The Player's Guide to Fantasy Football During a Pandemic

A look at the possible issues that could arise in the NFL due to coronavirus and possible strategy adjustment in fantasy football to deal with them

2020 has been a year like no other, so it follows that the 2020 NFL season will be like no other, and therefore our approach to preparation for fantasy drafts and management should also diverge from previous approaches. How exactly can and should we do that. As Adam Harstad pointed out on a recent show, the time of coronavirus has been so rife with uncertainty that to even have a hypothesis of how it will skew NFL results this year is difficult and perhaps the best strategy is just to remain receptive and flexible as we see how this season diverges from all of the ones we’ve seen before, which did not take place during a pandemic. But if you are willing to sketch out pictures of what might change, what would those pictures look like? And How would they change our player valuations, inclinations, and strategies?

Note: This will be a living document as we learn more about official NFL guidelines, watch how training camp goes, and see how teams are handling coronavirus individually.

Rookie Impact

With no offseason, limited practice time, and no preseason games, coaches are going to be less likely to trust rookies in high leverage moments and maybe overall. Rookies also don’t have the foundation of NFL strength and conditioning to get and stay in “football shape” and could have more trouble staying healthy in camp and during the season. The “rookie wall” is well-documented and could come earlier and be steeper than it has been in a typical year.

ADP still assumes that highly drafted rookie running backs will leave their accomplished, but older and less physically primed competition in the dust, with little to no correction for the possibility that the rookies will be eased in slower than they are in a typical year. Wide receivers could also have a slower ramp-up building chemistry and trust with their quarterback. First-round quarterbacks are usually put on the field early, if not in Week 1, and that will certainly be true of Joe Burrow, but Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert could be held out longer than they would have been in previous years.

Possible Strategy Adjustments

Be less inclined to take Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Jonathan Taylor, D’Andre Swift, J.K. Dobbins, and Cam Akers at ADP, especially Edwards-Helaire and Taylor. Be more open to Damien Williams, Marlon Mack, Kerryon Johnson, Mark Ingram II, and Darrell Henderson/Malcolm Brown at ADP, especially Williams and Mack. Teams could also trust rookies more as the season goes on, with the veterans getting off to better starts, but at some point in the season the right move being to trade your veteran backs and trade for rookies that have disappointed to date.

Be more open to Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Fitzpatrick in super-flex drafts as ADP might be assuming that they get the hook earlier than they will in reality.

The ADP of receivers like Courtland Sutton, Michael Gallup, Desean Jackson. Adam Thielen, T.Y. Hilton, and Tyrell Williams might reflect a higher expectation of highly-drafted rookie target share than we see in reality.

New Team/Quarterback Impact

It will be more difficult for quarterbacks to build chemistry and trust with new receivers, just as it will with rookie receivers. We have already been wary of receivers on new teams, but now that risk is even greater. Players on new teams will also have to learn new systems and roles.

Possible Strategy Adjustments

These are the highest-drafted pass-catchers with new starting quarterbacks:

  • Stefon Diggs - consider John Brown later instead
  • Julian Edelman - Drop in quarterback quality already factored in, might be slightly undervalued if Newton is healthy
  • T.Y. Hilton - although his ADP appears to be too low in light of his track record and Rivers could still be a net improvement
  • A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd - although ADP appears to be too low in light of track records and Burrow could still be a net improvement
  • Allen Robinson - Foles could still be a net improvement and he knows Nagy’s system plus he has worked with new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor
  • Keenan Allen, Hunter Henry - although Tyrod Taylor was the backup last year, so there’s some familiarity, and in Henry’s case, a good possibility that he is leaned on the way Taylor leaned on Charles Clay during his time as Buffalo’s starter.
  • D.J. Moore - he didn’t have a problem when Kyle Allen was installed, so probably no worries here.
  • Emmanuel Sanders - Had no problems adjusting to a new quarterback during the season last year
  • Diontae Johnson - Roethlisberger is still a net improvement
  • DeAndre Hopkins - This plus a drop in targets means he might be overvalued even with a drop to the second round in ADP
    Mike Evans, Chris Godwin - This plus the likelihood of a lower volume pass offense and addition of Rob Gronkowski means they might be overvalued as second-round picks.

Should Brandin Cooks be on this list?

He has had 1000 yard seasons in his first year with a new quarterback at two different stops, although that was with the benefit of a full offseason and camp. His ADP reflects a healthy amount of skepticism and probably already correctly priced in this risk.

New Coach Impact

Teams that are installing new systems via new head coaches/coordinators will be at an early-season disadvantage. That’s what the offseason and camp are for, and teams got no offseason and a camp that won’t allow for typical practice rigors. We should expect teams with big changes in the offensive blueprint to start slow.

Possible Strategy Adjustments

  • Cleveland - Baker Mayfield will be playing in a lot more structure, but it revolves around the running game and play-action. Mayfield and Beckham’s ADP is way down from last year’s, so this probably already priced in.
  • Denver - Pat Shurmur’s offense should be different enough from Rich Scangarello’s Shanahan system to err on the side of caution with Drew Lock early in the season.
  • New York Giants - Daniel Jones has to learn the Jason Garrett system and the Giants face Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Chicago to open the season. Jones should be drafted as a QB2 and not relied on during this stretch.
  • Washington - Scott Turner called plays for the first time over the last four weeks of the 2019 season, but expectations are so low for Dwayne Haskins that there’s no need to ding him for this.

Should Miami be on this list?

Chan Gailey has worked with Ryan Fitzpatrick in the past and Fitzpatrick had his best year when both were together with the Jets. Gailey also made Tyler Thigpen fantasy relevant on short notice.

Should Dallas be on this list?

They kept offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, so I lean no.

Should Jacksonville be on this list?

Jay Gruden is coming in, but can it be worse than the Jacksonville offense last year? I lean no.

Should Carolina be on this list?

Teddy Bridgewater has worked with Joe Brady in New Orleans and ADP reflects low expectations for him, so I lean no.

Continuity/Organizational Quality

As opposed to the negative that change may add, continuity should be a net positive, and continuity general runs parallel with organizational quality, which might be important this year as the better-run organizations will likely to do the best job with coronavirus prevention and management.

Possible Strategy Adjustments

Consider breaking ties in favor of players from the following teams:

  • Buffalo
  • New England
  • Indianapolis
  • Tennessee
  • Baltimore
  • Pittsburgh
  • Kansas City
  • Philadelphia
  • New Orleans
  • San Francisco
  • Seattle

Additionally, give a longer look to players who are clearly the most established target for their veteran quarterback:

Home Field Advantage

This one is more for sports betting and DFS but has fantasy football implications when setting our lineups and making short term waiver wire pickups. Home field advantage might be diminished with less crowd noise, which should help offenses in general, and also nullify the usual advantage in officiating for the home team. We should be watching offensive output compared to previous years to see if overall we need to move up scoring to reflect defenses no longer feeding off of crowd noise and capitalizing on the confusion and frantic emotional energy a hostile crowd can create. There could also be a lag in Vegas lines adjusting to reflect the diminished impact of home-field advantage. When the Bundesliga re-launched without crowds in Germany, ESPN noted that scoring and home team winning percentage was down.

Opt-Outs

We have already seen Chiefs starting guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif opt-out to stay in Canada to help in the health care system. Kansas City signed Kelechi Osemele to replace him and the offense was just fine while Duvernay-Tardif was out last year, but we should expect some more important players to opt-out by the likely early August deadline. One to keep watch on is Bucs left tackle Donovan Smith. As we learn of opt-outs, we’ll be sure to break down the fantasy impact here.

Depth

With the possibility of increased early-season injuries due to no preseason and a less intense camp and many players missing weeks or months with coronavirus and the necessary re-conditioning after sitting, depth and waiver wire prowess could be more important than ever this year. We’ll be studying the players at the end of the depth chart and expanded practice squads even closer. Knowing the quality of offensive line depth will also take on increased importance because they are in the most contact with teammates and opposing players and could be most affected by coronavirus spread on the field if that takes place.

Possible Strategy Adjustments

Running back handcuffs might be worth more this year, especially in cases where there is a clear handcuff in a good running game. Quarterback handcuffs might become more frequently held in 2QB/Superflex leagues. In deeper leagues with thinner waiver wires considering these possibilities is an important part of draft preparation.

Early-Season Schedule

With the possibility of a shortened or paused season, getting off to a hot start is more important than ever.

Give the following teams a bump up for early schedule ease:

  • Arizona (@SF WAS DET @CAR @NYJ)
  • Baltimore (CLE @HOU KC @WAS CIN)
  • Buffalo (NYJ @MIA LAR @LV @TEN)
  • Dallas (@LAR ATL @SEA CLE NYG)
  • San Francisco (ARI @NYJ @NYG PHI MIA)

Give the following teams a bump down for early schedule difficulty:

  • Las Vegas (@CAR NO @NE BUF @KC)
  • NY Giants (PIT @CHI SF @LAR @DAL)
  • NY Jets (@BUF SF @IND DEN ARI)
  • Tennessee (@DEN JAX @MIN PIT BUF)

Defenses that are in their first season under a new coach/scheme could have growing pains early in the season. Consider breaking ties in lineup setting and choosing DFS lineups to target these defenses:

  • Carolina
  • Cleveland
  • NY Giants
  • Dallas
  • Washington

Final Thoughts

One of the most important fantasy football skills is being able to adjust to a new reality in real time. Being able to digest and act on new information without needing so much evidence that it is so that it’s too late to take advantage by the time the light bulb goes on. These are just hypotheses and proposed impacts to consider. Your intuition might tell you something different. The point is to at least ponder what the future holds and make your mind malleable and agile so you can accept the new reality before your opponents. Perhaps the best strategy at the outset is to not approach this season any differently for fantasy and betting than we have any other season in the past. Just be ready to incorporate what we learn in the first month of the season, while still leaving in the understanding that the preseason might be September and the leveling off we usually see by October might take place later this year.

Thanks for reading this far. Please contact me at bloom@footballguys.com if you have any questions, suggestions, or feedback that could make this article better.


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