Improving the Way You Think About Your Fantasy Football Team

Not pictured: The bags under Rodgers eyes. Seriously, this guy always looks like he hasn't slept in a week.

I originally found my way into the world of online poker in 2003, shortly after Chris Moneymaker’s World Series of Poker Main Event victory (which was fortuitously broadcast on ESPN). Because I am a guy and this is how we think, I assumed I would have success in the online poker world. It didn’t turn out that way. At least not at first.

Much money was lost, many mice were broken, and more than one bad-beat story was repeated to anybody within earshot. After a couple years of frustration, and on the recommendation of a friend, I checked out a popular poker training site (the numberFire of online poker, if you will). A few months of hard work later and I had progressed from what we call a First Level Thinker (somebody who only thinks about their own hand) to a Third Level Thinker (a person who thinks, “What does my opponent think I have?”). Profitability, and a career in the industry, followed.

Fantasy football and poker have a lot of parallels, which is why I am going to apply the levels of thinking we use in the poker world to the owners of pretend pigskin squads. Once I help you recognize where you are in the hierarchy, we will go over suggestions on how you can improve. By the end of the piece, my goal is to have you thinking about your team in a more intelligent, measured, and productive way.

Fantasy Football Levels of Thought

Before we get too in depth, here are the levels of thought for faux football along with a brief summary of how owners at that level think.

Level Zero: I love the Ravens. Ray Rice is the best running back in the NFL. I am going to start him no matter what. And yes, I am a genius for starting Tavon Austin last week. I knew he would be a stud.

Level One: Who should I start this week? Why would I accept this trade where I give up Philip Rivers for Zac Stacy? Stacy is just some rookie on a bad team. And besides, what if Drew Brees gets hurt? Then I’d be screwed.

Level Two: Why am I starting who I am? Who will I start next week? I really want to play Le’Veon Bell over Ray Rice, but I can’t because Yahoo projects Rice to score four more points.

Level Three: Who should be on my bench and why? What can I do today to maximize my chances of winning in a month? How can I take advantage of the situation other teams are in to give me the best shot at a title?

Level Four: How can I apply advanced metrics, snap counts, scouting reports, and next level strategies?

Level Five: I just spent 29 hours watching game tape, should I shower for the first time this week or pore over stats until lunch?

Level One

This is where most of us start out, and where a majority of fantasy owners still reside. There is certainly no shame in it, especially if you are only looking to have a bit of fun with your friends. But if you are on numberFire in the first place, you are not the type of person who is happy being stuck at Level One. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to make the leap to the next rung of the ladder.

Instead of thinking only about how a lineup or add/drop decision affects your team for this week, check out the schedule to account for bye weeks or particularly bad matchups (bad ones hurt more than good ones help). When you are considering a trade offer, spend less time looking at past stats and more time looking forward. Don’t just read the opinions on one fantasy site, branch out to get other points of view, using the diversity to make a better informed decision.

Level Two

From my experience in the numberFire Questions section and on Twitter, most of our readership is made up of Level Two Thinkers. If that’s you, you are a clear step above Level One, holding a distinct advantage, especially on draft day. But your in-season management needs work. You spend a bit of time educating yourself, staying up on injuries and breakout candidates, but at the end of the day are too attached to rankings and projections and don’t take enough personal responsibility for your roster. You get complacent at times and don’t actively seek out trades, miss out on the occasional waiver claim, and are guilty of leaving underperforming name players in your lineup a week or three longer than you should have.

If you want to earn your stripes, the first thing you need to do is address your bench, starting with quarterback. Unless you are steaming or prepping for one of the final bye weeks, there is no reason to have a second quarterback on your roster. Let’s say you own Brees and Rivers. It is time to make a deal, even if you only get 60 cents on the dollar. Something is better than nothing, which is what Rivers would do for you at this point. It is Week 11, the odds you will need a backup are miniscule.

Now look at the skill positions. You should have a couple capable fill-ins at running back and wide receiver and, unless you are streaming, no backup tight end. After that, the last couple spots on your bench should be all upside. For example, you have Anquan Boldin in a non-PPR 10-team league. Ask yourself how many players you would need to get injured to start a guy who hasn’t topped seven points in five games (and only twice all season)? In what specific scenario would he have value to your team? Odds are extremely high that there isn’t one.

Now see if somebody like Aaron Dobson and his WR2 upside are on the wire. He is the type of player who has the potential to play his way onto many a fantasy starting lineup, something Boldin is highly unlikely to do. And if he doesn’t, you are out nothing. (That was less a specific endorsement of Dobson, who I do like, actually, and more an example of the sort of move you should be looking to make.)

Depth matters much less now than it did Week 1. With each passing game, it becomes less significant. Don’t be the owner with Andre Brown, Keenan Allen, and Russell Wilson on your bench, wasting away. Turn them into something you can use. If you want to do more than just make the playoffs, these are the moves you need to pursue.

Now that we have established how little depth means down the stretch, if you don’t have a plug-and-play defense, look ahead at the schedule and identify defenses with good matchups in the coming weeks. Drop a player you are unlikely to play and add a second D that will soon be useful. Let others scramble every week and blow waiver priority for their defense. We are thinking ahead, using our bench to help our chances of making the playoffs.

Level Three

As I said above, a Level Three Thinker spends time worrying about how the end of their bench looks. They also push to make savvy trades to teams either scrambling for a playoff berth or those who are entrenched among the league leaders. They do things like take advantage of web site evaluators, moving a web site's overvalued players for others who are under-projected (this is a favorite technique of mine).

If you are 5-5 and own Aaron Rodgers, there are worse things you could do than try to trade him to an 8-2 team who has a soft spot at quarterback. Rodgers is likely out at least two more weeks for games you cannot afford to lose. If you can turn him into a useful starting piece or perhaps an upgrade at a skill position, you should look into it.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, let’s say you are 8-2 in a PPR league and have Giovani Bernard on your bench, but have been playing patchwork at tight end all season. See if you can make a deal for a player like Jordan Cameron or Jason Witten. Or perhaps you have been dealing with the tandem of Terrelle Pryor and Colin Kaepernick. Offer up Bernard for Russell Wilson. That may feel like an over-pay, but what good is Bernard doing on the bench of your loaded team?

Another favored technique of the Level Three Thinker is targeting teams who are on the fringe of the playoffs. Dez Bryant is on a bye this week, which makes life tough for a 4-6 team who has to win out to have a prayer. Bryant certainly won’t ever be cheaper to buy than he would be from that team. You can really take advantage of owners who have the win-at-all-costs mentality. Make that work to your favor.

This is the highest level of thinking 99% of fantasy owners reach, and those who have mastered it are a favorite to win most any league they are in. Going beyond Level Three is for people who are much more hardcore. And, to be honest, the reward in terms of potential results isn’t that great. The edge a Level Three Thinker has over a Level Two is significant. The edge gained in the jump from Three to Four is not.

Level Four

If you want to be Level Four, be prepared to put in the work. The first thing you will need is access to advanced metrics. Those of us who write for numberFire are lucky to have access to all the Net Expected Point data accumulated and sussed out by our math geniuses.

You also should gain access to and learn how to watch film. There is no quicker way to find out why Ray Rice isn’t producing than to watch his last 100 carries with your own eyes.

Personally, I spend maybe 15-20 hours a week reading, studying, and watching. That is the sort of commitment it takes if you want to be at this level. It is a blast, but it is also a lot of work. In the interest of full disclosure, if you aren’t looking to write or otherwise share your knowledge, it probably isn’t worth it.

In a perfect world, the people you should be looking to for advice are Level Four (or higher) minds. There are a lot of Level Three’s who write or podcast fantasy wisdom, and that is fine for the casual owner. But at numberFire, you get nothing but a collection of Level Four’s dispensing advice. If you really want the biggest possible edge, these are the people you should be listening to.

Pep Talk

In most leagues, the trade deadline is in the next week or two, so there is no time like the present to get cracking on those offers. Even if you are 4-6 and feel out of it, there is still a chance you could make it. If nothing else, use this week to practice some of my suggestions for future seasons.

If you are fortunate enough to be 9-1, you shouldn’t be sitting on your hands. Instead, reach out to teams whose place in the playoffs is less secure. Offer them depth or immediate help for a slight upgrade at a position or for a useful piece for Weeks 15 and 16.

At the end of the day, the onus is on you to improve how you think about and therefore manage your roster. We have given you the tools you need, now it is down to how you use them.