Winning With WAivers Is often a Low Percentage Act of Persistence
It doesn't take many players to change the fortunes of a fantasy team. Last year's Footballguys' Staff League is a telling illustration of how hitting on a viable fantasy performer in free agency is often a low-percentage endeavor, but the preparation and persistence is often worth the reward.
Known among staffers as FESL, there are three staff leagues: Alpha, Beta, and Omega.League assignments are determined by performance. Win or appear in the championship round and you ascend to the higher tier league -- or in the case of FESL Alpha, maintain your spot.
Due to the talent of the fantasy owners and the genuine goodwill we have as a staff, FESL is one of my favorite leagues now that I no longer participate in a local league with an in-person draft. Even so, draft night can be brutal.
I play in multiple leagues with the likes of John Norton, Maurile Tremblay, Jason Wood, Sigmund Bloom, Aaron Rudnicki, Clayton Gray, and Dave Baker. If FESL was a wrestling Battle Royal it would be like getting into the ring with Steve Austin, Lou Thesz, Ted DeBiase, Superstar Billy Graham, Brett "The Hitman" Hart, The Undertaker, and Curt Henning. It's less about winning and more about persistence.
We all know a great draft gives you quality material to build that championship table, but you still have to put it together and over the course of 15-16 weeks, these materials can wear out. You also have to contend with 9-15 others all bent on getting the best materials that are still available -- and they have no problem shoving you aside to grab them.
Quality competition notwithstanding, when I say it doesn't take many players to change the fortunes of a team I mean it. FESL Alpha was a 10-team PPR league with premium (1.5 PPR) scoring for tight ends. It held a 22-round draft and the starting lineup options foster many ways to build a quality team:
- 1 Quarterback
- 2-4 Running Backs
- 3-5 Wide Receivers
- 1-3 Tight Ends
- 1 Place Kicker
- 1 Team Defense
By Week 5, my team was 2-3 and not a high-scoring unit. Contrary to what you may expect, I didn't use the Upside Down Strategy, because I had the first pick in the draft and much of my competition tends to hoard runners in the early rounds. There is also a distance scoring component to the league.
You'll see right away why my team was floundering by early October:
My running backs were failing me. The Buccaneers line was not doing Doug Martin any favors before the Tampa runner suffered a season-ending injury. We know what happened to David Wilson. Ben Tate was nothing more than a semi-active handcuff early on and the rest of my depth chart was "talented enough, but hope and pray for a break."
My core producers were Peyton Manning, Tony Gonzalez, Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, and Wes Welker. It sounds good, but in a 10-team league I was in dire need of a runner or better production from a fourth receiver or two tight ends. Jared Cook, DeAndre Hopkins, were sometimes adequate-to-good, but finding the right combo to start during the opening month was oftentimes challenging.
Fast-forward to Week 13, and my squad went 6-2 from October through December, winning its first two playoff match ups, and eventually losing the championship game by less than 8 points to John Norton.The difference between my 2-3 start and my 8-3 finish (including playoffs) was a few waiver wire picks that hit and an October trade for a running back that paid dividends down the stretch.
The trade, a Jared Cook for Ryan Mathews deal with Jason Wood, sounds a bit lopsided in hindsight, but Cook had a healthy Sam Bradford and three double-digit fantasy games during the first five weeks of the season in this premium tight end league. Matthews had only two double-digit weeks -- and the week before I negotiated the deal with Wood, Mathews had a grand total of 3 carries for 8 yards against the Raiders.
Mathews was a major asset; producing as a top-five fantasy RB during the final five weeks of the season. However, 10-team leagues tend to have talent-dense starting lineups. It wasn't for cobbling together productive flex-plays in my starting lineup from the waiver wire, I probably don't come within 9 points of a championshp -- much less make the playoffs.
Playing the waiver wire is like grinding in high stakes poker; you pick your spots rather than expecting frequent takedowns of a huge pot. It helps you make up for mistakes that will happen along the way.
Last year, I dropped Ben Tate, Rashard Mendenhall, Kenny Stills, and Nate Washington from my roster in the first half of the season before adding them back. I picked up Mike James in late October only to enjoy his output for two weeks before he was lost for the season. Kenbrell Thompkins? I dropped and added him multiple times.
Jonathan Stewart -- as usual -- didn't pay off. James Starks, Bandon Bolden, Peyton Hillis, Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Ogbonnay, Donald Brown, Ronnie Hillman, and C.J. Anderson were all failed attempts at mining a reliable starter -- or rotation of options -- from free agency.
I made 38 waiver wire transactions in this league and by far my best additions were Marvin Jones Jr (late October), LeGarrette Blount (early December), Andre Holmes (early December), and Marcel Reece (mid-December).
Think about it. I added one quality starter from the waiver wire during the first three months of the season, made some effective lineup decisions with team contributors (not starters), and executed one successful trade. It's not much more than a 10 percent success rate.
However, most performance-related endeavors that foster a great deal of competition require are an endeavor of persistence. Athletes, songwriters, actors, fiction writers, and entrepreneurs often fail far more often than they succeed. Building a successful fantasy team sometimes happens on draft day, but being prepared to grind out the season pays dividends.
This week's Gut Check features tips and scouting that should help you approach weekly free agency with patience, persistence, and confidence.
Tip No.1: KNow Your League
Last week, I profiled the common league dynamics of free agency and trades based on fantasy position and time of year. If you understand the tendencies of your competition before the season begins then you'll be more prepared to act strategically and decisively. Here are some basics when it comes to most fantasy leagues:
- The difficulty of positions to acquire from the waiver wire (easiest to hardest):
- Team Defense
- Wide Receiver
- Tight End
- Running Back
- The difficulty of positions to trade (easiest to hardest):
- Running Back
- Wide Receiver
- Tight End
- Team Defense
- "Known Stud Commodities" at the skill positions are easier to trade regardless of position and fantasy owners are often more receptive to acquiring these players during the first month of the season than a less proven or unknown option who might outscore the "brand name."
- It often takes 4-6 weeks for fantasy owners to become receptive to a trade that does not feature a "Known Stud Commodity."
Making this knowledge an ingrained part of your team management practices aids our next step: Building a Free Agent Monitor List.
tip No.2: Building a Free Agent Monitor List
Organization is your ally. Coming from me this is quite a statement, because there are some areas of my life where I could recite this mantra five times a day and it wouldn't help me address my messes. However, I am pretty good at organizing information.
Most fantasy owners drafted for their leagues over the weekend. You have 10-15 days to assemble a list that should be helpful to you for the next four months. I recommend using a spreadsheet and create a tab for each position.
Don't get too crazy with how many players you list. In the beginning, a list of 20-25 players at each position should suffice. As the season unfolds you'll update your list to reflect important injuries, demotions, trades, and practice squad promotions that take place throughout the league,
You'll be continuously updating your ranking of the players on this list based on what you see, what Footballguys' recappers see, and/or what Sigmund Bloom recommends with his weekly waiver wire report.
For the sake of simplicity, I'm combining QB-RB-WR-TE onto on sample list. What you see below is not how I would rank these players. Some of them would not even make my personal list, but the document below is a good starting point:
Notes About This List:
- Some of these players will be drafted in your league, but I take the final 2-4 rounds of my tiers sheets and populate this list with the players that aren't drafted.
- Players on this list often include:
- Losers of competitions for the starting job, but projected to take over the job sometime this year (quarterbacks).
- No.3 and No.4 options at running back.
- Entrenched backups on the quarterback depth chart.
- Players serving lengthy suspensions are still on the PUP List
- Factors I'll use to rank players (the order of these factors vary by player):
- Spot on the depth chart.
- Fit with offense - for example, Dri Archer will never be used as the bell cow in Pittsburgh so his value drops a bit in standard fromats.
- Strength of surrounding talent - offensive line for RB and QB and surrounding skill talent that impacts QBs, WRs, and TEs. The Patriots, Eagles, Packers, Broncos, and Saints offenses are quarterback-friendly on this factor alone. Even if Ryan Mallett isn't comparable to Tom Brady, neither was Matt Cassel when he took over for the Patriots starter years ago.
Tip NO.3: A quick and Dirty Guide to Assessing Position Talent
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but here are telling traits that should help you make better decisions when assessing free agents.
A quarterback does not have to possess all of these traits to fail or none of them to succeed. Brett Favre was not a mechanically sound passer, but he was one of the all-time greats. If it happens, great, but you're not looking for a stud on the waiver wire so I'm not incuding arm strength high-end athleticism. Certainly these things can be helpful, but the best free agent fantasy QBs are often accurate, pocket-friendly options that thrive in garbage time.
- Anticipation - More important than a rocket arm, can the quarterback time his vertical routes so he hits a receiver in stride down field?
- Maneuvering the Pocket - These are tell tale signs that a quarterback will struggle versus pressure:
- Drops his eyes from his receivers when he feels pressure breaking the line of scrimmage.
- Makes sudden movements to run from pressure rather than shuffle his feet and slide from the pass rush while maintaining a throwing stance.
- Turns his back on pressure to escape when there is room to slide and throw.
- Anticipates getting hit and throws the ball off balance when he has room to follow through and deliver a more accurate ball into some of the defensive contact.
- Manipulates Coverage - These are behaviors that often indicate the quarterback understands how to read defenses and disguise his intentions.
- He'll stare down a safety, linebacker, or corner in one quadrant of the field before quickly turning and throwing to the opposite area.
- He'll change plays at the line of scrimmage and he's on the same page as his receivers with the quick adjustments.
- He's thorough with play fakes and pump fakes, selling them enough to make the defense react.
- Placement - This is a lot like Anticipation, but it also includes putting the ball in an area where the receiver has the easiest possible catch in the given situation.
Once again, you're seeking versatile, savvy players. High-end athleticism is a bonus, not a requirement.
- Pass Protection - If the runner cannot block, his fantasy value will be hamstrung to early downs. These are common pass-pro issues:
- The RB drops his head before making contact with a defender.
- The RB "catches" the oncoming defender rather than initiating a punch.
- The RB dives straight ahead and/or below the knees rather than across the knees/thighs/hips of a defender when cut blocking.
- The RB misdiagnoses his pass protection assignments.
- The RB does not move his feet after contact with the defender the engagement is too brief.
- Vision - This is arguably the most important trait of a runner. There are several components to vision:
- Anticipating penetration into the backfield - The runner should be able to read run blitzes and anticipate early impediments to his attempt before the snap and during the exchange with the quarterback.
- Good judgment when to stay inside or bounce a play outside - Very few runners have the quickness and agility of LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles to bounce a run successfully to the edge when it is not the design of the play. Runners who factor down and distance, field position, and have a true sense of their athleticism keep their offenses in a good game script and this enhances the potential for not only more carries, but better points per snap (efficiency).
- Patience - Good runners know when to hit a crease hard and fast and when to set up the development of the crease. It's about timing, understanding the blocking scheme, and reading the location of the defenders' helmets as they're being blocked. A defender with his helmet on the left shoulder of a lineman is cheating to the left and it's an indication for the back to move to his right. Plays where the offensive line pulls a lineman generally require more decisiveness from a runner than zone plays that are often slower developing.
- Pad Level - We often hear about runners that "run high," but this isn't as important as lowering the pads in enough time to attack the defender. Being first with a collision gives a runner more control over the engagement and it more frequently places him in position to earn yards after contact.
- Footwork - The best runners have a strong integration with their eyes, their mind, and their feet. They know where they're trying to go, see the potential obstacles and opportunities, and vary their stride length and pace in seamless fashion. Jerome Bettis' greatness was this trait as a short-yardage runner.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
Speed and height are wonderful qualities, but how a receiver controls his body through technique and manages his play against tight, physical coverage are vastly more important.
- Catching Technique - You're seeking receivers who consistently have their hands in the right position according to the location of the target heading to their body. Passes above the waist should be caught with fingertips up and thumbs and index fingers converging on the point of the ball; below the waist should be attacked with the pinkies and ring fingers converging on the point of the ball. Poor technique leads to dropped passes.
- Attacking The Ball - Good receivers come back to the ball after their break and extend their arms from their frame to catch the ball in front of their body. This enhances the chances to immediately control the ball even with an oncoming collision with a defender. The position of the arms often gives the receiver a second chance to make the catch if he doesn't make an immediate clean catch.
- Receptions After Contact - Quarterbacks shy away from receivers who drop the ball in tight coverage. Throwing windows are smaller in the NFL and an open receiver often has position on the defender more than actual space between himself and his opponent. This skill is a must for a receiver to remain a consistent starter in the league.
- Sinks Hips/Snaps Turn on Breaks - I have 15 different criteria points that I use to judge route running for receivers and tight ends in the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. One telling route point that demonstrates control and skill at earning the required separation on a route is when a receiver can go from full speed during the initial part of his route and come to a hard stop by taking one hard plant step to bend his knees and hips into his break. Most tight ends aren't great at this skill, but if they at least snap their turn so it's sudden, they'll succeed in attaining separation against most of their opponents.
Even if none of this information is new to you, hopefully it serves as validation that, good draft or not, you can grind your way to a championship-caliber team.