NFL Fantasy Forecast: The Risks of Drafting

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Long-time (and perhaps long-suffering) readers of my column know that I love digging through gigabytes of data in order to unearth fantasy football gold. In this week's Fantasy Forecast, however, I will address a "fuzzier" side of drafting.

My impetus for this approach came out of a recent request by one of our subscribers for me to evaluate his most recent mock draft. This subscriber had dutifully read all our strategy columns, studied the customized cheatsheets we generated for him and used our Draft Tracker. Now, he was taking advantage of our Advice-O-Matic to get our feedback on his mock draft.

After carefully reviewing his roster, I replied to his request for feedback: The team did not look all that strong. But what went wrong? He had followed all our guides and recommendations. Could it be that our strategy articles were wrong? Were our cheatsheets out of whack? No.

The reason the team looked weaker than it should have was that the subscriber was a relative newbie and did not appreciate the subtleties of putting a team together. It would be similar to someone writing a blues song where the notes, rhythm and tempo were technically correct but lacked any sort of soul. You know, like when Bruce Willis gave singing a shot.

So in this article I'll try to indentify the risks involved in drafting and how to address those risks -- something to keep in mind as you sort through all the technical information about players and draft theories.

Always identify the risk associated with any player you're considering drafting; always be able to answer the question "What is the most cynical thing I can say about this player?" For example, DeAngelo Williams enjoyed a great season in 2008 and most experts expect him to be a Top 10-12 runner this season (as do I). But if you're drafting Williams as your RB1 this season, you need to identify the risk associated with Williams: he's in a time-share with a well-regarded youngster (Jonathan Stewart); he won't be taking anyone by surprise this season. So while Williams rates in the Top 10-12 RBs for 2008, he does come with some baggage.

What are some other risks to be aware of? Glad you asked:

• Age ... given the player and the position he plays, is he starting to approach the age where he statistically begins to see erosion in production (see: Age of Reason)?

• Injury ... players like Anquan Boldin and Matt Schaub have upside for their owners... but also have histories of being brittle. Know which players are true injury risks, and which are only perceived injury risks (see Laveranues Coles and Antonio Gates).

• New Team/Coach ... most experts would have you believe that a player on a new team or in an expanded role is automatically in line for a big season. Maybe, maybe not. Just be aware of the risk of a player being successful in a limited role that suddenly will be getting all the touches in a new system. Think Maurice Jones-Drew.

• Off-field Status ... players are, believe it or not, people. Off-field issues like contract status, legal status or personal problems can all effect performance and are not tracked by any computer prediction systems. Think Marshawn Lynch, Brandon Marshall or Terrell Owens.

• Bye Week Conflict ... this one is a hotly-debated issue; there is a school of thought that says that you draft according to the best talent available during the draft, then deal with bye week conflicts later. I disagree. If I draft two or three runners with the same bye week, there is a risk that I will then not be able to execute my draft strategy later in the draft because I have to draft one more runner than I had planned. Either that or I am likely conceding the conflicted week during the season.

• Tunnel Vision ... all our models and draft theories are great -- I truly believe that the work done at Sports Grumblings on behalf of its readers is the best on the market. But even that great work cannot be taken in isolation; it needs to be taken in the context of your draft. Thus, if for some reason the first six picks in the first round are WRs instead of RBs, you need to be aware of that quirk and adjust on the fly.

When I was writing predictive analysis program for foreign exchange markets back in the early '90s, I was a good coder but not familiar with the actual nuances of trading currency. So my models tended to be a bit conservative, eschewing the more exotic currencies. One of my supervisors noticed the way my models behaved and realized what was going on; he then gave me a piece of advice for which I have always been grateful. Risk is your friend, and can be very beneficial. Just make sure you understand the risk and take steps to mitigate it.

People tend to fear risk and avoid it. But without risk, the potential return on investment is limited. Thus, the key to maximizing value is to accept risk and use it to your advantage. Embrace risk, but understand it and take steps to minimize your potential downward exposure. Use one type of risk (say, an injury risk) to counteract a different risk (e.g., an age risk).

In the case of our subscriber, he failed to identify several of the risks listed above:

• He drafted LaDanian Tomlinson in his draft slot (No. 9), which was fine; the next RB he drafted was Clinton Portis, because he was the highest-rated RB available and our Best Damn Draft Method 2009 told him he needed a runner in that draft slot. But what our subscriber did not do was indentify the risk in his picks (both runners are coming off years where they faltered down the stretch) and take steps to mitigate that risk. In this case, he would have been better off taking a runner like Ryan Grant, someone rated a few spots below Portis -- but someone who mitigated the "tired legs" risk associated with having taken Tomlinson in the first round.

• Our subscriber drafted three wide receivers, all of whom were in our top 25; pretty good, right? Well those three receivers -- Anquan Boldin, Greg Jennings and Chad Ochocinco -- all carry injury risks. A solid. Slightly lower-rated receiver like Vincent Jackson would have been a better pick than Ochocinco.

• According to our subscriber, he had dutifully read and studied our Best Damn Draft Method 2009 and knew that drafting a QB1 prior to the eighth round was a less than optimized plan. But what happened during the course of his mock draft is that every one of his 11 opponents took a QB1 prior to the sixth round and was already drafting backups by the time he got around to drafting his QB1. The result was him drafting a poor choice of a QB1. He should have identified the bizarre QB run and realized that the guidance of the BDDM -- to wait on the QB -- no longer applied; he should have adjusted and grabbed his QB1 a round or two earlier.

Let me conclude this treatise by saying that of all the risks I've indentified, by far the most difficult to mitigate (especially for less than experienced fantasy players) is the Tunnel Vision risk. It is very difficult to be in a draft, spot a quirk, then devise a risk mitigation strategy -- all in the space of the 2-16 minutes between picks.

Like most situations in life, there are no absolutes in fantasy drafts. As much as I am a believer in the use of metrics and analytics to guide my drafting principles, I have to acknowledge that there is a component that goes beyond the numbers ... and you should as well.