Anatomy of Fantasy Value
By: Doug Ludemann
By: Doug Ludemann
Anatomy of Fantasy Value
Any fantasy veteran knows that fantasy value is both multi-faceted and highly dynamic as well. One of the “hacks” of fantasy sports, if there is such a thing, is to take advantage of the changes in fantasy player value by buying or selling fantasy players based on the differential between your personal valuation of a player and that of the market. Taking advantage of these differences in perceived player value can reap real rewards for those fantasy managers who take the time to keep themselves up to date on all the in’s and out’s, and what have you’s, that will inevitably arise over the course of a player’s season or career.
If you’re higher on a player than the market, as I am with AJ Dillon for example, his market-based valuation seems like a tremendous value to me. That is as compared to say Saquan Barkley, who’s extraordinarily high acquisition cost is hard for me to justify considering the seriousness of his recent injury, as well as the likelihood that his recovery extends into the regular season putting his playtime and ultimately his fantasy production at risk.
In an attempt to put some conceptual framework around the way I perceive a player’s fantasy value I’m going to break down several facets of the thought process I go though when evaluating how much value I’d place at the feet of any particular fantasy player.
If this were 1988, we could talk about height, weight, a players 40-time, and call it a day. Not so in today’s NFL where there are more drills than a Home Depot. There’s the cone, the shuttle-run, and the broad jump. Oh my! They run, they jump, they take the Wonderlic.
The metrics don’t end there. There’s the adjusted speed score, SPARQ score, dominator rating, wingspan, and receiver target area, to name a few. All have some predictive value in terms of NFL player success, and of course, all are imperfect in some facet. But we’re learning more and more about players before they are even drafted, and predictions about player success are ever-improving.
Remaining objective is an important factor in reliable fantasy success, and the measurable metrics offer us the best of objective analysis. One still needs to remain cognizant that the numbers themselves don’t necessarily predict player success, but are generally correlated with it.
Perceived Value, i.e. Market value
Opinions are like assholes, they spend most of their time on Twitter. Given that subjectivity has little predictive merit, perceived player value is easily the least dependable and most inaccurate of valuation systems. But that doesn’t mean it should be ignored, quite to the contrary. It’s probably the most important single facet of a player’s value.
You think I’m selling Saquan for pennies on the dollar just because I am personally fading him? Hell no! I want full market value and then some, because Barkley is still one of the biggest names in the game and I can be fairly well assured that somebody is willing to pay through the nose to get him on their squad.
Market value determines how much a player is worth via trade or at the draft. You can express it in terms of the trade value or in terms of the draft acquisition cost (ADP or a dollar amount for auction leagues) to give people a concept of player value. Which would be great, if it was predictive of anything more than the order in which the players get drafted.
Let’s be honest with each other for a moment, NFL teams lie. Like, a lot. Because, and perhaps this is news to you, if you’re reading “inside information” about your favorite football club, the other teams in the league have already read it first. In the digital age, there are no more secrets, unless you absolutely refuse to say what you actually think in public…which is exactly how most GMs and coaches operate when in front of the microphone. Most of the time, it’s just noise.
There is an exception of course, and that is when a team expends its draft capital on a player. When a team takes a player, they’re telling you their scouts liked him enough to expend highly valuable resources to obtain his services. It is almost literally the most valuable scouting report you can obtain on incoming rookies.
Furthermore, players with high draft capital get second and third chances to make hay if they happen to falter at their first destination. Players drafted in the second and third day of the draft often won’t get a second chance if they have a misstep playing for the team that selected them. Think Sam Darnold or Carson Wentz getting a second chance, and commanding decent return-value in trade as well. Think Daniel Jones getting a third shot starting at QB for the NY Giants, despite literally being unable to stay on his feet at times his sophomore season. The same will likely hold true for second year rookies like Henry Ruggs, Tua Tagovailoa, and Jalen Reager. If Joe Burrow falters this season, he will almost surely get another shot next year. Gardner Minshew on the other hand, looks destined to be a journeyman backup at the NFL level, if that.
Obviously on-field production is what ultimately determines what a player is worth in fantasy football. Yards, receptions, touchdowns, all are legitimate factual references that we can use to determine how much value we should place on the fantasy services of any particular player.
Of course, the problem with on-field production is that it is almost never in the present. Production happened last weekend, last month, last season; and of course, it also lies at some point in the future. The question then arises, how likely is this particular player to produce at a level similar as that of past production in the near/distant future.
Projections become even more difficult when that past production is on another team, under a different coach or quarterback, or perhaps when the only real look we’ve gotten of a player is at the NCAA level. In which case future production simply isn’t as likely to correlate to past production.
It's hugely important to consider the contextual changes around a player year-to-year along with the advancement or decline of his skills and physical condition. Take advantage of any facet of contextual change that you think can give you an edge. Big fan of Ohio State? Then you should have some clues as to how Urban Meyer is going to utilize his skill players on offense. Meyer’s offenses have been run-heavy since his days in Florida, once saying, “I'll fight anybody on this -- you have to run the football to be successful at the highest level.” This kind of insight sure seems to make Travis Etienne more appealing doesn’t it. I’d argue 2020 waiver wire darling James Robinson retains a fair fantasy value based on the same concept, though I’m not sure I’d take him over any of the WRs going in a similar range in drafts.
Some players are simply more volatile fantasy point producers than others. I did a recent study comparing Seattle WR Tyler Lockett and teammate DK Metcalf to other WRs going with similar acquisition costs to try to determine if Lockett is a volatile fantasy producer, as is the persistent rumbling about the player amongst some on Twitter. I demonstrated that not only was his production volatile last season, but the production was more volatile during the best months of his season. It likely had little to do with the player himself, and more to do with how Seattle uses its receivers, as well as the relative success of the offense as a whole, and critically, how defenses lined up against those players.
Not all players have a similar level of volatility, mind you, so this is a tendency you can identify and adjust your ranks accordingly. A simple test of Standard Deviation on a player’s game log will quantify the degree of variability that player demonstrated week-to-week.
Lockett’s volatility is the reason Lockett is going 55th in redraft single QB leagues and Metcalf is going 15th, even though they scored a very similar number of points on the season.
Win Now Perspective
As any veteran in dynasty fantasy sports knows, you’re not always looking to compete in given year. Perhaps your quarterback was injured; or he abruptly retired, got arrested, or was abducted by aliens…hey, you never know. Perhaps you had a bad draft (it’s okay if you blame the Rumple Minze), or maybe even because you tried experimenting with Zero-RB (it’s okay, a lot of people experiment when they’re young); there are a lot of ways your fantasy season can go from zero to completely off the rails in 60 seconds or less. Perhaps you’re not looking to eke out a playoff berth with unhappy visions of being unceremoniously expunged from the post-season tournament in the very first matchup. As is often repeated, if you’re not going to be first, you want to be last in dynasty fantasy.
In this situation, you’re simply not going to value players the same as if you were in the middle or entering your 3-year winning window. Obviously, you saw yourself entering a rebuilding phase, aging superstars like DeAndre Hopkins (29), Allen Robinson (28), or Michael Thomas (28) are simply not going to hold the same value for your team that they would for a team that is one or two pieces short of a dominating roster.
I’ll admit, I abhor taking risks. I’m not a big fan of gambling. I have to be comfortable considering a raffle as a donation before I’ll enter it. As such, there are some player’s whose inherent risk profile has me fading them at their average position in drafts.
Other’s players inherent risk stems from their injury history or recovery timetable. My optimism about Courtland Sutton’s upcoming season received a dose of cold-water last week as video surfaced of him seemingly struggling through routes in training camp. Similar stories have emerged about Joe Burrow and Saquan Barkley, drawing into serious question the value of their on-field production in the first quarter of the upcoming season, and perhaps even beyond. Other players who are potentially recovering from major injury such as Marlon Mack stand to impact the risk profile of purported RB1 Jonathon Taylor.
Certain injuries have a tendency to be fluky, and aren’t correlated to a decline in production or an elevated chance of reinjury. Broken fingers or wrists, are two excellent examples of injuries that should have a negligible impact on a player’s career. Other injuries can seem innocuous, but have the potential to completely derail a career. This might include something like a concussion or back/neck problems.
Other injuries have long-term recovery times, despite being relatively minor. Turf toe, as well as hamstring and high-ankle sprains, can linger for weeks or potentially even months, impacting huge swaths of a player’s season.
ACL injuries increase the probability of reinjury, and can impact a player for 12-months or more with the elongated recover times. An injury like an Achilles tear can end a player’s career. One can only hope that a young player like Cam Akers can recover from his seemingly devastating Achilles injury. We can look to Marlon Mack in 2021 to get some indication on the potential for recovery that today’s advanced medicine is giving to young athletes.
The fact remains that we cannot predict injury, but we can bet that they’ll impact our fantasy season every single year. Book it.
Rational coaching, one of my favorite oxymorons, probably isn’t even a real thing. Or, perhaps in reality, coaches are trying to nuance a plethora of complex details that includes carrot or stick incentives, personality conflicts, contract negotiation tactics, or merely an instance of minor influenza, along with that of game flow and player health or fatigue. The point is that we don’t know how exactly coaches arrive at any particular one of the untold numbers of decisions they make in-game each week. Thus, it’s important to remember that we cannot presume that we know how a player will be utilized game-to-game, much to the chagrin of many fantasy analysts.
This is why you need to keep close tabs on how teams are utilizing players. You don’t think much of Nyheim Hines’ talent. Well buckle up there Tiger, I’ve got some bad news: your personal player talent evaluation doesn’t even begin to come close to mattering in fantasy football. The fact is that the team utilizes Hines to the extent that last season he finished as the RB15 on the year with 12.1 PPR points-per-game, and this provides him relevant fantasy value.
This makes players with known roles in their team’s respective offense so much more valuable. We know Stephon Diggs will be Josh Allen’s number one target, and the risk that he’s not the top target in any particular game is low. We know Najee Harris (or at least I think it’s safe to presume) will be the bell-cow in Pittsburg. Correspondingly, it is really difficult to say exactly how Curtis Samuel will be utilized in Washington. Will he be utilized as a deep threat as Ron Rivera (then head coach of the Panthers) played him? Or will he be utilized more underneath as he proved to be highly productive despite his average depth of target dropping in half from 14.6 in 2019 to 7.3 in 2020.
This same logic can be applied deeper down the ADP list as players like Gus Edwards or AJ Dillon are stepping into secondary roles in their respective backfields, but both are likely to see regular playing time each week which should prop up the floor on their fantasy production making both legitimate later-round RB options both of whom, along with Nyheim Hines, are going about ADP 120-125, making them all good zero-RB targets.
Let’s make something clear, the surrounding talent on a team absolutely one-hundred-percent has an impact on a player’s ability to produce fantasy points. So does a player’s coach, scheme, stadium, as well as the division in which he plays.
Teams with outdoor stadiums play more games outdoors, which can become impactful for NFL teams, especially as the weather turns in the latter months of the calendar. Furthermore, anybody who’s been following the ongoing Adam Gase debacle know damn well that a coach can destroy a player’s production potential just as easily as they can inflate it. It’s also reasonable to think that players like Tom Brady or Russell Wilson elevate the production of the players who play alongside them. It’s also reasonable to conclude that teams like Seattle that have to face two potential top-tier defenses in the 49ers and Rams will likely be impacted by the talent of those opponents. A team like the Minnesota, who added a lot of talent to their defense via free agency, stands to have a much-improved offense this season, spelling regression for the Vikings passing offense.
As you will often hear me assert, the magnitude of player risk versus the magnitude of the investment determines the magnitude of the gamble. In the similar sense, acquisition cost versus actual production determines fantasy value. Acquisition cost, or how much capital you have to give up to obtain a player, should ultimately determine whether or not you’re going to be willing to take on their risk profile. This is because fantasy value is ultimately about production for the price.
These are the kinds of calculations that we make every day when we evaluate matchups, waiver additions, or in trade valuation. We think about their position on the depth chart, their age and development as a player, the status of their health and cross reference those factors (and many more) with what we know about on-field production and make inferences about what that player’s potential production will be in the near future. The group-think that drives market value sets the acquisition costs. And the differences in perception of player potential dictates what we are all personally willing to expend in terms of capital to acquire those players.
You may be excited about the talent of a particular player, but for whatever reason he always seems to fall short of expectations? There are a plethora of players that fit this particular archetype, Duke Johnson, Mike Williams, Anthony Miller, heck, even Sam Darnold. These guys have all the requisite size, speed, and talent in the world, the only thing missing is elite on-field production. Sometimes players break the mold and become productive fantasy players, Ryan Tannehill and Robby Anderson come to mind, heck, even Derrick Henry took until his third year to truly break out at the NFL level.
As much as I appreciate that you’re still here reading my off-season rantings, I feel the need to add one last point about appreciable assets before I leave you to navigate back to Twitter where the “why is nobody talking about” argumentation is getting stale in what will be our final month of the offseason. With redraft leagues finally showing a little life, it’s safe to say there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. So, as you prepare to own the room in each of your respective home leagues, remember that no matter how much you personally value a particular player, their fantasy value is dynamic. It changes season to season, month to month, even week to week. An injury to a player (or his teammate) can alter a player’s fantasy value in mere moments.
As a dynasty manager, your job is to determine which players have appreciable values, versus those whose value is more likely to depreciate. Youth, the talent developing around them, or new coaching staffs, are all indications of the potential for fantasy assets with growth potential…or the most valuable commodities in the game. Sure, Derrick Henry is one of the best RBs in the league…this year. But there’s a reason he goes behind Justin Jefferson in dynasty startups: his value can only go down. This is as compared to rookies Kyle Pitts or Travis Etienne, both of whom project to hit the ground running and thus maintain fantasy value year-to-year. If either is capable of putting up TE1 or RB1 fantasy production respectively, both will see their dynasty value appreciate heading into next season.