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Early-Round Safe & Risky Players - Footballguys

Identifying safe and risky players to find the perfect balance between team floor and ceiling

Diversifying Your Portfolio

If you're on #FantasyFootballTwitter, you've no doubt seen tweets about diversification. Those are commonly used in the context of best ball rosters. But diversification can be a strategy within a single team as well. Drafting a team full of known commodities could lead to a solid team that can’t get over the hump and win it all. But having a team with all boom-or-bust players could lead to a level of variance that feels unsafe.

Using projections from David Dodds, Bob Henry, Maurile Tremblay, and Jason Wood, a range of outcomes for each player can be gauged by the variance within the projections and the delta between the highest and lowest projections of the group.

To put this in terms of investment methods, let's categorize players into three groups:

CDs

Certificates of Deposit are a safe, low-risk investment with a small expected return. In fantasy football terms, this is the unsexy pick who you'll plug into your lineup each week and know what to expect. And even if the high-yield result doesn't come through, the results generally won't sink you. 

Bonds

These are slightly more risky investments. They might yield great results, but a return isn't guaranteed. For fantasy football purposes, bonds are players whose ceiling we know exists because we've seen it; unfortunately, the same can be said of their floors.

Playing the Market

Buying stock is far from a guaranteed success. The market is fluid and unpredictable. In fantasy football, these are players with a vast range between their high-end and low-end projections who aren't proven commodities. 

Round-by-Round

Now that the groupings have been established, let's put this method of classification into practice. Below, we'll look at Rounds 1-4 and make observations on the projections of certain players. Note: quarterbacks have been excluded from this exercise. Their projections tend to vary less, and there are fewer boom-or-bust types at the position.

When looking at the graphics, note that each column is color-coded. In the "FP GAP" column, green shows a narrower gap between the maximum and minimum projections, implying a safer player.

Round 1

Round 1

Observations

  • An excellent offense, highly-skilled players, and an easy-to-project touch distribution make for fantasy goodness. Those factors combine to make Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown the safest of investments. Where volume and skill meet, solid fantasy football picks are made. These guys are the ultimate CDs.
  • Ezekiel Elliott and Kareem Hunt are in the bonds category. The difference between Hunt's floor and ceiling was illustrated last season when he had six weeks of 20 or more PPR points (including two with 39 or more) and five weeks where he scored fewer than 11. Of all players projected to score 100 or more fantasy points, the delta between Hunt's maximum and minimum projections is the highest. The deltas between Hunt's minimum and maximum are 176 rushing yards, 220 receiving yards, and 24 receptions.
  • In those same categories, Elliott's ranges are 40 rushing yards, 127 receiving yards, and 8 receptions. The gap between his high-end and low-end fantasy points projections is being driven by rushing touchdowns, where the range of projections is between 9 and 14. Elliott could be considered safer because touchdowns are more random than volume.
  • The stock market play in Round 1 is Saquon Barkley. The gaps between Barkley's maximum and minimum projections are also large: 306 rushing yards, 214 receiving yards, and 32 receptions. Barkley's biggest unknown is volume, leading to a wide range of projections.

Round 2

Round 2

Observations

  • The players in this round have a much tighter range of projections that the players in Round 1.
  • It's interesting that a player such as Keenan Allen can have a wide range of possibilities while Mike Evans has a narrow range. Typically, the stereotype for PPR specialist types like Allen is that their floor is insulated, making them a safe play. And Evans is typically a touchdown-dependent player. This is what makes exercises like this one so much fun; individuals biases in assessment can be exposed and counter-points offered.
  • Consider this the annual reminder that tight ends aren't worth early-round investments. Sure, it can work out that a difference-maker is selected, but the ceiling of Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski is built into their price. If selecting one, though, it would appear that Gronkowski is the more sound investment. His minimum fantasy points project is only seven points below Kelce's maximum.

Round 3

Round 3

Observations

  • With question marks are everywhere, this round could win or lose leagues. From Joe Mixon (offensive line) to Jerick McKinnon (new team, workload concerns) to Kenyan Drake (workload concerns, bad offense) to Amari Cooper (new coach, no Michael Crabtree around), this round contains first-round talent but could yield seventh-round results.
  • Jordan Howard and Tyreek Hill are the poster boys for this type of exercise. Owners know what Howard will do (rushing workhorse) and won't do (catch passes). He's effective but not dynamic. Meanwhile, Hill's forte is scoring in chunks despite a low number of touches. It's interesting that Hill and the aforementioned Allen are profiling similarly in this exercise. 
  • The Minnesota wide receiver duo presents a key decision point for fantasy owners. The offense should be effective, but which of these pass-catchers is the better option? Last season, Diggs had massive games but mixed in some duds, while Thielen was consistently good for long stretches. However, Diggs' projections are a closer cluster than Thielen's.

Round 4

Round 4

Observations

  • This group illustrates this exercise perfectly. Unlike Round 2, almost every player in this grouping falls on one side or the other of the predictability spectrum. And the ones with a narrow range of projected outcomes still have question marks.
  • Allen Robinson has a tight gap between his projections, but he is on a new team that has a new head coach and a second-year quarterback who struggled last season.
  • Owners can typically set their watches to a 100-catch season from Larry Fitzgerald, but he's another year older and has a new head coach and quarterback.
  • In terms of the "stock market" guys, who knows what to expect with Josh Gordon. As a matter of fact, a staff discussion on Gordon is what inspired the idea to write this column. Adam Harstad was involved there and wrote a column of his own on Gordon and player upside
  • JuJu Smith-Schuster is another tantalizing player. He'll have a role on a top-tier offense, but with Pittsburgh's heavy usage of Bell and Brown, will Smith-Schuster have enough weekly volume to have a floor? 
  • The uber-talented Derrius Guice is another head-scratcher. He could be a fantasy RB1, or he could split time with Chris Thompson on third downs, leaving him as a difficult-to-project option each week. He's an obvious fit in the stock market group. Many will buy, but will they profit?

Summary

Before your draft, determine if you are a risk-taker or a conservative fantasy owner (both have their pros and cons), and then draft accordingly. A roster of Alvin Kamara, Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, and Josh Gordon seems electric on paper, but there could be some low-scoring weeks with that group. Instead, once Kamara and Adams are secured, a pivot to guaranteed volume players such as Doug Baldwin and Demaryius Thomas might be more sensible to lock in a higher floor.

Conversely, a team of Antonio Brown, Michael Thomas, LeSean McCoy, and Jordan Howard might seem too safe. Swapping in Christian McCaffrey and Jerick McKinnon adds some big-play ability to the roster that could yield a higher weekly ceiling.

Know your risk profile; assess each player; and be fluid as the draft progresses. Those are key items to keep in mind when building fantasy football teams.


Questions, comments, suggestions, and other feedback on this piece are always welcome via e-mail hester@footballguys.com