Three Tenets To Draft Your Fantasy Football Teams By In 2020
Every year, fantasy football gets a little bit harder. The fantasy football-playing population gets a little more intelligent. The advice proffered on cable TV gets a little sharper (the fault of the audience and producers more than the talented folks on TV) and ADP’s become more and more efficient. Fantasy football is not a game designed to be profitable; it is a game of inherent variance with a super low bar of entry because of publicly available (free) information.
To play this game profitably in 2020, we need to be thinking of the game structurally. It is not enough to just “draft the best players”. It is not enough to just “focus on upside”. This article is going to detail three structural tenets to follow in all of our drafts this offseason. As we create our portfolio of fantasy football teams in 2020, it is important to use these three principals to draft the most profitable combinations of players.
Median Projections Have Trouble With Ceilings & Variance
Fantasy football average draft projections are mostly driven by median projections. Even for players who do not build their own projections or subscribe to a fantasy football website with projections, they are subconsciously thinking of the most common outcomes for players and drafting accordingly. The issue with this should be pretty obvious: playing time is the most important variable for projections and playing time is extremely variable over the course of a season.
For positions with more stable volume, median projections are going to do a better job. Quarterbacks have much more solidity in median projections than running backs. Why? Running backs can go from third on the depth chart to the lions share of a backfield with a twisted ankle. There really is not a great way for median projections to project a player like Alexander Mattison. Sure, we can give him 15% of the Minnesota Vikings rushing attempts and 3% of the teams’ targets but that doesn’t really indicate his value to fantasy gamers. He is either going to be a player you can never start or in the event of an injury ahead of him, a league-winning style of player.
Consider the problem of maps (seriously!). As the University of Illinois’ explains “the earth is a sphere, and there is no perfect way to translate an image from the surface of a sphere to a flat plane. Nevertheless, cartographers over the years have come up with many projection systems that attempt to do just that, with varying degrees of success.” This article by Ian Delaney extrapolates the problem further if you are interested in more reading.
In fantasy football terms the translation is pretty easy: there is no skeleton key to project physically talented/efficient players who do not have a 100% clear path to playing time. Just as there is no perfect way to translate something round to something flat, there is no perfect way to translate the risk of injury, coaching decisions, or performance decline. The most obvious blind spot in projections is backup running backs who have paths to becoming league winners with shifts in playing time but this can also apply to pass-catchers.
The National Academy Of Sciences hones in a little bit closer to home for our problem in “The Uncertainty Of Population Projections”. After concluding “Users of…projections should be aware of their substantial uncertainty and should not use them without taking this into account”, they further explain something almost all fantasy gamers do naturally: “To assess and communicate the uncertainty associated with their projections, forecasters often construct alternative scenarios.”
Consider the examples of Mike Williams and Jamison Crowder who are going as WR44 and WR46 in high stakes drafts at this moment in time per fantasymojo.com. Crowder is entering his sixth year in the NFL and has never gained 1,000 yards and has only 20 touchdowns on 415 career targets. Williams is coming off a season of leading the NFL in yards per reception and had 11 touchdowns on 73 interactions (targets+rushes) in 2018. Yet, their MEDIAN projections have them within 10 points of one another in PPR formats. Our “alternate scenario” here is giving Williams more targets or letting him run on the good side of TD variance as he did in 2018.
Who would you rather have on your fantasy teams? If you are wanting to generate profits, the answer is Mike Williams. His range of outcomes includes far more seasons with 10+ touchdowns or 1,000+ yards due to his average depth of target and size. Crowder might even be a favorite to see more targets at equilibrium but has no chance of outscoring Williams at an 80th or 90th percentile projection.
After the 6th or 7th round of 12-team PPR drafts, we basically do not care about median projections at all. There is so little value in players like Crowder, Tarik Cohen, or other “safe floor” players that they hurt you more than they help you. By sacrificing ceilings to lock up your 9.7 PPR points a week, you cripple the championship ceiling of your roster. This logic is further expounded upon and explained in JJ Zachariason’s great Lamar Jackson analysis.
Another element of these alternate scenarios should be PACE, which Pat Thorman outlines for the 2020 season here.
It should go without saying but this is DOUBLY true in the FFPC Main Event and other high stakes formats where the goal is to beat our thousands of others in fantasy football total points. Median projections, even for the first few rounds, can be entirely thrown out.
Cliff notes: Median projections are an odd-fit for fantasy football, particularly after the first 50 or so players are drafted and playing time becomes more of an open question. Target players with wider ranges of outcomes and paths to monopolistic playing time at RB, touchdown ceiling at pass-catcher and rushing upside at quarterback.
Age Matters In Redraft Fantasy Football
It doesn’t particularly matter how you feel, age is absolutely an important factor in seasonal fantasy football. We often think of these things as important for dynasty or for researching prospects, but it absolutely comes into play in redraft. This has been known for years but somehow, we still forget.
Rich Hribar published the best evidence of this phenomenon all the back in 2015! His research showed that for all positions, unilaterally, production begins to decline sharply at 27 and falls off a cliff for all players after age 29.
Now, many smart readers will be pointing out things such as survivorship bias (players who are genuinely great are likely to stay great longer than average players who simply received a lot of touches) but the message here from a STRUCTURAL PERSPECTIVE is again apparent: draft younger players because they are both more likely to spike (look at how wide receivers jump from 23 to 24 to 25) and also less likely to suck. We want players who are good and who don’t suck at scoring points, right?
Maybe you believe this is something only hack fantasy football writers believe, but at a broad level it cannot be true. Wrong! This has been known on an actual-science level for a while. The International Journal of Sports Science and Engineering published an article all the way back in 2008 that confirmed “the rates of decline after peak are higher in football than other sports that are far less physically natured”.
The instruction here is not particularly complicated and is related to the first point. In order to acquire more ceilings and avoid worse floors, the concentrations of our rosters should be mostly younger players. Does that mean Julio Jones cannot have a good age 31 season? Of course not, but historically speaking he is a better bet to decline than post a better season than he did in 2019.
This is really something that people struggle with in fantasy but in all their decision making. They can know that something is structurally true but if they FEEL a different way about a certain player or situation, they throw out the larger math and go with their gut. You might be reading this and think “Yeah, sure, we can know that younger players are likely to score more points and have their floors fall out less but I really want to draft Julio Jones as WR5, Zach Ertz as TE4 or David Johnson at RB20”.
Obviously, this analysis is not suggesting “never draft a player over 27” but the lesson should be pretty clear. In building a portfolio, every player past their peak age of production is a risky asset that can’t match the high-end returns of younger players and has a higher risk of literally zero rate of return. When you are drafting teams, you should consciously be focusing on generating young cores and avoiding over-aged players as much as possible.
CLIFF NOTES: Players past peak age at RB/WR/TE propose asymmetric risk in fantasy drafts. Older players are both less likely to hit their ceilings and more likely to see their floors bottom out. Younger players are more likely to breakout beyond expectations. Further, there is a compounding risk + reward when you construct a portfolio of mostly old (risk) or young (reward) players. Remember, we are drafting for ceilings and not floors.
Bad Running Back Volume Is Still Bad
The most common trap for fantasy football players to fall into (young and old, good or bad, novice or accomplished) is to overdraft risky-profile running backs simply because they project to get a lot of “work”. The 2020 fantasy football season is shaping up to be cataclysmic in this regard because there simply are not many running backs who project for “workhorse” roles. CMC, Saquon, Ezekiel Elliot, Dalvin Cook, and (probably) Derrick Henry are really the only safe bets for 70% or more of the running back touches in their offense.
People would argue for Josh Jacobs, Joe Mixon, Miles Sanders, Kenyan Drake, and so on and so forth but let us be honest about the stark reality of the position. In 2019, there were only seven running backs who saw 50 or more targets while also receiving 200 or more carries. There were only five players at the RB position TOTAL who saw a 70% snap share or greater over the course of the season. Even players like Aaron Jones who were fantasy studs saw their playing time diminish. This situation was not solved with the influx of talented rookies at RB.
The market’s reaction to this uncertainty has been to promote running backs with couldn’t-be-clearer red flags. Todd Gurley, Leonard Fournette, Austin Ekeler, Melvin Gordon, Le’Veon Bell, and David Johnson are all examples of players with huge pratfalls who are being selected in the first three rounds because of “safety”.
Ben Gretch’s TRAP metric does the best job explaining the fallacy of over-drafting players because we expect them to get a lot of carries. Ben’s stat measures running back touches that are not receptions (a target is worth almost three times more than a carry in terms of fantasy points, regardless of all other contexts) and not a carry inside of the 20-yard line. Effectively, we want to draft as many players who will get Ben’s “high-value touches” (targets + rushes inside the 10) and avoid players who rack up useless volume.
Take a look at Ben’s 2019 HVT vs TRAP table and then realize that players like Mixon, Carson, Gurley, Bell, Melvin Gordon (in Lindsay’s role) and Fournette (with Chris Thompson added) are all being selected with premium picks. This is actually a situation where median projections ARE useful. When you start to do the math you can see that there are oftentimes not enough targets or touchdowns to go around for some of the middle-tier RB targets.
Obviously, you have to field running backs. It is not an option to just forgo the position. Further, the absolute, season-winning 300+ point seasons are exponentially more likely to come from running backs than wide receivers. It makes some intuitive sense why people might chase Todd Gurley’s bad knees or Le’Veon Bell maybe ascending in a non-terrible Jets offense. What doesn’t make sense is how many cautionary signals we will excuse if we think a running back is “starter”. Josh Jacobs isn’t getting targets in Oakland, guys. The Eagles desperately want to sign competition for Miles Sanders. There is no signal that the Jaguars plan on using Fournette at all like they did last year.
The converse of this is that we will often settle for David Montgomery types who basically offer no upside and are weekly nightmares (it is a weekly game after all). Montgomery started all season and only topped 20 PPR fantasy points twice despite racking up 242 carries and 35 targets. The year-end numbers for a guy like Montgomery will look good but he will rarely feature on league-winning teams. We actually like Montgomery a little this year and he qualifies as an upside player if something were to happen to Tarik Cohen but his 2019 season is illustrative.
I think the best way to think about running backs are like pre-flop hands in No-Limit Hold ‘Em. CMC, Barkley, Zeke, Cook, and Kamara are the group one hands (AA, KK, AK suited, QQ). You’re going to be in a great situation to win your league with these guys no matter what your opponents do simply because you have a mathematical advantage. This range of players (Mixon, Jacobs, Drake, Sanders, CEH, Henry) are still strong but more speculative and need one or two things to positively “hit” in their favor to be a winning hand. As we descend further and further into ADP, the market starts to overrate the strength of their middling holdings and play overconfidently. The group of RB’s going in rounds three and four are more akin to play Q10 off-suit speculatively but fantasy gamers tend to feel as if that selection is far stronger than it is (similar to how novice NLHE players play them).
Simply put, do not overdraft distressed assets just because the player pool seems thin. 2019 was an apocalyptic year for ZeroRB so it is very natural to overvalue “safe” candidates this year but it is well within the range of outcomes for several injury replacements to swing leagues in 2020. Do not be a prisoner of reacting most intensely to what you just saw.
Additionally, as we discussed in tenant number two, there is more upside in murky situations with young players (Swift in Detroit, RoJo/Vaughn in TB, ect) than there is in gambling on veterans who have injury/performance decline issues.