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The Gut Check No. 404: How to Use The News

Do you use the news, or does it use you? Matt Waldman shares his approach to analyzing football news with fantasy implications.

One of the unsung skills of managing a fantasy team is the accurate discernment of news. In today's charged political environment, "news" has become the subject of vigorous debate. What is considered news? Is the source objective? How does one cultivate a critical eye? 

These questions also apply to fantasy sports. Despite a slew of layoffs, football media has traveled well beyond its saturation point during the past 10 years. Log in to a forum, Twitter, Reddit, or Facebook, and there are often dozens of stories about the same specific topic. 

If Calvin Johnson joins the Raiders, there will be at least 50 media accounts that I follow on twitter announcing the news and 200 more delivering analysis of the event within 12 hours of Johnson's return to the NFL. 

The madness applies to every aspect of football: team previews, the Senior Bowl, the NFL Combine, the NFL Draft, mini camp, OTAs, and the preseason. Footballguys Newswire is a neverending list of media reports about players, coaches, teams, and league happenings. Cecil Lammey and Sigmund Bloom often give the "Footballguys view" below the summary of the news report and it's often helpful to see a fantasy writer's opinion about a story. 

Correct analysis of the news can help fantasy owners identify promising developments that lead to league-winning decisions that others glossed over. Incorrect analysis can lead fantasy owners down rabbit holes where their rosters never return.

If there were one magical skill I could have that would be applied to fantasy football it would be 100 percent correct analysis of the news because my interpretation of the skill would mean that any speculation I made with partial information would prove accurate. That fact that these reports offer so little is why analysis of the news is a difficult thing to do. At some point, we all have to speculate based on partial information.  

Before I became a full-time football writer, I was an editor of a business publication for a decade and a features writer and freelance reporter for a little longer. These experiences often give me perspective about what writers say (or don't say) in their stories, because I have had to make similar decisions in the past.

This week, I'm offering tips on how to read news reports and apply them to your fantasy management. I'll use current reports as examples, examine the type of report, the frame of reference, and how these things can help you make decisions that at least have more clarity as you speculate in the media minefield. 

I hope that my advice will help you use the news rather than the news using you. You won't always be successful, but assessing risk is the nature of the game. 

1. Read Beyond the headline and separate facts from speculation

Headlines often sound definitive when they are anything but. Take this recent headline about Kerwynn Williams on our newswire. Read the actual story in the link, and the details aren't as certain as the content in the photo below. 

The actual story title is "Three positions Cardinals could address this summer."  That title states a far less definitive context for Williams' role on the running back depth chart than above. Writer Kent Somers notes important information about Williams in the article, including two facts: "Williams improved as a pass blocker and special teams player a year ago. That stopped his yo-yoing between the roster and unemployment." 

Somers then speculates about Williams' role on the depth chart. Considering that Somers attends Cardinals camp as part of his job and has built relationships with coaches, players, and scouts, his speculation is at least based on an informed perspective.

"Arians seems comfortable with Williams as the backup to David Johnson," says Somers. "It's a critical summer for [Andre] Ellington, and the Cardinals likely will want to get a long look at the youngsters before deciding if they need outside help. If they go that route, re-signing [Chris] Johnson makes a lot of sense." 

Advice for proper use: When I read this article—or any news report—I look for facts first, informed speculation second, and projection-entertainment last.  I see that there's a reasonable chance that Kerwynn Williams could earn the backup role to Johnson because he has improved as a player in key areas that earned him a consistent roster spot.

The improvements are facts. Somer's statement about Arians comfort with Williams is informed speculation. So is his statement about Ellington facing a pivotal crossroads with the team.

The potential that Chris Johnson re-signs arguably lies somewhere between informed speculation and projection. I would guess it's informed speculation.

While the average audience reading this statement about Johnson wouldn't have a reason to see the layers beneath it, my experience with this kind of story in other industries points to a real possibility that Somers either spoke with Johnson, Johnson's agent, or Cardinals brass and was told of this possibility but didn't want to be quoted. It's also possible that Somers already quoted one of these parties earlier in the year and he's simply reiterating the possibility. At worst, he's projecting this potential outcome based on some of Johnson's comments to the media this spring that he plans to play in the NFL this year.

How to apply this news to a fantasy team: The facts suggest that Williams is firmly on the Cardinals' radar as no worse than a contributor with potential as the main backup if David Johnson gets hurt. However there are few facts, and we'll have to act on speculation, which means Williams' a late-round pick in re-draft leagues right now and could possibly see his value climb inside the bottom third of drafts if he performs well and Chris Johnson doesn't earn a call from Bruce Arians.  However, if Johnson earns a call, Williams' value drops to the end of the draft in deeper leagues or a first-call free agent in case there are multiple injuries to the Cardinals running back depth chart.  

The headline on the newswire was a definitive statement, but the story was a story about contingency planning and a depth chart that still doesn't appear to be set beyond David Johnson. Read beyond the headline and prioritize facts, informed speculation, and projection. 

2. Critical reading and frame of reference: Discerning Fantasy from Reality and "desires" from "outcomes"

Headlines are meant to catch the eye. This headline poses a question rather than a definitive statement. It's also an accurate reflection of the tone of John Oehser's piece about offensive players on the Jaguars flying below the radar as the team heads into camp.

However, it's easy to read this summary of the Oehser article and mistake Hurns' consistency as something that he's displayed this summer and not for the majority of his three-year career to date. Read Oehser's segment on Hurns and it's clear this is an entertainment piece filled mostly with projections: 

Hurns? Under the radar? That’s an eyebrow-raiser for a player who caught 16 touchdown passes in his first two NFL seasons. But after a 10-touchdown, 1,031-yard season in 2015, injuries and overall offensive struggles limited Hurns to 35 receptions for 477 yards and three touchdowns last season. Hurns missed the last five games of the 2016 season with a hamstring injury, and Lee continued to emerge as a playmaker at the position during that time. Robinson figures to remain a go-to player, and Lee and rookie Dede Westbrook both possess big-play speed. But Hurns’ reliability and consistency has a way of forcing itself into the lineup, and the guess here is Hurns finds a way of being a big factor in what the team needs to be a resurgent passing game in 2017.

The way this section reads, it's equally possible that the depth chart is crowded enough to limit Hurns' upside, especially if the reported plan is to use him more often from the slot. Our Footballguys Newswire staff also offers differing analysis of Hurns. While our staff seems open to the possibility, its take connotes that Hurns' re-emergence as a fantasy starter is far more remote than it was two years ago.

Advice for Use: Who do you trust? Oehser is a senior writer at Jaguars.com. He often earns in-person conversations with players, coaches, and management. However, he is not a fantasy football writer and a straight football scribe's perspective of "big factor" often means a player in the starting rotation, but not earning fantasy starter production. Hurns could be a big factor from Oehser's perspective if he makes two key first-down catches for a total of 25 yards every other week that lead to game-winning or game-sealing moments?

In general, I'm more inclined to take a more critical approach to a beat writer's perspective in these situations. It doesn't mean that I'm taking the fantasy writer's word as gospel, either. Examining the commentary from our newswire above, there's no mention of Hurns playing with an injury or Blake Bortles performing so poorly that defenses could spend the second halves of games covering deep zones and allow fruitless, dink-and-dunk passing that lead to nowhere. Those facts are missing.  

The reports of Bortles having a more limited role and the emphasis on the ground game are also speculative based on stated desires of coaches. While informed speculation, it's important to remember that desires don't come to fruition. Every year, coaches and players state plans that aren't realistic. 

The Jaguars want to run more so Bortles isn't playing from behind and facing defenses that can give him the short stuff. It doesn't mean the offensive line will open holes enough for the Jaguars to remain competitive in games with a conservative approach. It also doesn't mean that the Jacksonville defense can play well enough to keep games tight with a heavy emphasis on the run. 

Pro offenses also use a lot of three-receiver sets. Unless Doug Marrone plans to use an H-Back or fullback more often than Hurns as a third receiver, which hasn't been reported, then it may be foolish to discount Hurns as a big factor just because he'll earn more time in the slot. 

My advice is to regard this article as speculation from writers with different frames of reference and neither are arguing with a complete set of facts or and their speculation isn't fully informed based on their arguments, either. This is the type of piece where you have to dig deeper to form an opinion or ignore until there's additional information. 

How to apply this news to a fantasy team: Because this is a report with dueling frames of reference, I would be conscious of Hurns' potential value based on his ADP. Decisions that generate large scale success often fly in the face of convention. Hurns' ADP is a reflection of the fantasy writer's frame of reference about Hurns. However, the writer doesn't address some of the outcomes that I set forth and they are not remote outcomes, either.

I would take Hurns at his current ADP if I were drafting today because it's a reserve value for a player who has shown top-15 production when healthy and in a feature role in a passing game that clicks when Blake Bortles does his offseason homework. If I'm drafting next month, I would monitor camp, try to learn about the types of formations the team is using, and if the slot receiver has a strong role in the offenses of coordinator Matt LaFleur.

3. Analysis: Image versus PR

Once again, reading beyond the headline is important. Our staff cherry-picked the part of the article that's most important for fantasy owners short-term. However, if you're a dynasty owner, the actual focus of Conor Orr's piece at NFL.com provides perspectives that are valuable when examining prospects with Mixon's backstory (and there will be more).  

The actual focus of Orr's article is about the amount of work that the Bengals put into its decision to select Mixon in the wake of his striking a female classmate at a restaurant when he was a freshman. Orr contrasts the Bengal's decision and thought process with that of NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. According to Orr, "Mayock was adamant during the pre-draft process that he would not select Mixon at all." 

Both Lewis and Mayock's thoughts are about establishing an image/PR position. Lewis wants to send the message to Bengals fans that Mixon is a decent young man who made a grave mistake and is worth the risk because he doesn't expect anyone to forget his transgression.

Mayock has nothing to gain from supporting the selection of Mixon. He's the lead analyst for the league's network. Despite the league often appearing hypocritical about its disciplinary actions, teams operate independently when it comes to selecting players with criminal pasts. It means there will be some teams that took Mixon off its boards and others that believe in giving some prospects second chances.

Mayock, an ambassador of the league's media arm, can take the safe route and position himself against the selection of Mixon because of the mixed reactions teams have, and his position. NFL Network does not adopt controversial positions with near the frequency of networks not owned by the league. At the same time, I haven't seen whether other NFL Network analysts stated if they would draft Mixon. I'd imagine someone on staff took the Mixon side, although the network's other top draft analyst, Daniel Jeremiah also stated, "No one I know would endorse Joe Mixon." 

I'm not saying Mayock's stance is a dishonest one. However, it could be a convenient one influenced by a network that in key moments could be influenced to take a PR-driven stance more than a straight journalism view. On a different but related note, the NFL has always been sensitive about gambling. When daily fantasy had its hottest moments, NFL teams made deals with the entities but is there any discussion with NFL Network's or NFL.com's fantasy arm about daily leagues?

Crickets.

That's why it's worthwhile to possess a healthy skepticism about media that is structured with potential conflicts of interest to conduct straight-up journalism in certain situations.  

Advice for use: This is one of those stories where I examine the past and apply it to the future. Looking at the optics of the NFL Network and its parent company, I may have a ton of respect for the evaluation skills of Daniel Jeremiah and I might even believe that he wouldn't pick Joe Mixon. However, I'm going to take their opinions as seriously when it comes to them discussing who would or wouldn't endorse taking a chance on a great but troubled talent.

Understand that talking heads must also consider their images. If they didn't, they wouldn't be wearing suits, counting carbs, and learning makeup tips as part of their job. It also includes the boundaries of their job.

Marvin Lewis has a million other pressure points that could put him out of a job. It's unlikely that he was the sole decision maker behind Mixon's selection. The Bengal's choice was a reflection of its philosophy and process with evaluating and selecting at-risk prospects.

In these matters, I would bet the league had more direct impact on the PR of a network than it ever would with a team. It's worth remembering when moving forward.

How to apply this news to a fantasy team: Unless you have a strong moral boundary about selecting players who committed specific crimes, there should be no barriers to ranking a player based on his talent unless there's still potential for further discipline that hasn't been handed down yet. 

Conclusions

  1. Read beyond the headline.
  2. Note the facts, informed speculation, and projection for entertainment.
  3. Discern the source's frame of reference.
  4. Determine if there are competing frames of reference and note which points are facts, speculation, or projection.
  5. Consider which statements are PR and image positioning and whether there are potential conflicts of interest that could influence these statements.