What is up everybody!? How are you people doing in the back? Good? There’s no back to the internet? OK! Now, huddle up: you’re going into fantasy football mode and there’s a secret you need to know that will win you the most leagues with the least effort and I’m going to tell you all about it. Right after this word from our sponsor! Donkey Teeth, take it away!
[camera cuts to DT eating ice cream out of the container with his hands]
Aw crap, we really suck at this advertising thing. Maybe that’s why we here at Razzball just give you the facts without the gimmick. We’re here to be in a community with you, help you win your leagues, and have a bunch of fun while we do it. So, meet me after the jump and we’ll talk about the best way you can set up your teams for fantasy victory. And if you want the TL;DR, here it is: just draft and have fun.
I’ll just blurt it out and save you the time: studies from multiple sites with multiple analysts who studied multiple formats all conclude that your best odds of success come from drafting a balanced roster. By “balanced roster,” we mean that you’re usually taking 2RB, 2WR, 1QB, and 1 TE by round 6. Usually, the optimal format for this approach comes from taking an RB in the first round, and often a second RB in round 2. I’m going to put this next part in bold because it’s critical: there is no perfect roster. However, there are many different ways to win your fantasy football league. You should draft your team in a way that feels logical and comfortable to you, and in a way that suits your playing style. Do you love trading and staying up at night scouring the waiver wire? Then take a lot of risks in the draft. Do you prefer to set it and forget it? Play the odds and go RB/RB/TE/WR/WR/QB in your first six rounds. Do you love to cheer for your favorite player or teams? Then draft those players. The only person who you should care about liking your team is yourself.
All right, should we just end the article there? Maybe. If you’re in an office league and you’re just looking to not embarrass yourself, you can help yourself out a ton by following the 2021 Razzball Fantasy Football Rankings and following the balanced team formula. Rankings are a guide, and every guide has its particular flavor and interests. Enjoy them as works of art and science combined, and don’t fret too much about which player is above who. Have fun with the game of fantasy sports, not the criticism of rankings. Thanks for visiting and I hope to see you again soon! For everybody else, let’s dive deeper into the theory behind draft strategy, and find out how the recent movement towards consensus rankings might actually be making your fantasy game worse.
Rankings are the heart of the draft because you take turns taking players and crafting your team. Razzball has some of the top rankings that you can access for free here: 2021 Razzball Fantasy Football Rankings. If you want some more advanced rankings and lineup optimizers for Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS), then check out the Razzball Premium Tools. They start at about $1 a week, which is the top value in the industry (and I’ve searched, trust me). However, there’s a movement prevalent in fantasy sports where we are finding the increasing reliance on “Expert Consensus Rankings,” which aim to find agreement among rankers and neutralize outliers. I wrote about this in detail in my preseason Fantasy Baseball Pitcher Rankings this year. Consensus rankings might be good at winning rankings contests, but they’re not particularly effective at helping you win your fantasy league. In fact, there’s evidence that consensus rankings are normalizing misses; in other words, in the effort to win the coveted title of “most accurate ranker,” some of these rankers are actually hurting your fantasy game instead of improving it.
Imagine this scenario: you enter a contest to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar. You can clearly see that there are 10 beans in the jar. You can step right up to the jar and count all of them. But there are ten other contestants in the guessing contest, and they all agree that there are 100 beans in the jar. Yup, 100. They put in their bets, and the host of the contest announces that the Expert Consensus Ranking for the number of beans in the jar is — you guessed it — 100 beans. Even though you’ll be proven right 18 weeks later, the Expert Consensus Ranking indicates that more people agree with the 100 ranking. It’s now your word against the word of the other 10, and the burden of proof is on you, rather than the consensus. You think this is crazy, so you Google, “How many jellybeans are in this damn jar?” Turns out the 10 other contestants all have great SEO skills and websites, and Google reports back that there are 100 jellybeans.
Seems almost relevant to other parts of society, doesn’t it?
The truth is, there’s no possible way you can accurately rank fantasy sports. There are over 1×10^41 possible combinations to draft 16 players for your fantasy football team. Stunning, isn’t it? Then why is it everybody flocks to Christian McCaffrey as the top player? Because rankers have good clues about what types of statistics make a logical choice for the most valuable player.
Most rankers agree that the most valuable statistic to predicting fantasy success is snaps. In other words, the more snaps a player is on the field, the more opportunity they have to produce fantasy value. We then look at the percentage of snaps that a player will touch the ball or be targeted. This is the share percentage. Then we look at the historical record of what happens when the player touches the ball. And, of course, the scoring format matters as well. Take a look at the list below and see how the very different types of performances all basically score the same in PPR format:
- A running back who comes in every game at the 1-yard line and scores 1 TD per game, doing nothing else: 18 yards, 18 TDs, 109.8 points on the season.
- A running back who is a bell cow and carries 250 times for 1098 yards but never sees the end zone and doesn’t participate in the passing game: 109.8 points on the season.
- A receiver who catches 51 balls for 408 yards and 3 TDs: 109.8 points on the season.
- A kicker who kicks 40 extra points and 23 field goals from within 40 yards: 109 points on the season.
I think you get my drift. There are many paths to arrive at the same end. Which player would you prefer of the above list? Which player likely had the more “enticing” ranking? It was probably the bell cow running back, right? So, why do we choose running backs so much more confidently as a “first round” choice, rather than a middling wide-receiver, or even a kicker? Doesn’t it seem so much more feasible for a receiver to get 51 catches than a running back to make it 250 carries?
Because positional scarcity creeps into play. In 2020, there were less than 10 running backs who rushed 200 or more times; only 8 running backs topped 1,000 yards; another 10 RB topped 10 touchdowns. Only 4 running backs did all three. If you’re in a standard league that drafts 2 RB with 12 players, only a few of you will get elite running back production. Everybody else will scramble to find healthy, productive, or useful RB. This raises the question: should we even bother to draft RB? The short answer is: Yes.
Zero RB and Zero WR
Analysts across the internets are spilling digital ink — toner, I suppose — over Zero RB and Zero WR strategies. These strategies usually hinge on not drafting a running back or wide receiver until after round 5 (and usually later). You can see in the image below how “zero RB” articles are pretty consistent among the fantasy football community, and you can also see that “zero RB” garners 20-30 tweets per day.
Let’s say it straight: Zero RB (and Zero WR) is a sub-optimal draft strategy that — on the whole — is less successful than drafting a balanced team. I searched through the multiple formats of the NFFC champions across 2019-2020 and found 1 example of a true Zero RB team winning a championship (the Rotowire Online championship). Nearly 20 other championships — including our own RazzBowl — were won by balanced teams or Robust RB teams (teams that take 2 or more RBs before round 5). If you don’t trust me, then here’s two legends arguing the same concept in different terms: Adam Levitan and TJ Hernandez. It’s not that Zero RB can’t win; it’s that Zero RB constructions are much harder to successfully create and more susceptible to interference in the draft room. In fact, it’s very easy to spot a Zero RB construction in the draft room, because they’ll be one of the teams that’s starting with 3 WR and a TE, thinking they’ll get a RB in round 6. Meanwhile, you’ve got a balanced team and you know that your ideal FLEX RB won’t make it past that Zero RB truther at the turn; you’re able to pivot and take the intended target for the Zero RB team without hurting your team. Meanwhile, the Zero RB team finds themselves down a target, and they become more constrained as they draft, and thus more prone to disadvantages. Chris Allen at 4For4 Football analyzed the outcomes for the FFPC tournaments and discovered that the majority of RBs on winning teams were taken before round 5. The two exceptions were David Montgomery (who came to prominence last year because teammate Tarik Cohen missed almost the entire season) and Antonio Gibson (who became the de-facto engine of the team after 3 quarterback changes). In other words, these later round RBs gained their snaps through arbitrary situations that are not predictable.
The Importance of Process
So we’ve established that there are many ways to draft a team and more efficient ways to draft a team, so what do we do with that information? We have fun by building a process. I mean, if you’re like me, you have fun doing that kind of stuff. If you want to win more often, you establish several logical processes that you could follow, and then deploy them as the situation is needed in the draft room. Here’s a list of things that you should keep in mind as you draft:
- Is the player recently injured? Is it a joint injury? If so, you should avoid relying on that player for 100% of their expected value. Draft them at a discount (i.e. if they “fall” to you) but not at a premium (i.e. “get your guy”).
- Multiple studies have shown that stacking improves outcomes in best-ball and DFS formats, and sometimes even in head-to-head. Stacking is taking a QB and at least 2 receivers from the same team, such that a good performance from the QB generally correlates to useful performance with the receivers. A proper stack will capture all the upside points for your team without giving other teams points. Obvious stacks this year include Ryan Tannehill / AJ Bown / Julio Jones, Matt Ryan / Kyle Pitts / Calvin Ridley, Matt Stafford / Cooper Kupp / Robert Woods, and Kirk Cousins / Justin Jefferson / Adam Thielen. Of course, some of these combos will be extremely hard to acquire. Studies show that you can generally seek players 1 round ahead of ADP to achieve a stack and benefit; any more “reaching” and you’ll end up hurting your team more than helping.
ADP is a Trap:
- And that whole average draft position stuff? Honestly, it’s pretty meaningless. There are some true top players in the top 20 that are evidenced-based choices to return value on draft capital, and even they have around a 40-60% chance at most to finish in their respective round tiers. After round 3 or so, you’re in 10% “hit rate” land and lower. Is Christian McCaffrey a better selection than Raheem Mostert? Yes, he has a much more likely top-tier outcome. Is McCaffrey better than Dalvin Cook or Derrick Henry? It really doesn’t matter; their likelihood to produce in the top 5/top 10 RBs are all about the same, with about the same chance at being RB1. So, draft one of each throughout the year. ADP is simply the sign of where groupthink intervenes in the game of fantasy football; if you know how to organize a team properly, you become immune to groupthink and become open to all possibilities of how you can field a championship team. This is why non-consensus rankings are so important, and why it’s important to understand how rankers craft their rankings. Some rankers are extremely good at finding valuable players in the middle rounds, but their process can be obfuscated by a consensus ranking. You can benefit greatly by looking at multiple sets of rankers and investigating their studies. And when it comes to the draft room, get your guy. The lament of the snipe (“I was gonna take him next round!”) is a signal to you — yes, you! — that your build relied not on the player you took but the player you wanted to take. So, next time, learn from your mistake and get your guy. Of course, rankings are there to temper our inclination to do wild things, like draft kickers in the 7th round. But just as I noted above how there are many different ways to end up with 110 points, you shouldn’t be looking too much at rankings after round 3 as hierarchical, but probabilistic. If you can see a path to opportunity for a player — injured teammates, coaching change, etc. — then always choose “upside” instead of “floor.”
- If you play in only one league, I celebrate you for making it this far. Bonus points for you! One league players — this section doesn’t apply to you. But for those fantasy managers who are in multiple leagues and active in DFS, you probably know the drill: diversify your rosters. You can use multiple tools to measure your “exposure” to a player — or on how many teams you have them rostered — and then gauge your level of risk. For example, if you only drafted Christian McCaffrey and Joe Mixon in 2020 — each of whom were injured almost the whole year — your teams tanked. You might have celebrated your choice to only draft Dak Prescott in all of your leagues, but when his foot separated from his shin, your QB1 became Andy Dalton. Sometimes, you need to take different players to ensure that you’re not locked into a single player who gets injured, runs into legal troubles, or gets game planned to irrelevance. No matter how much you believe in a player, make sure to diversify your rosters to ensure that you’re not subject to arbitrary injuries.
Diversify Your Draft Strategies:
- Because you’ll need to draft different kinds of lineups to diversify your rosters, you should be familiar with the many different draft strategies out there. Sometimes, you’ll just end up in a situation where Zero RB makes sense, whether it be because of the scoring, the league size, or the draft room. If you’re in a 16 team draft and George Kittle is on the board in round 3, do you take Kittle or RB20? You take Kittle, of course. That’s where skilled rankings come into play: because you use the ranking system of a skilled ranker who is actively looking for explosive players, you’re able to adjust your draft strategy to meet the needs of the room. Over on the baseball side, I was well-known for being against “Pocket Aces,” or taking two pitchers with your first two picks. What happened in one of my pay leagues with the Razzbois? I didn’t translate the start time of our draft to central time and I ended up with auto-drafted — you guessed it — pocket aces. I knew I was at a disadvantage to start the campaign, so I needed to adjust my draft strategy when I arrived in the third round, and I took explosive hitters to try and compensate for the hole I had dug myself. Other times, you end up in a sharp room and you need to play offensive to stand a chance. Don’t be afraid of playing suboptimal, but just know what you’re doing and think ahead several steps to take advantage of inefficiencies in the draft room.
Don’t Be Afraid to Challenge the Greats:
- There are no shortage of celebrity challenges in the fantasy football world. You can take on a ton of celebrities in the RazzBowl! Last year, I won an entry to the Data Force Charity Tournament and defeated 12 of the best fantasy footballers in the business. I wrote about it here: How to Win an Industry Fantasy Football Tournament. If you’ve always wondered, “Can I take the next step in my fantasy sports competition?”, the answer is, YES! Do it! Sign up widely and challenge the greats. We’re here to help you on your journey. The worst thing that can happen is that you lose, which is expected. The best thing that can happen is that you win, place, or show, and you start making connections in the fantasy world that can help you take that next step in your game.
All right, we’ve got plenty of digital ink spilled here, but it’s all you need to know for this year. Or maybe not…
Of course, the best thing to do is study widely. Know yourself, and know how you like to play. And have fun. Share your joy with the rest of the community. We’ll be here to celebrate with you as you play.
Take care this season, be good to everybody, and let me know what you’re thinking about your early drafts down in the comments!