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The fantasy football MVP of 2013? No, that’s Jamaal Charles. But Nick Foles still won a whole lot of championships.

We have a bit of a problem here. While there were certainly lessons learned about fantasy football during this season and all of them brought about moments of deep philosophical thought, many were confirmations of what we already believed. Unfortunately, “Confirmations of what we already believed about fantasy football in 2013″ isn’t exactly a headline that rolls off the tongue, so I may have shattered whatever journalistic integrity I have left by lying to you a little.

Sorry.

Since losing your fantasy championship while a perfectly healthy Jamaal Charles sits out is the worst thing a person can go though, for most of you the fake football season ended a week ago. Still, those in straight-up points leagues (the best way to determine a true champion, though that format hates fun) went right until the bitter conclusion of Week 17 Sunday.

So this is it then, guys. After 17 weeks, fantasy football has left us again until next September, and now we have to expose ourselves to daylight and pursue real human interaction.

Indeed. But before we sink into that depression together, there’s learnin’ to be done.

Three things we learned (or, um, confirmed) in 2013

Tight ends are an unpredictable bunch

Every August I find myself torn with Jimmy Graham. We’re all aware that he’s quite good at football, and with what he does and is asked to do on a field, he’s really a tight end in name only. He easily led his position in receiving yards and it wasn’t at all close (he had 1,215, while Jordan Cameron finished with 917) and his 16 touchdowns were second in the entire league behind only Jamaal Charles. There were only five games when he didn’t score a touchdown, and five when he scored two.

But for fantasy purposes we’re always pursuing value, and to properly judge value we primarily check two boxes: we compare a players’ production to that of his position peers, and also to those around him at his average draft position. When we do that with Graham every August, we instinctively stare into space for several minutes.

The statistical awesomeness from Graham this season outlined above led to 212.5 fantasy points in standard leagues. Again, to the surprise of absolutely no one that places him first at his position, and it’s not at all close (Vernon Davis was second with 156 points). But going forward, the question of value and your decision to spend a second-round pick on Graham isn’t made any easier.

Julius Thomas rounded out the top three at tight end with his 144 points, meaning there was a separation of 68.5 points between Graham and just the third best tight end. Although this past August Thomas was available for roughly the cost of thin air (in most leagues he wasn’t even drafted, and was instead a Week 1 waiver prize) his price will increase dramatically next summer. And with Tony Gonzalez gone and the uncertainty around Rob Gronkowski’s injury status (still), the top of the position thins out further, increasing the fee you’ll have to fork over.

But beyond those very top names — and specifically, the top three — the production and therefore value of a tight end is muddled and downright confusing. While the gap between Graham and third place may be massive (again, 68.5 points), once we get beyond the top three, that gap takes a sizable, and absolutely bounding leap.

What was the gap between fourth (Gonzalez) and 24th (Joseph Fauria)? Yep, 68.5 points. That means the difference between 20 players in the middle is the same as the difference between three players at the very top.

So given what we knew and now still know (really, really know) about the vast space at tight end between the very top and everyone else, your 2014 draft strategy should be clear: if you’re not in a position to draft Graham, wait. And wait forever.

The late-round quarterback approach still works

We saw a similar tale of bargaining among the quarterbacks, just less exaggerated.

According to the ADP data at FantasyPros, the only quarterbacks to be drafted in the first two rounds of standard 12-team leagues were (in this order) Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning. That sounds about right, because if you’re going to take the quarterback plunge early, going with the sexiest of the sexy names takes little thought. Of those three, Manning and Brees finished as the top two fantasy players in all the land, and it wasn’t at all close. Manning’s record smashing led to 407 points, and Brees was well behind at 348, though they were the only two players at any position to finish above 300.

But even when we get to Rodgers — the top quarterback at FantasyPros in August with an ADP of 13th overall —  there’s a hint of a problem, and not because of his injury. If we exclude Week 10 when he broke his collarbone and left in the first quarter, Rodgers was healthy for eight games this season. That’s better known as half a season, and in those games Rodgers was pretty alright, passing for over 300 yards in four of them while throwing 17 touchdowns and averaging 8.7 yards per attempt.

In three other games, though, he reflected the volatility of a position where quality — or at least above average talent — is available much later in drafts. Between weeks 3 and 7 (the Packers had a Week 4 bye), Rodgers averaged only 13.6 fantasy points per game.

Let’s pause for some clarity: I’m not telling you to pass on Rodgers if the value is right, or saying that Aaron Rodgers is the worst. No, I’m using him as an example to show that even at the very top there are face plant weeks, and sometimes several straight. Brees was generally stupid awesome, but in weeks with poor matchups he spent a quarter of the season scoring 16 or fewer points.

On the extreme opposite end, each year there’s a Nick Foles or two (last year’s Foles-type midseason hero was Colin Kaepernick). Foles was a waiver hero who scored 20 or more points in six of his 10 starts, including a 45-point boom in Week 9. Elsewhere in waiver gold, Josh McCown (+20 points in three of his five starts) spent a week among the top fantasy quarterbacks with his 38 points in Week 14. Hell, even Ryan Fitzpatrick (30 points in Week 14) and Case Keenum (28 points in Week 9) spent time in the top tier as well.

Predicting those outbursts is hard, you say? You’re right, I say. But I also say this: if we acknowledge and accept that there’s varying degrees of week-to-week volatility throughout the position and even at the very top, we can wait on the likes of Andrew Luck, who finished fourth overall among quarterbacks with 280 points at an average of 17.5 per week, but had an ADP of 61st overall.

More bargains…

  • Andy Dalton: fifth overall among QBs with 278 points and 17.4 per week (ADP of 122nd)
  • Philip Rivers: sixth overall among QBs with 277 points and 17.3 per week (ADP of 155th)
  • Ben Roethlisberger: 12th overall among QBs with 248 points and 15.5 per week (ADP of 127th overall)
  • Alex Smith: 15th overall among QBs with 238.5 points and 14.9 per week (ADP of 166th)

In total then including Luck and Foles, that’s six quarterbacks who finished in the top half of their position and they were available on average at least 42 picks after the top three, and much, much later for Dalton, Rivers, Roethlisberger, and Smith. Or with Foles, for free on the wire.

Stockpiling wide receivers early is probably a pretty good idea

Supply is always far less than demand at running back, which is why that will always and forever be the most coveted position at the top of drafts. But there’s also always and forever going to be a problem with that: frequent breaking.

Running backs do that a lot more, and this year the hurt ran deep early. The top five overall picks at FantasyPros were all running backs, and two of them were lost for much of the season and placed on injured reserve. Doug Martin and Arian Foster appeared in a combined 14 games (six for Martin, and eight for Foster). In fact, looking at the rest of the top five — which is rounded out by Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, and C.J. Spiller — only Charles remained healthy for the entire season. Peterson missed two games, and Spiller missed one while being hobbled in many others without truly recovering to be himself until the second half of the season.

An equation is emerging here then, and it goes something like this: the easily combustible nature of running backs + wide receivers getting all the yards = your attention going elsewhere.

I’m not sure if you’ve read this anywhere else, but quarterbacks are passing for many yards nowadays. Consider: Peyton Manning broke Drew Brees’ single-season passing yards record with 5,477 yards (assuming it stands), but Brees still passed for 5,162 yards this year. When Brees first broke Dan Marino’s record in 2011, it was a pretty big deal. Now Marino’s original mark that stood for 26 seasons has been passed five times over just the last three years.

Someone has to catch those passes. Actually a lot of hands have to catch those passes, and the result this year was seven wide receivers with over 1,400 yards. In 2012 there were four such receivers. Same with 2011, and in both the 2010 and 2009 seasons there was just one.

What that leads to in 2014 is an environment where taking two wide receivers at the start of a draft becomes more appealing. That strategy was already in play this past summer, but now minimizing the general injury risk at running back and taking, say, Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green while still getting a shot at Frank Gore, DeMarco Murray, or Reggie Bush as an RB1 sounds pretty delicious.

***

Those are just three thoughts/observations/rants from the year that was, and we now have, oh, eight months to debate them and others. In between the real life playoff prognosticating throughout January and early February, I’ll keep looking ahead to the fake footballing of 2014, because getting a head start on failed predictions is a priority.

For now, thanks for coming along on the ride this season, and maybe making a dollar or $300.