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Lessons Learned From 2013

Back in August I blogged my auction strategy in the 16-team Steak League. To recap, the strategy was: spend big on top-shelf WRs, go after rookie RBs as upside plays, get lucky with whatever scraps I can pick up elsewhere.

Well, it's now four months later and I head into Week 17 as the highest-scoring team in the league and the playoff champion, so I must be a genius, right? Hmm. Let's see how I actually pulled this off.

1) Spend big on top-shelf WRs
This part of the strategy went just about as planned. The intention in buying Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas for a combined $78 of a $200 budget wasn't to necessarily get the absolute best WRs, but to get stable, elite WR production that would drive my roster forward. Thomas is currently third in WR scoring for the year and fourth in per-week production, while Bryant is ninth and 10th respectively. Other receivers in the same price range who would have fit this bill too would have been Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green and Brandon Marshall.

2) Go after rookie RBs as upside plays
I could not have asked for a better result here. I bought Eddie Lacy and Le'Veon Bell for a combined $39 (we held the auction just after news of Bell's Lisfranc injury hit, which suppressed his salary) and they both performed beautifully when they were healthy. Lacy is eighth in RB scoring and ninth in per-week production, while Bell is 17th and 11th. That's not elite by any means, but since I was getting excellent numbers from my top two WRs I didn't need my RBs to be great, simply good. And they were.

3) Get lucky with the scraps
This should probably be expanded to simply "get lucky", which is always a crucial part of any winning fantasy team. My roster avoided serious injuries (note that Julio Jones was my third choice at WR after Bryant and Thomas). If I'd been outbid on Lacy at RB, my backup plan was Daryl Richardson. But the players I did pick up also panned out more than the odds would dictate. Jordan Cameron was huge for me early at TE, and a $1 Paul Posluszny has been the highest-scoring LB in the league on a per-week basis. Justin Blackmon was looking like a Josh Gordon-esque home run pick as my third WR between his suspensions, but I also picked up Harry Douglas and Rod Streater as midseason free agents so I didn't sweat it when Blackmon screwed up again. And Zac Stacy would have looked like a brilliant end-game pick (and trade bait to land a real QB and turn the team into a true juggernaut) if I'd actually held onto him long enough to see him emerge.

So what lessons should I take forward from this season?

For one thing, rookie RBs were gold this year based on their relative value. Forget the conventional wisdom that says it was a down year for running backs. Montee Ball was a bust, but in addition to Lacy and Bell (the 18th and 42nd most-expensive backs in the Steak League) Giovani Bernard provided a solid profit too (27th in price, 16th in production). Depending on where they land in the draft and whether they have clear paths to playing time, rookies like Lache Seastrunk (I mean, how can you not want that name on your roster anyway? Imagine the trash talk if he has a big game. "You got Seastrunked, bro!"), Melvin Gordon and Tre Mason could provide similar returns next year. And don't forget about Marcus Lattimore...

On the WR front, it pays to pay top dollar. Of the nine receivers (10 if you count Jimmy Graham) who went for $30 or more in the Steak League, only the injured Julio Jones and the aging Larry Fitzgerald failed to return value at least commensurate with their price tag. Compare that to RB, where half of the 14 backs with $40 or higher salaries failed to crack the top 20 in production (and Maurice Jones-Drew barely made the cut in 20th). If you're looking for upside on the outside though, second-year WRs are where it's at. Josh Gordon, Alshon Jeffery and Michael Floyd all returned big profits this year, and Blackmon was on pace to join them if not for his lack of off-field discipline. Keenan Allen is already out of the bag as a stud (consider him the T.Y. Hilton of the 2013 draft class), but other soph receivers to target for cheap (or cheap-ish, in leagues with sharper owners) next year include DeAndre Hopkins, Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Hunter, Marquise Goodwin and Kenny Stills.

In the modern, pass-happy game, spending big on RBs (either in terms of early round picks or auction dollars) is increasingly looking like an obsolete approach. Sure, as Scott Pianowski (or is it Michael Salfino?) likes to say, any strategy will work with the right players. But I'll take an 80% chance of hitting on the right player over a 50% chance any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

Of course, as more owners become aware of the trends WR prices will rise and the dynamic will change. But I'd guess that, at least for 2014, you'll still able to find more secure value at wide receiver than at running back.

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