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Fantasy Football Advice: Julio Jones & His Unnecessary Risk

There are few receivers as physically gifted as Julio Jones.
There are few receivers as physically gifted as Julio Jones.

Fantasy Football advice can sometimes be predictable: A mega-talented, young and explosive athlete with a great pedigree and supporting cast, Atlanta Falcons wideout Julio Jones is being considered a slam-dunk elite wide receiver for fantasy football by everyone from professional analysts to the most casual dabblers of the game. But many of those people are not accounting for the risk of Jones and how unnecessary it is to take that risk given the position he plays.

As a fantasy player who traditionally aligns with upside-oriented views myself, it would be easy to throw support behind someone like Julio Jones. With the numbers that are available, it is a very reasonable statement to say that Julio Jones is the best combination of height, weight, and speed at receiver behind Calvin Johnson (Well, maybe behind Stephen Hill too, but he shouldn’t count).

Not only is Julio about as athletic as they come, he has electrifying skills on the field and has been a star player since high school, right alongside A.J. Green the whole way. Jones put up 959 receiving yards and 59 rushing in just 13 games as a rookie before coming back to finish as the #9 receiver in fantasy in 2012. It wasn’t until 2013 that he truly started to break out though.

Albeit with teammate Roddy White hobbled, Jones was putting up fantasy points at a pace as good as anyone for the first 5 games of last year before tragedy struck and a broken foot derailed what was looking like a tremendous season. After getting a glimpse of what Julio could do, all is seemingly forgiven in the fantasy community, but I can’t agree with taking Jones as high as he is being taken heading into 2014. Not with what we know (or should know) about his injury history and the overrated disparity among the top few players at the position.

To better explain, I’m going to run down a few likely scenarios for Julio Jones’ 2014 season.

Scenario A: Julio Jones Performs Slightly Above ADP

One of the primary selling points of taking Julio Jones so high in drafts is the premise that other than Megatron, Jones has as good a chance as anyone to finish as the #1 wide receiver in fantasy football. I could maybe get behind that, but whether or not I believe it, does it really matter who finishes #1? (Gasp! Fantasy blasphemy!)

At the moment Jones’ average draft position has him ranked 5th among receivers. Even if it were a foregone conclusion that Jones would finish atop the WR mountain, it’s not that big a deal. Here is data from the last 10 years showing the average difference in weekly output between the players that finished the season #1 and #5 at wide receiver.

2013: 3.6 fantasy points per game
2012: 1.4
2011: 4.7
2010: 1.2
2009: 1.5
2008: 0.7
2007: 5.0
2006: 1.8
2005: 2.9
2004: 2.3

Other than a select few seasons where the #1 fantasy receiver went completely off the rails like Randy Moss setting the all-time single-season receiving touchdown record in ’07 and Johnson setting the all-time single-season receiving yardage record in 2011, there is usually a fairly negligible difference in the average weekly performances of #1 and #5. To me, this swiftly dispels any notion I’ve heard of selecting Jones over someone like Green because of supposed superior upside.

Just for a quick comparison, last year the #1 quarterback averaged 7.6 more points per game than the #5 QB, the #1 running back was 5.7 points per game over #5, and the number was 5.3 for tight ends. Even during outlier years of receiver disparity, the similarities among top talents makes the difference between #1 and #5 vastly overrated.

Scenario B: Julio Jones Matches ADP

If reaching for Julio over the other top 5 receivers is unlikely to pay off in a major way, what about taking him over the next tier of players? Let’s assume Julio finishes exactly at his #5 ADP, which would be a career-best by the way. Doing the same exercise as before but in the opposite direction, here’s how the #5 fantasy receiver fared over the #9 receiver in the past 10 years.

2013: 0.6 fantasy points per game
2012: 1.0
2011: 1.1
2010: 1.3
2009: 0.0
2008: 2.4
2007: 1.9
2006: 0.2
2005: 0.4
2004: 0.9

As you can see, the gap between #5 and #9 is even smaller than the one between #1 and #5. Summarizing everything to this point, it has become obvious that upside is not an exceedingly important criteria when picking your first wide receiver in fantasy. Anywhere in the top 10 area among receivers is likely to be just fine and determining the pick and the strategy should become more focused on safety and value.

Scenario C: Julio Jones Performs Slightly Below ADP

As covered in the last scenario, since there is not a large gap between a mid-WR1 and a back-end WR1, it doesn’t sting too badly in the fantasy sheets if Brandon Marshall finishes 5th and Julio finishes 9th. However, if someone like Alshon Jeffery who is going almost a round later than Jones finishes 5th to Jones’ 9th, then you’re probably more than doubling your losses because of the missed value on another, more valuable position.

Scenario D: Julio Jones Busts

Given his immense talent and the almost ideal situation in place, I have no problem stipulating that Julio Jones will only be a bust if he gets injured again. But that is a huge part of my issue with taking Jones so highly in re-draft fantasy leagues. This is football and anyone’s season could be over in a flash, but Julio’s foot has to make him a more likely victim of chance.

Since declaring for the NFL draft in 2011, Jones has already broken the same foot in two different places, the latest of which cost Jones and many fantasy owners their 2013 seasons. I’m no doctor but I know foot injuries can be chronic and difficult to heal due to the low blood supply to the area. I’m sure there are better examples but one that comes quickly to mind is Ahmad Bradshaw who had a litany of recurring foot fractures and surgeries in his career.

We are now nearing 10 months since Jones broke the foot in early October and news reports still have Jones being highly limited by the team in his recovery. We’ll know more about his true status once the Atlanta Falcons’ “Hard Knocks” series debuts on August 5th, though in the meantime there is an interesting interview where Jones discusses his injury.

The way Jones describes the experimental and invasive nature of the procedure along his slow, deliberate progress is not reassuring in the least. If I had to put money on it I would bet Jones will be ready for the season opener, but he may not be in peak condition and there is almost certainly increased risk if he plants his foot wrong or lands on it the wrong way. Why take that gamble?

Don’t Risk It

There is virtually nothing to be gained by taking Julio Jones over many of the receivers going in his area, yet there is everything to be lost. When it comes to top-tier wide receivers, there just isn’t as much separation as the general public perceives. In this case, success and failure does not come from reaching for the sky, but is instead determined by accurately forecasting a bottom floor of performance while also mitigating as much risk as possible. Undeniably talented, Jones is still relatively unestablished in terms of to-date fantasy results compared to many of the alternative players and presents an increased health risk.

Rather than take the unnecessary risk of Julio Jones, consider a more proven and safer veteran in that same draft spot like Brandon Marshall or Jordy Nelson. Or, you could wait a round or two and take guys like Alshon Jeffery, Antonio Brown, or Randall Cobb. Your roster may not look as pretty, but your fantasy football trophy might.

Is Julio Jones worth the risk at #5 WR ADP?

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