What is the Right Amount of Risk to Absorb on Draft Day? (Fantasy Football)
The reality of the NFL is that the average career last only about 3.5 seasons, and a first-round pick usually plays only seven years in the league. Most of the fantasy players that are on your roster in dynasty and keeper leagues will be rostered for only a few seasons. Players that appear destined for stardom early in their career can flame out quickly due to injuries, coaching/system changes, or declining skills. For every sleeper that surprises NFL general managers and dominates football for a decade, there are ten times as many such players that never pan out.
The key to being good year after year in your keeper and dynasty fantasy leagues is understanding the risks involved with different types of players and managing that risk in the draft selection process. You need to have a more forward thinking approach, similar to an NFL front office. Let’s go through the risk that comes with picking players and how you can manage those risks to maximize your fantasy draft value.
Evaluate Injury Risks
Freak injuries can happen to anyone on any play, and there is no way to predict that type of injury. That does not change the fact that older players are more risky than younger players when it comes to injury issues and you need to take that into account. You can find a ton of articles about this on the web if you want to research it more.
Quarterbacks have the longest shelf life, and it has not been uncommon in recent years to see 38-40 year old quarterbacks still dominating fantasy football. You need to start worrying about wide receivers when they hit 32-years old, and they are usually done when they are 35-years old. Running backs have the shortest shelf life. You need to start worrying about them around 28-years old, and they start to decline around 30-years old, especially if they have 2,000 carries or more.
Not every backup behind an aging superstar is going to be a good player, but the only way to score fantasy points is to be on the field, and aging superstars in decline create opportunities for their younger backups if they suffer an injury or decline in play. Going with those players helps put the odds in your favor of converting on those sleeper picks.
Look at NFL Contracts to Identify Sleepers
I think a great example of that this year is running back Le’Veon Bell. Some people will think this is a great place to find a 2020 sleeper because Bell disappointed with only 1,250 yards from scrimmage, 4.0 yards per touch, and four total touchdowns in 2019. The Jets would love to upgrade that position, so a place to look for a sleeper could be the New York Jets backup running back.
The contract tells a different story. Bell makes too much money to cut in 2020. The Jets can easily move on in 2021 without the disastrous cap consequences they would suffer if they let go of him this year. The contract says that he is going to be the featured running back and the Jets have too many holes to fill to make a huge splash in free agency or the NFL Draft on a running back when Bell is commanding that salary. The NFL is a business, and you have to take the business of football into account when making your projections. Seeking young players playing behind a suspect veteran is great, but some contracts force teams to stay committed to certain players for longer, and that should factor into your sleeper decisions.
Coaching and Quarterback Stability Limits Sleeper Potential
Let’s take a team with a lot of stability at head coach — the New Orleans Saints. Head coach Sean Payton is not going anywhere. He has been there since 2006 and is under contract until 2023. He won a Super Bowl there back in 2009, and his team has been in the playoffs every season since 2017. Quarterback Drew Brees is going to run that system as long as he can play there. Payton is not going to abandon Brees because of a bad game or two or because someone has a good stretch of games. Even last year, when backup QB Teddy Bridgewater went (5-0) as the starter after a Brees injury, the team went back to Brees when he was healthy. Stable teams have established players in place, and established players on good teams tend to keep their jobs.
Compare that to the New York Giants. That team had eight wins in two prior campaigns heading into the 2019 season. Head coach Pat Shurmur was on the hot seat after a bad first season, and starting quarterback Eli Manning was on the hot seat for several poor prior seasons. Quarterback Daniel Jones was new to the roster and was the sixth pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Was it any wonder that Jones was starting by Week 3 when Shurmur needed to throw something at the wall to save his job after an (0-2) start to the season? In the end it did not work. He was fired at the end of the season, but he had no chance to save his job staying with Manning.
The less stability there is in an organization, the more likely that organization is going to throw things at the wall with young unproven players in a last-ditch effort to save the season. That leads to sleepers that had very good seasons, such as Jones. He was a new quarterback and he developed chemistry with wide receiver Darius Slayton, who ended up being another sleeper. That does not mean that there is no appeal to backups or young unproven players on good teams. A player like Brees can elevate a young player that would not be as good in another system with a lesser quarterback. However, nothing creates a chance for unproven players to play like a head coach trying to save his job or a new quarterback that has chemistry with different players than the former starting quarterback.
How to Manage the Risk
Stay Safe on Early Picks
You do not need to hit home runs on all your early picks, but you have to make those picks count, and it is too hard to do that if you are taking sleeper picks in those spots. Any team that I have owned that is a disaster is usually the result of not hitting those early picks correctly. Take the best and safest players in those spots and try to build a foundation that will allow you to compete for a league title. It is harder to do that in a dynasty league, because other teams are probably keeping the best players. You have to make these picks count with the safe players that other teams could not protect or the elite NFL Draft Picks that were taken in high rounds and landed in good situations to play immediately.
Sleepers are for Rounds 7 – 11, Super Sleepers are for the End of the Draft
Once you have that foundation, you have more freedom to take some chances and roll the dice. I tend to start taking some calculated risks on sleepers around Round 7, but it could be earlier than that depending on how many keepers your keeper or dynasty league allows you to keep. The later the round, the more acceptable the risk. The waiver wire is what allows you to recover from misses in the fantasy draft and it is easier to cut players that were selected later in the draft than earlier in the draft.
Look for Sleeper Wide Receivers with Hall of Fame Quarterbacks
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman is going to have a much easier time expanding his role with the Chiefs in his second year playing with quarterback Patrick Mahomes than Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Parris Campbell is going to have with the quarterback questions in Indianapolis. If you want to take a chance on unproven wide receivers, it is best to look for wide receivers catching passes from elite quarterbacks.
Look for Young Running Backs that Play Behind Older Running Backs that are in Decline
Baltimore is a good place to look, RB Mark Ingram II turns 31-years old in December this year, and if he were to go down with injury, a backup running back in Baltimore would become an instant fantasy option playing in that offense. That could open the door for a player like Gus Edwards, who had some success in the 2018 season.