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The Gut Check No. 407: Calibrating Your Draft Compass

Information overload is an easy way for fantasy owners to lose their way this time of year. Matt Waldman provides sensible tips to calibrate your compass so you can execute your pre-draft prep and draft day strategy to perfection. 

The stone age was marked by man's clever use of crude tools; the information age, to date, has been marked by man's crude use of clever tools.


Web sites. Apps. Video. Social media. Podcasts. Our access to information is amazing. It's also part of our downfall because we don't do enough to control the flow of information. 

I've been asking my friends and colleagues podcasts during the past few months. One of them told me he routinely listens to them at double the speed because there's so many of them that he wants to hear that he can't get through all of them in a given week. That thought bled into a point about his queue of articles, podcasts, and YouTube videos that he routinely saves for later viewing only to delete half of the list every two weeks because some of the material is no longer relevant—especially fantasy football topics.

The availability of information is so appealing that we can be guilty of allowing it to come at us at a dizzying rate. By early August, fantasy owners can be feeling information overload. Instead of sharing these thoughts after I post a variety of strategic plans and tiers in the next 10-14 days, it's better to calibrate the inner compass to true North beforehand.

More on that idea in a moment as I cover this and other common errors fantasy owners make with draft preparation and execution every year.

1. Control the flow of information

This is the most important thing. We're all so afraid of missing a vital injury, suspension, trade, or depth chart change that keeps us from making informed decisions that we open the flow of our resources to fire hose strength. I'm at the point that I'd rather pinpoint the resources I'm going to use based on their information's reliability, timing, frequency, and frame of reference.

One of the ways I do this is Twitter. I follow 655 accounts on Twitter, which isn't a lot for my type of account. However, it is a lot to parse through so I rely on only a handful of accounts for football news and analysis despite the fact that I know there are hundreds of outlets that have value. I'll often select 2-3 news options so there's some redundancy in terms of timing, frequency, and reliability and some key differences with a frame of reference.

What do I mean by a frame of reference? Although I don't lean on Sigmund Bloom and Jason Wood for breaking news, I do enjoy their analysis because they offer contrasting frames of reference. I have competed enough with Sigmund Bloom and Jason Wood to know this about them. Even if you don't, you can read their work and see that they have key differences. Bloom is much more the risk-taking idealist. Wood is more often the conservative realist.

I try to filter my information sources so I'll get the same information within a short period of time, but with contrasting analysis of that information that helps me arrive at my own point of view.

The way I see it, if I miss out on information because my filters were too tight, then I learn from it. I don't blame my sources for not having everything, I take responsibility for being too stingy with the flow. However, I'd rather increase the flow with caution rather than have the spigot wide open.

Otherwise, information overload can carry you away from the actual work you've done to arrive at your own opinions. This is vital for the work I do with the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Most of you know what the RSP is but if you're new to it, I've been writing a rookie evaluation publication on skill position prospects for the past 12 years. My methodology is rooted in best practices that I learned in past career incarnation and I've used that knowledge to create a guide that bridges the gap between real football and fantasy. I've had NFL and CFL scouts, position coaches and consultants, and NFL media as clients for over a decade despite the fact that I also tailor a lot of my information to fantasy owners. 

I'm sharing this with you because on average, I study 1-2 football prospects per day and it's important to me that I do my own research before I know a lot of biographical/career information about the player or what certain peers think about the player before I do a certain amount of homework on my own. I learned early on we're all impressionable in ways that may not be healthiest for our individual journey.

The RSP has been my 12-year journey to earn a high education in football. It means that I am not learning things in the same order or priority as other football minds that I respect. Smart Football's Chris Brown is a writer and analyst whom I greatly respect. He has a much greater knowledge strategic football concepts than I. However, his work doesn't train his eye to process talent and development, which is why I've had the odd pleasure of former NFL players turning their backs on John Elway (who they were trying to get a job with) to chat with me about my work when they recognized me at a coffee shop in Mobile, Alabama.

It's taken me some years to feel confident about saying something like that in this way, but that's the truth—I see talent because I filter my work towards studying it. The mistakes I make are mine, which helps me identify how to address them faster than if I followed the mistakes of someone else. But until I figured that out, it was easier for me to try to incorporate perspectives into my process that didn't fit.

This should apply to you as a fantasy owner. Learning when to accept and reject information is one of the most valuable processes you can have. The compass may tell you to head directly north, but if there's a hole directly in front of you and you hear hissing at the bottom of it, you might want to trust yourself more than the needle. If you fail, you failed in a way that's personally more acceptable and it should lead to a faster rate of development over the course of time. 

So spend more time figuring out how you want to create a plan, who you're going to listen to (and why), and once you have the process in place, shut out other voices so you can get to work on building your model. 

2. Focus on the word "Average" in average draft position (ADP)

It's easy to get too attached to ADP data and miss on players we know have value because we're too focused on the market value. Ryan Hester emphasized this point to me as one that he has to remind himself of annually.

"It's important to remember the 'A' is for 'average' which means the player has been taken higher than that average half of the time," says Hester. It's a sentence I will be repeating to myself in many drafts because it's much better than I don't give a rat's hind parts about what anyone else thinks. 

This is one of the most common ways fantasy owners overthink their draft plan and execution and it's playing into the hands of your competition. The draft is a process and because there are ways of measuring it (ADP), people develop expectations about how it will unfold. When your league-mates go off about your choices that kill that expectation, they either think you don't know what you're doing (which can be good) or they're made that you took a player that they wanted (also good).

I like to joke that if you follow ADP to the letter, your team will be predictably average in the way that Alex Smith predictably follows the progression of a play to the check-down better than any quarterback in the NFL. Following your plan, even if it veers from ADP significantly, can also keep your opponents off balance without making that the focus of your strategy.

Remember, winners are extraordinary and it means making extraordinary choices that could be seen as mistakes by those following the average. Do your homework and if you find the choices you most believe in seem extraordinary, use the tools you have to maximize those opportunities rather than limit them.

3. figure out your relationship with tiers and rankings

Mark Wimer says that he too often obsessed over picking exactly to his rankings and projections until he learned how to embrace tiers. This is one of the most sensible lessons that a fantasy owner can learn. If you fear that bypassing that 3rd round running back you believe could deliver 1700 total yards and 12 scores will kill your roster build, then it sounds like you focused more on ADP and didn't value that player in the correct tier based on your projections and rankings. 

Good tiers set the correct kind of boundaries and allow fantasy owners to have flexibility with their draft plans because tiers give you a natural way to account for ADP, projections, and position needs. Tiers also help you figure out the purpose of your rankings.

Ask a room of fantasy owners and writers about the intent of their rankings and you'll get a variety of stories. Many rank players based on projected stats. Some use rankings as a blend of projected outcome, but with an added weight of potential ceiling and floor after a specific point (that's me). I even know fantasy owners who create rankings by combining or averaging the rankings of writers they admire.  

When I run my rankings through tiers, it helps me see if the values I've assessed fit my thoughts about the player. It's because there's greater power of seeing groups of players in two dimensions (horizontally and vertically) rather than one (vertically). If you filter your information sources effectively, remember that ADP is not extraordinary, and run your rankings through tiers, you'll begin to see what's notable, unique, and essential about your draft plan. 

4. "One Good Year" and other mistakes of attributing external factors ahead of internal factors

We hear the "one good year" rationale every season. Rob Gronkowski. Cam Newton (before injuries made him cautious). Russel Wilson. Devonta Freeman. My "one good year" poster boy for 2017 is Tyrell Williams. They are all players who fantasy owners attribute injuries, easy schedules, and "player style and/or scheming that defenses haven't figured out"  as reasons why these productive players "got lucky." 

These are half-truths that we all buy because we apply legitimate instances of these factors with a broad brush to players whose success we don't understand. Robert Griffin and Colin Kaepernick benefitted from the NFL's earliest adaptation of the read-option. It's debatable whether they faltered because their teams switched to different systems or if it had more to do with losses of surrounding talent and injuries leading to diminished skill (quarterbacking is a technical performance job that requires good health to practice and maintain a level of mental and physical precision). 

Even if Williams doesn't produce, I think he's a good example of this "One Good Year" idea because Williams doubters point to Keenan Allen's injury and Rivers not having anyone else to throw the ball too. How about Dontrelle Inman, Antonio Gates, Hunter Henry, Melvin Gordon and Travis Benjamin? They were all still on the field. Last I remember, Philip Rivers got big moments from Seyi Ajirotutu several years ago when his corps was riddled with injuries. Ajirotutu is probably why some think Williams is a fluke, but there's a difference between quality games for a few games or a portion of the season and posting top-15 production for the entire campaign. 

The Chargers' selection of Mike Williams is used as a rationale to support the "One Good Year" idea when Allen and Benjamin's contracts could also be as much of a factor. My advice: If you find yourself thinking, "he only had one good year," look harder into what the individual did that year before writing him off. If you find that scheme was a significant driver, can you support your assertion that the scheme will be figured out? 

If not, time to buy. 

5. Football is physical, mental, emotional, and technical

"My Achilles' heel is guys with freakish athletic gifts that influence me to overlook things like route running, film study, and game prep," says Joe Bryant about ways he tends to err with his valuation of fantasy draft picks.  

We all do it. It's easy to emphasize the 40-time, vertical leap, height and weight, and balletic coordination of gifted athletes. You can often recognize these traits with a glance at highlights. It's harder to see whether the technique, preparation, and professionalism are underpinning the player's game.  

This is especially true of the mental and emotional approach to the game. Football is a performance medium that is similar to any art or craft performed on a stage. I've met numerous musicians, actors, and dancers who were fantastic in practice but they couldn't perform at the same level when the crowd is in the stands and the surrounding intensity ratchets up exponentially. If you've never been on a stage as a performer—even on as an amateur—you won't understand. 

Despite the thought that college football's amateur status is a sham, playing in the NFL is a whole other level from Saturdays. I interviewed Ben Watson for about an hour a couple of years ago, and he told me that the first thing that strikes rookies on game day is that they are now playing against grown men who are doing this work to support their families and the accompanying solemnity permeates the air. Watson played at Duke and Georgia and as a resident of Athens, Georgia for nearly a quarter of a century who has Big 10 family, I can attest that SEC football is like a religious denomination in the South and they catch the holy spirit on Saturdays. 

It doesn't matter that the SEC is the biggest stage of college ball. Only 6.5 percent of high school players participate in college football and only 1.6 percent of NCAA players make the leap from college to the NFL. What's even harder is earning a second NFL contract. Only 0.94 percent of those college players earn a second deal, which is that seal of approval that a player is a true professional of value. 

When the competition is this tight, the smallest details matter. It's why the differences among player abilities within seven rounds of a draft a free agency pool are minuscule. However, the smallest differences in calculus also are the difference between astronauts landing on the moon and winding up lost in deep space. In the case of football, a player's understanding of who to work hard and smart as well as showing resiliency when football reduces their egos to ashes is essential and often the most difficult thing to ascertain. 

One of the ways to see it is technique because the only way to get technique is to work at it. Does the player have it? Is he showing more as each year passes? Are coaches and teammates talking about his improvement? Are his work ethic and intelligence to grasp things quickly positives? 

So if a fantastic athlete continues to display lapses for multiple years (DeVante Parker and Sammie Coates for their first two seasons), it's a good bet that they haven't changed their approach to their profession. This leads to the final thought...

6. Don't presume mental, emotional, technical, or physical growth

Unless there's documented evidence that a player has the necessary work ethic and has demonstrated considerable growth with technique throughout their college career and early pro career, don't presume these players will better by earning an invitation to play in the NFL. This also includes bad behavior off the field. While I believe in positive outcomes and human beings having the capability to grow, it's best to wait for proof before investing in football players.

Think about it this way: A young man between the ages of 20-23 often needs 3-5 years to mature into a reliable professional in any field. Football careers don't usually bring young men a long slowly. It means NFL careers usually end in 1-3 years if that young man doesn't have the total package of skills, or at least a tremendous aptitude in at least 2-3 of these four areas, to compensate for what is missing. 

Hoping that a massively talented player will grow up, apply himself with discipline and intelligence, and maintain that confidence he needs in the face of adversity when he hasn't shown these things in the past is idealistic. 

I've obviously been guilty of being too idealistic in my assessment of troubled players. I tend to overthink how it can get better rather than wait and see. 

We all have areas where we over analyze our process. Seeing them in print can be a good first step towards addressing them.