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Sell High Players for Fantasy Football Dynasty Leagues?


Please join me in a moment of silence... Okay, we're good now. The 2019 fantasy season is over for good. While we still have a very delicious set of playoff games to be played during January leading up the ultimate matchup in the Super Bowl, our days as GMs have ended. Wasn't that a quick one? It feels like I was starting to write about this season just yesterday, but truth be told it's already been three months since kickoff!

No matter what, those playing in dynasty leagues know well enough that fantasy football never stops. You have to win the year, sure, but you also have to strategize for the future and keep the competitiveness of your team up in both the short and long-term. And, being honest, what better time to capitalize and make league-winning moves than the end of the season when emotions are still running high? Who isn't wondering about what-ifs had he drafted Lamar Jackson or Chris Godwin? Who wouldn't want to have them on their roster and going forward at this very minute?

Now, if you're smart enough and in possession of a hot commodity, you should take advantage of those caught in the moment. What's wrong with trading a tasty ripe fruit for a handful of still-raw ones that will get sweet enough come next September? What's wrong in betting on multiple assets primed to yield rewards instead of trying to prolong a performance level that won't be there in eight months' time? With that mindset in place, let's take a look at some potential sell-high candidates to send packing away during the Christmas season with our eyes set on winning the 2020 year!

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Don't Follow the Crowd, and Instead Go for the Haul!

Before writing down a bunch of names of potential sell-high players at the end of this year, let me tell you why you should adopt this mindset. First, a subjective approach: None of the players you'll find listed here will improve over what they have done this season, and it is probable that none of them will even perform to the level they've already shown.

 

Fantasy Football Exploits Will Change Next Season As

Coaches Will Adapt

Defensive coordinators will have a whole seven months to study and plan on how to stop offensive systems. The NFL doesn't stop. Offenses come up with something, then defenses adapt, stop them, and offenses need to reload and renew themselves for the next season trying to bring something new to the table that defenses struggle with. The year 2019 was clearly defined by Lamar Jackson and the whole quarterback-as-a-running back approach to mess with defenses. Jackson's running prowess became a fantasy cheat code. Kyler Murray and Josh Allen also benefited from it to an extent.

Running backs that excelled this season did so mostly because they run a ton. They got the chances, but with opportunity comes mileage. And that mileage carries a degradation in performance over the years, as the load gets heavier in the legs and can lead to injuries over time. Wide receivers and tight ends can have a booming season, but reputations are also built on them and cornerbacks will be eager to lock them out of games in upcoming matchups starting in next season's Week 1.

 

Fantasy Football Exploits Will Change Next Season As

Sustained Greatness Is Virtually Impossible

My subjective view of how football works is all well and good. What about some objective, hard facts?

To prove my point, I've taken the fantasy data from last season (2018) and this season (2019) through Week 16, which is to say, the "real" fantasy football season. I have plotted the top-24 players of each of those two seasons as ranked in PPR-format leagues. The 2018 rank is on the left side and 2019's is on the right.

The player name position indicates when a player entered the top-24 for the first time in those two seasons. For example, Lamar Jackson's name appears on the right as he wasn't a top-24 player in 2018, while Patrick Mahomes' name appears on the left side as he was a top-24 player already in 2018.

The lines mark the rank change from 2018 to 2019. Upward lines indicate an improvement in rank, and downward lines a decrease in rank. When a player doesn't have a line, it indicates he either was a top-24 player in 2018 and not in 2019 or vice-versa. Here are the results:

Take the time you need to process the image. There is plenty to get from it, so I will break it down in a few bullet points so it is easier for you to digest and go through:

  • 10 players from 2018 didn't finish inside 2019's top-24: That means a whole 42% of last year's top performers didn't even break into the best-25 players of this season, which are the players that should have been drafted inside the first couple rounds before the season's start.
  • Seven players from 2018 dropped in 2019's top-24 rank: That means 29% of last year's top performers had a worse season than they did last year.
  • One player from 2018 maintained his position in 2019's rank: That means 4% of last year's top performers didn't improve on what they did last season in the context of what their peers did both last year and in 2019.
  • Six players from 2018 stayed and improved in 2019's top-25 rank: That means 25% of last year's top performers also performed as top-24 players this season while improving on what they already did in 2018.
  • Summary -- 18 players from 2018 got worse or stayed the same in 2019: That means that 71% of last year's top-24 performers regressed or stayed the same. Only 29% of the best players in 2018 improved in 2019.

By now you should be starting to get convinced of how little are your chances of having a player that falls inside that 29% of players that will improve next season. At the end of the day, that means that three out of 12 players or six out of 24 will improve next season. That is the overall picture, though, and the detailed one isn't that much rosier (if it is at all):

  • Inside the top-15 performers, only three players improved their rank: As I said earlier, the lower the rank is in a year, the higher the chances are that rank can improve in the next year.
  • Four players improved their rank at the QB position, one at RB, and one at WR: While quarterbacks have it easier to improve on their fantasy performance because they have "full control" of what the offense does, both WRs and RBs (and tight ends, for that matter) are much more volatile and depend on quarterbacks to rack up numbers and perform, even if they maintain their high-level skills.
  • 10 players ranked in 2019 weren't part of 2018's rank: This is just a two-season sample, but that means 42% of the top performers this year weren't even in the picture last season. As ridiculous as it sounds, that's almost half of the top-24 performers or virtually a full draft round.

Now that you have seen how much is in the air from one season to the next, and how not even the heavy-hitters find it easy to keep up their production, it's time to drop some names of highly-ranked players this year who should yield huge packages in return if traded before other owners cool on them.

 

Lamar Jackson (QB, BAL)

How do you dare!? How can you even mention the Fantasy Holy Grail as a potential trade candidate!? Heresy! Burn this witch alive!

Calm down, people. I love Lamar more than I'd love my son if I had one, believe me. But has there ever been a more overhyped, hyper-valued player in fantasy football? Seriously, think about it. Lamar Jackson, in three words, can't (won't) get better.

Jackson set an all-time record for fantasy points per game this season (27.85) among quarterbacks and ranks seventh in the overall leaderboard in the PPR format. That, simply put, is ridiculous. Jackson has performed to incredible levels this year and is over what top-notch historic running backs like LaDainian Tomlinson and Priest Holmes did all the way back in 2003. As a quarterback.

In keeping up with the information presented above regarding drops in performance, here is every player since the 2000 season to average 20-plus fantasy points per game in Year X (vertical axis) and what he did in Year X+1 (horizontal axis). Every player to the right of the black line I added to the plot and inside the green zone improved from Year X to Year X+1. That is three players: Todd Gurley (+0.9 FP/G), Christian McCaffrey (+4.4), and LaDainian Tomlinson (+1.4).

As we know from redraft leagues, picking a quarterback early is an incredible risk to take and the best performers at the position often come from deeper rounds. Selling Jackson as a sure-fire, set-and-forget player to some other GM will be easier than ever this offseason, but the acquiring GM will be doing something akin to drafting Lamar in the first or second round given the return you should be getting from him.

 

Dalvin Cook (RB, MIN)

It took a lot of time, but Dalvin Cook finally surrendered to injury and missed his Week 16 game entirely. In fact, Cook's snaps have dropped considerably during the last three weeks he's been on the field:

Cook's health issues shouldn't deter owners from being too caught up in his production, though, but they will always be there. As you can see, Cook has missed extended time during the three years he's been in the league and that has affected his overall fantasy production. His 2019 season has been his best so far, due mostly to playing time and volume.

His year-to-year PPR points per game have been 16.9, 14.2, and 21.2. He clearly leveled up this season, of course, but that was related to how Minnesota employed a run-heavy scheme that also favored his game. Cook also scored 13 touchdowns through 14 games this season, something only 11 players have accomplished at least twice in the last 20 years. Cook definitely has the chance to get there, as he's young enough and still in his prime, but putting on multiple 13-plus touchdown years is something quite hard to accomplish, even more in this era where the passing game trumps everything.

 

Derrick Henry (RB, TEN)

You can take Henry's 2019 season from two completely understandable angles. The first one would align with what I wrote about Lamar Jackson: No player improves once he reaches a certain level of performance. It is just very improbable it happens, full stop. Given Henry has finished 2019 with his best fantasy production ever (18.7 FP/G in PPR-format leagues), it's hard to believe he'll get much better going forward, right?

The second angle, though, speaks better of his chances. Henry has played four seasons in the NFL. His FP/G hasn't stopped improving ever since he took the field for the first time: 7.1 in 2016, then 7.8, 12.8, and up to 18.7 FP/G this season. It'd be very reasonable to expect another bump up in his production (just look at CMC, for example, who has gone from averaging 25.5 FP/G last year to 29.9 in 2019).

All things considered and looking at historic data, though, 28 rushers since 2000 went from at least 18 FP/G to 18-plus points in the following season while up to 58 rushers decreased their per-game production. That is a 32/68 split against Henry's chances of improving in 2019. In fact, using RotoViz's Screener and its linear regression model and inputting some rushing variables from Henry's 2019 season, it yields an expected 2020 FP/G of 15.2 for Derrick Henry.

That chart, again, includes every rusher with at least a touch since 2000. I have highlighted Derrick Henry's current and projected seasons in the plot. As you can see, he appears over the red and blue lines, meaning he's due to regress in 2020 over his 2019 performances -- and not by a little.

Another, much simpler concern to have about Henry is his track record. While this has been his ultimate breakout year, the truth is his 2018 season was rather bad (only two top-12 finishes) and he suffered quite a slump from Weeks 3 to 8 in 2019 in which he could only finish inside the top-12 running backs once. Henry can be a league winner, but given his history and the expected regression, you would probably do much better trading him for a haul of multiple high-upside assets.

 

Chris Godwin (WR, TB)

Although Godwin was very hyped prior to the start of the year, no one would have expected such a season for the third-year receiver from Tampa. Through Week 16, Godwin has racked up the 21st-most fantasy points (276.1) and fantasy points per game (19.7). He is the second-best wideout of the year only behind Michael Thomas -- who is a cheat code in and of himself -- and bested teammate Mike Evans' production easily in 2019.

Can you trust a 23-year-old wide receiver to repeat such an incredible year, in a Jameis Winston-led offense, sharing the field with another opportunity-eater such as Evans? It is hard to think of it happening again. Only 12 offenses in history have featured two wide receivers who finished the year each with at least 118 targets each. Three of them (Cleveland, LA Rams, and Tampa Bay) did so this season, so I'm leaving them out of this. That leaves nine other pairs of receivers to study, all of them playing in the seasons ranging from 2015 to 2018.

While 198 WR seasons since 2000 (3,770 in the dataset) have had back-to-back years of 118-plus targets, only two of those nine pairs (Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders; Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper) maintained that large volume in back-to-back seasons while playing on the same team (Denver and Oakland respectively in 2015 and 2016). That means either Mike Evans or Chris Godwin are more than probable to miss on that 118-target mark in 2020.

Even if he keeps a good amount of targets up, Godwin has had only four-of-15 games in which he has beaten his Expected FP by more than 10 FP in 2019. To that, it must be added that his nine receiving touchdowns through 14 games are the second-most in the league entering Week 17 and that he and Marvin Jones are the only players to have caught that many TDs in fewer than 15 games this year.

There have been 52 wide receivers since 2000 to have seasons of 119 or fewer targets while catching nine or more touchdowns. Of those 52, only 12 improved their FP/G in the next season. The problem is, none of those receivers had posted a season of more than 16 FP/G the prior year. Godwin, just in case, is averaging 19.7 in 2019. Also, just four receivers were able to score more than nine touchdowns, while the rest regressed in that department.

This is not to say Godwin is not good to keep on your roster, but chances are he regresses big time come 2020.

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