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Fantasy lessons from 2021: It gets late early on running backs

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  • Derrick Henry
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  • Saquon Barkley
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  • Todd Gurley II
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Generally I bristle at the yearly cry that “this is the strangest NFL season,” but we'll steer into it today. Leo Tolstoy famously said every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and that timeless wisdom can be applied to a fantasy campaign. Every year is weird in its own way.

But even with that disclaimer, 2021 felt like the weirdest season of my fantasy lifetime (and I’ve been playing since the 1990s). COVID-19 is a part of our lives now.

With most fantasy leagues complete, it’a time to reflect on what just happened and consider some takeaways. This is an exercise in pencil. I reserve the right to adjust, tweak, and reconsider much of what’s here before the 2022 fantasy season begins in earnest. But it’s never too early to start having these types of discussions.

So for whatever early-January musings mean to you, here are some of my notes from a clipboard, fantasy football takeaways for 2021.

It gets late early with running backs

Once a star running back breaks out and makes all the magazine covers, it’s almost the signal to look elsewhere. This is the position where players are, cruelly at times, used up and spit out.

If you’re a magazine hoarder, you’ll remember these fantasy football coverboys from recent issues: Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry, Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Dalvin Cook. Almost every one of those backs was a negative fantasy play in 2021. Gurley, of course, is out of football. Bell’s bounced around as a backup player. No one expected much from those guys, so they don’t drive the takeaway.

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 12: Christian McCaffrey #22 of the Carolina Panthers looks on prior to the game against the New York Jets at Bank of America Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Christian McCaffrey appeared in just seven games this season after being the No. 1 overall consensus pick in fantasy drafts. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

But McCaffrey had his second straight injury-wrecked year, and Henry finally broke down (or, if you prefer, finally got unlucky). Kamara, Elliott, and Barkley played most of the year, compromised at times, and never looked electric. Their fantasy ranks end-of-season were still okay, a nod to survivor bias. But they didn’t win leagues for you, or ultimately justify their draft-day ADP.

Let’s be fair here — there weren’t many home runs at running back this year. If you landed Jonathan Taylor in the first round, celebrate — he was one of three seismic fantasy picks in the common draft, along with Cooper Kupp and Mark Andrews. Najee Harris finished third in full PPR because of heavy volume; his efficiency wasn’t great. Leonard Fournette and James Conner, a couple of 26ers, hit the high end of their ranges, each clicking with their second organization. Joe Mixon mixed touchdown deodorant and a bell cow workload into a career year.

We’ve said it for years, any strategy will work if you pick the right players. But 2021 goes down as a good year for running backs on a budget — Zero RB or some hybrid of it looks good in retrospect. A lot of fantasy champions are smiling today because they added Eli Mitchell early in the year, or Cordarrelle Patterson in the first quarter. Perhaps they knew when to pivot to Devin Singletary late, or found Rashaad Penny or Sony Michel at the right time.

I’ve been in the fantasy racket long enough to remember when 30 was the get-nervous age for running backs. That’s obviously long out the window now (largely due to how so many talented college players don’t stick in school for four years). At this point I’d like to avoid most backs coming into their second contract — unless the market is giving me a notable discount — and in general, this is a position where I want to get younger and younger.

The second season looks like a likely sweet spot, given what Taylor did this year and McCaffrey in his second season. Granted, Year 2 backs can find a pothole, too — J.K. Dobbins and Cam Akers were early injury casualties before opening day, and Antonio Gibson played hurt all year. But the early backs that I consider next year will be players early in their career arc. I’ll be more open minded to veterans when we get into the middle and end of a draft, when any player you select is going to be riddled with an obvious downside, anyway.

Draft your team as if you crushed your early picks

The first takeaway leaned into the idea of skewing younger with your roster construction, and there’s a draft ethos that goes hand-in-hand with this. Don’t get hung up with insurance and hedging when you’re settling into next year’s drafts. Draft like your early picks were right. If they weren’t — and surely some of them won’t be, maybe most of them won’t be — that’s okay. There’s time to fix it.

But in August, you want to play for the big inning. You want to focus on what can go right. You can worry about specialized strategies later in the year, when your winning and losing paths are more defined. Your goal before the year is one very simple and basic thing — what gives me the best chance to have a potential juggernaut on my hands. Turn on the upside switch early. Stop thinking you need to fix a mistake pick before he even steps on the field.

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Be mindful the NFL news cycle is 24/7

If you want to be a winning seasonal fantasy player, there’s a lot of work required. Weekly waiver-wire work. Monitoring of the injury report and daily news. Matchup and trend analysis. The days of winning a competitive league off two days of primary work — waiver day and lineup-setting day — are out the window.

COVID-19 has exacerbated this, of course. Unexpected news can pop at any time, and whenever a key player is part of fantasy news, there’s going to be spillover. When a star quarterback can’t play, we need to reconsider the entire offense. When a starting back isn’t available, someone new is going to get a bump in projectable touches.

Here’s where one of my favorite cheat codes comes into play — co-managing a team with a friend. You now have someone to share waiver-wire work with, and a second set of eyes to monitor the news of the day. If an actionable piece of fantasy news pops when you’re offline, maybe your teammate will see it and can act quickly.

For a partnership to work, you likely have to find someone who has a similar fantasy view. Mutual respect has to be in place, and you probably need similar levels of skill. You can’t randomly select a partner and expect it to click immediately. But if you do know someone who meshes with you in the key areas, it’s a tremendous way to improve your winning chances. Of course, you’re also going to have to split any winnings, too.

Variety is the spice of fantasy life

My yearly fantasy portfolio contains a lot of different games, contests, and challenges.

I participate in several seasonal leagues, where head-to-head is the essence of the competition.

I’ll do a bunch of Best Ball drafts before the year; for my money, it’s still the best way to get acclimated with the fresh player pool. And I like to start Best Ball drafting right after the NFL Draft ends, so I can try to capitalize on some misplaced ADPs before they have time to correct. (Yes, this also means some summer injuries will hit, but the market inefficiency more than makes up for this, in my opinion. Plus, heck, drafting is fun.)

I like to run or participate in a handful of seasonal leagues that are points-based as opposed to head-to-head based, feeling those final standings are more reflective of skill and team strength and less dependent on week-to-week variance.

I always have a few DFS contests, loving the idea that I can attach myself to anyone in the player pool at any time.

I’ve been able to post a +EV in all of these different subgroups, though my +EV in standard seasonal isn’t as strong as the other leagues. The skill in your seasonal league is the long run, scoring points and making the playoffs. The short run is the playoffs, a tournament where one bad week or one bad game can torpedo a juggernaut that crushed for three months.

Mindful of this, I like the seasonal leagues I organize to have some seasonal rewards in them. Sometimes we pay a weekly high-score prize. I generally award cash prizes to all six playoff teams. Not everyone likes a flat payout structure, but top-heavy payouts for something this volatile isn’t my thing. (If you disagree, nothing wrong with that.)

Next year I think I’ll push more of my fantasy portfolio to points-based and long-run based contests, because they’ve been more profitable for me. I don’t mean to sound like a cold profit-maximizing capitalist when I say that; any form of fantasy is fun. But I think I might be leaving some good opportunities on the table. (Ask any wise poker player, they’ll tell you how important game selection is.)

Back to standard seasonal leagues, I also support the idea of at least one playoff qualifier going to the highest-scoring team that wouldn’t have qualified on won/loss record. My main league does this, and then we reseed the 3-6 playoff seeds by points scored (so we don’t unfairly pit a juggernaut No. 6 team against the No. 3 seed). Yahoo offers this functionality; perhaps you’ll consider it next year.

And another way to add skill to any league — require more starters. A great way to smooth out variance. It also gives you more to root for on Any Given Sunday.

Today’s piece is just the first snap of off-season reflection. I’ll be back with Exit Interviews of the four major positions (QB, RB, WR, TE), as we try to figure out where the position went in 2021, and where the ball is headed next year. The tight ends will bat leadoff, coming next week. Let’s keep this discussion going all year, amigos.

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