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Fitz on Fantasy

Will Colts' Ballard be a big-league star?

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Recent posts by Pat Fitzmaurice

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Posted Oct. 11, 2012 @ 2:24 p.m. ET
By Pat Fitzmaurice

They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. That’s certainly true for the people who play fantasy football.

Vick Ballard is a prime example. There are people who are pleased to be Vick Ballard owners this week, their penny stock suddenly holding tangible value now that Colts RB Donald Brown is out for several weeks after having arthroscopic knee surgery. Ballard, an unheralded rookie from Mississippi State who has 21 carries for 42 yards this season, is now an NFL starter, at least temporarily.

This turn of events was of great interest to a lot of the people who play in larger fantasy leagues. In a 16-team league where there never seem to be enough decent backs to go around, Ballard is now a valuable property. Last week he was Baltic Avenue; this week he’s Marvin Gardens.

Some owners had Ballard handcuffed to Brown and are glad to have purchased the cheap insurance policy. Others quickly plucked Brown off the waiver wire to replace casualties such as Cedric Benson or Ryan Williams. Still other Ballard owners, content with their front-line backs and now sitting on a hot commodity, are trying to leverage their sudden windfall by bartering Ballard for an upgrade at another position.

If you play in an eight-team league, the midweek RB shuffle in Indianapolis held all the drama of a community-theater performance of “Hello Dolly” in Fresno. Maybe Donald Brown is your RB5, in which case you read about his injury, shrugged, and dropped him for Pierre Thomas. Or you picked up Ballard to be your new RB5 and dropped Peyton Hillis. Then you quickly returned to the business of figuring out whether to start Dwayne Bowe or DeSean Jackson in your WR2 spot this week.

We far-flung fantasy football owners are united in that we play the same sort of game. But fantasy football is a Tower of Babel. Owners in eight-team leagues do not speak the language of owners in 16-team leagues. The language of redraft leagues is different from the language of dynasty leagues. IDP leagues have their own tongue. The myriad scoring systems used in fantasy leagues further multiply languages and dialects.

Bonjour, Henri. Aimez-vous Pierre Garçon?

Personally, I prefer to play in larger leagues. This year I’m playing in two 12-teamers, a 14-teamer, a 16-teamer and, for the first time, a 20-teamer. The 20-team league is the FantasyPros Invitational, organized by the good people at FantasyPros.com, a must-bookmark site for fantasy owners in leagues of all sizes. Last year, I was fortunate enough to win the inaugural FantasyPros Invitational. But at the time it was a 12-team league. It expanded this year to include more fantasy experts, and in the new 20-team format, I’m getting my teeth kicked in.

Not only are there 20 teams, which means talent is spread thinner than organic peanut butter, but you’re required to fill three starting WR spots plus two flex spots. A lot of scrubs find their way into starting lineups every week in the FantasyPros Invitational.

One of my bigger mistakes in that draft was a two-round combination in which I took Jonathan Dwyer late in one round and Randy Moss early the next. I gambled on Dwyer rather than taking the much safer Anquan Boldin, who was taken before my next pick. I followed with Moss, another high-risk selection. Neither the Dwyer gamble nor the Moss gamble has worked, and I have regrets about not going with the Boldin/Kendall Hunter combo that I was considering at the time. I finally dropped Dwyer this week. I’ve been forced to start Moss in one of my flex spots every week, which is among the reasons why I’m 1-4.

I’ve been trying to find a suitable replacement for Moss, but the waiver wire in the FantasyPros Invitational offers nothing but Michael Jenkinses and Aldrick Robinsons. In fact, Robinson has served time on my team, and he was in my starting lineup the day when he was accidentally steamrolled by teammate Brandon Meriweather in pregame warm-ups, leading to his deactivation for that day. (I was at a kiddie birthday party when it happened and didn’t find out about it in time to make a change — my season in a nutshell.)

Playing in a 20-team league is a struggle. So is playing in a 16-team league. But I enjoy a good struggle. A lot of people do. And I think that’s the attraction of larger leagues.

I’ve never played in a league with fewer than 10 teams — and I didn’t especially enjoy the 10-team experience. But I’m not about to dog on people who play in 10-team, eight-team or even six-team leagues. Smaller leagues have their own charms. For one thing, small leagues are much easier to organize, and there’s a much better chance of getting owners together for an actual face-to-face draft. I’m the commissioner of my 16-team league, and coordinating draft details is like herding ferrets.

Smaller leagues tend to be dismissed by fantasy snobs as strategically facile. But a small-league owner who’s trying to decide whether to start Tom Brady or Robert Griffin III might still be weighing a mound of variables and doing reams of research in order to make the most informed decision possible. For large-league owners, it’s more likely a choice between Tom Brady and Blaine Gabbert at quarterback, and we all know that’s really no choice.

Your personal preference with regard to league size depends largely on whether you enjoy sifting through trash in search of treasure. To some owners, one of the most satisfying aspects of fantasy football is acquiring a lightly regarded player and having him blossom into a star to the benefit of their team. Some players enter the league to great acclaim and follow a predictable trajectory to stardom. Others enter the league with little fanfare and take a while to get their NFL footing, then suddenly turn into elite players. Arian Foster, Jamaal Charles, Roddy White, Victor Cruz and Jimmy Graham all took the latter path. If you owned one of those players in the year when his career took off, you haven’t forgotten it.

Not everyone enjoys picking through rubbish, however. Some owners simply don’t have a taste for the sort of Dumpster-diving that large fantasy leagues require. (Please note that “Dumpster” is uppercased because it’s a trademarked brand name, and being disrespectful to people in the waste-management industry can be hazardous to one’s health.)

It’s not particularly pleasant to have to start Bilal Powell (as one of the owners in my 16-team league just did), knowing that you’ll be lucky to squeeze two points out of him. Some people don’t enjoy trying to determine whether to pick up James Casey or Rob Housler as a bye-week tight end.

But a lot of fantasy owners enjoy getting their hands dirty. Some people are obsessive about their interests, and when they dive into something, they want the experience to be as immersive as possible.

To play in a large league means diving deep into the talent pool. Your ability to successfully tread water depends heavily on the volume of knowledge archived in your cranium. It helps if you enjoy following the college game and trying to assess whether top collegiate players might someday be of use to you in fantasy football. It helps if you enjoy watching preseason games and seeing reserves get a chance to display their talents. It helps if you enjoy keeping tabs on the battles being waged on the lower rungs of NFL rosters.

I drafted Vick Ballard in the 10th round of the FantasyPros Invitational, 185th overall. I’m delighted by the possibility that a semi-well-researched flier could pay dividends. Suddenly I’m more enthusiastic about my downtrodden 1-4 team.

If Ballard blossoms into a superstar over the next few weeks and leads my team back from the brink of oblivion and into the playoffs, I’m going to write a song about it.

I’ll call it “The Ballad of Vick Ballard.”

Follow Pat on Twitter @FitzPFW.

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