Surprises and Busts: Trying to predict the unpredictable in fantasy football

Most fantasy owners draft a running back in the first round and oftentimes their season depends on how that player fares. If he misses a few games with an injury and is bothered by it for a few more, his production will suffer and it will put his fantasy team in a tough spot. This can be offset if his owner is savvy enough to draft one of the “surprise” backs that inevitably crash the top 10 every season.

But how does one pluck one of these backs out of the middle rounds? Better yet, how can we avoid drafting an early round bust in the first place?

As a forewarning, this is not a tight article. I ponder, deliberate and meander as I go along. Trying to predict the future is nebulous at best and futile at worst, so please bear with me as I muddle my way through this topic.

Here’s a list of the top RBs from 2008…

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Looking at the NFL Draft with a fantasy eye

Fantasy football drafts won’t fire up in earnest for a few more months, but now that the real draft is over, it’s a good time to take a look at the rookie class and try to identify those players that have the best chance to make an impact in 2009.

At any position, a rookie’s value can be estimated with the following equation:

Value = Talent + Opportunity + Readiness

Talent is probably the tougher of the three to judge, but luckily we can leverage the work of those scouts and coaches who just put a ton of time into putting together their draft boards. A first rounder is probably a little better than a second rounder, a second rounder is probably a little better than a third rounder, and so on.

Opportunity is (usually) pretty obvious. If a team has a big hole at running back and they draft one in the first round, the chances are pretty good that he’ll be the team’s leading rusher by the end of the season.

Readiness has more to do with position than anything else. Year in and year out, running back is by far the easiest position for a rookie to excel. The big hurdle is pass blocking, so if they can get that down, they’ll see a lot of playing time. Just hand them the ball and let ‘em run. Rookie wide receivers have a tougher time finding success early on, but there are usually one or two guys each year who crack the top 30. Last year, it was Eddie Royal and Desean Jackson. In 2007, it was Dwayne Bowe. In 2006, it was Marques Colston. Larry Fitzgerald, Lee Evans and Michael Clayton thrived in 2004. The list goes on.

Generally speaking, very few tight ends and quarterbacks make a substantial fantasy impact in their rookie seasons. In 2008, Matt Ryan had the best season for a rookie QB in years, and he finished #16 amongst quarterbacks, making him only a decent backup in most fantasy leagues.

So it’s best to focus on the running backs and wide receivers. Here are a few guys to keep your eye on…

RUNNING BACKS

Knowshon Moreno looks to be the odds on favorite to lead all rookies in rushing, though the Denver backfield is crowded with Correll Buckhalter, LaMonth Jordan, Ryan Torain and Selvin Young fighting for carries. Still, the team burned a first round pick to get him, so they obviously plan to use him. He’s a great all around back and an underrated receiver…Chris “Beanie” Wells joins Tim Hightower in the Arizona backfield. Hightower seems to be more of a short-yardage guy, but don’t rule out the Cards utilizing a RBBC. Wells has had a few nagging injuries throughout his career, but he hasn’t missed much time. His competitiveness has been questioned, though he’s a superb natural runner…Shonn Greene isn’t explosive, but he runs hard and is a patient runner. He has Thomas Jones and Leon Washington ahead of him, but those are two guys that could be overtaken if he plays extremely well in the preseason…Bernard Scott is a sleeper in Cincinnati. Cedric Benson is the starter there and Chris Perry was just cut, so it’s feasible that Scott could overtake Benson if he falters, on or off the field. Scott is a good all around back from a small school (Abilene Christian) who could surprise some people…Most of the other guys drafted early on are going to situations where they’ll likely be unable to overtake the starter unless there’s an injury of some sort. Donald Brown (IND), LeSean McCoy (PHI) and Glen Coffee (SF) fall into this category.

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