In fantasy football, and particularly with these new huge Best Ball tournaments, we are always looking for ways to gain upside for our teams. It’s even better when we can do so in unique ways or ways that our opponents are not considering. Maybe the best way to do so is through Scenario Based Drafting.
First, let’s take a step back and define what “Scenario Based Drafting” even really means.
Fantasy drafts are a combination of projections and market sentiment. Players are projected for a certain level of production, and the market (drafters) have varying opinions on those projections and their range of outcomes. On top of that, the market makes decisions on certain players based on historical trends, positional scarcity and some other strategic variables.
We’ve gotten to the point where the market is pretty efficient in terms of projections and things like youth and positional value, so there is minimal edge to be gained there. But what’s more difficult for the market to take into account is the large amount of scenarios that can play out over the course of an NFL season. As we know, there are millions and millions of ways an NFL season can play out, but we can’t account for all of that during draft season, nor should we.
However, every year there are various scenarios that provide an extraordinary amount of upside to certain players or teams in the draft pool. They provide such a unique opportunity for outsized gains that it’s worth investing in that particular scenario. There are a few different main buckets of types of scenarios that we should look for:
Identity Changing Injuries
I think a lot of the fantasy space has wrapped their heads around the idea of contingent value, mainly as it relates to running backs. This is why the likes of Tony Pollard and other “handcuff” RBs are fairly highly drafted, because we know the upside they provide if something were to happen to their starter. That’s not necessarily what we are targeting here in terms of a scenario.
Injuries are definitely a situation that can create upside for other players, but the next level beyond just contingent value is the idea of identity changes. Ben Gretch (author of Stealing Signals) coined a phrase last offseason called the “Identity Back”, specifically talking about running backs who are essentially the identity of their offense. The most glaring one was Derrick Henry. The Titans built their entire offense around him, so there is a lot more that goes into the contingencies if Henry goes down than most other running backs. The Titans offense would have to change. I wrote last year about that specific scenario as one I was targeting heavily, but unfortunately Darrynton Evans got hurt before we could reap the rewards, Anthony Firkser wasn’t quite what we hoped and both AJ Brown and Julio Jones got hurt as well.
There are a lot of “identity” type players on NFL offenses, though, not just Derrick Henry. It’s also not just running backs. Receivers or even Tight Ends can be identity players as well. (For this, we’re mostly ignoring QBs since clearly the QB is the fulcrum of the offense.)
We are going to see one of those scenarios play out in 2022 with Tyreek Hill. Patrick Mahomes is the star of the show, but Tyreek Hill has been the offensive identity for the Chiefs for years. His big play ability and lid-lifting speed set everything up for the Chiefs offense, and while we’ve seen him miss a few games here or there, we’ve never seen him have an extended absence.
Not all running backs or lead wide receivers are identity players either. When Dalvin Cook goes down, Alexander Mattison steps right in not much changes. The same was true for the Rams backfield in 2021 without Cam Akers. DJ Chark might have been the WR1 for the Jags, but nothing changed when he was out.
However, identifying the “identity” players across the league can be very beneficial to building out this untapped upside. What does it mean for an offense when certain players miss time, and who stands to benefit from this upside if that scenario plays out?
We have gotten quite good at projections nowadays, but we’ll never be able to project certain tendency or volume spikes. In 2020, the Bengals came out of the gates with one of the most insane pass rates we’d ever seen until Joe Burrow got hurt. In 2021, the Ravens went from the run heaviest team in the league to a team that finished 9th in total pass attempts on the season.
Sometimes these spikes come from coaching decisions (Bengals) and other times they come out of necessity (Ravens defensive injuries), but either way they create wildly unexpected upside (and floor) for certain individuals on those offenses.
Pass rate is the simplest example of this, like we saw with the Ravens. Mark Andrews had always been an efficient player, but the lack of team passing volume held him back from putting up a superstar fantasy season. Of course, it’s not something we can necessarily predict, but the payoff is so big when something like this hits that it’s something we should be considering during our overall draft approach over the offseason.
The term “Superstar” might be a small exaggeration, but we love to name things dumb names in fantasy sports. The premise here is that there’s a completely unforeseen level of performance for a player that causes tremendous exceeding of expectations.
The simplest way to think about it would be at the QB position. If you have a player that is completely unknown (first time starter or rookie) or viewed as not particularly good that turns in a super high level performance. A couple examples jump to my mind –
In 2012, we saw this with multiple QBs. The Seahawks signed Matt Flynn from the Packers to a 3 year contract to be their starting QB. They had been a poor passing offense, and while the Flynn signing was expected to be an upgrade, the sentiment was largely that they’d remain a lackluster passing offense. Flynn ended up losing the job in training camp to rookie Russell Wilson. Wilson instantly became a star level QB, making the Pro Bowl as a rookie, adding 11 passing touchdowns to their offensive total from the prior year and turning them from the 23rd ranked offense to the 9th.
Robert Griffin III was a rookie that year as well, and he actually won rookie of the year over both Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck. RG3 was a top prospect, but his impact far, far exceeded market expectations. He took Washington from the 26th ranked offense in the league to the 4th. RG3’s impact was felt with several other offensive players. He was a unique case where his rushing actually led to Alfred Morris having a monster running back season, but Pierre Garcon was on pace for a 1,000 yard season as a receiver if not for missing 6 games.
Those two situations happened a decade ago, but imagine the impacts in the pass heavy league we have today. There won’t necessarily be comparable spots to these every single year, but we can think through the draft environment for any given year and be thoughtful about these things. For 2022, a couple possibilities that jump to mind are the Rookie and Free Agents QBs.
The market is extremely low on this rookie QB class. It’s not at all to say they’re wrong in that assessment, but that’s the point. If one of these underwhelming QB prospects comes out of nowhere to be the next Russell Wilson or unforeseen star QB, we can benefit from drafting our team around that scenario. The same could be said for the likes of Mitch Trubisky or Marcus Mariota. More than likely, they’re below average NFL QBs, but what if the Bears situation with Matt Nagy really was the problem for Trubisky and being mentored by Brian Daboll allowed him to make a huge leap. That could mean HUGE things for the Steelers offense after being held back by Big Ben.
All in all, these are just a few of the frameworks that we can use to look for untapped upside that our opponents aren’t considering. We have no idea how an NFL season will play out, but there are certain scenarios that offer us such an extraordinary amount of upside that it makes a ton of sense for us to invest in as drafters.