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The Gut Check No. 435: Advice For Navigating Draft Season

Matt Waldman shares three tips on navigating the 2018 NFL Draft season. 

It doesn't matter if it's re-draft, keeper, dynasty, or daily, if you want to take your fantasy skills to a higher level, you have to develop an understanding of young talent.  

Of the 40 players that had top-10 fantasy seasons at their respective positions this year, 12 of those players had no more than 3 years of pro football experience:

Expand the scope to the top-15 fantasy performers at each position and 17 of these 60 performers — now including Michael Thomas, Hunter Henry, Christian McCaffrey, Robby Anderson, and O.J. Howard — have no more than 3 years of experience.
This year isn't unusual. There were 23 last year and 20 in 2015.
Ana, a Footballguys subscriber and regular listener of The Audible, recently shared with me lessons from her evolution as a fantasy football owner — a developmental path that we share in this hobby. Like most of us, Ana believed she knew enough about football to become a competitive owner when she began playing fantasy football. After her first year, she realized that regardless of how much she knew, finding all of the pertinent information and distilling it into actionable steps requires more time than most have. 
This is where Footballguys entered her life. And as Footballguys gave her an efficient way of staying abreast of the NFL's preseason and in-season developments, it also expanded her knowledge about the game — but not in the way that you may think.
When people see the phrase 'football knowledge,' they think about strategy, analytics, and technique. However, Ana identified new talent development as a vital part of football knowledge — and the most common type of knowledge gap that fantasy owners have. 
It was easy to identify eight-year veteran Antonio Brown as a top-5 player. It was much harder to remain optimistic about Jared Goff and Todd Gurley.
While it could be argued that Goff and Gurley were bargains, a lot of fantasy owners and writers wrote off Goff as a colossal bust and Gurley as an overrated option thanks to stats-based arguments that lacked enough context of football knowledge to produce anything but magical realism. Even if fantasy owners took chances on each player, those honest with themselves know that Gurley and Goff were tough calls.
Gurley's ADP made him a high-risk option that most recommended against. Most Goff owners waited 4-6 weeks — and likely incurred multiple losses — before they had the confidence to start the quarterback. Trust me, I still had readers emailing me for fantasy football therapy sessions about Goff 3-4 weeks after I posted analysis of the quarterback's game and stated my confidence in him. 
This week, I'm ending the 2017 fantasy season and kicking off the 2018 draft season with three tips to help you develop a better understanding of talent development.  

1. expand your focus from 'rookies' to 'young talent'

While a little simplistic in explanation, most fantasy owners make the mistake of classifying players as rookies, veterans, and busts. When a player enters the league, he's a rookie. If he produces enough to earn a meaningful role moving forward, he's a veteran. If he doesn't earn a consistent and meaningful role, he's a bust. 

There are variations to this explanation:

  • If a player earns a meaningful role as a rookie and doesn't at least sustain an expected level of production the following year, he's a bust.  
  • If a player doesn't see any playing time early on, he's a bust.
  • If a player gets cut by numerous teams, he's a bust.
Just like many follies common to humanity, the best lies we tell ourselves have some compelling grain of truth. Football media wants you to focus on rookies. It's the most lucrative and compelling part of the offseason news cycle.
It feeds our curiosity for the new and unknown, and the process of new players vying for a spot in the league is a five-month-long advertising campaign for the NFL. What are most people likely to consume, stories about Courtland Sutton as potentially the next Brandon Marshall or Ryan Switzer spending three hours a day, five days a week with Wes Welker during the offseason?
Most fantasy owners already think about talent development, but view it with a scope that's too limited. Yes, a rookie's production will help determine his value moving forward. However, don't write off young talent too early. 
It doesn't mean clogging up roster space with players who haven't emerged. It means developing greater patience and perspective. Keep an open mind that the development process for a young talent is anything but a conveyer belt.
Consume football media over the next 5-7 months and you'll hear different. However, it's my experience that many writers and analysts discussing young talent often revert to a state of infancy. 
They only see the surface of things or develop magical thinking that somehow explain the riddles of the universe. In reality, most conclusive statements made about players with less than three years of experience should be seen for what it is — regurgitation.
While most regurgitation isn't intentional, I still recommend a packet of wipes to clean up after watching the football media drool or vomit on the careers of young players. I'm among the guilty. As careful as I often am to avoid spitting up on you with my written work, I've gotten carried away in the moment on video where entertainment has taken precedence over analysis.
Regardless of the former NFL player, coach, GM, or analyst is saying, keep an open mind that a player's career remains in development beyond his first season. It will reduce unnecessary biases you'll have against them. 

2. be open to the exceptional

Sixth-round pick Antonio Brown was a walk-on a Central Michigan. Keenan Allen ran a 4.71-second 40-yard dash. Adam Thielen was an undrafted free agent from a local college in Minnesota. Dion Lewis bounced around the league with the Eagles, Browns, and Colts before his career took off.

Whether it's physically, intellectually, technically, or emotionally, the best football players are exceptional. Although the NFL Draft is filled with exceptional individuals, don't mistake it for an exercise that's open to the exceptional. 

I've read arguments that the way the NFL Draft picks players is a good gauge of talent. The point is based on the number of players that start and/or star based on the round their chosen. It sounds good on the surface, but it doesn't factor a significant bias that exists in the NFL: the lack of open competition for playing time. 

Talent is only one of several factors involved with the reasons that a team chooses a player in a specific around. Did you know that one wide receiver will often have grades that vary from second round to seventh round, depending on the team? 

Fit with a team's system is often a massive factor. So are athletic testing, college production, college attended, and off-field behavior.

The draft is about talent and risk-assessment. It's similar to any hiring process. The highest draft picks often have the combination of greatest talent at the lowest risk. 

It became interested in writing about football because I read one of Gil Brandt's mock drafts on and he wrote about Brian Westbrook's height and weight costing him a shot at earning a top-5 overall pick. Brandt and other NFL types recognized Westbrook's talent, but he fell to the second round. 

Is it because he wasn't talented enough to be a first-round pick? Of course not. A former president of the Dallas Cowboys with years of football scouting experience and innovation deemed Westbrook a top-5 talent in this draft.

The issues were related to investing top-pick money in a player with heightened risks: a small school background (Villanova), two ACL tears, and lack of prototypical height and weight. Injuries are viable performance-related risks. With some exceptions, a lack of prototypical physical dimensions and small-school background are perception-related risks. 

NFL teams care about how they appear because public opinion can shape the views of owners. They have to care about sales and public relations. Many of them stink at it, but it doesn't mean they don't care about it. 

The responsibilities that NFL front offices have when it comes to managing public opinion shape a team's draft decisions for better or worse. Which is a bigger indication of incompetence to the public, selecting an SEC record-breaking running back with all the physical desirables and no major injury history in the first round who busts or that failure being an undersized back from Villanova with a pair of ACL tears and taken in the top five overall?   

Westbrook's potential top-five talent got him in the upper half of the draft despite the potential risks of failure for the player (injuries) and the team's public perception (highly valuing an undersized, small-school back). It was Westbrook's performance in workouts and strong performance in the Senior Bowl (impressing Senior Bowl and Eagles Head Coach Andy Reid) that mitigated enough of the risk for Philadelphia to take him in the second round. 

It also probably helped that Westbrook earned a scholarship to Florida State as a top recruit before the school rescinded the offer when he slipped on black ice and tore his ACL. In fact, Westbrook's second ACL tear occurred while playing a pick-up game of basketball. 

A deeper look into Westbrook revealed a back whose physical dimensions didn't prevent Florida State from wanting him and fluke injuries off the field didn't stop Westbrook from becoming an exceptional producer. Westbrook became a Pro-Bowl back. 

However, Westbrook only fell to the second round. What if he had sprained his at the end of his career at Villanova and had to turn down the Senior Bowl? What if that missed opportunity cost him three rounds in the draft because no NFL head coach would have been impressed with Westbrook's play against top college stars during a week of practice?

The likely answer is that Westbrook would have been a late-round pick with a minimal number of opportunities for practice reps. Because the draft is based on talent and risk assessment, the highest-priced contracts usually earn the most opportunities in camp. 

Management wants to give these players the most opportunities to succeed, which also means they get to fail more often, too. Conversely, late-round picks and free agents may earn 1-3 reps per practice to impress a coach or teammate. If they struggle with one of those reps, there's a weightier negative perception of them than an early-round pick who earns 8-12 reps per practice and struggles twice as much in a similar scenario.   

Think about Dion Lewis, Spencer Ware, and Alex Collins and how few opportunities they earned with their first teams. In contrast, think about how many chances Devin Funchess and Nelson Agholor earned because they were early-round picks?  It doesn't mean Agholor and Funchess lack talent, but it does mean they earned more chances to succeed and punished less for their initial struggles. 

Ryan Riddle's The Hidden Advantage of Being a High NFL Draft Pick is a valuable read on this subject and underscores how the risk-management aspects of draft round lead to biases against open competition.

Economics is good for most people, but not the individual. The best players often change the game and turn what was once considered exceptional into a desirable rule. It's just another reason why you shouldn't write off players too early — even if they aren't desirable to draft or keep on your rosters. 

3. maintain a balanced perspective about pre-draft events 

When it comes to college all-star games, the combine, and pro days, the media and public can try to rationalize magical thinking with false correlations that look flashy but lack substance. Readers and viewers of this content can develop deeply ingrained narratives that lead them astray — not only with the player in question but future outlooks on prospects. 

You're going to read that Kareem Hunt's showing at the Senior Bowl was the reason we should have known he'd be good. However, it won't mention that Spencer Ware—the superior blocker and receiver with lead-leading YAC production — was lost for the year and the Chiefs had to tweak its offense so it could use Hunt but minimize his liability as a pass protector. 

It doesn't mean Hunt is a fraud, it means that the talent development process is incomplete. Hunt performed well as a runner for half of the year. Line play was a variable that helped and hurt him at various points. He'll be valued as a starter in 2018 based on his 2017 performance, the variability of his projected future is greater than many his rookie peers less production this year. 

Hunt displayed quickness, balance, and vision at the Senior Bowl game. Jamaal Williams displayed these skills and potential as a pass protector during practices. 

A player's tape says the most about his technical development, in-game decision-making, role in an offense, and his approach to physical play. A player's work at all-star practices can potentially complement his tape in these areas.

Marvin Jones Jr was a deep threat at Cal during his sophomore year, but the Bears moved him to a possession role as a junior and senior. He was known as a possession guy when he arrived at the Senior Bowl because most people only studied his last two seasons at Cal.

Jones was the most productive and consistent vertical threat in practice sessions against a class of cornerbacks that most considered a strong group of man-to-man players. Even if I hadn't seen his sophomore tape, Jones' performance in Mobile stood out enough that I would have had to account for his practices as an additional strength to his overall scouting report. 

Because I had seen his tape, his practices cemented what I saw prior. It was why I was higher on Jones than most. 

At the same time, it's important to learn which events have the most and least practical implications. Jones and Cooper Kupp dominating press coverage drills and man coverage in scrimmage reps have more practical value than pass protection drills for running backs. The former requires similar conceptual, physical, and technical skills as a game.

The latter focuses so much on a specific technique that it eliminates practical in-game scenarios that often make or break a pass pro assignment. Even so, we'll see media analysts conclude that the player is a good pass protector without referencing his past game tape and only basing it on limited drills. 

Combine coverage often focuses on bigger, faster, quicker, and stronger is better. It is the job of hosts and production staff to create eye-catching visuals and attention-getting lead-ins that grab attention early. Usually, this means focusing on the simplistic while knowing that the public will often forget the details that the analysts provide in supporting conversation.

Instead of looking for the best at each category, look for the players with at least "passable" combine metrics, learn about their college roles and the physical demands of that role (for example, slot receivers require more acceleration and stop-start quickness than long speed) and pair those outcomes with their projected role. If a player is below standard in one area, do other areas compensate? Does it match the way he's succeeding on the field? 

I'll break down the drills and events that I value most and least at all-star games at my Rookie Scouting Portfolio site as well as onsite practice coverage of the Senior Bowl in January.