With the fantasy football community growing and the increased number of pods, I feel it’s important to highlight some of the more tedious but enjoyable aspects of analyzing talent, rankings, and, the all mighty equalizer, identifying player opportunity. It’s important to note that player rankings are an incredibly personal and subjective exercise, one that will undoubtedly bring more negative feedback than positive. If you’re not getting negative feedback about something you are truly passionate about, you’re probably doing it wrong. Anything as polarizing as “hot takes” and ranking the elite assets procured by the NFL will surely see more people that disagree than the inverse. This does not mean that either side of the discussion is entirely wrong, only time will confirm the correct projection. That being said, it is important to have an analytics based process to inform our subjective opinions. Knowledge is power, but that power is neutralized if it’s not utilized during the formation of our opinions.
The final and most important part before we really dive in is to understand the settings for the league you intend to use your rankings for. Is it ppr (point per reception), are there any bonuses, how many starters for each skill position, and how many bench spots do you have? What type of league you are in, be it seasonal, best ball, keeper, or dynasty is important because in Dynasty, for example, the player’s future matters an incredible amount. It’s not necessarily about “what will they do this year”, there’s generally a 2-3 year window that a manager would be aiming for a title run, and that could drastically impact your rankings. Also dynasty leagues tend to have deeper benches too so the waiver wire has less streaming options. Age and contract length are additional data points for the dynamic landscape of a dynasty team. Best ball leagues have their own fun weighting factors such as “boom weeks” and high upside players due to the nature of not having to set your lineup but getting the optimal point output due to format. As an example, I use a twelve team ppr league with one quarterback, two wide receivers, two running backs, one tight end, two flex spots, and 5 bench spots. For the purposes of this article we will be focusing on a redraft league due to the relative simplicity.
To begin my own personal rankings, I attempt to break each position into tiers. This is the quickest and most eye opening part of the exercise. It’s not too important to worry about where each player falls within a tier, as this is just a general outline of things to come. Have fun with it but keep it fluid and be open to the changes that are sure to come with the upcoming deep dive.
A tier is a general guideline of the chances a player has to finish in each vague category of RB 1, RB 2, RB 3, and so on and so forth for each position (An RB 1 would be considered a top 10-12 running back depending on your league size, adjust accordingly however in general it is top 10). It’s important to note that each grouping may have multiple tiers. For instance, when I do my own rankings, 2 running backs are in tier one, several more in tier two, and the tiers grow or decrease depending on how far down the list you go. This is due to recent trends separating the elite from the middle in the running back and tight end positions, as well as the accession of the middle ranked wide receivers and quarterbacks. This is easily recognizable when you look at the final point totals per game of each position over the years. Personally, I don’t worry too much about who falls in which tier initially because it is a fluid process, and as I mentioned above, things change as you go along.
After the tiers are laid out it’s time to get to the real meat of the exercise. Some fantasy players enjoy stating out individual players, breaking down each team, and then adjusting slightly when the final product is laid out. I tend to start with the quarterback position and then move to wide receivers and tight ends. This is advantageous because if you stat Tom Brady to have 4200 yards and 35 touchdowns, you can then attempt to break those stats up between his receiving options. This stops you from having each wide receiver on the team having more total receptions, yards, and touchdowns then you have Brady throwing.
First, I start with passing attempts I feel they will have looking at a total body of work for a career (or in the case of rookies I use the rookie classes of the past to determine how many they may or may not have) and combine that with coaching and coordinator trends. Finally, I end with balancing all of this with expected game script. Bad defenses tend to lead to more passing attempts and a positive game script for quarterbacks and wide receivers (as well as tight ends and receiving backs), whereas teams that tend to be winning lead to positive game scripts for running backs. Coach and coordinator trends are huge here as well, as some coaches air it out while others tend to stick to the running game when the game is close (Pete Carol vs Andy Reid). Once the quarterback position is stated out the others come much easier. Be sure to look at past seasons, especially last year, under a microscope and try not to fall into the pitfalls of recency bias, hype, or breakout candidates. Be realistic, but remember they are your personal rankings, so take calculated risks and build into the rankings that you could be wrong. The players you truly believe in will become evident during the next section.
Once each player is stated and tiers have been established and adjusted, it’s time to finish your rankings. At this point I draw up a mock draft of the league your standings are intended to reflect. Make sure you focus on the settings in this part as well. Once the mock is laid out you simply put yourself into the position of each team.
As you progress, be sure to reference your current rankings, as you don’t want all of the stat dives you just did to go to waste. Be aware, however, that this is where your tiers will work themselves out. That’s not to say that you would draft exactly as your rankings are laid out. As you put yourself into the shoes of each individual team and you are actually faced with the tough decision of who to take over whom, you get to the truth of who you actually believe in over their counterpart. For example, perhaps you have Mixon over Sanders but when on the clock, looking at each and knowing you want to draft that particular position, who would you take? Then adjust your rankings accordingly knowing every adjustment has a domino effect on every player on that team. If you increase the receptions or yards for a player where do those receptions and yards come from? Do you simply improve the quarterback’s performance? Do they vulture targets from another player on the team? This is where the true rankings are ironed out. It’s ok to take a player over another and still have one stated to have more total points. While drafting a team upside comes into play so it makes sense to take an ascending player over a vet that will be locked into touches in order to attempt to find a league winner late in a draft. This exercise allows you to bake that upside into your rankings as whomever you select in the mock may not be ranked higher, but it should be relatively close if they play the same position. This is also where breakout players and post-hype sleeper opinions come out. This may or may not affect your rankings, but it leads to a clear understanding of your true opinions and will help you to back those. It may be a statistic, an injury concern (don’t stat for an injury) or perhaps just a gut feeling. These are important for the practical application of your rankings. Remember, they’re yours.
This is the final stage of the exercise but not the end of the road! Rankings need to be fluid and adjustable to make sure they take into account any player tweaking that occurs. Don’t forget to establish how those adjustments affect the other players on that team. Additionally, don’t forget that players that are not the stars will indeed get some usage during an actual NFL season. Not every pass goes to Devonte Adams, not every carry goes to Ezekiel Elliott, so be sure to give those players their realistic share.