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A New Age of Fantasy Strategy? (1 Viewer)

Josh the FunkDOC

I've played fantasy football for many years, along with all sorts of other competitive games.  One thing that always fascinates me is how the perceived "endgame" of high-level strategy evolves over time, and it feels to me like FF's made a huge leap there in the last few years.

For most of the time that I've played, FF thinking generally revolved around stud RBs and VBD.  The top experts generally advocated drafting your QB later than the herd, though they still wanted to get a proven season-long starter.  Some big names even defended drafting the likes of Peyton or Rodgers in the 2nd, to say nothing of Gronk & Graham's many fans at that price.

Nowadays, though, I see more ways to win and more ways to play FF than ever before.  I'm sure a lot of this thought was around before, but it's within the past few years that it all started breaking into the mainstream.  I see that as a sign the game is maturing, but would like to hear your thoughts.

Let's start with the most obvious & controversial evolution in the game:

Zero RB

This concept had been around under the name "upside-down drafting", but Shawn Siegele gave it a new name and an in-depth explanation in 2013.  People hailed it as the next big thing after the 2015 season, then declared it fraudulent after 2016.

Given what we've seen before 2015 and thus far this season, though, I think it's fair to say that zero RB is here to stay.  It benefits a ton from some major changes to the real & fantasy football landscape during the 2010s, such as:

- The decline of the "feature back".  Drafting RBs with your first 2 or 3 picks was easy to justify when most NFL teams gave one guy most of the carries, but the "viable RB2" bar in particular is much lower nowadays.  A fair number of goal-line backs don't get enough other work to be good in fantasy, and they would have gotten that work in previous eras.

- The rise of the pass-catching specialist RB.  I imagine a lot of us are old enough to remember when Tony Richardson was seen as an oddball for catching 50 passes while rushing for a lot less than 1000 yards.  A lot of the best receiving backs were the best backs period, like Marshall Faulk and Priest Holmes.  Nowadays, though, smaller versions of Richardson are everywhere.  Every year sees some of them in the top 20 overall RBs for PPR leagues, and they're almost always cheap.  Speaking of which...

- The increasing popularity of PPR fantasy leagues.  This has a huge impact on zero RB since it increases the pool of cheap RBs with a safe floor & top-20 or higher ceiling.  Standard is still the most popular format obviously, but PPR increasingly eats into its market share with each passing year.  Virtually every high-stakes/"expert" league uses some sort of PPR, too.

Looking at the current top 24 RBs (points/game) in my PPR league, I see a pretty large number who were drafted after the 5th round: Duke Johnson, Chris Thompson, Buck Allen, Tarik Cohen, Alvin Kamara, Andre Ellington, & James White.  Most of those were late-round or waiver-wire guys, even.  Not all of them will remain that high, but they've already contributed plenty of usable weeks regardless.  And this isn't including Mark Ingram or Jerick McKinnon, who could easily end up as top-20 guys given the recent changes in their situations.  Or Kareem Hunt, who was a perfect zero RB target if you drafted before the Ware injury.  As the NFL becomes more and more of a passing league you're going to see more of this kind of turnover at the RB position, and that's a big blow to the old-school RB-RB draft mentality.  I don't think zero RB will ever be the dominant approach since it loses a lot of steam when everybody in the draft does it, but it will remain effective in leagues with a good mix of more traditional drafters.

Here's another example of a strategy that's blown up in recent years...

QB & TE Streaming

Drafting QBs & TEs late is nothing new, but I never saw this particular approach back in the day.  Streaming has long been the norm for team defenses, but people have studied this and found that it also works for QBs and TEs when you only have to start one of them.  There's a popular podcast built entirely around this idea, and their recommended streamers always average at least top-10 position numbers for the season at both QB and TE.  TE streaming is shakier than QB since TEs get much lower volume, but it's still effective since the overall bar is so much lower for that position.

There's an anti-VBD streak to this strategy in that it disregards season-long projections for these players.  The idea is that you're targeting bad defenses each week, so you're only going to use a given streamer once or twice unless you luck into a surprise every-week starter.  People would use the VBD "fantasy points over baseline" logic to argue in favor of early-round TEs & mid-round QBs (e.g. Rivers & Romo), but good streaming skills mean that your "baseline" will still be top-10 numbers on average.  The traditional VBD mentality also overlooked the opportunity cost - missing out on quality RBs/WRs by taking those players that early.  I see streaming experts now argue that Rodgers should be drafted in the 5th round, and Gronk in the 3rd (since TE is more volatile than QB and there's a bigger weekly gap between the top tier and the rest).  Late-round QB has now become the norm in high-level leagues, and that in turn has driven down the value of all QBs.

Finally for now, here's something that's not a strategy but clearly represents an evolution of the game:

2QB/Superflex Leagues

This is something that seems to be growing quickly as of late; both of my leagues switched to superflex this year and are loving it.  I see this as a natural reaction to the real NFL becoming more QB-focused, and making QBs more valuable has an obvious appeal to your more casual owners.  These types will always draft a QB in the 2nd or 3rd round and get punished hard for it, but a 2QB format makes that less of a problem.  It can even be the right pick sometimes!  Taking later-round QBs can still work if you know how to play matchups, but this format doesn't seem to have any one strategy as dominant as late-round QB is in single-QB leagues.  I see this format eventually becoming the standard for high-stakes leagues like PPR has, and superflex in particular is an easier sell for less hardcore owners.

Another issue I'd be interested in discussing is why there's been so much going on over these past few years.  I have a theory to start with: I'm convinced a lot of this work wouldn't have happened without the DFS boom.

For instance, a number of the cutting-edge fantasy analysts promoting new ideas & reasoning were working day jobs and doing this in their spare time until DFS took off.  DFS obviously brought ungodly amounts of money into the fantasy industry, but it also widely expanded the audience for paid fantasy content.  This has allowed a new generation of analysts to write & talk about fantasy football for a living, often through podcasts sponsored by DFS companies & websites owned by DFS companies.  The DFS companies appear to see their game and season-long fantasy as mutually beneficial to one another, as that would explain their willingness to bankroll so much season-long content.  Another underrated factor is that DFS has attracted a lot of online poker players who bring a more analytical approach to the game; these people are less likely to be attached to FF traditions, making them a ripe audience for the newer analysts and even potential analysts themselves.

That's about all for now, as I just wanted to get the ball rolling here.  I really think FF is reaching a whole new level now, and it's happening at the same time that the real NFL is becoming less varied in strategy...


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