Fantasy Football in a Pandemic


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Fantasy Football in a Pandemic

Fantasy football is a lot like poker – it’s a fairly straightforward game with a known set of rules and an outcome that’s determined partly by luck and partly by skill. Since its invention in 1962, we’ve continually expanded our knowledge base, and each year the game has become more understood, it’s become progressively more difficult – the smarter our opponents, the smaller our edge.

However, this year is absolutely nothing like any of the years that came before it. This is going to be the wildest football, fantasy football, and sports-betting season in recent memory.

We know why: COVID-19.

The coronavirus pandemic represents a massive injection of uncertainty into an otherwise widely understood game. In other words, the game has completely changed.

Yes. None of us are epidemiologists. We don’t really know anything. Nobody knows anything about how this will progress. We hate to be cynical, but if it was all about safety, the NFL would pack it up until a vaccine or treatment was widely available. We know — for monetary reasons — that isn’t going to happen.

And given the NFL will move mountains to make sure some form of football is played this year, even if we don’t know exactly what it will look like or when it might happen, we would be derelict in our duty as a football analysis and advice website if we didn’t acknowledge that massive elephant. And given that, we must at least attempt to explore the possibilities of what might happen, the logical consequences that would then follow, and how to strategize around those possibilities.

After a great deal of effort, working together as a team and trying to be as fair and as thoughtful as is possible in this season, here are the things we must acknowledge when it comes to navigating an NFL season amidst a global pandemic.

Less On-the-Field Practice Time

This was the first season without spring OTAs since 2011, when a lockout pushed training camps back until late July, the same time they’re scheduled to start in 2020. This will affect all teams and all players, but it won’t affect all teams and all players equally. Intuitively, we believe:

  1. Rookies are at a disadvantage
  2. Receivers with new quarterbacks are disadvantaged
  3. Players on a new team are disadvantaged
  4. Teams implementing a new playbook are disadvantaged
  5. Teams with an inexperienced head coach are disadvantaged

In each case, the less on-the-field practice time there is, the greater the disadvantage.

From a fantasy perspective, missing a large portion of training camp has often been a death sentence for rookie skill-position players. Rookies simultaneously need to adjust to NFL-level competition and learn the team’s playbook. Coaches need to know what they have in the players they just drafted, where they’re at mentally and physically, and how they might fit into the offense.

Imagine Andy Reid saying something along the lines of: “Okay, we drafted Clyde Edwards-Helaire to be our every-down bell cow, but can he handle pass-blocking at the NFL level?” That question seems impossible to answer without weeks of on-the-field practice time and/or preseason games.

For fantasy, rookies are notoriously slow-starters (especially wide receivers), if they aren’t outright busts in Year 1. Expect that to be especially true this year.

One of the quietest edges in fantasy has long been fading players who change teams (at any position), as our Scott Barrett pointed out here. Expect that to be even more exaggerated this year with less practice time, which is so crucial to learning a new offensive scheme and playbook.

And actually, this should be true for all players with a new play-caller or in an unfamiliar scheme. Would it be easier for Tua Tagovailoa to learn Chan Gailey’s spread offense via Zoom, or on-the-grass and in-person with a football in his hand rather than a computer mouse?

Then, there’s the underrated importance of quarterback-to-receiver rapport, something that can only be built and strengthened by repeated reps in practice. So, receivers with a new quarterback — or quarterbacks with new receivers — are also disproportionately handicapped. Further, perhaps more deference should be paid to a receiver like Courtland Sutton. We already acknowledged rookies are at a disadvantage this year, but also, he has a clear and established rapport with Drew Lock, while rookies Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler might enter the season with barely any practice time alongside their starting QB. Who then should we expect Lock to lean on to start the season?

Taking all of this in totality, the fantasy and gambling-relevant takeaways seem straightforward. Devalue rookies a tad – rookie wide receivers, specifically, already seem overvalued. The same potentially goes for players changing teams (e.g. Austin Hooper, Hayden Hurst, etc.), players in a new offense (e.g. Daniel Jones, Leonard Fournette, etc.), and also for receivers paired with new quarterbacks (e.g. DeAndre Hopkins, Keenan Allen, etc.).

Offenses heavily reliant on rookies (e.g. Cincinnati, Miami, Los Angeles Chargers) might be worth downgrading or even betting against. The same goes for teams implementing a new playbook (Miami, New York Giants, etc.) or teams with a lot of player turnover (like Carolina). And then there are teams with a first-year head coach (Carolina, New York Giants, Cleveland, etc.).

And of course, the reverse of all this can be true as well. New Orleans retains essentially all of its top offensive talent, most of whom are veterans with anywhere between three and 14 years of experience in a Sean Payton offense. Might they be a good bet to overperform?

Unknown Number of Fans in the Stadium

How many fans will attend NFL games in 2020? It’s highly likely the NFL either outright bars fans from attending games, or at least severely caps the number of fans allowed into stadiums. And even if there was no restriction, it’s unlikely we’d see anywhere near the levels of attendance we saw last year – it’s common sense that sports fans are less likely to attend games amidst a pandemic, just like theater lovers are now less likely to go see a musical.

This is also only considering what the NFL might do, and not what sort of laws local politicians might impose. Could it be possible, simply to make an example, that Los Angeles’ mayor bars fans from attending NFL games in person, while Dallas imposes no restrictions? Certainly. Would that be a massive edge for Dallas over Los Angeles? Absolutely.

Home field advantage is absolutely real. Over the past 25 seasons, the home team has won roughly 58% of the time. On average, over this span, the home team outscored the away team by 2.5 points per game. Uncoincidentally, the home team has also been favored by Vegas by an average of 2.5 points per game over this span.

However, home field advantage doesn’t affect all teams equally. For instance, since 2017, Kansas City gives up only 18.5 points per game at Arrowhead Stadium – generally regarded as the loudest NFL stadium. However, over this span, their defense averages 26.0 points per game allowed when on the road. This is the second-largest differential among all teams over this span.

As for what accounts for this, it’s some combination of officiating favoritism (subconscious bias towards appeasing the crowd) and other in-game impacts from crowd noise (e.g. more difficult for the offense to communicate, added pressure on the opposition, etc.). Even if some of that advantage is simply from players being able to sleep in their own beds in their own homes, a decline or outright lack of in-stadium fans will have a real impact on NFL games.

Might Kansas City be at a disadvantage if the NFL banned fans from attending games? It should be accounted for. Might this be a comparative advantage for the Los Angeles Chargers or one of the other teams with a negligible home field “advantage”? Of course.

And how might this affect the NFL as a whole? Without crowd noise drowning out offensive playcalls in away games, might offensive scoring increase as a whole? It’s an interesting postulation, and one with many further fantasy and gambling implications if it’s true.

This distortion of home field advantage also might not affect all players equally. Since 2014, Ben Roethlisberger averages 23.2 fantasy points per game at home and 16.3 fantasy points per game on the road. This is the largest differential among all quarterbacks. Might he lose a homefield edge without fans in the stadium? Or might his homefield edge now carry over to road games?

Similarly, Jared Goff averages over 30.0 yards per game more at home since 2017. Perhaps we should expect those splits to be less dramatic in 2020, with an increased improvement in road games. One has to assume that being able to hear offensive playcaller Sean McVay crystal-clear in his headset prior to the snap will be an advantage that provides a tangible impact on his performance.

Increase in Missed Games

First of all, let’s bring up the point that some players will at least consider opting out of the 2020 NFL season (we don’t know yet what a potential opt-out agreement between the NFL and NFLPA will look like, but they’re working on it). Without getting into specific names, some players have preexisting conditions that could increase the risk of complications from COVID-19, while others have family members who might be at higher risk. While a low percentage of players in other sports have opted out for 2020, MLB recently had some big names like Buster Posey and Ryan Zimmerman choose not to play, among others. Conversely, Ravens TE Mark Andrews, a Type 1 diabetic, has already said he will play this season. We will not speculate on exactly who might opt out from the NFL season because it’s a deeply personal decision for the players for which we can offer no insight, but we think it’s fair to acknowledge at least a handful of players will opt out. It’s a bridge to cross when we get to it.

Coronavirus is highly infectious with an R-naught (R0) of 2.0-2.5. Basically, that means, a person with coronavirus is expected to infect, on average 2.0-2.5 other people. The NFL will do everything it can to keep this number down, but it's also impossible to “socially distance” and play football at the same time, as Ravens coach John Harbaugh has said. Conceivably, the virus could be spread when huddling with teammates or when tackling an opponent, and not to mention all of the interactions (locker room, meeting) off the field.

The general sentiment from those with medical backgrounds who cover pro football (Dr. David Chao, Dr. Jene Bramel, for example) is that any new positive test — even in cases without symptoms — must be followed by two negative tests, or around 14 days in self-isolation (roughly two games) away from the team. That’s also the protocol the MLB has been following.

What does this mean?

It's an inevitability that at least some players are going to contract coronavirus, and likely miss games. Dr. Chao estimated 150 players would contract coronavirus if the season played in full. Our hope, of course, is that the number is smaller than that and that the NFL does an amazing job isolating, testing, and treating players. Our hope is that there is a vaccine or effective treatment at some point before or during the NFL season. But hope is not a strategy, and it just seems like a fait accompli that at least some players will get infected if the NFL is going to play.

On average starting running backs miss about 2.8 games per season, which is more than tight ends (2.5), which is more than wide receivers (2.1), which is significantly more than quarterbacks (1.3). Because of the nature of the pandemic, it is probably safe to assume those numbers will be higher this season, and for basically every position in football (including coaches).

What does that mean?

A lot!

Assuming there’s a full season, the immediate takeaways are:

  • Really every point we’ve discussed in this article thus far, but especially this one (increased occurrence of missed games) represents a massive injection of randomness and volatility. What happens following a massive injection of randomness and volatility? Things are far less certain, far less understood. We don’t really know what’s going to happen, what to expect, other than that we should expect the unexpected. And when Vegas fails to account for that, that’s a significant edge to us.

  • On that point, perhaps we should expect an increase in upsets. Odds for teams to make or miss playoffs are nearly identical to what they were last year. Same for odds to win their Conference or Division. For instance, there were only two teams with +400 or better odds to miss the playoffs last year, and that’s true again this year. In a vacuum, it seems impossible for the Chiefs (+700) or Ravens (+450) to miss the playoffs, but it’s probably far more likely this year, given the increase of volatility.

  • There’s probably an even greater edge to betting individual games, and at least partly because those already offered an edge. Since 2000, teams with a spread of +8.0 or more have covered 53.2% of the time. Since 2015 that’s been: 58%, 39%, 59%, 54%, and 51%. Randomness, chaos, uncertainty, and volatility greatly benefit underdogs. DraftKings has the New York Giants at 10.5-point underdogs the Ravens on December 27. The Jets are 11.5-point underdogs against the Chiefs on November 1. On September 20, the Jaguars are 10.5-point underdogs against the Titans. A lot can happen in five months. And a lot happening greatly benefits uncertainty and the underdog.

Similarly, if the NFL announces a shortened season and Vegas offers odds on that, make sure those odds appropriately account for how that rule change affects the game. Basically, it’s another massive injection of randomness and volatility. The game becomes more luck-based and less skill-based. Uncertainty, in other words, becomes more certain. It will be really hard for any team to unseat the Ravens and win the AFC North in a 16-game season, but it would be a lot easier in an eight-game season. The 2007 and 2011 Giants were far from the best teams in the NFL when they beat the Patriots to win the Super Bowl, but win the Super Bowl they did, because a four-game contest lends itself far more towards outliers than a 16-game contest. Joe Flacco got a nine-figure contract because of an all-time great Super Bowl run. Nick Foles is a legend in Philadelphia because of his Super Bowl run. Were those runs fluky? Sure, at least on some level. But they happened, and they’re more likely to happen in a shorter season.

Player Props and Fantasy Implications

On the betting side, if players are more likely to miss games, but if that’s not being factored into player props, that represents a massive edge to us. For instance, DraftKings has Teddy Bridgewater’s over/under at 3,500 passing yards. According to our projections, that’s too optimistic by 190 passing yards. For his career, Bridgewater averages 215.4 passing yards per start. His over/under assumes 218.8 passing yards per start with 16 games started. But, if he missed two games, that— by necessity — would jump to 250 yards per start, which seems highly unrealistic, considering he’s thrown for at least 250 passing yards just 11 times in 34 career starts. Again, this isn’t to pick on Bridgewater in particular, but simply to make an example — in a season in which players are simply more likely to miss games, betting “unders” seems smart. And that doesn’t simply account for the player himself — what if a key receiver or offensive lineman is forced to sit out a week?

(Note that if the NFL season ends before Week 17, or is shortened in any way on a league-wide scale, books are almost certainly going to “no action” prop bets, as a 16-game season is assumed for them. But players missing games, as long as those games are played, are fair game in prop bets.)

From a fantasy perspective, know that luck is going to play a much bigger role. The usual bane of all fantasy players – injury variance – will be amplified, and there will probably be a lot more of it. One thing you might want to do is start viewing your typical redraft league more like DFS – your focus should shift more towards week-to-week and “winning the week” as opposed to building the best long-term roster. For one thing, that’s because your Waiver Wire likely is going to be a lot more attractive this season — more missed games by starters means more fantasy relevant names on your Waiver Wire. This would give even more credence to the “Upside is Everything” draft strategy. It would also make streaming more viable at the running back and wide receiver positions. And as such, FAAB money will be far more valuable this season than in a typical season – don’t blow your load too early in the season or on just one or two players.

Let’s expand on some of this and the implications.

Assume a coach utilizes his running backs in a committee and the RB1 typically draws 60% of the team’s snaps. When the RB1 suffers an injury, the RB2 will usually assume the RB1 role plus some additional work (let’s say he now receives 75% of the snaps) due to the inexperience of the RB3 and the now lack of overall depth at the position. In such a scenario, and even if the RB1 is a much better player than the RB2, it’s hard not to imagine the RB2 outscoring the RB1’s typical average. This would also be true if both the RB1 and RB2 go down, and the RB3 receives close to 95% of the team’s snaps. A near-every-down workload is just too valuable for running backs. With wide receivers, we’ll see something similar, though less dramatic. Latavius Murray and Breshad Perriman are good examples of this last year.

Essentially, the potential for depleted depth charts will offer workloads to otherwise neglected names who can then be thrust into fantasy superstardom (or at least relevancy) on the back of that newfound increase in volume, simply so his team can get through a game. This is especially true for running backs, who are wholly reliant on volume for fantasy points. Wide receivers lean more on volume than efficiency for fantasy production, but less so than for running backs. Quarterbacks, however, are wholly tethered to efficiency, and therefore, streaming backup QBs is less valuable. (As an aside, with the potential for more backup quarterbacks playing, “the backup connection” also becomes more relevant than in years past.)

Historically, when a QB misses a game, wide receivers and tight end typically suffer more than running backs. But though receivers have so much more of their production tethered to competent quarterback play – this is an atypically good year for the Zero RB strategy. Leagues are won and lost by the running back position. Your fantasy league winners are running backs far more often than not. It is by far the most important position in fantasy. The Zero RB strategy really only works if you can find running backs in later rounds or on the Waiver Wire. The issue is, that rarely happens, even before a 2019 season that was especially brutal for the Zero RB strat. With the exception of 2015 Devonta Freeman, league winning running backs are typically drafted in the first two to four rounds. However, with starters at every position likely to miss more games, Zero RB drafters have an edge. Think of the example outlined above. While the RB1 might only miss a game or two (meaning the RB2’s duration of fantasy relevance is capped), if that comes during the fantasy playoffs it could be huge. So maybe the better takeaway is, more than any other season ever before, this is the best year to think about handcuffing your running backs. And, in general, it’s a better year for drafting and holding backup running backs even if you don’t draft the starter.

There’s been a lot of debate on social media over the slogan “Running Backs Don’t Matter” and over how much running backs “matter”, but that debate broadly misses the point. Running backs don’t matter in comparison to quarterbacks, because, well, no position really matters in comparison to quarterbacks. Wide receiver is considered the second-most valuable position in football, but the quarterback position is still about eight times as valuable as the wide receiver position. And the quarterback position is probably 10 times as valuable as defensive tackles and linebackers, which is maybe only 1.8 times as valuable as running backs and centers. In terms of value to an NFL team, Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, and Deshaun Watson are probably closer to the seeker position in quidditch than they are to centers and running backs.

In other words, iit might be worth bumping up teams with good quarterback depth (New Orleans, Dallas, etc.) up in rankings. The receivers on these teams should also be somewhat insulated for fantasy. And while this will be most true at the quarterback position, it will be true of all positions – teams with good depth overall will be at an advantage, better equipped to withstand the unknown effects of the 2020 season. It’s certainly a cynical way to have to think, but teams have absolutely already asked themselves these questions as they navigate this ridiculous landscape.

A Few Final Points

Look, we understand what we’re saying here and why this might all sound ridiculous. It seems we’re flying blind, and that’s because everyone is. Talking about fantasy football in a pandemic is a trivial endeavor, but we’re a fantasy football website, and this does affect us. Given that we have paid subscribers, it’s our duty to talk about it, even though we’d rather talk about, well, just about anything else. We want this over as much as the entire world does. But foolish or not, if the league is going to try to navigate this landscape, so are we.

  • With the increased risk that there’s no football this year or we have an incomplete season (where no one takes home the trophy), win-now dynasty teams are at a disadvantage. Teams that went the opposite route, forsaking wins now to acquire wins later (in the form of young players and future rookie picks) are surely at an advantage. Teams in the middle might want to consider going that route before it’s too late. But there’s a way to avoid this.

  • If you’re the commissioner of your league, you should consider adding more IR spots. But beyond that, you will also want to have a contingency plan in case the season ends early. Perhaps, you should put it in writing that whoever has the most points by season’s end (whenever the NFL decides that is) walks home with the trophy. Strategically, this could be exploited by looking at older vets who potentially could start the season hot but fade later, or looking at early-season strength of schedule.

  • As we’ve alluded to, coaching matters much more this season than last. A slight edge should be given to well-run franchises and teams with an established and experienced coaching staff. Coaches who handled the 2011 NFL Lockout as head coaches — Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, Andy Reid, Sean Payton, Ron Rivera, Mike McCarthy, Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh — might be better equipped for this altered off-season program.

  • As more news comes out, there will be more variables to consider, and likely more potential edges to be gained. Per ProFootballTalk, “some teams are thinking about flying to and from road contests on the day of the game, with no hotel stay.” If true, this seems likely to gift at least a small edge back to home teams.

  • It’s OK if you don’t know anything. Few of us do. Our Joe Dolan has been saying all off-season that he’s drafting teams like normal, because trying to account for what we don’t know as if we do know what we don’t know is a great way to get twisted into a pretzel. There is a lot of luck involved in fantasy football. This year, there is almost certain to be more.