Fantasy Football 101: How to Think Like a League Winner
Whether you’ve just joined your first fantasy football league or have been playing in the same league for a decade-plus, every fantasy football manager has one goal in mind. Win a #FootClanTitle. Winning them consistently is even better.
Winning those coveted titles is, however, easier said than done. An average fantasy football manager should make the fantasy playoffs about half of the time. Good managers make the playoffs most years. The best of the best, “league-winners” if you will, are consistently making deep playoff runs. Of course, the more competitive and well-versed your league is, the more difficult it is to bring home the gold.
Becoming a league-winner isn’t an exact science, but there are some habits and thought processes that are widely accepted by league-winning managers. Here are five of the best of them.
1. Don’t Live in the Past
This is probably good life advice in general, but it’s also a credo among fantasy football league-winners. A common pitfall among fantasy managers is to hang on too long to the past. Past seasons, past performances, past narratives. Living in the past can absolutely crush your fantasy season.
We see it every year. A fantasy player explodes early in the season before disappearing for the rest of the year. Some examples over the past two seasons include wideouts Demarcus Robinson, John Ross, and of course, Sammy Watkins. Looking at running backs we’ve seen similar stories from Jordan Howard, Rex Burkhead, and Malcolm Brown in recent years. These players were considered early-season week-winners that become completely irrelevant by mid-season. They were also all very clearly trending downward after their early-season boons. When the writing is on the wall, don’t be afraid to cut bait on a player that may have won you a matchup a few weeks ago.
It works the other way too. Just because a player has a bad week doesn’t mean you should automatically rage bench, or even worse, rage cut them. Even the best players have bad weeks. Christian McCaffrey finished as the RB42 in Week 2 of his record-setting 2019 season. In 2020, Davante Adams finished as the WR48 in Week 15 after carrying fantasy teams all season long. He bounced back as the WR1 in Week 16. These examples may be extreme, but they go to show that even the most elite fantasy producers will have the occasional off week. “Start your studs” is becoming a tired fantasy idiom but there is still truth to it.
Maybe these examples are too obvious, but the point stands. Don’t dwell on the bad start/sit calls. Your bench player outscored your starters? The stud you were counting on pooped in his big boy pants? It happens to the best of us. Don’t compound the problem by focusing on past performances.
2. Look to the Future
Not only do league-winners move on from the past, but they also look to the future. Know the schedule, especially bye weeks. Look at matchups multiple weeks out, especially as the fantasy playoffs approach. Simply put, plan ahead.
The best way to plan ahead is to build depth, especially at running back. Just because you don’t need a backup this week doesn’t mean you won’t need one next week, and certainly doesn’t mean you shouldn’t acquire one. Situations change quickly week-to-week in the NFL. If you’re looking for a bye week replacement on Tuesday night or, even worse, Sunday morning, it’s already too late. If you’re trying to replace an injured player the week after he’s injured, it’s already too late.
League-winners know that championships are won in the future, not the past.
3. Know Your League (Intimately)
I stole this heading from Jeff Greenwood’s article highlighting the mistakes that novice managers make and how to avoid them and added a single word. In Jeff’s article, he covered understanding your league’s scoring rules, roster size, league platform, etc. Of course, those are important things to know, but league-winners take it to a whole ‘nother level. League-winners get personal.
Get to know your opponents’ favorite NFL team. Get to know their favorite college teams. Remember who’s won and lost matchups for them in the past. Then use that knowledge to your advantage, especially when negotiating trades. You’d be surprised the kind of value you can get in trades when you bring irrational fandom into consideration.
Study your opponents’ fantasy rosters inside and out. When their stud starters are out due to bye weeks or injury, go ahead and make those low ball trade offers. If you’re matching up against them you can play keep away on the waiver wire by scooping potential replacements, giving you an edge for the week.
Basically, this tip comes down to the psychological warfare of using your league mates’ wants and needs to your advantage.
4. Be Statistically Significant
Fantasy football is written in statistics, so the least you can do is grasp a passing understanding of the subject. If you haven’t dabbled in basic mathematical statistics since high school math class, you may want to brush up. Here are a few statistical terms and why you should know about them for fantasy football.
Probability: The theoretical, mathematical, chance that any situation occurs. When you flip a coin you have a 50% chance to call heads or tails correctly. If you’re rolling a single dice you’ve got nearly a 17% chance to land on any number. For fantasy football, If you’re in a 12-team league, there’s technically about an 8.3% chance that you win the league. Of course, if you follow the tips presented here that percentage should increase.
No situation in fantasy football has a 100% chance of occurring. The key is deciding what you think the probability is of each situation. Who would you rather start, the safe player that has a 60% chance to finish as a top-24 WR but has limited upside or the risky player with a 20% chance to finish as the WR1 and on the week? There’s no concrete way to know these true probabilities headed into a week, but it’s a helpful way of thinking when making you start/sit decisions.
Median: Much like average (or mean), the median is a measure of central tendency. The big difference is that the median devalues outliers; those ridiculously high or low outputs that can really mess up an average.
You know all of those projections that pop up every week on your fantasy platform of choice? The projections that so many fantasy managers take as gospel? Most of those projections are based on median outcomes. They’re a nice starting point, but they aren’t guaranteed. There are always going to be outliers. Speaking of which…
Outlier: Crazy things happen, especially in fantasy football. Sometimes Cedric Wilson scores 22.7 fantasy points to finish as the WR3 on the week. Sometimes Davante Adams scores just 7.7 points and finishes as the WR48. These outcomes aren’t normal and can’t be predicted but they do occur, which is why they’re considered outliers. Outliers exist because of natural variation.
Variance: Variance measures how spread out a set of data is, and it’s affected by outliers. Since fantasy football produces a lot of outliers, variance is high in our game within a game. Last offseason I wrote an entire article on variance and why its ensuing chaos should be embraced in fantasy football. Check it out for a deeper dive.
5. Mix it up
This article is about winning your redraft leagues, but one of the best ways to get in that league-winning mindset is by dabbling in other fantasy football formats. In fact, you don’t even need to actually participate in any of these alternative formats, just consuming content tailored for them will help you soak up some league-winning strategies. Here are some other formats to look into, and why they’ll make you a better redraft player.
The Ballers recently wrapped up Dynasty Week on the show, so if you’re a regular listener you’ve probably got a grasp on the format. In dynasty leagues, it’s vital to follow the NFL news cycle year-round, especially free agent movement and the incoming rookie class. Familiarity with all the offseason movement will give you a leg up when targeting late-round sleepers and early season waiver wire pickups.
DFS and Best Ball
Best Ball leagues and DFS employ a lot of the same strategies, just over different lengths of the season. In Best Ball leagues you draft a team for the entirety of the fantasy season while DFS is focused on single weeks, days, or even games. Both formats, however, require massive scores to win. Finishing slightly above average won’t help you in these formats.
In these formats, it pays to take risks and maximize potential scoring. One of the best ways to do that is stacking, the act of starting a quarterback and pass-catcher on the same team. It stands to reason that if DeAndre Hopkins has a big fantasy game, so will Kyler Murray. That stack, however, would cost a lot of draft capital. A sneakier stack, like Will Fuller and Tua Tagovailoa, can be had for a discount later in drafts and could pay off huge dividends if they hit. Super stacking, pairing a quarterback with multiple offensive weapons, is viable in Best Ball or DFS but is much riskier in redraft.
For more in-depth info on DFS and BestBall, check out the Fantasy Footballers DFS Podcast.
Okay, maybe betting isn’t technically a fantasy football format, but the information you can gain from the betting side of the NFL can give you an edge in your redraft leagues.
Every week you can check out the projected point totals and point spreads that sportsbooks use for each NFL matchup and you can use the information when making lineup calls. If a game is projected to have a high point total and stay close, targeting players on both teams makes sense. If a team is projected to win by multiple scores you can target the running back that could be closing out the game. At the same time, you can target the projected losing team’s slot receiver or pass-catching running back that could get hyper-targeted when their team is in comeback mode. Every bit of information you can gather from the betting market can be leveraged from a fantasy football perspective.
The tips above aren’t a comprehensive list but they’ll get you well on your way to league domination. A few parting reminders that are frequently echoed by The Ballers. You don’t win your league at the draft, stay water, and fantasy football is supposed to be fun. Of course, there’s nothing more than winning a #FootClan title!