As fantasy football draft season reaches its peak, you’ve no doubt seen several other strategies or philosophies on how to approach the draft. You might have read articles arguing for taking a quarterback early, or taking a quarterback late. Perhaps you’ve seen terms like “upside-down drafting” or “zero RB”.
The simple truth, as fellow Footballguys Sigmund Bloom is fond of saying, is that any strategy works if you pick the right players. Waiting at quarterback last year was a great move if you wound up with Russell Wilson or Ben Roethlisberger. Grabbing a quarterback early was fantastic if he was Andrew Luck or Aaron Rodgers. Similarly, the owner who grabbed Drew Brees at the top of the draft probably didn’t do as well. Neither did the owner who waited and relied on Colin Kaepernick late.
If we want to boil it down to the simplest possible form, the ideal draft strategy is “all else equal, pick the guys who will score the most points”. You don’t need any fantasy experts to tell you that. All of these different strategies are just different ways to try to approach the “score the most points” problem.
The strategy I’m going to write about today is a little bit different. It still boils down to “all else equal, pick the guys who will score the most points”, but it tweaks that with a slight caveat: “amount of points is important, but the timing of those points is important, too.”
Why Does Timing Matter?
For the sake of simplifying the math to follow, let’s imagine an 8-team league that featured a 4-team playoff during weeks 15 and 16. Let’s pretend that all teams in this league are perfectly evenly matched, and every single game is a 50/50 coin flip.
If I join this league, what are my chances of winning a title? Since everything is essentially random, all teams have equally good odds, so my chances are 1-in-8, or 12.5%. Good management is anything that makes those odds better. Bad management is anything that makes those odds worse.
Now, let’s say that I had a special cheat code that guaranteed, for one week only, that I would score the most points in the league. The only catch is that I had to decide before the season when I was going to use my cheat code. Which week should I pick?
I could choose week 14. The advantage of that is that the score is guaranteed to help me; if I pick week 15 or 16 and I fail to make the playoffs, then the high score is irrelevant. Without my cheat code, my chances of making the playoffs are 50%, (4 teams out of 8), and my chances of winning the championship once I make the playoffs are 25%, (1 team out of 4).
By guaranteeing myself a win in week 14, my odds of making the playoffs go up. Without the guaranteed win, my average expected record would be 7-7; with it, my average expected record would be 6.5-6.5 in the other 13 games, plus a guaranteed win in week 14, for an expected record of 7.5-6.5. That’s an average, though- maybe I get lucky or unlucky in the other weeks. Let’s say that the guaranteed win bumps me from a 50% chance to make the playoffs up to a 60% chance to make the playoffs.
Once in the playoffs, my odds of winning the title stay at 25%, so activating my “cheat code” in week 14 makes it so my odds of winning are now 60% * 25%, or 15%. Remember, prior to activating my cheat code, my odds were just 12.5%, so this represents a 20% increase. What a great cheat code!
What happens if I activate the cheat code in week 15, though? This is riskier, because there’s no guarantee I even make the playoffs to benefit from it. In this scenario, I’ve still got a 50% chance to make the playoffs, but once I’m there, I’m guaranteed to advance to the championship game.
Because my first playoff game is a guaranteed win, my chances of winning the title if I make the playoffs come down to just a single game, and are therefore 50%. So since I’m 50% to make the playoffs, and 50% to win once I’m there, my total championship odds are now 50% * 50%, or 25%. This is double my initial odds!
Perhaps a better way to consider the problem is to imagine that, instead of a cheat code, I suffer from a curse that guarantees I will have the lowest score one week. If that week falls during the regular season, my total title odds might fall from 12.5% to 10%. If that week falls in the playoffs, though, it becomes impossible for me to win the championship. My odds fall all the way to 0%.
Silly hypotheticals about cheat codes and curses aside, it should be clear that, even though you’re not guaranteed to be there to benefit from them, points in the playoffs are just intrinsically more valuable than points in the regular season.
How Do We Take Advantage of This?
When most people draft, they select players based on how much value they’re going to provide over the full season. In most cases, this makes sense. Predicting strength of schedule is virtually impossible before the season starts, so in truth we have little idea who really has a juicy matchup during the playoffs and who doesn’t.
There is a specific class of players, however, who are guaranteed to backload their production more into the latter stages of the season. I’m speaking, of course, of players who will miss the beginning of the season due to injury or suspension.
Tom Brady is the perfect illustration of this. David Dodds, Bob Henry, Maurile Tremblay, and Jason Wood all project player stats for Footballguys. Those four men have Brady projected to finish 12th, 5th, 10th, and 3rd in points per game. The consensus of the four projections has Tom Brady averaging more points per game this year than Drew Brees. Unfortunately, Tom Brady is likely to miss four games to suspension, so his season-ending projection totals rank 20th, 26th, 20th, and 19th in total points.
According to Footballguys’ consensus ADP data, Drew Brees is the fifth quarterback off the board this year, going around pick 41. Tom Brady is the 11th quarterback off the board, going around pick 82.
Now, Drew Brees is more valuable than Tom Brady because he will be around for the first four weeks, and his owners are therefore more likely to make the playoffs in the first place. Those four weeks are important, and Brees deserves to be going before Brady.
But, remember, the last four weeks of the season are more important than the first four. Imagine if you could wait an extra four rounds and land a player who would possibly match or beat Drew Brees in the playoffs when everything mattered the most?
Imagine further that we take this idea to its logical conclusion. There’s no reason at all we have to stop at Tom Brady. Prior to his groin injury, Arian Foster was projected to be a strong RB1 this year. Since his injury, Foster has been drafted, on average, as the 32nd running back off the board. With recent positive news that Foster might only miss four weeks, expect that ADP to creep up a bit over the weekend.
But even if Foster is drafted as the 24th running back off the board… imagine being able to wait until the 5th or 6th round and still land someone who could be a top-end difference-maker at the most important position during the most important weeks of the season?
And it doesn’t stop there. Todd Gurley is one of the best talents at running back to enter the league in years. He’s expected to miss the start of the season as he returns from an ACL tear he suffered last season. Le’Veon Bell would be the slam-dunk consensus #1 overall selection in every draft this year, except he’s suspended for the first two games of the season.
New England leads the league in rushing touchdowns over the past five seasons by a substantial margin. LeGarrette Blount looks like a strong bet for the guy who will be getting the red zone carries for them this year. His value has fallen slightly due to a one-game suspension to start the year.
Antonio Gates was the 2nd-best tight end last year in standard scoring, (3rd-best in PPR), but this year is being selected as the 15th player at his position. Some of that, undoubtedly, is concern about his age. But above that, most of his decline is likely attributable to his 4-game suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
Speaking of four-game suspensions, four days ago Martavis Bryant was selected, on average, as the 24th receiver off the board. Yesterday, it was announced that he would miss the first four games of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Time will tell how far his ADP will drop, but wherever he lands, he will provide potential fantasy WR2 production at a steep discount.
What Might An All “Strong Finisher” Team Look Like?
According to Footballguys’ ADP, what kind of team could we assemble if we went all-in on players expected to miss the beginning of the season? Here’s a sample squad that could potentially be assembled by a team drafting at the top of the draft in a 12-team league, along with their average draft position as of August 24th.
For this, I’ve focused on loading up with potential stars who will likely miss the start of the season. To balance, I’ve sprinkled in some unexciting veterans who are trending downwards. Some of those veterans might lose their jobs this season. Few of them will likely prove to be difference-makers. Luckily, we only need them to hold down the fort for a few weeks until our real starters return.
Obviously this is meant more as a skeleton or an illustration of what’s possible than a hard-and-fast draft plan. Perhaps Foster rises more with the recent good news about his injury. Perhaps Bryant doesn’t fall quite as far, or a leaguemate who hasn’t heard about his suspension grabs him in the 6th. Maybe Greg Olsen is available instead of Travis Kelce in the 5th, or you decide to forego tight end there entirely.
The point isn’t “this specific team is the key to dominating your draft”. The point is this: imagine that you see that team on your schedule in week 1. How do you feel? Probably pretty good. It’s the sort of team that causes your opponents to jokingly ask how you’re planning on overcoming all those week 1 byes.
Now imagine you see that team on your schedule in week 16. How do you feel now? Probably not quite as good, right? A lot can go wrong between now and then, but that’s a team that has the potential to enter the championship game with a top-6 quarterback, a pair of top-12 running backs, a pair of top-12 wide receivers, a top-6 tight end, and a handful of other quality RB2s and WR3s for depth and potential flex options.
What are the risks?
Let’s be perfectly clear: if your goal is to make the playoffs every year and see what happens from there, you should hate this strategy. Starting slowly will lower your chances of even making the playoffs. And in leagues where making the playoffs is extremely difficult, I would be reluctant to try something like this.
If you play in a 12-team league where only 4 teams— 33%— make the playoffs, this is a much riskier bet. In a 14-team league with 6 playoff times— 43%— it’s still a pretty big gamble. But in leagues where 50% of teams or more are making the playoffs, this gamble starts to look a lot more attractive.
Even in leagues where it’s easier to make the playoffs, starting slowly could easily be the difference between earning a bye and playing on the first weekend. There are a lot of ways that things can go wrong.
Remember, though, that the goal of this strategy is not to maximize the chances that you have a good team. The goal is to maximize the chances that you have the best team when it matters the most. The cost of this is that you also increase the chances that you just crash and burn spectacularly. It’s up to each of us to decide if the potential reward is worth that risk.
Beyond the risk of starting slowly, some of these players carry additional risks. It’s unlikely that Tom Brady’s suspension gets any longer, and I somehow doubt New England is going to have more issues with under-inflated footballs this year, but some of the other players don’t have that certainty. If Martavis Bryant tests positive under the substance abuse policy again, that’s another 10-game suspension he’ll have to serve.
Recent reports about Arian Foster have been positive, but it’s possible that his groin injury lingers, or he somehow aggravates it, and he misses far more time than we’re currently anticipating. Or it’s possible that he comes back, but is limited all year and is a shadow of his former productive self.
Antonio Gates has been a star for so long, but he is getting old for a tight end, and perhaps he experiences a dramatic decline in play this year. Perhaps his use of performance-enhancing drugs was all that kept him relevant last year, and he’s nowhere near the same player without them.
These are risks you take when drafting these players, and these risks should not be ignored. At the same time, we shouldn’t ignore that our current understanding might be too cautious, too. Tom Brady and Martavis Bryant are appealing their suspensions; if they are successful, they could be back sooner than anticipated. Original reports had Arian Foster missing eight games. That estimate has since been reduced to as few as four.
At the end of the day, though, it’s not about the risks. The goal of fantasy football isn’t to have a good team. The goal is to have the best team. As the saying goes, there’s no trophy for second place.
It's important to draft the players who score the most points, but if we want to win a championship, we should remember that some points are more important than others.