Fantasy 2011 Lesson Learned No. 1: Beware Your Cheat Sheets
"Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
As the fantasy season comes to a close for 2011, it's time to go all Winston Churchill on your competition.
In other words, it's time to learn from the past in order to succeed in the future.
As with every season, 2011 offers several lessons for fantasy owners to learn from. The NFL is constantly in flux—more so this year due to the lockout than perhaps any other—and fantasy owners need to keep up.
This, then, will be the first in a series of fantasy articles on lessons that I've learned in 2011.
Whether you're still in the hunt for a fantasy championship or one of the many fantasy owners whose dreams were dashed prematurely, join me on this journey to fantasy enlightenment.
Cheated by Cheat Sheets
It happens every year.
Various fantasy football websites and publications publish their cheat sheets of the Top 150 or whatever number of players for your convenience.
People print them out and most will dutifully follow them during their drafts like a script—particularly for the first four rounds of a draft. Even those who sometimes deviate from the cheat sheets will strongly adhere to the Top 10.
After all, the order of the Top 10 is critical.
The first couple players on the list should be the most dominating or important players in the draft, with the impact of each player being progressively less valuable as you get down to No. 10 or No. 12 in the rankings.
In other words, it would be wrong to rank—for example, Frank Gore—as the No. 1 player on a cheat sheet while Ray Rice is ranked No. 10. More than any other round, the order of the players in the Top Ten (first round) matters greatly.
Yet this year, more than ever, cheat sheets were proven to be a farce.
Who's No. 1?
Quick, if you could re-do your fantasy draft and had the No. 1 overall pick, tell me who you would take.
LeSean McCoy? Arian Foster?
OK. Now do you remember who the cheat sheets listed as the No. 1 overall pick back in mid-August?
And the cheat sheet average consensus No. 3 was Chris Johnson.
As expected, people faithfully followed those cheat sheets, too. The ADPs (average draft position) for Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson often was 1 and 3, respectively. Adrian Peterson finished 10th among RBs. That's not terrible. But it's not No. 1-overall pick production.
And Chris Johnson? He finished 19th among RBs, far from No. 3 overall pick production.
This year's inaccuracy wasn't a fluke. This inability to get the No. 1 player right has been happening for years.
In 2010, the No. 1 consensus RB on cheat sheets was Chris Johnson. He finished seventh that year among best RBs.
In 2009, the No. 1 pick according to cheat sheets was either Matt Forte or Adrian Peterson. It ended up being neither: Chris Johnson was No. 1.
Our beloved cheat sheets can't even get the No. 1 pick—the home-run hitter, the slam dunk—right. But we'll still trust those cheat sheets year after year, not just for the No. 1 pick, but for the entire draft.
Top 10: Cheat Sheets vs. Reality
Forget about No. 1, which will impact only one person in your league.
Let's assess the accuracy of cheat sheets' Top 10. In other words, how accurate are cheat sheets for everyone's first-round pick?
The average preseason Top 10 among the cheat sheets for Yahoo Sports, ESPN, CBS Sports and KFFL was:
1. Adrian Peterson, RB
2. Arian Foster, RB
3. Chris Johnson, RB
4. Ray Rice, RB
5. Jamaal Charles, RB
6. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB
7. LeSean McCoy, RB
8. Andre Johnson, WR
9. Aaron Rodgers, QB
10. Darren McFadden, RB
Now let's keep the same player positions above (RB, etc.) but replace the names with the actual top players at those positions (heading into Week 16). Controlling for inactive weeks due to injury, the actual Top 10 are:
1. Arian Foster, RB
2. Fred Jackson, RB
3. LeSean McCoy, RB
4. Ray Rice, RB
5. Darren McFadden, RB
6. Jahvid Best, RB
7. Matt Forte, RB
8. Calvin Johnson, WR
9. Aaron Rodgers, QB
10. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB
Arian Foster, Ray Rice and Aaron Rodgers pretty much matched their cheat sheet ranking. But there are a number of surprises on this list.
Fred Jackson? Jahvid Best? Matt Forte?
And as we already know, Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson are nowhere to be found.
Don't get me wrong. Even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I'm not saying that fantasy owners should have drafted, say, Fred Jackson in the first round. Never overreach.
But suffice it to say, cheat sheets can be pretty inaccurate.
Moving beyond the first round, we see more sad recommendations.
Roddy White was, on average, ranked as the No. 2 fantasy WR, and many fantasy owners faithfully expended a second-round pick for him. In reality, White is currently the No. 14 WR—a big difference.
Wes Welker was the No. 22 WR on ESPN's list. In reality, Welker is now the No. 2 fantasy WR. Victor Cruz didn't even crack the Top 75 WRs on any cheat sheet, but he is the No. 3 WR.
Michael Vick was the consensus second-best QB on cheat sheets. He's currently a disappointing seventh-best.
Philip Rivers was the No. 5 QB on ESPN's list. Right now, he's sitting as the 17th-best QB—a supreme bust for owners who spent a valuable third-round pick on him.
Rob Gronkowski was the 13th-best TE on ESPN's list. As everyone and their mother knows, he is the No. 1 TE.
I could go on, but you get the point.
The Bottom Line
Obviously, injuries are unpredictable. Given a larger sample size, who knows if Jamaal Charles would have had a Top 10 season or not.
Similarly, Andre Johnson was off to a big start before getting hurt, and when he returned, his QB was out.
But even for players who don't get injured, cheat sheets are still often inaccurate. In fact, if you didn't make your league's Fantasy Super Bowl, you can cheer yourself up by reading some preseason fantasy predictions and get a few laughs.
Yes, fantasy football is tough to predict.
(Who knew Reggie Bush would outperform Rashard Mendenhall this year? Reggie Bush? Seriously?)
That difficulty includes the supposedly easy predictions of who the Top 10 fantasy players will be.
When you and I sit down and think about it, we realize that of course accurate predictions are hard to make—even for the so-called fantasy "experts".
Of course, cheat sheets will have serious overvalues. Of course, cheat sheets will have serious undervalues. Of course, those overvalues and undervalues will also lurk in the Top 10—and even at No. 1.
Prediction-making is an imperfect science. Right, Miss Cleo?
Yet, while we acknowledge this now, come next August, many fantasy owners will bring their freshly printed cheat sheets to their drafts and closely follow them. Again.
It's time to learn our lesson: beware your cheat sheets.
And the importance of this Lesson Learned dovetails perfectly with the forthcoming Lesson Learned No. 2.
So when you head into your fantasy draft(s) next year and start staring at those cheat sheets, do yourself a favor and remember four words.
Beware your cheat sheets.