I love the summer. The NBA Finals are now over (sorry Heat fans), and while the World Cup is in full swing, even the casual sports fan is probably thinking about fantasy football. It is a truly great time of year; a time where we should see plenty of new articles from popular websites, fantasy magazines finally hitting the shelves, and of course, lots and lots of rankings. Fantasy writers from all over can write until they are blue in the face, but at the end of the day, the one item fantasy players are most interested in is that list. Who is reasonable to take in the first round? Where can I find some sleepers I like? Should I draft Brandon Marshall or Alshon Jeffery? All of these questions can be answered once player rankings are divulged and indulged upon by experts and newcomers alike. I will probably be releasing my first set of rankings some time in July once my projection columns are finished. When that happens you will see an interesting name at the top of the list. It isn’t Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, or Matt Forte; last season’s top running backs. It isn’t perennial top five receiver Calvin Johnson. It isn’t even record breaking quarterback Peyton Manning. In typical contrarian fashion, my number one player for 2014 is Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.
So What Gives?
Your initial reaction to reading that is probably something along the lines of:
“This guy is crazy.”
“Why am I even reading this?”
“I would love to get this guy in my league.”
I understand. Jimmy Graham is a tight end after all, and tight ends are seldom taken in the first round at all let alone at first overall. So it is natural to object to such a proclamation. But is it fair? Rotoworld’s Evan Silva recently released his top 150, ranking Graham 6th, higher than most in the fantasy community. His short reasoning for doing so was “Premier difference maker at fantasy’s weakest position.”
What I would like to do is take Silva’s premise a step further (or a few steps, I suppose). The basic idea is simple: Graham has been fantasy’s most dominant player over the past three seasons. He offers you a week to week advantage that only the oft-injured Rob Gronkowski (who is, you guessed it, returning from a major injury) can match. Of course, all of this is meaningless without some data to back it up.
Running Backs Are Overrated
I would say that the most common suggestion of a player to be the first overall pick in fantasy is a running back. Elite ones are usually fantasy difference makers themselves, and owning one can propel your team to the next level. But is a running back a safe investment? I took a look at the top 5 running backs drafted each of the last three seasons (the time span of Graham’s dominance) for 12 team PPR leagues, courtesy of My Fantasy League. My interest was in where these players finished the season:
As you can see, the numbers are not great. Over the past three seasons, only a third of running backs selected as top five backs finished there. In fact, only two thirds of them finished as even RB2’s! I don’t know about you, but I want to feel a little more secure about my first overall pick. How about a player who has averaged 90 receptions, 1,169 yards, and 12 touchdowns over the past three seasons at fantasy’s weakest position? We may not have even seen the best from Graham just yet. The former Miami basketball player was on pace for a 98/1,492/20 season last year through the first EIGHT GAMES! That is not a mirage, and it is very possible Graham would have approached numbers like that had he not been limited by a plantar fascia injury he suffered in week 6 against the Patriots.
Just How Much Better Is Graham Than The Field?
We all agree that Graham is the best tight end in fantasy, but just what is that worth? What kind of an advantage does he give you over your opponents? The tables below shows the difference in scoring between the first and second best players at each position and the 12th best (your top level player at each position) along with Graham:
You’ll see that Graham very easily pastes the rest of the tight end field, and has a much higher score difference than the top receiver. He is bested by the top running back scorer on average, but as was already discussed, finding that player could prove to be quite difficult. It is, at best, a low probability outcome. It would seem to me that the data suggests that Jimmy is a better option than taking a top running back or receiver.
What About the Quarterbacks?
The position I failed to address in the above section was quarterback. The top scoring quarterback does better against the 12th QB on average than Graham does against the 12th TE. Quarterbacks are also relatively easy to predict. So why isn’t this article about how Peyton Manning is my top dog? Take a look at the table below:
This is where Graham takes the cake. On average, Graham outscores the next best tight end by a whopping 56.8 fantasy points (3.55 per week). This is over 30 points more than the top quarterback outscores the next best QB (and it seems as though Manning’s record breaker created an outlier year). Even if we combine the scoring difference for QB1 and QB2 (i.e. the scoring difference between QB1 and QB3) we will find that Graham is still better in terms of difference by 4.73 points. The takeaway is that while elite quarterbacks may perform similarly to Graham, there is usually more than one that can do so, making it less important to snag the top quarterback. Furthermore, there is a lot of value in knowing who Graham is vs. not knowing who will be the top quarterback, running back, etc. That is not to say that it is impossible for Graham to be bumped from the top spot (he finished second in 2011 and almost did again in 2012), just that we know what Graham specifically brings each week and he has not shown the same tendency to miss games as the aforementioned Gronkowski has (just one game missed in the past three seasons).
The Choice is Yours
It is easy to see that there is a fairly compelling argument for Jimmy Graham as fantasy’s top selection in 2014 drafts. By being willing to go against the fantasy grain, you will be sure to not miss out on this elite player who you can grab anywhere in the top five (or later) of drafts this year. Silva’s description of Graham puts it perfectly: “He puts fantasy football teams on his back.” Let Graham do that for you this season.