Slow Down Buddy: Navigating Winners & Losers After the NFL Draft (Fantasy Football)

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Whenever you hear someone throw in the word ‘buddy’, is it a bit condescending? Apologies, but I need to get your attention.

The NFL draft ended. Your rookie drafts are starting. Rankings are about to flow. The summer of best ball is about to commence.

And yet over the weekend, you were supposed to gather all of your thoughts and opinions in all things rookies that makes sense, look smart, and ultimately allow you to navigate a summer of fantasy football with ease. Easy task right?

The problem with sorting out depth charts and draft picks is that this isn’t a linear process. There are so many ebbs and flows to sort out. I offer these five principles as starting places for figuring out how to forecast offenses. For more on that topic, I wrote Forecasting 101: How to Project Offenses Knowing You Could Be Wrong a couple of years ago as a primer.

1. Breathe & Reflect.

Perhaps I’m stating the obvious but depth charts can be fluid over the course of the season. Yet, we have such short memories that the tweet sent in early May is long forgotten come October. However, the convictions we have regarding post-draft depth charts influence how BestBall and redraft rankings are compiled going into the summer. Rookies bring an air of optimism while their absence on a team’s roster hypes up veterans who are well past their fantasy primes. Should I remind you that the Cowboys’ Jalen Tolbert was the … wait for it… highest drafted 3rd round rookie WR EVER in BestBall last year? Go back and check out his rookie game log just for some good laughs.

It’s easy for our brains to give come up with conclusions this fast because we crave order. We want to clarify things because fantasy football often is a cloudy mess. Look back and over the course of the season, there is absolute carnage from injuries, unforeseen ascensions, and players who fall from grace faster than you can say JULIO JONES.

I wrote this follow-up article after the draft last year and it feels like Deja Vu because we’re going to see the same exact narratives take place. Winners & losers is part of the equation and it’s necessary to sort out player values. I do it. We all do it. But before you quickly make up your mind, keep in mind that forming an opinion this early is partially due to the fact we will forget what we said here in a month. It’s human nature.

For nostalgia, here were some other major takeaways in terms of winners (across the fantasy industry) immediately after the draft last year:

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  • Darnell Mooney
  • Irv Smith Jr.
  • Jameis Winston
  • Zach Wilson
  • Matt Ryan
  • Ronald Jones
  • Clyde Edwards-Helaire

Whoops! This year, one of the biggest supposed winners of Day 2 was Khalil Herbert as the Bears failed to take an RB until the 4th round. However, as we saw last off-season, injuries can happen and the depth chart can switch up at any moment. Stayed tuned as Andy, Mike, and Jason will highlight Winners & Losers from the Draft on Tuesday’s Fantasy Footballers podcast.

2. It’s OK not having a firm stance right now.

I might be reiterating what I just said but it’s worth doubling down. Instead of making up your mind now, you can give yourself room to form an opinion over time. You can also have a hunch, do some research, explore possibilities, and come to a different conclusion.

We don’t know what we don’t know. Comforting, yes I know. But admitting that on the front end is helpful in a number of ways. Having strong convictions about player projections is part of the puzzle. But on the other end, “staying water” is an old Footballers adage that is essential in having a clearer end in mind for players and their situations. Be open to the fact that we don’t know everything.

3. To Draft or Not to Draft… This Isn’t the Question.

Whether a team drafted or didn’t draft a position isn’t the same as a vote of confidence. Our job is to read the tea leaves and construct a narrative where players gained and lost value. It’s also possible things remain status quo. Drafting or not drafting a position isn’t always a signal for fantasy. Sometimes it’s just noise. We can avoid the extremes of groupthink and Twitter beef wars.

I’ll give you a couple of situations from last year:

  • The Jaguars didn’t draft OL in the 1st Round– For a while, it seemed like Jacksonville could’ve taken an OL at #1 overall. Instead, they took DE Travon Walker at #1 overall and LB Devin Lloyd and the offensive line was just fine. The Jaguars looked like a completely different team without Urban Meyer.
  • The Packers didn’t take a WR in the 1st round– I guess you could copy and paste that line every year. With two 1st round picks, Green Bay took Georgia defensive teammates Quay Walker (22nd) & Devonte Wyatt (28th) despite the fact every single mock drafter had them taking a WR in Round 1. Instead, they traded up to select Christian Watson with the 2nd pick of the 2nd round.
  • The Texans didn’t take a QB– Remember when Davis Mills had some truthers?
  • The Patriots took Pierre Strong Jr. in the 4th and Kevin Harris in the 6th– Neither of them mattered at all as Rhamondre Stevenson was an absolute wrecking ball for fantasy.

Use the inverse argument to discover more information rather than simply making a definitive statement based on what this team did or didn’t accomplish in the NFL Draft. For instance, the Bears DID take an RB in the 4th round (Roschon Johnson) but the production profile was lacking from college. Some want to crown Dameon Pierce as a major winner but Devin Singletary truthers might say the exact opposite for the Texans. It’s about perspective and our inherent talent biases.

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I’ve mentioned this in previous article Are We Good at Drafting Mid-Round RBs? We tend to overestimate our abilities to forecast. We all fall victim to assuming we can predict usage, opportunity, and situations and even more so on this side of these outcomes. In Superforecasting, a book I highly recommend, they review hindsight bias and take it a step further. Usually, we refer to this type of bias as “once we know the outcome of something, that knowledge skews our perception of what we thought before we knew the outcome”. But more than that, we can often assume that when a decision is followed by a good outcome, the decision was good, which isn’t always true. This leads to my next thought…

4. All draft picks are not created equally.

Opportunity is golden in fantasy football but the windows of opportunity are often much smaller than we realize. A WR with no one else on the depth chart or an RB who could emerge as the clear lead back both is tempting reasons to draft players. But their draft capital is not changing anytime soon. We have a couple of resources on the site that take this point to the 1,000th level. If you haven’t done so, stop what you’re doing and read some of the extensive research our team has put into explaining draft picks.

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But let’s narrow the conversation to RBs as they are the holy grail for fantasy football but an enigma in dynasty. RBs clearly bring the greatest early returns but outside of Round 2, the results are less than stellar. In a recent article Dynasty Rookie Drafts: What The Last Five Years Can Tell Us , I looked at every rookie pick since 2018 and the hits & misses. What can we learn from the past, how can we avoid similar mistakes, and ultimately how can we take advantage of inefficiencies in rookie draft markets? I thought the principles and observations were worth bringing up again:

  • We tend to overvalue immediate opportunity.
  • Situations change but draft capital doesn’t.
  • Reaching on RBs doesn’t pay off.
  • Understand how positions are allocated in your league format.
  • Dynasty ADP can be a bit of a misnomer.

Use that information to your advantage before reaching on an RB like the aforementioned Roschon Johnson or placing your hopes in 3rd-round RB Kendre Miller. The opportunity is there for him in New Orleans but the draft capital states he is no guarantee and the data backs it up.

Since 2015, there were 40 different RBs picked in the top-24 of rookie drafts taken Round 3 or later of the NFL Draft. Here is how they worked out.

  • 5 were RB1s in their 1st year (Antonio Gibson, Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, David Johnson, & Jordan Howard) which sounds amazing to find. But this is the exception, not what we assume will happen with these picks.
  • 12 were selected in the 1st round of rookie drafts including three inside the top-5! While we have the benefit of hindsight analysis, Darrell Henderson Jr., David Montgomery, and the aforementioned Royce Freeman all look like their opportunity was the shiny carrot dangled in front of fantasy managers.
  • Anything beyond 3rd round draft capital is honestly less than a dart throw. You’ll see names like Jordan Howard and Jay Ajayi which might get you a bit excited. At the end of the day, these players might have a brief moment in the sun but they are not worth 2nd round draft capital. Save them for the 3rd or let someone else reach.

5. Opportunity is King in Fantasy Football… But It’s Not Guaranteed for Rookies.

Every year I highlight vacated targets and breakdowns where teams have historically shifted their passing volume when players leave town. I wrote Vacated Targets & Predicting the Future almost four years ago and it is one of the pieces I am proudly questioned the most about in my tiny little corner of the fantasy football world. With rookies, we are quite thirsty for these new & shiny players to fill the void that the previous batch of disappointments left. We like new and novel things to solve old problems. It’s human nature.

But remember that vacated targets are descriptive of what happened last year, not prescriptive of “here is where the targets go in 2023″. Offenses like Green Bay, Los Angeles, and Baltimore have WR corps that needed to be sorted out. But sorting out a passing pie for an offense is not a solvable equation after the NFL draft. Yes, you want to start having convictions but realize you have some of the information but be willing to have some fluidity.

If you want a follow-up on this subject, one of our writers Matt DiSorbo wrote an article: What Matters More for Rookies: Skill or Landing Spot? He wanted to take this idea a step further than just including draft capital. It’s hard to quantify “skill” or “landing spot” but in his methodology, he tries to get as close as possible using fantasy points as a metric. His findings for the two major positions were thus:

  • Skill and landing spot effects are equal and opposite for RBs
  • Skill is much more important for WRs.

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