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Chase Upside, Not Safety to Win Fantasy Leagues

The spring of 2020 was a strange time in everyone's life. All of a sudden there were no sports, no leaving the house, and a whole lot of uncertainty for everyone. I promise I am not writing this to give you flashbacks. But, given this new and sudden free time, I dove deep into my past fantasy football strategies to try to learn from mistakes I have been making and try to perfect my craft. Looking over many of my teams I realized the same thing: I was making a fatal fantasy football mistake of confusing value with upside. 

I was of the mindset that if I could target the players I identified as a value, and if I kept doing that throughout the draft, that my team would naturally be one of the better ones in the league. In this sense, value solely means outproducing the price you pay to acquire a player. I mean, what sounds better than drafting players that you think can outlive their ADP? The issue with that is too often those players are a value because they do not come with league-altering upside. You know those players that breakout and can single-handedly win you a league? Yeah, those were always on others teams as they took more and more upside shots than me. 

It was looking over these teams that I completely changed my fantasy football strategy and had one of my best seasons ever, with many of my teams either finishing as the top seed or with the most points scored in the league. Oh, and there was that championship or two sprinkled in as well. I was convinced last season before even implementing this strategy, but after seeing the results, I am even more so in: drafting safe players will hold you back, while drafting upside players maximizes your chances of winning a title.

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Target Upside, Not "Safety" 

First, let me define value and upside. To me, a value is any player that is going to outperform their ADP. A good example is Cole Beasley. Last season, he finished as the WR27 in PPR leagues, yet his ADP is nowhere near that on any site. He is clearly a player that is going to outlive his ADP as long as he stays healthy. But he is also the kind of player that can hold your roster back.

Last year, Beasley had a career season, but before that he was more of a reliable floor player. You know the type - can get you 10-12 PPR points each week, but seldomly tops 15 to 20 fantasy points. These types of players are typically drafted to be backups, a reliable “break glass in case of emergency” type of play. The emergency being if one of your starters gets injured or if you need a bye week replacement.

But the argument against these players is two-fold: first, if you need to take them off your bench and into your starting lineup, your lineup is likely already worse than it was. And second, because these players are perceived as safe, managers tend to hold onto them all season on their bench just in case they ever need to bump them into the starting lineup. It is not a bad plan to have one safe bench player like this, but too many just eat at those valuable bench spots. And I know you are thinking, aren’t safe players I can start in a pinch a good use of a bench spot? Well, not necessarily. 

By both drafting these players and then holding them on the bench, you are costing yourself valuable lottery tickets on potential breakout players. In the draft, you are using a middle-to-late round pick on these sorts of players. That costs you the opportunity of drafting a player with potential breakout upside. Then by holding onto these players, especially in the early weeks of the season, it means you are taking fewer shots at potential breakout players on the waiver wire.

If you have played fantasy football before, you know that waiver wire pickups are kind of like lottery tickets. Some flame out immediately, others last a couple of weeks, but every once in a while, you find a true difference-maker that can put your team over the top. While all fantasy football players think they have the eye for spotting the next great waiver wire breakout, the truth is it is much more difficult than that. The more waiver wire shots, or lottery tickets, you have, the higher the chance that you add a real difference-maker.

So, while having these safe players may feel like a good thing for your roster, the truth is the opportunity cost of having them both hurts your chances of finding a breakout player both in the draft and off waivers. This approach led me to finding players like Tee Higgins, James Robinson, Justin Herbert, Myles Gaskin and Darnell Mooney off the waiver wire, while also grabbing big values in my drafts such as Will Fuller V, Robby Anderson and Diontae Johnson.

But knowing when it's worthwhile to start taking upside shots, and how to build your roster is how you can perfect this strategy. 


Implementing this Strategy in the Early Rounds 

Last year when I came up with this strategy, I said it is vital to build a safe, reliable base early on. But that is not 100 percent true. Someone like Nick Chubb is safer than a Jonathan Taylor or Cam Akers, but I am drafting the youngsters ahead of Chubb. Why? Because I think they present a safe floor but even higher upside due to their passing game roles.

Realizing that, I have to change the early round strategy. If you are going to prioritize upside in the middle and later rounds, it is best to build a safe core in the early rounds. You can draft a player like Taylor and Akers and still find safety there in the projected role and number of touches they will have this season. Too often I think people confuse safety with a proven veteran. That is not always the case. 

I find this strategy works best though when having a set blueprint and for me, that is target running backs early. Last season, there were just three running backs that saw 250 carries and nine with that number of touches. That number just keeps declining as teams both pass more frequently and use multiple running backs. There are only so many running backs that you can draft and feel comfortable starting each week and that RB player pool dries up very fast.

Due to that, I typically will start my draft with two RBs, sometimes three. The lone exception is if I can get one of Travis Kelce in the late first or Darren Waller in the second. Typically, I am much likelier to end up with Waller than Kelce. Just like with RBs, this is because of the state of the TE position. If you miss out on the tier one tight ends there are a few fallback options in the middle rounds you can feel safe taking (Mark Andrews, T.J. Hockenson, Dallas Goedert, Kyle Pitts) but they do not have the same floor or ceiling as the elite tight ends. After that, it is a complete crapshoot so I am fine addressing the position early on if I can. If I do so, I will then take another RB in round three. 

While the RBs are my preferred value in the early rounds, from round three/four on, the wide receivers present the best value in basically every round. As stated above, teams are throwing the ball more than ever in the NFL and there are more three and four wide receiver sets than ever. There is also a surplus of young talent that has entered the league in recent years. After the top-20 at each position just look at the RBs and WRs still on the board and the WRs will be the better value basically every time. You may miss out on the elite early-round options, but you can still easily end up with three weekly starters in the middle rounds. 


Middle Rounds 

This is where the upside comes into play. Since I will be prioritizing RB in the early rounds the middle rounds are for receivers, with one exception. Currently at their ADP David Montgomery (late third/early fourth) and Javonte Williams (late fifth/early sixth) are the ideal RB3 for me. Both should see enough work to warrant being a flex and both have the upside to finish as an RB2, if not higher (Montgomery was the overall RB4 last season). I will grab either of those two at their ADP if possible.

Besides that, I am gobbling up receivers with upside. In the late third round you can grab Allen Robinson, Terry McLaurin or CeeDee Lamb. The Top-24 receivers really all come with WR1 upside, so you will be able to take your pick in rounds three and four. It is in about the fifth round that you have to start to really consider which of these receivers has the upside to be a WR1 and of those that do, which has the clearest path to doing so. Michael Carter is a name I like a little later if I miss out on those two backs. 

To do that, you have to both identify the player and his ability, as well as the situation he is in. For instance, I like taking a shot on Odell Beckham Jr. in the sixth round because it is the latest he has ever gone. The talent is there and he will be the unquestioned top target as long as he is healthy. But Kenny Golladay, Brandon Aiyuk and Chase Claypool go in this range and are not typically receivers I actively target in drafts. All three have the necessary talent to finish as a WR1, but I do not love their situations.

Golladay has a QB downgrade, plus there is target competition there. Aiyuk has all the talent in the world, but he also has George Kittle and Deebo Samuel to take targets on a run first offense. And Claypool with tied to an aging QB coming off a down season after having elbow injury, with two other big targets there as well.

Other receivers to target in the round 5-7 range are: Robby Anderson, Cortland Sutton, DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy, and D.J. Chark Jr. Mike Williams goes a little later but he very much so fits this mold as well. They all have the talent and are in positions where they should see the volume to help them outperform their ADP. I like to leave the eighth round typically with four receivers and three running backs on my roster. 

While the bulk of the middle rounds for me is addressing receivers, you can sprinkle in other positions as well. One position you should consider addressing before you get to the double-digit rounds is QB. Last year, I identified the second tier of QBs as the sweet spot and it paid off tremendously. That second tier was made up of Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson. All put up big numbers but you got them rounds later than Lamar Mahomes and Lamar Jackson.

If any of the listed QBs (not Watson for obvious reasons) falls into the fifth or sixth round, I am once again fine taking them there. But, they are not falling as much as last season.

There is another group of QBs I like in about the seventh round that consists of Justin Herbert and Jalen Hurts. Both of these two have the upside to finish in the top five, if not higher, if things break right this season. If I miss out on those QBs I will tend to wait until after the first 100 picks and grab a QB that still has high upside such as Matthew Stafford, Ryan Tannehill or Trevor Lawrence. If I get one of the top options, I do not take a backup, but if my first QB comes from the last group of QBs listed, I will grab another one. But again, even for a number two QB, better yet, especially for a backup QB, upside is paramount. Some upside QBs are: Justin Fields, Trey Lance, Tua Tagovailoa, Sam Darnold and Jameis Winston

With tight ends, the strategy is typically early or late. I will make an exception if a tier two TE falls, but in most my drafts I will take one of the elite big three tight ends, or wait until the double-digit rounds and grab two with upside. 


Double-Digit Rounds

No matter the strategy you use, when you get into the double-digit rounds you should be thinking pure upside. The deeper you get in the draft, the more likely you are drafting a player that will you will cut. At that point, shooting for anything but a player with some sort of league-winning upside is a mistake. 

For running backs, you should be targeting backs that could be no worse than an RB2 if the starter was to get injured. Some players that come to mind that fit that mold are: Tony Pollard, A.J. Dillon, Darrell Henderson, Latavius Murray, Jamaal Williams, Darrynton Evans and Alexander Mattison. There are also the backs who already have a set role, meaning they could be a flex option, but also have a chance to carve out more work, or be an RB2 if the starter goes down. These backs are: Gus Edwards, James Conner, David Johnson (who is the projected starter), Kenyan Drake, Zack Moss/Devin Singletary and Phillip Lindsay

For receivers, I am more interested in a player that can finish as a WR2 or higher if things break right, rather than a player who has a safe floor and can finish as a borderline WR3. This is where my upside preference comes into play. I do not want a receiver who can give me 11 points per game and back their way into being a Top-40 receiver. I would rather swing for the fences, and if I swing and miss I can drop the receiver and take another shot off the waiver wire.

Some receivers with upside like this going outside the Top-100 picks are: DeVante Parker, Darnell Mooney, Elijah Moore, Rashod Bateman, Henry Ruggs, Marvin Jones, Gabriel Davis, Parris Campbell, Tre’Quan Smith, Terrace Marshall Jr., Bryan Edwards, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Van Jefferson. I told you, there is plenty of receiver depth after the early rounds! 

If you grab an elite tight end, there is no reason to grab a second one. However, if you wait and want to grab two of the high-upside tight ends in the double-digit rounds, there is no shortage of options. The ones I like to target are: Adam Trautman, Gerald Everett, Evan Engram, Irv Smith Jr. and Blake Jarwin

As for defense and kickers, those should always be your final two picks of the draft. Additionally, if you are drafting early and are not forced to have these positions on your roster, do not draft them. Rather, take a shot on another receiver or running back. A lot happens during the preseason and if you have two additional lottery tickets it just increases the chances of you having the preseason breakout, or the backup of a starter who goes down to injury. You can always cut two players and grab a defense and kicker the week before the season. Those are the easiest positions to stream in fantasy football anyway. 


Final Thoughts 

Safe-floor players seem like smart investments, but they are actually the enemy of success. They may help you cover a bye or even win a week. They may help you make the playoffs. But rarely do they ever push a team to a title. If making the playoffs and getting bounced is your thing, that is fine. Some people play just for weekly entertainment and would prefer to be competitive all season, rather than going all-in on upside and taking that risk. If this is you and you want to just be competitive, draft safe.

But if you are like me, you are playing to win it all. No one remembers who makes the playoffs in a given year, but flags fly forever. There is no better feeling than winning a championship and typically these breakout players are the ones who provide championships. Last year, outside of Alvin Kamara, Stefon Diggs and Josh Allen led the most people to fantasy championships. Both were middle-round picks a year ago. 

I would rather go all-in for a championship and falter, than build a team with a nice weekly floor, but not much of a ceiling and finish as the fifth seed with a first-round exit. I was doing that for far too long and it resulted in heartbreak every December. This strategy is not for the faint of heart, as there is more risk in these high upside players, but it maximizes the chance at winning a title and that is why we play the game. 

Make sure to follow Michael on Twitter, @MichaelFFlorio

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