Ask Your Fantasy Football Phenom: Jon Moore of RotoViz, Part 1

"Yes, I just said something sort of nice about Jake Locker."

I didn’t interview Jon Moore because he’s the rare fantasy writer to pen an article with pro-Jake Locker propaganda. I can’t call the mad football scientists of RotoViz contrarians, because they go where the numbers lead them. Jon took his extensive college-football knowledge and his keen fashion sense to the logical destination.

I can’t ask the usual “how’d you get into fantasy football writing?” question, so I’ll ask it in the form of a RotoViz trope. When was your breakout year?

Breakout year: 2012
Breakout age: 25, which is terrible for a football prospect, but maybe is okay for a writer prospect?

I’ve been a college football junkie since the fall of ‘97 when Charles Woodson took over the Big Ten and brought the game to life for me. After that I got really into playing college football video games and betting on sports (thanks, Dad) until I realized both were a pretty big waste of time. There was a stretch of time where I wanted to be Jerry Maguire until an internship with a sports agent showed me how brutal that lifestyle is. Fast forward to the summer of 2012 when I read a book that suggested the importance of “living your passion, even if it’s only part time.” That prompted me to create a blog called The College Football Experiment or TheCFX, for short. I named it that because I had no idea if it would ever amount to anything, but it was just a fun experiment to see if my passion for writing and football could ever lead somewhere. So far so good.

What is this Phenom Index you speak of? The Phenom Index is a way to adjust performance based on a player’s age. [Zach note: Insert self-deprecating “I’m old, but at least I’m slow” joke.] Think back to playing youth sports. What was the sport you played? For me it was golf and in the tournaments I played in there were always age cutoffs, so I played against kids who were close to my age, i.e. 9-11 or 12-14, etc. Whenever I was the oldest in the age group, I won lots of tournaments, but when I was youngest I had less success because I was a late bloomer who couldn’t hit the ball as far.

Looking at college football, players range in age from 18 to 24. That’s a big span, especially considering the variance in physical maturity at these ages. That said, I realized about a year ago that 99% of people don’t seem to pay attention to age, unless it’s a Brandon Weeden-esque situation, which is bizarre considering the MLB & NBA care so much. Putting this idea into practice, if you had two players with similar size and production, but one was 21 and the other was 23, which would you pick? Probably the 21 year old. The Phenom Index is a simple way to roll production and age into one number so that you can compare players of different ages.

A common rebuttal to my “age matters” argument is when people say that the average shelf life of an NFL player is so short that a year or two doesn’t matter, but that’s not the point. I’m not trying to predict career longevity; I’m trying to distinguish between who is a remarkable talent and who is the playground bully who dominates because he got held back twice and is more physically developed than everyone else. If I can help it, I want the remarkable talent. Can older players be good prospects? Absolutely, but their performance threshold is just higher. I don’t believe in age cutoffs anymore. I believe in age-adjusted metrics. If you still want to learn more, check out the article.

If you see a film guy walking your way, do you cross the street to avoid him/her? Can there be a resolution in this Sharks vs. Jets battle? I think “film guys” and “stats guys” care about a lot of the same things, but talk about them in very different ways. For example, a film guy might say something like, “that receiver has a great ability to go up in traffic and come down with the ball,” which is a helpful skill to identify. The problem with that, in my opinion, is that those descriptions are more qualitative and harder to compare over time and from player to player. So, pretend I watch tape on 20 receivers and take notes as I watch, then I go back and find that I’ve written “makes a lot of jump-ball catches” for eight of them; how do I know which of them is strongest in that attribute?

What I try to do is assign numbers to these descriptive attributes in ways that allow me to reach conclusions faster and have a consistent process for evaluation across time. As a demonstration, I could add a player’s height to his vertical to conclude that “Allen Robinson’s peak catch point of 113” (74” height + 39” vertical) is better than Kelvin Benjamin’s of 109” (77” height + 32” vertical), so therefore Robinson probably has a slightly better ability to win in traffic.” And not only can I compare two guys from the 2014 Draft, but I can also go back and compare them to Calvin Johnson or Dez Bryant or whoever. That’s not to say a numerical approach is flawless, or that there isn’t a lot of improvement still to be made, but it at least empowers me to be consistent over time. Oh, and that calculation took me five seconds instead of watching film for an hour.

Can there be a resolution? I say yes. For starters, I think almost anyone who identifies himself as a numbers guy probably watches film too, just to verify that his eyes and numbers agree, so that’s a good start. I also think that more film watchers are establishing numerically grounded rubrics (i.e. Matt Waldman and Greg Peshek) that allow for a formulaic approach to tape grinding. In the end, we’re all working toward the same goal of identifying talented players and in that pursuit it’s important to pay attention to all available information, which includes both film and stats.

Can you win in fantasy football without math? You guys use a lot of math. It’s hard for me to answer that, since I’ve always relied on numbers. At the end of the day, fantasy football is a game that is all about chasing stats, so I think anyone who plays fantasy football probably cares about numbers to some degree.

Is there tenure at RotoAcademy? Tell me about this cutting-edge site and if Bales offers better minion chow than DuPont. RotoAcademy is a monthly newsletter that challenges readers to see the big picture. In the world we live in, everyone gets so caught up in the news cycle that it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. Here’s an example. A couple months ago we went through the annual free-agency frenzy. People are excited about guys in new places and see the upside of a change of scenery. For RotoAcademy, I did a study that asked “do guys get better or worse after changing teams?” and wrote about my theory and the pursuit of knowledge in this space. What I found was a shocking picture of the majority of players, regardless of position, seeing a decline in production. Wouldn’t that be a great thing to know to help you navigate a draft or manage a dynasty roster? For about $3 a month you can become a dramatically better fantasy football thinker. If you don’t like it, you get your money back. Yes, there’s a money-back guarantee on fantasy football content. You can get a free issue and learn more at the site.

As far as Bales or DuPont offering better chow, I’ll just say that they’re both brilliant and hard-working and I’m thankful that they let me help carry out their amazing ideas.

Kelvin Benjamin is like one of those CGI curvy roads they show on car commercials. Will he lead fantasy owners to a fiery death, or is he back into value territory? Benjamin is the rare rookie that I actually like short term but am less crazy about long term. If you look at the history of first-round receivers who scored 15 touchdowns in their final college season, their success rate is pretty good in year one. [Zach note: The bad news is I scored 14 TDs in my final college season. Oh, wait, that was the “NCAA 2004″ video game.] Considering that the NFC South is a high-scoring division and that they play the NFC North this year, I think the Panthers will be challenged to move the ball and Benjamin will play a big role in that.

Allen Robinson: Dreamy or super dreamy? Film guys seem to be less enamored in him than the stats guys. What makes him your WR1 of the 2014 class? Super dreamy. Robinson has pretty much everything you look for from a metrics perspective. He’s young with two years of dominant production (translation: he has one of the best Phenom Index scores of the last decade). He has prototypical size and leaping ability. His forty time was of concern for some people, but for being about 6’2″ 220lbs, it’s okay to run a 4.6. He comes from a pro-style offense and lands in a great instant-impact situation in Jacksonville. I just see him as a guy that can be really good right away and has the raw tools to be a top 10 receiver in the league.

Is all of the fantasy love for wide receivers leading to running backs being the hipster beards of 2014 redraft leagues? I think the top Fantasy Football players and Hipsters probably have a lot in common (sorry, everyone). Hipsters tend to shun the mainstream consensus and zig when everyone else is zagging. Last year Shawn Siegele introduced the Zero RB strategy and went heavy on pass catchers. His result was that he won a $200,000 championship. [Zach note: That’s 250k (unless 50k was your cut).] I think the market has moved toward that approach based on early ADP. You can likely get away with Zero RB for 2014 but by 2015 there will probably be some new strategy that says load up on RBs because there is such positional scarcity. Bottom line is that to win in fantasy football you have to have a unique angle and be fearless in your deployment.

As a Titans fan, will Bishop Sankey give the Titans a player worth some fantasy and real-life love? Barring injury, I think Bishop Sankey will be the best running back from this draft. He’s got a brilliant track record of all-purpose production. He’s proven he can carry a rushing attack in college. He’s young. He’s got tremendous strength and agility. He seems to have the off-field stuff in order. Plus, the Titans have invested heavily in their offensive line, which should help his case. Without reservation he’s the first RB I’d take in a rookie draft.

This is part one. I will post part two tomorrow. Follow Jon on Twitter. Non-phenoms are welcome.

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