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Reinventing My Dynasty Philosophy

Whether it's this summer, later this fall, or next year, I'll have dynasty rankings posted at Footballguys. Until then, find out why it's a work in progress.

The greatest percentage of my fantasy leagues are dynasty formats. I even have a publication that some say is the book to buy every year if you compete in dynasty leagues. However, I may not have dynasty rankings posted in 2013.

I wasn't happy with my rankings last year. I didn't feel like I had a handle on a methodology for updating my rankings. The individual reasons made sense, but fitting these decisions into an overall framework that was logical felt lacking. My decision to move a player up or down felt reactionary.

While I'm among the last people you'll ever meet who lives in a world with black-and-white standards to live by, I do need some basic sets of boundaries so I can explain why I'm opting to veer outside the lines or to blend an area into shades of gray. This is especially the case with dynasty leagues.

Late last year I told readers that I would be working on a set of guideposts for my future rankings. A lot of what I am going to develop will have some roots in numbers, but I'm going to do my best not to torture the data. There's already too much cruelty to numbers in fantasy football.

If I cross that line, my apologies. I can assure you it's not my intent. The goal is to develop a philosophy and a set of standards for player movement within dynasty rankings.

I'm going to share my research by position in future Footballguys articles, because I think it will be a win-win situation. I'll share historical information that might help you think twice about lingering assumptions about players and positions in dynasty leagues. You may have questions or comments about what I'm doing and offer suggestions.

The next article I'll post on this topic will be about quarterbacks and dynasty leagues, but I think the best way to begin is to explain my recent beliefs on managing a team in this format before I study the data.

My Current Dynasty Philosophy

I think there are three types of owner styles prevalent in dynasty leagues:

  • The Idealist
  • The Realist
  • The Hedonist

Like I said earlier, I don't believe in black-and-white labels. Most people are a blend of at least two of these styles when it comes to how they view certain aspects of dynasty league management. I'll do my best to explain each.

The IDealist (aka - The Hugh Hefner)

You might think of Hugh Hefner as the Hedonist, but before he was a mansion-owning, smoking jacket-wearing, multimillionaire hobnobbing with celebrities, he started a magazine on a shoe-string budget and did most of the grunt work on his own. Whether or not you enjoy his product is not the story; his enduring legacy is the foresight and effort to realize a massive effort with minimum capital.

There are fantasy owners in dynasty leagues everywhere with a similar idealism to build something from scratch that is enduring. They hope to do it with young, homegrown talent and wait for the roster to mature and contend for championships every year, winning multiple titles. Like the men's magazine publisher, these owners believe they'll find core players that give them 8-12 years of starter production.

When these owners are operating at their best, they do a good job of spotting talent and remaining patient. If they hit on 3-5 picks in a period of 3-4 years, they can field a contender for several years.

However, the desire to build an empire straight-up with draft picks and patience makes them patient to a fault. They are reticent to trade young players or draft-picks and when young players don't pan out they have dilemma's with whom to cut. In their minds, they fear they are going to let loose of the wrong player a year before he breaks out.

I know this type of owner well. I looked at him in the mirror for several years before I traded in my burgundy smoking jacket and accepted the fact that the draft is only part of the equation towards building a fantasy winner.

The Realist (Aka - The Miles Davis)

You may not know or like his work, but Miles Davis influenced the direction of popular music in America at least six times between 1945 and 1980. His legacy is rooted in his ability to transition to different styles of music while maintaining his individual voice in a compelling way. For example there's this . . .

. . . and nearly 15 years later:

While he was often perceived as a musician on the forefront of what was new, the fact is that he changed with the times earlier than most. Davis was a realist. He recognized what was working and knew how to build a team around him to create a winning combination. The members of his present teams were often far different than the makeup of the groups that came before, but some had individuals who bridged the gap between seemingly disparate incarnations of music. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who is still going strong at 80 years of age, is a great example.

Dynasty realists are like Davis at their best. They tend to refresh the majority of their teams with prime talent every 3-5 years while sticking with a foundation of great players that continue to have long-term viability. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees are good examples of football players who parallel Wayne Shorter.

Years in Role x Career

Player
Elite
QB1
QB2
Reserve
FA
% Elite
8
14
0
0
0
100%
5
10
1
0
2
77%
5
9
1
1
1
75%

In a 12-team league, I define an elite fantasy quarterback in a given year as a top-three producer; a QB1 as a top-12 prospect; a QB2 as a player ranked 13th-24th; a reserve 25th-36th; and a free agent as 37th or lower.

We can debate why Peyton Manning's missed season in 2011 doesn't count as a free agent effort and why Tom Brady's ACL-ruined year does, but the table still communicates the main point rather well: These players have been among the best at anchoring dynasty squads. It's info like this table that I'll be sharing throughout the preseason.

I believe in the merits that idealism and hedonism have when it comes to dynasty team-building, but I think realism does the best job of balancing the positives of both styles. For most, it takes more luck than skill to build a winner based on the ideologies on either side of the spectrum. My current philosophy is rooted mostly here. More on my current approach in a moment.

Hedonism (AKA - The Steven A. Cohen)

I'm probably two weeks away from receiving an email from one of my fellow staffers about this reference explaining that I don't know what I'm talking about, but I'll do my best to portray that I do: Cohen is a star hedge fund manager of SAC Capital. He has built lucrative fund in a short period of time due to aggressive trading strategies.

Whether or not this is a fair portrayal, I'll find out soon enough. For now, Cohen defines the here today, gone tomorrow, play in the moment type of attitude that has helped him win big. His roster (portfolio) has a high churn rate and based on the combined $600 million settlement for two insider trading cases - damn the consequences.

One might argue that banking, big pharma, and dot.com giants have a similar approach. Who cares if we violate government regulations around the world? The fines are so small, it's not even a slap on the wrist - we can bake the penalties into our bookkeeping and keep it moving.

This to me is all about hedonism - living for today. If you want to get into a debate about ethical hedonism email Sigmund Bloom or Bob Magaw, I'm sure they will have plenty to say.

The Hedonistic approach in dynasty leagues is to build a team that wins now. It means acquiring players who are scoring now - damn the consequences. These owners trade draft picks and unproven talents without a bit of concern.

The best owners at this approach seemingly mortgage the future year after year and field a contender. Most have 2-3 good years, go bust for 2-3 years, and hopefully cycle back to contention. I don't usually see many owners make it back to the top of the cycle. In fact, I have seen my share of owners complete the first two phases of this cycle and abandon the team to join another league and do the same thing.

Waldman's Realism

A subheading like this is in grave danger of getting lumped into classic oxymora like military intelligence, smart government, a just war, awfully pretty, and southern justice. However, I'll forge ahead. I am writing this piece as part of a before and after process.

Here is how I have approached dynasty leagues up to this point:

  • View Player Viability in Windows of 2-3 Years
  • Identify and Acquire Roster Anchors
    • Franchise Quarterbacks
    • Elite Tight Ends
    • Elite Wide Receivers
    • Generational Running Back
    • Generational Edge Rusher
    • Elite Middle Linebacker
  • Make Running Backs and Wide Receivers a Draft-Day Priority
  • Rarely Trade Offensive Players for Defensive Players

Let's cover these point by point because I bet it will be the detail embedded within these statements that will see the greatest change once I finish studying the data.

Player Windows and Anchors

Almost every football fan has heard the statement that the average NFL career lasts around three years. I don't know the factors used to calculate this number, but I would bet this average career span is weighed down by the number of players who join teams, rarely see a starting lineup, and are quickly out of the league after their first slew of injuries.

At least after studying quarterback data, I can tell you that there are 38 passers in the past 13 years with at least 9 years of tenure as starters. That's three times the average career lifespan if that average career number is correct.

I think it's reasonable to use three years as a career window. It doesn't mean you ditch a player after three years in the league, but I think if you view a player's career in three-year increments you are taking the time to evaluate his career trajectory and make a better assessment of his standing within your dynasty roster

Three years ago, Philip Rivers might have been a player who commanded top-dollar if you dealt him from your roster. Today, he's a player many fantasy owners would give away as part of a package deal.

Using a three-year player window not only helps you determine the value of a player, but the value of a position and whether it qualifies as what I call an "anchor." The more three-year player windows a position has inherent potential to have, the higher the likelihood that player is an anchor (think track and field meaning more than the object that weighs down a boat).

A franchise quarterback like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and perhaps Aaron Rodgers, can have 3-5 times the lifespan of the average fantasy starter. They are dynasty league's gold standards. They might be rare to find, but do realize they are all playing in the same era. Insert Brett Favre for Rodgers (20 years of starter production with 16 of them no worse than a QB1) and Dan Marino for Manning and you begin to see how one era bridges another.

One question that I look forward to exploring this summer focuses on the best way to acquire an elite quarterback for a dynasty league. Do you spend draft picks year after year until you hit on one? Do you try to predict who will be the next emerging star and trade for him before he hits? Or, do you pay top-dollar through a trade for an established star? Which method has a better track record of success, efficiency, and overall price?

Answers to these questions with some helpful data to back it up can provide clarity with how to rank quarterbacks in dynasty leagues.

The same reasons that top quarterbacks are fantasy anchor players in my view are why I haven't been giving running backs as much love in recent years. Certainly, if you had Emmitt Smith in the `90s then you hopefully hung onto him long enough to squeeze every bit of top-dollar value from his career.

However, most top running backs are done by the time they reach their early 30s while top quarterbacks have another 1-2 windows of starter production. Those backs who have been exceptions to the rule: Smith, Ladanian Tomlinson, and perhaps Adrian Peterson at this rate, are runners that are beyond elite. I think a better word for this small group of elite runners with more than one window (and up to three windows) of RB1 or elite RB1 play is generational.

In other words, top quarterbacks generally have 1-2 more life spans than top runners. It's a point I want to research further, because it could be valuable to locate the dynamics that are exceptions to the rule.

Back to this term Generational. I'm operating on intuition more than analysis at this point, but I use that word to describe running backs and defensive ends. However, the analysis may lead me to find more commonalities of career windows between ends/outside linebackers and quarterbacks. Maybe I should apply the generational tag to each position.

I've also held the idea that a top wide receiver and/or tight end are of greater dynasty value long-term than a top running back for the same reasons. However, there is something counter intuitive about this point, because we all know that top running back talent can carry a fantasy team.

I think the value of researching the lifespan of players by position in terms of player windows and fantasy tiers such as Generational, Elite, Starter 1, Starter 2, Flex, Reserve, and Free Agent will help me develop a better starting point to appropriately value players in dynasty leagues.

When a reader asks me why I have player X ranked so low compared to other writers, I want to provide context that goes beyond a typical explanation about the player's performance.

Rookie Drafts and Trades

Until the very recent present, I would recommend fantasy owners draft rookie quarterbacks. Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, and Russell Wilson are four examples why it can pay immediate dividends. However, these four passers don't provide any definitive answers about the future.

It is possible that this quartet is the dawning of a new age where a handful of rookie quarterbacks will have the same kind of impact that we see from first-year running backs and wide receivers. The style of offense coming to the NFL supports that idea.

Yet I worry that if one makes the statement that the style of offense is the true factor then it may deny the gifts that these four quarterbacks displayed early in their careers and overstate the future success rate of rookie passers. Life experience tells us that we often regard the future as brighter than the past even when there's no reason to do so. Depending on your point of view it we can label this tendency a product of faith, optimism, evolution, or foolishness.

At this moment, I think the four quarterbacks I mentioned are rare talents - especially after studying the 2013 class of rookie passers. These first-year quarterbacks aren't a bad group, but for the bottom-line fantasy owner who wants everything simplified, it's how he or she will view this rookie crop in against the 2012 class (fair or not). I think the 2013 quarterback class has potential to surprise, but not from the places most think.

Early Thoughts on Acquiring Dynasty QBs: Pay The Piper

However based on my early research of the historical data, I think there will be good evidence to take an approach with rookie passers that is simple: Don't waste your time; pay top-dollar an established starter.

Why?

Some investments are worth the price and unless your league is the kiddie pool compared to the deeper waters where sharks patrol, then you ultimately could spend more resources in terms of years, players, and draft picks acquiring several prospects that don't pan out. I'm going to look into this more, but I'm beginning to think that I'd rather give up two, first-round draft picks and a veteran player or two get Aaron Rodgers in return.

I don't have the exact price figured out, but that hypothetical deal above would beat taking the next 3-4 years drafting quarterbacks in one of the first two rounds that at best give my team borderline QB1 production 2-3 years later when I could have spent that money on positions that hit with a more valuable success rate.

Running backs and wide receivers seem like better overall investments. They are easier to trade and starting lineups require more of them in most leagues. The intuitive thought is that with quarterbacks and tight ends you need to hit the bull's eye because in most leagues you only need one top starter whereas you only need to be "close" with runners and wide receivers.

I want to research defensive players as well. I've always heard the axiom that it's better to trade defensive players for offensive players because it's easier to find talent on that side of the ball and most fantasy league scoring systems favor offense. While I have found this true on the whole, it would still be worthwhile to pinpoint where it isn't the case.

Knowing more about the success rate and growth rate of rookies by position and a position's career success (life) span, as well as learning how to determine a trend moving in a different direction should add more context to ranking decisions in dynasty leagues.

None of this means I'm going to go straight "analytic" with my rankings decisions, but I don't mind incorporating data to provide a framework that I can consciously break from and have an explanation why I'm doing so.

This is what I plan to do this summer. I'll be sharing the information at Footballguys, but it means it's unlikely that you'll see dynasty rankings from me until I am finish and I don't have a timetable for when I will finish. The best-case scenario is that I may have dynasty rankings at the end of the preseason.

However, I believe what I will provide this summer and fall as I research each position will be helpful to those of you in dynasty leagues.


More from Matt Waldman:

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
Gut Check No.319: Emergent(cies) - October 7
Gut Check No.318: ADP vs. End of Season - September 30
Gut Check No.317: Week 3 Is No Time to Panic - September 23
Gut Check No.316: Week 2 - Sifting Through The Wreckage - September 16
Gut Check No.315: Week 1 - Straight, No Chaser - September 9
Under The Microscope: Ravens RB Lorenzo Taliaferro - September 8
Gut Check No.314: 2014 Fantasy If . . . Then - September 1