Managing Your Dynasty Exposure (2021 Fantasy Football)

Of the phrases bandied about on the fantasy Twitter machine, asserting with gusto that you "have a few shares” is fast becoming the expression du jour to communicate your exposure to a specific fantasy player. Yet, player exposure is one of the lesser talked about concepts of fantasy football management and fantasy managers could potentially benefit from a greater recognition of the impact player exposure can have on the value of their fantasy portfolio. I spent some time this past week analyzing my player rostership rates over at DynastyPlanet. There were certain trends in my player exposure that I feel justifies some added scrutiny and discussion.


For this study I used my 20 dynasty teams currently hosted on the Sleeper platform. All are some flavor of dynasty and some form of points per reception scoring format. All but one league is a superflex format. This is a mixture of a few existing leagues as well as startup drafts, with both auction and serpentine formats.


Quarterbacks are the first players off the board in most superflex drafts giving quarterbacks the highest acquisition cost of any other position in superflex. This is compounded by the relatively rarity of elite-level production at the position, so it makes sense that the elite quarterbacks command truly astronomical acquisition costs. Paying this high acquisition cost is justified by the relative reliability of QB production from year to year as well as a lower incidence of injury at the position, at least as compared to RB or WR.


However, it wasn’t the elite QBs who dominated the top of my QB rostership rankings. Rather it was guys like Justin Fields (30%) and Trey Lance (26%) who both have potential upside that far outweighs their more reasonable acquisition costs. I love having players like Pat Mahomes going 1.9 according to Sleeper SF ADP or Josh Allen (4.6 SF ADP) on my teams, but their acquisition cost makes investing heavily in these players somewhat cost-prohibitive. I have both players on 11% of teams in my portfolio, but it makes sense that I have more shares of Dak Prescott (19%), whose potential ceiling is just as high as the previous players despite a much lower acquisition cost going 11.6 in Sleeper SF ADP.


A similar pattern emerges for running backs where I found myself taking calculated bets on numerous elite options, and then planting my flag on various lower-cost options. I didn’t roster any of the top-12 players, according to The Undroppables dynasty ranks at more than a 15% rate; leaving me with what now feels like too few shares of Jonathan Taylor’s dynasty services as my highest owned RB1. But as we all know, running backs often get injured and miss games. That, and you simply cannot predict injury. It’s these truisms that inspire the genesis of strategies like zero-RB or a bi-modal approach, which are designed to take advantage of the annual attrition at the RB position.


With the 17-game schedule incoming, I think it’s likely that we see a further shift away from the bell cow approach to NFL backfields relying more on the RBBC approach. This means that there could be more uncertain backfields, and thus more opportunity to cash-in on running backs with low acquisition costs. My highest owned running back is the rarely-touted AJ Dillon, who I have on a whopping 48% of my rosters. It’s clear I think there’s potential for more than an ancillary role for him in Green Bay, which leads me to believe that Dillon has intriguing value, especially at his 111.9 Sleeper SF ADP.


Similarly, players like Jamaal Williams (187.7 SF ADP) or Tony Pollard (172.3 SF ADP) have enough upside at their acquisition costs to justify rostership rates in my portfolio checking in at 26% and 37% respectively. The RB in which I’m most invested in terms of both relative acquisition cost and rostership rate is Austin Ekeler (40.2 SF ADP) who I roster on nearly 30% of teams. If he produces like many are projecting, I should have a pretty good asset on a lot of my rosters, and I’ll have hit a jackpot. But if Ekeler were to have a serious injury, knock on wood, I’ll have lost a fairly sizable bet, as 30% of my teams will now be negatively impacted.


Poker isn’t a bad analogy when thinking about player exposure and relative risk. Think about a player’s acquisition cost as the color of your poker chip and rostership rates as the number of poker chips you push into the pot. If you win the hand, having a lot of blue chips in the pot can hit big. But putting in all your chips on the wrong hand can ruin a fantasy season, as so many people were painfully reminded in 2020.


I made more sizable bets on players at moderate acquisition costs at WR, with a larger degree of exposure across a larger variety of acquisition costs as well. I think the higher investment at WR is justified because having a stud at the position gives you an advantage over your league for a longer duration of time as compared to similarly aged RBs.


Jacob Rickrode (@ClutchFantasy) produced a tremendous visualization of the longevity of the elite wide receivers' career arcs that demonstrates that sustained WR1 production is rare, but for those special players (read: outliers) who can produce at that elite level consistently year to year, their production is generally maintained into their tenth year and sometimes beyond. You can compare his work to a similar exercise that Peter Howard (@pahowdy) performed using RB data showing that elite production is rarely sustained past the 8 year in the league. His point that dynasty community over-compensates for age is well-taken, but at a bird’s eye view, you would still expect to see the greater longevity of WR production relative to RB impacting your dynasty strategy, at least to some degree.


What I found was that I was willing to concentrate more acquisition budget into specific players in the WR1 tier as compared to RB1s, rostering both Justin Jefferson (22%) and Stephon Diggs (19%) at rates greater than any RB1 in my portfolio. The bet is that even if those players don’t produce at cost this year, they will sustain elite production at a safer rate than a similarly priced RB. It’s not that I expect a running back’s legs to fall off on his 27th birthday, nor am I asserting that older RBs can’t produce at an elite level. It’s simply that the likelihood of elite production will drop for most players at that age, an effect that we see sooner with RBs, and I adjust my willingness to bet on that production accordingly.


I also seemed to be more player-agnostic for the high-end wide receivers and quarterbacks, with at least one share of 19 of the top 24 players at WR, or a 79% exposure rate. This trend is even more evident at the quarterback position where I have at least one share of 11 of the top-12 QBs (92%) and 22 of the top-24 QBs (again for 92%) according to The Undroppables' rankings. This contrasts starkly with RB where I only have shares in seven of the top-12 running backs (58%) which is probably an indication of my hesitancy to invest a significant acquisition budget when it is accompanied by a higher relative risk factor. Wide receiver and especially quarterbacks are just safer bets in that upper echelon, making broad exposure acceptable, whereas the chances of a whiff on a high-end running back is more significant. This implies that you’re going to want to place your bets far more carefully at running back, this naturally leads to more RBs on which I’m out at their acquisition costs.


Positional scarcity at TE forces a different strategy with perhaps only five players possessing any real upside over the rest of top-24 TE landscape, and my resultant 100% exposure to these players. Eschewing the strategy of diluting my rostership at high acquisition cost, I’m pushing all-in on George Kittle (26%) and Kyle Pitts (33%). In fact, my rostership of the top 5 at the position (Kelce, Kittle, Waller, Pitts, Hockenson) accounted for nearly 20% of my entire TE rostership and are among my biggest and riskiest bets of the fantasy season. Given a simple cost-benefit analysis of acquisition cost to potential production, I adhere to the strategy of avoiding mid-round TEs almost entirely, with only Irv Smith Jr (26%) amongst the rest of the top-12 TEs that I’m rostering at a significant rate.


I filled out the remaining TE spots just as I did with the other positions selecting whatever high-upside player happened to fall in the draft, again displaying more concentrated investment in cheaper assets with upside such as Blake Jarwin (185.9 ADP at 30%) or Adam Trautman (172.8 ADP at 15%).


The player I own in the most leagues is Ihmir Smith-Marsette at a nearly 60% exposure rate, and I honestly think he is the exact kind of player you should see on top of your own rostership rankings. A great sleeper candidate, he broke out at age 20 with a respectable 24% dominator rating, especially playing on an Iowa offense alongside talented RB Tyler Goodson. Additionally, during his breakout year he was the team’s primary wide receiver and returner, a tacit endorsement of his talent and ability. It’s not hard to imagine a narrative that sees Smith-Marsette lining up as the WR3 in Minnesota as early as 2021. Potentially even as the second on the depth chart behind Justin Jefferson as soon as 2022, with age and salary cap constraints putting increasing pressure on the Minnesota offense. With the potentially large payoff on Smith-Marsette, rostering him on a higher percentage of your teams could turn him into a real lottery ticket if he pops this year or next, and you’ve invested no more than a white chip to claim your piece of the potential jackpot. He’s so cheap that even if he’s cut before the season starts, I’ve lost almost nothing on my bets.


In fact, of my top-10 most rostered players, only one, Kyle Pitts, would be the kind of name that most fantasy analysts would endorse. Yet due to their low acquisition cost, players on my top-10 most rostered list including Tyler Johnson, rookies Elijah Moore and Elijah Mitchell, or even bounce-back veterans like Tyrod Taylor all have enough upside that I’m willing to add these guys to a third of my teams, despite the rarity of their Twitter proponents.


Note that I’m not saying that player exposure rates should be the ultimate guide to trading and drafting decisions, because that’s not what I’m saying at all. It certainly doesn’t mean you should draft Prescott ahead of Mahomes due to relative rostership rates. I am saying that perhaps trading down from the 1.01, or even, gasp, trading Patrick Mahomes, could be in the best interest of your overall risk profile. It could go without saying that all decisions are made in the context of roster construction, whether or not you’re rebuilding, draft strategy, etc. The thing we have to remember is that collectively, we suck at predicting the future. Unforeseen evens can significantly impact on-field performance or the fantasy market-value of a player like Pat Mahomes, just ask Deshaun Watson or Dak Prescott.


The point is that market price is what dictates player’s inherent acquisition cost, and a player’s market value is dynamic, sometimes dramatically so. Player values are also exponential, meaning the players at the absolute tip top of the off-season rankings have values that are exponentially better than even the ones that fall just a few slots behind them. Cashing in on that perceived market value can allow you to dilute acquisition costs and multiply potential production on your roster, particularly when inherent risk, expectation of super-elite production, and high acquisition cost all coincide, making a single player a particular liability. I’m looking at you Christian McCaffery.


Again, recognizing the total size of your bet in each player, as in the poker analogy, is a good way to asses your comfortability with the level of risk you’re managing on your dynasty portfolio. Assessing how much risk a player represents relative to the acquisition cost and potential fantasy production can inform how much you’re willing to bet on each player. You can use this information to inform your choices as players’ market value continues to fluctuate, as we inch closer to the kickoff of the 2021 season.

Doug’s work can be found @SubstanceD3 on Twitter and at thecutffb.com.