If my fantasy football experience were a person, he could vote. He could defend our country. Next year, he'd be legal to drink in the U.S.
Length of experience holds limited value. Quality of experience is where it's at. It explains why everyday I see 20-year-old men and women who shouldn't come within 50 yards of a car or 100 yards of a ballot box, but they can give a more intelligent scouting report on the bars in their town than the New England Patriots can deliver on a class of wide receiver prospects.
If my fantasy football experience were a 20-year-old dude, he wouldn't be a straight-A student, class president, or an All-American athlete. He would, however, be the teammate that made the All-American look studly, the guy who ran a winning election campaign for the class president, the student that earned the grades top employers won't trip over when they schedule him for an interview, and a friend that serves as designated driver for his buds on Friday night. Make no mistake, after he drops his friends home, he's circling back to the bar.
The bartender invited him back to her place for a round of drinks and, if he's lucky, lively political conversation. Debate can be stimulating with the right company. A gentleman doesn't divulge details.
Fortunately for you, I'm no gentleman in fantasy football. This week's Gut Check gives advice on how to prepare for the fantasy season. About half of these insights are philosophical, the rest are practical.
1. Helpful or dangerous, advice always has value because it reveals as much about the advisee as it does the advisor. Sigmund Bloom recommended Rob Gronkowski at the end of the first round in 2014 re-drafts. Bloom was correct: Gronkowski's 184 fantasy points (non-ppr) placed him atop all tight ends, 10th among receivers and tight ends combined, and 11th among running backs.
Forget about the quality of Bloom's recommendation and recall last year how you reacted to this advice if you knew about it. Did you scoff at the idea and reject it out of hand or were you open to the possibility and did some of your own homework? Why did you do what you did?
How you react to advice indicates your willingness to learn. If you're not willing to keep an open mind, you're not ready for advice.
2. Be open to the exceptional. Gronkowski has two of the top five all-time non-ppr fantasy seasons for a tight end (2014 and 2011). The Pats' star and Jimmy Graham now have four of the top five all-time seasons at the position and they did it in the span of four years. This is exceptional work from two players in offenses that maximize their receiving talents.
Most analysts that adhere strictly to the power of data discouraged you from considering Gronkowski at the end of the first round last year. Read this sentence again and note the word "strictly." I'm not picking on data analysis; I'm criticizing data analysts that wield their statistical hot takes with the fervor of conservative extremists.
Expand the scope of all-time fantasy performances at the position to the top 20 seasons, and it reveals why these conservative box score jockeys would not recommend picking a tight end among the top 12-16 spots in a fantasy draft. Half of the tight ends on the list didn't play during the past decade. In fact, 10 of of the top 20 seasons at the position happened before 2000 and 13 of the top 20 occurred before 2005.
Tony Gonzalez (3), Graham (3), Gronkowski (2), Cloyce Box (2) and Kellen Winslow (2) account for 12 of these seasons. In other words, 60 percent of the 20 all-time fantasy seasons at the position come from 5 tight ends. Unprecedented performances come from remarkable players in exceptional schemes that maximize their opportunities.
There is value in accounting for the extraordinary. At least one player had an exceptional fantasy season each year for five of the past six. There may be more, I stopped counting:
|2014||Rob Gronkowski||82-1124-12 (top-5 all-time TE season)||184.40|
|2013||Peyton Manning||450-659-5477-55-10 (top all-time QB season)||486.75|
|2013||Josh Gordon||14 games, 87-1646-9 (top-12 all-time WR season)||227.40|
|2013||Demaryius Thomas||92-1430-14 (top-12 all-time WR season)||227|
|2011||Calvin Johnson||96-1681-16 (top-12 all-time WR season)||265.20|
|2011||Rob Gronkowski||90-1327-17 (top-5 all-time TE season)||240.90|
|2011||Jimmy Graham||99-1310-11 (top-5 all-time TE season)||197.00|
|2010||Arian Foster||2218 total yards and 18 TDs||329.80|
|2009||Chris Johnson||2509 total yards and 16 TDs||346.90|
I left off Calvin Johnson's (220.9 Fpts) 2013 campaign that also broke into the top-12 all-time WR fantasy season. Adrian Peterson's 309-point output in 2012, which included a 2000-yard rushing season off a torn ACL sustained less than a year prior, was an unheard of feat in the NFL, but not special production strictly by the fantasy points.
Remain open to the possibility that 1-2 players in football are capable of record-setting production each season. Project for it and take your shot on one of them. Taking a risk or two in the early rounds of a draft won't kill your season if you understand how to play the entire game of fantasy football.
Accounting for a special case gives you the potential to land a season-changing player, but don't go crazy with the idea. Otherwise, you're wielding your statistical analysis with liberal extremism. A wingnut is a wingnut afterall.
3. History is your guide, not your ruler. This point is another to glean from the Gronkowski example. Too many people use the data to strictly play the odds based on past history. The desire to eliminate egregious, beginner-level mistakes has good intentions. Lean too much on playing it safe, however, and you're relying on luck to give you that exceptional player or opportunity.
The difference between a good fantasy season and a great one can come down to a single player, trade, free agent transaction, or lineup choice. The more skill you develop for the game, the more you should be considering that potential exceptional circumstance. This is true of many endeavors.
4. In other words, play to win. Otherwise, you're playing not to lose. Playing to win is an active choice; playing not to lose is passive.
5. Fantasy Production = Talent + Scheme + Opportunity. Gronkowski, Graham, Manning, Foster and Johnson are all easy examples of great talents earning magnificent opportunities in schemes perfect for their skills. What about a more pedestrian fantasy contributor like Joique Bell?
Fred Jackson testified to Bell's skill as a runner when Bell, a little-known UDFA from Wayne State, was competing for a roster spot in Buffalo. Bell lacked the pass protection skills to match the demands of the Bills' scheme and he didn't earn a job in Buffalo. The Saints and Eagles also cut Bell, because they had more established backs on their depth charts.
Bell wasn't a bum in Buffalo, New Orleans, or Philadelphia, he possessed the baseline talent to start in the NFL. He needed the opportunity to refine one specific talent (pass protection) so he could become an asset for an entire offensive scheme.
Nick Foles is a contrasting case. The Eagles quarterback was the No.4 fantasy passer between weeks 4-17 in 2013. Foles played in an offensive scheme that incorporated a combination of well-known concepts in a new way that tested defenses. The confusion opponents experienced allowed Foles to get away with errors that hurt many NFL quarterbacks, including throwing blindly into the middle of the field, placing the ball into double coverage, an extending plays too long.
With a full offseason for opponents to become more acclimated to the scheme, defenses exploited the gaps in Foles' talents. The Eagles quarterback was the No. 15 fantasy passer during the first 8 weeks of 2014 before succumbing to injury. The opportunity was still there for Foles, but the NFL adapted to the scheme, and exploited his current weaknesses as a talent.
This year in St. Louis, Foles could take another step forward as a passer. He could overcome his impulsive tendencies. The Rams scheme could be a better match for Foles' physical skills. The Rams' new starter is an NFL talent just like Bell is an NFL talent. Scheme and opportunity matter more to their success than it might with Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson.
When it comes to fantasy production, talent is often a fraction of the equation. Don't dismiss players or heap loads of praise on them until you know enough about their opportunity and scheme. A productive fantasy performer can have one of these three factors in limited supply. Recognize that in fantasy football "two out of three ain't bad."
6. The beans aren't magic. There are no skeleton keys, fountains of youth, cure-alls, or special algorithms that lead to fantasy football domination. Becoming a good fantasy owner is like becoming a healthy human being. There is no single pill, exercise, or food that will be the reason you lose weight and stay shape. It's a combination of good habits.
There are strategies, philosophies, draft day tools, analysis, and apps that will help you get better, but like proper nutrition, you need to use them in consistent combinations. Footballguys creates a lot of nutritious fantasy concepts. It's still up to you to use them wisely.
7. A winning fantasy team is a table. The strongest tables in fantasy football have four legs: the draft, lineup management, free agent acquisition, and trades. If engineered well, a strong table can function with one leg. Strong, stable tables with only 1-2 legs are generally more difficult to build. Learn to construct a 3-4 legged table well and you'll begin to see how it is possible to create a sturdy table with 1-2 legs, if you must.
8. In a competitive league, trading is the least profitable, the least timely, and the most difficult method of improving a team. An obvious point, but an important one to build on for subsequent advice. The premise of a trade involves giving up value to earn value back. Trade offers spark counter offers and belabored negotiations. Both parties involved often feel ambivalent when executing a fair trade.
Trades often reveal the worst of human nature. Even in quality leagues, there are a contingent of owners that begin negotiations with insulting offers just to see if you're foolish enough to take them. In rare cases, one of these owners be the unwitting fool. These offers don't come around too often. Jump on them.
For these reasons, most fantasy owners will test the waiver wire before engaging in trade negotiations. Adding player of greater value in exchange for dropping a player of lesser value is far more attractive proposition.
9. The easiest positions to trade away are the most difficult positions to acquire from the waiver wire:
- Known studs at any position (Easiest to trade, most difficult add via waivers)
- Team Defense
- K (Easiest to add via waivers, most difficult to trade)
Draft with this knowledge built into your strategy and your team will be easier to manage during the season.
10. Most fantasy owners aren't receptive to trades during the first 4-6 weeks of the season unless the offer includes a renowned player. Justin Forsett and Lamar Miller began the first six weeks of the season as RB8 and RB9 and they finished the season in the same spots, but neither player would have commanded RB1 value on the trade market in September and early October. Marshawn Lynch and Jamaal Charles are a different story. Accept the fact that trades are transactions of last resort, and often based as much on the perception of value as logic.
11. Because perception of a player's value often lags behind his actual worth, it's easier to trade an established stud than a higher performer with lower "brand value." Most fantasy owners faced with the choice of dealing one of these two players early in the season would also rather keep the brand name over the higher performer. If you must negotiate a trade early on, dealing the stud is the more difficult choice. With the right knowledge of your resources, however, it promises the greater return. See insight No.12.
12. Learn the positions that sustain their early-season performances the best and managing them accordingly. Based on five years of data (2009-2013), here's the rate that each position sustained its performance when it began the first three weeks of the season as a top-12 performer at its position:
- QB: 63 percent (58 percent in 2014)
- TE: 63 percent (75 percent in 2014)
- RB: 50 percent (30 percent in 2014)
- WR: 45 percent (42 percent in 2014)
Injuries are a greater factor for RBs and WRs than QBs and TEs. There are several practical insights here:
- 13. The best starters to trade away are the known commodities at quarterback and tight end. This is true if you have lesser-known, but highly productive depth and you've determined that their talent, scheme, and opportunity indicate sustained production deal the bigger name. You'll gain more from giving up that brand name.
- 14. Draft 2-3 quarterbacks with the plan of trading the one with the biggest brand name. Generally, you don't want to draft players with the intent of trading them, but you'll know if you're weak at a position and building on a strength may prove the better course. If you drafted a stud quarterback within the first 6-7 rounds and found that the best value on the board 6-8 rounds later is also quarterback, then this is a viable plan. If the names with the lesser brand values on your squad are producing to the guidelines of talent-scheme-opportunity make a deal. Use the following information as a selling point in your negotiations where possible:
- Only 3 percent of the quarterbacks (2009-2013) performing outside the top 24 after Week 3 earned QB1 production the rest of the way.
- During that same time span, 33 percent of the QBs that finished as QB1s began the first three weeks as QB2s.
- 15. Tight ends of value are more prevalent on the waiver wire because their points per game average is lower in most scoring systems than quarterback. It means fewer teams are stockpiling them. If you have a lesser known tight end with top-5 production and you have a stud tight end you can trade to upgrade other spots, do so.
- 16. In light of the point above, drafting 1-2 tight ends is the optimal strategy at the position. If your team begins the season strong, your opposition will be clamoring for backs and receivers. Taking a high-performing, but lesser-known tight end could give you leverage in a future deal 4-6 weeks down the line if injuries strike elsewhere.
- 17. Stockpile running back and wide receiver talent when drafting. They are the most liquid commodities on the fantasy trade market and make up the majority of points in most starting lineups.
18. Be prepared to trade for running backs. Although 50 percent of the RB1s at season's end between 2009-2013 weren't RB1s after Week 3, 82 percent of the runners that finished the season as RB1s were top-24 producers at the position after week Week 3 (67 percent in 2014). Of those top-24 producers, 32 percent of the RB1s at season's began the first three weeks as RB2s. (8 percent in 2014...Matt Forte was the sole RB).
Only 18 percent of the backs that finished as RB1s from 2009-2013--an average of a little more than 2 RBs per season--began the first three weeks of the season in the RB3-RB7 tiers. Acquiring a RB1 from waivers is a low-odds proposition.
Finding an RB2 after the draft is a little easier. From 2009-2013, 44 percent of the backs finishing those seasons as RB2s were ranked 37th-60th after Week 3. Only 7 percent of these season-ending RB2s were ranked lower than 61st at their position after late September.
This information is for two-RB lineups. The odds will be slightly higher in leagues that allow 3-4 backs as flex options, but then you still have to weigh the effectiveness of a RB3/RB4 versus a WR4-WR5 or strong TE2.
The free agent route for a RB is worth a try early in the season. You might hit on that waiver wire wonder thanks to your acumen or the advanced scouting of Footballguys' weekly Game Recaps, Upgrades-Downgrades, or Sleeper articles. One move can make a huge difference to the outcome of your season.
If you don't find that player by Weeks 4-6, it's time to negotiate a trade. It's the faster way to shore up your roster. Waiting on a promotion to a free agent back due to a starting RB's injury or poor play and then hoping that you have the waiver wire position or budget to win the bid over 9-15 owners is a far more passive approach with lower odds.
19. Hunt and gather wide receivers. Seeking a WR3 for your lineup? The five-year averages from 2009-2013 indicate that there's greater opportunity to find a receiver through free agency. A promising 62 percent of the wideouts that finished in the bottom third of the top 36 at the position entered Week 4 outside that range. A reasonable 30 percent of the WR2s at season's end weren't top-36 producers to begin Week 4 and a healthy 22 percent of WR1s weren't even WR3s by the end of September.
Many of these receivers outside the top 36 after three weeks are on fantasy teams and most were drafted. Even so, owners tend to lose patience with low producers and grow enamored with players coming off big weeks. It makes productive wide receivers easier to find off the waiver wire than runners. There's nothing wrong with trading for a receiver, but you can be a little more patient with free agency than you would during a RB search.
20. Judge the success of trades and free agency by impact, not efficiency. I counted the number of free agent transactions I made in a league in 2013 where I had a championship run. Of the 38 waiver wire moves I made in three months there were 4 players that panned out--3 contributors during the month of December (LeGarrette Blount, Marcel Reece, and Andre Holmes) and 1 starter in late October (Marvin Jones Jr). That's a "success rate" of 10.5 percent if you're being generous and counting starters and contributors.
I also made two trades. Only one yielded a starter that helped me.
These low efficiency rates should not dissuade fantasy owners from persistent effort to improve a team. When a league is competitive, the skill level among owners is higher and the differences in those skills are smaller. As 1-2 plays can be the difference between a win and a loss every week in the NFL, 1-2 personnel moves changes the course of the fantasy season.
Apply these 20 insights to your draft strategy and team management and you'll be a far more competitive owner. My experience will be toasting you from the bartender's house.