Fantasy football draft prep: Breaking biases

Fantasy football draft prep: Breaking biases

Draft Strategy

Fantasy football draft prep: Breaking biases

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All too often, advanced fantasy football gamers included, owners allow the past to dictate future draft plans through cognitive biases. Even full-time fantasy players need to remember from time to time that the game changes year over year and requires a press of the reset button.

In a sport where 11 constantly moving chess pieces work in harmony against a matching defense trying to stifle any plans of a checkmate, all it takes is a small change to make a huge difference.

I’ve written a number of times about expectations and how we perceive players based on what we think they will do on the field, whether it be weekly or annually. All it takes is being slightly wrong in our view of a situation to see those projections fall apart. We cannot control injuries, and life throws extenuating circumstances into the mix, but recognizing our own biases about teams and players absolutely can be controlled.

Objectivity is arguably the most important element in creating a fantasy championship. Luck always factors in, and remaining on top of the news is thoroughly important, as well. Just as being armed with a reliable set of rankings is pivotal, checking emotions and individual experiences at the door is also paramount. A mental checklist of “dos and don’ts” should be on everyone’s brain as they prepare for a draft and evaluate talent.

(Reinhold Matay, USA TODAY Sports)

What have you done for me lately?

Recency bias is a real thing. Fantasy owners get hung up on how well or poorly a player has done in relation to past ownership. We all have heard someone explain they chose a player because of familiarity and past success of rostering said player.

Some players are insanely consistent and productive, such as Antonio Brown. You know what you’ll get in most any situation. Fantasy owners fall in love with successes of the past and unfairly avoid players with whom they have had negative experiences for nothing more than the memory of an outcome.

In Brown’s case, his past success will support him in 2019 drafts, even though he’s on a new team and everything outside of his control has changed. An example in the other direction would be Todd Gurley. He struggled with an arthritic knee down the stretch last season and killed gamers in crunch time. Now, he’s falling well into the second round despite having one of the strongest 14-game stretches of anyone in recent memory. Sure, risk mitigation is at play, but there can be a fine line between avoiding pitfalls and creating your own.

It reminds of the friend who won’t go to a specific restaurant because one time they had a bad meal. There are a million conceivable reasons why the meal wasn’t up to their liking, but applying a blanket rule based on one experience deprives the chance of redemption and satisfaction. Think about all of the instances in your life where something pleasantly surprised you after a sour experience. It is mainly due to you letting go of cognitive biases based on past results.

In fantasy, so many changes year over year must be factored into player valuation. A change in coaching staff, surrounding personnel, player health, refocused dedication, off-the-field lifestyle changes … you name it. A few examples of players in these situations stand out this year.

Leonard Fournette comes to mind. He was an unmitigated fantasy disaster in 2018 and continued to battle with the organization into this calendar year. His quarterback situation was horrendous, and the offensive line was decimated by injuries — even the reserves were dropping like flies. This year, a new quarterback, a better offensive system, and an upgraded line should do wonders. For a consensus top-eight running back in 2018 drafts, he’s now going as RB15 and is in a decidedly better situation. Use the biases of others to your advantage.

LeSean McCoy is coming off of his worst pro season. Age is working against him, and the Bills stockpiled running backs in the offseason. It’s easy to fall in to this trap. Once a fantasy stud, Shady is going in Round 9, on average, and has been written off. This is not to say he’ll have a career resurgence for the record books, but a better line, the maturation of his now second-year quarterback, an improved receiving corps to alleviate pressure, and a healthy McCoy all work in his favor.

Jimmy Graham is another dude to look at through a different lens. He entered an offense last season that didn’t cater to tight ends, and he scored just two touchdowns. So many people automatically inflated his value based on Aaron Rodgers and were burned. However, if you look at Graham’s numbers outside of the two measly scores, he was a TE1. Now the offense has a new direction, one that emphasizes the position, and the Packers won’t be as rigid with game script. Will Graham return to his eye-popping ways? No. Will he be better than TE13? Almost guaranteed.

(Stew Milne, USA TODAY Sports)

Homer vs. anti-homer

No one should be a homer, and no one should excuse this foolish sabotage. Doh! There often is an argument against fantasy sports that it removes fandom and promotes individuals over teams. It does, and all who play the game should embrace it!

No where in your league rules does it state having a player on your favorite team is rewarded with fantasy points, and if you’re using homerism as an excuse to pay closer attention to your team, it’s time to find a new hobby. This includes you, Mr. “I always draft my team’s kicker or defense because it’s just a kicker or defense” guy. Wasted points are wasted points.

The “anti-homer” is the person who refuses to draft anyone from a rival of their preferred NFL team. Ever meet the Green Bay Packers fan who never drafts anyone from the Chicago Bears or Minnesota Vikings? (Sorry, Detroit Lions fans, in Titletown that feeling is sympathy, not hatred.)

The unwillingness to roster players from an arch enemy is as bonkers as drafting players from your favorite squad for no other reason than they for said opponent. Every single player worthy of fantasy inclusion warrants consideration in a draft. No one is totally off-limits at the right price … sometimes drafts don’t last long enough for the price to be right, however.

(Ken Blaze, USA TODAY Sports)

But they’re the <insert team here>

Cleveland Browns. Admit it … you were thinking the same thing out of habit. Let’s go with the Miami Dolphins this year.

Ever meet someone who is stuck in the past with all of their stories? After a while, you’ve heard … every … single … story … they have to tell. They aren’t bad people, but they have no forward gears in their transmission. Only neutral and reverse — and mostly the latter.

In fantasy terms, neutral is the present time, but without the ability to go forward, coupled with a penchant for looking backward, it becomes extremely difficult to see the “what could be” of any scenario. Apply this to perennial losers, or even teams that have fallen on hard times. It becomes far too easy for gamers to become dismissive of the mere potential a team or player could turn things around at the drop of a hat after years of substandard returns.

Case in point: Last year, we saw the Browns return to relevance in fantasy and give it a nudge in the real game. Firing Hue Jackson led to a cascading effect that unleashed the potential of a roster brimming with individual talent but no guidance. This year, we’re looking at a potential massive leap forward, albeit with crazy expectations to overcome for a team not used to being out of the cellar. Did you miss out on fantasy points from the Browns because of what the team had looked like in the past? Pat on the back time: In this very space last year, you were warned to treat the 2018 Browns with some respect.

The same concept should be applied to the Chicago Bears. Defensive mastermind Vic Fangio is gone. Don’t automatically assume this defense will be the top dog once again — look at the Jags last year. In Chicago’s case, scoring six defensive touchdowns and picking off 27 passes will be extremely tough to replicate. This defense should be good, but elite may be out of its grasp.

(Orlando Ramirez, USA TODAY Sports)

Those pesky labels

Use social media long enough and eventually you probably will be labeled something you are not. It’s an unofficial fact of life in 2019, and it also applies to fantasy sports. Players with injury history or off-field issues draw a label and generally cannot escape it. The thing is, though, most players do graduate beyond the genesis of the label.

Think back to Matthew Stafford’s third year in the NFL. He played only 13 contests in the prior to season and was widely called injury prone — even a bust. Gamers stuck on that label probably passed him by in 2011 drafts, and he went on to throw 5,038 yards and 41 scores.

This list goes on. Keenan Allen is a recent example of a player finally staying healthy and living up to his potential. Is his teammate Hunter Henry going to follow in Allen’s footsteps? How about Will Fuller? Marlon Mack? The list goes on and on. Julio Jones’ history of not scoring touchdowns has earned him a reputation. On the other side of the coin, David Johnson has one great NFL season and is routinely treated as fantasy royalty.

You hopefully get the point. As simplistic as it is, someone is perceived as something until they are not.

Accountability is the key

Be objective. Be honest with yourself. Admit error.

The main lesson is to adopt a healthy skepticism and challenge the opinions you have formulated. Question if your belief is founded in fact over opinion.

Be willing to understand your notion of a player can be misguided, and allow their change of circumstances to prove you wrong.

For as cliche and unprofound as it sounds, every fantasy owner can use the reminder that all good — and bad — things come to an end, one way or another.

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