It's never over.
Ask Jamal Thalji, Tampa Bay Times assistant metro editor. He’s the reigning, defending, undisputed champ of the newsroom’s fantasy football league.
Last year, he had the first pick, but he didn’t want it. In a snake draft, the No. 1 pick is more curse than blessing. The team that has the first pick in the first round has the last pick in the second round, the first pick in the third round, the last pick in the fourth round and so on. It’s a long time between picks.
The consensus top pick in fantasy drafts last year was Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell. Thalji passed on him and took Rams running back Todd Gurley instead.
“There was no way I was taking Bell while he was holding out,” he said.
Smart move. Bell never played a snap. Gurley gained 1,831 yards and scored 21 touchdowns, most in the NFL. He led all players with 25.7 fantasy points per game.
Even with Gurley on his roster, Thalji worried about his team's lack of depth.
“I thought my running backs were terrible after Gurley,” he said. “I wanted to get solid starters not platoon players in the draft, and I failed. I took Alex Collins too high, and he didn't play again after Week 11.”
Thalji adjusted as the season went on and finished with a 9-5 record, which was good enough to secure one of the league's four playoff spots.
“What saved me is getting Phillip Lindsay off the waiver wire as he became Denver's No. 1,” he said. “I also gambled on Sony Michel, who got a lot of carries for the Patriots.”
Down the stretch, Gurley’s production started tailing off. Eleven carries for 28 yards. Twelve carries for 48 yards. Then came the news no fantasy manager wants to hear: knee injury.
Thalji felt his dreams of a championship begin to slip away. He had a choice: continue feeling sorry for himself or scour the waiver wire.
He did both. As he held back sobs of despair, he added C.J. Anderson, Gurley's backup.
Thalji’s persistence paid off. In Week 16 — fantasy football championship week — Anderson rushed for 167 yards (a yard shy of his career high) and a touchdown in the Rams’ 31-9 victory over the Cardinals. He accumulated 23 fantasy points. A Christmas miracle?
No, our humble champion said. “It's all just luck.”
Or is it?
As Branch Rickey, the baseball executive who signed Jackie Robinson, once said: “Luck is the residue of design.”
So take heart, fantasy footballers. If you lose a star player, to injury or to holdout, it's never over.
This year, our newsroom experts once again had to navigate uncertainty at the top of the draft. Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott and Chargers running back Melvin Gordon are looking for new contracts and have yet to report to their teams. Raiders receiver Antonio Brown forced his way out of Pittsburgh but has been a problem, from head to toe, in Oakland. Before we get to how our draft shook out, a few notes about our league:
• Roster structure: one quarterback, two running backs, three receivers, one tight end, one flex spot (a running back, receiver or tight end), one defense/special teams unit, one kicker and six bench spots. Teams were allowed to skip drafting a defense or kicker.
• Scoring: standard ESPN point-per-reception scoring.
• Participants and draft order: 1. Aaron Sharockman, PolitiFact executive director; 2. Bill Varian, assistant metro editor; 3. Steve Contorno, political editor; 4. Caitlin Johnston, transportation reporter; 5. Thomas Bassinger, sports data reporter; 6. Tim Nickens, editor of editorials; 7. Carolyn Fox, deputy editor/digital and partnerships; 8. Jamal Thalji, league champion and assistant metro editor; 9. Chris Tisch, senior digital editor/audience engagement; 10. Mike Sherman, deputy editor/sports.
Sharockman: I tried to find a reason to take anyone other than Saquon Barkley with the first pick, but nothing else really made sense. I’m worried about my wide receiver production. Beyond Tyreek Hill, I have what amounts to a bunch of lottery tickets: a hurt A.J. Green, a suspended Golden Tate and top wide receivers on some questionable offenses in Jacksonville, Nashville, Buffalo and Baltimore. My team looks a lot better if they perform. We also don’t know what Damien Williams will do in Kansas City. If he’s a featured back, he’s a steal in Round 4. But Andy Reid has a history of rotating his backs, and the more we see of Carlos Hyde, the more trouble I’m in.
Varian: I don’t love my team or hate it. I also don’t love safe picks. I feel like I could have made safer first and second picks, but I also feel like Alvin Kamara has the potential to be the best all-around player in the league. He just finds his way into the end zone. As I said on draft day, I just like watching him play. His name should be Ballage. JuJu Smith-Schuster is one of the players I hoped to land in the draft, even though his numbers could drop slightly without Antonio Brown commanding double teams. He should get 100-plus catches to go with Adam Thielen’s, which you want in a PPR league. Both will find the end zone a lot. From there, I wish I had a deeper bench. I also wanted a better tight end as that was a liability last year.
Contorno: Varian essentially made my first pick for me. I was always going to end up with whoever he didn’t take between Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey. When Travis Kelce fell to me late in the second, I had to take him. But starting running back-tight end in a three-receiver PPR league meant going hard at pass catchers with my next four picks. I think the group I ended up with is very strong. Feeling good about my top six, I essentially took home run swings with the rest of the draft — a lot of rookies with great pedigrees in prolific offenses and reasonable paths to elite fantasy seasons. Oh, and if Zeke remains poolside in Cabo, Tony Pollard will win me my first eight games.
Johnston: I substantially deviated from my usual draft strategy this year, picking tight end, quarterback, defense and even kicker much earlier than I ever have. Chalk it up to a combination of nerves from my first live draft and first time with a three-receiver format. I was planning on waiting a long time to pick up Chris Herndon, but when I saw George Kittle was still on the board after Contorno kicked off the first-tier tight-end scurry in the second round, I immediately started salivating. I’d take Kittle 100 times before I picked Zach Ertz. I tend to believe there’s not much difference after the first couple of quarterbacks, and I knew I could get Jameis Winston or Dak Prescott in the final rounds. But Aaron Rodgers in Round 8 was attractive enough to set strategy aside. Similarly, the idea of having a top-tier defense and the No. 1 kicker altered my typical waiver-rotation approach. I feel good about my receiver-running back core. I buy into the hype that the Cardinals offense will be a fun one to watch this year and that we’ll see a resurgence of 2016-level David Johnson. I wrestled a good bit over Kenny Golladay versus Robert Woods but ultimately made the riskier pick in favor of a higher ceiling. A few of my midround targets (Tyler Lockett and Miles Sanders) were snatched a pick before me, but I’m happy to see a handful of my faves for the 2019 season on my roster: Chris Carson, Allen Robinson and Tevin Coleman.
Bassinger: I figured Ezekiel Elliott’s holdout would scare my fellow drafters, so I was prepared to take him if he fell to me at No. 5. I’m not at all worried about him missing the entire season, like Le’Veon Bell did last season. The Cowboys are ready to win now, and their offense, which calls runs more often than most other teams, needs Elliott. I’m betting on both sides reaching an agreement before the season or soon after it starts. I also felt like Antonio Brown was a risk worth taking late in the fourth round. I don’t like that he’s downgraded from Ben Roethlisberger to Derek Carr at quarterback, but it’s not like I’m counting on him to be my top receiver. He was the 16th receiver to come off the board. It’s hard to imagine things getting any crazier in Oakland, but I drafted some insurance just in case. DeAndre Hopkins (I got him late in the second round!) should have another prolific season, and Chris Godwin, Tyler Boyd and Courtland Sutton should take on larger roles. I’m thin at running back, but I’ll feel better if Kalen Ballage overtakes Kenyan Drake, who has been dealing with a foot injury.
Nickens: Some things did not go quite right. Ezekiel Elliott, who was on my team last year, went the pick before me in the first round. I went with the next highest-rated running back, Melvin Gordon, and hope he ends his holdout before Halloween. At least he will be fresh. On the plus side, I took Patrick Mahomes in the fourth round as the first quarterback chosen. Did I want to root for him or for the 20th best running back playing for a team I would never watch?
Fox: I got a few sneers for my first three picks (or maybe just from Contorno), but I do feel good about going with Michael Thomas in the first round. He’ll be balancing a majority of the workload for the Saints offense with Alvin Kamara. Plus, the Saints have an ax to grind from last year’s no-call in the NFC championship game as well as a sense of urgency to make this year THE year. I’m concerned about my top running backs, with both Le’Veon Bell and Leonard Fournette being question marks after last season, but feel good about my backups. Outside of receivers and running backs, I was pleased to draft some guys at the top, or close to the top, at their positions: Deshaun Watson at quarterback, Wil Lutz at kicker, Evan Engram at tight end and the Bears defense.
Thalji: I focused on getting running backs who should get the most touches this year. I love my backfield, but I think that tunnel vision backfired because I let DeAndre Hopkins slide. My only gamble is Lamar Jackson, but it’s not that much of a risk. And I still got Dak Prescott. I’m glad I didn’t get the “star” players in this year’s draft. Last year’s top three in Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley and Alvin Kamara all had proven track records. This year, when I saw everyone picking Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey as the elite backs, I got worried. The Giants offense is terrible, and can McCaffrey take the pounding? I also knew that picking late meant I’d miss out on the elite players, so maybe I just accepted that I wasn’t going to get the elite backs anyway.
Tisch: For a guy who drafted receivers with his first two picks, I suddenly feel a little thin … at receiver. I think Davante Adams and Julio Jones will do as predicted. After that? Is Cooper Kupp back all the way? If not, I’m down to James Washington, which I think was a good high-ceiling pick but not a guarantee. After that, it’s even more long shots with Jake Kumerow and Demaryius Thomas. Add in tight end Delanie Walker (who Contorno joked may NEED a walker) and my pass catchers could be too thin to compete for a playoff spot. I like my stable of backs, especially if Devonta Freeman returns to form, Nick Chubb busts out and Aaron Jones can stay healthy in Matt LaFleur’s more run-heavy offense in Green Bay. If that happens and even one of Lamar Miller, Darrius Guice and LeSean McCoy are having good years, it may give me a trade chip to grab a receiver from a team in a situation opposite of mine. In the meantime, I’ll need to keep a close eye on free agents to see if I can snare a good receiver prospect after Week 1 or 2.
Sherman: Picking first or last raises the degree of difficulty to a level that exceeded my knowledge and investment. We got the last pick, so it’s a good thing I had my 13-year-old son as a partner. Picking two players at a time meant one for him, one for me. His picks (Baker Mayfield as this year’s Patrick Mahomes?) could bail us out, or just make watching games more interesting. We’ll be in the playoffs again if Jon Gruden’s running back, the University of Oklahoma’s 2016 backfield, and a star receiver who has played 16 games the last TWO SEASONS combined is a star again. Maybe we can trade a couple of the 12 running backs we drafted if some of that doesn’t work out.