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Will 'Safe' Players Hold You Back in 2020?


Every year, you will see plenty of fantasy football strategy articles. They are important as they serve as a guiding light for fantasy players. But in recent years as there has been more and more fantasy coverage than ever, strategy articles can tend to sound familiar.

For years, my strategy has been more about which players I want to target. It was about trying to find the best values and more so, trying to find players later in drafts that will outlive their ADP. That is something that myself, like many others, buy into every year. The thinking being that if you keep hitting on values, even the minuscule value, you will have a competitive team. More importantly, you will also have a ton of depth. My strategy was more something like this: due to position scarcity, target RB early and then continue to find value throughout the draft. I banged the table for players such as Jamison Crowder, Dede Westbrook and others. But in going over my process as both a fantasy player and an analyst, I realized that my strategy was enough to make my fantasy teams good, but not great.

That is exactly the issue I have with my old strategy. It is why the last couple of seasons my teams have made the playoffs a bunch, but often time would come up short. If your goal is to be competitive each year and make the playoffs, then you can continue to use my old approach. You’ll be competitive. But if you do not want to simply make the playoffs. That is exactly what I had in mind when I stepped into the lab and broke down my recent approach. For years I was preaching a balanced approach, I just didn’t realize I was balancing the wrong thing.

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Winning 2020 Fantasy Football Strategies

You may be reading the last sentence above and wondering to yourself, “what does that mean?!?” What I mean by that, is the logic was correct, my approach was off. In years past, I took a balanced approach to mean beginning a draft by selecting an even mix of RB and WR. Typically, through four rounds, I would have two of each and so on, sprinkling in a TE and QB at some point. But this year, I am still taking a balanced approach, it just has nothing to do with positions. I will be balancing the amount of safety and upside that my team will possess.

In the early rounds of my fantasy football drafts, I will be thinking about safety. I will throw away the positional balance. I will be starting almost all of my drafts this season by going RB-RB. More and more teams are going with two, some even three RBs in a committee. It can make your weekly results maddening. How many times have we seen a running back go off while on someone’s bench or waivers and then the next week they get plugged into the starting lineup and oh, it is now his teammate suddenly getting the work this week! There were so many backfields that were pure headaches last season.

In 2019, there were just nine backs that saw 300+ touches, and that was the most in any season since 2013. The workhorse RB is a dying breed. But luckily, they are more endangered than extinct right now. You can still nab one of those workhorses in the first round. In round one, there are 10 running backs I would be okay selecting. Luckily, often times some will fall into the second round. But seeing RBs fly off the board early is becoming more common, which only emphasizes the need to get one early. In most scenarios, I will be drafting an RB in round two as well, especially if I had a later first round pick and do not walk away with the six or seven backs that feel safe for around 300 touches.

I wrote a blueprint on how to begin your drafts RB-RB and you can read that here. The only exception is if you are picking late in the second round, because then you can nab one in round three. I just would not feel comfortable without two of the RBs that go in this range.

There are running backs that have RB1 upside in the middle rounds, but they are going later because they come with severely more risk. Meanwhile, you can still get stud WRs in rounds three, four and later. While running back seems to get thinner every year, wide receiver is as deep as ever. That is a huge reason why I will be selecting two RBs early on. Remember, I want to go balance between safety and upside, with an emphasis on safety early. These RBs give you both a higher chance of reaching that upside, with less of a chance of completely bottoming out. The deeper you go at the position, the chance of hitting on the upside dwindles, while the chances of bottoming out grows. To get two trustworthy RBs early on actually helps both the safety and upside of your team.

In the next three rounds, I am still looking to build a safe core. I will definitely be taking at least one WR, and usually two, but I will not force it. The idea should be to come away from the first six rounds with at least two wide receivers. I will also be selecting another RB in that span. Why more of an emphasis on RB? Cause again, the position dries out so quickly and WR is as deep as ever. Selecting my RB3 somewhere between rounds 3-5 gives me another shot at finding a stud back. It is not rocket science, but the later you get in the draft, the less backs with guaranteed work there are. That is why I will select a third RB here, to give me insurance in case one of my first two backs gets injured or doesn’t pan out. I will come away with a back that has RB1 upside, but more than likely will be a weekly RB2 due to one of the red flags that caused him to fall this far to begin with.

I am also not opposed to nabbing a tight end or QB with one of my first six or seven picks. This may sound surprising to you, but it is all about capitalizing on value. Given how deep the QB position is, it has becoming a popular strategy to wait on QBs. But that may have gone too far in 2020. You have to pay a premium price still to get one of the top two QBs in Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, both of whom are going in the late second round of drafts on FFPC. It makes sense, as each has had an otherworldly season in the last two years where they showed that they are still truly a difference maker, even at the deep QB position.

But the next QB off the board is Kyler Murray, who doesn’t go until the fourth, then Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson all go in the fifth, with Josh Allen going in the sixth. Those five QBs all possess difference making upside, as they have shown to be able to pile up fantasy points both with their arms and legs. Each of these QBs has the ability to jump into the elite tier, as they were all strong fantasy options last year and in most cases their offenses got better around them (sorry, Deshaun).

My approach with QBs this season has been to select one of these players in the fifth or sixth round, much more likely to do so in the sixth. If I am in a sharp room and these QBs go earlier than that, then I am back to waiting as normal. But if I can get one of the seven QBs that I view as having the “difference making” ability, I will gladly take that leg up on half my league and snag a QB. The same can be said for TE.

While the position is being viewed as deeper than ever, the longer you wait, the more of a risk the TE you select will be. I will usually either come away with a proven tight end in the fourth or fifth round like a Mark Andrews, Zach Ertz, Evan Engram, etc. If not, I will tend to wait a little bit and select two of the tight ends going in the 10-15 range.

Now that we are through the first six rounds, this is really where my strategy begins to take place. Everything you read above, that was the safety portion of our fantasy football yin yang. From here on out, this is strictly the upside portion of the draft.

 

Target Upside After Building a Safe Base

Through the first six rounds you should have three RBs. I will have between one to two WRs, and either a QB or TE. At times, I have finished the first five rounds of a draft with just one receiver. I do prefer two, to further add to the safe base that you are building in the early rounds. But round seven is about where your focus should change.

At this point in the draft, if you have a QB and TE, you are set. You can basically ignore those positions. If not, make sure to grab one before the drop-off in talent is too steep. You should be waiting on defense and kicker as well. You probably know to wait, but you will always see someone start to draft a defense in round eight or nine, which is a terrible mistake. No defense has ever finished as the top fantasy DST in back-to-back seasons over the last 20 years. Those two positions you can stream weekly.

Building a safe base in the early rounds should give your team a safe floor each week. Floor means the lowest of realistic outcomes in a given week. Having a safe floor means that even in a bad week, your team can still put up enough points to be competitive. A safe floor team usually doesn’t come with the highest of ceilings (optimal results) though. Think about it, if a player had a safe floor and high ceiling, they are going in the first couple of rounds. And in 2020, where there is going to be more variance than ever given everything going on, that floor is valuable. But if you are always focusing on the floor, you are sacrificing the ceiling. That is where this balance approach comes in.

Now is time to focus on the ceiling and there may never be a better year to do so in the middle rounds. There are so many high upside, middle round receivers this year. There are also safe floor receivers such as Jarvis Landry, Jamison Crowder, Julian Edelman, James White, Sony Michel and so on. You know the receivers. The players who will give you 8-10 points most weeks and very rarely give you 25+. In theory, these players are safe. They are there in case you ever need to plug them in and will not drag your lineup down. But they often will not elevate it either. To me, these safe middle-to-later round players are the worst thing for your fantasy roster.

 

The Case Against “Safe” Players

In many cases, these players are a backup option on your bench. You hold onto them because they are a nice “break glass in case of emergency” players. If you need to slide them in for a bye week or injury replacement, you feel confident in them. But, if you have to use these players, it means that one of your regular starters is out of your lineup. By replacing a regular starter with a fringy one, your team is already worse than it was. These “safe” players as I call them, can certainly help you win a week. If you plug them in and they get you 12 fantasy points, that could be the difference between a win and a loss. But on the year? They will not win you a championship. No one is winning a title because they had Jamison Crowder.

But these players actually cost you the opportunity at a title. You hold onto these players all season because they are “safe” and you want them “just in case you ever need them.” The truth is, that safe floor is holding your lineup back. The fact that you hold onto these players, despite hoping to not have to regularly use them, means you are taking less upside shots. First, you used a middle round pick to select them in the draft. That pick could have been used on a player with more upside. And, by stashing them all year that is a valuable bench spot that you could have been taking a chance on the waiver wire flavor of the week.

Do mid-to-late round picks always hit? Do waiver wire pickups always hit? No, of course not, but the chances of finding a breakout player is greatly increased when you can take more fliers. Think of some of the players that hit big either late in drafts or off the waiver wire last year: D.J. Chark Jr., Terry McLaurin, Deebo Samuel, Darius Slayton, Diontae Johnson, Raheem Mostert, Devin Singletary, Kenyan Drake, Mark Andrews, Darren Waller, just to name a few. Those were all difference makers who won titles in 2019, mostly off the waiver wire.

Here is Chark's numbers. He came out of nowhere in 2019 and hoarding safe players may have cost you an opportunity to acquire him.

When I looked back at my recent approach these last few seasons, I realized something. My team from draft day to the end of the season was similar, compared to many other teams in my league. While I was drafting safe players who would outlive their ADP, I didn’t realize that I was holding onto those players all year and therefore taking less chances on the waiver wire. I noticed that each year I was relying on my team both staying healthy and living up to draft day expectations.

I am almost going to treat my picks from round seven on like they are a best-ball draft. I will be selecting the high ceiling players such as Marquise Brown, Will Fuller V, Brandin Cooks, to name a few. The reason why these high-upside players will go in round seven or later is because they come with concerns. Usually it will be a usage concern, but it could also be injury related, or a concern about a decline in performance coming this season. The good news is, we will quickly have a resolution for those concerns.

If a player is an injury risk, well he is either healthy and you can use them (I am 100% thinking of Fuller right now) or they will get injured and you can cut them. Trust me, you will feel a lot less inclined to stash an injured player if you drafted them late. If that player is coming off of an injury from the season before, that typically makes them a strong value. Unless there is a high chance of re-injury (which often there isn’t – "injury prone" is a term that gets thrown around way too much), that player will often be overlooked, due to missing time in a physical sport a year ago.

You should always be looking to capitalize when the market overlooks a player, and a player coming off an injury is usually the biggest way to do so. If the concern is usage- we will also get an answer to that pretty quickly. Things change throughout the course of an NFL season, but if we are two or three weeks into a season and your player is just not getting the target or touch share that we had hoped, cut bait. If the concern is about a decline in performance and a player opens the season slowly, you can look to move on. This brings me to the point that made me create this strategy in the first place: people draft with too much of a 16-week approach in mind.

That last line may need some explaining. Fantasy football is a season long game, that is played in weekly increments. Yes, a player like Crowder may outscore Fuller at the end of the season, since Fuller could get hurt and play six games for all we know. But there is no denying that Fuller offers way more to your fantasy team in a weekly aspect, because the ceiling that Fuller brings every time he steps on a field is so much higher. During draft season people will often think about the season as one long end game. If you were playing Roto football, where you would be trying to amass the most stats by the end of 16 weeks as possible, then the safe players would help. But when you are trying to capitalize and make your team as dangerous as you can each and every week, the high-ceiling players are simply more useful as they increase your team's potential output so much more.

The entire goal of your season should be winning in Week 16. The best way to get there, is to maximize your teams’ weekly output. Think about it, the higher amount of points your team can put up each week, the higher the chances of making it to the championship round. That is putting it in layman's terms, but you get it. And the best way to maximize your weekly potential, is by finding those later round and waiver wire breakouts. We all know those are the true difference makers in fantasy football. And the best way of landing those players, is by taking as many upside shots as possible. This is the upside portion of the balance approach.

 

Concluding Thoughts

Late-round, low-floor players seem like smart investments, but they are actually the enemy of success. They may help you cover a bye or even win a week. They may help you make the playoffs. But rarely do they ever push a team to a title. If making the playoffs and getting bounced is your thing, that is fine. Some people play just for weekly entertainment and do not worry too much about the playoff race. If this is you and you want to be good and not great, draft safe.

If your goal is winning a title, you should be building a safe base and then looking to take as many upside shots as possible. If one or two of those fliers hit, your team goes from competitive to powerhouse. And if you’re like me, you would rather miss the playoffs altogether while trying to build the best championship roster than finish fifth in a league and get bumped in round one of the playoffs.

Drafting safe is a mistake I have made, as many others have. There is a time to draft safe and to me, it is the early rounds. But after that, let’s go hunting for those players that could be league winners this season and work the waivers if all else fails.

If you have any questions or comments on this approach, hit me up on Twitter, @MichaelFFlorio.




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The more data we get as the season goes on, the better equipped we are to interpret matchups and make informed decisions. Then Week 6 comes along and blows it all to hell. The unpredictability of sports is what keeps us intrigued, as frustrating as it may be at times. Numbers are supposedly to be... Read More


The King's Week 7 Fantasy Football Lineup Rankings (Premium Content)

Welcome back, RotoBallers!  Below you will find my Week 7 fantasy football lineup rankings. The ranks are available in PPR, Half PPR and Standard formats. They will be updated as needed, so make sure to check back for the latest versions. Skill Position analysis is primarily based on the PPR ranks. The rankings are powered by... Read More


Slow Starters Ready to Break Out in Fantasy?

We are now more than a third of the way into the fantasy football season and a seemingly clearer picture is available across the landscape. After a pandemic-shortened offseason and lack of preseason exposure, there were plenty of worries headed into the first month specifically. Thus far, one of the most prevalent topics with regards... Read More


Fantasy Football Warning Signals for Week 7

The warning signals get brighter by the week since we have more data to work from. The larger the sample size the easier it is for us to connect the dots from the latest trends. Football is a game of small samples and many variables, making it one of the hardest sports to predict. How... Read More


How to Value Clyde Edwards-Helaire with Le'Veon Bell in KC

Clyde Edwards-Helaire or Jonathan Taylor? Coming into the season this was the biggest question for fantasy GMs, both dynasty managers who were thinking long-term and redraft managers who wanted to know who would be better for this season. There were many different theories and believe me when I say, both sides thought they were 100%... Read More


NextGen Stats - Quarterback Breakdowns and Takeaways

It's been a month since the last time we took a look at our beloved quarterbacks. Numbers are numbers, and numbers don't lie. You can twist them, but looking at them objectively, numbers say that no matter what, rushing the ball is almost always a worse option than passing it in today's game. That's why... Read More


Fantasy Football Risers and Fallers - Week 7

Whether due to their own play, the play of others, or injuries, players' stock increases and decreases on a weekly basis. Perhaps more than any other, the NFL is a league that experiences ups and downs at a rapid pace. With only 16 games, there’s little room for error and seemingly endless opportunities for improvement.... Read More


Coaching Matters: Offenses That Will Improve From Week 6

This series continues into its sixth week of where I dive into offensive areas that will improve or decline based on coaching in order to glean insight as to fantasy football value. In Week 6, we saw performances such as Ryan Tannehill throwing for 364 passing yards, the Houston Texans running backs combining for 66 rushing yards, and the New... Read More


Tape Tells All: D'Andre Swift's Week 6 Performance

Welcome to another edition of Tape Tells All. I've been thinking of rebranding as just TAPE. All-Caps like that. Probably wouldn't be a good idea for SEO purposes, right? Anyways, this week we'll be discussing Detroit Lions rookie running back D'Andre Swift. Swift set a lot of career highs this week, with bests in carries... Read More


Week 7 Waiver Wire Pickups & Adds

Week 6 was like the 2020 of fantasy football weeks. All those great matchups meant nothing, those studs let you down, and your bench likely went crazy. The good news is that we didn't have any season-ending injuries to running backs or games canceled due to COVID, so in retrospect maybe we shouldn't complain. The... Read More


FAB Bidding - Week 7 Waiver Wire Targets

Whether it's injuries, bye-week blues, or simply poor performance, we've got the waiver-wire cure...but it just might cost you! Alongside our famous waiver wire pickups list and our weekly waiver wire columns by position, this column focuses on suggested waiver wire bidding percentages for fantasy football owners in leagues using a Free Agent Budget (FAB). In... Read More


Waiver Wire Express - Week 7 Lightning Round

Week 6 was relatively healthy and had no coronavirus delays, so let's just take a moment to bask in that. That said, we still saw Miles Sanders (knee) and Zach Ertz (ankle) go down, while Mark Ingram (ankle) has a bye to get healthy. Week 7 byes are Baltimore, Indianapolis, Miami, and Minnesota. Let's get... Read More


Running Back Waiver Wire Pickups - Week 7

Fantasy GMs are to be commended for rising to the unique challenges that have unfolded during this regular season. Injuries to critical players is an unwelcome reality that occurs every year. This is also the case for backs that were expected to operate as RB1s, but have been relegated to committees. However, this season has... Read More


Wide Receiver Waiver Wire Pickups - Week 7

Six weeks of NFL football are behind us, aside from a pair of Monday games, including a late afternoon game between the Bills and the Chiefs. In terms of wide receiver production this week, we didn't have the huge breakouts like we had in Week 5. Chase Claypool didn't score four touchdowns. In fact, only... Read More


More Recent Articles

 

Dissecting Contact Quality In Search Of Fantasy Bargains

Of the 1,015 hitters sampled(1) between 2015 and 2019, there were only 14 instances of hitters making more productive contact against pitches outside of the strike zone than against pitches inside of the strike zone based on xwOBAcon. Based on the same sample, the average hitter was a whopping .116 points better against pitches inside... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 23rd, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 23rd, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Lineup Order Risers and Fallers: AL West 2020 Review

It’s the offseason and there are about to be a bunch of moving parts. This allows for speculation in terms of players gaining or losing playing time, moving up or down a batting order and much more. The idea here is to highlight some lineup situations for each team and some potential winners or losers... Read More


2021 1st & 2nd Year Players with James Anderson - Benched with Bubba (Episode 317)

Bubba (@bdentrek) is joined by James Anderson (@RealJRAnderson) on episode 317. The guys will go over 30+ first and second-year players. They will discuss their current ADP's in the 2 Early Mocks, what to expect of the players in 2021, and much more. They also go over some listener questions, compare Juan Soto to Mike... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 21st, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 21st, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 20th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 20th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Bubba and Bat Flip 54: 2 Early Mocks APD Player Debates - Benched with Bubba (Episode 316)

Bubba (@bdentrek) is joined by Bat Flip Crazy (@BatFlipCrazy) to take a deeper look at the 2 Early Mocks ADP. They go over some of the positions and look at players with similar ADPs and debate. Going around the diamond discussing some players people are high on and some they are down on with a... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 18th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 18th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 17th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 17th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


2021 Early Mock ADP Values & Reaches: WPC+ Videocast

Pierre Camus and Nicklaus Gaut prepare for the 2021 fantasy baseball season with a look at early mock draft results from the RotoBaller Expert mock. Like and subscribe to the RotoBaller channel on Youtube to get all our latest podcasts and catch us on iTunes and BlogTalkRadio as well! Be sure to also tune into RotoBaller... Read More


Statcast Season Review: 2020 Barrel Leaders (Hitters)

The 2020 MLB season will always be one for the record books, even if everything that took place will have multiple asterisks attached to it. Evaluating Statcast numbers is a nice way to find hot and cold hitters, as well as underachievers and overachievers. Now that the regular season is over, let's reflect on the... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 16th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 16th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 15th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 15th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 14th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 14th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Bubba and Bat Flip 53: 2 Early Mocks APD Trends & More - Benched with Bubba (Episode 315)

Bubba (@bdentrek) is joined by Bat Flip Crazy (@BatFlipCrazy) to take a deeper look at the 2 Early Mocks ADP. They dig into trends, some interesting risers/fallers, and much more. They also go over some listener questions at the end to keep the Fantasy Baseball information coming even in the offseason. Be sure to subscribe... Read More