Forecasting the NFL & Win Totals Strategy (Fantasy Football)

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On the most recent Fantasy Footballers DFS Podcast, Betz and I discussed how to forecast and project the NFL from a win total perspective.

I wrote an in-depth piece last year entitled Forecasting 101: How to Project Offenses Knowing You Could Be Wrong that I think is a great primer to some of these concepts at a 10,000 ft. view. You can go on Twitter and hear a million different opinions but I’m more interested in canceling the noise and forming a process that withstands a number of difficulties. When we forecast, we are projecting out knowing there are obstacles, timeframes, and changes that will occur.

In terms of obstacles, we are primarily dealing with our own biases. Not to get all existential here, but we spend more time with ourselves than anyone else. We get used to ourselves, our thoughts, and our ways of forming opinions. With the NFL, we have favorite players, teams, and coaches and on the opposite end, it’s easy to write off others when they either don’t align with our value systems or they happen to play for our division rival. We are woefully biased and it’s hard to see outside of the worldview we carry with us.

Beyond our own “fishbowl” that inhabit, we also are trying to gather intel on players through a mangled web called the internet. We’re gathering from veiled sources whether that is beat writers, verified/unverified sources, and reading the tea leaves of what unfolds in the news. The sobering reality of fantasy football is how little information we actually know. We’re not personally in the room with GMs nor coaching strategy sessions as they gameplan week-to-week. It’s ok to admit you don’t know everything. In fact, it’s one of the best first steps to take in any course in life: humility. All of the factors (talent, competition, schedule, regression, etc.) have to take into account like pieces of a puzzle. It can be easy to overtly lean into one area of expertise while neglecting another.

It’s also valuable to get a grip on the timeframes that give you markers and bound your forecasts. The full NFL schedule releases on May 12th and we find out the exact order of games played. However, I’ve already run through my schedule adjusted projections, and yet these projections and the betting markets will change:

But perhaps the most frustrating part of forecasting is the inevitable changes that will unfold that are 100 % out of your control. Injuries are the least fun part of this process. The fact the entire Ravens backfield went down last year drastically changed how the offense functioned and how in DFS, Devonta Freeman resurrected from his fantasy grave to become a viable start. Did you see that coming? Holdouts will happen, players will get cut and ADP will change as the market wisens up to past mistakes and sometimes overcorrects. Know that these changes will wreck your perfectly constructed outlook. Hold your numbers and forecasts with an open hand.

Forecasting General Thoughts

We are quick to make up our minds and too slow to change them. This is never more true when our analysis of a team zeroes in on one number: is it over or under their Vegas win total? If you’re taking the under, you’re saying the routes to underachieving

Betz discussed the 49ers as a team that was hard to figure out through the 2021 season. We went into pre-season hoping Trey Lance would overtake Jimmy Garoppolo and this offense would be unleashed. While Deebo Samuel was thought of as a valuable part of the offense, I did not forecast him exploding to 1,400+ receiving yards and eight rushing TDs. Beyond Jimmy G continuing to stay on as the starter, it was even harder to believe they could make a run in the playoffs. I also was all about fading the Titans last year for a number of reasons. Ryan Tannehill‘s efficiency metrics were the most concerning and the lack of depth made taking their under look sharp… at first. While both of those assumptions came true, the Titans willed their way to the AFC’s No. 1 seed despite Derrick Henry‘s injury and getting nothing from Julio Jones.

We have to learn how to not create hard-line, dogmatic statements. Not everything needs to be turned into a dichotomous way of thinking where we give our opinions skewed to one side of an argument without leaving room for any other semblance of thought on the other end of the spectrum.  Often, there can be multiple solutions for solving a problem, or in the case of the NFL, you can use multiple perspectives (lenses) to see through. Aggregating these lenses or big ideas is how the best forecasters begin to tackle projections and forecast with an array of “weaponry”.  Film and analytics are often two different sides of the same coin in the fantasy football world.

But why not go beyond that? I’ve found some of the best analysis in the field is from people who are “interdisciplinary” meaning they are able to apply their expertise and others from a multitude of different fields to fantasy football. Think about the fact that the biggest name in fantasy football (ESPN’s Matthew Berry) didn’t get his start in this space but as a writer. Some of the best minds and breakthroughs in this space (ZeroRB, Late Round QB, etc.) were founded on the premise of other disciplines.

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As I mentioned, go back to the Forecasting 101 article if you want some of these ideas fleshed out even further.

So… How Do We Project a Team?

Now that we’ve established some rudimentary ideas about forecasting, let’s talk about how we project teams and their win totals. We evaluate based on the three simple sectors colliding: the team, the players & the market. We have to move from general feelings and gut reactions to filtering through these levels.

Team Level

We look at the team’s strength of schedule with real games on the schedule. For example, the Miami Dolphins had one of the more exciting off-seasons bringing in a new, offensive-minded coach (Mike McDaniel) who already has talked a big game about some of his offensive pieces including Jaylen Waddle. The Dolphins made a huge splash (pun tended) trading for Tyreek Hill making this arguably the fastest WR duo in league history. The team also brought in LT Terron Armstead who Pro Football Focus dubbed the #1 free agent of 2022. There is a lot to like about this team from an offensive standpoint. The excitement is palatable and it would be easy to move forward saying Miami is a team on the up-and-up.

But when we look at their schedule, Vegas has tempered expectations with DraftKings (9 wins) and FanDuel (8.5) Sportsbooks setting a measured line. My initial schedule-adjusted projections (which came out before these win totals were posted) had the Dolphins at 8.5 wins.

As Betz discussed on the DFS Podcast, when a projection matches with what Sportsbooks are putting out, we temper our thoughts about a team knowing there are multiple points to failure. We either don’t play over/under lines like this or we take the under. Their “3rd place” schedule includes tough road games with the Chargers and 49ers as well as match-ups with the NFC & AFC North. The excitement surrounding the Dolphins is warranted but our forecasts, once they approach the schedule, start to look a bit more mediocre.

It’s also valuable to analyze a team through their play-calling and coaching tendencies. The aforementioned Ravens are a prime example. In 2019 & 2020, the Lamar Jackson-led team ranked 32nd and… 32nd in pass rate. Baltimore had the highest run rate in neutral situations and that shouldn’t shock anyone. Ravens games totaled the 4th fewest plays per game but that all drastically changed with their RB injuries.

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We can pinpoint certain teams as run-heavy but we also have to be able to adjust our expectations as things change.

Player Level

While the past is often our best window to look out on the future, it is not a full picture. We often say on the podcast: the best predictor for future success is past success. But production in the past is more descriptive than prescriptive, especially in dynasty formats where players aging out is all the more important.

We have to name our priors even if they are a consensus opinion. You will not find many Drew Lock truthers out there as Seattle’s move to trade the best QB in franchise history for Mr. Irresponsible wasn’t met with much optimism. Yet, there is an outcome that Lock gives replacement-level production for the Seahawks and the team is better than we think.

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One of the teams I took the biggest “L” on last year was the Cincinnati Bengals. Heck, I’m assuming you didn’t see them making it all the way to the Super Bowl much less winning their own division. The tag team of Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase was a great story and pairing but there were some signs that led me to believe we’d only see partial fruit in their first year playing together in the NFL. Burrow had major off-season surgery and it seemed like he was going to start the season slowly. I wrote in Chase’s Rookie Profile evaluating his film and college production: “Chase is a TD maker waiting to explode and I think the chunk plays are going to be a regular thing. But there are some games where the 50/50 balls won’t go his way” was just another way to say there were more boom-bust weeks than I felt comfortable with. I just didn’t realize how great the boom weeks would be as the pair went off in Week 17 for over 100+ combined fantasy points. My priors led me to be underweight on the pair in BestBall and slow to finally buy-in for DFS. Oh, and they blew their 6.5 win total out of the water.

Finding a range of outcomes is more valuable than arriving at one final projection point. We need to know if players have ceiling outcomes in their future or if we are dealing with players like Robert Woods or my guy Keenan Allen. They are dependable PPR options but at the end of the day, it’s hard building in an outcome where Allen hits ten touchdowns. He’s never done and at age 30, it’s hard finding room for that. When you’re deciding between two players, it’s important to build that in. Last year, Mark Andrews & Kyle Pitts were drafted as the TE5 & 6. Pitts was the most hyped TE rookie of all time and Andrews came off a 2020 season where he slumped, a far cry from his breakout 2019 year. It made sense that both were ranked back-to-back but the outlook for a rookie TE to be TE1 on the season on a team projected for seven wins (Atlanta) versus a Baltimore squad with 10.5 wins is far different. Andrews apparently had that in his range.

Market Evaluation

I won’t go on too far with this. It’s simple: what do the books say? While not perfect, sportsbooks give you context for forecasts, an outside voice.

Evaluating teams comes down to view them through a number of different markets:

  • Win Totals
  • Divisional Odds
  • Make the Playoffs
  • Conference & Super Bowl Odds

While we might like a certain team, some markets are virtually impossible to bet without a huge bankroll. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a heavy favorite (-280) in the NFC South and their win total is high enough (11.5) that it screams stay away. Can they get to 12 wins? Of course. Betting the under is assuming something goes wrong or an injury occurs. But at this point, betting against Tom Brady is a losing cause. Instead, with a weak NFC, winning the conference (+330) feels like a much better and more valuable bet at this point.

Example: Breaking Down the Indianapolis Colts

For practice, let’s take everything we’ve mentioned thus far and quickly hammer out a team from a forecasting standpoint.

  • Win Total: DK Sportsbook: 9.5 (-130/+110)
  • Make the Playoffs: -175
  • AFC South: +100
  • AFC Conference: +1200
  • Super Bowl: +2200

The Colts went 9-8 last year with a Pythagorean win expectation of 10.6, slightly underwhelming with Carson Wentz especially losing in Week 17 to the lowly Jaguars. The previous year with Philip Rivers under center, the Colts went 11-5 with a 10-win expectation losing to the Bills in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. In other words, in the last two seasons they’ve been a 10-win team. Now, the question is with Matt Ryan, will he provide more efficiency from an overall offensive standpoint? It was the Jonathan Taylor show with 18 rushing TDs as the passing attack ranked 27th in pass attempts and only 26th in passing yards.

What does their schedule say?

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The AFC South plays the NFC East and AFC West in 2022, not exactly the easiest route to double-digit wins. Their 2nd place schedule invites a home game against the Steelers and away matchups with the Vikings and Patriots. According to Warren Sharp, this adds up to the 4th easiest strength of schedule for 2022, which holds some weight for me.

The Colts’ are slight division favorites over the Tennessee Titans which is likely a better bet at this point of the off-season. If this team hits over 9.5, you can imagine it will come at the expense of their weak division.

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