What’s there not to like about Jimmy Graham? His basketball roots fit the Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates fantasy stud mold, and he’s already shown that he can be a dominant force playing a game that he barely competed in at the college level. At 6’7”, Graham is almost the size of two Gary Colemans (rest in peace), easily towering over any defender in the league. He’s a monster on the field.
But as I always say, fantasy football isn’t like real pigskin. Positions can easily be devalued through biased scoring systems and league structures, and things that work on the gridiron just don’t always translate to your fantasy lineup.
Unfortunately, Jimmy Graham is one of those things.
Value Based Drafting Revisited
We’ve become so used to certain fantasy principles, but we also never seem to fully challenge them. A perfect example is with the concepts of Value Based Drafting. Writer Joe Bryant developed the term years ago, and it still holds a lot of validity today. Simply put, VBD tells us that “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.”
We all agree with this, or at least should. I wrote about it in detail in The Late Round Quarterback: 2013 Edition, and proposed some alterations to the classic way of thinking. The fundamental ideas proposed by Bryant have been the basis of many great strategies in fantasy football. And without Value Based Drafting as a reference, we, as a community, would be much more scattered.
Value Based Drafting offers a very open way of thinking, too. It’s not always as simple as comparing one player to the next. You have to formulate a baseline player for comparison, and because every league is different and people strive for different types of teams, that baseline player can change throughout any type of VBD analysis.
Often times, fantasy analysts will use the “worst hypothetical starter” as a baseline for VBD examination. Again, you can use other baselines to do the analysis, but this is the quick and dirty way of doing it. All this says is that if you’ve got the best quarterback, just how much better will he do compared to the 12th-best passer in a 12-team league over the course of a season? Better than the best running back to the 24th-ranked one? You get the idea.
Unfortunately, that’s where the number crunching ends for many. And even though there have been alterations to VBD – whether it be by Bryant himself, Frank Dupont, or yours truly – fantasy owners are still using the high-level way of thinking, which begins a potentially improper valuation of players.
SEASON-LONG NUMBERS AND PRODUCTION DROP-OFFS
You can go down a dark path when you only use season-long numbers to draw conclusions in fantasy football. But in order to fully understand the argument against Jimmy Graham, we need to understand the argument for him.
In 2011, Graham caught 99 balls for 1,310 yards and 11 scores; a phenomenal stat line for any tight end. His 197 standard fantasy points ranked only behind Rob Gronkowski’s record 240.9 (sheesh), and they were nearly 100 more than the 12th ranked tight end that season (Fred Davis). Needless to say, the two were easily the best tight ends a couple of seasons ago.
Graham’s 197 standard fantasy points was a lot for a tight end. We traditionally see number one guys at the position score around 160-175 points in a given year. And usually, or at least over the past five or six campaigns, the 12th tight end will post 80-100 standard fantasy points per season. The variance between best to worst starter, in other words, doesn’t often reach 100 fantasy points.
Jimmy Graham isn’t a traditional top tight end though, which is why many are striving to snag him. If he reaches his 2011 season numbers again, which is very possible now that he’s healthy, he’ll more than likely be outscoring the worst tight end in your 12-team league by over 100 points. Remember, we’re concerned about value, so this margin is important.
Where this variance is potentially occurring is important to Graham’s value, too. What happens if Jimmy Graham is 99 points better than the second best tight end, and then all of the other tight ends in the league are 100 points worse than Graham? In that case, the drop off from tight end to tight end isn’t linear or constant, making it more advantageous to grab the Saints tight end. He’s giving you an advantage that no other player in fantasy football can.
Just so we’re clear with this idea, let me run through an example. The general belief in the fantasy community this season is that there aren’t elite quarterbacks, at least in comparison to last year. I use the word elite to mean “players who are a whole lot better than any other one that plays their position.” No, Joe Flacco doesn’t fit the mold.
Clearly Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are consensus top picks, but because they’re not projected to be substantially better than their immediate peers, they aren’t leaving the draft board as high as they did a year ago. The production at the quarterback position, in other words, is perceived to drop at a fairly constant rate from one signal caller to the next.
This season, perception tells us that the tight end drop-off will not be constant. Graham is that much better and safer than everyone else who plays his position. The potential 100- to 120-point standard scoring difference between Jimmy Graham (who we’re assuming finishes as the best tight end) to the 12th-best starter is top-heavy.
To grasp what this means, take a look at the exaggerated graphs below depicting fantasy footballer’s perception of quarterback and tight end production dips:
The average fantasy owner believes it’s advantageous to have Graham because his projected output is that much better than the rest of his position. And they’re not necessarily wrong; Graham’s frame, skill set and offensive system should be extremely attractive to any fantasy owner. The issue is that Graham is a tight end, a position that only fills one lineup slot each week. I (and co-host of Living the Stream, Denny Carter) like to call these type of positions “onesie” positions. These slots in fantasy lineups, to the dismay of all tight end and quarterback hoarders out there, are rarely worthy of early round picks.
I have to preface: comparing tight end VBD differentials to wideout or running back ones isn’t as interesting or groundbreaking as comparing them to quarterbacks. There are more wideouts started in a standard lineup, so the supply and demand drivers intrinsically alter average draft positions. The 24th receiver, for instance, typically leaves the board in the early 6th round of a 12-team standard draft because receivers are in higher demand; you need more to fulfill your lineup needs. On the other hand, the 12th tight end doesn’t get selected until double-digit rounds; owners don’t need two or three of them in their lineup, so they wait for them. For this reason, comparing the point variances between the positions isn’t as accurate. You can easily select a usable tight end late in drafts, whereas finding that diamond in the rough at running back or receiver in Round 12 is much more difficult. I speak more to this topic in my book, located in the chapter called Market Value Drafting.
You always need to be cognizant of supply and demand impacts in fantasy football. The term sheds light to which positions are going to be readily available off the wire, and which ones will be accessible later in drafts. Supply and demand, most importantly, allows us to understand this position replaceability.
It’s slightly difficult to verify VBD analysis of wide receivers or running backs versus tight ends because it doesn’t always capture every replacement level player. You can attempt to include those players by lowering your baseline, but when you lower your baseline, you begin to include more ambiguous projections. The usage of players who are listed low in rankings is a lot more difficult to predict because we know less about them.
In the end, you should always value the positions that are in higher demand because there are fewer replacement-level players playing those positions. There may be a plethora of wide receivers in the league, but many of them aren’t usable. And if they are, you’re not going to necessarily slot them in your lineup during a given week because they’re typically unpredictable.
The slots lower in demand within your lineup are the onesie positions. They’re the tight ends, the quarterbacks, the kickers and the defenses. You only need one to satisfy a lineup each week, allowing for more replacement-level players to be readily accessible via trade or waiver wire acquisition. And conceptually, because these players will be typically better, your confidence in starting one will be higher.
More on Replaceability
“Best to worst starter” analysis doesn’t always factor in these replacement-level players. There’s a chapter dedicated to replaceability in my book, and essentially, all replaceability tells us is – you guessed it – how replaceable something is. Why don’t I really value the water that comes out of my kitchen faucet? Because I can turn it back on in 13 seconds and get some more. I fortunately live in a First World country and am able to say that water is replaceable. If chocolate milk came out of the faucet (that’s everyone’s dream, right?) once every 16 years, I’d cherish the moment when it would happen. I’d make sure my faucet was on the entire time the chocolate milk was streaming out because I’d know I may not experience anything like that again. It holds value. It’s less replaceable.
When we draft our fantasy teams, we often don’t think about replaceability. Rather, we assume the faucet can be turned on at any point. Really though, we can’t (and shouldn’t) get so caught up in the players that we do draft. We have to be just as concerned about the players we don’t. This whole idea ties into the economic concept of opportunity cost.
Tight ends are replaceable. So are quarterbacks, defenses and kickers. But because this is about Jimmy Graham, remember: tight ends are replaceable. You start one each week in fantasy football, paving a path to clear replacement-level players.
Graham’s Consistency and Tight End Ceilings
From a point perspective, why should we skip over Jimmy Graham in the second (or first) round of our fantasy drafts?
Because we effectively can.
Let’s use Graham’s near-historic 2011 numbers as our example. Keep in mind, we’re assuming Graham will post 99 receptions, 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013. That’s a pretty lofty assumption, but I’m willing to accept it as hypothetical fact.
Let’s compare his weekly output from 2011 – the best season of his career and one of the best we’ve ever seen from a tight end – to the weekly output of the higher-end tight ends from 2012:
Graham’s impressive consistency in 2011 is rather eye-opening. He had one standard scoring dud game, and really, his 3.9-point performance probably didn’t kill a fantasy owner’s week. Graham had just one 20-point performance, but he typically scored 11 or 12 points per week. And that’s fine. Actually, that’s great. I think Graham’s consistency is what drives a favorable argument for the stud tight end, similar to how I feel about his teammate Darren Sproles. The only other tight end in the group above that had any sort of reliance that was on par with Jimmy Graham’s 2011 season in 2012 was Jason Witten, and his dependability was about three or four points worse than Graham’s each week.
But what we need to recognize here is the lack of true top-notch games at tight end. I understand that teams are creatively using the position in the passing game more, but when compared to running backs, wide receivers and quarterbacks, tight ends clearly score the least amount of fantasy points.
It may seem contradictory to what I spoke about earlier in terms of value, but a position’s “max” is an important aspect in fantasy football. If running backs rarely scored double-digit points, for instance, then I’d advise a lot of people to wait on drafting them, no matter what supply and demand dictated. When a position doesn’t score a lot of points, the chance of high variation is limited. And when there’s less variation, there’s less true elite players.
Tight ends, compared to other slots in your lineup, don’t score many points. It’s an obvious argument to make, as tight end usage, regardless of NFL trends, still isn’t extremely high.
Last season, there were eight total instances where a tight end scored 20 or more standard fantasy points (excluding Week 17). And in five of the 16 weeks, the highest scoring tight end posted 12 to 17 points. Go ahead and compare those numbers to the other big three fantasy positions; it’s not even close to the same.
Tight end ceilings aren’t that high. It ties back to the reason you’re drafting Graham in the first place. It’s not because he’ll give you a monster week, but it’s to have a plug-and-play body in your lineup each week.
But because he plays tight end, a onesie position, a plug-and-play option isn’t the best one for roster maximization.
Tight End Streaming
Pat Thorman of Pro Football Focus Fantasy put together a fantastic piece on tight end streaming, supporting the concept of replaceability of the onesie position. His findings showed a significant jump in bottom-tiered tight end play when they faced bottom-half defenses versus tight ends, while the higher-valued guys, top-10 tight ends, didn’t see nearly as significant of an increase in production against the same types of defenses. In other words, Thorman shows us that replacement-level tight ends, which are easier to find because they’re in less demand during a fantasy season, can be effective in a fantasy football lineup given favorable matchups.
Click here to read Thorman’s article and to see the numbers behind the idea.
The push back to such a strategy is confidence. How are we going to know who those bottom-half defenses are at the beginning of the season, and why would we force the lineup risk of streaming tight ends? Clearly choosing the right matchup isn’t as easy as it would be to simply choose Jimmy Graham at the beginning of your draft.
Keep this idea in mind: The investment you make in a tight end streaming option is one-week long. The investment you make in Jimmy Graham is a season-long one.
If you draft Jimmy Graham, you’re starting Jimmy Graham. Every week. Through his ups and downs, Jimmy Graham will be the tight end on your fantasy football team. And while he’s going to give you some great weeks, he’s also going to give you potential duds; duds that could have been made up for at other positions if you had selected positional value early on in your draft..
I’ll say it again: Your draft isn’t just about who you get, but also who you don’t. When you select Graham in Round 2, you’re missing out on a top running back or receiver. Your tight end is certainly better than mine, but my running back or receiver is also better than yours. And my tight end, through streaming, can still produce near Jimmy Graham numbers, especially because Graham’s weekly ceiling isn’t as high.
Don’t Assume Everything Will Go As Planned
The last thing to touch on is arrogance. Do I believe Jimmy Graham will be the best tight end in 2013? Of course. Would I be surprised if Vernon Davis, Dennis Pitta, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten or even Rob Gronkowski finish ahead of him? Not at all. And we shouldn’t pretend we would be.
Although Graham is an incredible pass catcher, we still have to be aware of his competition’s upside. One trusty site, rotoViz.com, captures this in their position similarity scores tool. Take a look at the below points per game projections based on a number of metrics for a few top tight ends:
Tight end n+1 projections via rotoViz.com
Surprising? It should be. Jimmy Graham’s 2013 outlook according to the tool shows that he won’t even be much better than Tony Gonzalez, a player being drafted four to five rounds after him. And while this is purely a projection, it shows, at the very least, that his competition isn’t nearly as poor as the community is making it out to be. The drop-off in points may not be as top-heavy as we perceive it to be.
Tight End Approach for 2013
As I’ve written on opportunity cost, when you draft Jimmy Graham, you’re forgoing the opportunity to have a top-tier running back or receiver. Unless Graham falls in drafts, which is possible if enough people are willing to stream the tight end position, he’s not worthwhile in the first or second round. And because the position is so replaceable, I may not even select him until the late third.
I’m a huge supporter of streaming onesie positions. It’s a worst case scenario situation, too. I’ll draft upside players with hopes they end up being plug-and-play options, but if they don’t, I can easily find someone else. The approach maximizes your roster’s potential weekly output, and allows you to mitigate risk at the more important running back and wide receiver lineup slots.
Graham may appear as a sure-thing option early in drafts, but replaceability, opportunity cost and his potential output dictates otherwise.
I leave you with one last awful analogy:
If you’re eating a McDonald’s cheeseburger as opposed to one from the frozen foods section at a grocery store, it may taste better, but it’s still a McDonald’s cheeseburger. It may be elite in comparison, but it still doesn’t mean it’s truly elite.
Jimmy Graham, ladies and gentlemen, is a McDonald’s cheeseburger.