Playing the Waiver Wire: Analysis and Strategy
by Matt Waldman
September 4th, 2012

One of my jobs at Footballguys is to write weekly reports that cover the waiver wire prospects and players to upgrade, downgrade or hold steady. It only makes sense to define how Footballguys analyzes this information and share the thought process behind recommendations that readers will see in the weeks ahead. Everything that will be written below is a set of guidelines rather than unbreakable rules. Use this information as a basis for understanding most of the analysis shared throughout the season on the Waiver Wire and Upgrade/Downgrade reports.

The Difference between the Waiver Wire Report and the Upgrade/Downgrade Reports

The Waiver Wire report and the Upgrade/Downgrade reports will both have recommendations for players to drop and add. However, the Waiver Wire report is focused mostly on players who are likely at the lower ends of David Dodd's and Bob Henry's Top 250 Forward lists from the week prior. The Upgrade/Downgrade report takes an overall look at players around the league and the potential impact of their future performances based on what we witnessed during the week as well as the impact one player's situation will affect another.

The Waiver Wire report will list by priority within each position the players to add and drop for the week. The Upgrade/Downgrade Report is more of a market assessment of a player's value on a week-to-week basis early in the season and then evolves into a combination of a weekly market assessment and reflection of a longer-term view based on trends we project from past performances, injuries, job changes, and the schedule ahead.

Here is an example situation to provide more detail about these reports.

Example: Michael Vick hurts his ribs and is assisted off the field in the first quarter of a contest against a tough Seattle pass defense. He doesn't return to the game and an MRI is schedule for Monday. Meanwhile, rookie quarterback Nick Foles is given the opportunity to play and he posts 270 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception in the final three and a half quarters of play. He connects with Brent Celek nine times for 85 yards – most of them hook routes and crossing routes over the middle – and one 20-yard seam route for a score.

He also hits a deep post off play action to DeSean Jackson for a 52-yard touchdown. Foles fails to connect with Jeremy Maclin during the game and the rest of the completions are distributed to LeSean McCoy, Jason Avant, and surprisingly Damaris Johnson. McCoy has a 150 total yards (100 rushing/50 receiving), Jackson has 80 yards, Avant has 40 yards, and Johnson has 25 yards. Maclin has 45 yards and Dion Lewis has 15 yards receiving, but these stats all came from the arm of Vick before he took a wicked shot from Kam Chancellor on a safety blitz. After the game, Vick says he's sore and the Eagles don't comment on his status for next Sunday.

How it would look on the Waiver Wire Report?

The Waiver Wire report will likely recommend Nick Foles as a short-term starter for Vick owners that lack a strong backup. Given his performance against a tough defense and on-field instances where Foles made tough throws in tight windows while under pressure, there is some confidence that the rookie has what it takes to play with poise. Since Celek, Jackson, and McCoy are all in the upper or middle tiers of the Top 250 Forward report, they are reliable starters unlikely to be on a league's waiver wire. The presumption is that fantasy owners will have the common sense to take these players over many, if not most of our Waiver Wire recommendations. If I feel Foles looked like the next Tom Brady, I'll state it and recommend he's worth adding even if a team has an elite starter.

Jason Avant and Damaris Johnson are on the lower end or outside the Top 250 Forward. Avant's 40 yards is worth consideration, but based on the fact that he was targeted eight times and dropped three passes, and 32 of his 40 yards came on a seam route where Seattle's linebacker and safety had a miscommunication resulting in a blown coverage that allowed Avant to run untouched for 25 of those yards, I'm making the call that he's not a strong waiver wire option. At the same time, Johnson made two spectacular plays on third down in tight coverage.

I'm likely recommending Johnson and explaining the recommendation as a "speculative add." I'm using this term to refer to a situation where a fantasy owner has a player to drop and he doesn't get his priority picks. Johnson is that player to list at the end of your add list on the cheap based on the argument of upside. There could also be a solid argument that Avant will be a more consistent target and may also be considered a speculative addition.

How it will look on the Upgrade/Downgrade Report?

Foles will be listed as an Upgrade and "Potential Waiver Wire Gem." Celek, based on his production and performance, is a slight upgrade because he produced a little better than projected with Michael Vick. However, it was just one week and there wasn't enough compelling evidence on the field to indicate he will significantly outperform his current standing prior to Vick's injury. Celek will not be as high on the list of upgrades as other tight ends. If the following week, we learn that Vick will be out for 6-8 weeks and Celek has a 105-yard performance, scores another 20-yard touchdown on a seam route over a safety, and nearly makes an acrobatic grab between two players in the red zone but stepped on the boundary, then he'll be a more significant upgrade for the week ahead. If he continues to play at the same level of production for six of the next eight weeks and Vick is lost for the season, Celek eventually won't be listed on the report because we feel that information is superfluous.

LeSean McCoy will be labeled "Hold Steady," because he's doing the job we expect from him. If he has a 20-yard week the following week but the reason was the Eagles defense and special teams giving up 14 unanswered points before the Philadelphia offense took the field en route to a 13-38 drubbing and McCoy sat out the fourth quarter then he'll be given the same designation. We know our readers want to know the extenuating circumstances behind the box score. If McCoy earns 20 yards the following week on 15 carries against Dolphins defense decimated by injuries and he appears indecisive behind an Eagles offensive line that is allowing defenders into the backfield too often, then we'll downgrade McCoy.

Based on the game example provided earlier, Damaris Johnson would be an upgrade at the bottom of the list of receivers based on the quality of his performance and not the quantity of his stats. Jeremy Maclin, because of his earned credibility as a fantasy starter, will likely earn a "hold steady" for the first week. If he continues to perform poorly in successive weeks, he'll begin to earn downgrades and might even become a player that I may eventually recommend on the Waiver Wire report as a "drop."

Vick will be a high on the list of downgrades and if the news comes out after the Upgrades/Downgrades Report that he's out for the year then he'll be listed as a "Drop" on the next Waiver Wire Report. If the MRI on his ribs is made available Monday morning or early afternoon and it reveals a fracture and Vick is questionable to star the following, Vick will be considered a "Downgrade." If he performs like a Pro Bowl player with that broken rib, I'll assess the information I've seen and either upgrade or hold him steady.

Strategy and Terminology

There are several ways leagues process its waivers. Many leagues provide a monetary cap for the season and it is a blind bid process to acquire these picks. After his initial process there is a first come, first served period for a period of hours or days until game time. This in my opinion is the fairest way to run a waiver wire and the most common. This will be the basis for the strategic recommendations and terminology that I will provide here.

One of the better ways to develop a waiver wire strategy is to look at the season in four phases:

  • Weeks 1-4
  • Weeks 5-8
  • Weeks 9-12
  • Weeks 13-16 (Playoffs)
  • Each phase has a unique combination of risks and rewards. These are my guidelines to approach each phase.

    Weeks 1-4: This is the most difficult period to assess player performance and makes or breaks most teams. Teams that were great on paper might have a horrible start to the season while other organizations look like world-beaters. Injuries strike key starters and now the fantasy world is trying to assess which players this will help or hurt. Rookies and free agents are now making their presence felt in a positive or negative way. All of this information is coming, but there isn't enough time to form a strong trend to base a decision.

    At the same time, many fantasy owners are dropping underperforming starters for the hot free agent of the week. Many of these dropped players will be excellent value for other teams because the previous owners were impatient to add a player who doesn't build on his initial success. This is the most volatile part of the year.

    At the same time, it's the place where you are likely to get the best value for your waiver funds. Last year, Cam Newton was a free agent during the first week of the season in a majority of fantasy leagues. That's a major difference maker sitting there for the taking. In hindsight, even teams with an elite quarterback should have made it a priority to add Newton because the trade value alone by midseason would have netted another stud or two solid starters. The same could be said to a lesser extent about Darren Sproles, Antonio Brown, and Victor Cruz. Throw in Ben Tate, Doug Baldwin and Darrius Heyward-Bey, and these are just some of the names available on waiver wires early last season that made a difference for fantasy owners.

    The biggest question is how to spend a waiver budget and on whom at this phase of the season? I recommend spending more money in this early phase of the season. Many fantasy owners spend less than half of their budget during the first month of the year, but this is the point of the year where the talent pool is the richest. Why wait to spend the majority of funds after the player pool diminishes?

    The general reasons I hear are "I'm waiting in case of injury to one of my studs," or "in case there's a hot player during the playoff run." While thoughts like these are logical on the surface, they are also rationalizations for missing the best players. Would a fantasy owner rather have spent 50 percent of your funds on Cam Newton in Week 2 or waited until Week 11 on T.J. Yates? How about Week 2 on Darren Sproles or Week 11 on Kevin Smith?

    Certainly Smith and Yates did some good work, but neither was in the same league in terms of production and consistency as an entire season of Newton and Sproles. The early money is often worth every cent either from the standpoint of starter value or trade value. While many of owners are holding back, make the concerted effort to spend 60-70 percent of allotted funds during the first 4-5 weeks of the year when the player pool is richest.

    Suggested Positional Priorities

    Quarterbacks: These are the more difficult long-term players to find off the waiver wire and if a player with an entrenched role as the starter makes his presence known early (i.e. Cam Newton last year or potentially Russell Wilson this year) he's worth serious consideration. So is a replacement to a stud quarterback surrounded by strong talent gets hurt in Week 1 (i.e. Matt Cassel replacing Tom Brady or this year, Ryan Mallett or Nick Foles replacing Brady for Vick). These players are worth up to 50 percent of your budget in some leagues. I'd target players that look like potential QB1s with 35-50 percent of my budget. Of the expensive commodities early in the year, quarterback arguably has the best risk-reward.

    Running Backs: The most expensive players early in the year are runners. If a back looks like he's going to earn those 15-18 precious touches every week and chance to be a long-term option due to injury, fantasy owners will spend up to 70-80 percent of their waiver wire budget on this type of promise. The reward can be great (Sproles), but the risk of injury, timeshare, and inconsistent production makes this position a high-risk investment. If a quarterback comes out of the woodwork with a great performance and the choice is to either acquire said passer or a runner with talent but a murky situation, the quarterback is arguably a better buy because of the future trade value. Of course, if Ben Tate is on the waiver wire and Arian Foster gets hurt that's a different story. We'll do our best to help fantasy owners make the proper assessment. Some of these things to note will be the ratio of productive runs to unproductive runs, use in the passing game, and effectiveness as a pass protector.

    Wide Receivers: This is the most up-and-down position in fantasy leagues. It is also one of the easier positions to acquire production later in the year both on the waiver wire and through a trade. This is a position where I would not spend more than 35 percent of my budget on a player unless he demonstrates the following:

  • He has few communication breakdowns with his route assignments
  • He demonstrates versatility
  • He's not just used in one way
  • He is targeted short, middle, and/or deep
  • He makes plays at the boundary and between the hash marks
  • He makes the most of his targets
  • He doesn't drop easy passes
  • If the receiver generally fulfills three of these four factors, I'll feel good about recommending him as a higher-end commodity. Victor Cruz and Antonio Brown would have qualified; Darrius Heyward-Bey, not so much. However, Heyward-Bey was also around a little longer and there are several good receivers traveling through the free agent pool on a more regular basis and for a longer period of time than other positions.

    Tight Ends: Tight ends are a lot like receivers and it's a good idea to apply the same litmus test to determine whether a free agent tight end is a quality prospect this early.

    Weeks 5-8: This is where most of the competition will spend its money because now the information gathering has caught up to what was happening on the field. It's like the joke about economists telling the world that there's a recession six months after the Average Joe has been feeling it in his wallet. It's a dangerous time because people are now acting on confirmed information, but are behind the talent availability curve.

    The winners are generally the players ahead of the curve by taking the chance and spending big on the Newtons and Sproles of the world. Because a lot of money was spent on winning these players, many fantasy owners that waited a month to use their budgets will use this information as the model for how much to bid on players who are less likely to have nearly the same value. This is a dangerous time.

    This is also the beginning of bye weeks and owners begin spending larger sums of money on players that have short-term value. If a fantasy owner builds depth in the first four weeks of the year, he won't be as likely to face these schedule conundrums that could cost him unnecessary money and depth. It's just another argument for spending early.

    Weeks 9-12: Strength of schedule and matchups should become more predictable at this stage of the game and this means that there will be some value available on the waiver wire in the form of young players earning a shot at playing time. Injury replacements have a little more value because the variables of that make Weeks 1-4 so unpredictable are not as dicey. These types of players are often running backs and that's a boon for the playoffs.

    Weeks 13-18 (Fantasy Playoffs): This is where knowledge of backups and rookies at every position becomes invaluable as winning organizations rest its stars, injured players are allowed to stay in the training room another week, or young players continue to get a chance to prove themselves on struggling teams. While it makes sense to "start your studs," there are always situations to monitor where acquiring 1-2 young or unknown players can solidify a starting lineup for a playoff run.

    There are also terms that will be used in the waiver wire reports or heard on The Audible podcasts that are worth knowing:

    Speculative Add: Speculative Adds are players to list at the end of a waiver wire request list for cheap when a fantasy owner knows that he is going to drop a player from his roster regardless of who he gets. This is a player who flashed skill in a game but didn't have a huge day in the box score. The make believe summary about Damaris Johnson about the reports is a good example. Johnson might not do much after this week, but his skill was good enough to take a chance if the situation is right. The worst case scenario is that a fantasy owner spent minimal money and dropped the player a week or two later.

    Preemptive Pickup: Bloom likes to use this term to describe players who have the talent to start but the opportunity isn't currently available. If a fantasy owner has room on his roster due to injuries to other players or underperforming depth, this player would be good replacement as depth that could earn a chance to produce. Michael Bush would be a preemptive pickup if he was on the waiver wire in Week 8 and Matt Forte was still healthy. Perhaps the Bears are 7-0 and the schedule looks favorable enough that Bush could see time later in the year as a starter. A fantasy owner's fifth-string receiver is suddenly out for the year; Bush might be a nice preemptive pickup.

    Bye-Week Player: These are players with enough value to provide at least minimal production for a fantasy owner when he doesn't have the depth on his roster to replace a starter on a bye week. A player scheduled to earn a start or two because of an injury to a player ahead of him on the depth chart is at least a Bye-Week Player. If Alex Smith sprains his elbow and won't play for three weeks. Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick is a good example of a potential Bye-Week Player. He's still considered a raw talent, but he has a big arm and great mobility paired with big-play receivers like Vernon Davis, Mario Manningham, Randy Moss, and Michael Crabtree. There's a good chance Kaepernick will provide enough points to keep a good fantasy starting lineup from losing a lot of points at the quarterback position.

    Another type of Bye-Week Player is the established starter or role player on an NFL team with production outside the starter tiers in fantasy leagues. Steelers running back Isaac Redman was a role player for most of the year in 2011. Although he wasn't a starter for much of the year he had six games with at least five fantasy points. He was a low-end bye-week player. On the other end of the spectrum was Pierre Thomas, who was never the clear-cut starter in New Orleans but he was the 27th-ranked fantasy runner with eight games where he scored at least nine fantasy points.

    The Blessing/Curse of Timing

    The first thing to remember about these weekly reports is that there is a massive amount of information that needs to be processed within an extraordinarily small window of time. The fantasy football-playing population does not have a single, recognized day of the week when a league processes its waivers. Footballguys creates its report to cater to the early portion of the week to help as many owners as possible.

    The blessing for most is the timeliness of information. The curse is that there is a lot of news that will come to light about injuries, job promotions-demotions, and team transactions that will require fantasy owners to make new judgments about potential transactions for the week. Many of my recommendations will be include a lot of qualifiers based on the potential for additional news that we simply won't know until later in the week.

    If in a fantasy league that offers the luxury a waiver wire process that occurs in the middle or later portions of the week, I recommend a number of additional resources to monitor before executing a priority list. I consult with writers of these resources as much as possible in a short window of time. Remember, their information either comes out at the same time or later in the week, so the analysis will often be more refined due to the luxury of time:

    Game Recaps (Monday): If you have time to drill deeper into these reports, you will find excellent information where staffers watch a game and note performances of players at each skill position. This analysis is designed to help identify who, how, and why players are on the upswing or downswing. It should also provide readers some information about extenuating circumstances that help an owner remain patient with a subpar performer.

    Injury Report (Monday): Mark Wimer provides a list of the injuries that were made public or observed during the Sunday games. This report is also updated Tuesday morning after the Monday Night contest(s).

    The Audible's Weekly Waiver Wire Episode (Tuesdays): Sigmund Bloom and Cecil Lammey provide their takes of the week that was in the NFL with the goal of formulating a winning waiver wire strategy for the week and the season as a whole. Bloom heads the Game Recap effort and we communicate Sunday nights before we compile our respective information for the site. There are players or situations where we will have divergent views, but we will do our best to explain our takes to help readers decide for themselves the best approach to take for their league.

    Jene Bramel's Second Opinion (Wednesdays): Bramel is a practicing physician who provides analysis about player injuries. He will be the first to admit that many of his takes are based on speculation without all of the information available to him. However, his background of medicine and football intertwine at a level higher than most when it comes to the fantasy implications of an injury to a player. He's a must-read.

    Players in the News (Daily - Tuesday through Saturday): Clayton Gray and Joe Bryant cover what's happening around the league and supply a take on the situation.

    Remember, the information provided closest to game day will generally do the best job of assimilating information into analysis that will prove most helpful. The Waiver Wire and Upgrade/Downgrades are the initial clues; cheatsheets are Footballguys' final call.

    Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to waldman@footballguys.com.

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