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The Gut Check No.271 - Damage Control

Win the draft and win your league. So what do you do when your draft plans sour? Matt reviews damage control strategies to prime you for success when things don't go as planned. 

There are notable exceptions of refreshing honesty, but mock draft commentary from fantasy writers is an exercise of optimism and spin control. When the question Whose team do you like best? requires the qualifier "other than yours," you know this is a peacock-fest. Especially when that mock is filled with writers from different sites. 

Do you really think a writer is going to report back to the editor who recommended him for the event and tell the boss, "I whiffed worse than a one-legged tackle on Lawrence Taylor?"

To be fair, there are writers who take calculated risks. They have takes on players that are far outside the consensus and they're willing to rely on players many will regard as poor options if you apply a Rate My Team standard. Still, there are times where you can almost smell the vapors rising from the self-assessments of their teams and you know it ain't petunias. 

I've whiffed in my drafts. Lots of times. Pick with guys like Aaron Rudnicki, Jene Bramel, John Norton, Jason Wood, Bob Henry, Keith Overton, Clayton Gray, and the rest of the staff at Footballguys and it's easier to do than you think. It's even harder when you face the readers who know all your favorite value plays. 

Nothing like sitting in a league when your competition whips out a magazine, accesses a website, or draft day app and prefaces his pick with this type of ditty: 

Him: This Waldman guy says that [2012] Russell Wilson has a lot of similarities to Drew Brees. He goes on to say that Wilson's skill in the vertical game is - and I quote - "vastly underrated and working with top-flight ground game will yield prime opportunities for big plays down field." He recommends Wilson as a top-12 quarterback despite the fact he's a mere rookie and says you can probably land him after the 15th quarterback is off the board. Let's check how many quarterbacks have left the board shall we? Hmmm . . . looky there, only 13 have left the board thus far. Should I wait another round? [turns to look at me dead in the eye] What do you think? Do you think think this Waldman guy has a clue?

Me: No . . . but he talks a good game. 

Him: Hell yeah he does. He writes a book on these guys. Literally writes a book. Have you seen it? Dude must have no life. The question is whether Wilson is his next Jay Cutler or his next John Beck. What do you think?

Me: For you? Gotta roll with Beck. Definitely Beck. With a heaping side of Trent Edwards just for you. 

Him: That's what I thought, too. With my next pick, I'll take Russell Wilson. 

Welcome to my fantasy life in local leagues. I'm not complaining, new challenges force me to think of ways to help others in similar predicaments - even if they don't involve competitors referencing your work as they make their picks.

So what do you do when your draft day goes wrong? Here are my recommended courses of action depending on when you have the realization that your strategy is heading south. 

GET YOUR ATTITUDE RIGHT

The draft is the most important aspect of fantasy football. It's not a true statement for everyone, but it's easy to stay locked in that box because it's the most popular part of the hobby. If you're reading this, then odds are likely you've downloaded the Draft Dominator. Odds are you also associate the draft with Footballguys' mantra "Win.Your.League."

After all, the first thing you do to kick off any fantasy league is hold the draft. It's where you acquire the most players in one setting. And it's likely that draft is where you get the best quality of players at one time. 

But you have to remember at all times that in the scheme of preparing a championship-caliber meal, the draft is just the trip to the grocery story. My wife is one of the handiest people I've ever met. Whether it's paint, tile, drywall, flooring, or installing drainage systems that would make a greens keeper proud, she can do it. 

That said, I'm buying the groceries and cooking the food. She's burned four of my pots boiling water. No food. Water.

She's the reason when we buy a new house some day that I'm forsaking a gas stove for electric. Explosive is best used to describe football players, not my domicile.  

Two people can get the same quality groceries, but one meal might turn out way better than the other. Just because you shop well doesn't mean you cook well. 

A good cook can make even lesser ingredients from the grocery taste extraordinary. I once had a trained chef serve me a four-course meal using canned goods and products in boxes from my cupboard. It tasted better than 80 percent of the meals I've ever had. 

I also had a friend who was a pastry chef. She told me that the difference between bakers and cooks is that good bakers are precise and scientific with their creativity; good cooks are creative on an improvisational level. They often use the same tools, but difference is the inherent nature of the ingredients. Cooks can adjust recipes with a variety of food or spice substitutions or alter the method of preparation that bakers cannot.  

Average draft position, projections, and rankings are all tools. Use them as hard and fast rules and you're a baker. Use them as guidelines and you're cook. When it comes to fantasy football, you want to cultivate the mentality of a cook in a room filled mostly with bakers. 

If you miss on a quality quarterback, starting running backs, depth at wide receiver, or a usable tight end, your season is far from ruined. It's August. You still have 7-10 weeks of free agency and trading. 

Most important is that this game called football has too many moving parts and a ball that bounces funny. Strategic developments, injury, free agency, player fits, and coaching changes can turn a significant portion of preseason predictions upside down.

It's why Sigmund Bloom likes to call September football "The New Reality," and I agree. Team management (start/sit, add/drop, trade/keep) is as important - if not more so than the draft. 

Keep this in mind as I explain these damage control strategies and you won't be as apt to close your eyes and hide in the box constructed with four walls labeled "ADP", "Bye Weeks", "Projections", and "Rankings"; a bottom labeled "Position Needs"; and a locked top labeled "Ridicule". Many of these scenarios overlap or are a progression of stages that create the dynamic of a bad draft. 

DAMAGE CONTROL SCENARIO NO.1: NAVIGATING A NEST OF DRAFT SNIPERS (OPENING ACT OF DRAFT)

This is something you should spot within the opening five rounds of your draft. Track all picks and have an updated Average Draft Position list handy. Note when the first 2-3 quarterbacks and tight ends are leaving the board to get a feel for positional runs. It would be good to know if your league is ADP conscious, because you'll gauge the dynamic before the draft to avoided getting sniped too often. 

This is especially true if you're using rankings where you haven't done your own projections

For instance, if Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers leave the board before the first 15 picks (right now they are 15 and 18), then you might think that Peyton Mannng, Cam Newton, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan will leave the board earlier than their range of picks 27-45. 

This might be the case in some drafts where the drafters aren't ADP conscious. They tend to respond to a position run the same way a herd of gazelle reacts to the smell of a cheetah. If this happens then you're likely to see the top five quarterbacks leave the board a full 10-15 picks earlier than the range of their ADP spread.

However, an ADP-conscious crew will have a group dynamic that is self-correcting. If a couple of owners take two quarterbacks early, the majority of ADP-conscious drafters will wait until at least until their list tells them it's the right range to consider a quarterback. They will take the value at the positions not chosen in lieu of those passers. In fact, they might even wait a little longer because of this scenario. 

Gauging what's happening early is important because if you discover that the players on your lists aren't leaving the board at the predictable ranges of your ADP list, it's time to adjust. The same is true if you have a group comprised mostly of ADP-conscious drafters but 2-3 owners who are clearly taking players 1-3 rounds earlier than everyone expects. 

To the ADP-conscious dynamic "bakers" of the league, this is a reach. I don't think "reach" is a bad word. If you're taking a kicker in a traditional scoring league in round four then that's an example of reaching having a colossally ignorant context. But if you've done your homework, a reach is as plain as taking a player higher than his ADP.   

You want to see some reaches early because it will help you spot tells. Some of your league mates will express frustration because they hoped to get that player. This is a good tell that they are the bakers of the group. They've seen that said player picked has strong statistical upside, but they chose to use ADP has their rule to wait rather than a tool for action.

It's more likely that the 2-3 owners taking players 1-3 rounds earlier are the "cooks" of this league. They have a firm handle on how they value a player, where that player is leaving boards according to ADP, and making the correct adjustments to take the player at the optimal time. The cooks are the guys you have to play man-to-man for your picks whereas the bakers can be contained with zone.

Follow me?   

In other words, it's likely the cooks are the nest of snipers. If you value certain players higher than their ADP - not 5-6 spots, but 3-4 rounds or a full tier higher than the consensus - understand that it's likely at least half of those cooks in your draft probably feel the same way. At this point it's time you start drafting those players based on how you project them and not where the ADP consensus values them. 

You're not maximizing value if you're not getting the players you project to have maximum value. 

The earlier you catch this, the less likely you're going to lose on pivotal values that you believe will make a difference to your lineup. If you don't catch this within the first 3-5 rounds, it's likely that some of the bakers will start sniping you, too. The reason is that as the draft progresses, the range of ADP for each player in broadens. By the final third of the draft, even the bakers begin to look more like cooks. 

DAMAGE CONTROL SCENARIO NO.2: POSITION HOLES (SECOND ACT OF DRAFT)

Let's say you have trouble separating the cooks from the bakers during the opening rounds of the draft or you try to adjust your strategy as outlined above and one of your league's bakers got a wild hair and nabbed a pivotal player just before your turn. Then you opt for a safer pick and get sniped when the guy you planned to reach for in the next round got sniped by another cook before your choice returns to you. Now you're a third of the way through the draft and "position poor" at running back or wide receiver. 

What do you? Do you go heavy on the mid-round picks at the position of need? Or, do you build on a strength?

Both options can help you, but you have to understand your league format. If your league doesn't have flex options then its likely that you can find enough depth this section of the draft to find talented players who will provide starter production at a position like running back or wide receiver. This is the crux of my point for the Upside Down Strategy

If your league is a flex format, it's likely running back will be the position that has left the board en mass during the opening segment of the draft. You may find get one runner of value to you during this second act, but depending on the league scoring you may find that it's better to build on your strengths. 

Did you get Calvin Johnson, Jimmy Graham, and Andre Johnson in the opening three rounds and wound up with Le'Veon Bell as your first back in the fourth round only to see that what lies ahead for you at running back are committees or injury concerns? Perhaps adding Tony Gonzalez, Vernon Davis, Antonio Brown or Steve Smith is the better option.

If you don't feel confident in those running backs, why take them? If you build on your strength, you should have the arsenal to trade from a position of strength for a proven player during the season. That proven player may well be one of those committee or injury concern players who has done enough to prove otherwise and you can get him in exchange for a player like Gonzalez, Brown, or Smith. Or, you shop one of the Johnsons or Graham packaged with one of these mid-round picks for a proven RB1 and rely on your depth.

This is a case of picking what you know so you can trade for what you know. If you do this you're more likely to have a stronger understanding of the values in a trade negotiation, which should lead to a better deal in your favor. 

This is a point I can't emphasize enough. When making a decision between adding to a known value or taking a chance on a commodity some unknowns to its value, you need to understand what the unknown is. 

When it comes to deciding between taking another wide receiver who has a track record of strong production, a good system around him, and a good healthy history or a running back in a committee with little to no track record of production due to youth or injury, most fans will take a chance on the runner. 

One reason is the urge to fill a hole at the position. The other is that as football fans, they believe they understand what makes a running back a good fantasy producer. I think most fans know statistically what a good fantasy producer looks like, but they don't understand the qualities that make a running back produce those stats. 

There are a lot of factors involved here beyond technique: scheme fit, conceptual understanding of the offense, work ethic, etc. These are factors that even a guy like me who studies these players doesn't have enough knowledge about to make a good decision on the lesser known quantity and instead should take the more established value at a position of strength. 

You can do with his at receiver, wide receiver, tight end (if you can start at least two with PPR scoring), and even quarterback. Although most leagues still start only one passer, if you find that you're unsure about the potential value of mid-round runners and you feel the receiver depth is too big and Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo and Russell Wilson, are on the board and you can take one as your QB2, do it. 

I understand some of my colleagues believe quarterback is way too deep to take them early. In theory I agree. In practice, these guys get hit a lot and miss time. If you choose a passer like Rodgers or Brees early and realized you messed up your shot at known quantities at running back, receiver, or a tight end, don't automatically feel compelled to take a player who isn't a known commodity to you.

Imagine taking Newton as your QB2 and then as weird as it seems, following up with an upside committee QB like Jay Cutler, Carson Palmer, or Ben Roethlisberger as your QB3. Do this and you'll lose on some depth at RB or WR during the draft, but don't think for a minute that you won't be able to deal one or two of this quarterbacks for those weaknesses and have a little more say about the quality of your RB/WR target without forsaking starter points in the process to get him. 

If you just try to fill a position hole and fail you also fail to create a mutual demand. If you build on a strength, you create a mutual demand that will make your trades more beneficial to your squad's output. 

DAMAGE CONTROL SCENARIO NO.3: UPSIDE PICKS (THE DRAFT'S FINAL ACT)

If you didn't have a strong opening act and events unfolded in Act Two that forced you to build on a strength rather than attempt to shore up a hole in your lineup, the final act of the draft should be about upside. It's important to figure out what type of players have that upside. Here's my take on each skill position in the final act of fantasy drafts. 

Quarterback

After the first 15-17 options, I'm not taking a quarterback late with two exceptions. First the player has to be an unproven but superior athletic talent backing up a starter on a strong team. Or, he's a proven veteran backup on a team with at least one dominant receiver capable of winning targets against double coverage or multiple receivers that make double coverage a dangerous decision. If you're going to stock your roster with quarterbacks, I think the upside picks have to come at the earliest part of the final act because it's less likely you'll find a great free agent option on the waiver wire in most leagues. 

Running Back

It's the deepest pool of talent at any position in the NFL and unlike quarterback, most fantasy leagues require a team to have at least 2-4 quality starters to have a successful season. For every Kurt Warner, Jon Kitna, Vince Young, or Colin Kaepernick to emerge from the background there is Alfred Morris, Ahmad Bradshaw, Willie Parker, Terrell Davis, Priest Holmes, Arian Foster, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Vick Ballard, Joique Bell, Fred Jackson, LaGarrette Blount, Daryl Richardson, Jerome Harrison, Peyton Hillis, and Mike Anderson. 

Many of these players were at best, late-round fantasy picks leading to their initial breakout year. At this late of a stage of the draft, most positions are depleted of known quantities so taking the position with the deepest pool of talent is a worthwhile decision. At worst, you have to trade depth at receiver or quarterback to acquire a runner during the season.

At best, you hit on a surprise stud in a PPR league where you have enough firepower at the non-running back positions to be competitive with a weak RB2 and a superior WR3-WR4 or WR3-TE2 combination. With a strong QB3, TE3, or WR4-WR5, you should be able to parlay these players into a reasonable second RB.  

Upside running backs demonstrate skill in pass protection during camp or starter-like promise between the tackles. I think the physical sweet spot for an every-down back or lead ball carrier in a committee is a back between 5'9 and 6'2" weighing between 200 and 225 pounds. There are exceptions who are shorter or lighter, but the likelihood of a significant offensive workload is smaller in these cases. 

Wide Receiver 

Generally, fantasy leagues allow more receivers in a starting lineup than any other position. It's also the most liquid of the positions to trade. A fantasy owner can trade a great receiver for any position with near equal value or he can add a promising part-time player as throw-in to sweeten deal.

Upside players at this position tend to have a strong supporting cast in the passing game where they don't have to face the top cornerback every week. They also get to work with a quality quarterback. 

I prefer younger players to former starters who haven't been strong contributors for years (Braylon Edwards, Ted Ginn and Josh Gordon).At the same time, veteran receivers who move to a new team and remain starters despite predicted declines (Isaac Bruce, Joey Galloway, Derrick Mason, etc.) are frequently good values. 

Tight End

Of all the positions, rookie tight ends have the smallest track record of making a fantasy impact as starters. Although there are signs this trend may change, it hasn't happened yet.  More two-tight end sets making its way into offenses, but it also dilutes the potential production. 

I'm targeting tight ends at early and middle acts of a draft. If I target a late-round player, he's a talent who has flashed skills to be a mismatch but has been stuck behind proven starters or he's that rare rookie with game-changing skill. 

At the same time, tight end is one of the easier positions to find on the waiver wire in non-premium scoring leagues. Investing in more than two players at this position isn't a course I recommend unless you do it early in a premium scoring or PPR league. 

Post-Draft Thoughts

The fear many fantasy owners have about exiting a draft with clear holes at one position and a surplus with another is when to execute a trade offer. Wait too long and there's the risk of losing too many games or watching that surplus dwindle due to injuries.

If you have a significant hole to fill - think at least two starters - I think it's wise to act early and take a chance on a deal before Week 4. It gives you another 3-4 weeks to assess if the deal worked in your favor and plan any new deals if needed. 

Free agency may work out, but if you wait to take one action at a time you're diminishing your chances of addressing your needs early and hesitating to act with at least two positions to fill is significant risk.

You'll have a greater luxury to wait with just one position to address. You may find that you don't need to make a deal to remain competitive team. However, the same issues with dwindling resources as the season progresses often apply.

This is why I recommend you got a little overboard to build on a strength rather than cover holes. If you drafted Brees, Ryan, and Cutler, you're feel far more confident about trading one of those three early and feel good about maintaining depth at the position. Even if you make a bad deal early, there's a good chance that by Week 6 you can make another trade if Cutler outperforms his draft position and solidify your squad in time to make the playoffs. 

This advice all boils down to one basic theme: If you're draft plan runs into a wall, don't continue butting your head against it. Use the tools available to you to work over or around it. 


More from Matt Waldman:

The Gut Check No.329: 2015 Free Agent 50 - December 16
Gut Check No.328: Anatomies and Autopsies, Part II - December 9
Gut Check No.327: Anatomies and Autopsies - Part I - December 2
Gut Check No.326: Stretch Run Sandmen - November 25
Gut Check No.325: Swinging the Mallett - November 18
Gut Check No.324: What to Expect From Josh Gordon - November 11
Gut Check No.323: QBs/TEs Moving the Needle - November 4
Gut Check No.322: RBs/WRs Moving the Needle - October 28
Gut Check No.321: Boobie and Bryce - October 21
Gut Check No.320: Fantasy Mid-Season Review - October 14