Some thoughts on antifragility

Why I'm worried about Travis Etienne but not Ja'Marr Chase

One of the big reasons I advocate to target rookies in all fantasy formats is this concept of antifragility, which long-time fantasy football players will immediately recognize as the core principle from Shawn Siegele’s original article coining the term Zero RB. Shawn and I talked a lot about the concept as it relates to Zero RB on an episode of our podcast Stealing Bananas last month, and if you’re not yet listening to that podcast, it’s a great way to get even more of my thoughts, if the dozens of emails I’ve sent you over the past few weeks isn’t enough.

Antifragile is a term coined by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb for his book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, and that title can be taken fairly literally as an explanation if you’re unfamiliar with the concept. Shawn quotes the following passage in his Zero RB piece:

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure. Yet in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.

I posted a thread on Twitter yesterday that had thoughts on a lot of what I would call reactionary analysis in fantasy football right now that linked back to some of what I wrote in my post on why you shouldn’t care about my projections.

People seemed to like this analogy from the show Loki, and *possible spoiler alert but not really?* if you haven’t seen the show, there are a couple cool visuals that show what I’m describing.

The show deals with time and space and so it’s obviously complicated, but there’s this central timeline and then major events that create the branches and are essentially creating alternate universes. In football, we don’t know what those events are going to be, but it’s not hard to understand how so many of the biggest breakout fantasy stars were impacted by significant moments that propelled them into unforeseen opportunities.

I’ve more or less argued that a full-season projection is something like that central timeline, but that what’s least imaginable in an NFL season is the timeline not branching. Things are going to happen.

Insert this concept of antifragility. When we target antifragile players, what we’re targeting is players whose fantasy outlook will improve almost no matter what the shakeup or disorder is. For Travis Etienne, most of the discussion has been that he’s been running third in his backfield, and that he’s certainly not in line for the same immediate expected workload as the player drafted one pick ahead of him, Najee Harris, in Pittsburgh.

But Etienne has been a target for me all offseason for this exact concept — the thesis of the play, as it were, was that almost any chaos around Jacksonville will work in Etienne’s favor. That while he starts buried, he’s a first-round pick that a new coaching staff wanted and will want to show off, much in the way we see clear evidence across the board that draft capital influences early-career opportunity. Etienne’s role may not have been big in Week 1, but if Jacksonville struggles, they’d want to get their exciting playmaker more touches. If Jacksonville surprisingly succeeds, they’d likely want to get their exciting playmaker more touches. Because he has been discussed as having a clear role in the passing game, there was potential for an elite workload at some point if injuries struck other backs on the team in a way that propelled Etienne into more carries. Because he was very unlikely to go his entire rookie season without much work at all, he’d have at least some opportunities to do something — and that could be something innocuous like a couple short touchdowns, or a couple highlight jukes that ultimately didn’t amount to many yards — that would give the coaching staff reason to say “we need to get this guy more touches.” That’s the direction things go, in almost every situation, for a first-round back with a profile like Etienne’s.

That is, unless, we get what happened last night. Etienne suffered a mid foot sprain in the Jaguars’ second preseason game, and while we’re waiting for more imaging, it sounds like he’ll almost certainly miss part of the season and if things look bad he might be out for the year. But let’s assume he’s expected back at some point because the broader argument of this post isn’t about Etienne specifically. A healthy Etienne was almost certain to get, let’s say, five touches in Week 1. That would have likely been seen as a bad thing, and people would have talked about how he doesn’t have a real role. The reality is that’s really all he would have needed at the start to have the potential for that to grow. The other reality is that even if Etienne were to struggle on limited work, he was very likely to continue to get chances. That happened with Jonathan Taylor last year, who was more or less benched midseason and there were a lot of victory laps about him failing. Then, after one of his biggest games of the year, Taylor landed on the COVID-19 list for a week. Events were certainly not going in his favor, at least not after the first major event did go in his favor (the Marlon Mack injury), but he kept finding chances. Earlier in the year, Nyheim Hines and even Jordan Wilkins were doing some good things, and the team cut Taylor’s snaps. But it was temporary, because Hines and Wilkins were very likely to have some type of lulls at some point in their season, and the Colts were very likely to respond to that moment by giving Taylor another chance.

In that way, the only real negative outcome for Etienne would have been if there was just a massive gap between what James Robinson and Carlos Hyde were giving the Jaguars and what Etienne was producing. I say massive, because the scales were always going to be tilted in Etienne’s favor. He would have needed to have struggled, and likely repeatedly as the team manufactured chances for him, while Robinson and to a lesser extent Hyde were really performing well.

That wasn’t an impossible outcome to see, but when you consider the sheer number of opportunities the young early-round pick is likely to see, and you consider how a lot of what happens with RB production is circumstantial and influenced by elements outside the RB’s control, it was certainly an unlikely one that nothing would break right for Etienne. In that way, a discount rookie-year Alvin Kamara or discount rookie-year D’Andre Swift type line felt, at least for stretches at some point in his rookie season, like the floor outcome for Etienne. It might have taken some time into the season, and much like Taylor it might have seemed unlikely to ever materialize, but the entire point is the scales are tipped in favor of a player who actually is by all accounts a very strong prospect, and so all of the potential chaos was moving in the same direction.

And that idea of all of the chaos moving in the same direction is what I think of when I think of antifragility and these “small miss, big win” picks I’m trying to target. Of course, football is a cruel sport, and for any player the one thing that can crush them is an injury. For Etienne especially, it changes the entire thesis. Now you can see a lot worse outcomes. Now you can see where he doesn’t get healthy until Week 5, and maybe that he’s never quite as explosive this year as we’ll come to expect later in his career. Now you can see scenarios where Robinson and Hyde have really started to establish themselves by the time Etienne is right, because it’s an entirely different situation when Etienne won’t even have the minimum five or so touches per game to show that he’s also a guy worth paying attention to. Now, unfortunately, you can see scenarios where the team would treat this as a lost season.

Contrast that with what is negatively impacting Ja’Marr Chase right now. Chase has been a tough pick for me all offseason, because he did miss all of the 2020 season and a good chunk of his upside seemed to be baked into ADP. But a few preseason drops almost couldn’t matter less to Chase. The fifth overall pick this offseason, Chase is going to get every opportunity imaginable to produce. Maybe they talk for a week or two about Auden Tate playing over him in three-wide sets, but Tate will have the shortest of leashes, where literally one drop or not even that will give the coaching staff reason to shift back to Chase and once again see if he’s ready. There is almost no scenario where the Bengals actively decide, just weeks after taking him over Penei Sewell and all the discussion that surrounded that decision, that they can’t play Chase because he’s just hurting the team too much. They literally just ran A.J. Green out there week after week in the 2020 season when it was blatantly obvious he was a major negative. You think that same coaching staff is going to actually bench Chase for more than like five seconds? You think that if Chase comes back and still struggles with drops, that he’s going to have anything in the way of chance after chance after chance to produce in 2021?

Those should register as ludicrous rhetorical questions. Chase is an antifragile pick in the sense that there’s almost no shock to the Bengals’ 2021 system that wouldn’t benefit Chase. Certainly whether he’s able to play at a high enough level to justify a fifth-round pick in fantasy drafts is in question, but he’s going to get his opportunities, even if there are bumps in the road. In that sense, there’s almost zero healthy risk to Chase’s projected volume — he might be a small miss, but no one is projecting him for 150 targets, and the volume he is being projected for is close to locked in — while his upside is uncertain.

Contrast that with someone like Mike Davis, my dead zone punching bag and a guy that is a mortal lock to prove me wrong with a 1,500-yard season. For Davis, there are a ton of shocks to the Falcons’ system that could damage his projected work. We’re basically projecting his workload as high as we can feasibly imagine a 28-year-old coming off the first 150-touch season of his career going. Every one of those touches is fragile; whether another back flashes, or the team adds someone after roster cutdowns, or the season just doesn’t go very well and they decide they want to get younger guys more looks — Davis is fragile in the sense that all the potential stressors on his projected outcome look likely to negatively impact it.

This post wasn’t meant to be about Davis, but rather more discussion of what you are actually doing when you pick a rookie in a fantasy football draft. We know that rookies gain work through their first seasons, so September expectations shouldn’t necessarily be high. Some rookies surpass those expectations and smash from Day 1! Or they start in Week 2 like Calvin Ridley in 2017, or in Week 3 like Justin Jefferson’s first big game last year. And some are like Taylor, where the red carpet is seemingly rolled out but they struggle. If they are a top pick with the organizational support of being an expected long-term producer, they will still get more chances.

There should have been almost no adjustment to Chase’s expectations as a result of his preseason drops. Perhaps he was already a bit overvalued, and there’s a bit of a correction happening as people realize he may not destroy worlds starting from Week 1. But a few struggles early were never out of the question for a guy who didn’t play last year, and they aren’t really a concern because we know he’ll get more chances.

Meanwhile, for Etienne, the injury is pretty massive. Now the expected role stuff becomes more of a problem, because now the Urban Meyer concerns and the ways the Jaguars might see things all create scenarios where if Etienne misses a month, that Kamara- or Swift-like workload really may never materialize. That will be especially true if Robinson starts hot; teams will always be willing to consider an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality. I’m still holding out hope, but the injury significantly damages the antifragile nature of Etienne’s profile. Now there’s a ready-made excuse; now there won’t be constant questions from the media about when Etienne will get more time after the team committed such significant resources to drafting him.

At the same time, Etienne will start falling in drafts, and there will become a point where he’s probably a value again. If he’s able to get back reasonably early in the season, the flow of things will still probably break in his favor. Even if he misses half the season, there are scenarios where the other backs are really struggling, and by the time he’s ready the team is thinking he’ll be their savior from a playmaking sense. While the injury is a massive hit to his profile, it’s important to continue thinking probabilistically with the new information, and always.

I wanted to share these thoughts this morning not because they were super ground-breaking as they related to Etienne and Chase, but because I think they are pretty important in terms of how you should be viewing every player and every pick you make. What are the scenarios that could arise, and how would they impact this player’s value? If you can start to lock that type of thinking in, you’ll be going a long way to building better fantasy football teams.