By: Doug Ludemann
Ten Commandments of Fantasy Football
By: Doug Ludemann
Ten Commandments of Fantasy Football
As draft season approaches fantasy managers all over the world are firing up their laptops and smartphones, busying themselves by searching for the next great sleeper prospect or post-hype breakout candidate hoping it will provide them an edge in their upcoming fantasy seasons. Meanwhile deep in their mother’s basements, unemployed statisticians are trying to explain why Zero-WR is the next greatest draft strategy and are busy employing no fewer than three unique coding languages in doing so. Turn on any podcast and you’ll hear former college players and part-time assistant coaches parlay their personal expertise into podcast rants about 3-technique, 12-personel, and “package players” that leave most everything to the imagination, while leaving them short of breath, in defense of their hot takes. ADP! ECR! Analytics and film grinders! Oh my!
With fantasy players looking for that edge this upcoming fantasy season the question isn’t whether expected wins above replacement is the next great sabermetric. The question may be whether or not there is a simpler way to gain an advantage in the upcoming fantasy season.
So then, what is the secret to giving yourself a real advantage in chasing the ultimate goal of adding more championship trophies to your mantle? Is it the next great draft strategy? That can’t-miss generational already-elite “broke my model” prospect? Or is it something else entirely?
What if - and stay with me now, this is where it gets complicated - what if the secret to winning fantasy championships is just being good at the game of fantasy?
Still with me? With merely the minimum of intention of trying to be cute, what I’m trying to say is that fantasy football is a game, a fairly complex one at that. The draft or player scouting are only facets of the game, and as they say, championships aren’t won in the off-season.
As I approach my 30th season playing fantasy football there are certainly strategies that I employ each year as I try to navigate my way to as many titles as possible. Though I certainly don’t intend on this being an exhaustive list, here are what I consider my top ten fantasy football truisms. The collection of fantasy realities, if you will, that I use to inform my strategy. With no knowledge of coding language or advanced calculus required.
Luck Favors the Prepared
Perhaps there’s no greater truism in life than this. After having already seemingly dismissed the consensus rankings and the average draft position data, I will now pull a full reversal and recommend that you ensure that you’re well-versed in this information. Knowing where a player will fall in your draft or how the experts feel about a player need not necessarily inform the likelihood that you take a certain player, however it can certainly inform your draft strategy.
Furthermore, you should be pushing yourself each year to prepare a bit more than you did the previous year. Create your own rankings. Do your own analytics. Watch prospect film. There’s more information than ever available right at your fingertips. Time is the only commodity it will cost you, and done properly, it’s an investment that will reap dividends for years to come.
Scouting is Imperfect
Despite the immediate success of rookies like Jonathon Taylor or the Justin’s, Jefferson and Herbert, we should always be aware that the odds a rookie prospect becomes an impact fantasy player are rarely more than that of a simple coin flip; and far far less for players drafted on the second and third day of the NFL draft. The simple fact remains: nobody knows for sure who the breakouts will be.
This is your friendly reminder that even your favorite player scout on YouTube or Spotify doesn’t know more than NFL scouts. Because, if they did, they would work for the NFL rather than podcasting from the spare bedroom of their suburban domicile.
Understand that we are not privy to much of the information we would need to properly evaluate a player’s likelihood of success in the NFL. Will he show up to meetings or practice on time? Will he get along with the coaches and teammates? Not to mention the possibility of injury derailing an otherwise promising career. It remains difficult (at best) to predict how a 20-year-old man will mature as he ages or even how he will handle the constant scrutiny of the media or his fanbase. Not to mention the difficulty in predicting the likelihood that that man will decide to break the law at some point.
Front offices often have at least an informed inclination on these issues, but they’ll rarely express their feelings with any real transparency. That is, except when a team is expending it’s capital, either in terms of draft picks, cap space, or liquid currency. A GM will never be more honest about player evaluations than when they pull the trigger when expending the most valuable team capital of all: their draft selections. A team reached on a player? Guess what, they really really like that guy. Thus, you can trust draft capital as the most reliable player grade on the market.
Don’t Predict Injury, Bet On Them
Everybody knows that injuries are one of the biggest killers of fantasy and NFL seasons alike. So how do we avoid the negative impact of player injuries? Fading injury-risk players has long been a controversial but stubbornly persistent facet of player eval and expert rankings. But are Chris Carson or Joe Mixon really more likely to be injured this year than Derrick Henry or Jonathon Taylor?
History has unequivocally demonstrated that we are no better predicting injuries than we are the actual outcomes of the games. Frank Gore, whose stock was diminished in the NFL draft due to injury concerns has gone on to become an ironman of durability and longevity. Furthermore, CeeDee Lamb didn’t even have to be injured himself to see his fantasy production drop as a direct result of an injury…to Dak Prescott.
So rather than trying to predict injury and avoid certain players, I’m simply looking to add depth to my roster. Adding potential impact rookies late in redraft. Adding reliable veterans late in dynasty. Trading down in snake drafts to acquire more mid-round picks or fading expensive talent in auction drafts. Simply staying active on the waiver wire. Depending on format, there are any number of ways to increase roster depth that will not only insulate you from player injury, but the from the impact of bye weeks as well.
With the incoming 17-game schedule, roster depth could be more important than ever heading into 2021.
Don’t Underestimate Unpredictability
Few foresaw the Justins’ breakout seasons this past year, nor did many predict James Robinson’s league-winning production. A mere eighteen months ago this pandemic wasn’t even a thing.
Thus, the safest prediction I can make is that something utterly random will have a fair to significant impact on this year’s NFL season. Dust storms in Kansas City? Aliens invading Atlanta? Locusts in Tennessee? Who knows? I mean, in world where almost literally anything is possible, it would be foolhardy to make any solid predictions for this year (or any year, really).
Will Deshaun Watson be traded? Will he play at all this year? Will Mac or Cam start in New England? Is Kyle Pitts an actual unicorn? Identifying players with uncertainty and determining how much uncertainty you’re comfortable adding to your roster can have a real impact on both week-to-week stability but your overall ceiling/floor as well.
Your best bet is to stay plugged into the league news so that you can be out in front of your league in any groundbreaking revelations. Be prepared to buy, sell, trade, add, sit, or start as the case may be; and be prepared to pivot at a moment’s notice.
Lean Into Your Format
There is no such thing as a “standard” dynasty league anymore. Even my 1QB standard home league is a keeper-inflation-salary cap. Not to mention that those who still practice the ancient-art of the notorious “standard league” probably aren’t reading this article anyway. They’re busy planting onions or edging the grass along their driveways or yelling at passersby to stay off their lawn, or whatever it is that old people do nowadays.
Whether it’s a two-quarterback league or one composed of nothing but flex positions, you will want to familiarize yourself with the strategies typically employed in a given format and have a strategy to exploit the quirks present in every format. You should be preparing adjusted rankings specific to the settings in your league.
Understanding the difference between the standard ranks and the actually potential value of those players in that particular format is a great place to search for a value differential, or the difference between that player’s potential value in your league format and the perceived value that player may have in the fantasy marketplace in general. A value differential that you can exploit on draft day.
Players Values are Volatile, Play the Market
Player value is a bit of a sticky issue. Obviously everybody values players differently and it pays to exploit the difference between where you value players and where the market values players. Also, you should know the kind of value you’re trying to exploit. Is it perceived player value during the offseason? Will that perceived value improve or diminish once the actual games begin? Is the value inherent because of the in-season production of the player? How likely is that production going to continue? Into next week? Next month? Next season? Is a player more valuable because of his NFL team? How are you going to react if a given player is traded or expresses dissatisfaction with their contract?
Try to avoid buying a player at the cost of their potential ceiling, pivoting instead to players who could potentially exceed the production indicated by their value, or simply to a player with a safter floor. The point is that player value can change for any number of reasons, and while we may not be able to predict all dips and spikes in player value, we can certainly play the market on that volatility.
With a few informed choices, the ability to incrementally improve your team through trades or waiver moves cannot be understated…not only mid-season but all off-season as well.
Buy Rumors, Sell News
Nothing is worse in fantasy ball than holding the hot potato when the music stops. Did you draft DeShaun Watson or James Robinson only to have their fantasy value deflated like a football in New England? Big news is rarely good for a player’s fantasy value, and a player’s name trending on Twitter is often a huge indication their value is about to go South. Rarely is the news of a veteran moving from one team to another an indication of impending fantasy success, nor is the news of veteran running backs signing expensive second contracts, for that matter.
Even when the news is good, if you’re in a highly competitive league, by the time you hear the announcement on the evening news, chances are a handful of your league mates will have already made the corresponding fantasy moves based off of the rumors on social media that predicated the headlines.
Furthermore, by the time the news trickles through Twitter and onto the formats that most fantasy managers typically inform themselves, the over-reaction will already be in full tilt. Did you draft Jacob Eason as a late-round dart throw? Without ever seeing the field, Eason’s fantasy stock is clearly quite bullish.
The evergreen solution is to stay plugged-in and be prepared to make a move, perhaps even before the news is “official” if you want to stay ahead of player value fluctuations. Buy the pass-catchers before the veteran QB arrives via trade. Shop a player who’s expressing contract concerns on his Insta. If somebody is willing to give you market value, or even more perhaps, that’s a move you may want to consider.
Betting correctly based on informed predictions is one of the keys to fantasy success. Don’t wait for tomorrow to move on a player you could have had at a cheaper price today.
Don’t Chase Points
Every year there’s a player that “breaks out” in week-one of the NFL season only to become irrelevant for the following 15 games. If a player is producing far and away outside of their profile, maintain some healthy skepticism. This doesn’t mean you pass entirely on the James Robinson’s of the world strictly because his production wasn’t predictable, but make your assessments carefully. Will his team’s offense continue to produce? Will they continue to utilize that player? Investigate where his touches or target share originated. Is it due to injury? Lack of depth? Unheralded talent? How likely is that trend to continue? Is regression incoming?
Additionally, what will you have to give up to take on this player? Whether its FAAB, a trade, or even just a roster spot, all moves have a cost. You may only have a single week to make your call, so choose wisely. Because that next breakout candidate may just be the next Travis Fulgham.
Zig when others Zag
Perhaps there is no bit of fantasy strategy superior to that of refusing to follow the crowd. Zero-RB can absolutely work in the right circumstances, as can a super-fragile or bi-modal RB draft strategy. The best strategy in my mind is to not lock yourself into any specific plan or strategy, either in the draft or during the actual season. Is there a big run on running backs in round-one of your draft? Perhaps Tyreek Hill is a better choice than the RB6 on the board. Miss out on an elite wide receiver? Maybe you want to pivot to one of the few elite tight end options. Expecting a huge waiver FAAB battle for the second man up after a stud running back is injured? Perhaps you save your FAAB and take a dart on the next guy down on the depth chart.
As unpredictable as the NFL will always be, know that you cannot make every bet correctly. However, you can capitalize on the mistakes of others, particularly when group-think has the rest of your league acting in lock-step.
Lotteries Are Won, Championships Are Earned
As much as I’d like to assert that this isn’t a game of chance, this is mostly a game of chance. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t eek out an extra victory or two each year by sheer will alone. Most managers, even in competitive leagues, are less active during week five than they were at the starting gun. People forget to set lineups, miss quality players on waivers, or over-react to the ravings of the talking-heads on cable television. Those fantasy managers that stay calm and keep their nose to the grindstone will be rewarded for their efforts more often than not.
So, send out those trades. Scour the waiver wire. Research weekly matchups. All of these activities will dramatically increase your chances of success.
Your roster moves needn’t always be focused on the recent news or player value either. By the final weeks before the fantasy playoffs you should know who the quality defenses are as well as which are the bottom-tier defenses. Make roster moves based on this information that have the chance to pay dividends in the playoffs. The best fantasy players are those that are playing two steps ahead of the rest. Simply “putting in the work” all season long can make up for a lot of the shortcomings your roster may have at the end of the draft.
Routinely incorporating these general concepts to your game is arguably as important as knowing the fantasy values and rankings of the players themselves. In a world where everybody knows the names of the next great sleeper prospect and everybody has an opinion on the next great breakout candidate, the major differentiator between good fantasy managers and great ones is sometimes just a little bit of perspective.
What truisms do you adhere to year to year? Reach out on social media and let us know.