Tip Drill: Eight Mistakes Fantasy Owners Make

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Scott Pianowski
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Out of nowhere, Tim Hightower decided a bunch of fantasy titles last year (AP)
Out of nowhere, Tim Hightower decided a bunch of fantasy titles last year (AP)

Fantasy mistakes, I’ve made a few. If you’ll allow me the courtesy, I’d like to frame it all under “experience.”

Below I’ll talk about eight fantasy themes I’ve learned through the years, a collection of notes that cover the 22 years I’ve played fantasy football. I’ll start with the more rudimentary concepts, then shift to subtler ideas. I’m all ears for your thoughts, pics and pans; catch me on Twitter: @scott_pianowski. Let’s try to solve this puzzle together.

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101-Level Mistake — An Inflexible Draft Plan

It’s wonderful that you have a draft blueprint ahead of time. By all means, mock and mock and mock draft some more. Join side leagues, low-maintenance leagues, best-ball leagues. Talk football on the Internet. Do everything that gets you ready for your primary league and auction.

But whatever plans you do write down — make sure they’re in pencil. Don’t lock yourself in. Don’t become so focused on your expected path that you miss gold at your feet.

Every draft is going to have unusual flow to it — and that probably goes tenfold for an auction. You want to be prepared to react to surprise opportunities that pop up. As much as I’ll anticipate upcoming decisions in a draft, I refuse to make those final calls until I see what the game situation actually is. Anticipating the market is important; reacting to the actual market is what the game is.

101-Level Mistake — Mishandling September’s Waiver Wire

This is probably going to sound contradictory, but the two worst things you can do with your early roster is hold on too tight and hold on too loosely.

The lowest-upside players I take on draft day are always considered fungible commodities as new opportunities arise on the waiver wire. Think of it as the Monty Hall Problem — once we have additional information, it’s often beneficial to make a change, if offered. And if you click on a surprise player in September, it can often turn into a player who helps you for the balance of the season, the maximum windfall.

On the flip side, your primary draft choices from the summer probably deserve a longer leash. Unless a major injury or role change is at play, I’m going to give my primary core a longer time to get going. Don’t flush your fourth-round receiver or your starting tight end merely because he disappeared for two weeks. Variance is all around the NFL, and on the higher end of your roster, patience is essential.

101-Level Mistake Subletting the GM Chair

There’s an expansive world of fantasy analysis on the Internet. I consider the ideas and scouting opinions of many people; learn new stuff every day. But at the end of it all, there’s only one fully satisfying way to play — I make my own final decisions. I encourage you to do the same. When you own your final decisions, your wins will be sweeter — you were the GM pulling the trigger on every key choice.

And one other word about those choices you’re making — try to avoid locking in on any start/sit decision until the last reasonable moment. You want maximum information before commitment. It’s reasonable to sketch out a starting lineup early in the week, but we need full practice reports and final Sunday check-ins before we can make our best selections.

201-Level Mistake — Being a Talent Snob

Like most sports fans, I’m a sucker for talent. And like most fantasy owners, I want my players to be bigger, faster, stronger. Athleticism is good.

But when we’re trying to solve the fantasy puzzle, and specifically the fantasy football puzzle, we have to accept how critical role and opportunity are to any player. As crazy as this might seem, role and opportunity probably trump talent at the end of the day (though it sure is nice to have all three when you can).

Tim Hightower was completely out of football for three years, forgotten by all; but late in 2015, he was the lynchpin to many fantasy championships. All due respect to Hightower, his surge at the end of last year underscored how valuable touches are in a New Orleans offense.

For several years, Doug Baldwin was considered one of those ordinary, “just a guy” receivers. When his opportunity (and the Seattle offense) changed in second half of 2015, pinball numbers went on the board. Examples like Baldwin and Hightower aren’t extremely common, but we nonetheless have to stay open-minded to what’s possible when a team starts prioritizing a player, no matter what we previously thought of the player.

We also have to remember that player ability and value are fluid things; the stocks are constantly fluctuating for any number of reasons. Improvement happens. Bodies break down sometimes. Some players mix better with this scheme, or that coach, or a new personnel grouping.

With odds, there is truth (AP)
With odds, there is truth (AP)

201-Level Mistake Not Appreciating Handicapping as Part of Fantasy Process

A key of the fantasy challenge is projecting how each individual NFL team wants to play, what players it prefers, what scheme it runs, what tendencies it shows. But we also have to consider what teams are likely to do every week, specifically tied to the opponent at hand.

The first thing I consider when analyzing any NFL week is the Vegas point spreads. A starting running back on a heavily-favored team is likely to see a positive game script and use in all four quarters; conversely, the back on the other team could be marginalized if he’s not a factor in the passing game. If I can avoid it, I’ll never use a team defense or a kicker from a team expected to lose — at those positions, it’s critical to understand how leverage correlates to production (hat tip, Chris Raybon).

Before we have a read on what players might do for the upcoming Sunday, we have to take an intelligent stab at how their teams might do.

201-Level Mistake Being Afraid of Choices

If you ever found yourself anxious over a dinner or movie choice, you’re not alone. The Paradox of Choice is a real thing in today’s society — the idea that having too many options will often bring stress to the decision-maker. Fantasy owners can relate, what with all the waiver, trade, and start/sit questions that come with an oncoming season. There’s always a fork in the road.

That said, don’t forget that choices are a good thing. I don’t want to eat chicken every day, or drink wine with every meal. Sometimes I want a deep character study, sometimes a light-hearted comedy. Variety is a welcome thing, be it for entertainment or fantasy utility.

If you have an uncommonly deep roster and it’s spinning your mind weekly, fret not. Sooner or later, injuries will likely change the complexion of your roster, so it’s a good thing you have that depth. Maybe you can move two or three good players for a game-changing superstar. Perhaps your depth will allow you to attack some juicy matchups and avoid some daunting ones, week to week. Leverage is a good thing. Options are a good thing. Say yes to choice.

Graduate Mistake A Week Late On Waiver Wire

The fantasy football waiver wire is a self-fertilized lawn. We collectively cut the grass every week and things sure look tidy and neat, but the grass is always growing back. The wire is constantly restocking itself.

Sometimes we’ll be forced to chase after a breakthrough player who just posted a huge week, and that’s okay — sometimes it’s unavoidable. Often it’s the right thing to do. But those players routinely cost us heavy chunks of FAAB, and/or waiver priority. The ideal play is to be a week early on those breakouts, a little ahead of the curve.

The bottom of your roster should regularly be in flux, looking for lottery tickets who are one simple event away from a major value shift. Many times we’ll be forced to be reactive on the waiver wire (costing chunks of resources), but if we can be proactive on the waiver wire, we’ll get a lot more bang for our buck. Ask yourself this weekly question — what unowned players have the simplest and most plausible upside?

Graduate Mistake Looking Too Far Into Future

More than any other major sports league, the NFL is a snow globe. It’s a reshuffle league. Did you foresee the Panthers going 15-1 last year? The Ravens bottoming out? Blake Bortles becoming a fantasy stud while Peyton Manning torpedoed teams? Every NFL season will have a host of surprising breakouts, shocking failures, injury variance, and unexpected peaks and valleys. You already know all this.

With that theme in mind, I’m not someone who looks towards the fantasy playoff schedule, months in advance. Oh, if you want to consider Playoff Strength of Schedule as a very low tie-breaker, I could sign off on that. But it’s never going to be a primary factor in my process. Too many good teams will go bad; bad teams will get good; and of course, a truckload of players will get hurt between now and then.

It’s a fool’s errand to look too far ahead. I’ll play this game with a magnifying glass, not a telescope. There’s a time where the playoff schedule does matter to me, but it’s not in the summertime. Catch me in November.

This could be a bottomless article if we wanted it to be. What’s your favorite fantasy mistake? Being unaware of the settings? Overrating handcuffs? Listening to a Yahoo fantasy scribe? The floor is all yours.