The 6 Riskiest Players in Fantasy Football This Season
Fantasy football is many things. I could begin with any number of metaphors or similes here, and find a meaningful comparison to the fake football game we all know and love.
But the honest truth is that fantasy football is a game of risk and chance. Putting honor, pride, or even money on the line by constructing a "team" full of NFL players that you can't control is closer to blackjack than it is to a video game or actually playing a sport. Both of the latter examples involve direct application of skill for the duration of the activity, while fantasy football involves a lot of sitting, waiting, and hoping for the right breaks.
That's not to say there's not an element of skill involved, however. Assessing risk, and adopting the right balance of high risk and low risk, can produce incredible results in fantasy sports. But is it possible to quantify risk? And if so, how can we use this information to our advantage?
Our fantasy football projections attempt to do just that with what we like to call "Confidence Interval." Any website can spit out a number that quantifies what they think a player will do in the upcoming season, but we take it a step forward, and reveal the most likely - not all - range of outcomes based on our math. And just like the projections, the size and span of the Confidence Interval, or CI, range is different for every player. (You can find them alongside our fantasy football projections by clicking here.)
Let's start at the very top of the board. Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers are the second and third players in our rankings heading into the season, coming in a mere one-hundredth of a point apart. But the range of outcomes for Rodgers is slightly more confined than it is for Manning.
That means Manning has a higher ceiling, but also a lower floor. This makes sense, considering his age and lack of running ability, which help bolster Rodgers' numbers and provide a safer worst-case scenario, as well as his incredible skill-set and the loaded skill positions around him.
But to be honest, the difference in the CI of these two quarterbacks amounts to less than one point per game. There's no risk in these players, except, of course, for catastrophic injury or sudden retirement. What we're looking for here are the truly risky players - the ones with the biggest upside, but the biggest bust potential as well.
Tread carefully, but consider these six players, who are among the biggest gambles in fantasy football this year. Keep in mind that this isn't due to market value, but their range in projections.
You've been living under a rock if you're not aware of the risk involved in drafting Arian Foster for your fantasy football team. The oft-injured Texans tailback is still one of the most talented in the league, but there's a lot counting against him as he approaches the 2014 season.
Gary Kubiak is gone, Foster is getting older, and he'll be playing in a new scheme with a new quarterback for the first time in his NFL career (apart from Matt Schaub's injury and horrible play-related spells on the sideline, of course). So it's no surprise that Foster is one of the riskiest players in the league when it comes to fantasy.
Just how risky, though? According to our CI numbers, Foster's range of outcomes is the widest in the entire NFL, with a 112.74 fantasy point swing between the least and most-reasonably likely outcomes. That CI range represents around 46% of his point total, meaning that a rise or fall of just under 25% of his projection is not only possible, but reasonable based on the uncertainty of his situation.
To put it another way, the top-end of Foster's CI numbers would see him finishing as the second-best running back in the fantasy football, just behind Jamaal Charles. But the low end of his CI would rank him 14th, behind Gio Bernard and Doug Martin. A swing from second-best running back to an RB2 is certainly a big risk, but one worth taking if you can land Foster in a draft position reflective of the low end of his CI range.
Sure, he's a risk, but spending a third-round pick on Foster (as I have already a few times this offseason) could pay huge dividends should he get back to the performances that earned him the high draft position he enjoyed over the past few seasons. Otherwise, he might be a bit too big of a question mark for that late-first rounder that could be spent on a safer Eddie Lacy or Marshawn Lynch.
Montee Ball is a risky player for totally different reasons than Foster. Foster's proven production is playing tug of war against all of the possible limiting factors for his fantasy shelf life, while Ball is unproven potential with vast opportunities and no solid track record to base prognostications off of.
As a result, Ball has the second-highest range of likely outcomes according to our CI numbers. The difference in the best case and worst case scenarios according to our projections is a whopping 97.82 points, enough to allow the span of his possible point totals to go from the third-best running back to the 16th.
The upside for Ball is obvious, as he's going to be the featured back for a Peyton Manning offense, and last season he proved that he can at least be consistent, if not flashy or overly productive. Ball didn't produce heavily in our Rushing Net Expected Points metric, but he did finish well (very well, in fact) in Success Rate, which determines how often a player gains positive NEP production for his offense.
Ball is, then, the kind of back that a Peyton Manning offense needs. If Manning sees a matchup at the line of scrimmage and checks to a run, he needs to be sure that the back will make the right reads and get the yards needed to keep the offense ahead of the chains. The small sample size that is Ball's NFL career proves that he can do just that.
But can he be anything more than that? Or will he be a Shonn Greene-like plodder capable of scoring touchdowns and staying on the field because of his reliability, but lacking any sort of game-breaking ability to light up the scoreboard for fantasy teams and the Broncos alike?
That's the risk you'll have to take with Ball, and with his current draft position as eighth back off the board (according to Fantasy Football Calculator), it's a risk that might not be worth taking. The aforementioned Lynch and Lacy are both solid options in his place, with DeMarco Murray (shockingly) assuming the role as yet another safe option in the late first or early second.
This one doesn't surprise you, does it?
Health concerns have sidetracked a seemingly promising career for the New York Giants speedster David Wilson, who enters 2014 with more injury concerns, but with an opportunity to stand out in a role he's more comfortable with in the New York offense.
Rashad Jennings will assume the workhorse running back role for the Giants, but for all of his great qualities, quickness and speed are not his strong suit. That's where Wilson could thrive, as a change-of-pace back who is limited in opportunity, but maximized in the way he's used.
But how limited of a role will that be? With both health and playing time in question, there's room to doubt that Wilson will be fantasy relevant at all. But should he stay on the field, there's upside to be found here as well.
Wilson's range of outcomes is actually higher than his projected fantasy point total, as the 54.92-point difference in the low-end and high-end of his projected points top his 50.82 prediction for the 2014 season. This means the difference between a leap up into the mid-40's among running backs, alongside Bernard Pierce and Mark Ingram, or a plunge into the mid-80s, where fullbacks Bruce Miller and Anthony Sherman can be found.
The risk here is almost entirely up to health, as we know (with a certain degree of confidence) that Wilson has dynamic athletic ability when he's on the field and playing. But with an ADP as the 50th back off the board according to FFC, you might have to invest at "healthy Wilson" price with a good chance of getting damaged goods. Unless he gets a clean bill of health, or you're willing to take a chance that he'll play 14-16 games, he might be a bit too risky, with former Giant Andre Brown and Chicago rookie Ka'Deem Carey representing less risky options in a similar ADP range.
Someone has to catch passes from Cam Newton, right?
Jerricho Cotchery figures to be the top receiver in Carolina in 2014, as the Panthers will hope that his touchdown-producing ways and once-reliable 70-80 catch hands will return despite being five years removed from a 50-plus reception campaign.
Last season, Cotchery found himself on the receiving end of a career-high 10 touchdown passes on only 46 receptions. The production translated into his NEP numbers here at numberFire, as he finished with a career high in Reception NEP per target. But the targets won't be quite as efficient and timely in Carolina as they were in Pittsburgh.
Leaving the fairly loaded offense of the Steelers for the barren cupboard of the Panthers means that Cotchery will be relied upon to be a leading man rather than a role player, a situation that suited him well in the mid 2000's. He produced a trio of decent seasons as a leading receiver for the Jets, hauling in passes from Kellen Clemens and Chad Pennington en route to a miraculous 1,000-yard season in 2007.
So where's the risk in Cotchery? It all comes down to finding the end zone. Last year's 10 touchdown breakout figures to be an outlier given his previous scoring record, but he'll also be in a better situation in Carolina - with a good quarterback in Cam Newton - than he was for the majority of his career with the Jets.
Is it a late-career resurgence, or simply a fluke after playing second fiddle to Antonio Brown last year and falling into a productive season in the red zone? Again, this is the risk you'll have to consider. Cotchery's range of likely outcomes span from finishing 25th and 50th among receivers, but that's well ahead of his current ADP, meaning he's probably worth a shot in the late rounds of your draft, PPR or not.
Kyle Rudolph is a big, athletic, physical tight end who's dripping with "14 touchdown" potential thanks to his red zone prowess. But to get touchdowns in the red zone, two things need to happen.
1. His team needs to get to the red zone.
2. His team needs to throw him a good pass in the red zone.
And unfortunately for him, those are two things that are fairly hard to rely on in Minnesota these days.
The Vikings had a bottom-10 passing offense using our metrics last year, and even without any (planned) Josh Freeman experiments, rookie Teddy Bridgewater and veteran Matt Cassel don't figure to light the world on fire and drastically change the fortunes of the aerial attack for Minnesota.
As a result, our numbers predict that Rudolph could finish anywhere from 7th to 27th among tight ends, which for a one-starter position, means the difference in "worth spending a premium pick on" and "not worth a roster spot."
Rudolph is currently a borderline TE1 according to Fantasy Football Calculator's ADP data, so he's a bit higher than where we have him ranked. That means to take him at his current ADP, you're relying on the Minnesota offense to not only score points, but to score them on non-Adrian Peterson plays.
Charles Clay and Delanie Walker are both going later than Rudolph, and are safer (and better, according to our projections) options for your tight end needs. You're not going to find a lot of difference in the mid-round options, and you can wait to snag undervalued guys like the aforementioned duo or Martellus Bennett instead.
No player this offseason embodies the collective hope of fantasy football players and experts attempting to "get ahead" of a prospect quite like Cordarrelle Patterson. The incredibly athletic but very raw Minnesota receiver has leapt up draft boards, currently sitting as a top-50 player and a top-20 receiver.
Our rankings say that's a very pie-in-the-sky outlook for the Tennessee product.
The high-end of Patterson's Confidence Interval would leave him ranked only 24th among receivers, while the low end would see him plummet to 55th at his position. So why the big disparity in rankings for the speedster?
How is he going to score? It's tough to predict long touchdown runs and catches as a reliable source of fantasy output for a player, and with multiple red zone targets in Minnesota (and a pretty good running back to boot) his chances to score aren't as reliable as many other receivers ahead of him in ADP.
In fact, our current projections have him scoring between four and five times next season, as compared to the eight or nine scores we're predicting for receivers in his current ADP range like Keenan Allen and Percy Harvin. Patterson will get a bit of a boost in PPR leagues, as the Vikings are likely to try to get the ball in his hands more often, including screen passes that add up to easy reception points. But the overall production just isn't there according to our metrics.
You can read more about Patterson and his current inflated ADP here, including more insight into how our numbers see the talented but unfinished Viking receiver.