NHL ’94 or Sonic 2?: A Look At Best Ball League Strategy
What would I play with my buddy Steve? NHL ’94 was conducive to multiplayer gameplay, even though I had mastered the wraparound and rarely lost (humble brag). But Sonic 2 was so much fun. I mean, who doesn’t want to fool around with the human (hedgehog) slot machine in Casino Night for three straight hours?
What would I play with my buddy Steve?
Sometimes it didn’t matter. Sometimes the choice was the right one, no matter the selection we made. Sometimes it mattered a lot, though. If I blew into my Sonic 2 cartridge, played it for three hours and ended up being killed by a stupid praying mantis in the Metropolis Zone over and over again…it mattered.
Fortunately, there are no praying mantises in fantasy football best ball leagues. Your selections are always right.
Best Ball League Overview
If you’re unfamiliar with the best ball format, it’s simple: You draft a team and never touch it again. Your starting lineup is optimized based on top performances each week. You don’t have to worry about starting the right players or playing the best matchups – they’re already played for you.
Clearly this type of league involves little interaction. Trades and waiver wire pickups don’t happen, so deep sleepers that are unnoticed by the fantasy football masses won’t be able to be started throughout the season. It sounds like a bad situation, but really, that’s where you need to take advantage.
Say Goodbye to the Waiver Wire, Say Hello to Probability and Confidence
Plenty of usable wide receivers and running backs can come off the wire each week. The problem isn’t the number of usable players there are in fantasy football, but rather how confident we are when using them.
Example: Brandon Bolden. After three games consisting of 7 carries for 15 yards and a score, Bolden’s Patriots faced Buffalo last season in Week 4. He went on to run the ball 16 times for 137 yards and a score, en route to a top-12 running back finish that week. Was it surprising? Of course, even if some had him on a deep sleeper list that week, it was still a slight shock. Teams didn’t play him off the waiver wire, and above all else, teams didn’t even own the New England rookie in fantasy football.
As I’ve noted time and time again, there may be a heck of a lot of players ranking as starters each week at wide receiver and running back, but the majority of the players aren’t starting on your fantasy team. And, unfortunately, a handful of those players – like Bolden – weren’t even drafted in your normal fantasy league.
Here’s the deal: You can’t use the waiver wire in a best ball league. Your bench is your waiver wire. You have to strategically choose players who play positions of high volatility early and often, as these players are less unstable to their positions.
Comprehending Weekly Output is Key
I’ve made an effort over the last year to put more emphasis on weekly output, and in best ball leagues, the data can help tremendously. As I just noted, we can conclude that, while there are a ton of running back and wide receivers finishing with top-24 or -12 weekly performances, many of those players weren’t even selected in standard leagues.
Let’s use 2012 as our example. Depending on your scoring, there were roughly 98 different receivers with at least one top-24 week, and 93 running backs who did the same. When you look at the list, you get plenty of dudes who weren’t even remotely draftable last August. Some examples at running back include Stanley Havili, Armando Allen, Lance Ball, Chris Rainey and Anthony Dixon. And you could argue the receiver list is more ridiculous, as players like Travis Benjamin, Kyle Williams, Ramses Barden, Marlon Moore and Tiquan Underwood each cracked the top-24 at least once.
The reason for the massive number of players accomplishing the feat is pretty simple. First, more backs and receivers get opportunities in a given game. One 80-yard touchdown and a guy like Tiquan Underwood becomes a weekly fantasy darling. Second, more injuries occur at these positions, especially at running back. Keep that in mind, as this is key to pre- to post-season consistency and playing probability.
Though there are some really bad quarterbacks in the league (hey there, 2012 Arizona Cardinals), the fact is, many signal callers start and finish an entire season. And in single-quarterback leagues, the chance that you select a quarterback who doesn’t finish the season, barring injury, is pretty slim. To put this another way, the quarterback you draft will more than likely be starting at the end of the season for his real football team. You can’t guarantee points like that at running back and receiver, especially with the running backs and receivers drafted late.
Quarterback weekly output is more fickle than most think, but it’s also predictable because we know which passers will be playing each week. In other words, a high volume of passers post startable numbers throughout the season. In fact, 38 different ones cracked the top 12 last season at least once, and 25 of them did it four or more times. There’s more than enough quarterback love to go around.
Wide Receivers and Running Backs Are Still Vital
As I briefly mentioned, the unpredictability – inherent to the position and due to injury – at receiver and running back needs to be mitigated with early-round draft selections in best ball leagues. You can make the argument – and should – for non-best ball leagues too, but it’s even more vital in this less interactive format.
You, too, can make the argument that receivers should be valued higher than they usually would. Not just any receiver, though; I’m referring to veteran, proven ones. Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall will give your receiving group a nice floor, while Julio Jones, even with his crazy weekly upside, may produce more volatility.
That’s not to say you should avoid boom or bust players. Josh Gordon, for instance, may be the best example (suspension aside) of a prime middle-round wideout to select in your best ball leagues. His up-and-down production last year was captured by a few stellar games, and given he was a rookie, Gordon should see more of that in 2013.
But don’t build your core on upside. Like standard leagues, you should still mitigate risk early, creating a solid foundation throughout your lineup. Remember, early-round wide receivers and running backs do flop. And they do it more often than quarterbacks. But because they flop, or finish far outside their projected rank, you have to be ready for it. That doesn’t mean you avoid them early. It means you select them often in the early rounds because you’re not able to make up for a flop through a trade or free agency.
More on Quarterbacks and Tight Ends
Streaming onesie positions is something I like to advocate as a worst-case scenario situation in your fantasy lineup. The ultimate goal should be, of course, to obtain simple plug-and-play options within your lineup, but because quarterbacks, tight ends, defenses and kickers are easily replaceable, there’s less of a need to snag them early in your drafts.
The art of streaming comes down to predictability. You can effectively stream quarterbacks because the position is fairly unsurprising each week, making the late-round quarterback strategy more valuable in best ball formats. Tight ends don’t necessarily show the most weekly consistency, causing fantasy owners some anxiety. In best ball leagues, however, you’re no longer worrying about matchup. You just need a single tight end post TE1 numbers.
The argument for waiting on a quarterback is more obvious than tight end, especially in 2013. Not only do a ton quarterback have QB1 performances throughout a given season, but you know who those quarterbacks will be at the beginning of the season. You don’t need to necessarily worry about the lack of waiver wire if you end up with a platoon of signal callers because you know each of those passers will be tossing the rock 30 or more times a game. There’s clear opportunity for them. That’s why you can wait until double-digit rounds to get two or three of them in order to match the production of early-round quarterback drafters in best ball (and, in my opinion, non-best ball) leagues.
Tight end gets a little shaky though. If you were to draft a bunch of tight end sleepers, the chance of one of them panning out is far less than the chance of a bunch of quarterback sleepers panning out. Why? Again, we know the majority of quarterbacks who start a season will finish the season as starter, no matter their output. Tight end production is dependent on many factors, making them a riskier investment.
You can certainly wait to draft your first tight end because of supply and demand, allowing your team to be built on the more valuable running back and wide receiver assets. But keep in mind that you should aim for at least one or two stable, dependable tight end options. They don’t have to be through-the-roof talented, but they should be relatively predictable from a weekly target perspective. Selecting Rob Housler or Jordan Cameron as a top tight end or a streaming duo in a best ball league may seem advantageous because of their potential upside, but keep in mind that there’s still a chance they could both ‘Jared Cook’ your team. Instead, find value in a true TE1 like Greg Olsen, and pair him with one or two of those upside plays.
You Still Want Upside
I know I’ve been preaching stability in these leagues, but aside from a couple of guys at each position, you should still strive for upside, big play options. The reason I actually brought up the predictability pieces is because I find far too many owners striving for only upside plays, which can get a team in trouble.
My goal in normal drafts is to go for those upside players in the second half – usually even later – of the draft. With best balls, I shift this margin up a bit. If it’s the sixth round, would I want Torrey Smith or Steve Smith? In a regular league, I’d lean Steve. In a best ball league, I’d probably go Torrey. Steve’s range of point production from week to week is much smaller than Torrey’s, making him an easier plug-and-play option. Torrey, however, won’t be started on my best ball team unless he has a big game (hopefully, of course). And he’s a tremendous boom or bust player, so we know big games will happen.
Don’t over think things, either. Best balls should be looked at with a different eye, but don’t overstate the impact this league type has on the fake game. The only time you should strive for upside plays is when you’re contemplating between players. Steve Smith and Torrey Smith are close in ADP for a lot of folks, so the choice in Torrey makes sense for a best ball league. If it was between Torrey Smith and Marques Colston, I’d still go with the veteran Colston. Don’t be ridiculous.
Compiling This Nonsense into Five Rules
We can break this all down into five different rules:
1. Because of their flop rates, wide receiver and running backs should still be highly sought after in best ball leagues.
2. Because of wide receiver volatility, obtaining a sure thing is important in order to create a higher floor for your team at the position.
3. While the tight end position is a onesie one, keep in mind that the position is unpredictable. If you only go with upside players, you’re running into the potential (a high one, too) to score very few points each week at the position throughout the entire season. Remember, there are no waiver wire pickups to make up for that.
4. Quarterbacks are the most predictable position in terms of production because of their weekly opportunity. Instead of getting one with one of your first five picks – something I clearly don’t advocate regardless of league type – snag a group of three in the teen rounds of your draft. You know these guys will still be starting for their teams once the season is over. I’m talking about players like Jay Cutler, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer, Sam Bradford and Ryan Tannehill.
5. Though I didn’t speak to this, don’t forget to grab two defenses and two kickers. And, because you can’t stream your defenses, feel free to reach an extra round or two for a sound one. Just don’t be stupid and select the Seahawks in Round 10, please?