There's a wise adage in fantasy football: "You can't win your league in the first round, but you can lose it." To elaborate, it means that drafting a fantasy superstar doesn't give you that big of an advantage because, ideally, everybody in the first round should be a fantasy superstar. Well, it would be more correct to say that most players in the first round are fantasy superstars. Inevitably, someone (or two, or three) is going to draft a bust and if that someone is you, you are at a massive disadvantage for the rest of the season. I'd wager that very few people (in serious leagues) that drafted Adrian Peterson, Calvin Johnson, or Doug Martin last year won their league. And the more teams in your league, the more crippling the disadvantage of busting in the first round. If you don't want to lose, don't bust in the first round.
But I don't want to just "not lose", I want to win. So I'd take it a step further. Don't bust in the first 6 rounds. You might be rolling your eyes. Well, of course, obviously I don't want to bust in any round. True, in practice, it isn't feasible to completely avoid busting. What I'm advocating is to draft safe. Avoid high risk players in the early rounds because there are plenty of alternatives with ceilings almost as high but nowhere near as low a floor. If you draft high risk, high reward players, you might hit a home run on a few of them but you're going to strikeout a lot too. If you bust too often, there's nothing you can do to come back. Draft a crew of unsexy but stable players and you can still make moves within to season to adjust and win. Given the choice between the steady, proven veteran with a high floor and the sexy sophomore with huge potential but small sample size, I'll take the veteran 9 times out of 10. Within the first 6 rounds, you need to fill 6 roster spots and if you can avoid busting on any of them, you are at a really big advantage. Even if a player doesn't necessarily return the exact same value that you paid, he still has some value. They are usable, they can be dealt and dangled in trades. A savvy fantasy football owner can make winning maneuvers. A bust has no value. Come October, the owner with multiple busts on his team is going to be scrambling for depth and begging for your scraps.
However, I'd like to point out that this isn't true for 8 or 10 team leagues. With these more casual leagues, depth isn't an issue. Therefore, it's all about upside from the get-go. In 12 team leagues depth plays a critical role in the success of your season. In 14 and especially in 16 team leagues, depth is king. Don't bust, and you won't have a depth problem. Busting isn't as much of a problem the deeper you are in the draft. After round 6, there's no such thing as a bust. At that point you should have your starting positions filled and you need to start drafting for upside. But that's another article.
So how do we avoid busting? Is it even possible to avoid?
I think it is. Obviously, there are some busts that are completely unavoidable and unpredictable. We could not have foreseen that Adrian Peterson would be suspended for 15 games in 2014 due to an off-field scandal. However, in many cases there really are several visible warning signs. If we can identify these signs, we can decrease our chances of landing a bust. Because there are two kinds of bad luck. If a player with no previous injury history gets hurt (like Randall Cobb in 2013), that's bad luck. But if that player is Ryan Mathews, well, then that's on you. If the former happens, you just shrug your shoulders and move on- there's nothing you could have done. But we can do our best to calculate and minimize the latter.
The 6 Red Flags
1. Injury Risk
Player is a known injury risk due to previous injury history.
Player is a rookie or has performed well in just 1 full season or less.
3. Unfavorable Situation:
Player is in a situation that restricts his ability to score fantasy points. This may be due to things such as bad offensive line, weak offense, limited scoring opportunities, bad fit for scheme, tough defensive schedule, etc.
4. Usage Concern:
Player's role in the offense is in doubt or predicted to be limited due to other running backs, possibility of being benched/replaced, not being goal line back, etc.
5. Poor Previous Season:
Player performed poorly in the previous season. Player's draft value is tied to hope of a bounce back or resurgence.
6. Trending Downward:
Player's skills and stats seem to be declining do to age, overuse, lack of effort, etc.
Evaluating 2014's Busts
In this list, I only included running backs drafted within the first 6 rounds in a 12 team league. This is because, within the first 6 rounds, you're still drafting players that you're counting on to start. But, after round 6, your RB/WR slots are filled and you're looking for diamonds in the rough. A bust is defined as a player drafted within the first 6 rounds but was essentially unusable throughout the year (finished ranked outside the top 30 running backs which is worse than flex territory).
There were 14 running back busts in 2014. Each running back's red flags are listed in order of how relevant they were to that specific player.
1. Adrian Peterson - none
Ranked: 1; Finished: N/A
Not foreseeable. Due to an off-field scandal involving child abuse, Peterson ended up only playing 1 game in 2014. This series of events could not have been predicted nor accounted for.
2. Doug Martin – poor previous season, injury risk
Ranked 8; Finished 51
Foreseeable. Martin started 2013 with mediocre performances and then lost the rest of the season due to injury. 2014 was more of the same. Martin missed 6 games due to injury and did not perform well even when he played. His 2014 workload wasn’t quite what it was in 2012, never once eclipsing 20 carries (Martin registered 20 carries or more in 8 games in 2012).
3. Zac Stacy – unproven, usage concern, unfavorable situation
Ranked: 11; Finished: 73
Foreseeable. He had just one good year, team just drafted another running back (Tre Mason), and there were already rumblings out of camp that he would replaced. The coaching staff was never committed to Stacy and he is a mediocre talent despite the perplexing amount of hype surrounding him by fantasy football rankers. In addition, his offensive line was bad and he played in the strongest defensive division in the league.
4. Montee Ball – unproven, usage concern
Ranked: 13; Finished: 89
Foreseeable. He never proved it. His fantasy value was purely speculative. We knew that some Denver running back would be valuable, we just assumed it would be Ball, especially considering he would get the first shot. However, tough matchups contributed to poor performance and injury led to him being replaced. CJ Anderson ran away with the job.
5. Reggie Bush – usage concern
Ranked: 15; Finished: 52
Somewhat foreseeable. It was known the Joique Bell would steal a lot of work and might even be the starter between the two in addition to being the goal line back.
6. Ben Tate – injury risk, unproven
Ranked: 16; Finished: 47
Absolutely foreseeable. Ben Tate had an extensive history with injury while on the Texans and was considered one of the most likely players to get hurt. In addition, he had been a backup to Arian Foster thus far in his career and, as a result, unproven.
7. Ryan Mathews – injury risk
Ranked: 17; Finished: 55
Foreseeable. Extensive injury history.
8. C.J. Spiller – usage concern, injury risk, unfavorable situation
Ranked: 18; Finished: 65
Somewhat foreseeable. He was playing hurt for much of 2013 so it was not surprising to see him laboring 2014 either. In addition, the demise of Fred Jackson was greatly exaggerated and Coach Doug Marrone never used Spiller to his strengths. Spiller’s breakout came while Chan Gailey was coach.
9. Trent Richardson – poor previous season
Ranked: 21; Finished: 36
Foreseeable. Richardson’s 2013 was terrible and his 2014 value was tied to the idea that he might somehow just “get it” this year and turn things around.
10. Toby Gerhart – unproven, unfavorable situation
Ranked: 22; Finished: 61
Absolutely foreseeable. Totally unproven, career backup goes from a top 10 run-blocking offensive line to one that ranked dead last and an offense led by either Chad Henne or Blake Bortles.
11. Ray Rice – poor previous season
Ranked: 23; Finished: N/A
Not really foreseeable. We knew Rice would start the season with a 2 game suspension but the release of the infamous elevator video and ensuing fallout could not have been predicted. Rice was not really in danger of losing his job to Bernard Pierce who was, at the time, the primary backup. There’s a chance that Rice would have busted anyways considering his poor 2013, but we’ll never know.
12. Chris Johnson – usage concern, trending downward
Ranked: 25; Finished: 35
Foreseeable. Johnson busted due to lack and effort and lack of use. His lack of effort was foreshadowed by his last couple seasons in Tennessee. It was also known that Johnson would be splitting carries with Chris Ivory and, him being the more physical of the two, Ivory was the favorite to get the first crack in goal line situations.
13. Stevan Ridley – usage concern
Ranked: 29; Finished: 67
Somewhat foreseeable. Plagued by fumbling issues on a team with a coach with the least tolerance for turnovers, his usage was highly in doubt. However, his injury could not have been predicted.
14. Bishop Sankey – unproven, usage concern, unfavorable situation
Ranked: 30; Finished: 46
Absolutely foreseeable. Rookie with a bad offensive line and a bad offense in general. In addition, he was never guaranteed the starting spot in the first place.
Injury Risk: 4
Unfavorable Situation: 4
Usage Concern: 7
Poor Previous Season: 3
Trending Downward: 1
From this, we see that the most common red flags among busts are usage concern, injury risk, unfavorable situation, and unproven. While those trending downward may not have as high of a ceiling, they are less likely to bust. Those with poor previous seasons are not likely to be ranked as highly in the first place. It is notable that almost all of these busts had multiple red flags. The exceptions were Ryan Mathews and Reggie Bush. However, Mathews has long been considered one the most injury prone players in the league and Bush's usage concern was also especially worrisome (as evidenced by Joique Bell's high ranking). It's also important to note that, for each individual player, the degree to which the red flag applied to them varied. For example, Ryan Mathews and C.J. Spiller were both injury risks but Mathews was regarded as considerably more injury prone than Spiller.
Which players with red flags did not bust?
Injury Risks: DeMarco Murray and Arian Foster
Some red flags can be balanced by other factors. For example, a player may be unproven but also be in a very favorable situation with little to no competition for carries. The "unproven" red flag is balanced by very positive outlooks in other areas. However, an "injury risk" red flag cannot be balanced out. No amount of skill or favorable situation can salvage a player from an unfortunate yet predictable injury. Even so, it's easy to see why there are consistently ranked so high. The potential payoff is huge. Case in point, DeMarco Murray and Arian Foster who finished 2014 as the #1 and #5 running backs in fantasy, respectively. Though Murray and Foster, along with Tate and Mathews, were considered the most injury prone heading into the season, Murray managed (for the first time in his career) to play in all 16 games while Foster played in 12. Meanwhile, both Tate and Mathews busted largely due to injury. High-risk, high reward. Last year, it might have paid off for you in a big way. But you wont always get so lucky. You can’t predict which one will stay healthy. It could have just as easily have been Murray or Foster that got hurt and burned their owners.
Unproven: Le'Veon Bell and Eddie Lacy
Bell and Lacy were both somewhat “unproven” since they had only been in the league one year. However, each running back was in a very favorable situation (both running backs had an elite quarterback and a top 10 offensive line) and had no usage concerns (they were the unquestioned workhorses of their respective offenses). In addition, their “unproven” tag was less concerning considering each running back started in every single game in which he was active in 2013 (13 starts for Bell and 15 starts for Lacy).
Trending Downward: Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore
Drafters were cautious of Lynch and Gore because of fear that they were declining due to age and high workload. Lynch proved that he hadn’t lost a step at all, finishing 3rd among running backs. While Gore certainly did appear to be slowing down, he still put up a respectable season finishing 17th among running backs and approximately matching his draft day value as the 19th ranked running back. I think it's safe to say that the "trending downward" red flag is the least daunting of the lot, especially on it's own. Both Lynch and Gore show that, while regression may occur, busting is not a significant concern among such players.