Fantasy football seems like an incredibly simple game. Draft the best players who score the most points.
But especially with the new incredibly popular and truly massive Best Ball tournaments, the game has changed…
… and it’s changed more than most people realize.
It’s not just as simple as picking the best players at the start of the season, maybe working the waiver wire a little bit and beating your 11 other league mates. In these huge new Best Ball tournaments (like on Underdog, Drafters and DraftKings), we have to make it out of our league, but then we have to beat hundreds of thousands of other competitors too.
We have to navigate our way through 3 playoff rounds against other very strong teams that also have continued to advance. We need a squad loaded with upside when we reach Week 17 to take home these huge top prizes.
Or, on Drafters with cumulative scoring, we have to outscore 10s of thousands of other teams in total points over 17 weeks.
No big deal. You just basically need to hit the stone cold nuts against thousands of others attempting to do the same thing.
There is still one particular huge edge in these tournaments, however. The NFL season is total chaos. Injuries, unpredictable team performance, straight up good/bad luck, and many other chaotic elements will undoubtedly play out over the course of the NFL season.
But so many of our competitors still draft their teams without truly taking into consideration this chaos. Which is where Contingent Value comes in. And it is our best path to winning life changing money playing fantasy football.
Contingent Value is King
If you consume any best ball or fantasy football content during this draft cycle, you will undoubtedly hear the overwhelming majority of conversations center around scenarios that totally ignore that aforementioned chaos. We are projecting target shares, backfield splits (or lack thereof), player roles and more. But because we have no real accurate way of predicting or projecting injuries or general chaos (like Urban Meyer or Joe Judge tanking an entire franchise), we go through these exercises assuming everyone is healthy and there’s essentially no chaos. I’m as guilty of it as anyone. It’s an easy trap to fall into.
This means we are all analyzing the fantasy football landscape without accounting for the stuff that’s the most important and most impactful to how the fantasy football season plays out.
This is where Contingent Value comes into play.
First, let’s define what “contingent value” even means. Simply put, for my nerds out there, it’s a bit of an “IF THEN” statement. If something happens to a player’s situation, then we see a value increase for said player. That situation change most often is realized via an injury to an offensive teammate that leads to more opportunity, but there are also other potential contingent based outcomes (more on that later).
The reason this is so important is because the results of an NFL season are mostly binary, and they’re binary in such a way that we can never accurately project. A player gets hurt… or they don’t. A coach decides to shift play calling… or he doesn’t. A player takes over a role through good play… or he doesn’t. And we simply can’t project these things due to that binary nature.
But that’s precisely why they’re so important. Because we can’t project them, they are the situations that provide the most value EVERY year. There’s a reason when Cam Akers got hurt last offseason that every best ball drafter ran to their computers or phones to see how much Darrell Henderson they had drafted. And there’s a reason unexpected players are putting up monster weeks at the end of the season to win people millions of dollars.
The problem is that they are impossible to predict. That doesn’t mean we should just ignore them, though. Quite the opposite.
None of us really know who is going to get hurt or how the chaos of the NFL season is going to play out. But ignoring the most important variable of winning Best Ball tournaments (and fantasy football leagues) is a losing recipe. We can still assess the entire market and build our teams in a way that takes advantage of these contingent scenarios when they play out in our favor. And we can also structure our strategy in such a way that we crush our counterparts who are so focused on projecting the season as if everything goes perfectly.
Best Situations to Target
While there are many different nuances to contingent value, there are a few different types of situations that create the type of upside that we should prioritize.
Handcuff RB / Committee RB – This is almost assuredly the example that jumps to everyone’s mind when they think about contingent value, and that’s likely because it’s the most powerful and impactful. There is only one position where you can often replace a more talented player and simply shift his volume to the backup and get quite similar fantasy results. Running Back. We see it every year, and it’s not JUST the strict handcuff players either.
Those handcuffs (like Alexander Mattison or Tony Pollard) provide the easiest projection of the contingency because we can confidently project how the offense will operate and their role if they are thrust into the main role. But we also see a similar situation play out in backfields that we project to be committees in Week 1.
In 2021, for example, James Conner was one of the best picks in Best Ball. He was a mid round RB in a projected timeshare with Chase Edmonds. That was true when Edmonds was healthy, but Edmonds did not stay healthy. And when Edmonds went down, Conner went from a TD dependent committee back to a full on workhorse in a great offense.
A very similar thing happened to Devin Singletary, where he became a league winner down the stretch of 2021. The difference was his rise to stardom was not via an injury contingency, but just earning a full role away from an inferior player or players.
We also saw a bit more of the handcuff type upside in both Darrell Henderson and Sony Michel (benefitted from TWO injuries in front of him), James Robinson and of course the 2021 Best Ball playoff star, Rashaad Penny.
Offensive Identity Changes – When certain players get hurt or a team’s situation changes, you can see offensive identity changes, which drastically shake up everything we think we know about the offense.
Last summer, when discussing this idea for RBs specifically, Ben Gretch coined it the “identity back”, meaning a running back that an offense has created its identity around. If he is removed from the situation (typically via injury), they are going to change the way they play offense.
The version of this scenario we saw in 2021 was actually quite fascinating. The Baltimore Ravens have been the run heaviest team in the NFL backed up by a strong, talented defense for years now. But in 2021, just about everything went wrong for them.
First, they lost both J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards to injury. They suffered injuries along the offensive line, and the final death blow (even before Lamar Jackson was hurt) was the total decimation of their defensive secondary. A team that lost it’s 2 (or 3) lead runners and is unable to stop any opposing offense due to defensive injuries simply can’t be an old school smash mouth running team. So, we saw them go from 406 pass attempts in 2020 to 611 in 2021, a truly massive jump. With that type of volume increase, we saw Mark Andrews be a true league winner at the TE position. He was already an efficient player, but there wasn’t enough volume in the offense in previous seasons. Once that changed, he was able to explode.
Pass Game Opportunity – While the clearest form of contingent value is in Running Backs, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist for receivers or pass game weapons. Yes, you have the identity situations like Mark Andrews, but you can also have situations where individuals in the pass game see a large uptick in production and upside due to teammates injury, suspension, or other issue.
We have to be careful when thinking these situations through because removing talent from an NFL pass game can be harmful, but big gains in target share are also quite possible. We often think about growth in target share coming into the season for players who lost teammates (think Calvin Ridley last season after Julio Jones was traded), but we never think about it as it pertains to the natural chaos of the season.
While many seem to attribute the late season breakout of Amon-Ra St. Brown to the typical rookie late season surge, that’s not the entire story. Amon-Ra benefitted GREATLY from the attrition of his most talented teammates in the pass game. He went from playing with D’Andre Swift and TJ Hockenson (& even a reasonably productive Quintez Cephus), to all of those guys getting injured and playing with Khalif Raymond, Craig Reynolds and Brock Wright.
Maybe Amon-Ra would have had the monstrous final month of the season regardless, but it’s hard to pretend the loss of all the other teammates didn’t help turn his offensive role into a much more sizable one.
Not Everyone Has Contingent Value
While there is a lot of valuable contingent value across the fantasy football player pool, it’s also important to note that not everyone has contingent value, or not every situation produces enough upside to make the contingent value worth targeting.
There are a couple critical elements to take into account trying to determine if players or situations are worth targeting for their contingent upside.
Player Talent – Player talent may not always be the simplest thing to evaluate, and it’s certainly up to individual opinions, but it’s VERY important when trying to determine the upside of the contingent value of a player. And not only do we need to assess the talent of the player who may benefit from the contingency, but also the talent of the player being removed from the offense.
The Minnesota Vikings are a reasonably good offense. But a huge part of why they are solid is because Justin Jefferson is a superstar. Technically there is contingent value for other players on the offense from a volume perspective, but if they are not talented enough to pick up the slack, the offense will take a huge nose dive in their ability to generate points and yardage.
Losing a star player can give more volume to teammates, but we need to make sure they’re talented enough to use it to create real upside, otherwise the contingency is mostly useless. On the flip side, if we know/think the offense will be able to remain at least reasonably efficient and effective, then we start to factor in the player talent to determine what the true upside is.
The Bengals are a great example of this. Ja’Marr Chase is clearly their superstar, but given the talent on the roster, they should still have an offense worthy of exposure even in the absence of Chase. However, the greatest contingent value comes from the most talented players – Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. The 4th WR (whoever that is) is very unlikely to have the talent to earn a significant enough role even without Chase. Hayden Hurst also may see a small bump, but he’s not going to turn into Travis Kelce overnight.
Offensive Situation – Similar to the player talent, there has to be a requisite level of strength in a player’s offensive situation in order to create enough upside to warrant contingent value consideration. This often goes somewhat hand in hand with player talent.
In the above example, we see that even in the event of an injury to one of the WRs, the offense is still going to be strong enough to produce fantasy points. We do have to be careful being TOO rigid and confident in our ability to understand offensive strength, but it’s an important variable in the calculation nonetheless.
We saw this play out in 2021, as well. The Jaguars lost Travis Etienne to injury in the preseason, and they lost DJ Chark (and some additional role players) in the pass game. That afforded other players with increased opportunity, but the situation was just too poor for anyone to have any fantasy upside. We had a similar situation with the New York Giants.
Meanwhile, the eventual Super Bowl Champion LA Rams lost Robert Woods and Cam Akers (and Darrell Henderson a little later) and saw zero production loss – partly because Stafford/Kupp were amazing and of course partly due to the Odell Beckham pickup.
The goal here was not to define every possible contingency scenario or provide the answers to the test. But hopefully this will allow us all to think a little differently about our draft strategies and player targets given the fact that we know how important contingent value is.