Analyzing The Analysts (2021 Fantasy Football)
By my count, the number of fantasy analysts on Twitter out-number the “casuals” about 3 to 1. Additionally, I heard that 37% of people will believe any statistic they read on the internet, which definitely sounds true.
The point is that the number of fantasy analysts offering their "taeks" regarding fantasy football has gone exponential, much like CMC’s salary in this year’s auction drafts.
There are the big cats, you know, your Matthew Berry’s or your Adam Rank’s, whose credit includes actual cable network broadcasting. Then, just a rung down from those representing the “not a step” rungs on the fantasy ladder, you’ll find your internet big-wigs. Who, if you happen to step out of line, can deliver clap-backs of a flavor that will ratio your account out of existence. C.D. “Never Owned” Carter could very well be the final boss in that dungeon.
Obviously, fantasy analysts come in many shapes and colors. There are your stat nerds and your tapeworms (*nods to Chris Harris*), two groups as far apart on fantasy takes as the Montagues and the Capulets. Some analysts will take you on a journey down Narrative Lane, while others will break down opposing defenses and strength of schedule, and of course, there are your injury "speculationists". Some analysts always seem to be touting the newest rookie hotness while others are continually pounding the table for that beloved veteran they just can’t quit.
While thinking the other day about how the proliferation of fantasy analysts mirrors the proliferation of species in the pre-Cambrian period, I got to thinking, what makes good fantasy analysis? Are there analysts out there who are genuinely doing it better? Do I have a preference?
Sitting in my office this morning, and by office I mean outside in the hammock holding a cup of coffee, I had an epiphany: some of the fantasy advice being doled out is actually not very good.
Hard-hitting, I know. The tough part is that some of that bad content costs actual money.
The fantasy community is a lot like the wild west, there are good guys and bad guys, and nobody ever seems to address all the horseshit.
So how are we supposed to know when we’re hearing bad fantasy analysis?
Don’t worry boo, I’m here for you.
Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit: subjectivity. Some analysts actually begin their defense of a ranking by announcing, “I just really love this player.” Well, isn’t that special? I used to like this girl back in college; which is just as relevant as your amorous feelings for said player.
A good analysis starts with analysis, not gushing. Tell me why this player will produce. Provide me arguments that would counter what we all know his haters will promote. Telling me you love a player requires that I rely on your authority alone, and I’m sorry, not even Matthew Berry can get away with such hollow argumentation.
I’m old enough to remember when there was only one correct way to play fantasy. Then came PPR as well as fantasy formats for those other sports. The response from fantasy purists came in the form of vociferous complaints. Undeterred, those dirty tricksters invented Dynasty and Devy formats. The purists cried actual tears. Refusing an appeal to humanity and social justice, these terrible people then created Superflex, not to mention the worst, and I’ll only say the name once for the fear of the demons I may summon should I merely utter the name again: daily fantasy sports. I’m not even going to mention Bestball.
Now fantasy analysts are expected to explain their fantasy takes in the context of the format for which they’re giving advice? Ugh, that sounds hard…or so one would think as you observe in the irrelevant takes from various fantasy outlets.
Pretty soon we’re going to have to give out drafting advice based on the format of the draft you’re in. What is this world coming to??
Ignoring Context In PPG & Final Season Finish
A pet peeve of mine is when analysts pivot from final season finish to points per game depending on what better suits their current argument. Even worse is when they largely ignore the context behind both numbers.
Points per game is a great metric, but just like the end-of-season finish, you still need a nuanced understanding of how the player ultimately reached that end-of-season efficiency metric. This kind of nuance matters a great deal and isn’t always apparent when comparing simple points-per-game or end-of-season metrics, as neither describes the volatility of a player’s production.
Let's take Tyler Lockett for example. According to FantasyPros.com 2020 season statistics he ended the year with 165.3 fantasy points (standard scoring) and having played all 16 games, his 10.3 points per game finish was 11th in the league at the WR position. Sounds great right? Well, it wasn't. It really really wasn't.
First, Locket finished outside the top 48 WRs a whopping nine times, i.e. not start-able in fantasy.
Furthermore, he finished inside the top-36 WRs two times and in the top-24 another two times. He only finished as a top-12 WR three times, though it is worth noting he finished as the overall WR1 two times this past season.
A simple comparison of the standard deviation, or the relative variability, of weekly finishes between Lockett and players near him in the end-of-season finish, illustrates why Lockett should be much lower than these other players in your ranks.
I compared a handful of receivers including players directly above and below Lockett on the final end of season fantasy points rankings according to data provided by FantasyPros.com. On its face, Lockett appears to belong right in the middle of this group according to both end-of-season finishes as well as when ranked by points per game.
If you look at the standard deviation - the relative variability - of their respective weekly performances, you'll see that Lockett displayed nearly twice the variation of Allen Robinson. When you rank this group of wide receivers by relative variability (i.e. standard deviation) you see that Lockett is the clear outlier here, ranking dead last amongst this group.
Hey, fantasy community! Let’s normalize citing the standard deviation of efficiency metrics like points per game so we can leave players with high standard deviations to our Bestball leagues.
In addition, how those fantasy points were earned means more in terms of predictive strength than how many points were scored as a final tally, even on a per-game basis. As an example, show me a receiver or running back who has a high percentage of touchdown points as compared to total fantasy point production, and I'll show you a player who is at risk for regression (particularly if their context is unchanged). This is because touchdowns are among the most volatile (and least predictable) stat in fantasy football. This is why Adam Thielen's 180 fantasy points and 12 PPG (both 7th overall) don't merit a similar projection in 2021 when you consider the 46.7% touchdown points percentage Thielen's 14 touchdowns provided. A player like DeAndre Hopkins whose touchdown point percentage of 20.8% of his 172.8 total has a far more reliable floor.
In a related point, recent history has demonstrated that running back targets have produced fantasy points more efficiently than running back touches. Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) over at PFF did a great write-up about this phenomenon, which is what makes players like Alvin Kamara or Christian McCaffery so valuable.
Comparing running backs by the number of targets, yards after contact, or even yards before first contact, will tell you more than points per game or touch-counts alone. Evaluating more predictive efficiency metrics such as points per route run, average depth of target, or share of team air yards are will produce better results for pass catchers. For TEs I want to know their routes run per snap rather than just snap percentage alone.
Where splits can point to obvious strengths or weaknesses in a player’s production, end-pointing is the splits’ evil cousin, masking inferior production and propping up poor fantasy arguments for decades. Have you heard that if you just ignore the game where Claypool scored four touchdowns, his season wasn’t that impressive? Or that Kamara was only a top RB because he scored six touchdowns in one game?
Splits are an important part of fantasy analysis, but if done arbitrarily, what exactly has been proven? Worse yet, is when analysts set up their splits in dishonest ways in order to further their argument. Methinks it happens way too often in poor fantasy analysis. The endpoints for player comps need to have logical relevance, not just the endpoints that provide the most dramatic comps.
Using Past-Production To Justify Projections
Have you heard the good news about Marvin Jones? He finished as the WR18 last year with 115 targets!
Never mind that he was competing for targets with Danny Amendola, TJ Hockenson, and rookie D’Andre Swift who never saw more than five targets in a game last year. Never mind that he's a 31-year old free agent WR changing teams. Never mind that this year he’ll be competing for targets with DJ Chark, Laviska Shenault, and Travis Etienne…maybe even Tim Tebow. Never mind his rookie quarterback. Never mind that we have no real idea of exactly how well incoming rookie NFL head coach Urban Meyer's offense will function.
Listen, I have nothing against Marvin Jones, but he’s not likely repeating his 2020 numbers in 2021. Citing them as anything more than historical context is folly.
To properly project players, the context of their place on the team each year must be considered. Yes, past production is a good starting point for future success, but history rarely repeats itself.
I chuckle every year as NFL schedule release day is promptly followed by end of season stat projections. “It’s simple,” they tell us, “Just take the end-of-year finish for last year’s defenses, and you can produce accurate strength of schedule projections.”
Of course, this is following their segment on how all the new additions on the Bengal's offensive line and the drafting of Ja’Marr Chase should dramatically improve that Bengals’ offensive production and that the losses on the offensive line could negatively impact the Raiders’ production this year. Then of course there's the question of how Goff and that new coaching staff is going to impact D'Andre Swift's 2021 production.
So…is attrition not a thing on defense? Or do draft selections and veteran free agent acquisitions/losses only help/hurt offenses year over year?
Without taking into account new coaching staffs, veteran additions, high-impact rookies, or even the health and performance of key players on the other side of the ball, defensive projections are pretty pointless. Even defensive projections based on end-of-season defensive efficiency metrics (rather than just end-of-season yards allowed finishes as is more common) as Mike Tagliere of FantasyPros has recently touted, still doesn’t take any new context into account.
Predictions based on prior production and absent the context of current events are just as irrelevant for defenses as they are on offense when similar context is ignored, only far more prevalent.
The lesson for this is until we have defensive projections based on the attrition at each defensive position for each team, we can pretty safely ignore most strength of schedule predictions until at least four weeks of actual NFL football have been played. Strength of schedule projections has the most utility about 3-4 weeks ahead of the fantasy playoffs where actual statistics and player/coach/system evaluations can be conducted, providing actionable information that can actually give you a slight edge.
What Are They Selling?
My articles are free and I think most would argue that they’re worth every penny. However, not all fantasy advice is of the quality and price-point value that you’re enjoying here today.
Next time you’re listening to a pod, try to determine if they’re giving you advice that will help you win your season, or help them sell you their draft guide. Understand that I’m not even trying to take a shot at these draft guide materials. The problem is that in promoting them they’re going to cherry-pick the very best places to promote their rankings as compared to their perceived competition. Those promotions will rarely point out the swings and misses, nor provide a real objective perspective of their own assertions and advice.
In this sense, perhaps it's better to purchase materials of analysts you trust, rather than listening to promotional programming regarding those kinds of materials.
Every successful analyst brings something to the table, such is the case with the aforementioned tapeworms or the data scientists moonlighting as fantasy evaluators. But there are other avenues to fantasy analyst success and oftentimes it’s simply because of the clever or unique way they communicate their message. Certain people are charismatic and humorous on-camera whereas others have a speaking voice that is probably better suited for the 280-characters of Twitter. These days we have fantasy-themed music video spoofs from @jaketrowbridge, a truth-speaking down-to-earth relatable dude like @LordDontLose, and even an Andy Kaufman-styled fantasy spoofer in @cooterdoodle. It's important to understand that these people are expanding the fantasy content community by making it feel more accessible to a larger group of people.
However, it is important to know whether or not they’re trying to give advice to you or reaching out to grab another audience altogether.
The context of the advice the analyst is giving is as important as the context of the target audience to which they’re speaking. Most analysts have a specific group of people in mind when they provide advice. For some, they’re speaking to a casual fantasy audience, others focus on providing primarily Devy advice, while others still are targeting the kinds of folks who create their own projections or who want to learn how to create models with R code.
Understanding who the analyst is targeting will allow you to understand how to value their advice. Perhaps you’re not a casual player and you scroll through the sleeper list provided by the bigger names in the analyst community and remark on how none of those names are actual sleepers. You may have been playing fantasy for decades, the kind of player who reads fantasy articles in June; but it's important for you to remember that some fantasy players only picked up the game a few seasons back.
Find the analysts that consider you their target audience and embrace the reality that that analyst you don’t like or is pretty “casual” in your perspective, is probably not focused on communicating to a player like you.