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The Gut Check No. 417: When Your Draft Goes Wrong

Matt Waldman shares five symptoms of a draft day gone wrong and five tips for how to turn it around.

We've all had bad drafts. Sometimes the toughest part about a bad draft is recognizing early on that you had one. The earlier you do, the better your chances of fixing your mess and fielding a contender. 

Unfortunately, we are easily filled with optimism in August. Take Alvin Kamara and Bruce Ellington as examples.

Go to or Twitter and watch their highlights if you haven't seen their performances during the preseason and you'll see big plays—big plays that they routinely made in the SEC. These plays get fantasy players excited and occasionally, I'm asked if I'm now more bullish about a player like Kamara after a 5-attempt, 61-yard performance (with the game still in progress). When I answer "no," I'm sure some people are incredulous. 

It's not the big plays that matter as much as the little ones: ball security, pass protection, smart decisions to take minimal gains rather than going for the big play that has a higher risk of setting up a third and long with suboptimal field position. Kamara didn't do a good job with these details at Tennessee.

Players like Kamara and Ellington may develop fast enough in these areas (or, in Ellington's case, fulfill a desperate need for a new team) to have a larger impact this year but until he demonstrates this development, big plays that were also made in the college game don't move the needle as much for me as others. However, big plays and athletic ability will always seduce fans. When it pays off, it ingrains a bias towards these things when there's a likelihood that the call was correct for all the wrong reasons.

We call the period leading to the NFL Draft the "lying season." This is, even more, appropriate of August for fantasy leagues. The seductive power of flashy plays and the difficulties of analyzing news lead to firm opinions on players before the regular season begins. Combine these issues with our brainwashed thinking that fantasy football is about the draft and many fantasy players give up by mid-October if their team falters.

While we all know that the draft is the easiest and best way to build a team, it's not the only way. The best fantasy owners are strong at all the ways of building a team: free agency, lineup decisions, and trades.

I want you to remember this because the business side of fantasy football and its numerous draft products, daily rankings, and draft strategies unintentionally cloud the picture. So does our celebration of the draft's social side. Our draft day parties and rituals reinforce that the draft is the only way when it is not.

It's another reason why many of us are prone to denial when our draft goes bad—who wants to feel bad on draft day?


Hopes are highest on draft day, but the buzz can fade soon after. In other cases, the symptoms of a bad draft don't appear until the back half of September. Here are five signs that you better face reality about your weak team sooner than later. 

1. Significant injuries/suspensions to three or more players selected within the first 10 rounds: They don't have to be season-ending injuries. A player on the shelf for at least four weeks can hinder your start. While teams can overcome these issue—and we often recommend a player serving a suspension or rehabbing an injury—we're presuming you're not loading your roster with these options because the margin for lineup errors and additional injuries to your roster narrows with each strategic choice of a prospect not scheduled to play a full season. 

2. Early picks (first 7-10 rounds) from teams that suffered major injuries or suspensions: Fantasy owners of Ezekiel Elliott fear this point applies to them and there's a good reason there's a strong chance it does. Did you find Andrew Luck too good to pass up and then you went nuts and picked 1-3 Colts players within the first 10 rounds and came to your senses when (if, at this point,) Luck misses more time and the Colts lack a competent backup? There's a good chance 20-30 percent of your starting lineup under performs for a month.  

3. You have a fetish for athletes who haven't proven they have professional grade technical skills: You saw DeVante Parker's stretch run two years ago, drafted him earlier last summer with faith that "he'd make the leap" only to read in recent days that his coaches needed him to learn to be a professional when it comes to taking care of his body and practicing the right way. 

4. You've got that sinking feeling that you've picked the short end of every committee: You didn't believe Hue Jackson about Isaiah Crowell and you got a free autographed Duke Johnson Jr sippy cup with each selection of the former Miami Hurricane. DeMarco Murray strains his groin in Week 2 and Derrick Henry finally has Titans fans retiring their Eddie George jerseys to their closets. Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson aren't the same players and their backups are kicking butt. Stuff happens.

5. Offensive line woes: Great backs like Adrian Peterson and...well, Adrian Peterson is bullet-proof in this respect (it's what I said this time last year and shows how much I know...). Atlanta's offense two years ago, and the Broncos ground game last year. Then there's the opposite situation: a conceptually limited and physically declining Darren McFadden posting RB1 production in Dallas two years ago. 


Realizing you have a problem is the first step. If you don't think you do or that it's a temporary issue, I hope you're right. If you can tell yourself a story where there aren't too many "ifs" in the equation that lead to a turnaround, your existing roster might be worth your patience.

I know it can be painful to deal away players early who ultimately carry your opponent to a championship. Imagine giving up rookie Corey Dillon early in the first month of the season only to witness this display down the stretch?

20 Years And It's Still Painful: Corey Dillion Weeks 9-17

Rk G# Tm Opp Result Att Yds Y/A TD Tgt Rec Yds Y/R TD
9 9 CIN SDG W 38-31 19 123 6.47 1 1 1 4 4.00 0
10 10 CIN IND W 28-13 22 97 4.41 1 2 1 5 5.00 0
11 11 CIN PIT L 3-20 19 78 4.11 0 1 1 21 21.00 0
12 12 CIN JAX W 31-26 26 88 3.38 1 5 5 48 9.60 0
13 13 CIN PHI L 42-44 19 114 6.00 0 4 2 17 8.50 0
14 14 CIN TEN W 41-14 39 246 6.31 4 2 2 30 15.00 0
15 15 CIN DAL W 31-24 26 127 4.88 1 3 2 7 3.50 0
16 16 CIN BAL W 16-14 24 60 2.50 0 3 3 15 5.00 0
        7-9-0 233 1129 4.85 10 33 27 259 9.59 0

There comes a point where you have to decide that making dramatic moves with the risk of failure is more appealing than doing nothing and hoping things get better on its own. If you reach this decision, these points will help you create a crisis plan: 

1. Examine your average gap in fantasy points for your losses: Determine the average gap in fantasy points, and see if you can equate it to a specific number of players and/or positions.

I've read emails from reactive fantasy owners who are 1-3 and ready to overhaul their rosters but didn't examine that loss margin. An average margin of 15 points per game may seem like a lot but what if your kicker and defense are bad and there are much stronger free agent options that can easily account for a 10-12 point difference per week?  You may realize that upgrading these two positions and the 5-point bump per week that you're expecting from a returning Doug Martin doesn't make your situation as dire as it appears. 

2. Examine the average fantasy points per win for the teams with winning records: This could prove less reliable during the first month of the season and prompt you to overreact to the potentially large margin between your team and the best teams in the league. Still, it's worth examining the average final score for the teams with winning records and measuring the difference between their efforts and that of your roster. 

3. Become knowledgeable about position demand: The two tasks above will help you develop a plan with free agency. You don't want to spend 75%-100% of your waiver wire budget on one hot player with "season-changing" potential if your team needs to fill 3-5 holes that even a great player cannot realistically fill on a weekly basis. But if you've determined that your 1-3 team has lost 3 games by a margin of 9 points to the high-scoring team in your league each week, one all-in move with a player could turn things around dramatically. 

An important part of using the waiver wire to your benefit is understanding the level of difficulty associated with acquiring players at each position your league via trade. Elite players at any position are the most pricey to acquire but when factoring all levels of performance within a position, running back is the most expensive to acquire via trade. Quarterback and tight end are among the easiest in traditional lineups. Wide receivers are the most liquid commodity in the trade market. 

Defenses, kickers, startable tight ends, passable bye-week quarterbacks, and startable wide receivers are commonly available on the waiver wire during the first 6-8 weeks of the season. You might luck out and land a player with top-12 or top-24 skill at any position within the first 2-3 weeks due to an injury or suspension. 

4. Become knowledgeable about waiver wire dynamics: While a lesser-known, but productive running back on the waiver wire might prove he's worth 75%-100%, if you need multiple positions, paying a heavy freight on a single player could hurt you more than help you. It might be best to take a different approach to your team-building through free agency—especially if you're competing with other teams for that single player who is bound to have the most demand.  

The best player on the waiver wire might not be the best player for your rebuilding efforts. It might be easier to take players you don't need but have value and parlay them into positions of need.

For example, you have four good starters at receiver and two good tight ends but only one startable running back. You could pay that 75%-100% freight on Joe Williams after Carlos Hyde and Tim Hightower get hurt in Week 2 but everyone is gunning for Williams. You also drafted your team with the plan to stream defenses and you're down a quarterback due to injury—and that remaining starter, Jay Cutler, is your No.2 option. 

Williams scored a ton of points in relief but the way he did it seems suspect for long-term production and grabbing him for that cost seems excessive. But sitting there on the waiver wire are Paul Richardson Jr, Leonte Carroo, and Malcolm Mitchell and all of them have been consistent producers while their counterparts Kenny Stills and Chris Hogan have struggled and Doug Baldwin and DeVante Parker got hurt last week.

You could add Carroo and Richardson combined for a fraction of Williams' price, still have money for a quarterback in the coming weeks, and maintain a budget for streaming your defenses. But you don't need more receivers!

You do if you want that running back or quarterback of your choice. If you've accepted that you have to stir things up, stockpiling a strength will allow you to deal your best options at that position for a top player or pair of players at positions of need. It means relying on your depth—including your free agents—to build a team with more diverse strengths.

Because the perception of a player's value lags behind his actual worth, it's easier to trade an established stud than a higher performer with a lower "brand value." 

You may have been forced to trade Sammy Watkins for Isaiah Crowell and Sam Bradford—a deal that seems lopsided for Watkins before the season began, but Bradford is authoring top-10 weeks and Crowell has two strong weeks against good rush defenses—but your acquisitions and depth have performed well enough that their collective production will exceed your previous lineup if the production remains consistent.

Sometimes, the best route to improving your team is building on a strength and taking 2-3 steps rather than a single step. And, it often means relying on budding stars with little brand value to do it.

Even league winners who didn't make deals often tell war stories about 1-3 lesser-known players coming up big down the stretch. What they conveniently neglect to tell you is how long they waited to start those players over their brand names. 

5. Develop your proficiency in the craft of trading: Whereas drafting and free agency are the easiest, key lineup decisions and effective trades are often the most difficult of the four fantasy management skills. The communication and negotiation skills to create a deal are a craft that requires practice—and sometimes you have to be willing to lose a little on one deal to gain a little more on another. It's a long-term process that few fantasy owners ever truly understand and it's why they avoid deals altogether or they're always making lopsided offers that no one accepts.  

It begins with understanding which players sustain their early-season performances the best and managing them accordingly. 

Based on five years of data (2009-2013), here's the rate that each position sustained its performance when it began the first three weeks of the season as a top-12 performer at its position: 

  • QB: 63 percent  (58 percent in 2014)
  • TE: 63 percent  (75 percent in 2014)
  • RB: 50 percent  (30 percent in 2014)
  • WR: 45 percent (42 percent in 2014)

Injuries are a greater factor for RBs and WRs than QBs and TEs. These insights should help you as you head into drafts so you can set up your team for effective crisis management:

The easiest starters to trade away are known commodities at quarterback and tight end: I'd rather be weak at these positions after a draft because I know I should have an easier time to acquire them with a deal. It's much harder to trade these players away for value at receiver or running back. 

Tight ends of value are more prevalent in free agency: If you're going to stockpile from the waiver wire to prepare for a deal, build up your receiving corps or add a tight end to an existing stud at the position who you can trade for players of need. 

If you luck into a waiver wire back of note or you have the luxury to spend big money on one player, go for it. Otherwise, trading for a runner offers you better choices. 

For a detailed piece on negotiating as a fantasy owner, check out this article I penned. Specific strategies include: 

  • The importance of making offers to multiple owners at the same time. 
  • How to encourage initial discussions and good offers. 
  • Why you should ask what your trade partner is targeting. 
  • Why you should make preliminary offers that match what you'd most like to get. 

Another article on trades that I also posted in recent years discusses negotiation philosophies: 

  • Adopting a Negotiator's Mindset
  • Being More Process-Oriented Than Results-Oriented 
  • Be Willing to Lose Big to Win Big
  • Know What You're Willing to Give and Take
  • Understanding the Framework of the Negotiation as the Seller and the Buyer
  • Learning Common Buyer and Seller Motivations
  • The Counter Offer

Practice some of these things now and you'll immediately become better at trades—even if you make mistakes year-one. And what do you have to lose? You've already realized that your team is in trouble. Action may not lead to short-term wins but it will lead to long-term lessons that will help you win later.