is that they are not likely to happen. Doesn't mean impossible. Just not likely.

Victor Cruz had had some flashy preseason moments in 2010, but injuries and the Giants' depth at wide receiver kept him on the bench. He looked great again in the 2011 preseason, but once again, it was deemed unlikely that he would get on the field in a significant enough manner to get the opportunity to shine, and that his skill, explosive but still raw, would carry him to fantasy stardom.

But, as we found out … unlikely doesn't mean impossible.

So my goal in this column is to find things that are fairly unlikely to happen but are still possible. I call it "You Heard Me."

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AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
If you actually listened to Matthew Berry and took his advice about Matthew Stafford last year, it would have paid off handsomely.
Pretend we are hanging out and I have decided, for once, to put down my phone and actually engage in conversation. It's 12 months ago and I say to you what I said in this exact column last year; "Matthew Stafford will be a top-five fantasy quarterback this year."

And you say, "What? The guy who is always injured?"

And then I say, "You heard me!"

Stafford did in fact finish last season as a top fantasy quarterback and it helped ease the pain of another bold prediction from last year's article: "Michael Vick will play all 16 games."

Anyway, here's how I suggest you use this article, other than as self-help motivation ("Well, my predictions are bad, but they're better than this guy's): The point is not so much to nail impossible predictions, but rather to illuminate some players I have strong feelings about, one way or the other. For example, last year in this column I predicted "Over the second half of the season, Isaac Redman is a top-20 fantasy running back. My thinking: Rashard Mendenhall succumbs to the Curse of 370 (playoff edition)."

That didn't happen, as Redman never got a lot of run. But if you decided to pass on using a top-12 pick on Mendenhall last year as a result of the prediction, you're probably not upset, as Mendenhall finished with the same number of fantasy points as Colt McCoy, falling short of a top-50 finish.

Last year in this space I nailed big seasons for Percy Harvin, Stafford, Willis McGahee, Marshawn Lynch and Aaron Hernandez. Of course, I was also down on Eli Manning and Maurice Jones-Drew and high on guys like Delone Carter, Lance Kendricks and Jacoby Ford. Yeah. They're not all winners, kids. This is very high-risk, high-reward territory we are entering, so please don't put more stock into it than use intended. But as I always say, there is no such thing as a bad pick after Round 12; they should all be lottery tickets at that point.

I've got one prediction for each team and I'm going in alphabetical order:

Arizona Cardinals: Ryan Williams, coming off major surgery and going in the 12th round, finishes as a top-20 fantasy running back. My thinking: I hate Beanie Wells. And I think the Cards do, too. Wells fell into 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, and Williams is a better running back.

Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan throws for over 4,500 yards, 35 touchdowns and is a top-five fantasy quarterback. My thinking: They finally let him throw deep, throw into the red zone, throw to a running back that isn't Michael Turner. Throw throw throw. To Julio Jones. Who is as pure as a baby's smile. Mmm, Julio Jones.

Baltimore Ravens: Torrey Smith catches for 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns. My thinking: He's got the speed and he's got a big-arm quarterback who targets him deep; now they just need to land in his hands. He's the No. 1 target there and my best guess at "Who is this year's Jordy Nelson?" Of course, a better bold prediction would be if I bet I could go an entire article without talking about him.

Buffalo Bills: Fred Jackson finishes the season in the top 10 in the NFL in offensive touches. My thinking: C.J. Spiller is nice and will get some run, but Jackson made this offense hum last year and the Bills will be at their best when the ball is in his hands. Not worried about Spiller playing the spoiler is my main point here, I guess.

Carolina Panthers: Eight touchdowns for Mike Tolbert. My thinking: The Chargers gave it to him in San Diego, Jonathan Stewart is already banged up and maybe Ron Rivera decides, size or no size, that sending the franchise quarterback crashing into the goal line isn't the greatest idea.

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Chicago Bears: Over 3,000 combined yards and 20 touchdowns between Matt Forte and Brandon Marshall, making both top five at their positions. My thinking: Both are studs, of course, so to make this semi-bold, I had to go nuts on the scores, as that's the one argument against them. Think the concerns about Michael Bush are overstated; the Bears didn't give Forte a big payday to have him watch from the sideline. And the hype on Marshall is justified.

Cincinnati Bengals: BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a top-10 fantasy running back. My thinking: He'll get all the carries, teams will be more worried about A.J. Green than him, and if healthy and given how the Bengals run in the red zone, he's a mortal lock for double-digit touchdowns.

Cleveland Browns: Trent Richardson averages less than 80 rushing yards a game and is outside the top 30 at running back. My thinking: Hate the schedule, the O-line, the two knee operations ...

Dallas Cowboys: Dez Bryant has 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns. My thinking: That's exactly what I wrote last year. He had 900 and nine. If I keep writing it, it'll eventually happen.

Denver Broncos: McGahee is a top-10 fantasy running back. My thinking: What are they gonna do, let Peyton throw it? Oh yeah. Well, when they do, it's a lot less pressure on McGahee, who will have an easier time staying healthy. And they will score a lot more. People don't realize Peyton Manning likes to run the ball when he gets close.

Detroit Lions: 1,000 yards for Titus Young. My thinking: Well, when they've triple-covered Calvin ...

Green Bay Packers: 800 yards and six scores for Randall Cobb. My thinking: You know what happens when you have someone who is crazy fast catching balls thrown to him by Aaron Rodgers? Good things, my friend. Magical things.

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Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Darren McFadden will play all 16 games? He hasn't played a full season yet in his career. That's why it's a bold prediction.
Houston Texans: Andre Johnson finishes outside the top 30 at wide receiver. My thinking: I'm cheating because that's exactly what happened last year to currently-going-in-the-second-round Andre Johnson. I know, betting against Johnson's health is not exactly earth-shattering, but what do you want me to do? Dump on Arian Foster? Come on. Plus, I said top 30. He's going in the second!

Indianapolis Colts: Top-15 fantasy running back ... Donald Brown. My thinking: He's a good pass-catcher and all they really have at the position, so expect a lot of carries and dump-offs. They will need to run to set up play action for Andrew Luck.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Rashad Jennings has more fantasy points than Jones-Drew. My thinking: Does a holdout ever end well?

Kansas City Chiefs: Over 3,000 total yards and 16 touchdowns for Charles and Peyton Hillis combined. My thinking: The smile of a pretty woman, the laugh of a child, an overachieving Brian Daboll running back ... all things I believe in.

Miami Dolphins: 1,000 total yards for Daniel Thomas. My thinking: This team is going nowhere. At some point, the Dolphins have to see what they have in Thomas. Reggie Bush is no guarantee to stay healthy. If Brian Hartline was healthy, it might be something about him. Also thought about Anthony Fasano, as Joe Philbin loves to use his tight ends.

Minnesota Vikings: Harvin is one of fantasy's top two wide receivers. My thinking: I love the stat I've been shouting all summer long. Once Christian Ponder took over, Harvin had 100 touches, 26 more than any other wide receiver over the same time frame.

New England Patriots: Brandon Lloyd is the other top two fantasy wide receiver. My thinking: Deep threat plus Tom Brady plus Josh McDaniels loves him plus defenses having to worry about everyone else equals at least one deep touchdown a game.

New Orleans Saints: Fourteen touchdowns for Mark Ingram. My thinking: They go more conservative with no Payton, they'll obviously be in the red zone a lot, and Ingram is finally healthy.

New York Giants: David Wilson has the best fantasy season of any rookie running back. My thinking: Ahmad Bradshaw is no iron man when it comes to injury, Wilson's looked great, and I could see Richardson (and, to an extent, Doug Martin) failing because of offensive line woes, etc.

New York Jets: Tim Tebow ends the season as a top-15 fantasy quarterback. My thinking: Sad as it is to say this, he's the Jets' best offensive weapon and if he got the starting gig, he'd run enough to be startable.

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Brett Davis/US Presswire
Are fantasy owners giving Andre Johnson more of a free pass for his recent injury issues?
Oakland Raiders: Darren McFadden plays all 16 games. My thinking: Hope springs eternal. Thought this was bolder than saying something great about Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey, whom I also like. Or Taiwan Jones, whom I think is the handcuff you want.

Philadelphia Eagles: Vick plays all 16 games. My thinking: Doubling down with McFadden. What could possibly go wrong?

Pittsburgh Steelers: Antonio Brown is a top-10 receiver. And Mike Wallace is outside the top 20. My thinking: Brown was basically top 10 in most NFL receiving categories from Week 7 on, and Wallace was outside the top 30. The holdout helped my cause, not the other way around.

San Diego Chargers: Antonio Gates plays all 16 games. My thinking: Who doesn't love a three-player parlay?

San Francisco 49ers: Kendall Hunter has more fantasy points than Frank Gore. My thinking: Gore is done. Hunter just needs the chance and there's a few ways that could happen.

Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks are a top-five fantasy defense. My thinking: A good secondary and six games against the Rams, Cardinals and 49ers are pretty good places to start.

St. Louis Rams: Danny Amendola has a 90-catch season. My thinking: I still believe in Sam Bradford's talent and Amendola has the talent to do this. If both guys are healthy ...

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Williams catches for 1,000 yards, making him fantasy relevant again. My thinking: Josh Freeman bounces back and, without the pressure of having to be "the guy" and Vincent Jackson taking a lot of defensive attention, Williams is able to return to the wideout we saw two years ago.

Tennessee Titans: 1,000 yards for Kenny Britt. My thinking: Don't think he gets suspended for very long and, when healthy, he has top-10 wide receiver upside. The Titans are going to be a lot better than folks give them credit for.

Washington Redskins: Garcon is a top 15-wide receiver. My thinking: Ha! Thought I was going RG3 there, didn't you? Well, Garcon has been the most targeted guy in preseason and, according to reports, in practice too. You see how they were taking deep shots against the Colts in their preseason game? They will throw it in Washington this season.

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Al Jazeera's New Sports Network Changes the Soccer-Watching Landscape

By: timbersfan, 12:23 AM GMT on August 29, 2012

Last week, watching soccer in the United States changed forever. While ESPN and Fox Soccer Channel still have the biggest matches — American World Cup qualifiers in the U.S., the English Premier League, and the Champions League — a network that didn't exist as recently as June owns the English-language television rights to virtually everything else. La Liga, home to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, France's Ligue 1, which features Grantland favorite PSG, Serie A, home to a host of wonderful players and even more wonderful scandals, and all 2014 WCQ games not on U.S. or Mexican soil can only be seen on a network called beIN Sport.

This raises two questions. First, what the hell is beIN Sport? And second, how can you watch it?

First things first: beIN SPORT is a new sports network from Al Jazeera. The Qatar-funded outfit launched beIN with great fanfare in France earlier this summer and debuted the U.S. version in August. A new sports network is only as good as the rights it owns, and BeIN won many by spending cash and lots of it. In April, Reuters pegged the outlay for broadcasting rights at $400 million, and it's certainly grown since. The New York Times reported beIN paid twice what GolTV spent last season for U.S. La Liga rights. The flow of dollars won't stop soon, either. "They have so much money supporting them. They have more money than News Corp. They are being funded by a country that's being filled with oil wells," Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand says.

Great, so beIN has amazing games on the network. Where can you watch? Well … they are working on that. You can't just launch a network and have it appear on television. You need to work out deals with carriers, which is difficult enough without having the added baggage that the organization funding beIN does. Fairly or not, being backed by Al Jazeera has certain negative connotations in the U.S. For example, Al Jazeera English has had almost no success getting carried by American cable operators. (This sad line appears in the "Demand Al Jazeera" section of the channel's website: "Five years since Al Jazeera English launched, the channel is still only available in a handful of US cities: New York, NY; Washington DC; Burlington, VT; Toledo, OH; and Bristol, RI.")

BeIN is making better progress. As of last week, it had deals with Comcast, Dish Network, and DirectTV, although only 8 million of Dish and DirectTV's 34 million subscribers pay for the tier that includes beIN, and it is part of Comcast's expensive Sports Entertainment Package. But frankly, to have achieved that much penetration — in such a brief amount of time — is nothing short of remarkable. (For example, compare that speed to the struggles of NFL Network.)

"For Comcast, which is completely dependent on U.S. regulators, to do a deal with Al Jazeera, it's almost unheard-of," Ourand says. "They been able to navigate these waters really, really effectively. If you had said a year ago that Al Jazeera was going to be on the no. 1 cable operator and the no. 1 satellite operator, it would have sounded ridiculous."

The rapid rise of beIN has made some U.S. soccer fans upset, for understandable reasons. Many of them lost access to La Liga, Serie A, and other European leagues that they could watch last year on GolTV and other networks. Additionally, there's a real chance that the vast majority of the country won't be able to see the U.S. World Cup qualifier in Kingston, Jamaica, on September 7. beIN is not perfect, or close to it, right now. But don't forget that American fans had to pay $30 to see June's qualifier against Guatemala. beIN is committed to getting itself on more cable operators and seems to be succeeding. According to beIN's Twitter feed and other rumors, deals with other operators should be coming in the future.

"I think there will be some unhappy fans in August, but I'm hoping there will be a heck of a lot of happy fans in September. From what I have heard, every person that has had the opportunity to see what beIN Sport is doing has been blown away," Phil Schoen, a host who jumped from GolTV, says. (Multiple e-mails and phone messages to Al Jazeera and beIN Sport requesting comment on this story went unanswered.)

Schoen is, of course, paid to be positive. His timetable is off — I suspect there will still be plenty of unhappy fans when the game kicks off in Kingston — but beIN's early efforts are promising. The channel oozes money. The product is beautiful, featuring high-quality production, strong camerawork, and excellent studio shows. Schoen's partner, the legendary play-by-play man Ray Hudson joined the network, as did a bevy of beautiful and brainy hosts.

The ambition of beIN goes beyond soccer as well. "It's a sports network, not a soccer network," Schoen says. "I don't think they are looking to set themselves up in direct competition with ESPN, but I don't think it would be wrong to say they are setting themselves up as an alternative to ESPN," Schoen says.

The question is whether beIN can succeed. "This is a really tough time to launch any new operation in the incredibly crowded universe of cable and satellite TV. None other than her majesty herself, Oprah Winfrey, proved that. She launches OWN and that has needless to say struggled in monumental ways," Robert Thompson, the director for Syracuse University's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, says.

He's right, but beIN and its parent Al Jazeera are committed. In the sports television game, rights are all that matters, and those almost always go to the highest bidder. Next up: The EPL. beIN/Al Jazeera appears to be attempting to win the
U.S. rights to broadcast England's top flight. "They could potentially throw sports media in the U.S. completely out of whack. It almost sounds like I'm overstating it, but they have so much money and they are getting the distribution," Ourand says. Honestly, it doesn't really sound like he's doing so at all.

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Paris Is Rising: The Elephant and the 19 Mice of French Football

By: timbersfan, 12:22 AM GMT on August 29, 2012

There is an elephant and 19 mice in French football. L’Equipe, France’s largest sports daily, was the one to coin that phrase but it seems players and managers agree. In a recent survey 85 percent of players picked the same team to win Ligue 1 this season. In another poll 100 percent of the managers agreed. It is a one-horse race for the title in France this year and that horse, of course, is Paris Saint-Germain, the nouveau-riche team from the capital threatening to gatecrash the party of Europe’s elite clubs. It is a foregone conclusion throughout France that PSG will win the league, so the focus is whether they will mount a serious challenge on the Champions League.

Just this week the club reportedly paid 45 million Euros to secure the services of unproven Brazilian teenager Lucas Moura, making it the largest transfer in the history of Brazilian football. What PSG are paying for is his potential and with their money they can afford to roll the dice. It is perhaps the Lucas transfer that shows the extent of just how far PSG have come. True, they captured both Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva earlier this summer. But those transfers were born out of AC Milan’s financial troubles, and few people were willing to match the 14 million–Euro annual net salary PSG offered Ibrahimovic.

With Lucas, both Manchester United and Inter Milan, teams who have featured in four of the last five Champions League finals, were interested in the player. Yet it was PSG who walked away with the young Brazilian. “When someone is paying 45 million for a 19-year-old boy you have to say the game’s gone mad,” said Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

What the Lucas fee actually proves is that PSG are not hesitant to throw their financial muscle around, but, equally important, it shows that young players like Lucas are buying into the PSG project. It’s one thing to get big stars who are looking for their last contract, but another thing entirely when a club of PSG’s stature can attract future stars of the game — players like Lucas, the silky Argentine Javier Pastore, and the Italian teenager Marco Verratti, dubbed little Pirlo in Italy.

There are varying opinions on PSG’s access to and use of the money it has received from Qatar. None other than French president François Hollande has said “Frankly this is a time to have limits. The salaries are manifestly too high.” France’s budget minister, Jerôme Cahuzac, was less diplomatic. “At a time when everyone around the world is tightening their belts, these figures are not impressive, they are indecent,” he said in an interview with Europe1 radio. Former sports minister Roselyne Bachelot echoed Cahuzac and Hollande when she said “These wages make me indignant and almost disgust me. These wages are a reflection of everything that is deplorable about football.” This is more than just politicians pandering to the electorate — Hollande may soon add some bite to his bark. A large part of his campaign promise was to implement a 75 percent tax on all salaries over a million Euros, and he has shown no sign of backing off from that promise.

Lost amid all the talk surrounding PSG’s money is that there are still 37 matches to be played this season and PSG will have to win the title on the field. They drew their opening match with Lorient, 2-2, needing two goals from Ibra to rescue a point.

The team looks strong on paper, but there are real problems heading into the season. As you might imagine, not everyone in the dressing room is happy. When a team stockpiles talent the way PSG has, some quality players find themselves stuck on the bench. Nene, the Brazilian winger, who was joint top scorer in Ligue 1 last season, stormed out of the stadium last Saturday after being substituted at halftime against Barcelona. There is a question in the central defense about who will start next to Thiago Silva. Mamadou Sakho is a player who came through the PSG system and was club captain under former coach Antoine Kambouaré, but Sakho has seen his playing time limited under new manager Carlo Ancelotti. Sakho is a fan favorite and a symbol of the old PSG, while Alex is seen as the new regime ushering out the old and putting a new gloss on the club. Politics aside, Sakho looks like the one who should be the first choice when the season starts. In attack, everyone expects Ibrahimovic to do what he always does, score goals and help PSG win the title. The midfield looks good enough to manage the domestic campaign, but the trio of Thiago Motta, Pastore, and Mohamed Sissoko may find it difficult in the Champions League.

I plan to attend all of PSG's home matches, a few important road games, and spend some time watching with local Parisians in bars. Like many Americans who spend the fall and winter watching Barclays Premier League matches before sunrise on the weekends, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to actually be in the stadium. Your connection to a club can only be so strong if you only watch them from your living room and they are thousands of miles away across an ocean. You can fall in love with an adopted team and cheer them on, but nothing compares to the camaraderie of attending matches and riding the emotional wave of being a fan with tens of thousands of other people. This was exactly what happened to me when I visited the Emirates Stadium two years ago and was on hand to watch Arsenal draw 2-2 with Barcelona in the Champions League and then win a nail-biting match against Wolves in which Nicklas Bendtner scored a stoppage time winner. Those two matches were more than anything I’d done as an Arsenal fan in the previous eight years. Within four days I’d learned all the club’s chants and was part of a full “Come on Arsenal” chorus that roared the team on before Bendtner scored his winner. Even the Chelsea fan who took me to the match was swept up in the excitement.

PSG are threatening to turn Ligue 1 into a one-team league. Traditional rivals Marseille are in decline. Defending champions Montpellier lost their top scorer from last season to Arsenal and Lille no longer have Eden Hazard. If PSG does become a flat track bully, it is not necessarily a bad thing. Interest in Dutch football peaked when Ajax were head and shoulders above everyone else in the Eredivisie. I spent much of the '80s on my father’s lap watching tape-delayed Liverpool matches when they were by far the best team in England. Manchester United’s dominance in the '90s has a lot to do with why the Premier League is as popular as it is today. If PSG dominates Ligue 1 and couple that with some serious runs in Europe interest in Ligue 1 will grow and so will the price of television rights, which will increase the earnings of other clubs. PSG might be the elephant of France towering over 19 mice, but as anyone who watched the Disney classic Dumbo can attest, mice have been known to cause elephants a scare from time to time.

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Paris Is Rising: Have a Nice Bordeaux With That

By: timbersfan, 12:21 AM GMT on August 29, 2012

Three matches into the Ligue 1 season and the expensively assembled juggernaut that is Paris Saint-Germain is still undefeated. The team hasn’t conceded a goal in two and a half matches, and for the second consecutive week their opponents barely had a shot on target. The chance of an undefeated season is still on. PSG continues to look unbeatable and once again dominated possession for the third consecutive match. Perhaps this is why fans were letting off firecrackers in the stadium and why, earlier this week, team director Leonardo responded to questions about the club being in a crisis by saying “je ne suis pas inquiete”: I’m not worried. So all is well, then? Not so fast, my friends. That is the glass-half-full version of what’s going on in Paris.

Here’s the less generous version: PSG were booed and whistled off the field at the end of another listless performance (drawing 0-0 with Bordeaux) in which they failed to find the net. The Bordeaux keeper had little to do, as most of PSG’s shots were off-target. They are winless in their first three matches, and Sunday night’s 0-0 draw with Bordeaux offered very little to suggest that the champagne-and-caviar football we were all promised is anywhere closer to arriving. This looked more like stale crepes and Nutella (which were on sale at the stadium at halftime). PSG now sit six points behind league leaders Marseille with a tricky away fixture coming up against Lille next weekend. I had planned to travel to Lille for the match, but after Sunday night’s affair those plans are canceled. This team is not worth a road trip.

There is the Midas touch and then there is whatever Carlo Ancelotti has had since he took over at PSG in January. When Ancelotti was hired as PSG manager, in December, 2011, his salary made him the highest-paid manager in league history, and his team that was atop the Ligue 1 standings (they finished second). In 22 Ligue 1 matches in charge, he’s won slightly more than half. After three matches this season, Ancelotti doesn’t seem to know his best lineup, and his formation does not get the best out of his players. Beyond that, Ancelotti makes baffling substitutions and selections. With the score tied at 0-0 in the 69th minute against Bordeaux, and PSG needing a goal, Ancelotti substituted the left-back, Maxwell, and introduced Sylvain Armand, another defender. The move prompted quizzical looks from the fans and Armand’s introduction had no impact on the course of the match.

In midfield, Ancelotti started with the trio of Blaise Matuidi, Thiago Motta, and Adrien Rabiot. Motta looked a step off the pace; Matuidi was again ineffective, and I’m still struggling to figure out what he does well. The 17-year-old Rabiot at least put in a solid display on his league debut.
This was the third different lineup that Ancelotti has used in midfield, and after an ineffective performance on Sunday I’m sure we will see a fourth against Lille next weekend. The one advantage of Ancelotti’s midfield was to free up Javier Pastore and allow him to play further up the field where he is more comfortable. Last night the Argentinian’s play was so slow and ponderous that the old man behind me kept screaming, "Pastore est fatigue" (Pastore is tired). The return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic did little to improve the team’s overall play because there was hardly any service coming from the midfield. Ibrahimovic’s response was to drop deeper to collect the ball, but playing that far away from goal made it easier for the Bordeaux defenders to contain him.

Bordeaux played PSG the same way Lorient and Ajaccio played them. They defended deep when they did not have the ball, allowing PSG to play short passes but keeping everything in front of them. When they won the ball there was always a man available for the counterattack, and Cheick Diabate gave Alex and Mamadou Sakho all they could handle as the Bordeaux forward threw his weight around, winning one aerial challenge after another. If PSG cannot break down stubborn defensive sides, they have no chance of winning the league title. Ligue 1 is, arguably, Europe’s most defensive league, and teams are content to take one point instead of getting involved in a shootout and going home defeated.

Earlier this week, the popular refrain from the PSG camp was that they would show their level this weekend, with Matuidi saying the team is now going to give not 100 percent but 120 percent. Now Ancelotti begs for time. After the match he reminded everyone that it’s only the third match of the season and the team will get better. The fans aren’t so sure. Not the ones who booed and whistled after the game, and not the ones who I saw interviewed on the local news. It’s a deception because we spent 100 million euros and are drawing matches 0-0, one said. Everyone is waiting on them but they aren’t ready, said another. Yet another went so far as to call the performance catastrophic. It seems the PSG fans agree with the traveling Bordeaux fans who unveiled two large banners in the first half. The first one read “Le Parc c’etait mieux avant” ("Parc des Princes was better before"). The second was more to the point. “Ceci n’est pas du football” ("This isn’t football"). After three matches, I couldn’t agree more. D’accord, Bordeaux. D’accord.

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The Forbes List List

By: timbersfan, 12:20 AM GMT on August 29, 2012

The Forbes List List
By Rembert Browne on August 27, 2012 6:10 PM ET

COOPER NEILL/GETTY IMAGES
Today Forbes unleashed its list of the highest-paid celebrities. The most recent list, which charts cash monies acquired between May 2011 and May 2012, is an amazing list, mainly because it's full of surprises. I CAN'T WAIT TO TELL YOU WHAT THEY ARE.

1. Oprah (No. 1) Tops List. Again.

A joke, eight years ago:

I'm not talking 'bout rich, I'm talking 'bout wealth, OK? I'm talking about the white family that owns all the fucking Similac. Those rich motherfuckers. I'm talking about the white family that owns the color blue. Those rich bastards. I ain't talking 'bout Oprah, I'm talking 'bout Bill Gates, OK? If Bill Gates woke up tomorrow with Oprah's money he'd jump out a fucking window. He'd slit his throat on the way down. "Ah, shit. I can't even put gas in my plane!" — Chris Rock, Never Scared

At the time of this joke, Oprah's net worth was already over a billion dollars, but Bill Gates's was 46 times that amount. While Chris did make a decent point in this critique of the gap between their respective finances, you still have to give Oprah a ton of credit in the present day for continuing to find ways to make all of the money. This year was especially impressive, because she kept her top celebrity spot for the fourth straight year, even after the end of her show. As the article points out, Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray, and Dr. Oz still have to raise their hand and then give her $50,000 every time they speak directly to her, and although her ingeniously named OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network — we get it, Oprah, you own us) hasn't exactly been a mainstream hit (that is, until Rihanna graced the channel looking like a 99-cent bodega purchase), she still found a way to net $165 million in a 12-month span. Yes, the piece notes that this could potentially be her last year atop this list, but I have chosen to not allow those words to register.

2. Oh Yeah, That's What Michael Bay (No. 2) Looks Like

I always forget what Michael Bay's face looks like. I seem to stumble upon a picture of him every two years, and due to that infrequency, I always go back to imagining him resembling a more refined Dog the Bounty Hunter.



This man does not look like Dog the Bounty Hunter. I have to start remembering that. Oh, and he made a cool $160 million in the 12-month span.

3. Dr. Dre (No. 5) Is Rich

Where I get the money for this? Don't think rhyming. — Cam'ron
Would you finish Detox if you made $110 million off headphones in 12 months? I know I wouldn't. You know what I would do? I'd lift weights (just because I could), wear only black, headline Coachella, hang out with a hologram, not make Detox, and let very talented young rappers write my verses whenever I felt like being on blogs for a week. Good to know Dre feels the exact same way. Now if I could only figure out how this urban lampshades business venture is going to land me on the 2013 list. IT'S ALREADY AUGUST.

4. Tyler Perry (No. 6) Hates Dr. Dre (No. 5)

There is supposed to be only one black person in front of Tyler Perry on this list, and her name is Oprah Winfrey." — Tyler Perry, probably
This party crash by Dr. Dre has to have Tyler upset, not only because he wasn't invited, but because now, with $5 million more made in the 12-month span, Dre gets to sit closer at the dinner table to Oprah. It's no surprise that T.P. is on this list, because his budgets are low, his ventures make money, and he pays actors in promised future roles, but no. 6 just isn't cutting it. By Friday, expect seven new TBS sitcoms on the air, all complete with stale jokes, kitchen shenanigans, and monstrous laugh tracks.

5. Three of the Top Six Are Black

If this Forbes article were the first web page I'd ever been to and for some reason my Internet went out after the sixth person on the list, and then it never came back on, and then I never went to another website ever again, I'd be forced to assume that this 50-50 black-white split would ring true through the full list of 20. Right?

6. No. 7–No. 20

Howard Stern, James Patterson, George Lucas, Simon Cowell, Glenn Beck, Elton John, Tom Cruise, Dick Wolf, Rush Limbaugh, Manny Pacquiao, Dr. Phil, Donald Trump, Ryan Seacrest, Britney Spears.

Well this wasn't supposed to happen. Where's Jay and Diddy? Will? Jaden?

7. YES, THE LIST IS STRANGELY TO 21.

No. 21: Tiger Woods. Thank you so much, Eldrick, for winning a tournament and not losing all of your sponsors. We needed this, and by "we," I mean "Tyler hates you, too."

8. Britney Spears (No. 20) Isn't Poor

Maybe this is terribly insensitive, but I thought she had lost all her TRL-era funds and was living on a shrimp boat in the Gulf. Wow, was I wrong.

9. Just When You Thought Christina Aguilera (No. Somewhere Between Adam Levine and Cee-Lo's Cat) Was Finally Beating Britney by Being a Host on The Voice ...

You click a link and find out that Britney Spears went from absent on the 2011 list to making $58 million in 12 months. And her rank is bound to climb, now that she is netting millions more to be a judge on The X Factor. Poor XTina.

10. Your Decision to Not Have Friends and Stay in on Saturday Nights Makes Dick Wolf (No. 14) Millions

$70 million between May 2011 and 2012, to be exact. Yes, the still-on-the-air Law & Order: SVU is still bringing Tricky Dick mounds of cash, but the fact that an episode from one of his many imprints is always on television, and Mom, you're we're always watching at least one at a time means that Dick will never stop making all the money. The guy might be on this list forever.

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The Dodgers Make It Rain

By: timbersfan, 12:19 AM GMT on August 29, 2012

The Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox consummated one of the wildest trades in baseball history, one of the biggest swaps of contracts in baseball history, and the biggest waiver deal of all time.

The trade of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, and Nick Punto and $11 million for James Loney, Ivan De Jesus Jr., Jerry Sands, Rubby De La Rosa, and Allen Webster radically alters Boston's roster, ushering in a major overhaul. All the Dodgers did was completely rethink the way baseball teams spend money, and thus run their business.

Until now, every team in baseball has operated with a budget. The Yankees ($198 million this year) might be in a different universe from the Padres ($55 million), but both those teams set spending limits, then do their best to adhere to those limits. In taking on the gigantic contracts of Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett along with Adrian Gonzalez's massive deal, the Dodgers have hinted that budget might not matter all that much to them. The ensuing press conference that the Dodgers brass held on Saturday made the team's position even clearer.

"The value of this franchise is represented in the price we paid — that doesn't go up or down with one or two players' salaries," said Mark Walter, the Dodgers' principal owner and chairman. Walter was then asked if the Dodgers have a spending ceiling. "Somewhere, I suppose," came his oblique reply. Then, the coup de grace. Someone asked Dodgers president and CEO Stan Kasten about the possibility of butting up against MLB's very punitive luxury tax. "Mark and Magic don't even ask me about that," he said of his bosses' instructions, or lack thereof.

Just like that, the Dodgers became the most dangerous team in baseball. Dangerous to other clubs in their ability to outspend the competition anytime they want. And dangerous to owners of baseball's richest teams as well as the commissioner's office, who risk having their excellent and wildly profitable scam exposed.

At some point in the past decade — maybe right after the publication of Moneyball, maybe later than that — the baseball world became obsessed with efficiency. The sabermetrically savvy A's and the scouting-adept Twins got very good while spending less than nearly every other team. The Rays followed suit. Those on-the-cheap wins caused other teams' philosophies, and the way the media cover the sport, to change. The sharpest baseball analysts began using metrics such as marginal dollars per marginal win as a measure of front office acumen, and by extension, team success. Later, dollars per Win Above Replacement became the gold standard for everything from contract analysis to trade analysis to team analysis. General managers might not frame the discussion in exactly those terms. But as team owners started tapping a new wave of economically prudent GMs to run the show, they delivered a clear message to their new hires: If those guys can do it, so can we.

It's a simple idea, really. Until now, every team has put a cap on its spending. For most clubs, the reason is obvious. You don't want to spend more money than your revenue streams will allow, so you try to get the most bang for your buck. If you're the Pirates, you watch the bottom line and do your best to spend wisely, because there's no other way to succeed financially and still put a competitive product on the field.

For a very select group of teams, capping spending and getting everyone talking about budgets, the luxury tax, and efficiency carries an ulterior motive. Take the Yankees. Every team reaps big money from MLB's central fund, with revenue pouring in from national TV deals, MLB Advanced Media, merchandise sales, and other sources. On top of all that, the Yanks pull in gobs of local revenue. According to Forbes's annual "The Business of Baseball" report, the Yankees banked $319 million in gate receipts in 2009. That figure might be the tip of an enormous iceberg. The Yankees are co-owners of the YES Network, the most-watched regional sports network in the country. Also in '09, YES paid the team $84 million in rights fees. The partnership further yielded more than $100 million in dividend checks. But the Yankees aren't required to divulge all the financial particulars of their relationship with YES (nor with anything else to do with their operations).1 It's a mortal lock they're making way more than what's been made public.

Which is why it's hilarious to see the Yankees making it known they plan to slip under the $189 million luxury tax threshold in time for 2014. As Jayson Stark's informative piece on the new collective bargaining agreement explained back in January, there are real, significant financial reasons to start getting frugal: The top luxury-tax rate for four-time repeat offenders is rising to 50 percent from 40 percent; a team that slices payroll below the $189 million mark by 2014 resets its count and gets taxed at just 17.5 percent, as if it were a first-time offender; and a team that avoids going over the luxury-tax threshold becomes eligible to get money back from its revenue-sharing payout. As Stark explains, all of those savings could add up to $40 million a year for the Yankees.

All of which is great, except for this: The Yankees would almost certainly turn a huge profit even if they didn't save that $40 million, even after paying out the $100 million-plus a year they already dole out in revenue sharing … hell, even if they carried a $300 million payroll.2 Ask The Lords of the Realm, and they'll claim that the luxury tax is a way to keep the richest teams from spending too much, thus aiding competitive balance.3 This is total bullshit. The luxury tax exists to save owners from themselves, and to provide a convenient excuse for teams that could easily spend more to pocket the money instead.

Again, very few teams spend enough money to make the luxury tax a major threat. Fewer still can even begin to rival the Yankees' local TV money. The Texas Rangers stand to make $1.6 billion from their new deal … but haven't put forth anywhere near what the biggest-spending clubs have dished out, coming in at an all-time high of $120.5 million in 2012. Knowing they had $3 billion in new TV money coming, the Angels went on an exorbitant spending spree last offseason … but they still shelled out a relatively modest $154.5 million in salaries this year, just the fourth-highest mark in baseball.

No, the team that comes closest to the Yankees in highlighting the absurdity of luxury-tax maneuvering is the same team that's already spent the second-most on luxury-tax fines. It's the same team that also owns its own, incredibly profitable regional sports network, rather than having to negotiate for rights fees with a big media company. It's the same team that, until recently, seemed poised to go toe-to-toe with the Yankees in the standings, to turn what was one of pro sports' most one-sided matchups into a true rivalry, one that would see both teams exchanging pennants for years to come. It's the same team that just took a hard look at its roster, decided it wasn't good enough, and ditched one of the best hitters of the previous three years because trading him would enable the saving of piles and piles of money, a commodity that wasn't likely to ever become scarce, no matter how much posturing ownership tried to do.

The Red Sox and their brain trust are being hailed as geniuses, because they unloaded more than $260 million in player salaries on the Dodgers, letting everyone know they were getting back to their version of smart baseball, which involves building from within and spending big bucks only when absolutely necessary. But the fact of the matter is they've made themselves worse for now, even though they had more than enough to pay those players, and plenty more on top of that.

The Dodgers don't give a rat's ass about supposedly smart versus supposedly dumb ways to build a roster. They're perfectly cool with losing the dollars-per-WAR championship. And if actions and words are any indications, they don't care about any damn luxury tax either. They want to win, they have money, and they're going to spend it.

The new ownership group took control of the team exactly five months ago. Since then, with the new owners' blessing, GM Ned Colletti has done the following:

• Signed Andre Ethier to a five-year, $85 million contract extension. Ethier is 30 years old and owns a career .360 wOBA, and this year will mark the first time he'll have ever topped 3.5 WAR.

• Traded for Hanley Ramirez, thus picking up about $37 million for 2⅓ seasons of a player who peaked three years ago (though he's certainly produced in L.A., hitting .286/.348/.513 in 30 games with the Dodgers).

• Traded for Brandon League, thus picking up nearly $2 million for two months of a relief pitcher who'd even been lousy pitching in the hitter's wasteland that is Safeco Field. He's posted a 6.75 ERA in 10 appearances with the Dodgers.

• Traded for Shane Victorino, thus picking up about $3 million for two months of a player who'd seen his OPS drop 123 points from last year's career high. Victorino's three hits Sunday finally popped his Dodgers OBP above .300, but he's hit for zero power since coming to L.A.

• Traded for Joe Blanton, thus picking up nearly $3 million for two months of a starting pitcher who'd posted an incredible 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate with the Phillies this season, but also led the league in home runs allowed. I'm not going to post Blanton's Dodgers stats here, because they'll make you seasick. He's pitching at Coors Field this week. Take the over. No matter what it is.

• Made the first trade in baseball history in which two players owed more than $100 million got shipped to the same team.

Add all those salary obligations together, along with the $160 million the Dodgers agreed to give Matt Kemp last November and the copious cash owed to waiver-wire-level veterans like Juan Uribe and Matt Guerrier, and the Dodgers are on the hook for an incomprehensible $192.6 million in 2013. And that's assuming the Dodgers let Victorino, Blanton, League, and several complementary players leave via free agency. It also doesn't include starting catcher A.J. Ellis's pending arbitration award, a potential new deal for ace Clayton Kershaw, or any free-agent signings. The Dodgers currently owe a somewhat more reasonable $133.7 million for 2014, well below the $189 million luxury-tax threshold for that season. But the likelihood of any team ostensibly standing pat for two years, let alone a team with such naked ambition and wanton disregard for financial constraints as the Dodgers, is basically nil.

So was this trade worth that kind of commitment?

The linchpin of the deal is Adrian Gonzalez, or as Dodgers fans have already taken to calling him, "Not James Loney." From 2009 through 2011, Gonzalez ranked as the 10th-best hitter in the majors by wOBA (.396) and the seventh-most valuable position player by WAR (18.0), which is what led the Red Sox to trade two top prospects for him, then sign him to a $154 million contract. Since June 23, Gonzalez is hitting .352/.382/.574 (not counting his two-for-four performance Sunday). In his first at-bat as a Dodger on Saturday, he launched a three-run homer, prompting a slew of Dodger fan victory laps and plenty of teeth-gnashing from jilted Sox fans.

But here's the thing: There's an excellent chance we've already seen the best of Adrian Gonzalez. His power has been off, to start. With 16 homers and just 34 games left until season's end, Gonzalez is on pace to produce his lowest home run total for any full season in his career, including his years toiling in the pitcher's haven of Petco Park. That might not be all of it. According to ESPN Stats & Info, of the 18 homers Gonzalez hit at Fenway Park since the start of the 2011 season, just six of those would have gone out at Dodger Stadium (11 of those 18 were hit into the shallow and inviting Green Monster seats in left field). Gonzalez has suddenly stopped walking too. In 537 plate appearances this year, he's drawn just 28 unintentional walks (versus 54 in 2011, 58 in 2010, and 97 in 2009). That Gonzalez had better hitters behind him with the Red Sox than he did in San Diego surely helped reduce his walk totals, both intentional and unintentional. But when a 30-year-old, slow-as-molasses first baseman stops walking, that's a bad omen for his on-base skills, given the batting-average risk of a player with that profile, even one with the kind of strong hand-eye coordination that Gonzalez possesses.

Even a diminished Gonzalez still constitutes an enormous upgrade over the punchless, sub-replacement-level Loney and his no-hit pals …

Category Dodgers non-Gonzalez 1B NL Rank
BA .244 14th
RBI 54 14th
Slug pct .352 15th
OBP .289 Last (29th in MLB)
… but that's damning with faint praise.

There's a reason so many teams declined a waiver claim on Beckett, a former ace and World Series MVP: He might never be all that good again. There are durability issues, with Beckett struggling with injuries for much of the year (and making just 21 starts in 2010). There are command issues, with the normally precise right-hander striking out 38 batters and walking 21 in his past nine starts (with seven homers allowed and a 6.98 ERA over those 49 innings). Then there's the most serious long-term concern: Beckett's plunge in fastball velocity. According to FanGraphs, his heater checks in at 91.6 miles per hour this year, down nearly 3 mph from his 2009 figure of 94.3. Beckett has a chance to put up better numbers now that he's out of the killer AL East and Fenway Park's bandbox, pitching in the NL West and pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium. Plus his arrival comes at a good time, with Chad Billingsley hitting the disabled list. But with about $34 million left on his deal over the next two-plus seasons, it's tough to project any kind of Beckett profit, at least not based on the metrics typically used to measure such things.

There's no point in even trying to analyze Crawford's numbers since joining the Red Sox; he played in 130 games last year but was hampered by injuries for much of the season, and managed just 31 games this year before shutting it down for Tommy John surgery. It's been argued that Crawford wasn't the right fit for Boston, that Fenway wasn't configured right to take advantage of his slashing hitting style and speed, that the park's shallow left field didn't allow the Red Sox to fully benefit from Crawford's rangy defense, even that whatever supposed intangibles a player needs to succeed with the Sox weren't evident in Crawford. Though he's 31 and very possibly past his prime, several teams were very interested in giving him a long-term deal for major bucks as recently as two years ago. And the Red Sox didn't fully warm up to the trade idea until John Lackey's name was excised from talks and Crawford's was subbed in.4 Still, there's about $106 million in future Crawford earnings on the table here. Even in a best-case scenario, it's hard to see Crawford fully earning his keep.

As for Nick Punto … he is kind to strangers, and puppies.

If all the Dodgers are spending isn't likely to earn the 45 wins it should by the dollars-to-WAR model (and might end up earning a lot less), the question becomes, why did they make this trade?

The Dodgers' new owners have been pushing the idea that they want to win at all costs, pretty much since day one. Magic Johnson, a minority partner with no major decision-making responsibilities who's nonetheless become the public face for the ownership group, flexed that bit of PR at Saturday's presser.

"We understand that you have to spend money to be good in this league," he told the breathless masses. And, "We did this for our fans. Of course we want to win now."

The idea is to make the very act of spending money seem like an inherent good, no matter what's being bought. Even if you grant that spending trumped all, though, why use $260 million-plus for these players? Is this really the best use of a quarter-billion dollars?

They did it because they're in the thick of a pennant race, and first base was the single worst position on the entire roster.

They did it because elite players rarely become available either in trade or on the open market, as teams move aggressively to lock up their stars before they can test free agency. And the Dodgers are willing to look past the cracks in Gonzalez's game and believe he is still an elite player.

They did it because the flurry of signings by other teams means this offseason's crop of first baseman is headed by the solid but unspectacular Adam LaRoche, and Paul Konerko, who turns 37 in March.

They did it because new regimes usually make big changes before too long, meaning those who survive the first round of firings must do something extraordinary to curry the new guys' favor. That's not to say that Colletti doesn't believe in the trade, or that he's purposely trying to hinder the Dodgers' long-term future. Only that there are short-term priorities to consider, and other variables usually get shoved to the back burner when that happens.

Most important, they did it because no one in the Dodgers front office, at any point this season, has ever uttered the words "opportunity cost." If there's no limit to how much you can and will spend on salaries, then you needn't worry about the $260 million you just absorbed, nor feel the need to turn down other buying opportunities. If what Kasten is saying is true, and ownership doesn't care at all about luxury-tax implications or really capping spending in any way, then what the hell, why not go nuts? Kershaw wants a monster deal to top Matt Cain's five-year, $112.5 million pact? Give it to him. Zack Greinke's the best pitcher on the coming free-agent market? Pay the man. Want still more pitching? Raid your farm system again and try to trade for Josh Johnson. Not convinced Dee Gordon can hack it at short long-term? Buy Stephen Drew a fleet of Bel Air mansions. A little concerned about Crawford's injury rehab? Surely someone can dig up another $200 mil for Josh Hamilton. OK, the Hamilton part's probably not going to happen. But there's no reason to declare any of those other options off-limits when your budget is roughly infinity dollars.

Most right-minded analysts and observers have declared this trade a big win for the Red Sox. Rightly so. The Sox dump more than $260 million in payroll, money they can use to re-sign Jacoby Ellsbury, spend on fresh talent via trade or free agency, add more improvements to Fenway Park, wage history's most bitchin' money fight, or just save for a rainy day. They acquire a promising collection of young players, with hard-throwing, just-recovered-from-TJ-surgery Rubby De La Rosa and 22-year-old Double-A prospect Allen Webster the big catches in the deal. They get to wipe Theo Epstein's slate (mostly) clean and start over with a nucleus of their choice. They take a step toward hopefully defusing a clubhouse catastrophe that pitted Bobby Valentine against a group of supposed malcontents who might prefer to play for someone else.5 And they get to turn the page on an ugly period in recent team history, one that saw them go from the best record in the majors exactly one year before the trade to the biggest collapse in baseball history,6 followed by a colossally disappointing season.

But all of that assumes the old rules of engagement are in play, in which even teams as loaded as the Red Sox tie their own hands in the name of greater profit and keeping up the illusion of fiscal parity.7 The Dodgers, apparently, have no interest in playing by those old rules. The Red Sox shouldn't count on signing any of the marquee free agents this offseason to fill their multiple needs, simply because the Dodgers might just decide to take 'em for themselves. Maybe one day the Dodgers will go the way of the Orioles and Mets, teams that tried to spend big and make a splash, found themselves not winning as much as they'd hoped, then rushed to dump as many big contracts as possible before finally starting to rebuild in earnest. Maybe one day all of the Dodgers' current bravado will turn to remorse.

But that day is not today. The Dodgers are now officially the National League's answer to the Yankees, only more willing to accept smaller profit margins and thumb their noses at artificial spending limits. Baseball's new financial superpower is reckless. And maybe a lot smarter than we'd like to admit.

Permalink

Red Sox Nation Hits the Reset Button

By: timbersfan, 12:19 AM GMT on August 29, 2012

I wanted to name our newborn son "Beckett" right after the Red Sox won the 2007 World Series. If not for a reader intervening, my son might be named Beckett Simmons right now. We could start there.

The Red Sox have trotted out eight "superstar" hitters in my lifetime: Carl Yastrzemski, Fred Lynn, Jim Rice, Mo Vaughn, Nomar Garciaparra, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez.1 The first seven guys played a combined 83 seasons in Boston. Gonzalez lasted 21 months. We could start there.

My favorite baseball team just traded its best offensive player and a proven playoff starter in a massive salary dump that had no correlation to anything that's ever happened in Red Sox history except for … you know … the time we sold Babe Ruth. Somehow, Red Sox fans are delighted about the trade. We could start there.

The current Red Sox owners brought us our first championship since 1918 and a second title three years later. Since last October, they've replaced the most successful Red Sox manager in 90 years with the least-liked Red Sox manager of my lifetime not named "Grady Little." They've allowed the franchise's most successful general manager ever to break his contract without getting anything decent for him. They've assembled one of the league's three most expensive rosters, failed miserably, then lucked out when the Dodgers miraculously handed them a RESET button. And now, headed for the worst Red Sox season in 20 solid years but blessed with financial flexibility again, these owners expect fans to (a) pretend the past two years never happened, and (b) trust their big-picture judgment again. We could start there.

You know what? Let's start with this e-mail from a Cambridge reader named Kyle, which arrived just a few days before the Red Sox agreed to the biggest salary dump in baseball history.

"I think I've officially reached a point in my sports fan relationship with the Red Sox akin to being married for twenty years, no longer loving one another, but still staying together for the kids. Good God can this season just end?"

Even if Kyle made the 2012 season sound like a cross between John Travolta's marriage, Jay Leno's relationship with NBC, and every Adam Sandler fan with Adam Sandler, he probably didn't go far enough. After all, you are in a relationship with your favorite teams, right? We purchase tickets and merchandise; they purchase the players. We agree to remain loyal; they agree not to defecate on that loyalty. And it goes from there. The best-case scenario for any season? Winning the title. The worst-case scenario? Hate-watching your team while rooting for things to bottom out in a comically dreadful way just so you can remain entertained.

The 2012 Red Sox reached that point a few weeks ago. And look, I get it — listening to Boston fans bitch about sports is like listening to John Mayer bitch about his love life.2 Nobody was more overdue for a hatefully expensive, totally unredeeming, insane clusterfuck of a season more than Red Sox fans. We knew it, too. We could handle a lousy season. It happens.

But something deeper was happening here. The Red Sox had morphed into something else. Once upon a time, the phrase "Red Sox fan" carried clear responsibilities and implications. You loved something that, ultimately, was going to break your heart. You pined for a World Series title that was never going to happen. You talked yourself into this being "The Year" every spring, and then, every September … it didn't happen. You watched family members pass away without ever seeing the Red Sox win a title. You wondered if it was cruel to saddle your children with this franchise, whether you should "save" them by nudging them in a different direction.

And then everything turned. We won the World Series, shed the curse, buried some demons, moved on with our lives. Had you asked any Red Sox fan in September 2004, "If you win the World Series, would you care what happened next?," I'm pretty sure that every single person would say, "No, I don't."

Well, here's what happened. We started spending money like the Yankees. Our charming, broken-down, illogically constructed museum of a baseball park was overhauled and turned into a cash cow (same for the streets surrounding it). The owners relentlessly pimped the Red Sox brand inside the stadium, on their website, on their 24-hour TV channel, on your street, in your house, on your forehead and everywhere else you could imagine (leading to a general dumbing down of the fan base and the unconscionable decision to encourage Fenway fans to sing along to "Sweet Caroline" during the eighth inning of every game, even ones that we're losing), only we looked the other way because they kept funneling so much of their profits back into the team. There were little signs they might be losing their way, like when they purchased Liverpool's soccer team and expected Red Sox fans to adopt it; or when John Henry publicly regretted Carl Crawford's lavish contract in only his first season, then randomly showed up on a local radio show to defend himself; or when they unveiled their 100th-anniversary Fenway Park brick program, satiating the three people who had been dying to spend $475 (plus tax) to autograph their own brick inside Fenway.

Nobody really cared until the Red Sox finished the biggest September swoon in baseball history — we'd eventually remember it as the "beer and fried chicken team," and really, that's all you need to know — followed by Terry Francona being smeared in a Boston Globe feature a few days after he stepped down as manager. When Theo Epstein fled a few weeks later, for the first time, Red Sox fans started examining these last eight years the same way you look at a massive dinner check. You know when you go out with a bunch of friends, order food and drinks for three hours, never worry about anything, and then there's that moment when the check comes and everyone's passing it around in disbelief? That's for us? Did you think it was going to be that high? That was last winter for Red Sox fans. The waiter finally dropped off that monstrosity of a check.

Yup … we had turned into the New York Yankees, the team we always hated the most. We spent money just as recklessly and senselessly. The fan bases for other teams despised us just as much. We had the same "If you don't win the title, you've totally failed" conundrum staring at us every spring. A few weeks ago, my wife was watching Pretty Woman for the 10,000th time while I was sitting next to her answering e-mails. The scene came on when millionaire Richard Gere decides to save that shipping company instead of purchasing it just to blow it up, when Jason Alexander (totally evil) questions what they're doing, and then Gere says something like, "I'm tired of making money. I want to build something." My head popped right up. Wasn't that the Red Sox? What were we building? What's fun about rooting for a team of staggeringly overpaid players who were collected with little rhyme or reason?

The Red Sox spent $173.2 million on this year's roster3 — you couldn't separate the money from the performance. Not for a second. It lingered over everything like a stale fart. Throw in the team's general unlikability (especially Beckett, who regarded the fans and media with real contempt) and for the first time I can remember, Red Sox fans were hate-watching games much like you'd hate-watch Teen Mom or something.4 Well, who wants to spend three-plus hours a day hate-watching something? If you wanted to enjoy a Red Sox game in 2012, you had to get stoned, break out the 2004 and 2007 DVDs, put in one of the most exciting games and pretend it was happening in real time.5

But here was the worst part … there was no way out!!!! Adrian Gonzalez had six years and $127 million remaining on his deal. Carl Crawford had five years and $102.5 million remaining. John Lackey had three years, $45.75 million. Josh Beckett had two years, $31.5 million. According to this list, four teams spent between $150 million and $200 million (Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox, Angels), five teams spent between $100 million and $149 million (Tigers, Rangers, Marlins, Giants, Cardinals), then 14 teams spent between $75 million and $99 million. That means the Red Sox, having totally squandered their spending advantage thanks to those four deals, needed to outmaneuver everyone else in 2013 and 2014 just to regain any semblance of a competitive advantage again.

If it were the brain trust from 2003 to 2008? You might feel optimistic. But the owners who OK'd the Lackey/Crawford/Beckett contracts, turned Francona into Valentine, didn't get anything for Theo, turned Josh Reddick and Jed Lowrie into Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon, thought Daniel Bard could be converted into a starter, and paid another AL contender to take Kevin Youkilis when he wasn't really washed up yet?6 Not as much. Maybe we hadn't veered into James Dolan territory or anything, but in professional sports, you can't overcome poor management no matter how much money you have. The 2012 Red Sox were poorly managed. And have been for the past couple of years. It finally caught up to them.

The only good thing you could say about the Red Sox owners lately? Thank God we didn't end up with the McCourts.

Not long ago, the Red Sox organization ranked among the most thoughtful in baseball. Epstein played the market's inefficiencies just about perfectly in 2003 and 2004 (power/OBP bargains mixed with expensive, sure-thing pitchers), then created a long-term strategy: We're avoiding mammoth contracts for free agents hitting their 30s; we're using much of our financial advantage to outspend competitors on draft picks, scouting and foreign-born prospects; and hopefully, we're "growing" our own potential stars and either locking them up to long-term deals or flipping them for elite players. I loved this plan. Everybody did.

So what changed? Everyone else in baseball started emulating what the smarter teams were doing (Boston, Oakland, etc.), leaving Theo without any real market inefficiencies to exploit other than defense (they tried, with limited success) and this one: He could simply outspend 95 percent of the league. The Red Sox splurged heavily on their minor league system, using their money to sway tough-to-sign picks and highly regarded foreign players. They overpaid for J.D. Drew, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Lackey, Beckett and Crawford. They tried to overpay Mark Teixeira. They paid veterans market value to stick around. They paid, they paid and they paid. This was a different kind of "moneyball" — more like massivecheckingaccountball. When it stopped working, Theo fled the crime scene even as they were still putting up the yellow tape, jumping to Chicago and leaving this sordid mess behind. It was like watching a buddy pick a lousy fantasy keeper league team, then get out of it by just quitting the league. Didn't this guy grow up loving the Red Sox? Didn't he care?

When you remember Theo tried to flee in 2005 (when things were going well, no less), it makes a little more sense. Maybe that Francona smear campaign was the final straw for him. Maybe he knew the 2012 season was heading for an unseemly ending, making him the odds-on favorite to land the "2012 Fall Guy" award (like Francona in 2011). Maybe he knew going from a now-spoiled, relentlessly passionate fan base that expected 100 wins and a World Series appearance every season and cared a little too much to an emotionally scarred fan base with comically low expectations was a safer move. Maybe Theo looked at the big picture and said, If I can win the World Series for the Red Sox AND Cubs, I will be immortal.

What would you have done? At what point would that new opportunity outweigh turning your back on the team you loved for your entire life? Probably depends on how much you couldn't stand working for your bosses … right?

Whatever the answer, Boston's recent housecleaning will inevitably be positioned as something of a Theo Era cleansing, with the owners reshaping these next few Red Sox teams while subtly reminding us if it works out that, Hey, all the bad stuff that happened in 2011 and 2012? That was all Theo! I'd be about 100 times more skeptical if they hadn't just pulled off that hijacking of a Dodgers trade — somehow convincing them to assume Crawford and Beckett as a Gonzalez trade tax while forking over two highly regarded pitching prospects. This seemed utterly and totally improbable as recently as early Friday afternoon, as you can see from my sarcastic pipe dream of a tweet.

Quick tangent: I was admittedly naive. I never imagined Crawford's contract (five years remaining, $102.5 million) was tradable because of reasons like, "He clearly lost the ability to play baseball at a high level," "His body is breaking down in multiple places," "In a best-case scenario, you probably have to platoon him" and, "Oh, he just had Tommy John surgery THIS WEEK." Somehow, none of this deterred the Dodgers, who were so desperate to acquire Gonzalez (who started out slowly before returning to Rake Mode these past few weeks) that they probably looked at the big picture and thought …

Considering what Pujols and Fielder made in free agency, considering what Gonzo will mean to our Mexican fan base, considering our fans totally remember how good he was on the Padres, and considering how much we need a gifted offensive first baseman RIGHT NOW, he's probably worth the added cost of Crawford even if he regains just 85 percent of the 2009-11 Gonzo mojo. And Beckett clearly needs a change of scenery, likes pitching in the NL, loves hitting and has a storied history of coming through in the playoffs.7 Anything Crawford gives us is gravy. Oh, and we're going to make 10 bazillion dollars from our next TV contract. Screw it, let's do this!

Personally, I think the Red Sox would have traded Gonzo, Beckett and Crawford for a used set of Vin Scully's headphones and been totally fired up. Thankfully, GM Ben Cherington (ironically, a Theo protégé) fought for a much better haul. You can't say enough about this trade from Boston's perspective: In the span of 24 hours, we went from "How the hell are we ever going to be good again?" to "Wait, there's a chance we're going to be good again!" Even better, Boston's front office might put some actual thought into 2013 instead of settling on being Yankees Farther East and just making it rain for the sake of making it rain.

Here's the irony: More often than not, big-market teams make the fatal mistake of thinking, We have to do something to get our fans excited! That's what led the Dodgers down the road they just traveled. That's what led the Red Sox to Crawford, the Knicks to Amar'e Stoudemire, the Redskins to Albert Haynesworth, the Angels to Pujols, the Hawks to Joe Johnson … really, it's an endless list, and when you think of the success/failure rate of these nine-figure splurges, it's amazing they keep happening.

But you know what's more amazing? That these teams haven't realized how smart WE are. In 2012, fans are embarrassingly sophisticated about their favorite teams. We learn about sports constantly, day after day after day, whether it's from all-sports radio stations, the mainstream sports sites, hundreds of hyper-specific sports blogs and team blogs, hundreds of columnists, beat writers and talking heads, all the big TV channels, message boards … for God's sake, we are inundated with information and opinions at this point. Just look at what happened to the NBA's annual July free-agency period, something that's covered these days with the zeal of a political campaign. (You could click on the 25th-best NBA blog and probably read an educated, smartly considered take on the Knicks' decision to allow Jeremy Lin to leave.) For any big-market team to think, We have to do something to get our fans excited! in 2012 is legitimately, categorically insane.

You know what gets us excited? Shrewd, logical moves. Patience over recklessness. Ingenuity. Popularity. Big-picture strategies that remain consistent. That's the kind of stuff that ends up carrying overrated Brad Pitt movies. There's a reason everyone in football keeps stealing from Bill Belichick, and why everyone in basketball respects Jerry Buss so much. When the Lakers finally landed Dwight Howard a few weeks ago, what made it special wasn't the move itself — a big-market team swallowing up yet another superstar — but the unflappable patience they exhibited for months and months leading up to that specific moment. I hate the Lakers with every fiber of my being. And you know what? I respect the hell out of them, too. They're a really smart franchise that always puts thought into their moves. You have to hand it to them.

I thought the Red Sox were like that once upon a time. We won twice in four years. Somewhere along the line, we lost our way. I don't know if we found it. Time will tell. I just know that I'm interested again.

Last thought: It's strange to think how many Red Sox fans bought Gonzalez jerseys these past two years (and now they're stuck with them), or how many Red Sox fans out there did name their son "Beckett." That's another thing this trade banged home: As Jerry Seinfeld once warned us, we're rooting for laundry. Once upon a time, Beckett submitted one of the great pressure performances in Red Sox history — Game 5 in Cleveland, the night he single-handedly saved the 2007 season — and cemented his spot in Red Sox lore along with Curt Schilling's bloody sock, Carlton Fisk's homer against the Reds and everything else. Or so we thought. Now he's one of the beer-and-fried-chicken gang, the pitcher who was booed louder than any Red Sox player in my lifetime.

We keep learning this laundry lesson over and over again — just in Boston these past seven years, Johnny Damon signed with the Yankees, Adam Vinatieri signed with the Colts and Ray Allen signed with the Heat. Every city goes through it. Peyton Manning left Indianapolis. Ichiro left Seattle. Steve Nash left Phoenix. Even Linsanity lasted a whopping 26 games before it reopened elsewhere like an Off Broadway play or something. When I first mentioned naming my son after Beckett during the 2007 playoffs, a reader named Aaron in Charlottesville, Virginia, e-mailed me, "Careful naming your son after Josh Beckett. You don't know how you'll feel about Beckett in 10 years. What if you'd named a kid after Roger Clemens in 1987?"

He was right. We scrapped Beckett from the list. Two months later in a mailbag, I ran the e-mail with this response: "I received this e-mail in mid-October, right when the Sports Gal and I were considering the name 'Beckett' as a first or middle name to reflect that our baby son was born right after the 2007 World Series (if the Red Sox won). Of course, the e-mail put the fear of God into me. What if Beckett morphed into the 1994-2007 Clemens in six years? What then? We couldn't take the chance. Anyway, thanks to Aaron K. You're a lifesaver. I mean, somewhere in Massachusetts right now, there's at least one bitter, under-20 Red Sox fan named after Roger Clemens who's walking around with his fists balled waiting for someone to make fun of him. That could have been my son in 20 years."

Thanks a second time, Aaron. Don't get me wrong — I want to live in a world in which we could name our children after our favorite athletes without worrying about the consequences. I just don't think it exists.

Permalink

Avoiding Football's Poison Pen

By: timbersfan, 12:17 AM GMT on August 29, 2012

For all the arduous hours of research and scouting that go into the process of acquiring players, NFL organizations are littered with contracts they wish they had never agreed to. Every team has one, as even the best personnel departments fall in love with the wrong guy and get an itchy checkbook. The best are such because they limit their bad deals to one or two fingers; to count their regrettable contracts, the league's worst franchises fill up both hands and have to take off their shoes.

A list of the league's worst deals would be easy enough, but that's not the point. Cherry-picking bad deals after the fact is easy. What's more interesting is identifying bad sorts of deals, contracts that seemed ill-advised before pen ever touched paper just on concept alone. It's one thing to say that the Redskins shouldn't have signed Albert Haynesworth; it's another to figure out why Haynesworth was a bad idea1 and be able to apply it to future decisions.

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While NFL teams will always find new ways to be parted from their cash, we've identified 10 contract archetypes that stand out as frequent failures. Naturally, each of them is currently in play at one NFL spot or another, making up many of football's most egregious contracts in the process. There's no way to totally avoid bad deals, but knowing which sorts of deals failed in the past can at least protect your organization from setting itself up for failure. And, as it turns out, even old adages like "build through the lines" can fail if you identify the wrong lineman.

The Artifact

Type: The enormous top-five rookie contract from the old CBA that becomes a curse when stuck to a busted pick.
Current NFL example: Jason Smith

The Artifact goes first because it's about to be extinct, thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement dampening rookie salaries at the top of the draft. First-rounders from the 2010 draft will be the last subset of players to command exorbitant salaries straight out of school.

Smith, the second overall pick in the 2009 draft, was traded to the Jets on Monday after three disappointing seasons in St. Louis. Drafted to be the team's left tackle of the future, Smith has instead been limited to the far-less-expensive right side of the line and was losing a camp battle to journeyman tackle Barry Richardson before being traded for Wayne Hunter. The disappointing performance likely owes to a repeated string of injuries, including concussions in each of his first three professional seasons. Smith was guaranteed $33 million by the six-year deal he signed before his rookie campaign, and while he re-negotiated his deal before the 2011 season, he was a colossal flop by any account. By comparison, USC tackle Matt Kalil received a guaranteed four-year, $20-million contract when the Vikings selected him with the fourth overall pick in this year's draft.

Of all the contract types that will come up, this one is the most unfair because teams were forced to pay a particular price, with very little negotiation available. All of the other deals we'll discuss are of a team's own volition.

The Double-Down

Type: Locking a first-round pick who barely paid dividends on his rookie contract into a second long-term deal in the hopes that he'll finally deliver on his promise.
Current NFL example: Michael Huff

There's nothing wrong with locking a player into a big deal if he's played well during his rookie contract, of course; we're focusing here on guys who struggled during their entire four- or five-year deals and still got a second big contract from the same team. These are often inconsistent players who showed flashes of brilliance, causing their teams to be petrified with the idea of losing them to somebody who will elicit more consistent success out of them. Huff's a good example, as a seventh overall pick who never really stuck the landing as a starter at safety for the Raiders. Despite that, Oakland gave him a four-year, $32 million contract2 last offseason that guaranteed him $16 million. The only reason new general manager Reggie McKenzie didn't cut him this offseason is because Oakland owed him $8 million in guaranteed money whether he was in their organization or not.

If you're thinking about possible upcoming contracts who would fit this archetype, there's one obvious candidate: Joe Flacco. Unless Flacco takes a big leap forward this season — one that goes past his 2008-10 numbers, not one that merely surpasses his dismal totals from 2011 — the Ravens will have to decide whether it's a good idea to give an occasionally awful quarterback $40 million in guaranteed money.

The Cash-and-Carry

Type: Giving a veteran running back significant guaranteed money on a long-term deal after his first 1,000 (or so) carries.
Current NFL examples: Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson

Quick: How many veteran running backs have been productive for more than one season on their current upper-echelon running back contract? Are there any? Maurice Jones-Drew might qualify, but his deal was well below the sort of contracts that Johnson and Peterson received. The only examples might be Michael Turner and Steven Jackson, and they stand against plenty of players who got the money and did nothing with it, either through a decline in performance (Marion Barber) or because of injuries (Brandon Jacobs, the guys above). Both these teams would take back the contracts their indispensable running backs signed if they could. Correction: Both these teams would deal their indisputable running backs and their mammoth contracts to the Dodgers if they could.

The Makeup Cash

Type: Giving a player lots of money to satiate him after hurting his feelings.
Current NFL example: Mark Sanchez

This contract was covered in March when the Jets failed to acquire Peyton Manning or Robert Griffin III. It's not as bad as it might have seemed on the surface, since it freed up about $6 million for the Jets on their 2012 cap, but it turned $20.5 million in unguaranteed money from Sanchez's rookie contract into guaranteed cash. That's not going to force the Jets into bankruptcy, but it's two years of guaranteed money for a guy who is going to be competing for a starting job with Tim Tebow as the season goes along. Sanchez's deal might also qualify as a Double-Down, since the Jets are still waiting to see signs of development from their frequently embattled starter.

One relatively docile version of this is when teams will give a disgruntled player a much smaller sum to get him out of a holdout and back into camp. It's a move the Titans pulled with Chris Johnson in 2010, increasing his guaranteed 2010 pay by $1.5 million to prevent him from holding out. Of course, Johnson still held out before the 2011 season, and got his massive deal anyway, so the appeasement strategy arguably didn't work. This is what will probably end up happening with the Maurice Jones-Drew holdout; the Jaguars will give him a couple million bucks for 2012 without giving him the long-term deal he craves, all three sides (team, player, and agent) can claim a small victory, and the argument will be tabled till 2013.

The Brand-Name Shopper

Type: Paying for the illusion of quality/consistency when freely available talent would offer a similar level of performance for a fraction of the price.
Current NFL examples: Connor Barth, Matt Prater, Josh Scobee

Another topic that's seen previous action here on Grantland, relatively fungible players like Barth, Prater, and Scobee are getting long-term deals despite the fact that there's virtually no difference between their likely production in the future and that of a kicker available on the waiver wire. Teams sign these guys off the scrap heap — Barth and Prater were both undrafted journeymen before catching on in their respective cities — and then choose to give them long-term deals for millions of dollars as opposed to merely going back to the scrap heap and finding the next Barth or Prater.

An example of how this contract often fails to work out came on Sunday, when the Ravens released Billy Cundiff only one year after Cundiff made the All-Pro team and received a lucrative extension. Cundiff is exactly the sort of player who fits these criteria. He was signed off the waiver wire by the Ravens in 2009, and despite the fact that he'd hit 74.4 percent of his field goals before 2010, they were fooled by a 26-for-29 (89.6 percent) performance during his "breakout" season.3 In 2012, Cundiff promptly went 28-for-37, a 75.7 percent rate that looked far more like his career numbers than that tremendous 2010. And while the Ravens signed Cundiff because they undoubtedly wanted somebody they could trust in the big moments, Cundiff finished the season by badly missing a 32-yard field goal that would have pushed the AFC championship game into overtime. The Ravens paid for certainty and instead received the illusion of certainty. When your favorite team locks a kicker into a long-term contract for his field goal accuracy, they're doing the same.

The Copycat

Type: Trying to emulate a successful strategy without the talent by overpaying for a mediocre version of the player(s) you need.
Current NFL example: John Carlson

Earlier in August, we pointed out that the Vikings gave a $25 million contract to former Seahawks tight end John Carlson in the hopes of teaming him with promising draft pick Kyle Rudolph. Undoubtedly, their hope is to emulate the Patriots' combination of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, giving second-year quarterback Christian Ponder a pair of reliable targets.

That's all fine and dandy, but Carlson? Really? The Notre Dame product has seen both his reception and yardage totals decline during each successive pro season, and after a 31-catch year in 2010, the Seahawks gave Zach Miller a big contract to push Carlson onto the bench. Instead, Carlson missed the entire season with a torn labrum. Despite the presence of Rudolph on the roster, the Vikings still gave Carlson more than $9 million in guaranteed money. Deals like Carlson's are why agents have beach houses.

The Out-of-Context

Type: Signing a player out of the perfect scheme/roster construction for his skills and expecting him to produce similarly elsewhere.
Current NFL example: Aaron Ross

Last June, just about anyone in the NFL could have acquired Aaron Ross for a mid-level pick. The former first-round pick had fallen out of favor in New York after insisting on playing cornerback, and he was a distant fourth on the Giants depth chart. After three other Giants cornerbacks went down with long-term injuries, though, Ross stepped up and started all season for a Super Bowl winner. The Jaguars followed up by signing Ross to a three-year deal.

What's the problem with that? Think about the Giants defense. They have arguably the league's best set of defensive linemen, a freakish pass rush that shows up on every single play. Across from Ross was Corey Webster, one of the league's best cornerbacks. Ross was basically in a perfect situation for a limited cornerback, and the Jaguars have now signed him without any of those things in tow. Do you think Ross will look more like the steady starter or the guy who was available for peanuts?

Unfortunately for Jaguars fans, we're not quite done with Jacksonville yet.

The Stat Nerd

Type: Convincing yourself that a performance in a single statistical category represents an actual skill that's worth paying over the market for.
Current NFL example: Marcedes Lewis

In 2010, Marcedes Lewis caught 10 touchdown passes amid 58 receptions. He had just seven touchdowns across 123 receptions and four years before that, but that 10-touchdown year meant that he was now a "red-zone threat" and got a $35 million contract that resembles the deal given to Rob Gronkowski.

Pick your statistical outlier! Topping your career touchdown total in a given season? Averaging a touchdown every six catches? Both? Either way, the Lewis contract was unconscionably bad on the day it was signed, and the Jaguars paid the piper when their red-zone threat failed to catch a single touchdown pass in 2011.

The Refilled Health Meter

Type: Signing an injury-prone player to a long-term deal after a rare season of health.
Current NFL examples: Laurent Robinson, D'Qwell Jackson

Occasionally, players struggle with injuries for years at a time and suddenly get healthy. It happens, with Charles Woodson being a notable example. Most of the time, though, teams who sign a player with a limited track record of attendance after one notably healthy season get the injury-riddled guy as opposed to the healthy one. In this case, the Jaguars are paying Laurent Robinson like the guy who answered the bell every time in Dallas last season as opposed to the one who missed time with injuries during each of his four previous NFL seasons. They gave Robinson $13.8 million guaranteed — just over $1 million less than the Eagles had to give DeSean Jackson — to find out whether he can extend that healthy streak into 2012 and beyond.

The Browns made the same mistake with Jackson this year, giving a player who missed all of 2010 and one out of every three games as a pro a five-year, $42.5 million deal.

The Unfilled Health Meter

Type: Giving a player coming off of multiple injuries without any sustained track record of health a long-term deal.
Current NFL example: Thomas Davis

As talented as the Panthers linebacker was when he was healthy, Davis missed nine games in 2009 and all of the 2010 season after suffering consecutive ACL tears. Panthers general manager Marty Hurney, as part of his plan to lock up the core of the 2-14 2010 Panthers to long-term deals, gave Davis a five-year, $36.5 million contract. Davis promptly tore his ACL again in Week 2. The Panthers got him to waive an $8 million roster bonus this offseason to stay with the team, but who were the Panthers competing with to give Davis a long-term contract?

You can probably distill these concepts into even more generic ideas. Don't sign injury-prone players to long-term deals. Avoid guys with one lone year of success. Don't pay the performance rate for potential. Consider history when deciding whom to lock up. You could be a director of pro personnel if you stuck by those four tenets. Well, it's safe to say that most NFL teams think about those concepts and would be happy to abide by them. The reality, unfortunately, is that general managers get desperate and force themselves into moves that are ill-advised. Perhaps they're running a mediocre team and give a guy more money than he deserves in the hopes that the team will play better and the GM won't get fired. Maybe they're a competitive team that has money to burn and one or two holes to fill. A coach or even an owner could have a predilection for a particular player and insist on acquiring him. Strange things happen.

Those sorts of decisions reinforce just how valuable it is to draft well and build the bulk of your team from within. Doing so allows you to avoid the free-agent market altogether (Steelers) or invest at the absolute top and bottom of the market (Eagles, Patriots), where the true talent and possible bargains lie. Most important, it keeps you from making desperate, money-burning deals for mediocre players. That — in combination with knowing what sorts of contracts tend to fail — keeps your organization successful.

Permalink

200-kept

By: timbersfan, 8:57 AM GMT on August 25, 2012

10 Larry Fitzgerald, ARI 10 WR2 $47

15 Greg Jennings, GB 10 WR5 $40

17 Matt Forte, CHI 6 RB7 $39

18 DeMarco Murray, DAL 5 RB8 $38

19 Mike Wallace, PIT 4 WR6 $37

21 Jimmy Graham, NO 6 TE2 $36

22 Jamaal Charles, KC 7 RB9 $34

28 Darren McFadden, OAK 5 RB11 $30

31 Steven Jackson, STL 9 RB13 $28

32 Michael Vick, PHI 7 QB7 $27
--------------------------------------------
33 Julio Jones, ATL 7 WR11 $25

34 Fred Jackson, BUF 8 RB14 $25

35 Brandon Marshall, CHI 6 WR12 $24

36 Trent Richardson, CLE 10 RB15 $23

39 Jordy Nelson, GB 10 WR13 $21

40 Steve Smith, CAR 6 WR14 $20

41 Dez Bryant, DAL 5 WR15 $19

44 Willis McGahee, DEN 7 RB20 $17

45 Tony Romo, DAL 5 QB8 $16

46 Marques Colston, NO 6 WR16 $16
------------------------------------------------- ---
47 Brandon Lloyd, NE 9 WR17 $15

48 Miles Austin, DAL 5 WR18 $14

50 Reggie Bush, MIA 7 RB21 $13

51 BenJarvus Green-Ellis, CIN 8 RB22 $12

52 Jonathan Stewart, CAR 6 RB23 $11

53 Vincent Jackson, TB 5 WR19 $11

54 Stevan Ridley, NE 9 RB24 $10

55 Percy Harvin, MIN 11 WR20 $10

57 Dwayne Bowe, KC 7 WR21 $9

59 Jeremy Maclin, PHI 7 WR22 $9
------------------------------------------------
60 Steve Johnson, BUF 8 WR23 $9

61 Vernon Davis, SF 9 TE4 $8

62 Roy Helu, WAS 10 RB26 $8

63 Demaryius Thomas, DEN 7 WR24 $7

64 Philip Rivers, SD 7 QB10 $7

65 Beanie Wells, ARI 10 RB27 $7

66 Antonio Brown, PIT 4 WR25 $7

67 Ben Tate, HOU 8 RB28 $7

68 Eric Decker, DEN 7 WR26

70 Doug Martin, TB 5 RB29 $6
--------------------------------------
71 DeSean Jackson, PHI 7 WR27 $6

72 DeAngelo Williams, CAR 6 RB30 $6

73 Matt Ryan, ATL 7 QB11 $6

74 Robert Meachem, SD 7 WR28 $5

75 Michael Bush, CHI 6 RB31 $5

76 C.J. Spiller, BUF 8 RB32 $5

77 Pierre Garcon, WAS 10 WR29 $5

78 Kevin Smith, DET 5 RB33 $5

79 Ben Roethlisberger, PIT 4 QB12 $4

80 Torrey Smith, BAL 8 WR30 $4
-------------------------------------------------
81 Peyton Hillis, KC 7 RB34 $4

82 Denarius Moore, OAK 5 WR31 $4

83 Isaac Redman, PIT 4 RB35 $4

84 Malcom Floyd, SD 7 WR32 $4

85 Santonio Holmes, NYJ 9 WR33 $4

86 Matt Schaub, HOU 8 QB13 $4

87 Aaron Hernandez, NE 9 TE6 $3

88 Mark Ingram, NO 6 RB36 $3

89 Lance Moore, NO 6 WR34 $3

90 Toby Gerhart, MIN 11 RB37 $3

91 Anquan Boldin, BAL 8 WR35 $3

92 Donald Brown, IND 4 RB38 $3

93 Tony Gonzalez, ATL 7 TE7 $3

94 Michael Crabtree, SF 9 WR36 $3

95 David Wilson, NYG 11 RB39 $3

96 Kenny Britt, TEN 11 WR37 $2

97 Shane Vereen, NE 9 RB40 $2

98 Nate Washington, TEN 11 WR38 $2

99 Jay Cutler, CHI 6 QB14 $2

100 Robert Griffin III, WAS 10 QB15 $2

101 Cedric Benson, GB 10 RB41 $2

102 Felix Jones, DAL 5 RB42 $2

103 Sidney Rice, SEA 11 WR39 $2

104 Josh Freeman, TB 5 QB16 $2

105 Jason Witten, DAL 5 TE8 $2

106 Reggie Wayne, IND 4 WR40 $2

107 Alex Smith, SF 9 QB17 $2

108 Fred Davis, WAS 10 TE9 $2

109 49ers D/ST 9 DST1 $2

110 Andy Dalton, CIN 8 QB18 $2

111 Daniel Thomas, MIA 7 RB43 $2

112 Darrius Heyward-Bey, OAK 5 WR41 $2

113 Titus Young, DET 5 WR42 $1

114 Texans D/ST 8 DST2 $1

115 Brandon Pettigrew, DET 5 TE10 $1

116 Bernard Scott, CIN 8 RB44 $1

117 Mario Manningham, SF 9 WR43 $1

118 Justin Blackmon, JAC 6 WR44 $1

119 Pierre Thomas, NO 6 RB45 $1

120 Rueben Randle, NYG 11 WR45 $1

121 LeGarrette Blount, TB 5 RB46 $1

122 Joe Flacco, BAL 8 QB19 $1

123 Jared Cook, TEN 11 TE11 $1

124 Bears D/ST 6 DST3 $1

125 Laurent Robinson, JAC 6 WR46 $1

126 Carson Palmer, OAK 5 QB20 $1

127 James Starks, GB 10 RB47 $1

128 Mike Williams, TB 5 WR47 $1

129 Ravens D/ST 8 DST4 $1

130 Sam Bradford, STL 9 QB21 $1

131 Nate Burleson, DET 5 WR48 $1

132 Jacob Tamme, DEN 7 TE12 $1

133 Randy Moss, SF 9 WR49 $1

134 Owen Daniels, HOU 8 TE13 $1

135 Leonard Hankerson, WAS 10 WR50 $1

136 Ryan Fitzpatrick, BUF 8 QB22 $1

137 Andrew Luck, IND 4 QB23 $1

138 Matt Cassel, KC 7 QB24 $1

139 Jonathan Baldwin, KC 7 WR51 $1

140 Brent Celek, PHI 7 TE14 $1

141 Mike Tolbert, CAR 6 RB48 $1

142 Eagles D/ST 7 DST5 $1

143 Mike Goodson, OAK 5 RB49 $1

144 Greg Little, CLE 10 WR52 $1

145 Jonathan Dwyer, PIT 4 RB50 $1

146 Seahawks D/ST 11 DST6 $1 147 Steelers D/ST 4 DST7 $1 148 Jets D/ST 9 DST8 $1

149 Stephen Gostkowski, NE 9 K1 $1

150 Falcons D/ST 7 DST9 $1

151 Mason Crosby, GB 10 K2 $1

152 David Akers, SF 9 K3 $1

153 Lions D/ST 5 DST10 $1

154 Sebastian Janikowski, OAK 5 K4 $1

155 Garrett Hartley, NO 6 K5 $1

156 Dan Bailey, DAL 5 K6 $1

157 Alex Henery, PHI 7 K7 $1

158 Matt Prater, DEN 7 K8 $1

159 Rob Bironas, TEN 11 K9 $1

160 Robbie Gould, CHI 6 K10 $1

161 Brandon Jacobs, SF 9 RB51 --

162 Dustin Keller, NYJ 9 TE15 --

163 Ryan Williams, ARI 10 RB52 --

164 Brian Quick, STL 9 WR53 --

165 Tim Hightower, WAS 10 RB53 --

166 Brandon LaFell, CAR 6 WR54 --

167 Kellen Winslow, SEA 11 TE16 --

168 Ronnie Brown, SD 7 RB54 --

169 Delone Carter, IND 4 RB55 --

170 Evan Royster, WAS 10 RB56 --

171 Rashard Mendenhall, PIT 4 RB57 --

172 Michael Floyd, ARI 10 WR55 --

173 Tim Tebow, NYJ 9 QB25 --

174 Kendall Wright, TEN 11 WR56 --

175 James Jones, GB 10 WR57 --

176 Bernard Pierce, BAL 8 RB58 --

177 Isaiah Pead, STL 9 RB59 --

178 Bills D/ST 8 DST11 --

179 Mikel Leshoure, DET 5 RB60 --

180 Packers D/ST 10 DST12 --

181 Martellus Bennett, NYG 11 TE17 --

182 Kendall Hunter, SF 9 RB61 --

183 Taiwan Jones, OAK 5 RB62 --

184 Jason Snelling, ATL 7 RB63 --

185 Plaxico Burress, FA -- WR58 --

186 Davone Bess, MIA 7 WR59 --

187 Jermaine Gresham, CIN 8 TE18 --

188 Lamar Miller, MIA 7 RB64 --

189 Matt Bryant, ATL 7 K11 --

190 Neil Rackers, WAS 10 K12 --

191 Andre Caldwell, DEN 7 WR60 --

192 Jacquizz Rodgers, ATL 7 RB65 --

193 Eddie Royal, SD 7 WR61 --

194 Randall Cobb, GB 10 WR62 --

195 Coby Fleener, IND 4 TE19 --

196 Jacoby Ford, OAK 5 WR63 --

197 Robert Turbin, SEA 11 RB66 --

198 Greg Olsen, CAR 6 TE20 --

199 Jake Locker, TEN 11 QB26 --

200 Alshon Jeffery, CHI 6 WR642

Updated: 4:55 AM GMT on September 02, 2012

Permalink

ffkept

By: timbersfan, 8:34 AM GMT on August 25, 2012

HENDO'S RIGHT HAND (Edit)

PLAYER POS

LeSean McCoy, Phi RB

Arian Foster, Hou RB

Calvin Johnson, Det WR

. CJ3K (Edit)

PLAYER POS

Chris Johnson, Ten RB

Saints TQB TQB

Rob Gronkowski, NE TE

YOU ARE UNLIKABLE (Edit)

PLAYER POS

Giants TQB TQB

Jermichael Finley, GB TE

Andre Johnson, Hou WR

S FIZZLE BEE ATCHES (Edit)

PLAYER POS

Antonio Gates, SD TE

Ahmad Bradshaw, NYG RB

Lions TQB TQB

UH OH BOHICA (Edit)

PLAYER POS

Adrian Peterson, Min RB

Roddy White, Atl WR

Victor Cruz, NYG WR

TIGARD BRONCOS (Edit)

PLAYER POS

Wes Welker, NE WR

Shonn Greene, NYJ RB

Broncos TQB TQB

TEAM NYGARD (Edit)

PLAYER POS

Maurice Jones-Drew, Jac RB

Ryan Mathews*, SD RB

Hakeem Nicks, NYG WR

NOT CLOSE ENOUGH (Edit)

PLAYER POS

Patriots TQB TQB

A.J. Green, Cin WR

Darren Sproles, NO RB

FUCK YOUR COUCH (Edit)

PLAYER POS

Frank Gore, SF RB

Packers TQB TQB

Michael Turner, Atl RB

P-TOWN DRUNKARDS (Edit)

PLAYER POS

Ray Rice, Bal RB

Marshawn Lynch, Sea RB

Panthers TQB TQB

Permalink

ff200

By: timbersfan, 4:55 AM GMT on August 25, 2012

1 Arian Foster, HOU 8 RB1 $60

2 Ray Rice, BAL 8 RB2 $59

3 LeSean McCoy, PHI 7 RB3 $59

4 Aaron Rodgers, GB 10 QB1 $55

5 Maurice Jones-Drew, JAC 6 RB4 $53

6 Tom Brady, NE 9 QB2 $52

7 Calvin Johnson, DET 5 WR1 $51

8 Drew Brees, NO 6 QB3 $49

9 Chris Johnson, TEN 11 RB5 $48

10 Larry Fitzgerald, ARI 10 WR2 $47

11 Andre Johnson, HOU 8 WR3 $45

12 Marshawn Lynch, SEA 11 RB6 $43

13 Matthew Stafford, DET 5 QB4 $42

14 Roddy White, ATL 7 WR4 $41

15 Greg Jennings, GB 10 WR5 $40

16 Rob Gronkowski, NE 9 TE1 $39

17 Matt Forte, CHI 6 RB7 $39

18 DeMarco Murray, DAL 5 RB8 $38

19 Mike Wallace, PIT 4 WR6 $37

20 Wes Welker, NE 9 WR7 $37

21 Jimmy Graham, NO 6 TE2 $36

22 Jamaal Charles, KC 7 RB9 $34

23 Cam Newton, CAR 6 QB5 $33

24 Adrian Peterson, MIN 11 RB10 $32

25 Hakeem Nicks, NYG 11 WR8 $32

26 A.J. Green, CIN 8 WR9 $31

27 Eli Manning, NYG 11 QB6 $30

28 Darren McFadden, OAK 5 RB11 $30

29 Victor Cruz, NYG 11 WR10 $29

30 Ryan Mathews, SD 7 RB12 $29

31 Steven Jackson, STL 9 RB13 $28

32 Michael Vick, PHI 7 QB7 $27

33 Julio Jones, ATL 7 WR11 $25

34 Fred Jackson, BUF 8 RB14 $25

35 Brandon Marshall, CHI 6 WR12 $24

36 Trent Richardson, CLE 10 RB15 $23

37 Michael Turner, ATL 7 RB16 $22

38 Frank Gore, SF 9 RB17 $22

39 Jordy Nelson, GB 10 WR13 $21

40 Steve Smith, CAR 6 WR14 $20

41 Dez Bryant, DAL 5 WR15 $19

42 Darren Sproles, NO 6 RB18 $18

43 Ahmad Bradshaw, NYG 11 RB19 $17

44 Willis McGahee, DEN 7 RB20 $17

45 Tony Romo, DAL 5 QB8 $16

46 Marques Colston, NO 6 WR16 $16

47 Brandon Lloyd, NE 9 WR17 $15

48 Miles Austin, DAL 5 WR18 $14

49 Peyton Manning, DEN 7 QB9 $13

50 Reggie Bush, MIA 7 RB21 $13

51 BenJarvus Green-Ellis, CIN 8 RB22 $12

52 Jonathan Stewart, CAR 6 RB23 $11

53 Vincent Jackson, TB 5 WR19 $11

54 Stevan Ridley, NE 9 RB24 $10

55 Percy Harvin, MIN 11 WR20 $10

56 Antonio Gates, SD 7 TE3 $10

57 Dwayne Bowe, KC 7 WR21 $9

58 Shonn Greene, NYJ 9 RB25 $9

59 Jeremy Maclin, PHI 7 WR22 $9

60 Steve Johnson, BUF 8 WR23 $9

61 Vernon Davis, SF 9 TE4 $8

62 Roy Helu, WAS 10 RB26 $8

63 Demaryius Thomas, DEN 7 WR24 $7

64 Philip Rivers, SD 7 QB10 $7

65 Beanie Wells, ARI 10 RB27 $7

66 Antonio Brown, PIT 4 WR25 $7

67 Ben Tate, HOU 8 RB28 $7

68 Eric Decker, DEN 7 WR26 $7

69 Jermichael Finley, GB 10 TE5 $7

70 Doug Martin, TB 5 RB29 $6

71 DeSean Jackson, PHI 7 WR27 $6

72 DeAngelo Williams, CAR 6 RB30 $6

73 Matt Ryan, ATL 7 QB11 $6

74 Robert Meachem, SD 7 WR28 $5

75 Michael Bush, CHI 6 RB31 $5

76 C.J. Spiller, BUF 8 RB32 $5

77 Pierre Garcon, WAS 10 WR29 $5

78 Kevin Smith, DET 5 RB33 $5

79 Ben Roethlisberger, PIT 4 QB12 $4

80 Torrey Smith, BAL 8 WR30 $4

81 Peyton Hillis, KC 7 RB34 $4

82 Denarius Moore, OAK 5 WR31 $4

83 Isaac Redman, PIT 4 RB35 $4

84 Malcom Floyd, SD 7 WR32 $4

85 Santonio Holmes, NYJ 9 WR33 $4

86 Matt Schaub, HOU 8 QB13 $4

87 Aaron Hernandez, NE 9 TE6 $3

88 Mark Ingram, NO 6 RB36 $3

89 Lance Moore, NO 6 WR34 $3

90 Toby Gerhart, MIN 11 RB37 $3

91 Anquan Boldin, BAL 8 WR35 $3

92 Donald Brown, IND 4 RB38 $3

93 Tony Gonzalez, ATL 7 TE7 $3

94 Michael Crabtree, SF 9 WR36 $3

95 David Wilson, NYG 11 RB39 $3

96 Kenny Britt, TEN 11 WR37 $2

97 Shane Vereen, NE 9 RB40 $2

98 Nate Washington, TEN 11 WR38 $2

99 Jay Cutler, CHI 6 QB14 $2

100 Robert Griffin III, WAS 10 QB15 $2

101 Cedric Benson, GB 10 RB41 $2

102 Felix Jones, DAL 5 RB42 $2

103 Sidney Rice, SEA 11 WR39 $2

104 Josh Freeman, TB 5 QB16 $2

105 Jason Witten, DAL 5 TE8 $2

106 Reggie Wayne, IND 4 WR40 $2

107 Alex Smith, SF 9 QB17 $2

108 Fred Davis, WAS 10 TE9 $2

109 49ers D/ST 9 DST1 $2

110 Andy Dalton, CIN 8 QB18 $2

111 Daniel Thomas, MIA 7 RB43 $2

112 Darrius Heyward-Bey, OAK 5 WR41 $2

113 Titus Young, DET 5 WR42 $1

114 Texans D/ST 8 DST2 $1

115 Brandon Pettigrew, DET 5 TE10 $1

116 Bernard Scott, CIN 8 RB44 $1

117 Mario Manningham, SF 9 WR43 $1

118 Justin Blackmon, JAC 6 WR44 $1

119 Pierre Thomas, NO 6 RB45 $1

120 Rueben Randle, NYG 11 WR45 $1

121 LeGarrette Blount, TB 5 RB46 $1

122 Joe Flacco, BAL 8 QB19 $1

123 Jared Cook, TEN 11 TE11 $1

124 Bears D/ST 6 DST3 $1

125 Laurent Robinson, JAC 6 WR46 $1

126 Carson Palmer, OAK 5 QB20 $1

127 James Starks, GB 10 RB47 $1

128 Mike Williams, TB 5 WR47 $1

129 Ravens D/ST 8 DST4 $1

130 Sam Bradford, STL 9 QB21 $1

131 Nate Burleson, DET 5 WR48 $1

132 Jacob Tamme, DEN 7 TE12 $1

133 Randy Moss, SF 9 WR49 $1

134 Owen Daniels, HOU 8 TE13 $1

135 Leonard Hankerson, WAS 10 WR50 $1

136 Ryan Fitzpatrick, BUF 8 QB22 $1

137 Andrew Luck, IND 4 QB23 $1

138 Matt Cassel, KC 7 QB24 $1

139 Jonathan Baldwin, KC 7 WR51 $1

140 Brent Celek, PHI 7 TE14 $1

141 Mike Tolbert, CAR 6 RB48 $1

142 Eagles D/ST 7 DST5 $1

143 Mike Goodson, OAK 5 RB49 $1

144 Greg Little, CLE 10 WR52 $1

145 Jonathan Dwyer, PIT 4 RB50 $1

146 Seahawks D/ST 11 DST6 $1 147 Steelers D/ST 4 DST7 $1 148 Jets D/ST 9 DST8 $1

149 Stephen Gostkowski, NE 9 K1 $1

150 Falcons D/ST 7 DST9 $1

151 Mason Crosby, GB 10 K2 $1

152 David Akers, SF 9 K3 $1

153 Lions D/ST 5 DST10 $1

154 Sebastian Janikowski, OAK 5 K4 $1

155 Garrett Hartley, NO 6 K5 $1

156 Dan Bailey, DAL 5 K6 $1

157 Alex Henery, PHI 7 K7 $1

158 Matt Prater, DEN 7 K8 $1

159 Rob Bironas, TEN 11 K9 $1

160 Robbie Gould, CHI 6 K10 $1

161 Brandon Jacobs, SF 9 RB51 --

162 Dustin Keller, NYJ 9 TE15 --

163 Ryan Williams, ARI 10 RB52 --

164 Brian Quick, STL 9 WR53 --

165 Tim Hightower, WAS 10 RB53 --

166 Brandon LaFell, CAR 6 WR54 --

167 Kellen Winslow, SEA 11 TE16 --

168 Ronnie Brown, SD 7 RB54 --

169 Delone Carter, IND 4 RB55 --

170 Evan Royster, WAS 10 RB56 --

171 Rashard Mendenhall, PIT 4 RB57 --

172 Michael Floyd, ARI 10 WR55 --

173 Tim Tebow, NYJ 9 QB25 --

174 Kendall Wright, TEN 11 WR56 --

175 James Jones, GB 10 WR57 --

176 Bernard Pierce, BAL 8 RB58 --

177 Isaiah Pead, STL 9 RB59 --

178 Bills D/ST 8 DST11 --

179 Mikel Leshoure, DET 5 RB60 --

180 Packers D/ST 10 DST12 --

181 Martellus Bennett, NYG 11 TE17 --

182 Kendall Hunter, SF 9 RB61 --

183 Taiwan Jones, OAK 5 RB62 --

184 Jason Snelling, ATL 7 RB63 --

185 Plaxico Burress, FA -- WR58 --

186 Davone Bess, MIA 7 WR59 --

187 Jermaine Gresham, CIN 8 TE18 --

188 Lamar Miller, MIA 7 RB64 --

189 Matt Bryant, ATL 7 K11 --

190 Neil Rackers, WAS 10 K12 --

191 Andre Caldwell, DEN 7 WR60 --

192 Jacquizz Rodgers, ATL 7 RB65 --

193 Eddie Royal, SD 7 WR61 --

194 Randall Cobb, GB 10 WR62 --

195 Coby Fleener, IND 4 TE19 --

196 Jacoby Ford, OAK 5 WR63 --

197 Robert Turbin, SEA 11 RB66 --

198 Greg Olsen, CAR 6 TE20 --

199 Jake Locker, TEN 11 QB26 --

200 Alshon Jeffery, CHI 6 WR64

Permalink

One of the Navy SEALs From the Bin Laden Raid Wrote a Book

By: timbersfan, 12:26 AM GMT on August 25, 2012

When was the last time the publishing industry had anything this top secret? Penguin announced on Wednesday that, on September 11, they'll be dropping a bombshell of a book: No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama bin Laden, written anonymously by one of the members of the Navy SEAL team on the ground in Abbottabad that day. The book, which had been kept strictly under wraps until its public announcement, was written by a SEAL using the pseudonym Mark Owen. According to the publisher, the book provides a "blow-by-blow narrative of the assault, beginning with the helicopter crash that could have ended Owen's life straight through to the radio call confirming Bin Laden’s death," and also delves into a series of other top secret SEAL raids. And when Owen goes on TV to promote what is presumed to be a blockbuster, they'll have to do that thing where they creepily modulate his voice and hide him in some shadows. Cool!

By the way, Owen's book could also be the latest instance in which a Bin Laden–related piece of entertainment has gotten mixed up in the presidential election. As the New York Times explains, "[A] film by Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal called Zero Dark Thirty [about the Bin Laden raid] ... was originally scheduled for release in October, but was moved to December after Republicans said it would help dramatize one of the president's signature achievements right before the election. The project also prompted complaints from some Republicans that the administration had provided improper access about the raid to the filmmakers, an accusation the White House denied." But unless Penguin feels similar pressure, No Easy Day will be out in plenty of time to theoretically affect the November election.

Permalink

The Designated Player: An Introduction to Our New MLS Column

By: timbersfan, 11:57 PM GMT on August 24, 2012

As the European leagues get underway for their new season this week, Major League Soccer is entering the run-up to the playoffs. And with the transfer window still open, we took the opportunity to grab a European signing for a new column inspired by all aspects of the domestic game. This week, Graham Parker, who leads the Guardian’s U.S. soccer coverage and who has worked extensively with fans around the United States in doing so, becomes Grantland’s Designated Player.

The “designated player” rule originated in David Beckham’s arrival in MLS, where an exception had to be made to the salary-cap rules to bring him in. After Beckham’s arrival, the league gradually rolled out a policy in which teams can pay a one-off fee to have only a proportion of a player’s wages count toward the cap (they can carry up to three such designated players, or DPs). The slots tended to be used for European and South American imports, with somewhat mixed results. With that in mind, Graham would like it to be known he’s marginally cheaper than Thierry Henry and just as Irish as Robbie Keane.

Welcome to your Designated Player.

Each week I'll be lumbering up and down the keyboard, eating up payroll, averaging about one good performance in five, and discernibly out of breath by paragraph three. There'll be an occasional half-decent observation, a lot of ostentatious badge-kissing, and a strong suggestion that I've lost a yard or two throughout. Most of what I try won't come off, though it won't stop me from trying outrageous flicks of logic — and when it doesn't work I'll be standing hands on hips and shaking my head at the younger Grantland staffers (whose general mental agility, diligence, and grasp of local relevance make me look bad). Oh, and I may take winter off to do all this twice as well in England. You're welcome.

I'm here to talk MLS (possibly as part of the Grantland hostage-exchange program that sends some of America's finest the other way to talk about the Premiership and La Liga, etc.). Each week I'll be looking at stories from a league that I have come to rather love over the years, often because/despite of its idiosyncrasies.

First, however, a quick introduction. Like most expats who end up following MLS after an English soccer cradling (where, being Belfast born, I was also a minor league expat of sorts), my journey to the league was less than straightforward, and it was indirectly inspired by a truly unlikely figure. Before I get to my road-to-Damascus encounter with Steve Bartman (yes, that Steve Bartman) though, a little context ...

I arrived in New York in 2003 as a lifelong Sunderland fan and, the local sports ecosystem being what it was, a default Premiership advocate. The latter sat uneasily with me. Having attended my first game at Roker Park in 1979, and having somewhat lost interest as a teenager during the dog days of the 1980s (European bans; Thatcher ranking fans somewhere on a sliding scale of humanity that also included striking miners; and to be honest, the less lofty teenage distractions of trying to figure out the connections between girls and music), I didn’t fully appreciate the implications of the Premier League as a market force until I started traveling regularly to the United States from the middle of the ’90s onward.

Experiencing the then few soccer bars advertising “Premier League soccer” was the first time in my then 20-odd years of watching the game that I became aware of the league’s aggressive international marketing of itself as a “lifestyle option,” and the first time I heard a league and its teams collectively referred to as a “product.” Back in Manchester, where I lived from 1989 until leaving for New York for good, the idea of the relative strength of leagues was a discussion that had persisted in various forms, particularly around Manchester United’s quest for the Champions League, after English teams were finally allowed back into Europe after the Heysel ban. Yet it was a discussion that was rarely framed in terms of entertainment value. And personally, the notion of the “beautiful game” was something of a chimera for someone who’d grown up singing “Six-foot-two, eyes of blue, big Joe Bolton’s after you” as the eponymous defender deposited yet another would-be flash winger over the advertising hoardings in the Clock Stand (hoardings, I should add, which were defiantly non-animated in their praise of the Chairman’s car showroom).

So arriving in New York and hearing the mix of locals and expats discussing the relative aesthetic qualities of the Premiership or La Liga, like so many cigar aficionados, and all but a few instantly dismissive of the local game, left me wondering what I’d been missing in my support all those years. Yes, I’d admired the qualities of sides beyond my own team: the 1982 Brazil side of Socrates et al, the flair of the late-'90s United sides in my first adopted city, Zidane’s Madrid, etc. I had even begrudgingly admired the swashbuckling style of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, just up the road from Sunderland, and our bitter rivals. But the fact remained that for me, a large part of the cathartic pleasure of watching the game was not the beauty of the play, but indulging the pantomime of inchoate, impotent rage as Gary Breen (or to give him his full terrace name Gary “F-ing” Breen) lobbed his own keeper before getting himself sent off. I’d moved to the United States at the end of a season in which Sunderland had finished on a then record low of 19 points (a standard for ineptitude they would later surpass), via three managers and even one home game where they conspired to score three goals in their own net in one half. Yet that game, against Charlton, also typified what I love most about being a fan — the stands that day were full of the fatalistic gallows humor of men and women making the best of the almost-comforting realization that this was a team that would always let them down. As one infamous Sunderland fanzine was titled, It’s the Hope I Can’t Stand. Without hope, the crowd began to giggle.

So adrift in a new continent, surrounded by ersatz hooligans, self-conscious soccer aesthetes, and that incongruous mix that tends to embody the expat fan (basically, lost-visitor-seeking-familiars meets boorish house guest), I felt that some essential, local joy was missing.

That said, I had still to make the leap to MLS, and to my shame, I took a lot of the local cultural cringe about the standard of play at face value (ignoring the fact that I will stop to quite happily watch pickup games in the park) and initially adopted the easy position of contempt for the local league prior to investigation. So in the first instance I looked for that sense of connection via the indigenous sports of my newly adopted country — and not for the first time in my life, I would start my search for love in all the wrong places.

At this point I have a confession to make. After 14 years as a Sunderland fan in Manchester, my experience of fan conversations had become somewhat skewed. I had one friend in the city who also supported the team, but for the most part I was surrounded by the blithe certainties of United supporters, and the deadpan sarcasm of the long-suffering City fans (who in their pre-billionaire days nonetheless enjoyed a certain inverted glory as the anti-United). As early as the pre-emigration plane ride over, I’d wondered what it might be like to root for a local side that won with soul-crushing regularity. To my lasting shame, I figured that without history or hang-ups it would be easy enough to adopt the Yankees as my new local team, and I duly attended a few games, watched a lot more on TV, read up on blogs and Times reports, learned names, bios, and rudimentary stats — and sought out local opportunities to practice conversational entitlement (of which there were many).

As fate would have it, though, it was fall 2003, and my attempt at Yankee fandom lasted about seven weeks, until my fateful encounter with Game 6 of the NLCS. I’d not watched enough baseball at the time to truly register the historic import of the Steve Bartman incident itself, though the repeat replays that evening gradually emphasized the exceptional nature of that moment — but it was watching the remainder of that interminable inning that really affected me. At the moment when Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez bungled the routine double-play ball — when the fans’ fears seemed to infect the field — I had a flash of the Philip Larkin poem "As Bad as a Mile":

Watching the shied core
Striking the basket, skidding across the floor,
Shows less and less of luck, and more and more

Of failure spreading back up the arm
Earlier and earlier, the unraised hand calm,
The apple unbitten in the palm.
That certainty that a local, shared history — a folk memory — might inspire a team forward, but just as often claim them inexorably back, also reminded me of a description I’d once heard of the experience of standing on Liverpool’s famous Kop. A fan spoke of emptying their pockets before the game, entering the throng and just accepting that you were going to “sway” — giving yourself up to the literal and figurative movement of the crowd, and the whim of the game. Watching that Cubs team falter and the helpless fans watching them sway to an invisible momentum shift, I had a dawning sense of recognition:

“Oh ... I know you ...”

I didn't become a Cubs fan in the wake of that moment, but it did for my nascent Yankees experiment — and somewhere in that instant was the start of my willingness to entertain MLS, since it made me question what I wanted from sport in my newly adopted country. It made me wonder what following those involuntary moments of affinity might mean to me; and how my existing loyalties and beliefs about football might most readily map onto this new soccer territory. It meant that when I eventually did make it to my first MLS game I wasn’t an instant convert, but I was much more predisposed to seek out a personal attachment to the game than I was to arrive with prejudices about the standard of play.

In the end, what sealed the deal for me was the fans themselves. As I explored the game and found them on message boards or in person, the fans were passionate, put upon, hilarious, creative, clued in and clueless — they were fans — and that eighth-inning moment of recognition deepened with each encounter with them. Many, if not most, of them had European or South American sides they followed too, and given the age of the domestic league, many of these allegiances predated that of their connection to local teams, but at some point they’d decided to "earth" their enthusiasm through their local side and accordingly found their enjoyment of the game to be enriched rather than diluted. And compared to my experience toward the end of my time in the U.K., I’ve generally found MLS fans to feel that they have much more ability to define their own experience and voice, distinct from that of the official league voice, or even that of their team. The flip side of global football spectacle can be an implicit alienation within the everyday experience of fans — there was little of that here.

Let’s be clear: MLS has its problems (and we’ll doubtless get to those in this column in coming weeks). It’s also not the be-all and end-all of the domestic game (and as it’s structured, less than 50 percent of the country has access to an even vaguely local MLS side). I’m glad people follow the sport in the U.S. — and given the choice between someone not following soccer at all and them watching nothing but Barcelona, of course I’m glad the latter fans exist (and I’m still an alarm-clock and remote-control fan of the team I grew up with). But when there’s a team on your doorstep, or even your social media range, I think you’re missing out on a big part of what being a fan can be if you don’t entrust just a little bit of your weekly piece of mind to their more or less competent feet.

See you in the stands.

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Though Your Dreams Be Tossed and Blown

By: timbersfan, 11:55 PM GMT on August 24, 2012

When I look ahead to the 2012-13 Premier League season — which starts Saturday, if you can believe that — when I gaze into the swirling void of the future, and try to answer urgent questions like "How many points will Manchester City win by" and "Reading: ??" — when I think about the Premier League at all in terms other than Robin van Persie, nightclub groping incidents, and money, I see a darkness, and the name of the darkness is Liverpool.

Is it just me, or is Liverpool by far the most interesting club at the start of the new (profound apologies) campaign? The Premier League has settled, over the last 12 months or so, into a place where almost all the teams have fairly streamlined identities, like politicians or Simpsons characters; the roles they're playing in the league's imagination-opera are roles we all more or less know. Manchester City is so rich they're listing numbers instead of names on the backs of their jerseys these days: Starting at left back, £22,000,000. Manchester United is old, storied, confused, and obsessed with the stock market, as if your grandpa, via some unfathomable Kafkaesque accident, woke up as a soccer team. Newcastle: Those cuddly overachievers, with their eyelashes and their Andy Carroll fixation.1 Arsenal with its youth vortex, Tottenham with its post-'Arry Lord of the Flies phase, etc.

Liverpool, though. What the hell is Liverpool? Other clubs have problems, workaday junk like "we only have one striker on the books" and "our manager sometimes refuses to sign players if he can't buy them with S&H Green Stamps."2 What Liverpool has, after finishing last season with its worst league position in 18 years,3 goes beyond problems and might not even involve them. Liverpool has existential weight.

Just to recap — I realize that for many of you this will be unnecessary, but we practice big-tent soccer journalism here at the Walt Disney Company — Liverpool was the greatest soccer club in heaven, earth, or hell during the peak-mustache era, racking up 11 league titles and four European Cups from circa Blue Öyster Cult through Dr. Feelgood. Their fans, during this same era, happened to become the victims and/or perpetrators of some of the worst tragedies in soccer history, including the Hillsborough4 and the Heysel Stadium5 disasters. They won more than anyone else; they also got all English clubs6 banned from European competition for five years, from 1985 to 1990. Everything about them, from their uniforms ("Red for danger, red for power," as club legend Ian St. John once wrote) to their stadium (the "THIS IS ANFIELD" sign hung above the door leading out of the tunnel, just to remind opponents where they were) to their club song (Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone," which if you think that sounds overwrought and insane now, just wait till you've heard it bellowed at full volume by 45,000 rabid Liverpool fans), was more dramatic, more histrionic, and more emotionally gigantic than anyone else.7

With the more or less simultaneous rise of the Premiership and Manchester United in the early 1990s, Liverpool lost its dominance8 but somehow not its late-Sopranos air of imploding grandeur and doom. Consider the team's captain, Steven Gerrard, a local kid who happened to become a beloved star for his boyhood club. Good story, right? Gerrard's career has also found the room to include: leading his team to a win in what might be the most thrilling Champions League final of all time, 2005 vs. Milan, when Liverpool came back from three goals down in the second half to win the European Cup on penalties; about 500 late, match-changing goals; a high-profile criminal trial stemming from the beating of a DJ who, allegedly, wouldn't play a Phil Collins song at a club; captaining England at both the World Cup and the European Championships; and this one time when he hit a 10-year-old kid with his Bentley.9 You could barely make this stuff up, and that's before you throw in the fact that the club is currently run by the Red Sox ownership group with LeBron James as a minority shareholder.10 Liverpool is a tidal wave of its own Liverpool-ness.


JOHN POWELL/LIVERPOOL FC VIA GETTY IMAGES
Which brings us to: This new season, the follow-up to last year's disastrous (I'm sorry) campaign. Liverpool hasn't won an English league title since 1989-90, but it's usually in the running, a confident part of the Premier League's old Big Four. There were moments as recently as three or four years ago — say, when the Reds ended Chelsea's 86-game unbeaten streak in league games at Stamford Bridge — when they, not Chelsea or Arsenal, and certainly not Man City, seemed like the most plausible challengers to the Manchester United victory machine. Then Fernando Torres left. Then last year happened. Liverpool's 2011-12 season was one of the craziest in the club's crazy history. The team came completely unraveled in the Premier League, at one point losing three straight matches to QPR, Wigan, and Newcastle. They won the Carling Cup. They nearly won the FA Cup. They saw their best striker, the slithery Uruguayan controversialist Luis Suarez,11 banned for eight matches for racially abusing Manchester United's Patrice Evra. (He denied it; no one knows.) End result: eighth-place finish in the league, many millions of pounds questionably spent, a minor trophy, and the sacking of manager-slash-club-icon Kenny Dalglish in favor of Brendan Rodgers, who performed awesome deeds at Swansea City but who has never managed a club with the inescapable psycho-baggage and global fan base of Liverpool.

It was a bad year — bad because the club lost, bad because the club embarrassed itself over the Suarez situation. But it was also bad in a less obvious way. Liverpool, historically the most important club in England, one of the eight or 10 essential football clubs in Europe, melted down in a humiliating fashion, and, outside Liverpool itself, it didn't seem to matter that much. I mean, compared to, say, campaign finance reform, sure, the Merseyside freakout attracted its share of op-eds. Compared to the title race between the two Manchesters, though, or to the ongoing perma-crisis at Arsenal, Liverpool was a blip. If anything, the Suarez-Evra controversy seemed to overshadow the club itself, as if it could have happened anywhere and been taken the same way. Liverpool collapsed, and the Premier League and its fans were over on the other side of the mountains, not caring.

That's not how this is supposed to work, to put it mildly. First of all, Liverpool isn't supposed to collapse. They're supposed to stand on the mile-high, hawk-haunted precipice just beside collapse, roaring "You'll Never Walk Alone" and weeping their defiance. Second, when things happen at Liverpool, those things are supposed to command attention. "When France sneezes, Europe catches a cold," Metternich said in the 19th century. Liverpool is supposed to be France in the soccer version of this analogy. They are supposed to bestride the soccer world like a colossus,12 not get bumped to page four because Man City found another billion dollars in a mattress.

So this season is going to be terrifically fascinating at Anfield. Liverpool doesn't have the financial resources to compete with Manchester City or even Manchester United. (I'm pretty sure that a Liverpool IPO would be held on the Chicago beef-futures market at this point.) On the other hand, if they can't at least threaten to win a Champions League place, I think they'll be in actual danger of losing their identity. Already the club seems a little like an old-world also-ran, the quaint, antediluvian echo of a time before Abu Dhabi's royal family got satellite TV. I don't mean that Liverpool has to play in the Champions League to be Liverpool — this will be the club's third straight season not playing in it — but that Liverpool on a normal scale is like a miniature version of itself.

Rodgers and the Fenway brain trust are in the midst of a medium-size squad makeover, having sold Craig Bellamy, Dirk Kuyt, Fabio Aurelio, Alberto Aquilani, and Maxi Rodríguez over the summer, with Carroll very likely to follow soon. Who'll replace them? No one knows. So far the club has bought only Fabio Borini (£10 million, from Roma) and Joe Allen (£15 million, from Swansea), both players who've worked for Rodgers before. The squad is threadbare. The season starts Saturday. Liverpool's first three home games are against Manchester City, Arsenal, and Manchester United. There are dark clouds towering on the horizon. There are crazed expectations. There is every opportunity to fail.

There is, in other words, a perfect chance for Liverpool to become Liverpool again. Here's hoping they take it.

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Forza Pro

By: timbersfan, 11:53 PM GMT on August 24, 2012

I. My Magical Connection With the Tiny Italian Soccer Club Pro Vercelli

I have a magical connection with the tiny Italian soccer club Pro Vercelli because I once spent a year pretending to be them in a video game. Moreover, I spent a year blogging extensively about pretending to be them in a video game. Without going too deeply into my reasons for doing this — more or less the usual Internet cocktail of narcissism, a "desire to interrogate constructions of fantasy and reality in sports," and generally warm feelings about playing Football Manager at two in the afternoon for money — I can say that the project spiraled hopelessly out of control,1 sucked in hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of words, generated about a million inside jokes on my old soccer site, and left me with a permanent love for this obscure little club from a city of fewer than 50,000 people in the northern Italian province of Piedmont.

If you've ever played as a small club in Football Manager,2 you've probably experienced something like this. You take over Forest Green Rovers (fifth division, England), or Go-Ahead Eagles (second division, Netherlands), or Víkingur Ólafsvík (second division, Iceland). These aren't clubs you've seen on TV; they might not even be clubs you've heard of before you start browsing for tough teams to play in FM. But because the one you choose is now, fantasy-construction-wise, yours, you get strangely invested. You learn about its history. You feel odd — proud? implicated? — when you see its results in real life. You develop an ambiguously real/fake sense of belonging (you to the club, the club to you) that only deepens as you spend months leading its video-game twin out of lower-league hell and toward international glory. If you don't play video games, this probably sounds silly, and it is. But FM absorbs long, almost fathomless spells of time, and the brain, which is not exactly great with the concept of fake experience, does what it does. And sometimes the feeling sticks.

Anyway, that's what happened to me with Pro Vercelli. We won a bunch of pretend championships and I fell in epistemically problematic love.

II. Short History of a Glamorous Idea

There were two reasons I picked Pro Vercelli. First, they were way down in the opaque undersea of Italian soccer, barely hanging on in the fourth division, a forgotten club with no prospects. I wanted a good narrative for the blog, and that meant saving a club that nothing could ever save in real life.

The other reason was that they had an amazing story. They were one of those fragments of real old-time sports history that you sometimes run across in an out-of-the-way corner of the lower leagues, a living antique from the age of tweed caps and heavy leather balls. In the early years of the 20th century, Pro Vercelli was the most influential soccer club in Italy and one of the best clubs in the world. They won seven Italian championships — still good for fifth all-time — between 1908 and 1922. It should have been eight, but they were cheated out of a title in 1910.3 Vercelli was a small town compared to Milan or Turin, and the club mostly fielded local players, meaning their talent pool was tiny. They got around this by practicing with an intensity and a commitment to organization that was at the time virtually unheard of in the sport.

They were, for instance, one of the first teams to emphasize physical fitness. There's a story from 1903 about the entire team biking 70 kilometers (about 43 miles) to play in an away match; they tried to skip out on a toll by racing over a bridge, but the bridge keeper caught up to the slowest member of the squad, a striker named Sessa, and forced him to pay for the whole group. They were one of the first teams to practice set pieces. They scored the first-ever goal in Serie A, and were the first club of the league's best-ever goal scorer, Silvio Piola. In 1913, the Italian national team fielded a squad that included nine players from Pro Vercelli; that's how far ahead of everyone else they were.

So what happened? Inevitably, the big-city teams caught up to Vercellese training methods. The professionalization of the game gave Juventus and A.C. Milan a financial advantage that was virtually impossible for a small-town club to overcome. By the mid-1930s, Pro Vercelli had slid out of Serie A,4 and by the 1940s, they'd fallen out of Serie B. Their former rivals glittered into the TV era and collected European Cups; Pro Vercelli was blown around the regional leagues and hung on for its life. Soccer economics is essentially a hurricane for all but the very top clubs. In 2010, less than a year after I finished restoring the inside-my-computer Pro Vercelli to greatness, the real Pro Vercelli ran out of money, was denied readmission to the fourth division of Italian soccer, and — 88 years removed from its last championship — dissolved.

III. Reality Gets Intriguing

Football Manager is relatively complex and difficult to master, but it's still a video game, meaning it's basically amenable to the direction of human desire. Unlike reality, it wants you to win. So I was sad but not entirely surprised when the real-life Pro Vercelli went under. If anything, the club's collapse seemed to underscore its basic fragility and hopelessness, which had been what drew me to it as a video-game proposition in the first place.

I'm going to try to be really brief and precise about what happened next, because it doesn't need any adornment. In August 2010, the city of Vercelli transferred the defunct club's name, colors, and history — essentially its entire identity — to another, smaller local club, Pro Belvedere, which effectively became the new Pro Vercelli.5 Pro Belvedere had just been relegated from the lowest-tier professional league in Italy, but because of a vacancy, the newly reconstituted Pro Vercelli was allowed to continue in the Lega Pro Seconda Divisione. Improbably, they finished third. They lost a promotion playoff 5-4 on aggregate to Pro Patria, but then a slew of financial catastrophes (soccer economics = hurricane, remember) left several clubs unable to compete in the next league up, the Lega Pro Prima Divisione, the following season. A few months after it ceased to exist, Pro Vercelli was lifted by default into the Lega Pro I, its highest level of club football in more than 30 years.

There are two national leagues in Italian soccer, Serie A (the top flight, where teams like Milan and Roma and Napoli play in front of massive crowds and choreographed tifosi) and Serie B (the second tier). These are, from a media/money/attention standpoint, essentially the only leagues that matter. Because of their surprise promotion to the Liga Pro I, Pro Vercelli started this past season just one division below Serie B. They were in over their heads. They were also within sight of elite-level soccer for the first time in decades.

And after a few weeks, unbelievably, they started winning. Behind a surprisingly effective attack and a defense anchored by 19-year-old Alberto Masi, Pro Vercelli started outplaying teams with legitimate shots at reaching Serie B. Then, ultra-unbelievably, Pro Vercelli started winning enough that it seemed like they had a legitimate shot at reaching Serie B. Late in the year, they missed a chance to move into first place in the league and a guaranteed promotion spot. In the end, they were forced to play in a two-legged playoff against the heavily favored Carpi. Which — transcendently ultra-unbelievably — they won, thanks to a 3-1 comeback victory, on the road, in the second leg. You can watch the video; it's an amazing record. All these mad heroics going down in front of banks of empty seats.

Anyway, the result: Starting Saturday, when they open the 2012-13 season against Ternana, Pro Vercelli will play in Serie B, where they last appeared three years after the end of World War II.

IV. Love and Rockets

It was surreal for everyone, I imagine, or at least for everyone within the vanishingly small group of people who were paying attention, to see Pro Vercelli — two seasons after being left for dead — come out of the mists to qualify for the second division of Italian soccer. It was doubly surreal for me, because it almost exactly mirrored what had already happened, three years earlier, in my game. Nail-biting comebacks, expectation-defying winning streaks, youth players blossoming at exactly the right moment, playoff victories against long odds — this was all straight out of my Football Manager run. The players had different names, and, fine, my fantasy world team hadn't been helped by other clubs going bankrupt,6 but otherwise? It felt like the same story.

I had chosen a team to save that couldn't possibly be saved in real life. And here they were, in real life, being saved.

None of this has much to do with anything, I realize. It's just weird and sort of eye-unfocusing to think, given the increasing prevalence of fantasy layers in our interactions with real-world sports,7 how many echoes and unplanned connections like this must be happening all the time, how these must be affecting the experience of sports in all sorts of private and semi-conscious ways. It's also delightful, at least to me, to reflect that when video-game sports seem at their most implausible and exaggerated, they may actually be at their most realistic.

Can the real Pro Vercelli qualify for Serie A? There's absolutely no chance,8 none — which is why I'm certain that it's possible. I know it can happen in the real world, because it sounds just like a video game.

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The Fantasy Shrink Is In

By: timbersfan, 11:51 PM GMT on August 24, 2012

Let's start by being totally honest: Fantasy football is an unfair game ruled by randomness and luck. Don't believe me? Pretend that you somehow ended up with four first-rounders in your fantasy draft last season, including the first pick. You very well could have used those picks to take Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Michael Vick, and Andre Johnson. That group of four players would have combined for 507 fantasy points.1 That guy who ended up with all the picks at the bottom of the draft could have used them on Cam Newton, Darren Sproles, Roy Helu, and Jordy Nelson, four players who were all available in the 11th round or later. Those guys produced 891 fantasy points; Newton, a 13th-round pick, was the tenth-most valuable player in the game. Fantasy football is stupid.

OK, so when everything goes wrong, fantasy football is stupid. When you end up with Newton throwing to Nelson and Victor Cruz, though, it's a lot of fun. We can't find you the next Victor Cruz. Nobody can. What we can do, though, is try to apply some of the smart things we've read and some of the harebrained ideas you've seen in our NFL preview and apply them to fantasy football. It probably won't win you your fantasy football league, but as we head into America's unofficial national weekend for fantasy football drafts, it might just give you some ways to think differently from the rest of your leaguemates. You might even find a sleeper or two!

More NFL Preview Coverage

The NFL's Technology Cornucopia

The NFL's Cloudy Crystal Ball

The Mortality of MLB vs. NFL

The Tight End Revolution Will Be Televised

Broncos Busted

Buc-ing the System

A (Miami) Dolphin Tale

The Niners Won't Strike Gold in 2012

The Over/Unders: Player by Player

The Over/Unders: Team by Team

Climbing Out of the NFL Abyss

Fantasy Insomnia!

Gang Green Forecast

Who Is the Best Running Back in Football?

Odds Are, You're Ready for Some Football

Playing (the Franchise) Tag

Look Before You Leap

The NFL's Holy Grail

The Top Battles to Be QB1
The Right Framework: VBD

The best piece of thinking about fantasy football in the history of the genre belongs to Joe Bryant and David Dodds of footballguys.com, who developed the concept of value-based drafting (VBD). If you're familiar with VBD, skip ahead, but it's a fundamental concept that everyone who plays fantasy football needs to keep in their heads at all times.

Bryant and Dodds describe the VBD concept succinctly: "The value of a player is determined not by the number of points he scores, but by how much he outscores his peers at his particular position." Now, even if you haven't heard of VBD before, that logic is already at least slightly instilled in your head; Mark Sanchez (253 fantasy points last year) and Arian Foster (256) scored roughly the same number of points last season, but one's a top-five pick and the other's a 13th-rounder. Quarterbacks produce more fantasy points than running backs, but because most leagues start two or more running backs and just one quarterback, running backs are a far scarcer (and therefore more valuable) quantity.

How do you apply VBD to your draft board? There are a variety of tools and theories out there that will do so, but the simplest way is to find the number of points produced by the guy who would be the worst starter in your league at his given position and use that as your baseline. In a traditional league with 12 teams, that would be the 12th-best quarterback, tight end, kicker, and team defense, the 24th-best running back and wide receiver, and then the 60th-best running back/wide receiver (for the flex spot). Once you've got their seasonal totals, you build your draft board upon how many points each player would score versus that baseline at their respective position.

As an example, here's last year's baseline skill-position players using those rankings:

FANTASY BASELINE TEAM

Position Player Points
QB Michael Vick 241
RB Benjarvus Green-Ellis 149
RB Jonathan Stewart 147
WR Brandon Lloyd 127
WR Jabar Gaffney 125
TE Fred Davis 98
FLEX Malcom Floyd 116
Using those baselines, Sanchez goes from being worth as much as Foster to producing just 12 points of excess fantasy value, making him roughly akin to teammate Shonn Greene, who was responsible for 162 points, 13 ahead of BJGE. Foster, meanwhile, creates 107 points more than the average back and gets catapulted into the top 10, where he belongs. Rob Gronkowski's 241 points would have placed him 24 points behind Calvin Johnson's league-leading 265 points at wideout, but because Gronkowski was doing it against a lower baseline at tight end, he actually produced four more points of value than Megatron.

VBD doesn't account for everything. It doesn't consider the specific rules or style of your league, the context in which those points were gathered, or the likelihood of injuries affecting each player. Most notably, it's a system that bases value for each player off of last year's baselines, and there's no guarantee that last year will look anything like this upcoming season. That's where you have to combine VBD with your intuitions about 2012, and where we think you might be able to game even the smartest of fantasy football systems.

The Dangers of Gronking

Last year, Gronkowski was responsible for 143 fantasy points above the tight end baseline, which was the fourth-highest figure in the league; in other words, if you could redraft your entire league before last season knowing what they would do in 2011, Gronkowski would be the rightful fourth pick, ahead of guys like Tom Brady, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Shady McCoy. Jimmy Graham would be the 12th pick, and Aaron Hernandez would have been tied with Adrian Peterson at 27th. It truly was the year of the tight end.

If you've been reading our ongoing football preview here at Grantland, though, you've seen some skepticism about Gronkowski and Graham and the likelihood that their 2012 seasons will look much like they did in 2011. And if their 2012 seasons do blend in with the rest of the tight end crowd, well, it materially changes the way you would value them on draft day.

Let's say that Gronkowski and Graham stay healthy in 2012, but produce 75 percent of the fantasy value that they did a year ago. For Gronkowski, that would be a seasonal line of 67 catches, 995 receiving yards, and 12 touchdowns, producing a total of 171 fantasy points; Graham would be at 74-982-8 and accrue 146 points. If everyone else's performance stays the same and the baseline remains at 98 points, Gronkowski's value in terms of VBD gets cut nearly in half, as he falls from 143 points above baseline to a mere 73, while Graham goes from 99 to 48. If you plug those new VBD figures into last year's totals, Gronkowski would be the 16th-best fantasy player in the league, while Graham would be tied for 22nd with Eli Manning.

This decline is already partly priced into drafts. In ESPN drafts, Gronkowski's been coming off the board 14th, while Graham is just behind him at 20th. Three spots of Average Draft Position (ADP) doesn't seem all that significant, but that could be the difference between taking Gronkowski with the first pick of the second round or opting for somebody like Matt Forte or Marshawn Lynch.

And while 25 percent sounds harsh, you could make the case that this would be a conservative argument for the decline of 2011's two star tight ends. If our logic holds true and the copycat NFL begins to focus more on using tight ends, 2012 could very easily be a year in which the production of the average tight end goes up, even as that of Gronkowski and Graham goes down. As a result, we could see the baseline for tight ends go past 100, which would drive down the value of the stars even further. When you factor in Gronkowski's injury history and the question marks surrounding Graham in New Orleans, it just seems safer to wait for Jacob Tamme or Brandon Pettigrew in the eighth round than it does to go for a killer tight end.

More Fun With Unsustainability

Because they're so simultaneously valuable and rare, touchdowns are the easiest aspect of fantasy football to exploit. Players with disproportionately high touchdown totals tend to be overvalued, as we suspect Gronkowski is this year, and the opposite is true for players who failed to find the end zone as frequently as you might expect. Understanding that and changing your values accordingly can give you that much-vaunted edge.

Take Cam Newton, for example, who had 14 rushing touchdowns last season. Newton's undoubtedly a force of nature, but since 1990, only four other guys have had as many as eight, and while Michael Vick and Steve McNair each pulled it off twice, it only happened twice across their respective careers. With the Panthers expected to pull into contention this year, this is also likely to be the season where the Panthers start talking about keeping Newton healthy for the long-term while limiting his designed carries. He's probably overvalued because of that rushing TD total.

The same is true at wideout for Victor Cruz, who made an art of the big play last season. As the Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 notes, Cruz had five touchdowns of 65 yards or more last season. The last time that happened was when Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch did it in 1951, and you undoubtedly remember how overvalued Hirsch was in 1952 fantasy drafts. Cruz will still be good, but those five plays were responsible for more than 30 percent of his fantasy production last year; if he only has one of them this year, he's far less valuable. Jordy Nelson and Laurent Robinson scored at a rate greater than once every five receptions, which is also almost always unsustainable.

On the flip side, you might expect a little more out of Chris Johnson this year near the goal line.2 Johnson touched the ball 319 times last year and only scored four touchdowns. That's a touchdown every 79 touches, which is twice the league-average rate for guys with 200 touches or more. It's also way below CJ2K's previous career average of one score per 28 touches. Even if you think that you've already seen Johnson's best, chances are he'll score twice as frequently in 2012.

The same is also true for newly paid Steelers wideout Antonio Brown, who touched the ball 76 times in 2011 and produced just two touchdowns. The ultimate example of all this, though, is Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis. After becoming a "red zone threat" and scoring 10 touchdowns on 58 receptions in 2010, Lewis bounced all the way past the mean and regressed to, well, the bottom of the barrel. Lewis didn't score a single touchdown, including a horrific drop in the end zone against the Texans. It's a safe bet to say that Lewis will finish somewhere between zero and 10 touchdowns this season.

The Second-Year Running Back Bump

What do Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy, and Ray Rice all have in common? In addition to being among the league's best running backs, they all broke out in roughly similar fashion. They each followed a relatively quiet rookie season with an enormous second-year campaign, and they were each valued at a roughly similar spot before the season began. Foster and McCoy were drafted at the end of the third round in fantasy drafts before their big 2010, with Rice a couple of picks behind them in 2009. It's a small sample size, to be sure, but it's been an interesting sweet spot for possible superstar running backs over the past few years.

The bad news? There's no real candidate who fits the bill this year. The only unproven back in that range is Buccaneers rookie Doug Martin, who is expected to start ahead of LeGarrette Blount. If Tampa Bay makes the sort of leap that we've predicted, Martin could be a great value at the end of Round 3. Like those players, though, he could struggle to stay healthy or effective as a rookie.

There is a decent crop of second-year backs who have some potential for breakout seasons lurking later in the draft. Roy Helu appears to be on the outs in Washington, but, as anyone who watched the Mike Shanahan talk about running backs last year remembers, that means he's more likely to be the starter than to ride pine. More promising are Mark Ingram and Daniel Thomas, each of whom struggled with injuries during their first season at the professional level. Thomas is particularly interesting. Despite playing with a Miami offense that starts a rookie quarterback and no receivers of any note, he's not coming off the board until the last pick of the 11th round. Thomas will split time with Reggie Bush, but Bush just finished the healthiest season of his career. Thomas probably won't emulate the likes of our three superstars, but isn't he a better risk in the ninth or 10th rounds than the likes of Shane Vereen, Alex Smith, or Randy Moss?

Give Boring a Chance

It's also always a good idea in fantasy drafts to avoid the sexy bandwagon team and to try to go after some of the league's more depressing situations.

What do I mean by that? Basically, that even bad offenses move the ball and score, and there's something to be gained by remembering that. That Dolphins offense we just mentioned will complete a minimum of 230 passes this year, and those completions have to go to somebody. Let's say Reggie Bush stays healthy and gets 65 of them, and Thomas picks up 25 of his own. That leaves 140 completions to go to wide receivers and tight ends. The only guy in the Miami offense of any competency there is Davone Bess, who is currently being taken two picks ahead of Redskins backup Leonard Hankerson in ESPN drafts. It seems close to a sure thing that Bess will pick up at least 60 receptions, more if the Dolphins don't have a historically bad passing attack (and/or if Ryan Tannehill loses the job). As a bye-week option and occasional flex play, that makes him a legitimately useful player, even if nobody else can stomach the idea of taking a Dolphins receiver.

You can make the same case for the passing games in Cleveland (where Greg Little would be the obvious target) and St. Louis (where the closest thing might be Danny Amendola). It's harder to do with running games, since every running back of any consequence gets attention, but the aforementioned Doug Martin in Tampa Bay is probably the guy who best resembles this strategy. Remember: Just because they're on your fantasy team doesn't mean you have to watch them every Sunday.

Stuck With Luck?

The most interesting fantasy football question of the year, though, involves Andrew Luck in keeper leagues. As the best quarterback prospect of his generation, it seems obvious that Luck would be a prime target in keeper leagues, but is it worth punting 2012 to grab Luck a few rounds too early?

Well, what if you're not punting 2012 by grabbing Luck a few rounds too early at all? Since the obvious thing to do is to compare Luck to his predecessor Peyton Manning,3 let's consider what Manning did at the beginning of his career. During his rookie season, Manning inherited a dismal Colts team, albeit one that had Marshall Faulk and a young Marvin Harrison on the roster. Despite throwing 28 interceptions, Manning finished ninth in fantasy points among quarterbacks. A year later, he finished fourth among QBs and started a 12-year stretch in which he was never lower than sixth.

If Luck can do that, at what point can you really justify not taking him? Luck's currently the 16th quarterback coming off of ESPN draft boards in standard leagues, but that's not really applicable. The ninth-highest rated quarterback in those leagues is Tony Romo, whose ADP is 50.1, at the beginning of the fifth round. If your league allows you to keep players for multiple seasons at the same round or at a relatively cheap price, you can probably start justifying a season with Luck right around that 50th pick. Even if he's genuinely the 16th-best quarterback in football this season, his upside is so high that it's difficult to fathom him ever going in the fifth round again. And if you can get a top-four quarterback for 2013-15 as a fifth-round pick, well, you might actually get to prove that fantasy football isn't ruled by randomness and luck after all.

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