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Sunday Morning Coming Down: Overconfidence Is Among the Worst Fantasy Football Mistakes

Matt Harmon unpacks his thoughts on why we should be wary of being too overconfident in our own predictions.

The news of Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspense from the NFL and some of the fantasy-related responses to it, both my own and those who interacted with me on Twitter, got me thinking on the subject of overconfidence. Putting your name to a belief regarding a particular player once you select them for you fantasy team requires some level of conviction. To make any move or follow some sort of guiding strategy implies that you have a strong belief about its worth.

The problem, however, lies in the reality that all of us will be wrong in our predictions so often throughout the course of the NFL season. It should not be revelatory for an analyst to admit such a truth. No matter how sharp you believe yourself to be or how many hours you put into studying this game, there is simply no escaping your own massive fallibility in predicting football’s future.

Knowing that should inform our approach when drafting in the coming weeks. We ought to go into the endeavor with eyes wide open that many of our moves will, in fact, fail. Even moreso, we should prepare ourselves in whatever way possible to even benefit from the natural chaos that an NFL season brings.

The worst approach is to be too overconfident in our predictions and assessments of the outcomes for individual players, positions or the draft as a whole.

Doubling back to Elliott specifically, it dawned on me that my position on how to approach drafting him at least treads the line of being too overconfident. In my view, Elliott is still a worthwhile pick at the end of the second round of redraft leagues. Part of the reasoning is informed by the well-thought out research from Footballguys’ own Adam Harstad on the far greater importance of the final weeks of the fantasy season over the early ones. Another justification lies in the “if you’re not first you’re last” way of approach to playing fantasy. No one makes trophies for fourth place. Lastly, however, and here’s where we dance with the devil of overconfidence, there is my belief in my own ability to “figure it out” in the weeks of Elliott’s absence.

There are ways to alter your draft approach after selecting Elliott early, beyond just overpaying for Darren McFadden. Specifically, if you pick Elliott you should then be more open to taking running backs who have secure outlooks early in the season, even we expect them to probably lose that job at some point. Washington’s Rob Kelley is perhaps my favorite example, as he looks to have the starting job locked-in with rookie Samajae Perine fumbling away his shot at competing and Connor Allen of Sharp Football notes he has a favorable early schedule:

Tampa Bay’s coach’s pet Jaquizz Rodgers is another option for the first three weeks before Doug Martin returns from a suspension. It feels gross, but even a player like Jeremy Hill could work considering he’s still the Bengals starting back at this point in the preseason, although everyone and their mother expects him to lose that job to Joe Mixon in short order.

Yet, all that inherently asks for some high-degree of confidence in my own predictions to become reality. As we know, that’s tough to ask for. What if Perine rips off three big runs in Week 2 and creates a “can’t put the genie back in the bottle” scenario for Washington? Kelley would no longer help me. Same with Mixon in Cincinnati, and honestly, it’s more likely to happen in that scenario. It’s quite possible Rodgers doesn’t see the 20-plus touch workload Dirk Koetter and company afforded him in his starts last year, and instead finds himself in a woebegone committee with Charles Sims or rookie Jeremy McNichols. Those aren’t the expected outcomes, but our predictions are can often be futile.

Another area where we could adapt this overall avoiding overconfidence philosophy is in our reactions to perceived positional strengths at different inflections points in the draft. One sentiment this year is that the wide receiver position is so deep that the sharp move is to pluck from the running back pool early and then load up on the many appealing mid and late round wideouts.

In theory, this sounds like a great decision. The wide receiver position is indeed quite deep. Slot options in good offenses like Willie Snead and Jamison Crowder offer stability at nice mid-round costs. Players like Stefon Diggs and Pierre Garcon go off the board after the sixth-round (Fantasy Football Calculator ADP), a price point that is below their positional floor if they stay healthy. All of John Brown, Cameron Meredith, Mike Wallace and Jordan Matthews go in the ninth to double-digit rounds and have the projected target volume to outkick their ADP with ease.

With receivers like that permeating the draft, it’s understandable why you’d want to load up on backs first with those players waiting to catch you at the wide receiver spot. The problem is no matter how you feel about a player’s outlook the proposition that they succeed exactly how you expect only gets more dubious the farther you head down in ADP. NumberFire Editor-in-Chief JJ Zacharison’s work with historical bust rates shows that your pick is more likely to not work out the later which it occurs in drafts. We can like those mid-to-late round wide receivers all we want, but history still suggests we’ll get those picks wrong more often than the certainty that feels to inform this approach. Once we do whiff, Brandon Gdula’s work with waiver wire success shows we’ll more than likely struggle to make up ground with replacement players.

None of this is to suggest we should inherently not follow a course of action simply because we are likely to be wrong about what we project. Rather, in my view, it’s just worth always imagining the course of events that could lead us to being wrong. Telling yourself the story of a move’s failure is just as important as painting the picture for success.

Chaos is going to strike all throughout the NFL season and our fantasy teams will feel the shockwaves, rendering our once held dear predictions mere objects of past dreams made unhelpful by reality. As mentioned earlier, the goal is to set your team up to benefit from that chaos.

My favorite way of doing this is to take a few backup running backs in the draft and especially off the waiver-wire during the stretch run. Traditional handcuffing of taking the backup to the player you selected in the early rounds is a floor strategy not an upside approach. If your RB1 goes down you are simply replacing him with a likely inferior version of what your lineup once had. In that way you're more protecting yourself from chaos rather than truly benefitting from it. On the other hand, if your league mates RB1 gets hurt and you have his backup, suddenly you have a potential starting asset that your team didn’t have to lose something to gain. You don’t have to take Marshawn Lynch at all to want to snag DeAndre Washington late in every draft. If chaos strikes the seemingly vulnerable veteran, the owner of Washington stands only to gain.

The NFL season is soon to arrive and with it will come revelation after revelation of what reality actually holds in store. Once that arrives, we’ll look back in hindsight at a litany of wrong predictions, evaluations and projections. Don’t worry, it’s going to happen to each and every one of us; fans, analysts and self-perceived “experts” alike. When the curtain falls and we learn the ending we didn’t see coming, just make sure you at least told yourself the story of how we could have arrived here all along.