The secret to staying power is to not outsmart yourself. Just like Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome knows what he’s looking for in putting together a team and doesn’t stray from that, you should do the same if you want to be competitive each year as a fantasy owner.
You won’t see Newsome or any of the top talent evaluators in the NFL do things like draft Tim Tebow or Geno Smith. Consistent success comes from consistently making good decisions. The quickest way to sap your staying power is to make bad decisions.
For instance, I once selected Koren Robinson (Google him) in the third round. Why did I do that? Well, I was not too far removed from winning this particular league four times in its first eight years as well as an overlapping stretch of making the playoffs six seasons in a row. I figured I was the smartest guy in the room and no matter what I did, it would work out. I was wrong. I strayed from a proven formula and it cost me — to the tune of a 2-11-1 record, easily the worst I’ve ever done.
If you want to be the Ozzie Newsome of your fantasy football league(s), it’s simple. Just draft good players. That’s it. That’s the secret to staying power. If you’re the guy who targets the Mannings, Bradys, Petersons, Rices and Calvin Johnsons of the world, you’ll be more successful in the long run than the guy who tries to get everyone talking about him by “thinking outside the box.” You’re not going to start a trend or go down in fantasy football lore by drafting the Koren Robinsons of the world. Especially in the third round. You’ll just end up starting a well-deserved wave of laughter and mockery and going down in flames by October. You’ll be this year’s New York Jets.
Even if you’re new to fantasy football, you’ve probably paid attention to the NFL enough to know which players have established staying power. So let’s look at some players (all but one 25 or younger) who seem to be on the verge of developing it — players who should be at the center of fantasy drafts for years to come.
Colin Kaepernick, 49ers: The arm. The legs. The ability to perform under pressure. A great coach. Had Michael Crabtree not ruptured his Achilles tendon, Kaepernick would be getting drafted in the top 20 this year and he’s yet to play a full season. He’s the offensive future of the NFL and, thus, fantasy football.
Robert Griffin III, Redskins: The arm. The legs. The, uh, knee. Griffin was deserving of his Rookie of the Year award, and the only thing standing between him and a decade of dominance is that surgically repaired right knee. Surgically repaired twice including college. RG3 is slated to start Week 1 and has declared his knee “100 percent.” If he’s right, sit back and enjoy the show.
Russell Wilson, Seahawks: I’ve made my feelings on Wilson well known. He lacks transcendent athletic ability, but, like Kaepernick he seems to possess an innate understanding of what to do with the football in any given situation. Having said that, if he sticks with the Seahawks in their current form, he may be hard-pressed to put up big passing numbers year in and year out. His rookie record-tying 26 TDs may be his ceiling, although having a healthy Percy Harvin (if such a thing exists) may help boost his numbers down the road. For fantasy purposes, he could end up in Eli Manning or Ben Roethlisberger territory — steadily good, occasionally great.
Andrew Luck, Colts: Luck has the best chance to be the successor to Peyton Manning and Tom Brady — the traditional pocket passer who can dissect any defense. I expect him to increase his touchdowns and reduce his interceptions in his second year and be a lock for 30 TDs a season by 2014.
Doug Martin, Bucs: Martin was a top 5 pick in most drafts this year, so he’s on everyone’s radar entering his second season. He had the best single-game rushing performance of 2012 with 251 yards against the Raiders. He also scored four TDs in that game. Martin is especially valuable in an era of specialization as he plays all three downs. He’s set up for sustained success, as long as he avoids injury.
Trent Richardson, Browns: Drafted 28 picks ahead of Martin in last year’s NFL draft, Richardson was expected to have the kind of season Martin did. But like many running backs, he was slowed by injuries. His status as a top 10 fantasy back this year is based largely on potential. He’ll have to prove he can stay healthy and provide more dynamic plays. As the focal point of the Browns’ offense, he should get plenty of chances.
Alfred Morris, Redskins: Morris is a less attractive fantasy option than Martin or Richardson at this point because he was rarely used in the passing game as a rookie. There has been talk he’ll be more involved this year, but even if he’s not a significant contributor on third down, it’s hard to ignore the numbers: a franchise-record 1,613 yards and 13 TDs. By comparison, Martin had 1,454 yards and Richardson just 950. They each had 11 TDs. The key to Morris becoming a top-tier back over the long haul is limiting his workload. If he manages another 335 carries this season, that’s a red flag for the future.
A.J. Green, Bengals: It’s no exaggeration to say that Green is the most important Bengal of the past 20-plus years. Cincinnati was a mess for the great majority of time between the heyday of Boomer Esiason and Green’s arrival in 2011. Green’s first two seasons coincided with the franchise making back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time. His first year was good (65 receptions, 1,057 yards, 7 TDs), but his second year was great (97-1,350-11). With the further development of QB Andy Dalton (also entering his third season), that trajectory should continue and make Green the rare safe pick at WR for the foreseeable future.
Julio Jones, Falcons: Jones is making Atlanta’s brain trust look like geniuses after the Falcons traded up to take him with the eighth pick of the 2011 draft (four picks after Green). Like Green, he flashed his potential as a rookie and lived up to it consistently last year. He increased his receptions (54-79), yards (959-1,198) and TDs (8-10). Playing alongside Roddy White, he’s no threat to catch 100 passes, but the presence of another top 10 receiver makes it a near certainty that Jones will continue to avoid double-teams and be one of the league’s best big-play receivers.
Jimmy Graham, Saints: The veteran of this group at 26, Graham was a basketball player at Miami who decided to give football a try his senior year. Good call. In his second full season in the NFL (2011), he caught 99 passes — 82 more than he caught with the Hurricanes — for 1,310 yards. That yardage total would have been an NFL record had the Patriots not left Rob Gronkowski in to catch a pass from the backup QB at the end of a meaningless season finale. Graham dealt with nagging injuries last season but still finished with 85 receptions for 982 yards and 9 TDs. Factoring in Gronkowski’s extensive injury history, Graham is the safest bet to become the best tight end of his generation.
Torrey Smith, Ravens: Given what he has gone through in his short life and how he has handled it, you have to root for a guy like Smith. With Anquan Boldin’s departure, he is now the guy for Joe Flacco. If he shows this season that he can be a dependable No. 1 WR and not just a big-play complement, he’s going to make fantasy owners happy for many years.
T.Y. Hilton, Colts: I don’t care if he’s listed behind Darius Heyward-Bey on the depth chart. He already has proven in one season that he’s better than the former Maryland speedster. Reggie Wayne won’t be around too much longer, so I expect Hilton to become the next great Colts receiver — possibly as soon as this year. He may not be the next Marvin Harrison, but trust me, he’s not the next Koren Robinson.