June 18, 2018 — Matthew Phillips
With the amount of information that’s available on the internet to anyone playing in a fantasy football league, it’s pretty easy for even the most novice player to level the playing field. So when the well-known strategy box gets filled with everyone knowing the same information, it’s time to start thinking outside the box.
Here are four alternative strategies for winning your fantasy football league:
Using Vegas Lines To Project Fantasy Performance – One of the more recent trends to emerge, thanks to dynamic fantasy football players, is using lines set by Las Vegas sportsbooks to project a given player’s point total for that particular week. Using the idea of “implied” points, which is a combination of using the total over/under for the week minus the point spread, you can predict how many total points a team will realistically score that week. From there, you can effectively “budget” how many points you think will be spread out among all the players on that team. As an example: if the implied point total for the Green Bay Packers is over 30 points, you can probably safely assume Aaron Rodgers is going to throw at least a couple of touchdown passes.
But the lines can tell us even more than how much a team could potentially score each week. For instance, we know how so many NFL games are often decided by what happens late in the fourth quarter, as teams are defending leads and rallying from deficits; that’s when we see point totals from quarterbacks and wide receivers especially explode. The point spread can be a great indicator for when this may or may not happen. Specifically, you actually want to keep an eye out for point spreads that are three points or less. As the spread would imply, that means there’s a strong likelihood that some team will be driving down the field late in the fourth quarter, to put themselves in field goal range. As we all know, this usually takes place through the air, since they have to move the ball quickly while preserving the clock. If you have the opportunity to play a quarterback who is adept in these types of situations, you know he has a higher chance of putting up good yardage totals as a result of being in this situation.
Another overlooked component of Vegas betting lines is weekly prop bets. They’re not commonly available, so you might have to do some digging to find them, but these can be a great indicator for how a particular player is projected to perform that week. For instance, let’s say you happen to stumble upon a prop bet of over/under 125 yards for wide receiver A.J. Green. That should be a big clue for you: why would Vegas set such a line? What do they know that you don’t? Especially in DFS situations, he might be someone you’d be inclined to start.
Evaluating College Football Players and Metrics – if you’re a fantasy football aficionado who’s not doing his or her homework on the college football game, you’re missing a huge piece of the puzzle. After all, imagine if you had the foresight to draft someone like Alvin Kamara or Kareem Hunt last season? There is a lot of value in not only paying close attention to the college game for (NFL) fantasy football purposes, but also doing research on their physical attributes and capabilities. You can locate a player’s “measurables” — height, weight, speed, and additional combine performances — on NFL.com, and Mockdraftable.com does a great job of assembling this data and using it to make a comparison of that information to a current NFL player.
Because of all the information available on the internet and various fantasy football draft guides, it’s getting increasingly harder to really discover those “sleeper” players from college. For instance, Hunt was a rather non-descript third round draft pick on draft day, but because of all the injuries to the Chiefs’ running backs, he was thrust into the starting role, and shot up draft boards. Conversely, Kamara was overlooked because many people wondered how many “touches” he would get behind Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson; the people who did take him were likely betting on the fact that Kamara was once a highly-touted recruit for the University of Alabama, and was a special talent in the limited role he played once he transferred to the University of Tennessee.
At wide receiver, we tend to have a bias towards players selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, which would lead people to ignore some of the studs that have been selected in the second round of the draft.
In 2016, everyone reached on guys like Corey Coleman (the 15th overall pick to Cleveland) and Will Fuller IV (the 21st overall pick to Houston). Meanwhile, Michael Thomas — whom many draft analysts had pegged as the best wide receiver in the class — fell late into many fantasy football drafts that year, because he was taken midway through the second round of the NFL Draft (and was the 6th wide receiver taken in that draft). This was a classic case of oversight.
We saw something very similar happen with wide receivers in 2017. Fantasy football GM’s “over drafted” guys like Corey Davis and Mike Williams, but overlooked the fact that JuJu Smith-Schuster was once a highly-touted, smooth wide receiver playing for USC. Smith-Schuster became the only rookie wide receiver to finish among the top 20 at the position last year, catching more touchdown passes than guys like Julio Jones, Mike Evans, and Larry Fitzgerald.
As a rule of thumb, no matter how talented a college football quarterback may be, it’s probably better to stay away from him for the purposes of fantasy football (assuming your league doesn’t have any keeper/dynasty elements), because it’s rare to see a rookie quarterback finish among the top players in his first year.
Picking Players From Winning Teams – Sure, it’s fine to think that you might have found some “diamond in the rough” on a team like the Cleveland Browns or the New York Jets last year, but how would that have worked out for you? Conversely, you know that on teams like New England or Pittsburgh, they’re going to score a lot of points (and win a lot of games). More often than not, if you blindly pick a player from those teams, the odds of them doing better are higher than the odds of someone on, say, the Buffalo Bills doing well.
Let’s take a quick look back at last year’s results. Six of the top 10 quarterbacks in scoring last year came from teams that made the playoffs, and the starting quarterback for both teams — Carson Wentz (prior to his injury) and Tom Brady — were both among the top five in scoring; Wentz was among the league leaders for most of the year, prior to getting hurt.
Even from the running back perspective, which can always vary in today’s NFL, we also saw six of the top 10 running backs in scoring come from playoff teams, including all of the top four running backs: Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Alvin Kamara, and Kareem Hunt (Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey were also in the back half of the top 10, in PPR/half-PPR leagues).
There was a bit more variance at wide receiver, although five of the top 10 players at the position came from postseason teams: Antonio Brown, Michael Thomas, Julio Jones, Tyreek Hill, and Adam Thielen.
Recognizing that it’s not always easy to predict which teams will make the playoffs each year, one easy way to build on this strategy would be to look at the Vegas over/under for win projections for each team. Unsurprisingly, Vegas is very bullish on the Patriots and Steelers, but two teams that should raise a few eyebrows are the Los Angeles Chargers and San Francisco 49ers. Those might be two teams you can “mine” for players that might otherwise get overlooked. On the flipside, you’d be well served to stay away from players on the Jets and Miami Dolphins, as Vegas has them projected near the bottom of win totals.
Adopting A “Zero RB” or “Zero WR” Strategy In Your Draft — Because of the way the NFL has moved towards a “pass-first” league, there’s a growing trend of savvy fantasy football players employing a no-running back or no-wide receiver strategy in their drafts; that’s especially the case in leagues that award points (or partial points) for receptions (aka PPR leagues). To be clear: we’re not saying to not take a single one of those players in your draft, but rather waiting ’til much later in your draft than you otherwise would have to take your first one. Why would you do this? At running back, we’re seeing a trend of more “running back by committee,” and the number of carries by a running back decreasing overall, so why invest a premium pick on a devalued asset? And while logic would state that avoiding a wide receiver in PPR leagues would be detrimental, because of the way NFL teams also spread the ball around among all wide receivers, and because of the sheer volume of passing yards we’re seeing, the amount of “above average” wide receivers that are available continues to grow. You could reasonably build a team filled with above average wide receivers taken in the mid-to-late rounds.
Entering the 2016 season, the “zero RB” strategy became very popular, because of the substantial margin in which the average wide receiver outscored the average running back during the 2015 season. That year, wide receivers were the dominant point scorers, especially in PPR/half-PPR leagues, since seven wide receivers had over 100 receptions; wide receivers accounted for 11 of the top 12 FLEX players in terms of total fantasy points scored in 2015.
A year later, we saw something of a market correction, as running backs made a resurgence in 2016; the top three FLEX players and six of the top ten were RB’s. That’s where the proverbial pendulum swung in the opposite direction, giving rise to the “zero WR” strategy, since there were 50 wide receivers who had over 150 points in 2016 (half-PPR scoring).
So which strategy should you adopt? It really depends on your cup of tea, because you could be well served doing either. Let’s say you take a “zero RB” approach, waiting until much later in the draft to pick your top running back. If you waited until the 8th round or later to take your first running back or two, you could still be looking at guys like Duke Johnson (who’s quietly been a very solid player in PPR leagues), Chris Thompson (a monster in PPR leagues before he got hurt last year), Ronald Jones (a rookie running back who’ll — very wrongfully — get overlooked because he fell to the second round), or Marlon Mack (the presumptive starter for the Indianapolis Colts). All of them could be very solid contributors next year.
Conversely, let’s say you took the same approach at wide receiver, waiting that long to take your first one. You’d still have options to choose from including Sammy Watkins (whom the Chiefs want to make their top deep threat for Patrick Mahomes), Emmanuel Sanders (who should see his stats boost with Case Keenum under center for the Broncos), Jamison Crowder (a highly underrated slot receiver for the Redskins who should bounce back with Alex Smith under center), or Julian Edelman (who’s getting devalued because of his four-game suspension to start the season).
Either way, there’s power in loading up early on one position, and going “bargain shopping” later in the draft at another position, because of the depth available at both positions.
These strategies may not be new to you, and you may already be utilizing these very tactics in your fantasy football leagues. However, if you are not, try some or all of these strategies and see how they work for you. One of these strategies may just be the edge you need to win your league this year.