Weighing risk versus upside when it comes to drafting a player is one of the most significant ways that value is determined.  The most obvious forms of risk are injury risk and age risk but we could also consider off the field concerns, situation risk (bad team, bad scheme fit), and playing time risk (competition at position) among other types of risk.  This series of posts will aim to shed some light on who the more risky players are and what you should do about it. I’ll start the series by focusing on the running back position and attempting to shed some light on how risk changes as the draft proceeds.  I’ll demonstrate which range (or tier) of running backs had the most risk as measured by their 2014 year end performances relative to their draft position.  Later posts will focus on age and injury related risks and make some suggestions as to which early round players might be overrated this year due to those concerns.

Play fantasy football against me in the Razzball Commenter Leagues here!

Running Back Risk By ADP (Average Draft Position) Primer

Here is something you’ve probably heard before:  A fantasy analyst telling you that he prefers Player A over Player B because he wants safety in the first round.  I actually concur with that general line of thinking.  There are plenty of first round players that have both safety and upside so that’s not really the place to choose someone with a big risk concern.  Entering the middle to late rounds it’s important to keep in mind upside.  More specifically, we should keep in mind what percentage chance a player has to achieve his upside (the higher, the better!).  In the middle to late rounds injury concerns more or less disappear — if the player has a chance to greatly outperform his draft cost then it doesn’t matter that much whether he only does so for part of the season (due to injury).

What becomes important to note here is value over replacement.  I’m not going to bother to try to precisely define what replacement level is because the details don’t matter.  What matters is that we understand that value over replacement is what makes a player worth owning.  In terms of the draft, players that have a ceiling that is well over replacement level are the best players to target, as long as we keep in mind the chance the player has of reaching his ceiling.

(Razzball favorite) Ahmad Bradshaw serves as a good example from 2014 of a player that both reached his ceiling and was also an injury risk.  For several weeks he provided numbers that were far enough above replacement as to have made his owners very happy.  Until he was injured.  But because he was chosen so late in drafts the fact that he was injured didn’t really matter, you still got great production relative to his cost (in other words, value).  Many of the running backs picked in the same area last year (and earlier for that matter, think Montee Ball, Zac Stacy..) were dropped long before Bradshaw was dropped.  Because they were useless long before Bradshaw was useless.

Running Back Performance vs ADP

The RB position has seemed fairly volatile in recent years, the last two years in particular.  I decided to analyze the points in the 2014 draft which produced the highest amount of busts (players failed to live up to a reasonable expectation relative to their draft position).  The following table contains RBs sorted by their 2014 ADP along with their 2014 Standard (fractional) points scored.  I placed the RBs in groups of five (except the last which is 10 because I consider it a “replacement level” group) then set a different points scored expectation level for each group. Then I looked at what percent of RBs from each group met that criteria and the average points scored for each group.

ADP Rank Player 2014 Points 2014 ADP* Points Criteria Criteria Met? % That Met Criteria Average Points for Group
1 LeSean McCoy 171.4 3.37 200 N 60.00% 173.3
2 Jamaal Charles 210.4 4.39 Y
3 Adrian Peterson 9.3 4.63 N
4 Matt Forte 244.6 7.84 Y
5 Eddie Lacy 230.6 9.17 Y
6 Marshawn Lynch 265.3 12.04 190 Y 60.00% 193.4
7 Montee Ball 27.4 17.66 N
8 DeMarco Murray 294.1 19.15 Y
9 Giovani Bernard 144.9 23.43 N
10 Arian Foster 235.5 24.74 Y
11 Doug Martin 67.8 25.18 170 N 40.00% 140.8
12 Le’Veon Bell 287.5 29.88 Y
13 Alfred Morris 170.9 30.01 Y
14 Zac Stacy 46.5 33.7 N
15 Andre Ellington 131.5 36.21 N
16 Reggie Bush 67 39.17 135 N 20.00% 77.3
17 C.J. Spiller 52.5 46.15 N
18 Ryan Mathews 57.9 50.58 N
19 Frank Gore 147.7 54.14 Y
20 Toby Gerhart 61.2 55.8 N
21 Shane Vereen 113.8 57.35 125 N 0.00% 76.2
22 Rashad Jennings 108.5 59.23 N
23 Ray Rice 0 62.35 N
24 Ben Tate 67.1 63.31 N
25 Chris Johnson 91.4 63.66 N
26 Bishop Sankey 78.2 67.07 115 N 20.00% 85
27 Trent Richardson 90.8 70.57 N
28 Joique Bell 164.2 73.23 Y
29 Maurice Jones-Drew 13.7 86.02 N
30 Pierre Thomas 78 93.18 N
31 Knowshon Moreno 21.6 93.4 110 N 60.00% 98.8
32 Steven Jackson 121.5 95.07 Y
33 Stevan Ridley 48 95.64 N
34 Lamar Miller 185.4 100.49 Y
35 Darren Sproles 117.6 102.72 Y
36 Fred Jackson 122.6 107.69 100 Y 40.00% 80.5
37 Carlos Hyde 62.1 108.51 N
38 Danny Woodhead 7.2 117.48 N
39 Bernard Pierce 47.9 120.61 N
40 Mark Ingram 162.9 121.52 Y
41 Devonta Freeman 57.3 124.16 96 N 40.00% 87.7
42 DeAngelo Williams 24.3 124.46 N
43 Jeremy Hill 183.9 125.88 Y
44 Darren McFadden 84.6 131.61 N
45 Terrance West 101.7 134.79 Y
46 Andre Williams 127.1 136.81 Y
47 Khiry Robinson 56.5 143.82 N
48 Christine Michael 18.7 144.48 N
49 LeGarrette Blount 88.1 148.68 N
50 Chris Ivory 134.4 149.28 Y

*I used ADP data from myfantasyleague.com.

Before really digging into the results I’d like to note that one year worth of data is not enough to make any predictive claims.  So that’s not what I’m trying to do.  The purpose is to use what happened last year to get a very general sense of what could happen this year.

By this criteria the first 15 RBs were a fairly reliable group, with 8 out of 15 (53.3%) of them meeting their criteria.  And realistically, what’s the highest rate we’d expect?  Every year we lose some guys to injury, so 10 out of 15 would be about as high as we could reasonably expect and the top 3 groups as a whole came near that mark.  As far as average points scored, the first three groups scored 87%, 102% and 83% of their respective points criteria.

After the first three groups things got really ugly.  The RBs 16-50 by ADP, as a group, met their expectation 37.1% of the time (13 of 35) and the groups in the 16-50 range scored 57%, 61%, 74%, 90%, 81%, and 91% of their respective points criteria.  It was actually the worst for the RBs in the 16-25 range as only 1 out of 10 of them met their criteria. Which might cause one to wonder if my criteria was too high for those groups. Certainly there was nothing scientific about my choosing of the criteria but without going into detail, I’ll just say it wasn’t haphazard either.  So for group four, for instance, RBs 16-20, only one of them scored above 70 points.  Unless I’m changing the criteria down from 135 points to 60 points, nothing is changing as far as the percent of RBs in that range who qualified as worthy.

Back to that 4th group (RBs drafted 16-20th, aka “the Reggie Bush group”), what happened is it consisted of Reggie Bush, CJ Spiller, Ryan Mathews, Frank Gore and Toby Gerhart.  Four out of five of those players suffered injuries last year.  I think we had reason to suspect going into last year that some of these players were above average injury risks.  However, I do think that this group had some pretty high upside so I understand why people were drafting them there, yet it’s also fair to say their injury risk was underestimated.

Now I’ve got some charts for you that help to illustrate the same thing as the table, then I’ll finally tie this back into the discussion of risk.

RBs1-50ADPvsActual

The vertical axis is points scored, the horizontal axis is running back ADP rank (that is, the first running back chosen on the average has ADP rank 1).  The chart above shows the entire group, RBs 1-50 by ADP along with a linear trend line.  It turns out that trend line is somewhat misleading.  I’ll show you what I mean by breaking it up into two groups.  Here’s just the first 15 RBs:

RBs1-15ADPvsActual

And here’s just the RBs 16-50:

RBs16-50ADPvsActual

Okay, so now the trend line is pointed upwards!  The later you draft a RB the more productivity you get, relative to the productivity of the RBs taken 16-25!  Okay, so you got me.  That doesn’t make sense.  While this is what actually happened last year, I think in general the trend line should have probably decreased slightly or been flat, which is still telling.

Let’s briefly consider those blips high up on the chart and if they were the cause of the trend line going upwards.  Those blips are Lamar Miller (drafted as RB34 last year), Mark Ingram (RB40) and Jeremy Hill (RB43).  Even if they had performed at a level that only barely met the criteria for the ADP group they were in, the graph still trends slightly upwards.  So it wasn’t about the performance of a few outliers.  Plus, we don’t even have enough data here to determine if they should be considered outliers.  On the other hand, the chart would look somewhat as expected, trending slightly downwards, if those exceptional running backs had each been taken 15 spots earlier.  But that’s not what happened.

If you were wondering why I didn’t include data from other years it’s because it would be time consuming (by methods known to me/currently at my disposal) to gather data before 2013.  So while I could have somewhat easily included 2013 with 2014, I highly doubt the inclusion of that data would change the narrative.  I’ll probably go ahead and save the 2013 data for use next year, at that time perhaps I’ll combine 2013-2015 data and see what these charts look like.

I’d also like to note that in all fairness I think one potentially meaningful thing this data neglects are those running backs that were useful but only for a small portion of the season.  LeGarrette Blount’s games with the Patriots come to mind.  And heck even Ryan Mathews, for instance, was slightly more useful than his 57.9 points imply.

Managing the ADP Related Risk

So now tying all of this into risk…  The running backs taken early performed at a level that I think roughly lines up with expectations.  I think it also tells why we should be careful putting a running back such as Ryan Mathews (and we know Jay’s already repented for doing this last year) or Arian Foster in the first round.  With other relatively safe choices available, why risk wasting such an expensive pick on a known injury risk?  Foster ended up being a bargain last year because he played 13 games but that drove his cost back into the first round this year (before his injury) and we already how that turned out…  (And I’ll have much more in injury risk next time).

For the running backs taken later, I think there are two takeaways:  The first is that the RB position seems very risky (or prone to busts) in the early part of the middle rounds, think rounds 5-8.  Certainly you might be better off shifting the RBs in that range downward slightly in your rankings to make it more likely that you’ll draft wide receivers or perhaps players from any of the other position groups in that range.  But that’s a bit presumptuous because we haven’t seen the bust rates for wide receivers and others.

The other takeaway is that due to the volatility of 2014 performance results from these running backs there really isn’t any reason to think someone is wrong for having a running back that most analysts rank as RB-40ish moved all the way up to RB-30ish in your rankings (you wouldn’t move him up any higher than that because you shouldn’t have to in order to obtain him).  And what would make you want to move that running back up?  Upside.  To me the number one point of this is that it’s all about upside past the first few rounds.  That doesn’t mean you take the player who could explode if, this, this, this and that all go his way.  Almost any running back can succeed if a great number of events conspire to bring up his value.

It means we need to do a better job of identifying which running backs are most likely to achieve their upside.  So looking at last year’s successful backs, what did Lamar Miller, Mark Ingram, Jeremy Hill and C.J. Anderson have in common, aside from outstanding 2014 performances?

Talent.  We know now that this is a very talented group.  But were these running backs seen as talented players before the season started?  Yes, I’d say they were.  For Lamar Miller, there was some doubt headed into 2014 but he was certainly seen as talented headed into 2013, the doubt was cast due to the coaching staff apparently not seeing it (in 2013).  Mark Ingram was a player with a fair amount of buzz last year and I think that had to due with both his opportunity and his talent.  Jeremy Hill was a player we were fairly sure was well above average talent headed into 2014 (some analysts even suspected before the season started that he was a more talented player than Gio Bernard), it was just a question of how big a role he would play.  There was only a slight buzz for C.J. Anderson in the 2014 preseason but that buzz was there.  So the talent was there but what really made these players go off?

They just needed the opportunity.  In 3 out of the 4 cases greater opportunity arose due to injury of the starter, as Moreno, Bernard and Ball all went down.  However I think it’s likely that Miller and Hill would have been solid even without the benefit of injury to their competition as their talent would have eventually led their coaches to give them a fairly large role.  C.J. Anderson is an example of just how long it can take for talent and opportunity to meet and how seemingly random fantasy football can be.

The other thing they have in common is that they played for average to very good offenses.  No bad offenses in the bunch.

Some Names To Consider

So with that in mind I’ll name some players who I think have a good chance to perform at a higher than expected level.  Consider drafting them as our RB3 or RB4.  Now that we know that essentially every running back picked in the early part of the middle rounds has higher than expected risk, I think we can be slightly less concerned about particular any risk a particular running back is said to have.  What I mean is, it’s unfair to single out a certain player as a risk when in fact the group as a whole is risky (think back to the Ahmad Bradshaw example from earlier).  As you read these names you may want to compare them to the players drafted last year in similar spots.  Hopefully these players have a higher chance to reach their ceiling than some of the busts from last year.

  • Joseph Randle (ADP 55.7) Has question marks but no realistic competition in Dallas.  And now we have a better idea that even the backs whose question marks seemed minor headed into last year can bust (Zac Stacy, anyone?).  That makes him seem less risky at this spot considering his ceiling.
  • Arian Foster (ADP 63.3) Now that we suspect that running backs taken in this range are somewhat unlikely to be difference makers, why not take one that is guaranteed to perform well for as long as he’s healthy?  Honestly though that ADP moved up a lot (reflected above) since I first had him here but if you want to take a RB in this ADP range I doubt you can find a more useful one.
  • Ameer Abdullah (ADP 80.7) I do worry because he’s a small-ish running back (a la Andre Ellington) so I think that caps his upside, but Detroit will give him a shot to earn 10-15 touches per game and that’s plenty for a back with Abdullah’s explosiveness.  Plus Joique Bell is already injured.
  • Tevin Coleman (ADP 89.0) We know that Coleman’s primary competition, Devonta Freeman, had the entirety of 2014 to make a claim for the starting role this year and he really didn’t do much at all, even though a mediocre at best Steven Jackson was his primary competition.  It has the makings of a timeshare but Tevin Coleman has the best chance to get the best role — early down plus goal line work.
  • Tre Mason (ADP 105.7) The problem with Tre is he plays for a below average offense and is only an early down back, but on the plus side, we don’t know how healthy Todd Gurley is.  Plus we don’t yet know if Gurley is a better NFL running back than Mason.  Yeah I just said that.  Because it’s true.  And if there’s a 30% chance that Gurley isn’t (yet) a better NFL running back than Mason, it seems like that’s a 30% chance for Mason to greatly exceed his draft value.  That’s actually a pretty high mark.  Plus he’s extremely likely to get most of the work during the first couple weeks because right now the reports are that Gurley won’t play to start the season.
  • Jonas Gray (ADP 136.8) I know that it’s hard to trust a New England running back.  I know that LeGarrette Blount looks like the back poised to have the biggest year.  I also know that Blount will miss the first game due to suspension and I suspect that Gray will have a chance to prove himself during that game.  There’s nothing but upside at this draft spot.  No, he isn’t particularly talented, but neither is Blount.

You can find all of that ADP yourself on FantasyPros.

Maybe you have a different list of mid-late running backs you are targeting.  The important thing to note is that if last year repeats itself we’ll find just as many difference makers at the running back position in the 9th-12th rounds as we will in the 5th-8th rounds and that tells me we should try to avoid questionable running backs in rounds 5-8 and instead take players of other positions (although I’ll repeat this is just a suspicion because I don’t have data for the other positions).

In conclusion, I believe the results from the running backs drafted early last year actually reinforces the ages old concept of taking running backs early (at least in Standard scoring, PPR may very well be a different story).  The first five off the board last year had a chance to be a very special group but that was thwarted in large part because of Adrian Peterson.  But that group was still solid.  The next five were also good, as a whole.  Because we usually have reliable choices at the beginning of the draft that’s not a place to take unnecessary risks.  As the draft proceeds, there really is no wrong draft choice at the running back position because history suggests it’s a crap shoot, but hopefully you’ll have superior information than your opponents to make better informed guesses.

My next post will cover the risk for the players near the top of the draft board, with a focus on injury risk, and fortunately not just running backs.  As a sneak preview, I think Odell Beckham and Julio Jones have more risk than they are generally perceived as having…

 

 

RotoLance is also on Twitter @RotoLance.

  1. Mike says:
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    Just had my espn 10 team draft
    Waited on TE and Qb
    My team
    Qb. Ben R, Eli manning
    Rb Murray, Forsett.r Matthews, David Cobb, d Johnson , j gray
    Wr. Julio j, b cooks, d Adams, a cooper, John brown, Charles Johnson
    TE. Julius Thomas
    Dst bills
    K. Mason Crosby
    Thoughts??
    Thx

    • RotoLance

      RotoLance says:
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      @Mike: First off, when you say waited on QB then I see that you got Ben, that doesn’t even seem right. He shouldn’t be going all that late, so good pick for you.

      I wonder where you picked Murray? What do you see his share of RB touches being? Because I worry a bit about his volume. I see it as something like 55%/30%/15% split for the 3 RBs in Philly. Now he can perform ok with that kind of volume. I actually need to check what % McCoy got there last year because I think Murray will actually get less than that % because Mathews is there too. Of course Murray can do more than McCoy did last year on a per touch basis. I’d definitely pick CJ Anderson before Murray though. So that’s one pick I may not agree with.

      I think Charles Johnson will have a very good chance of emerging as a WR3/Flex this year. Maybe not on your team because he’s got Cooper and Adams to compete with. Was he actually your last WR drafted? That doesn’t seem right. He should be going in the 10th round or so of 10 team. So yeah what you got going at WR is insane.

      Looks petty good to me.

  2. Packers says:
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    Thanks for the information you provided in this article. I love this sorta read. Looking forward to your future articles.
    In a super flex league, basically 2 QB, no trades, a guy has to Draft a QB first, correct? The Draft position could change that if you where picking late in the first round. What are your thoughts on when to Draft a QB in this format?

    • RotoLance

      RotoLance says:
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      @Packers: It’s a hard question to answer because it depends on whose there. It depends on your leaguemates strategy. It depends on how deep the league is. I think if it’s the first year for your league in this format then.. who knows what to expect… just hope you get to pick near the turn.

      I actually think my post is pretty interesting to consider for a 2 QB league. With QBs being taken earlier the part of the draft where we end up taking those really questionable RBs (but we never think they are that questionable at draft time, do we) happens a little later.

      Just guessing at how the draft might proceed, I think if you were picking early you might be set up to go RB QB RB WR QB or something — for instance depending on how QBs are coming off the board, I think Big Ben might be a good late 2nd round pick. With a pick later in the first it might be more like RB QB WR QB or even RB WR QB QB. WIth a pick in the middle you might be more likely to take a QB 1st if Rodgers or Luck is still there.

      If it’s PPR it’s easier to wait on QB, even in super flex. If it were 6pt per passing TD that would change things too.

    • RotoLance

      RotoLance says:
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      @Packers: Ya know you might try find a place that does mock drafts for custom settings. I’m not sure that there is one. If there isn’t you might try this:

      A mock real draft. What I mean is, get some guys, maybe you could find some folks here on Razzball, to join a Super Flex league (or whatever settings) with you but then just draft for it and delete/ignore it. On the other hand it’s probably not worth taking the time to set that up. I wonder if we can get a forum topic going related to this, for folks like you where you can do mock real drafts. Maybe it could work like our RCL signups…

      Or you could possibly set up a slow mock, draft via email or Twitter or something. But if it’s only with your leaguemates it will only help so much.

      I’ve got the same dilemma, I switched my home league from 1QB to Super Flex this year. We are an auction format though and I actually think that will make it a little easier to manage. You don’t have to deal with any “runs” at a position, at the least.

      • Packers says:
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        @RotoLance: it’s the 2nd year for our league. PPR and 4 point td. Last year I had Luck and Stafford. I should have drafted a 3rd qb for bye weeks. I think I’m going Luck and or Rodgers if they are there no matter of Draft slot. Plenty of WR. Thanks

        • RotoLance

          RotoLance says:
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          @Packers: I actually think I generally disagree with taking a QB 1st overall or even probably 1st-5thish because it’s PPR but you know your league, obviously, and that matters a lot.

          I agree with drafting a 3rd QB for the bye in Super Flex although I would think it’s less important in PPR where the scoring gap between a QB and WR isn’t that big.

          • goodfold2 says:
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            @RotoLance: i want to do one of these “mock only” leagues for these kind (or other) of settings. do we have three people right now right here?

            • RotoLance

              RotoLance says:
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              @goodfold2: I don’t think we do.

              I was thinking of this again today, it might not work quite as well but another way to do it might be to just get people form here in a regular mock draft lobby like Yahoo’s or ESPNs and just pretend you are drafting for whatever settings. So if it were 2QB you’d have to pretend that your bench QB is really a starter. I really don’t know.

              Anyway as far as getting the ball rolling on this, I guess we should ping Jay on it I think. See what might be possible.

              • goodfold2 says:
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                @RotoLance: only worry is that it could screw with his overall stats for RCL’s. or we could isolate the mock only leagues of course, and they wouldn’t go into those stats.

                • RotoLance

                  RotoLance says:
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                  @goodfold2: I didn’t make myself clear. I think we could set it up like an RCL singnup post as far as how it uses a Goggle Doc on the backend for the data. It would be totally separate though, a separate post.

                  Jay’s given me the go ahead to do this. I just need to get on it. I’d love for you to see something up by Friday or Saturday. I don’t know if that’s realistic though.

  3. Adam says:
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    Brown was my last WR picked
    I did take Murray over CJ…maybe overthought….just think philly scores so much..safer?
    Ben was picked in 6th

    • RotoLance

      RotoLance says:
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      @Adam: Look, don’t second guess yourself because of me. I just think Murray doesn’t have quite the upside as the other top backs. We know that Chip Kelly is going to rotate his RBs. We’ve seen that with him already and this year they have two other good backs along with Murray. So I did check McCoy because I was curious, and last year he had 340 touches. I expect something a little lower for Murray because Mathews was brought in to have a better guy to share the lead role with. But Murray will be very good and I think 300+ touches might be reachable.

      In any case you had a great draft.

  4. Blake says:
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    ok – so the gist is. Its important to draft a top RB first. then filter out which RB’s are talented and then draft for upside?

    How do you figure out which are talented and where to draft them (ie what round)?

    • RotoLance

      RotoLance says:
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      @Blake: That’s actually a good question. I’m not sure how “actionable” my post is. It’s mostly just to show what a poor job people did of predicting running back performance. So what do you make of that?

      “Its important to draft a top RB first. then filter out which RB’s are talented and then draft for upside?”

      Yes

      “How do you figure out which are talented and where to draft them (ie what round)?”

      Hopefully the other writers here and those that supply rankings will do a good job at highlighting those types of players.

      So one of the takeaways is, last year, the running backs picked starting as early as about pick 39 with Reggie Bush all the way to about pick 93, Knowshon Moreno were worse on the average than RBs picked afterwards. If we can’t reliably rank the running backs in that range, maybe we should be picking players of other positions and waiting on our 3rd-5th+ RBs taken. For teams that go RB/WR early that might mean even waiting on our 2nd RB.

      Not that you have to wait. I think you combine the two points. If you are going to pick some in that range, make sure you like their chances to ascend and reach their ceiling. Make sure you like the talent of the player. A 2nd string RB in a good offense behind a shaky/injury prone starter makes a good choice. I think both Joique Bell and Lamar Miller from last year fit this mold fairly well.

      But honestly I don’t have a silver bullet as far as “what to do about it.”

  5. B.J. says:
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    Hey fellas,

    I have been offered an interesting trade in my 12 Team NonPPR league. I would get Brandin Cooks (a guy I really like) for Markus Wheaton and TJ Yeldon. I take a bit of a hit at RB with Yeldon on the move but I am getting a high upside WR2 with potential to crack the top 10. I think I can make due at RB until Bell and Foster come back.

    My roster

    QB- M. Ryan WR- AJ Green, Evans, Boldin
    RB- L. Bell, Yeldon TE- Olsen
    Flex- Ivory K- Hauschka DEF- GB

    Bench- Wheaton, A. Blue, A. Foster, C. Sims, Malcom Floyd, Cutler, D. Williams

    Thanks in advance

    • RotoLance

      RotoLance says:
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      @B.J.: I’m fine with it, I like the way you’re thinking. Ivory + Bell will be a solid duo. Before Bell gets back.. I’m not sure you have an answer on your roster for that. Blue is probably startable in the first week. If he doesn’t perform that week I think he’ll be at risk of losing carries and you can jump on the waiver wire at that point.

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