Going Deep: Contrarian Strategies to Give You an Edge in 2018

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The final weeks of preseason are behind us and for many, that means the height of fantasy draft season and a fresh start for 2018. By now most fantasy players have a solid knowledge of 2018 player rankings and have formulated their own opinions of the players they will be targeting either during the draft or on the waiver wire.   If you have done your research, you should feel like you have a firm grasp of what to expect from the 2018 season. Seems like the perfect time to question all of those expectations and explore alternative fantasy strategy.

Today I want to discuss contrarian strategies, which attempt to identify and then go against mainstream trends in order to gain value.

I was first introduced to the potential value of contrarian thinking while playing poker in Atlantic City, truthfully not the place you normally expect to gain fantasy insight. If you play poker you know that there are common strategies to maximize your odds of winning (which cards to play and when to play them, how much to bet and when to bet, etc.). On this particular night, I watched as another player won hand after hand while seemingly breaking all of the ‘best’ poker rules. At first, you could chalk this up to beginner’s luck, but after a few hours of sustained success, he revealed that he knew how unconventional he was playing. He knew the common strategies, but also knew that everyone else at the table would likely be playing by those same set of rules.  His point, and the point of playing the contrarian, is that if you know what everyone else is thinking and they don’t know what you’re thinking you can gain an advantage.

A few points about contrarian strategy

  • The most important key to success is having a firm grasp on common mainstream thinking. You can’t understand potential contrarian value if you don’t know what your contradicting.
  • Everything in moderation. If you try to make every pick or decision throughout the year simply to be contrarian, things will not end well.   The contrarian is simply trying to identify values based on others perception in select situations.
  • Using contrarian strategy works best when you know the other participants in your league and their perceptions. It also assumes that the other players in your league have done research and are aware of mainstream trends. If you’re in a league where no one has ever played fantasy or does zero research, your best bet will be to follow mainstream thinking.
  • Contrarian strategy does not mean ignoring rankings. Sure, picking a kicker in the first round is contrarian.  Also, don’t do that.
  • The best fantasy strategy still incorporates player tiers and is flexible based on how the draft plays out. A contrarian mindset is just another tool to use to help give you the edge.

The reemergence of the Zero RB strategy

Perhaps the most well-known contrarian strategy is Zero RB. Around 2013, at a time when running backs dominated the early rounds of drafts, a simple idea emerged: ignore RBs who are often injured or straight busts in favor of elite (and often safer) WRs and TEs. A few years ago the combination of increased PPR leagues and running back committees in real life led to the Zero RB strategy peaking in popularity (WR were the consensus top 3 picks in 2016). Of course, by that time passing on early RB for WR was less contrarian and likely less valuable. In contrast, the zero RB strategy has fallen out of favor in 2018. There is a reemergence of RB heavy drafting, with the top 4 consensus picks and 11 of the top 15 all being RBs. Does it feel like blasphemy to take Antonio Brown with the first pick this year? What about taking a WR with your first 3 picks? It certainly would be going against popular opinion, but ask yourself why top WRs are ranked lower this year vs. 2016. If you find yourself in a draft where taking the best player available means drafting multiple WRs in the first few rounds, don’t be afraid to pull the trigger.

QB Controversy: The value of drafting QBs early in 2018

Now we come to the real heart of the article and what is, in my humble opinion, the best contrarian play of the 2018 season. One of the most agreed upon facts going into this year is that the quarterback position is deeper than ever and you can wait to draft one until the later rounds. I get it; a league-wide offensive resurgence, favorable rules, talented young players, and schemes that enhance QB play (RPO, 11 personnel) have all combined to elevate the position. This has lowered QB value in both snake and auction leagues. Here is a list of the top twenty Quarterbacks and average draft round according to ESPN…

QB

Round

QB

Round

Aaron Rodgers

3

Ben Roethlisberger

10

Deshaun Watson

4

Jimmy Garoppolo

10

Tom Brady

5

Matt Ryan

11

Russell Wilson

5

Philip Rivers

11

Cam Newton

6

Jared Goff

11

Drew Brees

7

Patrick Mahomes

12

Carson Wentz

8

Dak Prescott

14

Kirk Cousins

9

Alex Smith

14

Andrew Luck

9

Marcus Mariota

14

Matthew Stafford

10

Derek Carr

14

At first glance, there is great value to be had in the lower rounds. However, ask yourself the likelihood that those same value QBs end the season in the top 5 at the position? Sure guys like Mahomes could become great, but is that more likely than Rodgers, Brees, or Brady? Put another way, what is the chance that guys like Rodgers, Brees, or Brady are busts as compared to the guys lower on the list? As we discussed above, one of the reasons the Zero RB strategy works is because WRs are inherently less risky than RBs. I think the same can be said for the top QBs this year.

Here are some values from an auction draft I recently participated in….

QBs: Brees 13, Watson 17, Brady 19, Cousins 9

WRs: Robert Woods 12, Robby Anderson 13, Marquise Goodwin 25

Clearly, something is not adding up…..WR values were inflated and QB values were suppressed. Most people in the league knew that QB was deep and were unwilling to spend money at the position. That did result in a lot of good deals (Brees for $13!), however, if you had gone into the draft aware of this perception you could have gone after Brees or Brady and easily have outbid the competition. To take it a step further, you could have drafted multiple top QBs like Brady, Brees, and Cousins for the same price as a WR like Golden Tate. I guarantee that at some point during the season there will be QB hungry teams who tried to save money on draft day and will be willing to make a trade. So by targeting QBs earlier and more aggressively this year, you can not only end up with a top player at the position but also likely gain much more value than if you were to target mid-round WRs. Similarly, in a snake draft, you could draft Brees and Brady for a 5th and 7th round pick (or less if they fall) and then turn one around for likely more value than the WR or RB you otherwise would have taken. Maybe you’re skeptical? It wouldn’t be a contrarian move if you weren’t.

Contrarian thinking can also be applied to individual players

In addition to general strategy, we can also apply the contrarian mindset to gain an edge in evaluating individual players. The goal here is to identify majority opinions about players that can raise or lower their value. Certainly, there is no shortage of articles examining potential sleepers, busts, overvalued players, and undervalued players. The key for the contrarian is to identify those players that are identified repeatedly and fade the popular rhetoric. Knowing popular opinions can give you the edge, helping to maximize your roster value at the expense of your opponents.

Let’s use Dion Lewis as an example. He is a popular upside pick this year that has been featured in a number of undervalued/sleeper articles. The narrative makes sense. He was productive when healthy last year, is one of the most elusive RBs in the league and is moving to a run heavy team with Matt LaFleur’s scheme (Ram’s 2017 offensive coordinator). That makes his current draft value (60) seem great. Here’s the thing… anyone doing fantasy research knows about his upside. This can make people want to have him on their team and more willing to overpay. It also likely lowers the overall value of Derrick Henry.

Opinions will constantly evolve as the preseason and season continue. The hope is that by identifying these trends you can maximize your draft, waiver wire pickups, or trades. Remember, the more everyone else agrees, the better chance you can disagree and profit.

Mike Oropallo

Scientist by day, sports fanatic by night. My goal is to use advanced analytics to better understand the sport and get an edge in fantasy.

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Comments


GoBirds

Interesting… become an expert in common knowledge and mainstream trends so you know how to how to contradict and innovate. Oh.. the life we must live to resist the temptation and abstain from RB’s completely.. and be successful. The question is.. does it work? I’d rather fall in line and play the odds.

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