Fantasy Football Philosophy: Risk/Reward

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There are a few fundamental fantasy football philosophies I follow. Most of them have been covered 1000 times, but I have never done it here, so now it will be 1001. Some of them are hard and fast rules that I will never deviate from. Those are lessons learned through failure. Often repeated and mind numbing levels of failure. Others are just the general guidelines I follow. Those typically come from patterns I have noticed, or others have brought to my attention. This article’s subject is borrowed from ESPN’s Fantasy Focus Football podcast.

Last year I looked at the Minnesota Vikings and saw a pretty pathetic offense. Outside of AP in the backfield there was absolutely nothing dangerous about that offense. The Vikings had decent receivers, but they were not scary. They were the kind of receivers that could exploit eight-man boxes, but not the kind that would excel against nickel coverage. Additionally, their offensive linemen were decent run blockers, but terrible pass blockers. This was before injuries along the line made them ineffective in all regards. They had Norv Turner as offensive coordinator. He loves to ride a bell cow running back. They had a very good defense, that would likely keep them from ever being distantly behind in games. They also had a head coach, Mike Zimmer, who uses the ammo in his gun so to speak. It looked like a good year for Adrian Peterson as a fantasy football commodity.

Peterson is a player used to eight-man boxes, 300+ touches, and an entire football team riding him to success. He was also a 31-year-old running back. I gambled that he would be able to defy a virtually ironclad rule for his position. This is AP we’re talking about after all. He was coming off a 1485 yard season, and in the perfect situation for a fantasy running back, but running backs over 30 tend to fall off a cliff. Taking a player like that in the first round is taking your season in your hands. His average draft position on every site I use was in the top ten, I was certainly not the only one who did this last year. Peterson had 37 carries in three games played. The cornerstone of my team hardly played in 2016. I had broken a fundamental rule.

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The First Rule of Fantasy Football

I think I am borrowing this phrasing from Matthew Berry of ESPN but it is a commonly accepted fantasy trope at this point because a lot of people have. You can’t win your league in the first round of the draft, but you can lose it. The players you choose in the early rounds should be the highest point scorers you have. Your first round pick is the building block that the rest of your team is built on. It is not the end of the world if they are outside the top ten for their position. That is unfortunate and requires work to overcome but it’s not terminal. The first round is not where you want to roll the dice. You need to get points from your most valuable asset. There are times to take risks, but this is not one of them.

A player who came out of nowhere to score a ton of points last year, or a player with an injury history, are not the players you should be eager to select in round one. Players who have changed teams and newly crowned starters also fall into this category. They very well may succeed, it is not impossible, but most often they are not among the league’s elite. If you are in a bigger league and drafting near the end of the round you may find yourself with few good options for the first round.

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When to Take Risks

As you get deeper into a fantasy football draft, the consequences of a missed pick are lessened. A wide receiver selected in round eight is probably not going to score many more points than one drafted in round ten. By the end of round two though, every bonafide “bell cow” running back in the NFL is probably gone. The difference between a player selected in the first round and one selected in the third is usually massive. If you choose to take the guy coming off his third knee injury in the first round, well if he doesn’t have a fourth you’re in a great spot. If he does go down again, you’re in a pretty bad spot, missing a key part of your line up. Any player might get injured or have a down year. certain factors make it more predictable.

Injuries aside, suspended players are also solid choices for later round picks on occasion. In 2013 I drafted both Josh Gordon and Justin Blackmon. Both were suspended, and young enough that they had not cemented reputations in fantasy circles. Both had promising rookie seasons, over 800 yards receiving, but were on teams with bad quarterbacks. If I recall correctly I got both of them in the last four rounds of the draft. Gordon went on to have a 1646 yard and nine touchdown season in 14 games, almost single handedly winning that league for me when added to some average drafting early. Blackmon, of course, was suspended again after playing only four games. He had gained 415 yards and solidly contributed to my team’s success while playing though. I still consider it a good pick.

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Mitigating Risk

You can reduce this risk by using a later pick on what is referred to as a handcuff. For example, last year, using my terrible decision to go all in on Adrian Peterson, I could have selected Jerrick McKinnon later in the draft. He would be available some time in the last few rounds of the draft because unless AD got hurt he was never going to play. When AD went down though, he was the obvious choice to fill in. Because of that, he had value to anyone who had drafted Peterson and not operated with another backup plan.

You don’t need to handcuff your WR4. If he gets hurt you can probably just pick someone up who has not been drafted without losing too much productivity. It is only the top end players with good backups that need to be handcuffed. In this case McKinnon had a terrible season, but he did get 15 or more touches for three consecutive games when AD got hurt and was actually a fantasy improvement over Peterson’s terrible start to the season.

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Individual Defensive Players

The Intermediate and Champions league levels of the Detroit Lions Podcast fantasy leagues introduce the concept of selecting individual defensive players rather than just a team defense to fantasy football. There is a team defense intermediate league, not everyone digs IDP for their fantasy football fix, and we get that. When starting out in IDP the key thing to remember is that the best players are not the best IDP choices.  For example, Lions fans were often livid about Tahir Whitehead almost always allowing the tight end to make the catch before wrangling him down for very little RAC. That’s exactly what you want from an IDP defender. Whitehead was a top five linebacker in IDP scoring for 2016 because he put up stats. Paul Worrilow was the same kind of player three years ago for the Falcons. Neither could be called a great linebacker, but both were great fantasy linebackers.

A great corner who never gets challenged is a terrible pickup. Corners that play a lot of short zone coverage, which allows them to participate in run support, are far better picks. Good safeties on teams with bad linebackers should also fill out your defensive back roster. Turnovers are difficult to predict, but they usually coincide with a good pass rush. Teams that pressure the quarterback, play a lot of short zone coverage, and have bad linebacker play are the perfect storm for an IDP defensive back.

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How the DLP Individual Defensive Player Scoring Works.

  • Solo tackles gain one point
  • Tackle assists and tackles for loss gain 1/2 a point
  • Sacks and interceptions gain four points each
  • A forced fumble or extra point returned for a score earn two points
  • A safety or blocked kick earns one point
  • Turnover returns earn one point for every ten yards returned

IDP is a little more complicated to keep track of, but I found myself realizing how terribly I had drafted almost immediately in my first IDP season. The good news is that there are a hundred players thrust into unforeseen roles during the season and defensive players put in bad spots can still score points in fantasy football, as Whitehead and Worrilow have shown.

I hope to see you in the DLP Fantasy football leagues this year. I am still grinding the big guys on the mics to add another game to the list of things we are doing this season, but that will not be started until near beginning of the season.

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About the Author

Ash Thompson
Ash Thompson is a fanatical football fan, and less fanatical hockey fan despite his Canadian heritage. He is sorry aboot that. His spirit animal is a beaver with a shark's head. He enjoys maple syrup and tacos, but never at the same time.