Philadelphia Magazine staff writer, author, and fantasy owner Steve Volk discusses how he balances the opinions of football analysts with those of his own.
By Steve Volk
As an “amateur” fantasy football player, the kind who subscribes to Dynasty football sites but doesn’t write for them, the cycle of rookie drafts and in-season roster management constantly forces me to ask the same question:
What kind of owner do I want to be?
As a fan, I recognize that there are various models for ownership but in broadly speaking, the choice is this: Jerry Jones? Or Dan Rooney?
The Jerrah model involves running off coaches, overruling personnel guys and indulging all of my own personal whims in a never ending sifting of strategies and directions.
The Rooney model involves listening carefully to the player personnel guys, establishing a protocol and following it to consistent success. The Rooney model involves understanding when someone else simply knows better, and honoring that. Of course, I’ve decided to follow the Rooney Model. And as a result, I listen frequently to an array of Dynasty podcasts, including the Audible, On the Couch, the IDP Roundtable, DLF’s podcast, the new Dynasty One and Dynasty Nerds, among others. Through these shows I gain exposure to a wide variety of opinions, enjoying guest appearances by stalwarts like Matt Harmon, Evan Silva and Bob Harris. In sum, as an owner, I have a big personnel department, and I listen to them carefully. But in the end I have to determine which voice, in any particular decision, I find most convincing. I also had to determine whose voice I would take on as a kind of baseline—the opinion against which I’d compare all others. In other words, I also had to “hire” a chief of personnel.
For me, that’s been Matt Waldman. I’m a journalist by trade, writing longform feature stories for publications like The Washington Post Sunday magazine, Discover and Philadelphia, but a few years ago I took on a kind of side gig, copy editing Waldman’s behemoth Rookie Scouting Portfolio. In reading Waldman’s work as it’s under development, I’ve come to appreciate his perspective most of all—his ability to balance metrics against hours of film study, and I particularly appreciate how he has been able to point out the flaws in the NFL’s process of acquiring and developing talent.
In sum, I think Waldman not only understands which players have the requisite skills to compete, but whether or not any particular NFL team is likely to give them a meaningful opportunity to reach their ceilings.
I suspect that all fantasy football players, whether in redraft or dynasty, have a similar approach—a web site or sites, an expert or experts, upon whom they rely. But of course the fun comes in making the final call, which sometimes puts me in direct conflict with my chief of personnel.
In fact, though Waldman recommended in this year’s RSP that I go for tight end Austin Hooper over Hunter Henry, I did the opposite—and took Henry ahead of where Waldman recommended (at 16, and 20 overall, before Austin Hooper) in two separate dynasty drafts at that.
Of course, as a dynasty owner I should do what I want—therein lies the fun—but I also have to recognize: Lots of people know way more about this than I do. In fact, that’s why I spend money and time subscribing to fantasy sites, listening to podcasts and copy editing the RSP. As a result, I veer from the wisdom of these experts with some frequency but consider it carefully before I do. As I see it, this fits with the Rooney model—and perfectly.
Famously, Bill Cowher wanted to select a guard with the 11th overall pick in the 2004 draft. Rooney stepped in and insisted on another selection—Ben Roethlisberger. Thank you, Mr. Rooney.
A few years ago, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was run out of town, forced into “retirement” by the Rooney family. Some may call this a mistake, but I think Rooney’s interference was based on a fairly narrow set of factors, all involving the quarterback he insisted on drafting nine years earlier. Arians was seen as too friendly with Roethlisberger, recommending he acquire a vacation property in Milledgville, GA.—er, thanks Bruce—and generally getting him killed with deep drops and slow developing, downfield passes behind a shaky offensive line. Three years later, Roethlisberger is getting sacked less than ever and the Steelers offense finished third last year (even deploying the fullback Arians swore he’d “never” have in his offense). To me, the record here is completely clear: Bruce Arians sure does know his stuff. And so does Mr. Rooney.
Finally, this past year, evidence has accumulated that Steelers ownership insisted the front office use its first round draft pick on a cornerback. Naysayers can quibble all they want. But I’d counter that the front office’s track record of waiting on corners till later rounds has produced such poor results that it was time for a push from the brass.
The pattern I see is that Rooney identifies his team’s blind spots, or the places where it has veered from the philosophy established in the organization long ago, and steps in when necessary. The influence of ownership is evident in big spots— and precisely where it needs to be: Being so dedicated to a physical running game as to pass up a potential franchise quarterback for a guard would not happen on Rooney’s watch. Coddling the quarterback in personal terms while being reckless about his on-field safety, scoffing at the idea of a fullback in a town raised on mashing the other guy in the face, this would not fly. Continuing to bypass corners with first round grades to grab lower-rated cover guys, in the modern NFL, evidently struck Rooney as a mistake he was willing to correct.
In two drafts, happening simultaneously, my second round pick came up and Hunter Henry was on the board. There were lots of guys Waldman considered better values than Henry, including another tight end in Austin Hooper, and wide receiver Mike Thomas, with the Rams, Keith Marshall in D.C. and even an NFL first round wide receiver selection in Will Fuller. I also knew the rest of my personnel department tended to agree with Waldman, with many of them even going so far as to suggest never taking rookie tight ends at all.
The data actually demonstrates that rookie tight ends rarely produce. The dynasty shark’s thinking is to let someone else spend their draft capital on a rookie tight end and clog their roster as he develops. Acquire them a year or two later, in a trade done on the cheap. But in my role as owner I saw where all of this advice was off the mark for the type of teams I’m running, and the team I want to build.
On one squad, a struggling orphan I just took over, I had a stacked squadron of wideouts—including Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans, among others—with almost nothing else in the cupboard. I had only one tight end on the roster, Charles Clay.
In the other, I have a strong starting lineup throughout, with two tight ends I like already, in Julius Thomas and Delanie Walker. So why Henry?
First, I reject the advice not to draft a rookie tight end outright. The idea of acquiring them on the cheap, later, sounds great in theory, but I’ve found that in practice most owners who did invest significant draft capital in a tight end would prefer to hang on to their guy and see what happens. They’re trying, in essence, to at least break even on their investment. And as for Waldman, I could hear his calm baritone, breaking down the reasons to pass on Henry. He likes Hooper a lot more, but when I watched Hooper I saw something that put me off: Chiefly, there wasn’t a lot to see. Hooper produced middling numbers at Stanford, catching 34 and 40 balls from Kevin Hogan, the same quarterback who helped Zach Ertz to finish his college career with a sizzling 69 receptions. Waldman is no dummy. Hooper looks remarkably smooth running routes and catching the ball. He strikes me as the definition of a high upside play, but the lack of college production yielded doubt in me I could not overcome. And his advice on where Henry would represent a “value” in the larger scheme of things did not convince me that he wasn’t a value right where I selected him.
A frequently cited comp for Henry is Jason Witten. This seems to be chiefly about expected production, as blocking isn’t something that factors into fantasy stats. And so I have to ask the entire dynasty community to pause and reflect here: You wouldn’t want a Jason Witten-type tight end on your fantasy team, from the beginning of his career? In fact, most analysts, including Waldman, seem to agree that Henry is a high floor option, who is (reasonably) likely to develop into a low-end TE 1. The experts also seem to agree that Henry landed in kind of an ideal situation, where he can serve an apprenticeship behind Antonio Gates, one of the most technically proficient tight ends in the history of the game.
He looked like a potential 70-catch, 750 yard and six touchdown guy, before he ever shook hands with Gates, and I’m supposed to let Henry drop past his ADP before I take him? Meanwhile, Waldman finds Mike Thomas, a late round draft pick on a run heavy squad, a better draft value?
In both leagues, I took Henry because I have the luxury of time, to allow him to develop, and because I disagree with the experts about the relative value of a low end TE1. I’ve taken over teams before where my best hope is to start someone line Larry Donnell and hope. A couple of years back, with Julius Thomas on the shelf, I had to rely on Donnell for weeks on end. I didn’t like it. And during that long time in the TE wilderness I found the standard advice about the tight end position—“just trade for one”—alarmingly weak, so much easier said than done.
After that experience, I realized that in practical terms a reasonably likely shot at a TE1 is worth a second round rookie pick. At 20th overall, I considered him something of a bargain.
Having Henry on the squad could allow me many years of stability and flexibility. If he hits, and does become a Jason Witten-like tight end, I will be able to relax a bit come draft season, letting the draft come to me rather than angling for a shot at the leading candidate at that position. I will not be forced to “trade for one” and pay premium prices. I will be able to take shots, on occasion, at high upside guys at tight end, in later rounds, knowing that if they fail I’ve still got good ‘ole Hunter Henry.
This kind of flexibility and peace of mind is worth a lot to me as an owner. I not only felt confident about overruling Waldman, I even called him up and told him I was likely to do it beforehand. And in the end I think I even found, for myself, a kind of “amateur’s advantage.”
Every field, every profession, has its blind spots. In fantasy football, I think the experts are so caught up in being experts and finding the next shiny new tech toy that a good old rocking horse like Hunter Henry gets dinged simply for being a classic. In fantasy terms, the hunt for “high upside” causes people to overlook the considerable value of a “high floor.”
To all of my fellow amateurs out there, I suggest adopting a Rooney style of fantasy ownership. Find the experts you like. Lean heavily on their advice. But make the call.
Steve Volk is a features writer at Philladelphia Magazine. His work has also appeared in Discover and Rolling Stone. He edits the Rookie Scouting Portfolio.