Where to find edges in fantasy football

Broad thoughts on evaluating the intersection of expected player success and cost

Fantasy football players and analysts have short attention spans. A huge percentage of the opinions you’ll see and hear can be summed up by the question, “What has this player done for us lately?”

It’s pretty shocking, really, because maybe the only thing we know for sure about the NFL is it’s a wildly chaotic league and things will change. It doesn’t take a lot of looking back at past results — rookie classes a few years old, top scorers by position a half decade ago — to recognize that.

Here, let’s do that. In 2016, Antonio Brown, Jordy Nelson, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham, and T.Y. Hilton were the top five PPR WRs; David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, Le’Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, and DeMarco Murray were the top five RBs. The only two from that group who were even top-20 options in 2020 were Elliott (RB9) and Evans (WR11). None were elite last year. Nearly all of them had a fall-off year at some point where they were still top-50 fantasy picks who significantly underwhelmed.

Five years is the first length of time that came to mind and these are the first examples I checked, but this point could be made a hundred ways. Things change quick, and what we think we know all offseason proves to be wildly incorrect in a ton of situations once the games start being played.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so shocked; maybe this is exactly why so much analysis clings to the past year or so of results. If we all feel like ships in a storm looking for something to anchor to, it can make sense to gravitate toward what feels most concrete and requires the least thinking.

And obviously finding and reacting early to significant changes in the fantasy landscape is the whole point of Stealing Signals as an in-season column, so the point is certainly not to be closed off to new information. But there are different timelines in question; there’s always an edge in being early because the cost is still low, while being late is not much different than being wrong. If you’re late, the price shifts and then the edge shifts; there can still be value propositions, but at that point you need to be much more correct or you’re at risk of paying a premium on something that’s just going to change again.

This obviously relates to various other situations, but there’s an easy and actionable way to simplify it for fantasy football. There actually is a subset of players the market tends to take a longer view on — establish veterans. My contentions is that makes no sense, and the long view applies just as well, if not better, on young guys. Luckily, their long views are rarely baked into prices, so edges can be found everywhere, from fading perceived stability in older players to reacting to specific younger profiles that are overlooked.

Let’s start with the older guys. There are definitely players who are just long-term studs and there’s definitely value in targeting that for fantasy, but it can take roughly an entire NFL players’ prime to feel confident in it. There are obvious exceptions, but as a rule of thumb primes don’t tend to last much longer than four or five years in the NFL (see the above about the top scorers from 2016). That can be true for wide receivers as much as running backs, though receivers clearly hold the longevity edge.

So when I say it can take roughly an entire NFL players’ prime to feel confident in “stable production,” what I mean is by the time the production feels consistent and bankable, you’re getting dangerously close to the decline years. At that point, you’re prone to undervalue the risk of age cliffs and the natural progression of things. Julio Jones was for many people a value in drafts last year because you had secured production at a discount due to his age. This year, Jones is probably undervalued amid trade fears given he was still productive when healthy. Nothing really changed about him — both years you were talking about investing in an older receiver who is productive when healthy but has age-related concerns.

It’s not just injury — like it was for Julio — that prevents presumed consistent production from actually continuing. It can be team changes or a decline in explosiveness from a career in a violent sport. That’s something we see with running backs constantly, and maybe Ezekiel Elliott is a good example from last year. The examples are endless; I don’t want to get mired down in semantics of specific cases.

The bottom line is as soon as the general consensus stops asking questions about a player’s productivity and accepts some degree of safety, you’re probably on a countdown to the next unforeseeable change.

The flip side of the long view coin is young players. I mentioned in my pre-draft look at the 2020 class how we have a pretty strong idea of what matters analytically, particularly for wide receivers, and how the focus should be on second-order conversations beyond that. One of those conversations would be how we see one year of NFL results and forget the prospect profile.

I would argue this is a massive edge, where taking a longer-term view can create easy betting propositions against the fantasy football market. It played heavily into my A.J. Brown love last year. The counters to Brown were largely based on his situation and how efficient he was in his one season as a pro, which wasn’t seen as sustainable. While I tried to make a statistical argument he could maintain high efficiency thanks to a sublime mix of pre-catch and post-catch production, a substantial reason I was so confident in that is how great he was in any relevant statistical measure while at Ole Miss.

And for a young player just entering his prime, there are almost certainly fewer risks around health or skills deterioration. So the end result is this — if we’re willing to consider a college career on top of a brief NFL sample, we can feel similarly confident in “consistent production” or a certain set of skills at a time in that player’s career when there’s much more reason to trust that will sustain.

Meanwhile, when the college production and small NFL sample don’t line up, there are also opportunities to take a long view. Sure, sometimes guys just bust. And in dynasty formats, there’s some long-term risk to holding, say, a player like Jalen Reagor. If Reagor doesn’t produce again this year, his value will plummet.

But especially in redraft, Reagor is a guy I’m only just now realizing I should be on more than I am as I write this. He was universally loved by the analytics community last year, but is now a significant afterthought, going WR54 in Underdog Best Ball drafts, just before Cole Beasley. There’s additional context — the Eagles went back to the first-round WR well this year, and Jalen Hurts isn’t going to help WR volume. But when we try to project what change might come next in NFL analysis, there’s not really a case against a player who was injured and in a tumultuous situation as a rookie, had a productive collegiate career before that, and has plenty of opportunity in front of him even if new teammate DeVonta Smith is an immediate stud. At least no case against him at cost.

We’ve obviously seen young players come in and be very productive more and more, but there are definitely examples of players with strong prospect profiles who struggled early then became what they were expected to be. Reagor might not even be the best example because his prospect profile wasn’t without concerns, but there is absolutely historical precedent with players like Tyler Boyd and Davante Adams who were metrics superstars that were more or less each outright terrible for two seasons before becoming high-level NFL wide receivers. Both guys were ridiculously inexpensive options heading into their third seasons — the types of players you could draft late in any format and dictate how much exposure you wanted.

Meanwhile, there’s a case to be made for understanding early that guys probably aren’t going to cut it. I got Van Jefferson as a throw-in in a midseason trade last year in a dynasty league and wound up cutting him during a deep rookie draft this year. It turned a few heads, and while I’d tried to trade him for a future fourth-round rookie pick and been rejected, a few people said they would have given at least a fifth or sixth.

Now let’s be clear — Jefferson’s ADP is still a long way off of Reagor’s, and a future fifth or sixth in a dynasty rookie draft is virtually worthless, so it’s not like anyone’s actually excited about him. But what makes this perhaps more interesting is among the players I did keep was the Eagles’ Quez Watkins, who is suspect no one would have batted an eye at.

The minor differences between players deep on a dynasty roster may seem unimportant, but I’d contend they aren’t, so bear with me for a minute. The long view with Jefferson is he had major red flags as a prospect — succinctly summed up by the fact he was in college for five years and never got close to a breakout season — and then was also not very productive last year while losing snaps to Josh Reynolds after the two basically split the WR3 role out of the gate.

One thing Shawn Siegele’s great work sharing his WR Breakout System the past few years over at RotoViz has taught us is earlier picks tend to break out sooner. They get early opportunity, presumably because they are better but also in some cases just because the team that drafted them has invested in them and has incentive to see what they have. The linked work above points to second-year wide receivers as a huge breakout opportunity, but I’d contend Jefferson doesn’t fit that group.

Jefferson’s lack of collegiate production and the poor rookie season production are unrelated red marks that would both independently paint a very poor picture for him to be productive in the future. So his long view is pretty clear now — we have a lengthy collegiate sample and an early NFL career where he got early snaps, and those things compound on each other to suggest he’s just never going to be a productive player. I’d content his reasonable upside at this point might be turning in a 500- or 600-yard season, and it’s easy to have conviction in that while also knowing sometimes you’ll miss and now that I’ve written this he’s definitely going for 1,500 this year.

By contrast, Quez Watkins was a late-round pick with a really nice prospect profile who looked like an underrated gem. I don’t want to spend too much time on him, but the Eagles only took him after fellow deep threat John Hightower, and they played Hightower a lot more last year. Hightower was not very good, and was arguably not as good of a prospect from an analytical perspective, and then Watkins got some late opportunity and did actually make a couple plays when he got about 100 snaps over the final four weeks of the season. Guys like him are longshots, but I can tell myself a story where he might get some more run this year in an uncertain receiver corps, and his background speaks to a guy who might actually be able to take advantage of that. His story may not yet be written, in other words.

But Jefferson is an extreme example of the kind of guy we can fall into an opportunity trap with, which is to say I suspect the only reason anyone cared about him is he has paths to playing a decent amount this year. In a deep best ball dynasty league, that can be relevant, but for most fantasy leagues I’d suggest it’s only relevant in the same way A.J. Green was relevant to Boyd and Tee Higgins last year. With Reynolds now gone, the Rams brought in DeSean Jackson and took another second-round wide receiver in Tutu Atwell, so they might just be out on Jefferson, too. But if he plays, much like a point I made about Green last year in Signals, his empty routes would stand to benefit the other players on the field, including obviously Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp but also guys like Tyler Higbee and perhaps Jackson. That’s also why at this stage I’d argue Watkins is more worth the hold — if he does see the field, there’s in my estimation a much better chance he’s successful.

I wrote about the long view stuff a lot last year in Signals, and the truth of that simple trick is it needs to be taken in conjunction with the known uncertainties that are NFL seasons, but it creates a world of edges. The market is going to overvalue the long view when it relates to players approaching 30 years old, it always does. It’s going to undervalue players that “we haven’t seen it from yet,” even if they are as obvious as A.J. Brown last year. That doesn’t mean you never take a veteran, because one of the simplest truths is production begets production. But if you understand the various risks and aren’t tied to what a player has done for you lately in a league that’s always changing, you quickly realize an aging stud and a potential breakout youngster can have very similar ranges of expected outcomes for the coming season.

And when the long view doesn’t line up so perfectly, be willing to buy very low on players the market hates because it’s overvaluing a small sample of a year or two to start a career, specifically and only when that player’s long view shows some potential for life in a proven collegiate track record. And for a guy like Van Jefferson, recognize early he’s not going to hit and recognize how his likely empty snaps will increase the upside of his teammates.

None of this is a particularly complicated idea. It’s simply saying, “let’s use all the information we have.” We’re lucky that the market tends not to do that, and instead focuses on a very narrow span of recent events.