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Working the Wire - The Importance of Effective Waiver Wire Management

Look at any championship fantasy squad and focus on 'when' each player was added to the roster over the course of the season. In doing so, I think you'll quickly come to the conclusion that strategic changes to your roster throughout the season plays a tremendous role in your success. I would submit that in many formats, the waiver wire is now as at least 'as' important as the draft. In fact, I think many might agree that the waiver wire is now the single most important component of a successful fantasy campaign. This article will focus on how to optimally use the waiver wire to your benefit.

First, let's establish some baselines for purposes of the discussion. The formats used for free agent acquisitions vary greatly. The format can be as rigid as a Survivor format that disallows any waiver wire activity, to as dynamic as unlimited 'first come first serve' waiver wire activity. A quick word on format before we move forward with a more focused and detailed discussion.

League and Free Agent Formats

Survivor - Most survivor formats disallow modification to a roster in any form after the initial draft. It is after all, a format designed to assess ones skill at drafting. In my opinion, for those owners who want to minimize the 'luck' factor, the Survivor format is the least favorable. It is essentially an exercise in drafting and your entire reward system is based on knowledge at a single point in time. All future dynamics are not factored into the equation.

First Come, First Serve - For the truly obsessed, this is the format for you. I try to participate in at least one league that utilizes this format each year. Unlike the Survivor format which rewards knowledge from a single point in time. FCFS formats reward those with the most current knowledge at any given time. I remember many weeks where an injured player is being attended to on the field and I have processed a waiver wire transaction before the player has left the field. If you are fanatical in your research and focus, and tie yourself to the NFL Sunday Ticket every week, FCFS formats can give you a tremendous advantage over those less dedicated. But, unless you are omnipotent, you can also miss some great opportunities occurring in other games.

Worst to First - This format attempts to strike some 'balance' by allowing the teams with the 'worst' records the 'first' chance to improve their team each week via the waiver wire. The W2F format is probably the most common waiver format in fantasy football. It is based on a midweek drop/add process where the team with the worst record is allowed to choose from the waiver wire first, followed be the team with the next worst record, and continuing until the team with the best record is allowed to execute a waiver transaction. Additional rounds using the same format is allowed until all drop/adds have been completed. Now, I'm all for an even playing field, but, something just doesn't seem right to 'penalize' a team because it is winning.

Blind Bid - The Blind Bid is probably the most balanced of all the formats. The Blind Bid establishes a pool of money that owners can use for purposes of purchasing free agents. In my opinion, the BB process is the most fair and balanced waiver format that rewards the informed owner, and at the same time introduces a strategic element missing in some of the other formats. Specifically, it rewards 'early recognition' of waiver talent. Many times an owner is salivating after watching a running back such as Domanick Davis come off the bench in the 4th quarter in week 6 and get 10 touches. And, the next day he's proclaimed the new number one RB in Houston. Many owners are ready to bid 10%, 25%, maybe even 50% of their entire waiver pool money in a situation like this. However, the astute owner knew to pick up Dom Davis just in time to avoid the bidding war, getting him the previous week for 1% of his pool money in the bargain.

The Just in Time Acquisition

The balance of this article focuses on the early recognition of the weekly waiver wire prize; a strategy which I refer to as the 'just in time' acquisition. The JIT acquisition focuses on the 'stock' of a player that you think (through diligent research) is poised to jump significantly, and soon.

It happens every year. The dynamics surrounding the JIT acquisition can vary greatly. It can happen through the demotion of a starter, ala Anthony Thomas and Dom Davis. It can happen as a result of a player coming back from an injury, ala Julius Jones. It can happen through a trade, ala Lamar Gordon. But, it's going to happen. Our job is to see the likelihood of it happening at least a week before everyone else. Why? The answer is simple. We want the prime commodity and we want it at the best value. How do we accomplish this objective? We know about it before everyone else. Otherwise, we have to line up with every other schmuck and pay market price or better. We're not interested in participating with 'the pack'. We're interested in being in 'front' of the pack.

OK. Now that we understand the nature of the discussion, let's get to the meat of the matter. I mentioned 'diligent research' a few paragraphs earlier. I emphasize these words again here. There's no getting around it. To reap the rewards of a JIT acquisition, you're going to have to work hard. You have to force yourself to focus beyond the immediate week. This is not easy. You can be so consumed with 'tactical' thinking such as, looking at match ups and strength of schedule and trades and trash talking…that you just run out of time for 'strategic' thinking. If you allow this to happen, you are at a disadvantage to those that are also thinking strategically. If this is not part of your weekly prep, then you must change your ways. Don't let a week of the season go by where you don't think about a horizon that looks out further than the immediate week.

Insider Information

Insider Information could be the subtitle of this discussion. It is the undercurrent of the entire concept of JIT acquisitions. Let's examine for a moment the timeline associated with a change to the starting status of a skill position in the NFL. Obviously, the first sign of progression leading to a change occurs in practice. And, it occurs in how the practice repetitions are spread out among the players. If a second teamer is getting increased reps with the starters, you want to know about it. This is the earliest indication of a potential change. A local beat writer that is willing to share practice observations directly with you is invaluable. Make sure you read their pieces and complement them when you can. If you can develop a network of local contacts, take very good care of them. A little wine or a few select cigars go a very long way with these folks.

Changes in practice reps usually are followed by an increase in the game day workload. What you're looking for here is not necessarily overt. It might be 6-8 touches that go up to 9-12 touches. The total number is not as important as the trend.

Frequently, insiders will either know directly, or indirectly when the situation is approaching a flash point. If a second teamer is splitting reps with the first team offense, the starter is on a very short leash. Insiders close to the team will be whispering that a change is imminent. Now is the best time to pull the trigger on the acquisition. Take a flier and see what happens. Sometimes, the payoff is immediate. Other times, you may be surprised at the patience of the coaching staff or your insiders were reading the signals a bit wrong. But, there is very little risk, as it was an inexpensive gamble with potential for huge upside.

I'll reiterate a point here. Because you're in front of the crowd, your investment is very small. This minimizes the impact of a 'bad call' with the free agent. If you know Lamar Gordon is being shipped to Miami and you can get him for 1%, you do it. It's a no lose scenario. Get the same player for 30% of your free agent money after the trade is announced, and you better hope the player produces. JIT acquisitions have potential for huge upside and at the same time virtually no risk. You can't beat that combo.

Getting Started

JIT acquisitions are all about timing. Done too soon, an unproductive acquisition consumes valuable roster space. This puts you at a disadvantage to a team that has a full compliment of productive players. Done too late, your value is diminished because the cost of acquisition is orders of magnitude higher than it could have been which introduces significant risk into the equation. So, these dynamics almost dictate that the JIT acquisition is something that is better suited starting in the second quartile of the season. Why? Teams do not usually have a quick hook for a starter early in the season. They have typically invested a fair amount of preseason work with the starter and this is baked into the game plan. Most teams will be patient for the first month of the season. However, protracted unproductive outings combined with losses will start to bring about thoughts of changing starters.

Don't neglect the business implications associated with players. Aging starters that are backed up by younger players are certainly scenarios that need to be considered, especially if a team has targeted the backup via trade or high draft choice. Many times, these players will be drafted, but not always. Derrick Blaylock has frequently gone undrafted in mocks this year.

So, the early part of the season should be dedicated to building your 'watch list'. Look at all the undrafted players coming out of your draft, and ask yourself where do you think an undrafted player might surface as a starter? And from there, begin to get much tighter with your network and start to get some insight from those close to the situation.

Prioritize Running Backs

Like chess men, all fantasy players have value. But, also like chess, not all players have equal value. So, I really focus on running backs when looking for that JIT acquisition. Assuming typical scoring formats, a new starting running back will generate the most value for your squad. Even if you own Tomlinson and Holmes, a starting RB is a desirable free agent commodity. A new starting QB or WR may carry equal impact to that of a RB, but even when these changes are expected, the market will not exorbitant. The market value of new starting running backs however will go through the roof. So, I focus almost exclusively on running backs.

Understandably, many running backs that backup a weak starter will be drafted. If you look at the bottom 8 starting running backs in the current 2005 FBG projections, every one of their backups are projected to be drafted in a standard 16 round draft. Drafting LaBrandon Toefield in the 13th round in August is the same concept at play, just frequently absent the 'just in time' component. I prefer to not gamble at draft time, so unless there is overwhelming evidence that a second teamer has a good chance to be promoted early in the season, I'll go with handcuffing my studs and getting depth at other positions. I'm going to beat others to the punch on waiver wire FRB's, so I feel like I have the luxury of bolstering other positions in the draft.

Summary

We're looking for a change in starter status involving a free agent in our league. We're focused on FRB's We're aware of contractual scenarios which might favor increased time for a nonstarter. We're looking at starters who are struggling combined with backups who are gaining more practice and game time. We're focused on a 'watch list' of probable scenarios. We're relying on early input from insiders. We want to grab the new starter about a week before everyone knows about it.

2001 - Anthony Thomas
2003 - Dom Davis
2004 - Julius Jones
2005 ?

  • Derrick Blaylock
  • Anthony Thomas (again)
  • Chris Perry
  • Frank Gore
  • William Green
  • Justin Fargas
  • Arlen Harris

We don't know who, and we don't know when…but we all know a free agent will emerge and play a crucial role. Don't let the competition beat you to the punch. If you work hard, you can be aware of the change before the less informed. If you pull that off, you will have a giant advantage over the competition.

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