To top off a nice 2020 fantasy football season, I won the DataForceFF Charity League against some world-class competition including John Paulsen, Jake Ciely, Sean Koerner, and Pat Fitzmaurice. Me, the guy that Grey picked off the streets in June with 100 Twitter followers, won an industry best ball competition against the elite rankers and players — guys with full-time jobs in fantasy sports and a combined 300,000 Twitter followers.
How did I do it?
I studied the game, and I followed a strategy.
I’m aiming this article to the hundreds of thousands — nay, millions — of players out there who are always wondering, “Can I really take the next step in my hobby?” I’ve talked to so many of you who are passionate about the game, but lack either the confidence to compete against “pros” or simply don’t know how to take the “next step.” In the spirit of “a rising tide lifts all ships,” I want to teach you what I learned this year in the hopes that next year, you’ll have a great season with your own underdog story of winning against stout competition.
Study the Game
“If you’re not at the top, you’re at the bottom.”
Since becoming an “industry guy,” I’ve heard this mantra over and over again. This was painfully clear to me when Walter McMichael — a friend of Razzball — won a huge DFS baseball tournament and gained entry to the DraftKings baseball championship. I congratulated him on his win and commented how my lineups for that day were a complete bust, and then he sent me a few screen shots of his previous week’s endeavors: all were busted lineups.
What became clear to me in my first year as an industry player is how many “sharps” don’t worry about their low-place finishes; rather, they focus on their edges that will claim those elusive victories. When they win, they win big. Their rosters are constructed intentionally, with purpose, and with passion.
Choose Your Edge:
When you’re drafting against the best minds in the game, every pick is intentionally made to give an edge: you don’t look for floor, you look for upside. It’s certainly true that fantasy managers can “luck” their way into championships, but when you’re playing in a room of “sharps,” you’re looking at a crew of managers that simply do not make mistakes. You’re not winning because you’re lucky; you’re winning because you’re adhering to a strategy that will give you edges. Sometimes the strategy will pay off, and sometimes the strategy won’t pay off. It’s the randomness inherent in the real life sport that gives the perception of “luck.” So, in order to present yourself with the best possible advantage and recognize what your opponents are doing, it’s best to be familiar with multiple strategies of fantasy roster composition.
In this case, I deployed the Robust RB strategy, which I wrote about in the pre-season here. In short, a Robust RB strategy asks managers to draft 3 running backs in the first 5 rounds or so. The antithesis of Robust RB is the vaunted Zero RB strategy, which asks managers to draft, at most, 1 RB in the first five rounds.
I knew from my study of the 2019 RazzBowl that the top teams in a competitive best ball tournament were almost universally constructed with a Robust RB format, and most of the best ball cutline winners from the general NFC tournaments were similarly composed of Robust RB teams. At best, I found a few “Modified Zero RB” teams — which featured a single star running back and then a plethora of backups and secondary RBs — which had placed in the championships. I simply could not find evidence of widespread success for Zero RB teams in the NFC archives.
Know the Field:
Before I move on, I want to state that I agree with Rudy Gamble’s sentiment: it’s incorrect to rely solely on one draft strategy. Robust RB does not work in every situation. Just because it worked for me in this league, is not to say that Zero RB strategies are inherently bad. In my opinion, Zero RB strategies are more susceptible to interference from opposing managers and more difficult to draft correctly than Robust RB teams. In other words, there’s more room for a fantasy player to make mistakes. Making mistakes means losing an edge, and that hurts your chances of a big win. You don’t have to be perfect, as I show below, but you do want to minimize your misses.
So why did I choose Robust RB in the DataForce Charity League?
The DataForce League featured best ball PPR scoring, 14-teams, and 1QB/2RB/3WR/1TE/1FLEX/1K/1DEF with 24 roster spots. The format was draft and hold, with no in-season adds. We also drafted in July, so there was no James Robinson popping up on people’s radars.
Already, you can see massive RB scarcity looming in that format: a potential for 3 spots to be filled with RBs multiplied by 14 teams equals 42 potential running backs starting each week. Both by historical record and Rudy’s projections, there were about 20 running backs in the 2020 NFL season projected to have 50% of their team’s snaps; of those, only 5 were projected to get 15% or more of their team’s passing targets. Comparatively, there were nearly 65 receivers who were projected to get 80 targets or more. In other words, running backs were going to be really scarce this year, with more options at receiver that would be viable plays late in the draft.
Of course, Robust RB was sunk this year for people who tried a combination of Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Joe Mixon, Miles Sanders, and Leonard Fournette. This is where “luck” comes into play: my RBs were healthy throughout most of the year, giving me a massive upside that produced enough points to vault me into first for most of the competition.
So, let’s take a look at how I followed that strategy.
Follow a Strategy
Here’s my draft, where I picked from the 10 spot:
|1.10||Josh Jacobs||13.10||Corey Davis|
|2.5||Austin Ekeler||14.5||Will Dissly|
|3.10||David Montgomery||15.10||Russell Gage|
|4.5||Cooper Kupp||16.5||Kansas City DEF|
|6.5||Evan Engram||18.5||Cole Beasley|
|7.10||Emmanuel Sanders||19.10||Devin Asiasi|
|9.10||Curtis Samuel||21.10||Steven Hauschka|
|10.5||Kerryon Johnson||22.5||Dare Ogunbowale|
|11.10||Ryan Tannehill||23.10||Greg Joseph|
|12.5||Breshad Perriman||24.5||Vance Joseph|
First, I made an unbalanced team by drafting three running backs in a row. Rudy let me know that he was not thrilled about my team in our Twitter chat. But, as I said above, when you think you’ve got a strategy that’s going to work, you stick with it. Now, I’m not trying to say “Tell one of the top rankers and two-time champion of Tout Wars to buzz off.”
The Most Important Thing in Fantasy Football:
I want to use this example as a learning moment: Rudy is one of the best drafters in the world, and he was looking at my team and pointing out where I might be deficient. I took that to heart and immediately transitioned to making a balanced roster.
One of the most important factors in improving your skill as a fantasy player is learning to take criticism and share productive opinions. Rosters are rarely made in isolation: you’re usually talking to people (or reading somebody else’s rankings) to ensure that you’re making the best choice. You will be derided and sometimes mocked by the general fantasy playing population because they simply don’t understand your process. The strategies and processes employed by many industry drafters are not necessarily intuitive or sexy or look good on a “draft grade” analyzer. Grey had a whole Twitter thread about how his drafts were graded C-F by the algorithms and yet his teams placed first in multiple NFC events. But healthy critique and a decision-making process is essential to success. When you find players who can critique your decisions in a productive manner and help develop you as a fantasy player, you stick with that crew. You build your process with that community and you share it, and if you’re on the outside, you ask to come inside. Great communities will help all comers, and I hope that’s what we provide at Razzball.
I trusted Rudy’s process in his rankings, and I knew that Jacobs, Ekeler, and Montgomery were going to get work when they were in the lineup.
The first thing I did after grabbing my running backs was to focus on my receivers, grabbing Kupp in round 4 and finding a huge value in QB in Round 5. Both Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray were on the board, but having just drafted Murray in RazzBowl, I decided to take Wilson to diversify my teams across industry competitions.
It’s worth pausing here to mention a strategy that many industry drafters follow: they limit “exposure” to one player. Sure, the Razzbois liked Kyler Murray this year. However, players get injured, or the coach has a bad season, or the player simply falls apart (cough, Carson Wentz). So with Murray on my RazzBowl team, I felt confident to take Russell Wilson — one of the most consistent QBs in the past four years — with my fifth round pick. I knew that Wilson was the only player to have 30 passing TDs three years in a row — which is an upside edge — and 2020 proved to be the fourth year in a row of 30+ passing TDs.
I followed up with a series of receivers who were “hits:” Engram, Sanders, and Crowder. Even though they missed time throughout the year and suffered team-related setbacks, their order in the target share on their team was generally undisputed. They were going to get targets no matter what, and I ended up with a group of receivers who basically saw more than 70 targets each.
But in round 11, I got my favorite sleeper QB: Ryan Tannehill. Don’t make any mistake: I absolutely should have taken 3 QBs into the season. I was very lucky that both Russ and Ryan survived 2020 unharmed. Following this draft, I started targeting Justin Herbert in the late rounds in other industry drafts, which was a very good choice.
Start at the End:
Corey Davis, Russell Gage, and Cole Beasley were all featured in the pre-season on Razzball. Using Rudy’s rankings, the writers saw that these receivers were poised for huge years, and they returned dividends on that trust. I knew that these receivers would be my late-round targets, so I purposefully delayed drafting receivers earlier in the draft, which netted me Russell Wilson and Evan Engram. By knowing who I was targeting in the late rounds, I was more confident in knowing the path of my early rounds.
I know that DEF and Kickers are nearly identical in points, so I waited to grab the Indianapolis and Kansas City DEF, grabbing them towards the end of the DEF run. Rudy had each of these teams ranked very high based on their ability to limit yardage, and I grabbed them at a significant discount compared to other drafters who were taking team defenses two rounds earlier. Again, because I knew my value targets on DEF, I was able to get my targeted receivers.
Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed by now: I went through the entire year without an active kicker. OK, Hauschka had a brief stint and that didn’t work out. I waited too long to get a kicker because I was worried I was short at tight end. I grabbed Devin Asiasi instead of pursuing a kicker, and that was a complete loss. I actually intended to leave the draft with three kickers, but, well, 14 managers exhaust the kicker resources pretty quick. My two kickers each lost their job in the pre-season, so I was left with zeroes in the kicker position all year. As Jake Ciely would say, “Ban Kickers.” No draft is perfect, and this was a glaring error on my part.
Of course, those three receivers aren’t sexy whatsoever. But I trusted the process, and I stuck with my strategy. By adhering to my rules, I left the draft with my desired Robust RB roster and all of my receiver targets. Because I started at the end of my draft planning, I was flexible to hit my early targets, which gave me the upside to win the league.
This is a practical example of why bold rankings work to help you win leagues: if you don’t know who to target late in a draft, you’re less flexible in your draft strategy. If I had not planned to leave the draft with the unsexy trio of Corey Davis, Russell Gage, and Cole Beasley, I would have needed to change my entire draft strategy and might have missed Ryan Tannehill or Evan Engram.
Know Your Strategy, Follow Through
As the saying goes, it’s “Process>Results.” It’s the process that makes your work sound, and the results will come in time. As we know, it’s not the losses that are remembered, but the wins. If you’re not finishing first, you’re finishing last.
So as we go into 2021, keep in mind that you, too, can deploy your process to great results. As always, play wisely and within your means. And most of all, enjoy what you’re doing, and help others enjoy it too. As an analyst, I’m happier having a community than a win. Yes, it’s absolutely awesome to have a huge industry win under my belt. I’m still giddy inside. But, without all of you Razzball readers to share it with, the win would be hollow.
At the end of the day, I want you — the millions of “fan” players out there — to feel that same giddiness of taking on some of the most stout competition in the world and taking a victory home.
Aye, you made it this far, didn’t ya. EverywhereBlair is, well, located at home right now. He’s a historian and lover of prog-metal. He enjoys a good sipping rum. When he’s not churning data and making fan fiction about Grey and Donkey Teeth, you can find him dreaming of shirtless pictures of Lance Lynn on Twitter @Everywhereblair.