The fantasy football magazines have arrived on newsstands, and they are a weird, colorful, motley bunch.
The printed fantasy guide is the sports publishing market's living fossil. You can find a bunch of them on a rack at your local convenience store between the latest issues of Harleys & Flamethrowers and Tattooed Privates, the magazines clinging to the shelf like mushrooms spouting on a precarious cliff side. The fantasy guide occupies the evolutionary niche between the old Street & Smith's season preview, CliffsNotes and 10,000 Totally Due Lottery Numbers. It's an ecosystem that is threatened on all sides. The fantasy mag looks, feels and smells like an NFL annual publication. The only problem is that NFL annual publications are dying, in part because fantasy mags helped kill them, and the same market forces are now squeezing the guides themselves.
Fantasy football guides are born dead. They arrive on shelves obsolete, having been hastily sent to press in mid-May. This was not a big deal 15 years ago, when they were the authoritative source for fantasy knowledge. Now, of course, there are dozens of online resources that offer every tidbit of news or fantasy information you could dream of for free or for a fair price point, updated daily/hourly/the moment the high ankle actually sprains. Anyone who considers fantasy football a hobby worth pursuing usually invests in one of these services. That leaves the printed fantasy guides to cater to the most casual fans of a casual pastime, the people who stop at Gas 'n' Belch on the way to the draft and grab a guide, plus old-fashioned types like me who want something printed to sit under my laptop. Under the circumstances, it is better to be shiny or display the name of a trusted media outlet than to be good.
Reviewing fantasy guides according to the exacting standards of someone with a 24-7-365 NFL lifestyle, therefore, would be silly. Think of this article as a survey instead. I purchased six fantasy guides and put them under a microscope to determine a) if they have anything interesting to say, and b) if they will be of any use in a fantasy draft next month. In both cases, I am thinking of the so-called casual fan. Of course none of these guides know about the Aaron Hernandez situation or even Tim Tebow's Patriots signing, and they are not written to provide in-depth information about the zone-blitz or the dawn of the Joe Banner era in Cleveland. But do they provide a cheat sheet that is usable? If you are thumbing through the guide on draft night trying to figure out who Gavin Escobar is, do you have a chance of finding a straight, useful answer?
Each guide is analyzed according to the following criteria.
Cheat Sheets: A cheat sheet should be easy to find and thorough enough to be useful for crossing off players during a long, complicated draft. A paltry list of 20 quarterbacks or 25 running backs just won't cut it. Bye weeks should be listed next to the players, and the print should be large enough that a 42-year-old can read the names and strike a line through one player without obliterating another.
Helpful Features: Since the guide is aimed at the casual non-expert, anything that quickly provides who-where-why information about a player is incredibly useful. That includes symbols like a "red cross" for Rob Gronkowski, easy-to-find depth charts so the drafter can determine Matt Forte's backups and so on.
Strangest Feature: Weird stuff that either doesn't help or demonstrates that the publishers were thinking about something other than fantasy football.
Read-Option Hand Wringing: Because read option offenses are new to the NFL and have a direct impact on fantasy football, most guides will address the strategy in one of its articles or features. A close look at the expert advice can help gauge the level of "football thought" the guide is operating at. It's not the conclusion itself that matters, mind you. Some of the smartest NFL minds are divided into Defenses will hospitalize Russell Wilson and Chip Kelly Will Soon Lead the United Nations into an Era of Peace camps right now. But do the guide's writers know which teams run the offense, how it was different from past offenses and some of the other facts I outlined two weeks ago? Or are they stuck in get off my lawn you scramblin' youngsters mode?
The Mendenhall Test: A litmus test to determine the level of football thought in the player comments. Rashard Mendenhall came back quickly from an ACL tear, started a few games, suffered an Achilles injury, came back again, got benched for fumbling, got into a feud with his coaches about the benching, was deactivated for a week and is now reunited with Bruce Arians, who was his offensive coordinator during his best years. In other words, he has had a busy last 18 months or so and he is exactly the kind of player casual fantasy drafters need quick information about. (Say, I remember Mendenhall from those big years he had with the Steelers. Why is he on the Cardinals now, and ranked so low? Perhaps this paragraph can provide a clue.) Again, it's not the "advice" that matters: Mendenhall can be a sleeper or a bust or whatever. It's whether his capsule mentions both the ACL and Achilles or just says "injuries;" whether it talks about fumbles and a deactivation or just ignores them; whether it mentions that Ryan Williams and others will compete with Mendenhall in Arizona or not, which will determine whether the capsule was written by an invested writer with an NFL background or a copywriter working off a stat line and a hurried Web browsing.
Bottom Line: My professional opinion of the guide, as someone who has contributed to several fantasy guides by outlets big and small over the last decade.
DISCLAIMERS GALORE: Many of these guides are now produced by my friends, enemies, frenemies, people who have written me checks, people who have not returned my calls and people who gave me rides in Mobile when I was afraid of getting lost in the Alabama wilderness when looking for a barbecue joint. In the name of impartiality, or something close to it, I have omitted a handful of publications. USA TODAY Sports publishes a fantasy guide, but I will not pretend that I feel like being critical of it, what with my children's fondness for the calories that come from food. I am again a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac, which is not a fantasy guide but comes bundled with the KUBIAK fantasy service, so of course I want you to buy that, but I am not going to review my own work, which is awesome of course.
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Sporting News Fantasy Source
Cover: Calvin Johnson
Cheat Sheet: A color-coded pullout between pages 24 and 25. It includes a top-205 overall; position lists that extend to 41 for quarterbacks, 70 for running backs and 81 for receivers; bye weeks and recommended auction values.
Helpful Features: Player comments are arranged alphabetically, which is an important feature. Icons like a red cross for "health risk" and a skull-and-bones for "bust potential" help the casual fan understand at a glance who they are thinking of selecting.
Strangest Feature: The reverse side of the cheat sheet is a Robert Griffin centerfold. It displays three Griffin pictures: one in uniform, one in tight compression wear and one close up of his shapely gams … er, supple, powerful legs … er, goofy socks. Really, the only difference between the Griffin centerfold and the Farrah Fawcett pinup from 1976 is that there was no cheat sheet on the other side of the Fawcett spread (probably), and Farrah's hair was slightly better. So, hey, after the draft you can tack Griffin to your wall and redefine fantasy football.
Read-Option Hand Wringing: A weird article by the usually reliable Bill Bender separates quarterbacks into four categories: "dropback," "scrambler," "all-around" and "dual threat." If those last three categories mean about the same thing to you, it gets weirder, as Matt Ryan is among the "scramblers," Ryan Tannehill and Christian Ponder are listed as "all-around," and Jake Locker is somehow a "dual threat." The categories were selected by rushing yards, as opposed to a breakdown of actual designed runs or option plays, and are built from last year's stats. The results are garbage-in, garbage-out, and they reflect the kind of disconnected-from-the-field thinking that gives fantasy writing a bad name among "serious" football writers, who are busy critiquing Colin Kaepernick's headgear.
Mendenhall Test: All the pertinent information is in place, from the ACL recovery to "falling out of favor" to the reunion with Arians and the need to beat Williams. Editor Brad Pinkerton gives him a "sleeper" rating, which I disagree with, but that is a fine way to update the casual fan on Mendenhall's current status.
Bottom Line: Sporting News has been a trusted name for decades, and their fantasy guide is clearly written and a reliable source of eight-week-old information. In many ways, it reflects the current state of Sporting News as an online portal: solid and professional, but very anonymous in tone. The most distinctive thing about their guide is the Griffin centerfold, which is just weird, but the publication remains an acceptable way to get your brother-in-law up to speed on the fact that Reggie Bush now plays for the Lions.
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ESPN Fantasy Football 2013
Cover: Colin Kaepernick
Cheat Sheet: The table of contents promises a cheat sheet "so mighty that it does not require a page number." Well, I am not that mighty, and I require a page number to find the most important page in a magazine. It is between pages 80 and 81, and so mighty that it lists a mere 125 players on the overall tally, quarterbacks to 40, running backs and receivers to 60, tight ends to just 25, and kickers to just 15.
Helpful Features: Icons help drafters differentiate sleepers from injury cases from potential busts, but player capsules are arranged by ranking, so you have to be able to guess where a player is ranked to find his capsule (not a great feature for casuals who are trying to determine rankings in the first place). A player index on the last page helps.
Strangest Feature. Readers of ESPN the Magazine know that the editors love to marry arcane statistics to inscrutable graphics, and this magazine is full of graphs that look beautiful but require lots of head-scratching to figure out. There are bar graphs, line graphs and crazy graphics that present the simplest information in the most incomprehensible way possible. A full-page graphic showing the change in tight end touchdown totals from season to season (a pretty random and meaningless bit of data in and of itself) uses blue, gray and yellow circles and arrows to demonstrate that, wow, touchdown totals for individual players fluctuate.
Read-Option Hand Wringing: Christopher Harris recommends that you "roll the dice" with running quarterbacks, but raises the obvious injury risk. "Just look at the star-crossed career of Michael Vick," he advises. Yes, look at it: It had little to do with injuries until the last few years, and Vick never really ran any read-option plays, so it is a pretty bad example to use when discussing Griffin and Kaepernick. There's little acknowledgement in the Harris article that what Griffin and Kaepernick were doing last year was different from what Vick or other last-gen scramblers did, so all of the statistics about past running quarterbacks simply compare apples to oranges.
Mendenhall Test: Rushing back from ACL surgery and the Arians connection are covered, but the other injuries and his benching are not. "His past fantasy glory came as a result of short TDs," the Mendenhall comment warns, a statement that is true of many running backs. The Mendenhall advice is good enough "fantasy think" but gives an incomplete picture of the back's current career status.
Bottom Line: What you think of the Worldwide Leader's fantasy guide depends entirely on what you think of the Worldwide Leader. The magazine is slick, and an excerpt from Matthew Berry's book gives it a readability that goes beyond endless variations on the Five Biggest Sleepers article. That said, the substance-to-style ratio is far too low, and an organization with a mountain of resources seems committed to doling information out in tiny, manufactured pellets. The ESPN Fantasy Football Guide is supposed to be an advertisement and supplement for the mothership's online services, but the book reflects an editorial misunderstanding of what actually happens when friends sit down to draft teams. A confused casual fan who uses this guide will only end up more confused.
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Sports Illustrated Fantasy Football 2013
Cover: A football, complete with a dimpled texture that must have cost beaucoup bucks to produce, and tiny pictures of 15 players.
Cheat Sheet: A gatefold on Page 40 that lists the Top 250 overall, with bye weeks, plus spaces to write the selections in a 12-team league if you can write in a size-8 font. That's it. There are no position rankings on the cheat sheet, and the four-page foldout would pose some unique challenges to someone trying to draft on a buddy's couch.
Helpful features. Like most guides these days, Sports Illustrated's includes icons with their player capsules, though some are confusing (a clock with an arrow pointing upward means "sleeper," I suppose), and they are so prevalent that it's revealing when a player doesn't have an icon. The "Familiar Faces in New Places" and "New Coaches Bring New Approaches" features on pages 14 and 15 are old fantasy guide standards, but SI's versions are quick and authoritative -- great for that pre-draft cramming session.
Strangest Feature: The textured cover is pretty weird; fantasy guides aren't exactly collector's items, and it is a heck of a place to spend your production dollars. The icon of a hand that represents a "good PPR player" (I think) in the player comments looks like a shriveled monkey's paw. There is a profile of Hernandez that appears to be beamed in from an alternate universe -- a reminder of the perils of trying to produce a periodical with a two-month shelf life in today's media realm.
Read-Option Hand Wringing. Eric Mack does not want you to draft a read option quarterback. They are inconsistent! They get hurt! Defenses will shut down "this craze, just like they did the Wildcat!" Vick's inability to play a full season gets another airing out, among other dubious claims. "Ask anyone who drafted Cam Newton early on in 2012 how difficult year two can be. Coming off his record-breaking rookie season, he didn't perform up to expectations until the tail end of the campaign." Well, sort of. Newton had three rushing touchdowns in his first four games, plus two big-yardage rushing games, and the whole point behind drafting running quarterbacks in fantasy football is that rushing yards and touchdowns are disproportionately valuable. Mack doesn't raise any points that you cannot hear bandied about a bar during a Redskins game, and offers little concrete data to support those points. Once Randall Cunningham gets dragged into a discussion of Kaepernick, you know you have reached rant territory.
Mendenhall Test: Zero mention of the ACL injury or other injuries. No mention of fumbles, benching or deactivation. Not even a mention of Williams. The Mendenhall capsule mentions that Arians "gushed" over the running back; it does not clarify their history together. This is a pure Mendenhall Test flunk: It appears to have been written by someone who did not even check the Cardinals depth chart.
Bottom Line: Peter King appears on page 20, and it's like when Eminem stomps up to the mic during an otherwise dreary D12 record. King is funny and interesting for a few pages, and Chris Burke livens things up in his features, but the SI guide otherwise feels a lot like the ESPN guide: a fish-nor-fowl effort by a staff that does not quite get what a fantasy guide is. The lack of position-by-position rankings on the cheat sheet says it all: This whole fantasy thing is not for us, but we publish a guide just so we aren't left out of the marketplace.
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Fantasy League Football 2013 (Harris publications)
Cover: Adrian Peterson
Cheat Sheet: Separate sheets for draft leagues and auction leagues, with byes for the draft leagues, right in front of the magazine. The draft league sheet goes 60 deep for quarterbacks, 70 and 90 for running backs and receivers, with a top 200 across the top. It is all fit into two pages of tiny type.
Helpful features: Individual defensive players get their due with 18 pages (!) of profiles and analysis. The individual defenders even get short paragraph capsules, an invaluable resource in IDP leagues, where even a savvy drafter can be out of his depth when the 33rd linebacker is about to leave the board. The back pages include both team-by-team and week-by-week schedules. Most of the layout suggests that the publisher knows you are buying a list, a schedule and some intermittently helpful/entertaining filler.
Strangest Feature: Game-by-game stat breakdowns for dozens of players in microscopic type dominate the back of the book. Anyone who wants this level of detailed information is likely to be getting it in an easier-to-digest format online, so the breakdowns feel like a relic from 1997, or an effort to easily pad the magazine out so it does not look and feel flimsy.
Read-Option Hand Wringing: None. Experts Tim Gramling, Matt Falcow and Dan Porri treat the rising-star quarterbacks like rising-star quarterbacks: players who still have a lot to prove but combine potential with fantasy-friendly rushing production. They think Wilson will be helped by Percy Harvin's arrival and caution that the Redskins may reign in Griffin a bit. It is all very sensible, with no quasi-authoritative referendums on the future of NFL strategy.
Mendenhall Test: The guide mentions that Mendenhall is "healthier" now and that he has been reunited with a favorite coach. No mention of the specific injuries, squabbles or Williams. Mendenhall gets a total of 34 words, which is not a lot for the harried drafter to chew upon.
Bottom Line: The Harris guide is something of a relic, an old-school quickie by a publisher of outdoors magazines that happens to have some shrewd football writers on the masthead. On the one hand, its get-the-job-done approach has appeal for fans who want lists of players and a digest of stats without weird charts or misplaced magazine-style features. On the other hand, Harris is just as expensive as the other guides but is fattened with pages of the kind of stat tables most people simply download in the 21st century. Ten fewer pages of tables could mean more than 34 words of analysis of a running back at a career crossroads, but laying out tables is more cost effective than editing text. Shortcuts aside, the Harris guide knows you want a convenient cheat sheet and (possibly) details about individual defenders, two basics that bigger publishers seem reluctant to provide.
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Pro Football Weekly Fantasy 2013
Cover: Adrian Peterson
Cheat Sheet: Pages 4-5. Quarterbacks are 50 deep, running backs 85, receivers 97, tight ends a healthy 45. The bye weeks are provided, the typeset is reasonable and helpful little lines between players make crossouts easy.
Helpful features: PFW, like the Harris Guide, offers plenty of individual defensive player data. Cross-referencing opportunities are abundant: Team capsules come with depth charts so you can quickly determine who the Texans' third wide receiver was expected to be when the magazine went to press. The most helpful feature of all may be the long, thorough player capsules. PFW knows that you turn to those comments to figure out who a player is and what has happened to him in the last 12 months, not for a joke or a nugget of fantasy philosophy.
Strangest Feature. Player capsules are arranged in the Boom/Bust/Bottom Line format, which is helpful for writers and editors (no rambling off topic) but can be misleading when the writer is forced to provide a few "bust" sentences for the likes of Aaron Rodgers. (Lightning could strike him … ) The last thing an indecisive fantasy drafter needs is a pro-con argument when he is on the clock.
Read-Option Hand Wringing: None. PFW probably saved that for its regular season preview, which I have not gotten to yet.
Mendenhall Test: The capsule mentions the ACL, that Mendenhall left Pittsburgh "on a sour note" and had "fallen out of favor;" that he is reunited with Arians, competing with Williams and has deficiencies as a receiver, not to mention other details. It's the most comprehensive breakdown of any of the guides, giving the drafter a thorough update of an unusual situation in a few paragraphs.
Bottom Line: The PFW guide is sturdy as ever, even though it was assembled by a skeleton crew and is likely to be the company's second-to-last ever publication. PFW always took its fantasy guides seriously, not as a media conglomerate's brand extension exercise or as a niche publisher's cash grab. The problem with the PFW fantasy guide is the problem that doomed PFW: It provides a level of service that is cheaply and easily surpassed on the Internet, and it lacks the bells and whistles to survive on glitter and gimmicks.
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Lindy's Sports Fantasy Football 2013
Cover: Adrian Peterson
Cheat Sheet: Two pages separated by an advertisement (!) on 18-20. Quarterbacks go to 43, running backs to 54, wide receivers to 72. The print is big, bye weeks are present and there are ledger lines. The ad revenue for a spot smack in the middle of the cheat sheet is probably very high, since that is the page everyone will look at, but I don't want to have to flip pages during a draft so someone else could make a buck.
Helpful Features: Player comments are long and detailed, with both "fantasy think" commentary and scouting notes. The scouting information is anonymous and sometimes either vague or misleading, but there are no glaring errors (calling Matt Ryan a "scrambler," for instance), and it helps help paint a picture of the player that goes beyond his usefulness as a number generator. There is also a feature on the "daily" fantasy leagues in which you draft a whole new team each week, a trend that is on the rise but not well served by most guides.
Strangest Feature: There is nothing really strange in the Lindy's guide, but there is one old-school no-no: Rookies are sequestered into their own little player comment sections instead of getting shuffled in with the veteran comments. This means that the magazine was probably laid out well before the draft, with half-pages set aside for rookies to be hurriedly added at press time. So when news happened after mid-April, the editorial attitude was more likely to be "squeeze it in wherever" than "make sure this information is properly presented."
Read-Option Hand Wringing. Andy Behrens sounds like Eric Mack at first, raising the bugbears of injured quarterbacks and savvy coordinators while quoting Mike Tomlin, who called the read-option the "flavor of the month." Behrens then shifts gears and reminds readers that only a handful of quarterbacks run the option, and that "these guys have fantasy points available to them that most QBs do not." He also points out that, hey, Griffin and company are actually excellent passers and decision makers, a point missed by all the folks who invoked Michael Vick. It's a balanced back-and-forth that reflects an understanding both of the football tactics at work and the needs of fantasy football drafters.
Mendenhall Test: The ACL gets mentioned, as well as the fact that Mendenhall "missed the next month" after a brief return, though the Achilles is not specified. None of the doghouse material is mentioned, but the comment notes Mendenhall's reunion with a former coordinator and his limits as a receiver. The scouting information appears to be based on 2011 observations and claims that he catches the ball effectively, so its value is dubious.
Bottom Line: Lindy's does sports annuals for a living, and their connection with The SportsXchange gives them access to quality football minds. They know what they are doing, but one of the things they are doing is hitting the newsstand as quickly as possible. Their regular NFL guide published on June 4, which is just insane. There is no way that a team which reshaped itself during the draft could get properly analyzed during the three hours writers had to make revisions before sending their work to print. The fantasy guide went to press on June 18, which is par for the course these days, and while the signs of rushed delivery show, the Lindy's guide remains a sturdy cheat sheet delivery system.
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It has been years since I was primarily a fantasy football writer, and it has been great to see fantasy writers escape the journalistic kiddie pool in recent years. Fantasy football expertise is different than traditional football expertise, but it is not "lesser" in any way. When you get right down to it, all football writing exists to entertain readers about an unimportant topic. If some readers would rather comb the Houston Texans depth chart than learn about Ray Lewis' failed effort to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, who is to say that one group of readers, or the writers who serve them, is more "legitimate" than the other?
I didn't write the survey above to look down on fantasy guide publishers or writers. Again, these are past-present employers and colleagues/friends. The biggest problem with most of these guides is the time lag between production and purchase, a problem that cannot be solved as long as a magazine is printed and shipped to convenience stores. That said, just because a publication is hopelessly out-of-date doesn't mean it has to be poorly researched, lazily assembled, or cynically polished to look like something it is not. The ones who are really looking down at the fantasy football industry, ironically, are the companies producing some of these magazines. They don't consider fantasy drafters to be discerning consumers.
They have a point, in a way: The folks who love fantasy football come to the draft armed with web services and spreadsheets, often provided by the same companies that marketed the lamest of the guides. Still, there is nothing worse than sitting next to that casual fan at a draft, watching him or her gamely try to extract information from a gas station guide, and realizing that this bright, successful person is getting a third-rate hobby experience because he or she is too busy to master the intricacies of a fantasy sports marketplace that has passed the glossy magazine by.
The publishers can do better. They can publish later. No one needs a fantasy guide on Father's Day. More time can be spent on editorial content, so player comments are more informed. Cheat sheets and depth charts can be given their rightful place at center stage, with editors recognizing what both casual and hardcore drafters need most: a long list of names that can be easily scanned and crossed off. Fantasy guides will always be CliffsNotes, but CliffsNotes survived for generations because they got students from "I have no idea who Hamlet is" to a survivable C-minus on an exam in a matter of hours. Most of the guides on this list do that, but only barely, with too much fluff and expense.
Of course, most students these days just use Wikipedia in place of CliffsNotes and other print guides. The convenience store guides may go extinct soon, just as the media outlets backing some of them have. Worst of all, it won't be survival of the fittest, because ESPN's goofy guide will outlast anything created by six dedicated experts on a shoestring. The good news is that the distinction between print and web journalism, like the distinction between "real football journalism" and "fantasy writing," is becoming blurry and meaningless. Lots of great information and entertainment is just a click away, and no one looks at you funny when you show up with a laptop anymore.
Just don't get blue cheese dressing on your keyboard. That's a nugget of fantasy football advice no guide can provide.