What I Learned In 2018

Ryan Heath reflects on the fantasy football phenomena he's observed this season and on his own analysis

(Photo by Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire)

At the end of each fantasy season, I like to look back at my takes and evaluations in hopes of discovering lessons that can improve my process in the future. Here’s a short list of some of the lessons I learned in 2018.


Positional Value Matters


It was pretty commonly observed over the summer that the RB position was great at the top, but dropped off considerably at the end of the first round. The fringe first-round RBs like Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook disappointed, while Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, and Davante Adams all smashed. Workhorse RBs with receiving capability (emphasis on receiving capability) are more valuable than these players, but defaulting to the alpha wide receiver was the right move as soon as the players with any questions about their workloads were being considered.


Wide receiver scoring was up this year overall, but given the rule changes that have kept starting QBs healthier relative to 2017, I don’t think that trend is likely to go away. With how much more entertaining the NFL has been this year, I doubt the league will be looking to move backward on this.


Moving down the board, we see a myriad of third and fourth round RB busts, from Derrick Henry to Alex Collins to Royce Freeman. There’s some commonality between each of these players. First of all, I will not be drafting any running back that hasn’t demonstrated pass-catching ability in the first four rounds next year, which would disqualify both Henry and Collins. Collins was a marginal talent that had never produced much of anything at the NFL level until the second half of 2017 – this isn’t just hindsight bias, as I and plenty of others were saying it this summer. In redraft, we often emphasize projected volume, which is why Collins and Freeman were being drafted where they were. Every year, most of these guys bust.


Outside of running backs drafted in the top 10 of the NFL draft, I’m done drafting players that have no proven success at the NFL level in the first four rounds based solely on potential volume, particularly if they aren’t even athletic to begin with. I and many others adored the Royce Freeman profile, but his draft capital wasn’t significant enough for the Broncos to make him into a workhorse despite his pretty solid play, at least not with Phillip Lindsay in the fold. I won’t claim to have seen him coming, but it just as easily could have been Devontae Booker throttling Freeman’s opportunity share.


The flame-outs of these third and fourth round RBs are even more vivid within the context of the incredible success at the wide receiver position in that range. Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Amari Cooper, Mike Evans, Tyreek Hill, JuJu Smith-Schuster, T.Y. Hilton, and Brandin Cooks all more-or-less returned value. Of course, there were shakier performances sprinkled in from the likes of Jarvis Landry and Chris Hogan, but the hit-rate was much better than at the running back position. The RB value was at the very top of the draft and in the late rounds, with a chasm in the middle.


Evaluating Risk Evenly


Every year we learn that it’s better to be a year early on fading players due to age than a year late, as Larry Fitzgerald and Demaryius Thomas so nicely reminded us this year. I wasn’t particularly high on either of these players relative to consensus, but even still, I’m not sure I properly evaluated the risk they carried with their ages and new quarterbacks.


Speaking of improperly evaluating risk, I definitely had my head in the sand on the whole Le’Veon Bell thing for most of the summer. I’m hypothesizing that since his risk wasn’t related to football and difficult to quantify, I de-emphasized it relative to the risk factors of other players. Quantifiable or not, it still existed, as we saw. As for how to deal with situations like this in the future, I don’t have mahy ideas other than simply not drafting or touting players that I don’t have the means of fully evaluating.


Most of the above thoughts are in the context of the first four or five rounds, where drafting should be firstly risk-averse in non-expert leagues; many of these points can create values in players drafted later on, as many fantasy players stick with rules like “I’m not drafting old players” or “I’m not touching Patriots running backs” to an irrational extent as the rounds advance, causing them to miss on value.


Supporting Cast Also Matters (Even More Than We Thought)


Anyone who missed on Patrick Mahomes, myself included, needs to significantly adjust the importance they prescribe to supporting cast when evaluating quarterbacks. There are very few QBs in this league that can elevate mediocre talents around them, and even fewer that can produce in fantasy despite sub-par situations. Of course, it doesn’t matter at all that I missed on a second-year QB breakout specifically unless we’re talking about 2QB leagues, but it did expose a weakness in my process.


We’ve seen QB1 seasons out of marginal talents with excellent weapons to throw to time and time again, but it’s time we also think about that phenomenon in regards to the weapons themselves. I was avoiding Cooks, Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, Hill, and Travis Kelce like the plague, which I’m still not convinced was entirely irrational given their preseason ADPs, but with how loaded those offenses were expected to be, Todd Gurley and Kareem Hunt should have been autopicks for me in the first two rounds.


Especially with wide receivers, 2018 was the year of the rising tide lifting all boats. Just look at Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott with and without Amari Cooper, at Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon with and without A.J. Green, at Saquon Barkley in Week 15 without Odell Beckham, and at everything that’s happened in Kansas City and Los Angeles.


Then, take a look at the Patriots and the volume we projected for Chris Hogan, the Bills and the volume we projected for Kelvin Benjamin, and the Raiders and the volume we projected for Amari Cooper. This year, against every instinct I’ve built up, chasing efficiency actually worked, at least better than chasing volume did outside the top few rounds. This could be a blip, but it could also be a product of this new higher-octane NFL. I won’t be chasing this year’s efficiency next year, but I’ll certainly focus more on projecting efficiency relative to volume than I have before.


Ending with a bit of an early take – Saquon Barkley should be the undisputed first overall pick next year in all formats. Accomplishing what he has this year with the joke of a QB and an offensive line he’s dealt with is nothing short of amazing. New York does have a nice trove of weapons in the passing game that I suspect has helped keep pressure off of him, but with Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram, and Beckham all under contract next year, unless the front office messes up royally this offseason, that situation can only get better. A rookie QB might scare me a little bit, but it’s tough to say how much until I know if it’s Dwayne Haskins, Justin Herbert, or someone else. With all those guys to throw to, New York could actually be a place a rookie would find immediate success, especially if he’s more mobile than Eli (which is asking almost nothing), but I digress.


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