Reflecting on key ideas from two past Signals posts
Macro thoughts about edges in 2024 fantasy football
As I try to force my hand a bit to get myself writing in the dead of winter, it’s always cool to hear from you guys. In my last post, I talked through some of the successes of 2023, and it was cool to hear from even more of you about how things went after I’d hit on that post. One of my favorite notes this week came from David:
You can include me among the "most loyal subscribers who also crushed". I just realized I never let you know:
I somehow won all 4 of my leagues this year, all with wildly different formats including a work Yahoo league with 48 teams split across 4 divisions and a keeper league in its 13th season that I hadn't made the playoffs in for the last 3 years. Thanks again for all your help, can't wait for next season.
It’s always the case that these wins aren’t on me — my style is so probability- and game theory-focused that parsing and distilling the key points so you can draft and manage your own rosters isn’t some minor step, and you guys deserve by far the majority of the credit for your wins — but I particularly enjoyed hearing about the degree to which David crushed because I do some one-on-one calls in August, and he and I got a chance to talk via video chat in preparation for his drafts, and then he was also an engaged Signals Gold member at the weekly chats all season.
David wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t just Signals Gold members or people who booked one-on-one chats. Like I said last time, we gotta celebrate the wins, especially after 2022 was a tough season. And for me, it’s extremely fulfilling to hear that amid all my stream-of-consciousness and wordy pieces, where I’m not great at boiling down what I’m trying to get at into the most consumable, bite-sized nuggets, that there’s nonetheless value to be distilled for those of you who enjoy the process of digging in.
So a heartfelt thank you from me to all of you who put in the work and turn my efforts, and my unique style of communicating them, into something that leads to these messages that I get to feel good about.
A few years back, I closed the 2020 fantasy season with a recap that included a few key bullet points that I thought mattered within the overall fantasy landscape. I talked about the TE position, and rookie dominance, and then closed with what was probably the most useful reflection, using the late-season production from rookie RB Jonathan Taylor and per-game success of second-year breakout A.J. Brown to talk through how their full-season numbers didn’t quantify their impact.
It’s a really important point to still consider, as the season has closed and there is just so much data to parse. Inevitably, what happens is a bit too much of a focus on those full-season numbers, with little consideration for the way they were accumulated. The season tells us a story, and each team’s story is a little different. If we want to accurately predict what’s coming in 2024, staring down a full season of compiled data without consideration of how that progressed or whether the conditions around it will be present again next year is just flawed.
That’s not meant to disregard those figures, but I’ve spent a ton of time in my career looking at benchmarks and whether players hit them to make cases on their skill level. And I think that’s fair, as a foundational tool to begin analysis, but too many stop there, and find it to be definitive.
Before I get into my 2023 recap piece, I need to use today’s to reflect on some ideas from the 2020 and 2022 versions of this post.
Player and stat comps miss the boat
The longer I do this, the less interested I am in comparing stats from players in different situations. I still care about the stats, but I have a pretty good grasp of overall numbers and what we’re looking for, and I want to analyze individual players within the stories of their own careers.
This may seem tedious, but go back to Taylor and Brown. They both were strong draft values not just in that 2020 season, but again in 2021. There are a lot of reasons they became the players we were looking for in future seasons, but they had their warts, too, and we needed to be able to see past those. When we think about rookie evaluation, there are players like Justin Jefferson who goes down as the kind of prospect who didn’t massively pop in a ton of ways, but who “checked every box,” as Blair Andrews put it at the time over at RotoViz.
It’s a piece like this that spends the time considering Jefferson independent of his rookie class that I find so much value in. But for people looking at the class as a whole, Jefferson was a bit overlooked in rookie drafts, and then also in redraft in the context of where he fit into that rookie group. It was the comparisons of his profile versus others that made him a bit less interesting, but the context wound up being that the popular team-controlled production metrics couldn’t really account for how good his teammate Ja’Marr Chase also was, among other things.
Similarly, probably my biggest regret in terms of research last year — and I wrote about this in Stealing Signals right away after Week 1 — was not spending more time digging into Puka Nacua after he became a name to know in training camp, and was generating buzz. There were warts in his profile as a late-round pick without without strong team-adjusted production on a full-season basis, but his routes data was always limited in college, whereas he did step into a huge role as a rookie in that regard. As an aside, I do want to note that if I have one long-term concern about him, I worry just a little about the same thing we talk about with RBs — being a workhorse in college is a skill — since Nacua’s track record of years with big routes numbers now stands at one season. That’s not a major concern given how we draft for upside, but his price isn’t cheap in early drafts.
Anyway, the failure of mine was the lack of curiosity, and missing how Nacua’s TPRR data told an interesting story about a unique profile. One of the fascinating things I’ve learned from Stealing Bananas cohost Shawn Siegele is that most late-round WRs who do go on to hit have some kind of trump card — maybe an elite athletic trait, or perhaps a really undervalued production profile. There’s typically something that says, “This guy is perhaps different than certain elements of his stats.”
The point of this is not to suggest I would have been all over Nacua had I dug into the TPRR data closer, or that a similar player with limited routes that showed TPRR and per-route promise will smash in the same way in the future. The point is there are no easy answers, and we continue to move into a world where sports fans especially — and society in a broader sense, on a lot of topics — wants things to be simplified into headlines and short blurbs. The way we consume things continues to speed up. There’s all that talk about the TikTok generation.
That’s just not the way you consistently find success in fantasy football. And when you do dig in, there are so many similar stories to Nacua where the differentiating piece — given hindsight knowledge that someone was a surprise star — was something unique. Market valuation is so crucial, and these huge hits that define seasons are dependent on that.
I haven’t dug into early 2024 ADP enough yet, but I saw on Twitter recently that Marvin Harrison, Jr. — probably the most-hyped WR of the past decade, including guys like Ja’Marr Chase — is already going something like WR11 in redraft. No one’s missing anything on Harrison, and without taking too strong of a stance either direction on him, his price is such that his ability to return considerable value is limited. What he would need to do from a WR11 price to return massive value is hard to fathom; he could still be a good-not-great pick there just by being a strong rookie who peaks late, as we know that late-season rookie production has an outsized effect on what wins leagues in fantasy.
Again, I don’t have a comment on whether he’s worth that pick at this moment, but rather a comment on how he’s not flying under anyone’s radar. But specifically when I look at the huge hits, I consider areas where the market missed something. Deebo Samuel a few years back going in Round 8 because he’d had a couple injury-plagued seasons, where the market didn’t care that he’d gone over 2.0 YPRR when he was on the field in both of those first two years, and he looked poised to be a massive breakout in a similar situation in Year 3, if only health permitted. That kind of thing is the common thread over and over again, and it requires peeling back the layers of the individual profile, and understanding how the full-season data was compiled. But it’s not convenient, and it’s a mouthful to get through, and it especially doesn’t make for great audio on all the podcasts and those things.
And when we break things down to explain them quickly, it’s the comparisons that pit players alongside other profiles that I increasingly think are a major issue, and just muddy our ability to see what we need to. I don’t want to take up for Bryce Young, but we don’t need to compare him to C.J. Stroud. The link between those two is done.
And yet these comparisons will continue, because that’s how our broader sports media works at this point, and then within the scope of fantasy, we do ultimately have to draft Player A or Player B when we’re on the clock at some point. Of course we need to weigh them against each other.