As we build a website resource for new or struggling fantasy football owners, I wanted to touch on fantasy football advice for every aspect of the fantasy football experience. We have focused heavily and fantasy draft tips and preparation for draft day with projections, predictions, cheat sheets, and IDP rankings. But I didn’t want new owners to think that it all ends on your local fantasy football league’s draft day.
I’ve seen plenty of fantasy hobbyists who drafted a pretty good team, then let their roster crumble as the season wore on. These owners might have had more important things come up in their life, or they might have assumed their team didn’t need any managing, after the great draft they had. I’ve seen few fantasy rosters that couldn’t use a little improvement, once the season got started.
Think about your local NFL team’s yearly draft. These guys have a general manager devoted to team building and player evaluation. He hires a huge staff of scouts to find the best talent, then selects player personnel directors and development assistants to help groom the players drafted. Finally, the team has a staff of veteran coaches, the best from all the ranks of coaches throughout the U.S., who are dedicated to training players techniques and going over film study, to help them improve.
Yet out of a 7-round NFL draft, you generally consider yourself pretty lucky, if your team has 1-2 standouts and 1-2 other contributors. If you get 3 usable players out of a draft, you’ve done a pretty good job at drafting. All that time and money going into player evaluation, and the success rate is less than 50%.
Fantasy Football Draft
So imagine how treacherous fantasy football drafting is, when you have one guy who probably never sees the players in person, who does online research and subscribes to a number of fantasy expert services if he’s dedicated, or buys a couple of magazines if he’s not. These people are expected to have a 100% success rate on selecting players to their team. At least that’s what the fantasy owner assumes, who never tries to improve in-season.
Fantasy Football Tip #1 – Incremental Improvement
Besides player transactions to improve your talent level, there are other ways to improve your chances throughout the season. You may be telling yourself that these suggestions sound like a lot of time, but if you’re willing to put in a few minutes a couple of times a week for 4 months, you are going to enjoy the fantasy football experience a whole lot more. Winning is a lot more fun than losing, so take that extra little time to make sure you have the best shot at winning.
Start Your Best Lineup
Keep track of injury situations and start the players who give you the best chance of winning. That usually means benching guys who are listed as Doubtful (75% chance of being out) and Out (100% chance), and starting the guys who are listed as Probable (25% chance of being out). That leaves the Questionable players who are roughly 50/50 chances to start. That decision usually comes down to knowledge of the player (have they started in this condition in the past), knowledge of team or coach (do they hide injuries, or overstate injuries), the strength of your bench players (do you have another viable option), the relative strength of the player’s offensive team, and the match-ups your player options have (who is playing a bad team).
You aren’t always going to guess right. But if you pay attention to the Wednesday Injury Report and the Sunday morning Active/Inactive lists on KFFL, you’ll usually be able to play your starters with the best chance to succeed. If you’re going to play in a league where other teams depend on you to put a representative lineup out on the field, you owe it to them to at least try. Otherwise, you skew the game for all the other teams, which means you ruin the game for these teams. Sure, some want easy wins, but most want the sense of accomplishment of beating people who are actually trying their hardest.
Watch Out For Coach Speak
“Coach speak” usually means saying nothing that’s going to offend the other team and give them bulletin-board material (motivation). But there’s something I call “fantasy coach speak”, where an NFL coach tries to hide the injury status of his players from that week’s opponent, or tries not to tip his hand about which players are going to start. This is the bane of all fantasy football owners lives. All NFL coaches engage in this type of gamesmanship, but some are worst than others. Here’s the list I’ll warn you about going into 2010.
Bill Belichik and Fantasy Football
Bill Belichik, the head coach of the New England Patriots, is notorious for his secrecy about player injuries. He loves to leave his player’s status as vague as possible throughout the week, hoping to throw off the opponent’s film study and practice time, as they have to prepare for two different possible opponents. Look to last year’s Wes Welker weekly injury status in the first half of the season for an example. Welker was dinged up going into the season, and you could never tell whether he was going to be active on Sunday. Wes Welker usually played and contributed largely, but that wasn’t always the case. It was infuriating.
Making it worse, the Patriots have been known to list a full half of their roster as “Questionable”. This stems from a fine the NFL levied on the team a few years ago, when the league decided they weren’t being forthcoming enough about injury status reports. To prove a point through overcompensation, the Pats are known to publish huge lists of injuries, which is just as confusing, but doesn’t allow the league to fine them for secrecy.
Mike Shanahan and Fantasy Football
Mike Shanahan is back in the NFL in 2010, which means that shenanigans are back in place. “Shenanigans” is the nickname some fantasy football owners on a prominent message board gave to Shanahan, because of the secrecy and outright duplicity he sometimes used involving starting position decisions, especially to the running back position. After the Denver Broncos, Shanahan’s former team, lost Terrell Davis to career-ending injuries, the Broncos went through a succession of running back replacements. In the early years of the 2000s, a good number of these runners put up good fantasy numbers, so they were valuable players to have – if you could guess which one was the starters.
Since the Broncs has a proliferation of productive RBs, at the start of each season, and at key times throughout the year, Shanahan would play games with which runner he was going to start, for many of the same reasons Belichik does. This drove fantasy owners up the walls, and gave Mike Shanahan a bad reputation as a fantasy killer. Now that he’s back with the Washington Redskins and has Clinton Portis, Larry Johnson and Willie Parker all on the roster, it’s time for the new Redskins version of shenanigans to start up. I would stay away from this RB situation, at virtually any cost.
Gary Kubiak and Fantasy Football
Gary Kubiak was the Denver Broncos’ longtime offensive coordinator during the Mike Shanahan Era in Denver. You could say he learned at the feet of Mike Shanahan. He also was successful enough to get a head coaching job with the Houston Texans. Kubiak appears to have taken the philosophy of rolling in a bunch of runners, and eventually hitting on one who is successful. He also appears to have the philosophy that you should keep your opponent guessing.
Take Week 15 of 2009. After switching out Steve Slaton and Ryan Moats throughout much of the season, making it hard to get production out of these players, even on the odd week one had big fantasy production, Gary Kubiak decided he would announce Arian Foster as his starter for Week 15, right smack dab in the middle of the fantasy playoffs. Throughout the week, the Texans coaching staff talked Foster up, saying he had rare talent and could be the long-term answer at the RB spot. Two carries into a game against the lowly Rams, Foster had a fumble, and he was sent to the bench summarily, not getting on the field again. Fantasy owners across the nation howled.
I’ll grant you, you probably shouldn’t be starting the unheralded rookie in a playoff situation, so these owners got what they deserved. And there are plenty of NFL coaches who bench backs for fumbling the ball, especially when that RB is a rookie with no tenure or trust built up. But Gary Kubiak made it out like this kid could be the next Jim Brown, then dumped him after two plays. Those of us who followed Kubiak’s trek from Denver couldn’t help but notice a similarity to his mentor.
Josh McDaniels and Fantasy Football
Speaking of Denver, Shanahan’s replacement with the Broncos, Josh McDaniels, appears to have his own philosophies about winning in the NFL. Despite force-feeding the ball to Wes Welker and Randy Moss to the tune of an 18-0 record heading into the Superbowl two years earlier as Bill Belichik’s offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels has decided that a team shouldn’t have a #1 receiver, and that the RBBC approach is best. Fair enough, but McDaniels has taken the approach so far, that he’s said, “I hope we have a lot of guys that become our No. 1 receiver at different times during the year…We’re not looking for it to be predictable or throw it to only one or two players.”
In my years watching the NFL, teams with no go-to receiver don’t have a very consistent passing game. McDaniels seems to believe that team is more important than individual, which is why he shipped out “problem players” in Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall – who happened to be the Broncos young Pro Bowlers, too. I can even understand Josh McDaniels drafting character guys like Knowshon Moreno and Tim Tebo, though taking a project quarterback in the 1st round is taking things a little too far. But after saying Knowshon Moreno could be the franchise on draft day, the decided to hide him behind journeyman Correll Buckhalter throughout a large chunk of the 2009 season. The message was clear – no stars on this team.
I’m guessing that an NFL team with no stars is going to suck. Of course, Josh McDaniels has a point: that even star players have to submit to the team concept. But McDaniels seems to take his point too an extreme that’s likely going to cause him a lot of grief, unless he wins big without his team’s former stars. All of that’s academic, since football has a way of proving people either right or wrong.
My point with the Denver Broncos is: avoid 2010 Broncos players like the plague. I’m pretty sure the coach is going to call plays and give playing time in order to limit individual excellence, in hopes of achieving team excellence.
Fantasy Stars and NFL Coaches
All NFL coaches stress the team concept. No NFL coach can be taken at his word in the week leading up to a game. I wanted to point out a few NFL HCs that stand out from the pack, as far as fantasy football productivity goes. I would rant about Eric Mangini, too, but I think even the most casual fantasy football owner knows to stay away from Cleveland Browns players.
Know the Weather – Winter Football
When the cold months come, know your weather reports. Most fantasy league management sites offer direct links to weather reports among their listed NFL weekly matchups. One or two weeks of the year, these become incredibly important. Snow and rain have certain effects, but the ice and high winds are the elements most likely to cause trouble for your fantasy players. Ice is an obvious hazard, but the wind factor is the single-most underrated weather factor in fantasy football.
Take the Steelers-Browns game in Week 14, which was played in swirling winds that were consistently 20 miles per hour or more. In their earlier Week 6 matchup, the Steelers had pushed their winning streak over the Browns to 12 games, as Ben Roethlisberger passed for 417 yards and 2 TDs, while Hines Ward had 8 receptions for 159 yards and a TD. The Steelers won easily, 27-13. When the teams played in the swirling winds, though, Roethlisberger was lucky to post 201 yards, while Hines Ward posted 4 catches for 21 measly yards. The Steelers couldn’t move the ball all night, and lost 13-6.
The weather does strange things to teams. Look at the Patriots sorry showing the next week against the Buffalo Bills, which cost so many teams their playoff life. Since the bad weather corresponds to the fantasy playoffs, you have to be extra careful in starting players late in the season. Sometimes, the obvious choice isn’t the obvious choice.
Play the Match-Ups
Analyze the matchups and look for players against sorry teams and fantasy defenses, or look for players who have good matchups against certain teams or defenses. Knowing which players play best on turf is important, usually the fast ones, or the ones who make a lot of cuts. Sometimes, a lesser player is better, because your usual starter is playing a particularly hard defense.
Don’t assume this means you always do this. There are certain no-brainer starters in fantasy football, regardless of the opponent. I saw a guy start Randy McMichael over Tony Gonzales last year, because McMichael was playing the Raiders and Gonzales was playing the Panthers (fresh off 12-4 at the time). Gonzales had even posted a big Week 1, making the move even more inexplicable. I’m sure he had read an article like this, telling him to play the matchups.
The situation I’m talking about is when you have players who aren’t in the Top 5-10 at their position, who are marginal starters anyway, or who are elite players battling injuries playing a team that usually stuffs them – that kind of scenario. If these situations arise, see if you have a less prominent player on the bench with a great matchup.
Visit a Fantasy Football Forum
Online fantasy football communities and message boards exist everywhere. If you don’t have friends who enjoy talking football and fantasy football, this lets you find online friends who are eaten up with the subject. This lets you bounce ideas off of other fantasy football hobbyists. You can ask about trade proposals, start/bench questions, add/drops on the waiver wire, league issues concerning crazy trades and crazier commissioners, or just about anything related to fantasy football. If you’re searching for what to do next, join an Internet fantasy football forum.
Be Active in Free Agency
Once the draft is over, free agency is the most important aspect of fantasy football. Unlike the NFL, fantasy football roster sizes tend to be limited enough, that there are productive and useful players still on the waiver wire, once the season starts. In fact, there are usually a handful of difference makers still on the free agent list, often for weeks after the start of the season.
There are a lot of one-week wonders in the NFL, who have a huge game, get picked up in free agency, and then never get close to that production again. Then there are the players who slipped through the cracks in the preseason, who suddenly show they have game skills to play at a high level, or they’ve developed those skills in the offseason. Often, free agent acquisitions revolve around key injuries and guys stepping up to fill the void, but not always.
For instance, Anquan Boldin wasn’t drafted in most fantasy drafts his rookie year. This was in 2003, before the Arizona Cardinals were known as the pass-happy team they’ve become since. Anquan Boldin was a college quarterback, who was making the difficult transition to the pros. The Cardinals had drafted a 1st round receiver, Bryant Johnson, who got most of the attention as the Cards young draftee receiver in the offseason. Anquan Boldin, the 2nd rounder with a slow 40-time (4.72) and still learning the receiver position, was virtually forgotten – looked at as just another 2nd round reciever who might turn into something in a couple of years.
Cut to Week 1 of 2003. Anquan Boldin, playing the lousy Detroit Lions, posted an incredible 10 catches, 217 yards and 2 touchdowns. That touched off a free agent frenzy in Week 2 of free agency in fantasy leagues across the nation. Some assumed Anquan Boldin was the next coming. Others thought it was a fluke, that rookie couldn’t be that good, and that it was against the Lions, after all. But enough people jumped on the bandwagon that Boldin was a high commodity. Obviously, when Anquan Boldin finished his rookie year with 101 catches, 1,377 yards and 8 touchdowns, he had helped a whole lot of fantasy squads make the playoffs. It was like the teams who picked him up off the waiver wire had received an extra 2nd or 3rd round draft pick, which is the kind of production Boldin put up.
Of course, every season isn’t that stark, but free agency is huge. Most of the time, those week 1 wonders get half their season totals in one game, and you cut them three weeks later. But if you aren’t aggressive and you don’t put your chips in the pile, you have absolutely no chance of ending up with that handful of free agents that are going to help teams into the playoffs. Free agency lets you wipe away some of the mistakes of your draft, so you’re not entirely dependent on perfect draft accuracy, breakout candidates and deep sleepers.
Target Receivers in Free Agency
The wide receiver position is the one most likely to contain difference makers. I got Miles Austin off the waiver wire in one league last year. Most fantasy leagues that didn’t have huge rosters were the same. You’ve seen the stats, so you know that there are a greater number of starting receivers in free agency than any other position. That means you’re more likely to find a productive receiver off the waiver wire, than anything else. That’s another reason why you focus on running backs, instead of wide receivers, in the high rounds of your draft.
Injury Starters and Running Backs
Speaking of running backs, the free agent RBs who are productive are the ones who move up the depth chart due to injuries. Being a running back in the NFL is a brutal position. Emmitt Smith described being a ball carrier in the NFL to being in 20 to 25 car wrecks every week. The attrition rate is incredible.
In most leagues, veteran team owners understand this, and therefore most of the backup RBs are already on fantasy rosters across your league. But occasionally, there’s a situation where the seeming 3rd guy becomes the starter in an injury situation, because he has a skill set that’s better suited to starting than that scat-back you thought was the 2nd string runner. Or sometimes, injuries happen to both the starter and his backup, or fumbles happen and a coach goes with the third guy, or the coach goes with the “hot hand”. The point being, things happen with NFL running backs.
When that does, you take your shot in free agency on that running back. You can never have enough runners, and if you find one who is productive for 1, 2 or 3 weeks, you stash him on your bench. Sometimes, a guy has a half-season of pure greatness, where he runs harder and quicker and better than even he thought he could do. These guys can be difference makers, so take your shots on any free agent running backs who are getting the start in the upcoming week.
While we’re on the subject, this is where I remind you to grab running back handcuffs of your own guys. You might not be able to do it with every starting RB on your team, but you should do it with the key guys, especially the ones with the clear backup. If you get Matt Forte, make sure you draft Chester Taylor. If you get Deangelo Williams, do your best to draft Jonathan Stewart (hard to do, this year). If you have the guts to draft Joseph Addai, stash Donald Brown on your bench. This means you’re probably investing a 6th, 7th or 8th rounder on a backup, but it’s better than trying to trade for the guy after Forte, Williams or Addai get hurt. Good luck with that.
Watch Out for the FA Priority List
This is double for those annoying leagues that use the “waiver wire priority list”, one of the things I hate the most about fantasy football. A priority list gives the teams with the worst records waiver wire priority. So if you start out the season well, every single team in the league has priority over you on every single free agent. If you calculate wrong on who your starting RB’s backup is, you have pretty much zero chance of getting that backup. Frankly, you have zero chance of getting any useful free agent, which penalizes the teams that start well.
The idea of the waiver wire priority list is that it helps the teams having the bad season to compete better. In my experience, that doesn’t actually happen. Either the team owner is so apathetic to his team’s situation that he doesn’t make claims on the best free agents, or his team is so bad, that it doesn’t matter anyway. Most of the time, the free agent priority list serves to reward the teams that sit in the middle of the pack and who pay attention, while it punishes teams for having a good draft and starting out hot. It’s a disaster.
Advocate Blind Bidding
My favorite kind of free agency is blind bidding, where people make blind bids of imaginary dollar amounts on each and every free agent. Everyone starts out with the same pool of free agent points or dollars, and they have to decide how much each free agent is worth to them. This means that you can add those one or two players you feel desperate to add, though it limits your opportunities to do that with other players.
In other words, blind bidding is resource allocation, meaning it’s a legitimate fantasy football skill. There’s a strategy to it, as well as a level playing field. The waiver wire priority list is the lazy and unfair way to handle free agent transactions.
Fresh Legs in the NFL
Imagine a situation where an NFL team’s best two running backs are injured, perhaps for a few weeks, or perhaps for the season. You’re already halfway through the season, but some kid sitting on the bench is suddenly thrust into a starting position as an NFL runner. You might think that a running back who couldn’t climb up the depth chart isn’t worth having, especially if he’s an unknown guy who’s never done anything in the pros.
That couldn’t be further from the case. A fresh set of legs is huge in the NFL. If we’re in Week 9 or 10 of the NFL regular season, you have to remember that the starters from opening day have already played half of a season. Everyone on offense and defense has undergone a tremendous pounding, and every single player on the field is dealing with aches and pains, and often injuries, of some sort. As Daryl Johnston used to say, the best he felt all year was on the first day of training camp, and every day after that was a little worse. That’s the life of an NFL starter.
So this no-name runner has been sitting on the bench all year, resting. He’s gotten limited carries in practice, because the coaches want to get the starters ready to play. He’s probably been running the scout team offense, and maybe running back punts here or there, or otherwise contributing on special teams. But now, he’s suddenly the starting ball carrier, a centerpiece of the offense.
You see this coming. He’s got fresh legs, while everybody else on the field looks worn out. Suddenly, this guy is looking like Walter Payton out there. This happens every year in the NFL. Just last year, we saw Jamaal Charles, Justin Forsett, and to a lesser extent, Jason Snelling, Arian Foster and Quinton Ganther. Two years ago, think of Mewelde Moore, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Tashard Choice. The year before, it was Ryan Grant. I’m sure I’m forgetting names.
The point being, just because a guy has never done anything, that doesn’t mean he won’t do something over the next month of fantasy football. That’s especially the case, when he’s rested, and everybody else is exhausted.
Know Who to Cut in Free Agency
Knowing whom you should waive from your team is important, since every transaction requires you to make a cut. That’s the hardest part of free agency, finding guys you no longer want on your team. Sometimes, it’s easy, with injured guys, backup kickers and defenses, and that tight end with 1 catch in 3 weeks. Many times, it’s less obvious. That means you have to reevaluate your entire roster every week of the season, to see if your original reason for drafting a player still applies.
Before you waive a player, ask yourself if your original thought process in adding this guy still makes sense. If you drafted a backup running back, knowing he would be great if he ever got his chance, then you drafted him knowing that you were going to probably sit on the player – possibly for a long time. Those players are often either useless, or a tremendous asset. One play can change everything.
At the same time, if you have a receiver that you thought was going to beat out a veteran, but that veteran looks to be having a career resurgence, then maybe that’s a player who’s value to your team has receded. Players in the coach’s doghouse are always good to cut, unless it’s a player so talented, or a position so tenuous, that he could be back in good graces two weeks from now. This is sometimes a gray area, so don’t cut players you once thought were valuable lightly.
Stockpile Talent in Free Agency
No matter what your starting lineup looks like, continue to stockpile talent in free agent. If you find a way to improve your roster, do it. You can never have enough good players in fantasy football. If nothing else, stockpiling talent on your bench keeps your opponents from improving their rosters.
Besides, no matter how much depth you suppose you have, just about every fantasy football team is a couple of key injuries at any one position from a crisis – if not a disaster. My dynasty team had Chris Johnson, Rashard Mendenhall, Knowshon Moreno, Felix Jones, Kevin Smith, Michael Bush, and Donald Brown on it last year, and I thought there was no way I would be at a loss for starting runners. But when Kevin Smith went out for the year and Mendenhall had a stretch of games where he looked spotty, I was suddenly scouring the waiver wire for options (none forthcoming).
So even if you’re 10-0 and crushing every opponent in sight, continue to find ways to turn over the bottom of your bench. Stockpiling talent might let you turn 2-3 of those good players into a trade for 1 great player. The guys with excess talent are the ones who are likely to make that big trade that sends your rivals through the roof.