Jonathan Bales is the author of the Fantasy Sports for Smart People book series, and most recently Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Win at Daily Fantasy Sports.
Follow him @BalesFootball.
Here’s one thing you should know about me: I’m an idiot. Basically everything I held to be true even like two years ago I no longer believe. If you ask me the answer to a question now, chances are I will give you a different answer if you ask again in 12 months. Maybe don’t listen to anything I have to say about DFS? Idk.
But I also think you are an idiot. We’re all idiots. Think back five years ago. How much stupid stuff did you believe? And worse, how confident were you that you were right?
Here’s a short list of stuff I used to think was true that I now believe is not:
I thought J.J. Watt was overrated (which would be one thing if it were after he broke out in the NFL, but I stated it when he was coming out of college).
Pizza Hut used to have a campaign called “Makin’ It Great.” At the end of every commercial, they would do a little jingle: “Pizzzaaaa Huttttt…Makin’ it great!” From the time I could talk until, oh I don’t know, maybe like age 16, I swore they were actually saying, “Pizzzaaaa Hutttt…Brickin’ a brick!”
Brickin’ a brick? What the hell does that even mean? Worse, they wrote out “Makin’ it great!” in the damn commercials…
Little known fact about me: I can read. So at one point in my life, I could read, I could do complex math, I could legally drive a vehicle, and yet I still yelled at people who told me the Pizza Hut slogan wasn’t “Brickin’ a brick.” I challenge you to find a human achievement dumber than that.
I used to believe I didn’t like relish or sauerkraut, but I never actually tried them.
You know the song “I Saw the Sign” by Ace of Base? Great song btw. When I was six or seven, I had a Walkman with Ace of Base on cassette (it’s whatever). I used to take the bus to school and listen to “I Saw the Sign” on repeat, singing the lyrics out loud while the other loser kids sat music-less. They looked like dopes.
Except I thought the song was “I Saw the Sun.” So I sat on the bus with my giant-ass glasses and tiger shirt that I wore every single day and my shark-tooth necklace and shorts that I wore ON TOP of sweatpants, singing, “I saw the sun! And it opened up my eyes, I saw the sun!”
But enough about me.
I think Tavon Austin is one of the worst draft picks of the past five years. He’s fun to watch, but he runs side to side, doesn’t get up the field, and can’t score with consistency.
Except that he has six touchdowns on 41 offensive touches this season, plus another score as a returner.
I still think Austin was and is very overrated, but I actually considered rostering him with the Rams defense for the first time last week. I didn’t, but even the fact that I considered it is a big accomplishment for me. I’m a strong supporter of “Team Big WR,” and I rarely roster undersized pass-catchers—especially if they don’t see a steady dose of targets, a la Julian Edelman.
But then I was sort of thinking to myself, “Hey, at one point in your life, you were almost old enough to vote and still believed Pizza Hut’s slogan was “Brickin’ a brick.” Maybe you are wrong about some other stuff you believe right now, so just take a second-look at Austin.
So I did. Well, he doesn’t see all that many targets as a receiver—just over five per game this year—so that sucks. He’s not great in tight areas and won’t consistently convert in the red zone, at least not as a pass-catcher.
Okay, Austin isn’t the type of wide receiver I want. But maybe I’m sort of thinking about him in the wrong way. Austin the WR is no good, but what about Austin the RB?
Because of how the Rams utilize Austin, he’s sort of a hybrid RB-WR type of player. He doesn’t see a massive workload on the ground, but neither do players like Darren Sproles or Danny Woodhead. I’ve rostered Woodhead this year on the grounds that he’s safe because he sees a bunch of short targets, and he’s sort of antifragile to game script because, when things get bad for San Diego, he offers even more fantasy value as a pass-catcher.
My point isn’t that I think Austin is suddenly an amazing fantasy option—he still needs to touch the ball more—but rather that if my perception of player value shifts based on an artificial label (position), then that’s probably a sign I’m not really analyzing players in the proper way.
Rejecting Distinct Dichotomies
You plant an acorn. A few years later you have a tree. I don’t know if that’s the actual timeline but let’s go with it. At some point, that acorn became a tree. When? There’s no distinct moment in time, right? It’s not like the acorn was an acorn one day and then at midnight it became a tree. There’s a process of change that takes place such that the acorn is more or less “acorn-like” or “tree-like” at certain points. When the first part of the acorn makes it way out of the ground, we might label that a tree, but it’s clearly not a tree in the same way as a 100-foot behemoth, right?
Similarly, I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice by implementing rigid labels on players in the form of positions. Clearly DraftKings needs to do that for fantasy purposes, but there’s a whole range of different player types even within each position. Austin is given the wide receiver label, but in my mind, he’s a running back—and a player who for whatever stupid reason isn’t being used as a running back when that’s really where he excels—but we think about him as a receiver.
By shedding those labels and instead considering player types and outcome ranges, I think we can acquire a sense of who a player really “is” that’s more reflective of reality, and hopefully more actionable for DFS.
As an example, consider the typical running back/wide receiver dichotomy—one that groups Darren Sproles with Marshawn Lynch and Julian Edelman with Mike Evans. In reality, there’s more of a range that exists, with one end representing “pure” running backs and the other end representing “pure” receivers, with most players falling somewhere between the two extremes.
Examples of “pure” runners might be guys like LeGarrette Blount, Alfred Morris, and Jonathan Stewart—players who touch the ball almost exclusively as runners, typically between the tackles, and see few targets.
As you make your way toward the “receiver-y” end of the spectrum, you encounter players like Devonta Freeman—true versatile backs—followed by guys like Sproles, Woodhead, and Dion Lewis. That group transforms into the Austins of the world, followed by receivers who don’t run the ball but see a bunch of short targets, like Edelman. Finally, we reach the “pure” receiver end of the spectrum, with guys like Evans, Martavis Bryant, and Vincent Jackson—all of whom see very deep targets.
So the big question now is…who cares?
Well I do so BACK OFF!
But also you should care. Think about what these different types of players represent. At both extremes, you encounter a lot of one-dimensional players who end up being pretty volatile on a weekly basis. If a player like Alfred Morris doesn’t see the right game script or if Martavis Bryant doesn’t connect deep with Ben Roethlisberger, they’ll put up a dud.
Now compare those two players to Devonta Freeman and Julian Edelman, respectively. Freeman sees a crap-ton of red zone opportunities, and he’s also been targeted 52 times this year; that’s the 12th-most for any player at any position. Whether Atlanta is winning or losing, Freeman is safe. Meanwhile, Edelman doesn’t have a game below 10 points all season, and just one below 16 points. His workload and short target length make him the highest-floor receiver in the NFL on PPR sites like DraftKings, sans perhaps Antonio Brown.
By scrapping the rigid position labels, I think it allows us to really ponder what types of players we’re dealing with and how the nature of their games affects their week-to-week volatility. Wide receivers as a whole are more high-variance than running backs, but Edelman is exponentially safer than Morris or Lynch or other matchup-dependent backs.
At a more macro level, we should be questioning everything we think we know. Consider the lens through which you view players and how a small shift in your worldview could dramatically alter how you perceive value. Does the removal of a somewhat arbitrary label modify your views?
We all have a million biases that are wrong or misguided, and they shape how we approach the game. Peter Thiel said, “The best way to be contrarian is to think for yourself,” and I couldn’t agree more with that. If you want to propel yourself to DFS greatness, stop doing all the same things everyone else is doing.
In thinking for yourself and questioning even your most basic principles, you might just come to find that beliefs you once considered faultless aren’t as perfect as you thought.
You might just see the sun.