In Fantasy Football Trades, Numbers Lie. Tape Doesn’t.

by | Sep 14, 2016 | Fantasy

Data Driven Analysis and Stats Can Only Take You So Far in Fantasy Football

If you play fantasy football (and if you are reading this right now and are anyone but my mother, you do) then you probably use hard data to inform your player rankings and trade strategy. Of course, this being a game of numbers, following fantasy football stats is the best way to compete and win.

But it has gone too far.

Just as in the fantasy football draft- when others zig, you must zag. When everyone scrambles to go WR-WR in the first two rounds regardless of talent available at other positions, you enter round 3 with Lamar Miller and Ezekiel Elliott as your first two picks. And when literally EVERY human is subscribing to profootballfocus.com, playerprofiler.com, and other such data-driven fantasy analysis… it’s time to accept that every invested fantasy manager is working from basically the same set of deep data.

It’s time to zag away from fantasy football stats, and towards fantasy football highlights. The casual fan’s version of “the tapes.” This is your homework. Watch the guys you are trading for. Don’t just do the math and look at the numbers- see HOW they accomplish what they accomplish.

Here are a list of three fantasy football trade targets, one at each of the big three skill positions, whose tape tells the real story. It’s time to politely excuse yourself to the bathroom and purge all the deep data you’ve ingested during the offseason. You’ll come out feeling light as air for your fantasy football trade talks.

Jeremy Langford

Langford is the poster boy for this article. His physical metrics describe him as a completely average athlete, and when combined with his lack of running, receiving, and blocking efficiency, paint a picture of him as just a child playing against Terminators.

When I watch Langford, I see a player who knows his strengths and uses them. You can point to his agility scores and scream that he can’t make people miss… but you don’t need to have the greatest agility if you have the patience for the blocking to develop and the vision to find the crease in the line:

Langford 1

And once you are through, amazing burst to fly through the hole:

Langford 2

Yes, Langford had a lot of drops last season. But so did Amari Cooper. So did Mike Evans. Their stock has stayed the same or gone up since last season, while Langford’s, curiously, has sunk. Langford was highly targeted in the passing game- a trait not many RBs can boast- and when passes did come his way, look at how effortlessly he turns upfield:

Langford 3

And for those passes that are further from the line of scrimmage, the Bears even line him up at wide receiver:

Langford 4

With the ball in the air, not many RBs are natural hands-catchers like Langford:

Langford 5

Granted, I know these are highlights. Anyone’s highlight reel is going to look good. But what we should look for in a highlight reel isn’t “Whoa! That run turned into an awesome TD!” but instead, “What aspects of this run are repeatable? What does it tell me about his style of play?”

When you just look at Langford’s efficiency numbers, you come away madly disappointed. When you get to watch him play football, you come away feeling a lot better about his opportunity in that offense and his ability to put up top-10 fantasy RB numbers for the rest of the season. Make a move for Langford now, before his owners wise up to the fact that they might have lucked into a top-10 RB.

T.Y. Hilton

WR is a tougher position to address because style and effectiveness aren’t so apparent when it comes to route running, compared to a RB’s more immediately apparent qualities; patience, vision, and burst. I had originally written this article with Keenan Allen as my subject, but since I waited until after week 1 to post this (now I know- do not EDIT- just post! post! post!) I have to move on to my backup plan, one Mr. T.Y. Hilton.

One additional reason Hilton is a great example of studying the tap rather than looking at the measurables is because his polar opposite, his Evil Eyes Superman or whoever (I don’t read comics) is on the very same team. Donte Moncrief is a physical marvel. Just look at his workout metrics compared to those of T.Y. Hilton.

Check ADPs and read articles on him, and you find he was typically drafted in the fourth round as the 17th WR off the board, while Moncrief is ranked just four spots lower, despite not having Hilton’s fantasy resume- over 1,000 yards and/or 7 TDs every season since entering the league in 2012. In Moncrief’s two seasons thus far, he’s averaged 588 yards and 4.5 TDs. What Moncrief has is size (he is 5 inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than Hilton) and athletic prowess, and this is where the fantasy football community gets itself into trouble- dreaming about the upside while ignoring the fantastic WR right under their collective nose. So how does tiny little non-athletic Hilton do it?

First, route running. Typically, teams look for big, strong WRs to get off the line against tight coverage. But a technician can be just as effective. Watch Hilton at the bottom of the screen here:

Hilton 1

He sets up the CB with an outside move, darts inside to get him moving horizontally, then just runs around him back outside and along the sideline. You don’t need to be big and strong if your footwork and football savvy keeps CBs off you.

Another thing you will notice about Hilton is that he doesn’t typically just have a step on a defensive back… he is WIDE open. No amount of height, weight, or burst can consistently get you this wide open:

Hilton 2

Hilton 3

Hilton 4

Plays like those are the result of a supreme technician knowing how to find the soft spots in a zone, or having the moves and putting them to use when manned up. And when he is facing tighter coverage, not many WRs are better at tracking the ball in the air than Hilton:

Hilton 5

More important than just having good hands (another trait that can’t be measured by traditional SPARQ or burst metrics) is the concentration to track the ball over your head, the body control to shield the defender, and ultimately the coordination to make the catch. Even when Luck puts the ball in a less-than-ideal spot, Hilton show the concentration and body control to make the grab:

Hilton 6

You’ll also probably notice that Hilton had a huge cushion there again against Richard Sherman, arguably the top defender in the league.

Obviously the “hate” for T.Y. Hilton is nothing compared to what Langford is hearing. But Hilton’s floor is as an elite WR2, and his ceiling is top-10, yet he was drafted behind other WRs with both lower floors AND lower ceilings, who just so happen to have the prototypical physical traits that make the data-obsessed managers lose their minds. This is great news! Trade away your Brandon Marshall or your Alshon Jeffery, and make a play for T.Y. Hilton and change.

Blake Bortles

So so SO much attention is paid to accuracy percentage and interceptions when experts try to find a QB who will regress, and Blake Bortles is this year’s great example of a QB who everyone agrees will take a step backward. His week 1 “dud” (he ONLY threw for 320 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT) against one of the sturdiest defenses in the league, won’t do anything to make it harder to trade for him. This is the week to do so.

In the preseason, Bortles was found on Hate Lists around the globe- most notably on Matthew Berry’s. Profootballfocus found Bortles’ 2015 season to be mediocre at best, ranking the Jaguars QB situation 18th best out of 32.

Fantasy points are about QUANTITY. Not quality. How many yards. How many touchdowns. Not “how well did he do with each pass attempt.” And Bortles is going to stay in the top half of QB1s, because why wouldn’t he? He has Allen Robinson to throw to:

Bortles 1

Bortles 2

Bortles 3

Everyone is claiming that the addition of Chris Ivory will mean fewer passes (it won’t) and fewer TDs (it won’t.) It won’t, because the difference in playmaking ability between Allen Robinson (not to mention Allen Hurns and Julius Thomas as well) and Chris Ivory is VAST! This is not even mentioning Ivory’s hospital stay, which just ended. To assume Bortles will take a step back, you would have to assume that it is preferable to run, both in the middle of the field and in the red zone, rather than pass. As a rule. But given the pass-happy nature of the NFL, the high draft capital (#3 overall) spent on Bortles, the talent the Jaguars have at WR, and the effectiveness they had in the red zone… I see no reason to believe these numbers will dip. He throws a lot because that is what the Jaguars are GOOD at! Not because they aren’t good at running.

In fact, I would predict that the *threat* of the improved run game will actually do more to open up the field for Bortles. Nobody was afraid of T.J. Yeldon or the rest of the run game last year, and so Bortles had to face a lot of blitzes and loaded defensive backfields. Once Ivory returns to the team and the run game becomes more established, I would predict the same number of throws, both in general and in the red zone, but improved efficiency. Which means more yards, more TDs, and fewer interceptions.

But there is one more aspect of Bortles’ game that has so far been overlooked- he can run! He is built remarkably similar to Cam Newton, and is nearly as athletic. One concern many scouts had with him coming out of college was that he would duck and run too soon, rather than go through his progressions. In 2012 and 2013, he scored 14 RUSHING TDs to go with his 50 passing TDs. Now, with his third year in the league coming up, I expect his coaches to allow him to do more of what he is capable of- running the football:

Bortles 4

It did not happen in week 1, again, against a very good defense, but Blake Bortles is naturally a running QB. And yet, he only scored two rushing TDs last season. If anything regresses toward the mean, I don’t expect it to be his yardage going down or his passing TDs going down… I expect his accuracy to get a bump, his run attempts to increase, and his rushing TDs to increase. Jameis Winston had the same number of attempts, 100 fewer yards, and 6 TDs. Tom Brady and Kirk Cousins each had 50 yards rushing on the season, but had 3 and 5 rushing TDs, respectively. He’s loaded with unrealized running potential.

I would rather take the gunslinger, who can make any throw, with Allen Robinson as his number 1 WR, who could also be a rushing threat, and who in his second year posted a top-4 fantasy season, over someone like Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, or Tom Brady, who were all drafted ahead of Bortles this year. In one of my leagues, Bortles was on the waiver wire! If you have the capital to spend (and I know, managers are loathe to spend anything in a trade for a QB) consider adding Bortles now, before you would actually have to spend something significant to acquire him.

photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images