Fantasy Football 2015: How To Build A Great Fantasy Football Team

Reading Time: 12 minutes

I wasn’t planning on doing any fantasy football posts this year, but since we are on the verge of the fantasy football playoff season, I figured I’d share some thoughts on how I approach the game (and how you can improve your own squad in the future).

The following are some notes on how I build my fantasy football teams.

Some of this I posted in my own annual 12-Team H2H standard scoring fantasy league on Yahoo, which I’ve referenced in the past:

http://justtaptheglass.com/post/59679738437/fantasy-football-2013

Before I break down my own team, some comments on drafting and post-draft prognostication:

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On Draft Order:

(Note: I was the 11th pick in the draft.)

I like picking near the ends—2,3,4 or 9,10,11—although, I would’ve preferred to be on the “early” end. I don’t like picking at 1 or 12 because you forfeit a certain “prediction” advantage from studying the teams between you and whichever team is drafting at the end of the round (that is, if you’re paying attention to what the folks between you and the “end” are doing).

On Average-Draft-Position Disparity/“Reaching for Players”:

My theory is this…..

People at the ends—the late end (picks 9-12), especially—“reach” because there’s more uncertainty about who will be available when it’s their turn to pick again.

You’ve got to wait 20+ picks between choices, and then you get two picks in close succession. Most people go into a draft with certain people they’ve targeted; you’re probably higher–or lower–on certain players than the rest of the fantasy community, so you’re probably reaching down to grab those players when you can. And if you’re at one of the ends, it’s more likely that you will select a player earlier than his estimated spot on the ADP list because you may not get the chance to take them again.

If you’re in the middle, you’ve got less wait between picks, so you’re less likely to take someone you’re eyeing whose ten or twelve spots down the ladder instead of the highest-ranked “acceptable” player who is still available.

If someone ran these numbers, I’d bet there’s some validity to this.

Of course, this presumes that the ADP rankings are worth basing your draft around to begin with.

Every year, I take relatively-unknown players ahead of their ADP positions and every year Yahoo gives me a poor draft grade. The draft grade algorithm gives a ton of weight to its own rankings, so managers that thumb their nose at the system should expect to receive a poor grade.

Good thing fantasy success is determined by actual points scored, not pre-season conjecture.

This year, I picked Otto Porter, Jusuf Nurkic, and Jeremy Lamb at the end of my fantasy basketball draft—earlier than their expected draft positions. I expect to be rewarded handsomely.

A “reach” is only a reach if…

1) it’s known that said player is highly-likely to be available later than when you took them

or

2) that player’s risk/reward ratio didn’t warrant a pick at that spot, relative to what else was available.

ADP rankings provide some frame of reference, but there’s always room to exploit inefficiencies. I maintain that Yahoo’s player rankings, while better than most other sites, are still weighted too heavily towards what a player did the previous year. They take last year’s numbers as a base and then adjust up and down, based on surface factors—age, roster changes etc.

If you don’t do your homework, you end up paying for what players did last year or not giving enough credence to anomalies.

(In fairness, the most accurate projection of a player would require annual statistical overhaul and a ton of analysis that far exceeds what one could reasonably expect from a fantasy site; I’m just throwing this out there because it’s worth mentioning.)

On the importance of quality depth and not wasting draft picks:

QB and RB are two places where scoring is most consistent, that’s why I prefer to have my best players at those positions in situations where I have to choose where to get talent.

I make this point every year: injuries happen.

This is why quality depth—multiple, high-ceiling players at a single position— is so important. You need to anticipate losing players/production because of injury or other factors that impact playing time/productivity.

This is why I always blast [Rival Managers 1 and 2] for taking kickers and defenses way too early. You say, “well, he’s the best player at the position”. What you don’t understand is the talent you give up when you make these picks. There are players to be had in every round: just because the “experts” don’t realize it, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

It makes zero sense to spend a 7th or 8th round pick on a kicker or defense—zero. You can’t predict the highest-scoring defense–real-world defensive ranking does not equal fantasy ranking—and, in a fantasy league where kicker scoring is already reduced, spending anything but a late-round pick on a kicker is insane.

Of course, part of this is lost on [Rival Managers 1 and 2] ‘cause they struggle to pick out sleepers, so they don’t have nearly as much trepidation as I do about wasting a middle-round pick on players who are guaranteed to cost more than they are worth.

That’s why [Rival Managers 1 and 2] lack quality depth most years—unless they run to the waiver wire. Their drafts are monuments to inefficiency.

Breaking down Kene’s 2015 Squad:

Before commenting on my own team, let me say this:

I would have had no problem taking the following players with my first round pick:

RB: Eddie Lacy, C.J. Anderson, Jamaal Charles
WR: Dez Bryant

All of these players fit the positional molds of players I’d take with a high pick. Unfortunately, they’ve been huge disappointments for their respective fantasy owners, for varied reasons.

There’s a sizable luck element in fantasy football. In a game with so few trials—just thirteen one-shot competitions in the regular season—and a significant injury factor, seasons can be won and lost on a whim.

I haven’t enjoyed elite production from my first-round pick anyway, so this is a moot point. I’m stating this for full disclosure (and to demonstrate this article isn’t completely self-aggrandizing).

Here’s the team I drafted this year (11th Pick):
1. (11) Jeremy Hill (Cin – RB)
2. (14) Alshon Jeffery (Chi – WR)
3. (35) Latavius Murray (Oak – RB)
4. (38) Brandon Marshall (NYJ – WR)
5. (59) Chris Ivory (NYJ – RB)
6. (62) Eli Manning (NYG – QB)
7. (83) Charles Johnson (Min – WR)
8. (86) Tyler Eifert (Cin – TE)
9. (107) Devonta Freeman (Atl – RB)
10. (110) Brian Quick (StL – WR)
11. (131) Devin Funchess (Car – WR)
12. (134) Miami (Mia – DEF)
13. (155) Tyrod Taylor (Buf – QB)
14. (158) Cleveland (Cle – DEF)
15. (179) Nick Folk (NYJ – K)

As of Week 12, my team is 8-3, in the running for top-scoring team in the league (cumulative).

With the players I drafted, it’s no surprise I have done well this year, despite Yahoo predictions to the contrary.

Jeremy Hill was a bust, but I withstood the damage because of other solid picks at the position.

(Incidentally, Hill represents a decent value pick next year, as he will not face the stout NFC West defenses next year and his draft cost will be lower because his disappointing season will be fresh in the minds of the fantasy community.)

Usually, I avoid skill players from the NY Jets, even though I’m a Jets fan. Not because of any emotional attachment, but because they rarely have players who fit the mold of the players I look to draft. This year, however, with the acquisition of Marshall–off a down-season from Chicago—and assurances that Ivory would play more on third down, I figured both players would outperform their draft cost. https://www.youtube.com/embed/rZxNeFLuY98?feature=oembed&enablejsapi=1&origin=https://safe.txmblr.com&wmode=opaque

One of my favorite videos. The anguished fan at :38 is priceless.

I’m not married to any kicker or defense, so I spent late picks on players with favorable early-season matchups. I stream players at these positions and focus my attention on spots with real positional scarcity (see: running back).

I made a couple of free agent pickups (Dion Lewis, Ted Ginn – Week 1) to boost the roster and swung a trade (Dion Lewis for Brandon LaFell/St. Louis Defense – Week 8 ) as well. Because I did so well in the draft, I was able to stockpile talent at key positions, which helped me weather injuries and act as a clearinghouse for trade activity throughout the season.

I took a flyer on Tyrod Taylor—who hadn’t yet won the Buffalo Bills job at the time of our draft—because he’s the kind of QB who represents a winning value. I love running QBs in fantasy football—they provide two ways to score points from the position, while pure pocket-passing QBs possess just one. Rushing yards are worth more points than passing yards in most fantasy leagues, so finding a dual-threat QB for a low price always represents a good gamble. I figured Taylor would win the job because he has some talent and, while he’s spent his whole career as a backup, the two other QBs on the Buffalo roster were underwhelming.

He’s been a nice value for my team.

On Freeman and Eifert:

Its highly-unlikely I have Eifert or Freeman on my team next year. 

Not because they aren’t good players, but because their draft cost will be through the roof. Eifert will be a top TE pick, gone in the early rounds of most drafts.

I never spend early picks on tight ends. (More on this later.)

The mark of a great draft is watching the players you took in the mid-to-late rounds go significantly higher in drafts the next year.

Eifert will finish the year with 12+ touchdowns, an obscene amount for any receiver, let alone a tight end. He’s an excellent player and will be in the running for the title of “Top Fantasy Tight End” for years to come. Eifert has the body type of a high-priority red-zone target, but expecting him to put up that many touchdowns next year is not playing the odds. You have to factor in the increased defensive attention he’ll see, the accumulation of another year of football-related activity on his body. and the vagaries of football: you can only hope he matches this year’s production; you can’t expect him to surpass it; he’s been that good.

The reason you’ve got to be careful here, is, the price you’ll pay for Eifert’s value next year.

He’ll still be a great player next year, if he stays healthy. I’m just making a bigger point here: avoid paying for last year’s stats in this year’s draft.

Managers get burned when they pay top dollar to chase last year’s stats, especially for players who put up career-high production. Not saying that players can’t put up multiple years of league-leading production. I’m just calling attention to the exorbitant cost of going after players who’ve just lit the league on fire.

To get an established league leader at any position—quarterback, receiver, tight end—you’ll have to spend a high draft choice. It makes sense to fade those picks when the whole world has the same game plan.

Winners exploit market inefficiencies, not hop on bandwagons.

At a position like TE, where the opportunity costs of spending an early round pick is particularly dangerous, this bears repeated mention.

This is why targeting still-in-their-prime players who’ve had career-lows in yardage/touchdowns the previous year represents a good risk. Regression to the mean suggests that they’re almost certain to recover, unless there is some lurking variable (health, coaching scheme) that has permanently altered their underlying value.

Regression to the mean: Another reason you need to take a statistics class.

As for Devonta Freeman, I actually drafted him last year as well.

He displayed a pre-season skill set that suggested he could be a fantasy asset if given enough time. With only an aging Steve Jackson ahead of him, it was worth the gamble.

This year, with no established player in front of him, it made even more sense to roll the dice on him, even though he was listed behind rookie Tevin Coleman on the depth chart late in the pre-season.

I was actually glad he was hurt throughout August because it kept him covered up.

Any idiot can take Jamaal Charles in the first round. The people who are perennial contenders are the folks who land high-level contributors in the middle and late rounds.

I am trying to find dollars for the price of a dime. You do that by finding players whose games exceed their names, players who are unknowns but present intriguing opportunities because of their abilities and roster situations.

You have to draft tools, not stats.

That’s why i don’t fret when competitors say “who??? ” when studying my draft picks;

How To Build A Competitive Fantasy Squad:

The highest-scoring teams (notice I didn’t say “winning” teams, because scheduling and variance play a big role in your win-loss record) are usually the folks who do one of two things (usually, both):

1) Avoid selecting “busts” in the early rounds.

(A player can be classified as a “bust” if his cost far exceeds his value.)

2) Draft several players whose value far exceeds their draft price (e.g. 7th-round picks who put up 1st-round numbers)

(Picking up stars from the waiver wire can also fit here.)

This is why whiffing in rounds 1-3 is so devastating. Not only do you lose the expected elite production from your high draft choice, you forfeited the opportunity to draft other big-name stars who will never be available in the middle and late rounds.

Every year, I load up on receivers and running backs. I never spend high picks on tight ends.

(And, ironically, because I do a decent job every year of snagging good backs and receivers in the middle rounds, grabbing a tight end with an early pick might be a strategy I should consider. It’s not unlike winning an NCAA tourney pool.)

I understand the Value-Based Drafting argument on why one might take a tight end early; I am just not a fan of it. If your TE doesn’t put up numbers on par with an elite WR, it’s almost certainly a wasted pick, and chasing guys with a decent chance of being a bust is the first step on the road to fantasy ruin.

The nature of tight end play makes it difficult for them to match the expected production of a WR or RB. They do not run the ball and are not targeted on deep passes as much as a team’s wide receivers are. There are fewer opportunities to make a fantasy impact.

If you’re not getting a bonafide star at TE, you might as well wait to take one. I don’t like spending a second, third, or even fourth-round pick on a position with less scoring potential than running backs or receivers.

There’s a huge difference between elite fantasy TEs and the rest of the field, but there are so few of those guys in fantasy football on that established “elite” list. With Graham’s move to Seattle this season, only Rob Gronkowski was on that list, and his injury history still gives reason for pause.

When the point difference between run-of-the-mill guys is so small, why not just wait to the later rounds to take one? I am just not going to spend a fifth or sixth-round pick on a Travis Kelce or Jason Witten, not when I can grab another RB or WR. I am content to gamble on later round TEs who have a chance to shine. If they’re mediocre, I can live with that. Most of your league competitors have so-so guys starting at TE, anyway, so you are not behind the eight ball. You can always hit the waiver for a replacement-level TE at anytime.

It’s the guy who forgoes a chance to grab a running back in the third round to take a tight end who really needs to worry.

I treat fantasy football like I treat other competitions, including business. It’s a series of dice rolls; It’s all about probability. I want to give myself as many chances to roll a winning combination while denying my opponents the ability to do the same. I want to amass as many assets as I can at positions of importance.

If my opponent doesn’t feel the walls closing in, I haven’t done my job.

When compiling a team, it helps to understand football on a schematic level. I’ve played a lot of real-life football through the years and enjoy thinking about the sport on a more substantive plane than the hooting and hollering we see in the media.

True understanding of a game goes beyond memorizing numbers.

Just because a guy can quote stats and read a box score doesn’t mean he can project who can actually produce on the field. Reading ESPN or Yahoo or Rotoworld’s “experts” football opinion is entertaining, but if your basing your picks on what they’re saying, you’re not sneaking up on anyone.

Just because the starter for your favorite team goes down, doesn’t mean you should run to the waiver wire to pick up his backup. Being a productive fantasy football player is about more than just opportunity.

Fantasy sports are one of the few true zero-sum games in this world. Starting “Player A” means I cannot start Players B-Z. I’m not going to waste a starting spot on someone with limited upside, especially when I have options.

I’m sharp enough to know what I don’t know about the NFL, so I want to stockpile assets to increase my margin of error. Again, I want to seize as many shots at knocking out my opponents as possible while denying them a chance at doing the same.

So, what players are worth targeting in next year’s drafts?

As an author, I get the importance of elucidating concepts to create compelling reading. I am tempted to share exactly what archetypes I look for at every fantasy position. A number of the managers in my league read my work, however, and the competitor within me wants to keep mum.

I’ll compromise…

I target backs and receivers with the following qualities:

WR: 6″2″ in height or taller
RB: Players who catch a lot of passes

Players with those attributes have above-average fantasy potential for their positions for a number of football-related reasons, which I don’t want to share. I use a few other specific metrics to analyze players, but I won’t share those, either.

Will I go after players who don’t fit these molds? Sure. If the price and opportunity are right. I rarely spend early draft picks on players outside these parameters, though, because I know they represent players with lower floors for production. It pays to know exactly what wins when you’re competing against others. You have to keep the end game in mind.

To paraphrase Bill Parcells, you start taking exceptions and, pretty soon, you have a team full of exceptions.

Again, a “bust” is defined as “a player whose cost far exceeds his value”. The guys you take early are supposed to flirt with elite numbers. I’m looking for as little risk of selecting a bust as possible in the early rounds. You do this by understanding what types of players are least likely to crater, even if they don’t play as well as you’d like them to.

Remember, building a good fantasy team is about the process. Chase skills, not stats.

If you’re looking for more good fantasy reading, check out my buddy, Jon Bale’s, work. He’s got a lot of great ideas and he was on the ground floor of the whole daily fantasy sports boom over a year ago.

Did a feature on him a while back.

It’s been another fun fantasy football season, folks.

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