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Tuesday 21st Feb 2017

Yeah, I know. I’m a so-called fantasy baseball expert, what am I doing writing about fantasy football?

Well, here’s the deal. I've actually been playing football longer than baseball, perhaps more successfully. And while I don’t profess to know the football player pool nearly as well as I know the inventory in baseball, I’ll put my football draft strategy and game theory philosophies up there with anyone. All you have to do is supply your player evaluations. To that end, we are posting the projections our own Marc Meltzer put together for the Fantasy Football Guide, published by our good friend Peter Kreutzer. Staff writers Ryan Carey and Greg Morgan also contribute to the magazine. Click HERE to purchase a copy of the on-line version and be sure to inform Peter that Mastersball sent you via the drop down box.

What ensues is the theory supporting my drafting strategy, followed by a detailed description of the process with the finale revealing what I feel is the most effective means of execution. Fantasy football veterans will recognize this as nothing more than value based drafting (VBD), with a twist.

It actually started in fantasy baseball

My understanding of the evolution of VBD is Joe Bryant, proprietor of www.footballguys.com, introduced the concept to fantasy football after utilizing it in fantasy baseball. Fantasy baseball enthusiasts may be more familiar with the term value over replacement, as VBD is nothing more than adjusting projected point totals.

The key to VBD is understanding the means to rank players is not to use their raw projected points totals, but rather to make an adjustment based on what I call useful points. A useful point is that which everyone else does not have. By means of example, in a twelve-team league, the twelfth ranked quarterback contributes no useful points to his fantasy team. The number of useful points each other QB contributes is that over and above the amount garnered by the twelfth QB. A similar adjustment is made across all the positions to convert raw points to useful points. More details on this process will be reviewed in a bit.

Draft the line, not the position

Perhaps the biggest mistake made when deploying VBD is the assumption that the proper execution is to “take one off the top” because the top ranked player left via VBD has the potential to give you the greatest number of useful points at each turn. This is not the case. The idea is to accrue the maximum number of useful points over the course of the draft. The manner to do this is to surpass a target number of useful points in each round.  As will be illustrated later, sometimes the way to accumulate the most useful points is to skip over a player projected for more useful points since a player at that position will be available later that will beat that round’s target by more points than in the current round.

There are several reasons why this may be the case.

1. Improper ranking of players by focusing on just raw points and not adjusting for useful points

If several owners fail to make the necessary adjustment, a player with greater potential may drop. Perhaps by VBD, you rank the player as the 18th overall, but everyone else has him in the thirties because his raw points are lower than other positions. Strict VBD may dictate taking him in the second round, but you know he will be available in the third or even fourth. Once we get to actually putting a target number on each line, it will be apparent why waiting is the way to go.

2. Varying expectations of production

Even if all your competitors follow VBD principles, there will be some players you favor more than the masses. The trick is to recognize these players and decide how long you can wait before the player reaches the area where he may be snagged by one of your fellow drafters. The longer you wait, the more you will beat the target line, but you run the risk of someone else scooping up your guy.

3. Positional runs

Inevitably, draft dynamics will lead to several positional runs. A couple players at the same position are drafted and the rest of the league panics. Afraid they will be left out, they jump players at that position up the board, pushing more valuable players down to you. As will be shown later, there is a process by which your concern about this run can be assuaged, leaving you free to capitalize and pick up the potentially more useful player that slips through.

Part of your preparation is to think through the above scenarios and identify the players most likely to fall. You then pass on that position early in the draft, confident you will secure a more useful player at that position later. By more useful, I mean he will surpass the target of useful points for the later round more than the player you left on the board would have beaten his round earlier. Again, this will clarify when we delve into more detail with respect to setting these target lines later.

The Process: setting the lines

It’s time to get to the nitty-gritty. The following is the process to set up your target draft lines.

1. Determine the projected points of the lowest active player at every position

In the example discussed, we used the twelfth QB in a twelve-team league to set the useful point’s baseline. If one player per position is active, the determination is straightforward. If this same league started three wide receivers, the projected points of WR #36 are subtracted from all wide receivers, etc. This is done across all positions so the lowest ranked but still active QB, RB, WR, TE, K and D/ST all contribute no useful points.

Truth be told, things are not actually as seamless as implied. However, as will be explained, the ensuing difference in useful points will not cause a significant change in ranking or strategy.

The first caveat pertains to leagues using a flex position. A flex allows multiple positions to occupy that spot. The most common example is a RB/WR/TE flex. Some leagues use a WR/TE flex while a select few even allow a QB to be placed at flex. Regardless, the point is the use of a flex spot makes the number of players active at each position a little more difficult to determine. There is no proper manner, more choosing the method you favor. Here are your options.

a. Include all the positions that encompass the flex and determine how many players at each position are necessary to legally fill everyone’s active lineup, and then use the lowest projected player at each respective position to set the useful point’s baseline. Let’s switch up the example league to illustrate this. Our new model league has fourteen teams and starts 2 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE and a flex that can be any of the three. So you compute the projected points of all three positions and determine the top-28 RB, top-42 WR and top-14 TE. Next you find the remaining top 14 spanning all three positions. Let’s say this includes 6 RB, 7 WR and 1 TE. The baselines are determined by RB#34, WR#49 and TE#15.

b. Consider all the positions to be one and subtract the lowest projected player from the combined ranks to be the baseline for the useful points. Relating to the above example, this would entail identifying the 98th highest projected RB/WR/TE and subtracting those points from everyone at all three positions. That said, breaking the above into two pools, RB/WR plus TE may be better so that the VBD rank of the top TE is more representative of their relative value. So now we subtract the points of the 15th TE and 83rd RB/WR from the rest to set the adjusted points.

The second caveat will be discussed more in a bit, but due to the week to week nature of fantasy football and the ability to play matchups, a common strategy is to pick the player with the more favorable matchup to activate that week. The end result could be a committee player that produces more points than the lowest ranked active player at each position. That is, if in a twelve team, 1 QB league, you own the 14th and 15th highest ranked QB’s, you can play the matchups to generate a committee QB that scores as many points as QB#10 or QB#11. This skews the determination where you set the VBD baseline. Something you can do to alleviate this issue is not to use the last player at each position, but the one ranked a spot or two higher, in this case QB#10 or QB#11.

Something I have not seen emphasized when doing this value based adjustment is it’s best to use raw projected points per game as opposed to raw projected per season. A player expected to score 300 fantasy points in 15 games could be more valuable than one expected to score the same number of points in a full 16 game season. The problem is not all projection sources include a games played estimate. The reason I say could be more valuable is you will need a replacement player for the missed game and assuming the player is anything decent, using the player scoring 300 points in 15 games plus the replacement player could be more useful than the full season player.

At this point, you may be concerned and desire a more specific means of establishing the baseline. Fear not, being precise is not all that important. Think of it this way – players within ten or so points of each other are fundamentally the same player.  Ten points is nothing more than the lower player reaching the end zone one extra time while the higher ranked player scores one fewer touchdown. Predicting touchdowns is such an inexact science that this is perfectly acceptable. Not to mention, if you divide those ten points by the number of games played, it works out to less than a point per game difference. So at the end of the day, being “off” by a point or two when it comes to setting the useful points baseline is not going to alter the rankings at all. The team you construct will be the same.

2. Rank the players according to the adjusted points and tier

Setup a list of all players (including K and D/ST) using VBD useful points. Calculate the average points expected per round if the draft were to proceed exactly via this VBD ranking. That is, in a twelve team league, average the projected useful points of the first twelve players and this is the target points for your round one pick. Do this for as many rounds as there are active players. Depending on where you opted to set the useful point’s baseline, your last round or perhaps two may target a negative number of points. Don’t fret, this is OK – the reason why will be clarified soon.

On a couple of occasions, it has been suggested your goal is to beat the points target in each round, not just reach it. The reason is if you exactly meet each one, you have drafted an average team. The better teams score more than average which is why the objective is to surpass the target as many times as possible, by as much as possible.

You may be wondering how this affects your ability to beat the target if your pick occurs AFTER the midpoint of each round, since the target is the average. This is another instance where the three points discussed above come into play. Because of improper ranking of players, varying projections and positional runs, your draft board is going to differ from your competitors.  Ergo, almost always, you will have a player available to put on each line, projected to score more than the target number.

Three of a kind

To be completely honest, none of the above is ground-breaking theory and advice. This next section contains the chief elements that I have not seen elucidated elsewhere and comprise the crux of the strategy in lieu of “take one from the top.”

There are three ways to put a player on each line that will surpass the target total. Your job is to determine the most efficient means to mix and match these options in an effort to maximize the potential of your squad.

1. Draft the player

This is the conventional method and the one almost everyone would cite. As will be evident in a second, the best players make up this inventory.

2. Player by committee

This is the notion alluded to earlier. In essence, you are drafting two players to fill a single line. If you do your homework, you can find players with complementary schedules that can enhance the committee effect. But in general, assuming your reserve list is lengthy enough to carry two players for one position (and with bye weeks, most leagues do this), you can plan your draft strategy to take advantage of these committee players. Examples are drafting Ryan Fitzpatrick and Ben Roethlisberger to fill your QB spot or Jermaine Gresham and Jared Cook to occupy the TE position.

 3. Use an emerging player

Have you ever heard the expression “put yourself in position to take advantage of good luck?” This is nothing more than using an emerging player to fill a draft line. This emerging player can be a speculative draft pick or an in-season acquisition. Assuming you intend to put the emerging player on one of the final few round lines, it is not important to attach an actual point prediction for this player, just that you expect someone to emerge that will be better than the player you originally drafted on those lines. Someone like Stevan Ridley is an ideal example of a RB that may emerge, while Jerome Simpson could be a WR that fits the mold.

Putting the pieces together

As suggested, your job is to decide what players to put on each line so at the end of the draft; your potential useful points are as high as possible. Let’s go back to the earlier point suggesting it is sometimes better to pass on a player projected to score more useful points. Let’s say the highest ranked player on your board is projected to score 15 useful points and the upcoming round’s target is ten points.  Now let’s say the target points for the round after is seven, but you are certain you can put a player projected to score 13 points on that line, but he plays the same position as the 15 point player above. If you go with the 15 point player on the ten point line, you net five points. But if you wait, you can net six points by putting the 13 point player on the seven point line.

This is just an isolated example, but is the philosophy to carry through for the entire draft. The reason this opportunity exists is a mesh of several points already discussed including not using VBD ranking, different player projections, draft runs and the ability to use one of three ways to put a player on a line.

Something left out of this discussion is kickers and defense/special teams. It is my personal philosophy to wait until the very last rounds to fill these spots. At minimum, it is best to wait until your regular starting lineup (including committee players) and a couple of bye week reserves are secured. The temptation is always there, especially since VBD adjustments often put K’s and D/ST’s pretty high up on the adjusted lists. But trust me resist the temptation and wait at least until you are in speculation mode.

We have now tied everything together. Each round’s choice necessitates consideration of everything that has been discussed. Ultimately, the person takes the available pieces and build the best puzzle will win – or at least leave it up to fate with respect to injuries and the like.

Enough theory, show me the money

I’m guessing that seeing this drafting plan in action will facilitate its understanding. Presently, the most talked about aspect of fantasy football is how it is no longer automatic to draft running backs and perhaps the top wide receivers early. It is a viable strategy to anchor your team with a top QB or even TE in the first couple of rounds. Discussing this in terms of the aforementioned drafting philosophy should serve to crystallize the process.

The primary reason many pundits now suggest taking Aaron Rodgers or Jimmy Graham in the first round is they offer such a worthwhile advantage over the rest of the players at their position. This is nothing more than applying the VBD adjustment and noting how high the top QB’s and TE’s now appear on the ranking list. Truth be told, this has actually been the case for a couple of seasons, but since most analysts use anecdotal and not quantitative evidence, they have been slow to come around.

But here’s the deal. I am not in the “take a QB and TE early” camp. I recognize the potential is there as some will beat the target in each of the first two or three rounds. But by doing so, I believe you are depriving yourself of the ability to take advantage of a couple of very important points discussed earlier.

Let’s consider the committee player. Assuming the league requires starting only one QB and one TE, the easiest positions to utilize the committee player (other than K and D/ST) is QB and TE. By locking up your QB spot with Rodgers, Drew Brees or Tom Brady or taking Graham or Rob Gronkowski, you are precluding yourself from using the committee player path for those positions. This is not to say this cannot be done with RB and WR, just that playing matchups is easiest with QB and TE. For this reason, I still prefer to draft a RB or WR onto an early round line and build a committee player to occupy a later line.

Now let’s think about the emerging player. Multiple players will emerge at all the positions, but if you have a top QB or top TE on your squad, you are no longer interested in a player emerging at those positions, other than perhaps for trade bait. This reduces your ability to “take advantage of good luck” as the emerging player is not likely to outscore your stud. However, since in most leagues, you start multiple RB and WR, you can draft a top RB and WR and still take advantage of an emerging player by using him at RB2, WR3 or flex (if your league uses one).

This is not to say it is downright wrong to put a QB or TE on one of the top lines. At the end the day every strategy can work if you pick the right players. The top QB’s and TE’s offer some VBD advantage, plus it can be argued that the top QB’s are very reliable in that the chance they meet or beat their projection is better than the top players at the other positions. In addition, the RB and WR inventory is such that you can find ample players at those positions to beat the round targets throughout the entire draft. You just reduce your margin of error and eliminate your chances of taking advantage of a QB or TE that slips down to you in a later round or building a committee QB or TE.

What I want to do

Reiterating there are many ways to skin the cat and it is not when or why, but who you pick, here is the ideal draft for me. I’ll use the following as my active lineup: 1 QB, 2 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE, 1 flex, 1 K and 1 D/ST. And here is how I view those ten players:

1. Draft (4) - RB, WR
2. Committee (2) – QB, TE
3. Emerge (4) – remaining RB/WR, flex, K, D/ST
By round:
1–4: RB or WR
5-8: At least 1 QB and 1 TE, then play it by ear between QB, RB, WR, TE
9-10: Make sure I have 2 QB and 2 TE, fill in with RB and WR

At this point, I will consider a D/ST but will likely pass unless one I like happens to be available. I will focus on speculative RB and WR picks that might emerge in season and will take a third QB if he has the potential to emerge and outpoint my committee QB. Depending on the league’s waiver rules, I will wait until the final two rounds, going D/ST then K.

Well, there you have it, my ideal draft and the reasons supporting it. Again, I am not claiming that this is “right”, only that it fits my philosophy and the manner I approach things best. I will readily admit that I favor this method in part because I lack the confidence to fill the lines in rounds three and beyond with useful RB and WR since I do not know the player inventory as deeply as those who can do more homework. If you have a better handle on the second tier RB and WR, then by all means take advantage of the VDB advantage you can enjoy with the top QB and TE. Along those lines, the fewer teams there are the league, the more likely I am to switch it up and take a top QB or TE early. But in leagues with twelve or more teams that start a minimum of six RB/WR/TE, I am almost assuredly following the above manifesto. Finally, throw everything out the window in two-QB leagues as the VDB rank in this scenario makes it paramount that you secure one, if not two QB's early.

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