Fitz on fantasy: Looking for trouble

Posted July 20, 2012 @ 12:18 p.m.
Posted By Pat Fitzmaurice

We don’t know exactly what happened in the recent dustup between Dez Bryant and his mom, but it’s probably safe to say that when Mother’s Day 2013 rolls around, Dez will need to do better than a Hallmark card and dinner at Applebee’s.

Let’s be honest: In a couple months’ time, the incident between Bryant and his mom will be a mere footnote to us. And by no means is this meant to downplay the seriousness of this incident or domestic violence in general. But when we’re six weeks into the NFL season and your 4-2 team is about to have a critical clash with 5-1 division leader Pearls Before Stein, or when you’re preparing for a playoff tilt against hated archrival Fake Plastic Brees, the family life of Dez Bryant will not factor into your decision on whether to start him. It will not make Bryant any more or less likely to turn a seven-yard hitch into a big gain. It will not have any bearing on Bryant’s ability to haul in a bullet from Tony Romo.

What it could do, of course, is lead to a suspension that keeps Bryant out of action for several weeks. So in that regard, yes, this incident might end up having a direct effect on his fantasy value.

In all likelihood, most fantasy drafts and auctions will be held before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell decides whether to issue a suspension. Bryant faces a misdemeanor charge of family violence, but as of this writing, no court date has been set. Goodell will almost certainly let the case go through the system before taking action, and no doubt he’d meet with Bryant before issuing an edict. The uneducated guess here is that Goodell will give Bryant nothing more than a stern warning. Bryant has had other disquieting incidents, but Goodell might be understandably reluctant to wade into a family matter that resulted in a misdemeanor charge, particularly when he’s fighting a more significant battle with the NFL Players Association over this unsavory bounty business with the Saints.

Less likely to dodge a suspension is Marshawn Lynch, who has been charged with DUI in California and is facing an Aug. 14 court date. Lynch pleaded guilty to a traffic incident in 2008 after hitting a pedestrian and driving away, and he was suspended for three games in 2009 after pleading guilty to a gun charge. If he’s guilty in the latest incident, Goodell will drop the hammer — but not until most (or perhaps all) drafts and auctions have been conducted.

Therein lies the rub, for in that sleep of training camp we know not what punishment may come.

You should regard the Lynch and Bryant situations as buying opportunities. Training camps haven’t opened yet, so the Lynch and Bryant arrests have grabbed a great deal of attention, and most of your competitors have downgraded Lynch and Bryant already. I suggest that you take a different approach. (However, I wouldn’t blame you for avoiding Kenny Britt, who was arrested for DUI early Friday — too big a medical risk, and yet his ADP doesn’t adequately reflect the risk.)

This is the time when a lot of fantasy owners start to crave NFL news, and also a time when there isn’t a lot of NFL news being generated, so whatever news comes out tends to be magnified and hyper-analyzed. Witness, for instance, the avalanche of attention bestowed upon Josh Gordon, the former Baylor wide receiver whom the Browns selected in the second round of the supplemental draft. Gordon, a three-day star of the Twitterverse, certainly warrants attention in dynasty leagues, but he’s unlikely to be a factor in redraft leagues this year, and a productive NFL career is far from a given. But Gordon’s talents were dissected in great detail during a slow NFL news period, with some experts speculating that he has a bright future and others suggesting that he’s nothing special. (Gordon, by the way, was suspended for the 2011 season after testing positively for marijuana use, so no doubt Mr. Goodell will be keeping tabs on him.)

The draft/auction value of Lynch and Bryant is going to plummet with the specter of suspensions looming. Your competitors are going to weigh the possibility of missed games and perhaps calculate the overall effect on Lynch and Bryant’s stats. An owner might conclude that Lynch is likely to get a four-game suspension (not a bad guess). To adjust his assessment of Lynch’s value, this owner might reason that four games amounts to 25 percent of a 16-game regular season — or a larger percentage of a 13- or 14-game regular season in a fantasy league — and reduce Lynch’s projected statistics by that percentage. That would be a shortsighted approach.

What some owners forget is that a player’s value to a fantasy team is the numerical value he brings to his lineup spot. If a player isn’t able to fill a lineup spot in a given week, it doesn’t mean that his owner gets zero points from that spot. Obviously, the owner can sub in another player, and while the expectation is that the sub will produce less value in any given week, it might be incrementally less, and there’s always the chance that the sub could produce surprising value. Lynch’s value to a fantasy owner is the value he offers above and beyond what a replacement-level player would offer. (The same concept is behind the increasingly popular baseball stat Wins Above Replacement, or WAR.)

Suppose Lynch does miss four games. At the moment, running backs such as Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, Jahvid Best and Donald Brown have ADPs in the upper 20s to lower 30s, suggesting that they’ll probably be drafted as No. 3 running backs in 12-team leagues. Would you feel terrible about plugging any of those four into your starting lineup early in the season while Lynch serves a suspension? Would the perceived drop-off between Lynch and, say, Stewart have a significant effect on your expected number of wins over a four-game stretch? The answers to those two questions: (1) You shouldn’t; and (2) Probably not.

This principle also applies to players perceived as injury-prone. Sure, a player’s likelihood of missing games due to injury needs to be considered when estimating his value. But the ability to replace an injured player mitigates the impact of any injury to a degree. But you’re already familiar with the concept of replacement value, because you’re a savvy owner. If you’re lucky, there are simpletons in your league who haven’t grasped it yet.

In taking advantage of public bias against a troubled player, you have to estimate where the player would be expected to go in drafts (or at what price he’d sell for at auction) were it not for the legal problems. Then you have to estimate where he would go if you didn’t take him.

Let’s say you think Bryant would have come off the board in the WR13 to WR15 range if not for the domestic incident, and you think he deserves to slide no more than a couple of spots. You estimate that he’s now likely to go in the WR23 to WR25 range. If you draft Bryant in the WR15 spot, you’ve failed to take advantage of the negative public perception of him — you’ve baked out the bargain. If you wait too long and he goes to someone else at WR23 or WR24, you’ve let someone else capitalize. You need to determine an appropriate strike point and try to roster Bryant at about that point. In this case, a strike point of WR21 to WR22 seems about right. You take advantage of his slide in perceived value and get him reduced cost.

Over the second half of last year’s regular season, Lynch averaged 23.5 carries and 100.8 rushing yards per game, and the mediocre Seahawks went 5-3. The M.O. will be the same this year — Lynch is one of the few running backs in the league who has a chance to average 20 carries a game. If he’s suspended, he isn’t going to lose his job to rookie Robert Turbin or anyone else. The arrest might cost Lynch a few games, but it won’t cost him his job.

Bryant is similarly secure. The drop-off from Bryant and Miles Austin to the backup receivers on the Dallas roster is steeper than a black-diamond ski run. The Cowboys haven’t been especially pleased with the way Bryant has conducted himself, but he’s still a critical component of a very proficient passing attack.

And bear in mind that if Lynch and Bryant haven’t been suspended by the time your draft or auction takes place, there’s still a chance that they won’t be suspended at all, in which case you’ve just hit the jackpot in terms of player value. Winning!

Some of your competitors have put Lynch and Bryant on their do-not-draft list. But these and any other players who might find themselves in legal trouble between now and draft/auction day are well worth a little extra attention.

By the way, I finally have a Twitter account. I’d meant to open one much sooner, but I was too busy killing a woolly mammoth and roasting it over the fire outside my cave. My handle is @FitzPFW. Don’t hesitate to hit me up with any fantasy questions.

To read Pat Fitzmaurice's preseason player rankings, click here.