Dynasty, in Practice: Creating a Cohesive Vision for Your Roster

How to use intentional roster management techniques to ensure that every part of your team is working in harmony.

In this week’s Dynasty, in Theory, I wrote about the concept of “urgency”— about how paying attention to the rate at which we receive new information allows us to maximize the value of our final few roster spots.

That’s a fun idea with a neat name, but it really only applies to the last handful of roster spots. It’s largely going to be an irrelevant consideration for the bulk of your roster. Someone would never drop Duke Johnson Jr, say, just to grab a high-urgency back like Bilal Powell.

In DFS, smart owners will talk about the importance of “bankroll management”. The idea is that succeeding in the long term is not just a matter of identifying good players and avoiding bad. By being smart and intentional about how much of your money you’re exposing to risk in any given week, you can maximize your long-term rewards.

Likewise, at its core, succeeding in dynasty could be boiled down to “roster good players, avoid bad players”. But by practicing good roster management, we can amplify the rewards while mitigating the risks. It serves as a final multiplier on top of our player evaluations that helps determine how much value we’re really gaining.

The Principal Components of Roster Management

At its most basic, the goal of fantasy football is to maximize the points in your starting lineup every week. Dynasty adds a time component to the equation, giving the additional challenge of maximizing points both now and in future years. Every single roster move you make should be with this in mind. Therefore, the core aim in dynasty is to build a phenomenal core of starters.

But “maximizing points in your starting lineup” isn’t just a game of maximizing the value of your starters. Starters get hurt or have byes. Sometimes they have unfavorable matchups. To maximize points every week, it’s important to have quality backups that you can plug in should the situation warrant. Therefore, the secondary aim in dynasty is to build a strong core of backups.

Getting good starters and backups is just the start of the battle, though. As I mentioned, dynasty is like redraft with an added time component. It’s important that the starters and backups are all peaking at the right time to open a competitive window.

To help achieve that, you need something to do with all of those other roster spots once your starters and backups are sorted out. If you maximize the market value, (or “perceived value”), of your remaining roster spots, you will wind up with a roster that is nimble, agile, and able to quickly pivot in the case of underperformance among your prospective starters, patching holes as they arise.

So that’s it. The key to success in dynasty is to get good starters, good backups, and accumulate a lot of trade value. Now that you know that, I’m sure you’ll be able to dominate for years.

Well, Okay, The “How” is Kind of Important, Too

Okay, I’m telling you stuff you already know again. As I mentioned two weeks ago, I think it’s sometimes useful to state the obvious as clearly and concisely as possible. By spelling things out so simply, the path to achieving these goals becomes much simpler, too.

Now that our destination is laid out, let’s look at a path we can take to get there. 

Step #1- Build up your starting lineup.
Ideally, this is done with an eye towards the future, so that “solved” positions can remain solved for years at a time. Think of playing with a Rubik’s Cube— the end solution becomes much easier to achieve once a few faces have been appropriately aligned.

The old joke is that the NFL stands for “Not For Long”. Like all jokes, it grows from a kernel of truth. In January of 2014, players like Giovani Bernard, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Doug Martin were going in the first two rounds of startup drafts. Their current value has fallen substantially from that high peak. Early picks sometimes bust.

But the bust rate among highly-valued assets is substantially lower than the bust rate among less-valued assets. Those were three of the very few players valued that highly to receive catastrophic shocks to their value. Going down a few additional rounds, we encounter players like Victor Cruz, Shane Vereen, Justin Blackmon, Torrey Smith, and Reuben Randle. And unlike Bernard, Patterson, or Martin, these busts were more the rule instead of the exception.

Not only do the top players provide a bigger weekly advantage, but top players hold their value from year to year at an exponentially better rate than second-tier players. This is what makes them top players. Therefore, the primary goal of dynasty should be building a stable core of these high-end assets.

There’s an old adage among dynasty veterans that whoever got the best player in a deal probably won, and this is a big reason why. If someone trades three players who are being valued in the 3rd round of startups for a single player who is valued in the first round, that might look like a huge overpay. But if all three of those players fall off the cliff in the next two years, while the first-rounder is still going strong, the overpay can quickly begin to look like a steal.

Like all such “rules of thumb”, it’s not an ironclad law. If you’re trading DeAndre Hopkins, Randall Cobb, and Russell Wilson to get Julio Jones, that’s probably not going to be working out well for you in the long-run. But it’s certainly a good place to start.

Despite the repeated mantra that the key to winning is buying low and selling high, paying a premium for quality is also a very strong strategy.

Step #2- Build up your startable depth.
This second goal runs counter to the first in many ways. Owners should be looking to package their depth to upgrade their starting lineup much of the time. Such moves naturally leave them thinner and more open to injuries.

Fortunately, solving this step involves a lot less capital investment than solving the first. There’s borderline-startable depth available on the street in all but the deepest leagues. Players like Alex Smith and Nick Foles aren’t going to win you many weeks, but they can serves as effective stopgaps that won’t totally sink your title chances if called upon.

Similarly, baseline-level production from aging-but-unexciting vets is usually available at tight end, too. Delanie Walker was barely rostered at the start of the 2014 season. He finished the year as a top-10 tight end. Scott Chandler may not be an exciting name, but for years owners could have started him without giving up many points vs. a low-end TE1.

Since QB and TE production is routinely available for cheap, (or even free), the bulk of a team’s roster spots should be devoted to running backs and wide receivers. Again, veterans provide production at a discount. Chris Ivory may not have been an exciting name, but the 27-year-old 6th-year vet has provided much more reliable production than a more enticing rookie like Duke Johnson Jr.

At receiver, look for players who are the second-best receivers on their team and who have been in the NFL for five or more years. Stevie Johnson and Michael Crabtree were afterthoughts before the season, but both have served as a stabilizing force on their fantasy teams. In a pinch, even journeymen like Jerricho Cotchery and Nate Washington can provide enough value to keep a fantasy team competitive.

Here we reach a key truth of roster construction: winning in fantasy football is far more about maximizing your strengths than minimizing your weaknesses. Players like Ivory or Washington might look like liabilities on paper, but if the rest of your team is strong, an upgrade is unnecessary.

It’s better to play an aging, unexciting, but reliable veteran than to spend precious capital acquiring a second-tier player just to patch a perceived hole.

Step #3- Maximize value down your roster.
Once your starters and depth are squared away, it’s time to pivot and start maximizing long-term upside. One common mistake I see new owners making is going overboard on depth. If your starting quarterback is Andrew Luck, and you also own Alex Smith, there’s no reason to roster Ryan Fitzpatrick, too. You’ve got your long-term starter in place. You have enough quality depth to cover for him. Don’t waste a roster spot on additional superfluous depth.

Instead, if you want to devote that roster spot to a quarterback, spend it on someone with long-term upside. Robert Griffin III III might be in a terrible place, but we’ve seen him provide high-end fantasy production before.

Ryan Fitzpatrick will never supplant Luck in your lineup, and he’ll never command much in trade. Griffin might. He probably won’t, but he might. I’d rather bet on something that probably won’t happen over something that definitely won’t happen.

If you didn’t have Andrew Luck— if your quarterbacks were, say, Alex Smith and Johnny Manziel— then Ryan Fitzpatrick is a more interesting consideration. In this case, there’s a chance that Fitzpatrick could break into your starting rotation and actually put points in your lineup. In this case, he’s quality depth.

The key is knowing how much depth you need before it’s time to switch gears to maximizing upside. And the truth is that there’s no perfect, one-size-fits-all answer. In shallow leagues, you should switch to upside relatively quickly, since any short-term need can be filled by free agents on the street. In very deep leagues, it might not hurt to roster another boring low-upside quarterback, since if injury strikes you’ll have little chance to address the position later.

Remember, though, that the “maximize value” portion of your roster is wholly distinct from the “startable depth” portion of your roster. The depth you value is wholly contingent on your team’s makeup and specific needs. If you’re weak at running back and strong at receiver, you should devote most of your “depth spots” to running backs and few of them to receivers.

Regardless of your team strengths, though, you should be devoting your “maximize value” spots to the best players available. If your tight ends are Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce, and Jordan Reed is still available on waivers, add him. I’ve seen too many teams pass on quality talents that they didn’t “need”.

Every team needs good players. If a player hits at a position of strength, that just frees up resources that you can trade to acquire good players at a position of need elsewhere.

The Only Rule: Be Intentional

To many teams, building a roster is just a matter of adding guys they like. While there really aren’t any perfect and easy answers to roster construction, your odds of success go up exponentially if you create a single, coherent, unified vision before building and remain disciplined enough to stick with it.

I see many teams wasting opportunities because they can’t decide who they are. I’ve seen rebuilding teams grabbing short-term stopgaps instead of loading up on long-term lottery tickets. I’ve seen contending teams ignoring glaring depth issues on their roster and having title chances scuttled by a single injury.

You don’t necessarily need to have the answer to every problem already on your roster. But it certainly helps to have a consistent plan in mind. Maybe that plan is “none of the QB depth on the street is worth rostering, so I’ll remain shallow, and if injury strikes I’ll trade one of my many upside receivers for quality quarterback help”. Again, the details are of secondary importance to the fact that you just have a plan in the first place.

Teams with a smart plan will still suffer setbacks, but they’ll be more prepared and able to deal with them when they happen.

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