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Risk and Reward - Thinking Through Your Draft
Firtz Schlottman
August 24, 2006

One of my guilty pleasures in life is the joy I receive in reading other’s commentary on fantasy football drafts and mock drafts.  Recently, the writers at thehuddle.com took part in the annual The Huddle Top Gun Competition Draft.  As part of the exercise, the writers scribble a few words of commentary about the writer drafting ahead of them.  Sometimes there are words of praise, sometimes there are words of wisdom, and sometimes there is criticism-worthy or not.  All-in-all, our draft is not that different that most other mock drafts/drafts that are published on the web.  While the draft itself is an interesting exercise, combining it with the commentary of others can give us an insight into some of the lessons to be learned from the process. 

Each owner in a draft, whether consciously or unconsciously, is making decisions about risk and reward during the draft.  There are two basic decisions: when (what round) to take a player and which player to select.  The problem is that most of us don’t think this out before the draft.  Either we are making a spontaneous decision when it’s our turn to select, or we are using someone else to do the thinking for us…a cheat sheet.  I would guess the number of fantasy owners that actually sit down and set up their own draft boards ahead of the draft is fairly small.  My objective in this article is to encourage the reader to put a little time into thinking through their own league, draft or cheat sheet for better results.

The single thread running through draft is an underlying understanding (or lack thereof) of the risks and rewards associated with any given player in a given draft position.  At one end of the spectrum there are a group of players who produce massive amounts of fantasy points (high reward) and never seem to get injured, get old, or get in trouble.  Not surprisingly, these players are drafted in the early rounds of every draft.  At the other end are the players that never get drafted because they are always hurt, sitting on the bench, sitting in prison, or playing in an offense that doesn’t utilize their talents for scoring or yardage (sorry, bone-crunching blocking well doesn’t score well in most fantasy leagues).

In between the two extremes are a large group of players with question marks-either they are talented players, but have been downgraded because they miss games with injury, have off the field problems, don’t get along well with the coach, etc., or they are steady, consistent players that show up every week, but are less talented than other’s at their position.  The talent players have more upside (they are talented after all) but they can also burn you when you depend on them while the steady eddies are going to give you consistent (albeit lower) scoring every week.

To help you think through your draft (or draft board) there are a few hints that can be passed along.  While they may appear to be common sense to some, many fantasy players (including us so-called experts) often lose sight of these principles during the excitement of draft day.

Tip #1 - Understanding How To Win Your League

This is one of those simple tips that looks obvious, but when you think about it a little, can have a profound impact on setting up your draft board.  You have to start with your goal.  This normally is one of two things: 1) make the playoffs (involves winning your division, wildcard, or finishing among the league leaders at the end of the regular season), or 2) winning your league (no playoffs).  How are these different?  In the first instance (playoffs) your league really plays two seasons.  The first season is to determine which teams make the playoffs and the second season is to determine who wins the league.  If you don’t make the playoffs, you can’t participate in the second season, so the first goal is to make the playoffs and hope for the best in the second season.  In a twelve team league, if a league has three divisional champions and a wild card team, in the first season there are four winners and your chances of winning (going on to the playoffs) are one third (4 of 12).  If you make the playoffs, no points from the regular season are carried into the playoffs-all the teams start with the same record.  If you play in a twelve team league with no playoffs there is only one winner after the first (and last) season and your chances of winning are 1 in 12.  That begs the question, which is easier?  The math and common sense tells you that it’s easier to make the playoffs and have a 1-4 chance of winning your league in the playoffs (it’s more likely that the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place team in the regular season will win two straight head-to-head games and be crowned champs) than it is to finish first in a non-playoff league as the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place teams have probably little chance to win their league with two games remaining,  The playoff league wipes the slate clean after the regular season while the non-playoff league teams keep any advantage or deficit they’ve accumulated throughout the season.

So why does this matter?  Because in the league with a playoffs, you don’t have to finish first at the end of the regular season, you can finish 4th at the end of the regular season and have as good a shot at winning the league as the team that finished 1st-this tends to reward consistency and punish risk.  The league that has no playoffs-finish 1st at the end of the regular season or you’re done- rewards risk.

Tip #2 - Understanding Your Roster

Roster size does matter.  In most leagues, you can’t start players that aren’t on your roster.  You also can’t start players any of your opponents’ rosters.  Some leagues even limit how many players at a given position you can have on your roster.  The rule is that the larger the roster size, the more your league rewards risk and penalizes consistency.

Prove it.

Ok, let’s take the example of two different leagues, one of the leagues has 9 rounds and the other league has 18 rounds and each of the leagues’ start 1QB, 2RBs, 3WRs, 1TE, 1DEF, 1K.  In the 9 man roster league, there are 9 starters each week and no back-ups and in the 18 man roster league there are 9 starters and 9 back-ups.  Each league plays a 16 week schedule.  How many games does each player have to start for each league?

In the 9 man roster league, each player must start every game-there are no back-ups.  If your player has a bad match-up…too bad, he starts anyway.  If the player is questionable with an injury…too bad, start him or cut him.  In the nine man roster league, the only way to get a new starter is to cut one of your starters off your roster and get a new starter off the waiver wire.  This weakens your team every time you replace a starter as you are replacing a player drafter higher with a player not taken in your draft…and there is presumably a reason why you drafted your starter in the first place.  It should be obvious that the 9 man roster league puts a high premium on consistent scoring and penalizes teams that draft risky players that may not play. 

Now let’s look at the 18 man roster.  Again assuming the same number and type of starters, how many games should each player start?  In a 16 week season, I only need each player to start 8 games on average.  If one player has a bad match-up, sit him on the bench and start someone else.  If a player is out for a month with an injury, you can keep him on your roster until he get better then start him when he’s healthy.  With an 18 man roster, I can have a core of starters every week, plus a bunch of reserves I can throw in when they get a really juicy match-up.  Some players I need for 12 games, my reserve defense I might only need for one or two games.  Obviously, this system rewards risk (up-side) and penalizes consistency.

Tip #3 - There’s No Free Lunch

I get a kick reading mock draft write-ups, especially for the writer’s grasp of the obvious.  The typical write-up goes like this,

“Well Bob’s Bobcats started out really strong taking two solid runningbacks in the first two rounds.  But I have to question their strategy of taking a tight end in the third round and their starting QB in the 4th round.  Their receiving corps looks a little thin to compete for a championship.”

No s%#@, Sherlock!  I would have been really shocked if Bob’s Bobcat’s had a strong receiving corps if their best receiver was taken in the 5th round or later. 

Wouldn’t it be great if my fantasy team got three draft picks each round?  That way I could have a solid roster from top to bottom. But no, each team only gets one pick per round.  If your league starts nine players each week, the 9th pick in your draft (at best) is going to be starting for your team every week.  How many readers think they are going to get a consistently high-scoring player without injury problems, legal problems, coaching problems, or other so-called question marks in the ninth round?  The answer is no one, zip, nada, doesn’t happen. 

In economics this is known as opportunity cost.  Once you select a player in a given round, you lost the opportunity to draft any player taken until you draft again.  As mentioned previously, the highest rated players have the most talent and the most opportunity; the lowest rated players have the least talent and the least opportunity.  As every player comes off the board, the next player is either less talented or has more question marks than the one before him.  The question then becomes, where do I want risk and where do I want consistency?

The answer is it depends on Tip #1 and Tip #2.  If I have a post-season format and a small roster, I want as few question marks as possible.  Whether my team finishes 1st or 4th in the regular season-no matter-if you make the playoffs you’re record is wiped clean and you move on to the playoff season.  But if you have a group of inconsistent players, watch-out!  You don’t get to carry over bonus points from one week to the next when you whip an opponent by 50 points one week and you lose by ten the next, you’re record is still 1-1.  I’ve seen teams that lead their league in scoring not make the playoffs because they would get all their scoring in one week and nothing in the next.  The key to this format is to know how many points you need to score each week to win enough games to make the playoffs and then to score that many points or more each week, in other words consistency.

Now if I an in a total points league with an 18 man roster (Oh, I don’t know…like The Huddle Top Gun League) I want to have scored as many points as possible at the end of the season.  Whether my team has a good day or a bad day on any given Sunday doesn’t matter, it’s the total at the end that counts.  So long as the big weeks are really big and the bad weeks aren’t that bad, I can win the championship.  What kind of players do I want to draft?  Players with huge upside potentials.  I can stash guys on my rosters hoping to get two, three, or four monster weeks when I need them and them have them riding pine while my regular starters are in.  In this league format, consistency won’t get you anywhere but 4th place.  If you want to win, you need to take some risks to score points.

Tip #4 - Putting It All Together

So how would you set up your draft boards differently if you were in a risk adverse league or in a risk-rewarding league?

In a risk-adverse league, I want players without unresolved issues.  I want to draft players with a history of consistent good scoring (typically runningbacks first), that stay healthy, that stay out of trouble, and that are clear starters on their own team.  I loved players like Brett Favre that you could get later in the draft, will start every game for you, scored good decent points, and never needed a back-up on the roster.

If I am in a risk-rewarding league, I want guys that have issues.  Players like Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Michael Vick, Mike Bell, etc.  will all be down-graded by other owners in my league because the have some kind of issue that may limit their playing time or production.  Perfect.  If I have six runningbacks on my roster and I start two of them, I don’t need six runningbacks to have great years, I need two runningbacks to have great years and a bunch of RBs that can start one or two games and have monster games.  If half of my runningbacks roster are complete busts, it doesn’t matter so long as I find two that have great seasons.  If you draft RB Mike Bell DEN in the sixth round and he becomes the number one runningback in Denver, rushes for 1,600 yards and scores 12 touchdowns, you more or less won the lottery.  If you draft Corey Dillon, he stays healthy, and Maroney never starts this year, you got one hell of a bargain later in the draft.  If Dominick Davis’s knee gets healthy enough to start 14 games, you probably got one heck of a deal if he got downgraded because of his injury. 

Are these players’ gambles? Yes.  Are they all going to work out? No.  I drafted Koren Robinson and the next day he got arrested.  If he’s a bust in the 7th round, is my season over?  No, I have five other receivers to choose from.  I only need to find three good receivers after all.  Once you understand risk and reward, setting up your draft board is a piece of cake.