Shane Vereen, Mark Ingram, and Why the Flex Position Wins Championships


The entire fantasy world understands that RB1, RB2, WR1, and WR2 are very important positions. They’re so important the trendy approach to the 2013 season revolves around pundits explaining why QB1 and TE1 are not important.

In the maelstrom that surrounds the Late Round QB meme or the Tight End Streaming strategy, you still rarely hear the strongest argument in a favor of those strategies. And it is this . . .

You Have to Dominate the Flex

When reading about the Flex, you usually hear it referred to in the context of, “Oh, he’s a low end RB2 or Flex.” Referring to guys who aren’t any good as Flex players is a kind of shorthand. Few writers are suggesting you intentionally start a weak player in your Flex position. It can have the effect, however, of de-emphasizing a starting spot that counts as much as any other lineup position. It can contaminate your strategy.

In fact, the Flex position is arguably the most important position in fantasy because it’s one of the easiest positions to generate more value over average than your opponents. Whatever strategy fits your particular league format, that strategy should be based on putting an elite player in the Flex position.

One of the issues that Value-Based Drafting can create is an overemphasis on positional value at the expense of maximizing starting lineup value. I’ve also read a flurry of columns in the last several years which give a false idea of which position you should be using to fill your Flex position.

I think this is an area where the RotoViz Sim Scores can provide a truly groundbreaking innovation. They let us compare the two most important fantasy positions head-to-head and see what history tells us about how we should approach the Flex position.

The format most in use in the fantasy world is probably 2-RB, 2-WR, 1-Flex with ppr scoring. (There are plenty of other formats similar enough for the overall logic of this post to apply.) For the sake of this exercise, we’ll look at Rounds 5-9 and see what position we might want to use to fill our Flex.

To make these comparisons, I’m giving you the full set of projections that I developed in creating the Comprehensive RB Worshop and the upcoming Comprehensive WR Workshop. The PPR numbers come from the RB Cheat Sheet article, where Ray Rice looked undervalued, and the WR Cheat Sheet column, where Brandon Marshall was the upset victor.  The Sim Lab numbers are drawn from the RB Sim Lab Rankings – be wary of sleeping on Trent Richardson – and the WR Sim Lab Rankings that just came out yesterday.

Round 5: Pierre Garcon versus Ryan Mathews

Pos Rk Name Sim Scores PPR Sim Lab Overall ADP
22 Pierre Garcon 13.2 13.0 11.9 12.4 54
21 Ryan Mathews 11.3 10.8 10.7 10.8 58

Ryan Mathews’ strong preseason has caused his ADP to rise from a low in mid-round 6 back into the fifth round. He’s still a player to avoid, and you can see the reason why. He makes a poor flex play when compared with Pierre Garcon.

Round 6: Stevie Johnson versus Shane Vereen

Pos Rk Name Sim Scores PPR Sim Lab Overall ADP
14 Steve Johnson 13.4 13.0 13 13.1 78
30 Shane Vereen 5.7 7.4 10.7 9.0 72

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Johnson crushes Vereen in the two systems using last year’s numbers, but even when I create hypothetical versions of these players, Johnson comes out on top easily. In those hypotheticals, I tried to create a version of Vereen who was similar to Darren Sproles. I also tried to penalize Johnson for the disastrous quarterback play Buffalo is likely to get. It didn’t matter. The Sim Scores liked Johnson by more than two points per game.

Do I think that overestimates the difference? Yes. Do I think there are situations where you should draft Vereen with Johnson still on the board? Definitely. But this still helps to illustrate the historical precedent at play. Wide receivers in this area of the draft make much better flex players. It’s for this reason that Stevie Johnson is No. 2 on my 10 Most Undervalued Players list and one of 19 Receivers to Target for a Title. It’s also the reason I’ve labeled Shane Vereen a fantasy zombie.

Round 7: Cecil Shorts versus Ahmad Bradshaw

Pos Rk Name Sim Scores PPR Sim Lab Overall ADP
30 Cecil Shorts 11.3 13.6 11.5 11.9 81
19 Ahmad Bradshaw 12.5 12.5 10.6 11.4 75

This one is actually pretty close, in part because the Sim Scores are punishing Shorts for the first month of the season when he didn’t play much. If you use the Custom Cheat Sheet, both players look substantially undervalued. In fact, Shorts rises all the way to No. 14 at his position. That’s the main reason I’ve been calling him the most undervalued player in the league. Bradshaw jumped to No. 13 at RB when I ranked the Top 45 runners using that methodology. The receiver is still the more valuable player, but the savvy move might be to find a way to select both players.

Round 8: Kenny Britt versus Mark Ingram

Pos Rk Name Sim Scores PPR Sim Lab Overall ADP
50 Kenny Britt 9.1 8.6 11 10.1 94
25 Mark Ingram 9.3 7.5 10.9 9.9 95

This qualifies as a dead heat. By the eighth round, you’ve probably taken at least one player who will start the season in your flex position and so you might be able to build your RB depth here. Any runners left at this point who sport even reasonable projections become premium targets. Both of these players are mentioned in my most popular RotoViz post, How to Lose a Fantasy League in 10 Picks, and these projections help to confirm the sell on Britt and the buy on Ingram.

Round 9: Chris Givens versus Andre Brown

Pos Rk Name Sim Scores PPR Sim Lab Overall ADP
46 Chris Givens 7 10.4 11.6 10.4 107
28 Andre Brown 4.4 12.8 9.6 9.2 99

This is a tricky one. Neither player saw enough snaps in 2012 to be highly valued by the regular Sim Scores. In creating the custom projections, Brown skyrockets. If he were to see the type of workload he had when he started a handful of games for the Giants last year, then he would be hugely undervalued. If you use the hypothetical players I created in the Sim Labs, then Givens holds a pretty solid advantage. Who you choose at this point will probably depend on your roster needs, but it again illustrates how much easier it is for wide receivers to score points in PPR.

Final Conclusions

Most fantasy players prefer to stock their rosters with running backs, and many sophisticated writers will recommend RBs for your flex position in all but the most WR-heavy formats. I hope this exercise helped convinced you of the necessity of considering the Flex position almost as an extension of your WR corps.

Like most things in life there are several ways the information here can be interpreted. It once again illustrates the strength of wide receivers in the middle rounds, which could act as yet another buttress for your faith in the RB-RB-RB approach to start. Or you may see this as evidence that simply starting RB-RB is enough. After all, you may want to use a pick in the first eight rounds at both QB and TE, which forces you to save plenty of other picks for WRs to nail down the Flex.

It might even convince you that some formats lend themselves to a wild strategy I like to call Zero Running Back. More on that in the very near future.

Shawn Siegele is the creator of the contrarian sports website Money in the Banana Stand and Lead Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy.

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By Shawn Siegele | @ff_contrarian | Archive

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