Some thoughts on the 2020 fantasy season

Looking back at the season that was

This time of year I spend a lot of time considering what the year that was told us, how the market will react, and — most importantly — what process lessons I can learn from the results. You never want to overreact to one data point, and in many ways each fantasy football season is just a single data point, particularly if you are thinking about things like draft strategies.

Several years ago, I wrote a wide-ranging, macro-level piece titled “Trends That Changed The Game In 2016 Are About To Change It Again” over at RotoViz. It was a piece where I threw in a lot of offseason research, and it got a good deal of positive feedback, and I think was pretty early on a lot of major trends we’ve since seen. As it turns out, one specific piece of feedback quoted a line from the conclusion that did an incredible job of summing up the crux of the article. I can’t recall who sent the tweet, but it emphasized how sharp the point was.

“Drafters almost always create themes out of last year’s most compelling stories — even when those stories do not reflect the most important trends — and they struggle to identify future shifts in style or opportunity in any meaningful way.”

The kicker: I didn’t write that.

Shawn Siegele is many things, and among them, he’s a very good editor. He took some time to work on that piece, and that’s a line he slipped in there to help wrap the argument up. I loved it when I saw it, and I got quite the kick out of that reaction. I wrote something like 2,000 words about all sorts of league-level trends that would surely impact fantasy football, and a reader looked at all those words and picked out the one sentence Shawn wrote as the single most useful point. Wouldn’t expect anything else.

But the sentence is so good I remember it almost verbatim several years later. Fantasy football is a game about a game, and that game is played in a league that is constantly changing. I have talked a lot about macro-level changes league-wide, and there’s time to talk about that kind of stuff going forward. But it’s very important to remember that 2020 was a single data point on a spectrum that has shifting constraints.

What I mean by that is if you look back to, say, 2010, the league was very different. Back then, the shotgun formation was not used anywhere close to how much it is today. Football Outsiders has some fantastic tables on that trend in this 2017 article, including the note that only one team in 2006 used the shotgun on a higher percentage of plays than the league’s lowest team in 2016.

With increased shotgun formations came more three-wide sets, which impacted the concentration of target shares. More recent trends include increased use of motion leaguewide, and the easy receptions some players get on jet motion tip passes, plus a wider embrace of analytical concepts like early-down pass rate and going for fourth downs that have helped usher in a new era of increased scoring with an emphasis on the pass. This is all stuff I want to get a closer look at over the offseason.

As for running backs — unless you’re Derrick Henry, you aren’t seeing the types of workloads RBs once did. Henry finished with 378 rush attempts, and only Dalvin Cook was within 100 rushes of that number. Cook and Josh Jacobs were the only other two backs to carry the ball more than 250 times. Anyone who has done projections knows the 200-250 carry range is a very popular output for a team’s lead back, but there were only 10 backs in the league with over 200 rushes.

Some of that could have been related to the wild 2020 atmosphere with COVID-19 impacting player availability, among many other things. But the number of true workhorse backs in the NFL has been trending down for years, and that’s one trend that doesn’t seem likely to change.

These sorts of macro-level trends impact how we should analyze the results of the 2020 season, as we’re essentially trying to determine what is signal and what is noise. As the quote above notes, the average drafter is going to overreact to 2020’s trends. But to fully take advantage of that, we need to understand what we should have expected, and how far from the norm and especially the 2021 expectation those trends were.

This is true on the macro level, on the positional level, on the individual player level, and more. But here are some things I’ve been considering in the immediate aftermath of the season, and how I’m reading into them. Think of this as more a list of some thoughts than strong takes. Some are what I think will be discussed heavily by the market, some are what I personally am interested in.

Lessons from the Tight End position

The way things played out at tight end, you either needed Travis Kelce or Darren Waller or you were playing catchup. There’s been a lot of debate about early/late round viability at the onesie positions (quarterback and tight end), and historically you could look at tight end and point to a late-round star or two nearly every season.

It will be important to recognize that was still true this year. Robert Tonyan finished TE3 and Logan Thomas finished TE4. Dalton Schultz finished TE10, and looked like he had a lot more upside from that before Dak Prescott got hurt. None of those guys were drafted in most leagues.

Those of you who listened to the FF Today podcast this offseason may remember I was advocating for an early-round or late-round approach at the TE position this year so much that host Adam Aizer eventually started calling it a “great or late” strategy. That strategy will be extremely popular again in 2021, and it will mean the early-round TEs will get very pricey, with Kelce, Waller, and George Kittle all going in the first couple rounds.

The one major note I would offer where 2020 differed from expectation is that the Tonyan, Thomas, and Schultz group were all good but not great in a way that might make people underestimate the upside of late-round TEs. Tonyan led that group with 176.6 PPR points, and that was nowhere near Kelce’s 312.6 or Waller’s 280.6. But we have seen more upside from late-round guys in years prior. In 2019, Waller came from the later rounds of drafts to put up 223 points. In 2018, it was Kittle’s second-year breakout, when he was a double-digit round pick and posted 256.7. Jordan Reed in 2015 is another that immediately comes to mind — he scored 248.2. Delanie Walker and Gary Barnidge finished just behind him that season as later-round guys, as well.

So the 220-260 point season is indeed possible for late-round tight ends, and there are several examples in recent seasons. We also can’t expect that mid-round tight ends will just be terrible forever. A counterpoint could be made that modern offenses are deprioritizing the position with the number of wide receivers we see, but there are enough athletic players at the position that can split out wide that I’m not sure that is actually a realistic explanation for what we saw in 2020. I would need to see some pretty compelling evidence there.

Kelce just put up the first 300-point season for a tight end since 2013, and Waller wasn’t far behind, and I still expect both to provide huge positional advantages in 2021. But 2020 was a rare event in that those two hit true ceilings while the entire rest of the position stumbled in a way that we shouldn’t expect to repeat. I’ll be very interested to see what happens with ADP, but the 2020 point distribution at TE was a rare result that could open up future drafting opportunity.

Rookie dominance

For the second straight year, rookies were huge. First, I want to talk a bit about what we saw. Several rookie wide receivers were very good early, with CeeDee Lamb and Tee Higgins ultimately fading due to quarterback injury, Chase Claypool losing some snaps to weird coaching, and Justin Jefferson being the one clear full-season fantasy star. Brandon Aiyuk was on a more typical trajectory, where it took a bit of time for him to emerge but he really came on late. Unfortunately, he missed some time of his own and had some quarterback issues as well. Guys like Jerry Jeudy, Laviska Shenault, and Michael Pittman had their moments, while Henry Ruggs, Jalen Reagor, and Denzel Mims would be accurately classified as disappointments. There are still others I’m missing in this deep class — Gabriel Davis and Darnell Mooney were two fun late rounders that come to mind.

The RBs were a little slower to come on, outside of James Robinson. Antonio Gibson also emerged relatively early, but Jonathan Taylor, D’Andre Swift, Cam Akers, and JK Dobbins all closed very well. The late-season production was a key point I discussed this offseason, and it’s what the data tells us to expect from rookies, as I frequently detailed through the middle of the season regarding a lot of these guys. This class may have had slightly higher weekly ceilings collectively than we could reasonably assume, even accounting for how many high-profile picks there were this year (19 total RBs and WRs in the first and second round of the actual draft is a very high number). We also can’t ignore Clyde Edwards-Helaire struggling all year compared to expectations, guys like Zack Moss and Joshua Kelley being pretty average, and some guys like AJ Dillon and Ke’Shawn Vaughn who never got going.

You could take issue with how I’ve classified some of these guys, but I have two somewhat conflicting points about what we saw.

1) If you’re inclined to be anti-rookie, consider the hit rate here isn’t much different from veterans. I talked about this in Signals some, but when we see a veteran who has done it fail to meet expectations, it’s easier to chalk it up to a down year because we know what that player had in them. Some of the guys who failed, say Jalen Reagor, are hard to explain. Part of it is he was injured, but he had some opportunities late and never did much.

But it’s also hard for me to explain why DJ Chark wasn’t better, or why Michael Thomas only averaged 12.0 PPR points in his seven games, or Odell Beckham was at 12.3 in his seven. Those guys had injuries too, but maybe someone like T.Y. Hilton is a better example — we saw flashes of the talent we know is/was there, but this was the year where he showed his age more than ever. Same holds for A.J. Green.

Again, you can argue with my examples, but hopefully the broad point is clear. I’m pro-rookie, but even I struggle with it. As I process what I learned, and look back through rosters, I find it much easier to think a rookie pick was a mistake I made, while it’s easier to chalk up a failed veteran pick to the guy hitting a wall or dealing with injuries or something that was out of my control. And I think that has a lot to do with whether we’ve seen the player do it before or not, because with rookies the line is always “this guy sucks.”

2) If you’re inclined to be pro-rookie, consider the hit rate for rookies in 2020 was probably high. It was high in 2019, too. At some point there will be another rookie class that disappoints, but I know the dynasty guys are already really excited about what 2021 has to offer, so maybe that won’t be next year.

Still, even knowing this year had a high rate of players that were useful at some point, cost is a big reason rookies are still worthwhile picks. I’ve said many times you pay in fantasy football drafts for past production (or — especially at running back — “don’t pay for past production”). This is a really important note to take from 2020. Every player has a range of possible outcomes, and we have to think probabilistically. But when a guy who hasn’t done it fails, it hits differently. This could extend to a second-year player like N’Keal Harry.

Don’t let that type of analysis change your mindset. Just because we missed on some guys from a certain archetype should not mean we write that group off entirely, and rookies in sum were very profitable this year. We’ll have to adjust to new ADP trends next year, and I expect rookies will go higher, but there will almost certainly again be smart bets to make.

The error of full-season expectations

I am constantly railing against full-season projections, even as I do them every year and take huge value out of the process. The issue, as I alluded to earlier with the rush attempts commentary, is the way they are applied.

Simply put: fantasy football success or failure should not be measured by full season points versus draft position expectation. It can be in certain circumstances, and it’s an easy shorthand that makes sense to consult, but one of the biggest lessons the uncertain 2020 season should have taught you is your roster grows through a season.

This is a major reason draft strategies like Zero RB can work in a variety of formats. Maybe you don’t win the waiver wire, but if it’s a trade league, you move surplus WR depth for a back. Maybe, as I did in leagues this year, you get by with very little RB production for significant parts of the season, surviving off your QB, WR, and TE points, then find some plug-in options later on.

It’s not just a point about Zero RB — I threw some thoughts on Jonathan Taylor on Twitter during Sunday’s Week 17 games, and I continue to get pushback on him.

I’m sharing these here because I do truly believe this is a super important point, and I know from experience there are many people who still think Taylor and players like him were bad picks. And while he finished third in the NFL in rushing yards and RB6 overall in PPR leagues if you include Week 17, where he exploded, you can understand why people feel that way.

For a big part of the season, Taylor was very bad. And I imagine if you don’t use Week 17, and maybe if you look at it as just the fantasy football regular season, you could make a case he was picked too high by ADP.

But whatever his total points for the season were, Taylor was unquestionably great down the stretch. And if you think of your roster not as a collection of individual players who were either good or bad, but instead as a thing that evolves over the season, Taylor was absolutely a player who could help you win championships. I did win at least one championship with him on the roster, and lost in one other final that immediately comes to mind where I had him. So those were teams where I had Taylor, navigated the regular season, than overperformed in the playoffs in part because I had this type of late-season hammer.

If you’re looking at projections too extensively in August, and you are considering draft pick value in terms of whether a guy can return a specific value, you will flat out miss how young players emerge over seasons. You will also undervalue the risk of ruin with older players who can hit age cliffs.

Another player I’m fond of that I had this discussion about all offseason was A.J. Brown, and a central point to my case for him this offseason was that projecting his stat line wasn’t relevant. The frequent case against Brown was that he could not get enough targets to justify his draft position, but that’s what I would call an error of precision — trying to be way too exact when we were talking about him being a Round 5 value in a projection and he was going in Round 4.

I wrote as much, saying: “…trying to project Brown’s final line isn’t really the point, because Tennessee’s 2020 almost certainly can’t mirror its 2019.” I wrote a bit later in the offseason about how hard it is to project team-level factors year over year.

I went on to argue he was an asymmetrical bet, where “there is upside beyond what is readily obvious, and the baseline projections will all be close to Brown's floor.” I even put it in the terms of ADP vs. final points production: “I still think the most likely outcome for Brown in 2020 is he doesn’t quite get enough targets and the regression is steep enough that he doesn’t make good on his ADP when we view his end-of-season line.”

As it turned out, Brown had what was almost certainly unsustainable touchdown production to buoy his great 2020 stat line. He missed two games and still finished WR14 in PPR leagues, finishing WR7 in points per game.

Was that fluky? To a degree, perhaps, especially with the touchdowns. But he was the right type of bet to make for reasons that were never going to show up in a strict accounting of his projected volume vs. ADP. Many who look at things that way will settle on his touchdown production being fluky and be unwilling to reconsider that process — I know this because I’ve been there. But these are the types of outcomes you miss when you approach things that way, and it can’t be the only tool in your toolbox.

That’s all I have for now. Wishing everyone the best in 2021, and if you’re interested in playing any playoff fantasy football, I joined the Ship Chasing guys yesterday for a first look at our expectations and will be back on their channel Wednesday and Friday with more.