Jim Nantz is one of the most accomplished and respected sportscasters in the business. As the voice of CBS Sports, Nantz is the lead announcer for the network's coverage of the PGA Tour, NCAA men's basketball and the NFL. The 2008 National Sportscaster of the Year, Nantz made headlines in 2007 when he led the network's coverage of Super Bowl XLI, the Final Four and the Masters in succession. He'll have the honor of covering that same events in 2010.
Aside from his tremendous on-air success, Nantz has also found success in another field -- fantasy football.
An avid and passionate fan of fantasy sports, Nantz has participated in several leagues over the past seven years and has become known for his dead-on fantasy predictions. Not only did he label Larry Johnson a major sleeper candidate in 2004 even while Priest Holmes was still the starter in Kansas City, but he also predicted that relative unknown Willie Parker would become the top running back for Pittsburgh in 2005.
I caught up with Nantz this week to discuss how he started playing fantasy football, and picked his brain on some of the tips and secrets he has used to find such immense success in his leagues.
Nantz: I had some neighborhood friends about 10 years ago who coaxed me into joining their league. One of those friends, Mark Peterson, thought it would even benefit me in my professional career, so I was opened minded about it. I've really had fun playing fantasy sports ever since.
Fabiano: So was your friend right in that playing fantasy football helped you become a more knowledgeable sportscaster?
Nantz: Well, it's certainly opened up a whole new perspective on the NFL for me. It's really been a great way to find out even more about players around the league. And my participation in fantasy sports has grown since that first league back in 2001. When Jay Glazer, who used to work for us at CBS, told me about this young kid named Fabiano who wanted to start a flagship fantasy football league, I was really open to the idea. That became the Gridiron Guru League, which I won in the inaugural year.
Fabiano: So how did you end up doing in that first league with your neighborhood friends?
Nantz: I went into the draft without understanding the strategies involved. I basically drafted the entire Tampa Bay Buccaneers team. If I stayed with the defense I would have been fine -- those were the salad days for that unit -- but I drafted all the offensive players, too. I thought that since the Bucs would have a good team, that's the way you should play it. Needless to say, I got mauled. My assessment that Tampa Bay was on the brink of something special was a year away -- they won the Super Bowl the next season. But in terms of that translating into fantasy football, it was never going to work with that approach, and I learned the hard way. It took me a few years to get the knack of it in that league because these guys are serious fantasy footballers and they know what they're doing. It took me six years to win the league.
Fabiano: Because of your constant interaction with players, do you ever find yourself talking with them about fantasy football?
Nantz: I don't talk fantasy football with the players. It's all for good fun, and I don't play in high-stakes leagues. Just to me, I don't think it's appropriate. I do know that there are a lot of players that participate in their own leagues, though.
Fabiano: What do you attribute to your fantasy success?
Nantz: It took me a season to understand how to compete and how to build a team, how to watch the waiver wire. I also monitor player trends. It might just start out with two carries in a week, but maybe the next week a running back gets four carries and his long run is 18 yards. That must have gotten the coaches' attention. I'm looking for a trend that shows me a player could be a few weeks away from seeing a more prominent role at his position. I've seen it happen where a player is trending on seeing more playing time. I'm not talking about just one week when a back rushes for 96 yards on 21 carries, because everyone can see that. I've been in three leagues and I've won each league at least once. I think that watching these trends has really helped me take home a few titles.
Nantz: Absolutely. I never want to lose a game, but sometimes losing in Week 1 puts you in position for a great waiver find. There are some really revealing things that happen. Some people that are new to fantasy football can fall asleep at the switch and forget that you can get a really important starter off waivers. It's amazing to see how many guys get hurt in the first week because everyone is fresher than they will be later in the season. There's more impact and injuries. My partner on CBS, Phil Simms, has always told me that collisions are happening at a higher rate of speed in the first week because everybody's healthy, and injuries can lead to a waiver-wire wonder.
Fabiano: Do you have a particular strategy that you always enter the draft poised to use?
Nantz: Unless I have the first overall pick, I don't really have a certain strategy. I just keep track of what everyone else is doing. I like the chess match and seeing what people are doing as the draft goes on. I've often thought as time marches on that the importance of the running back has diminished. With so many two-back systems around the league, I don't think you necessarily have to focus on the position as much in the earlier rounds. You also have to consider the points system -- if you are rewarded points for catches, for example -- when building out your strategy. In that case, I think a premier wide receiver can be just as good as a top running back.
Nantz: I don't think there's any question that fantasy football has had a real impact. The popularity has really taken off over the past few years. I get people asking me questions about it all the time, looking for my opinions on fantasy football. I was on a commercial shoot with Peyton Manning recently and I had people on the crew asking me all kinds of fantasy questions. Camera operators, producers, everyone was asking about it.
Fabiano: OK Jim, let's move on to this season. One of the biggest questions in fantasy football is the value of LaDainian Tomlinson. How do you see him performing compared to what was a mediocre 2008 campaign by his standards?
Nantz: I would love to have Tomlinson this season. I think he is going to come back and blow out his numbers from 2008. If I had a top-five pick, I would be tempted to take him. I've seen some experts league drafts online where Tomlinson isn't going until the late first round or even the beginning of the second round. I think he's going to be better than his draft position.
Fabiano: There was a lot of player movement this past offseason. Which moves do you think could make the biggest fantasy impact?
Nantz: Well, I haven't had any luck with Seahawks wide receivers during my time as a fantasy owner. I've had Deion Branch and Nate Burleson, and neither has done what I was hoping. I wish T.J. Houshmandzadeh] all the success in the world, but going to Seattle hasn't been good for a wide receiver's value in the past. I also think Joey Galloway and Fred Taylor will be interesting to watch in New England. Both could put up some numbers in that offense. If [Matt Cassel gets any kind of production and Larry Johnson can avoid injuries and stays healthy, I think he could find some success as the Chiefs quarterback. He could be a player you would want to grab in a keeper league.
Fabiano: Alright, last question. Who do you think should be the No. 1 overall pick in fantasy drafts?
Nantz: Everyone is going with Adrian Peterson. Honestly, it's hard to build a case for anyone else. I really think this is going to be Peterson's year. Of course, there have been plenty of players taken first overall that haven't met expectations. Look at Tom Brady and Tomlinson last season. Neither ended up being what people thought. But if I have the first pick, I think it's really hard not to take A.P. in most leagues.