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Risk, Reward, And Your Fantasy Draft

Like any good fantasy soldier, I spend the dog days of August poring over preview magazines, scouring the internet for training camp morsels, scrutinizing last year's statistics, combing rosters for sleeper candidates, and ultimately assembling my own crib notes for the multitude of fantasy drafts that await as the summer draws to a close and football season approaches. I usually follow that up with a healthy pat on the back, a beverage of my choice, and entirely too much self-congratulation for a job well done and a battle plan well composed. It's easy, after all, to feel like a genius in August. Rare indeed is the fantasy gamer who isn't sanguine about his chances for league domination before the drafts even commence.

This bloated sense of self-confidence usually persists all the way up to the precise point in time when the draft kicks off and it's my turn to select and my league mates are clamoring for a pick and the countless hours of (over-)analysis and reams of supporting paperwork supply precisely no help as I proceed to take…whoever the hell I feel like taking, damn it! Stupid cheat sheets. I'm not picking Jamal Lewis over Randy Moss! I don't care if I need a franchise back in the first round! I don't care if I'm gonna get stuck with Charlie Garner or Troy Hambrick! Stop laughing, you guys!

Needless to say, the rest of my draft and all successive drafts invariably follow this same, sorry script. I ignore my own painstaking calculations and end up with a bunch of guys who, though not the most highly rated players on the board at the time they're selected, rate highly in one important and infinitely more compelling, though hard to quantify, category: potential. Sweet, sweet potential…the crack cocaine of fantasy football. Gimme the guys who could be phenomenal. Gimme the guys who could set the fantasy world on its ear. Gimme the guys who could make my league mates look like complete idiots (and me like a complete genius) inside of three months. There's really no amount of statistical evidence or prevailing expert opinion that will ever convince me Jamal Lewis should be taken ahead of Randy Moss or that Amani Toomer should be taken ahead of Chad Johnson or…well, you get the idea. I don't care what my meticulously prepared cheat sheets tell me to do.

You hafta understand. I've never been one to follow orders, even when they're self-imposed. I much prefer the path of most resistance and a potential jackpot to the path of least resistance and a solid upper-division finish. Any schmuck can draft safe and, barring injuries and bonehead trades, finish in the top half of a league. It takes a special kind of person, though-or so I've convinced myself-to risk it all on a bunch of underachievers/never-achievers with heaps of potential and finish in the money. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

I know I'm not alone here. The world of fantasy ballers can probably be broken down into precisely these two aforementioned groups: those who play it by the book and those who spend all summer writing the book only to toss it aside when it might actually come in handy. Of course, that's exactly what makes yearly re-draft leagues so exciting. Certain league mates of mine are so predictable that I practically know who they're drafting before they do. (I even won a $10 bet last year by correctly predicting a buddy's late-round selection of Troy Murphy in our group's annual basketball draft. Troy Murphy, for chrissakes!) Others are so unpredictable that I have no choice but to fear them. These are the guys and gals I'm constantly leery of, the potential poachers of my diamonds in the rough. These are also the folks, incidentally, who make drafting such a thrilling experience.

Which camp a fantasy gamer falls into (by the book or by the seat of one's pants) depends almost exclusively on how much risk tolerance (or aversion) he or she possesses. In the financial world, market gurus talk unceasingly about risk, reward, and the intimate relationship between the two. The riskier the investment, they tell us, the greater the potential reward. This is not groundbreaking stuff. The same principle, however, applies even in the virtual world of fantasy football, where rules often seem to take a backseat to good, old-fashioned luck. To wit, the more potential (i.e., risk) one is willing to accumulate, the greater the possible payoff (read: championship trophy, baby!) This is not to say that someone can't win a league championship by assembling an all-vanilla squad of Curtis Martin, Rod Smith, Kerry Collins, and company. People do get rich hoarding blue-chip stocks and T-bills, after all. I would argue, though, that the likelihood of a championship increases with the assumption of more risk. You wanna win big? You gotta bet big. Of course, if the likelihood of a championship increases, so too does the likelihood of a last-place finish. If you can't stomach the thought of wearing your league's dunce cap for a whole off-season, well…you now know which camp you're in, I guess.

So what players, you're asking yourself, do I consider high-risk/high-reward? I should probably preface the following list by saying I'm not completely stupid. I may be unconventional and easily charmed by prospects but I'm not going to stake my reputation on Trung Canidate suddenly becoming a franchise back this season. Nor am I betting on Thomas Jones to rediscover (discover?) his game in Tampa. I'm talking about actual prospects here with actual potential. Here goes:

William Green
He may play for Cleveland but guys who can run like the wind don't grow on trees.

Troy Hambrick
Guys who can run and weigh 230 really don't grow on trees…but make sure he's the starter first.

T.J. Duckett
See above.

Correll Buckhalter
Thank you, Duce!

Onterrio Smith
Rookies generally scare me but this guy can flat-out tote the rock. Plus, he's a fellow Duck.

Maurice Morris
If your league counts return yards, you want him. Great insurance for Shaun Alexander, as well. OK, he's a Duck, too.

Randy Moss
Self-explanatory. The so-called experts are picking him as late as the end of Round 2. They'll regret that.

Koren Robinson
May not be the #1 receiver on his own team but would you draft Darrell Jackson ahead of him?

Chad Johnson
All you need to know: he's on both my dynasty teams and I cried when somebody snaked him in our re-draft league.

Jerry Porter
The other Jerry can't play forever…can he?

Javon Walker
Will play John Jefferson to Donald Driver's James Lofton in Green Bay's eighties revival…and Brett Favre is no Lynn Dickey.

Michael Lewis
See Morris, Maurice. This guy tallied nearly 2,500 yards last year on returns alone. Marvin Harrison notched 1,700. Do the math.

Alge Crumpler
Vick's favorite target last year. Hurry back, Mike!

Aaron Brooks
A poor man's Michael Vick and considerably cheaper.

Trent Green
Still improving and if Priest goes down, watch out.

Matt Hasselbeck
Another Favre backup who should light up the NFC West.

Patrick Ramsey
I'm not sold on The Ballcoach but I like his signal-caller.

Admittedly, not all of these potential stars are worthy of an early-round selection. Only a fool would draft Duckett over one of the top five backs or Crumpler over Tony Gonzalez and Jeremy Shockey. Nevertheless, many of them can be had for a relatively cheap price, namely, a mid to late round selection. One of the more interesting corollaries of the risk/reward principle as it applies to fantasy football is that, in most cases, the riskier players usually offer better draft value. This is to say that they tend to be drafted right about where they should be drafted and sometimes even later, owing in large part to the fact that by-the-book owners won't touch them. That is precisely what makes these guys so alluring, however. An owner who takes a chance on a potential star isn't asked to assume the additional risk of a too-early selection on top of the existing risk (the player's spotty results so far).

Past performance, Wall St. constantly reminds us, is no guarantee of future results. This certainly applies in the world of fantasy football, as well…and that's a good thing. If you take nothing else away from this article, consider the following two items: Ricky Williams was once considered a disappointment in New Orleans. Priest Holmes once lost his job to Jamal Lewis. Think most of your league mates wouldn't want those two guys now? Most won't get the opportunity. Expertly predicting a potential star's breakout season can be challenging but it can also be a helluva lot of fun. Happy drafting, folks!