What a wild ride the 2021 fantasy season was, capped off by a meaningless Najee Harris breakaway touchdown that undoubtedly swayed championships around the country. A year with countless rookie breakouts, RB busts, and volatility that will make the final rankings of fantasy finishes riddled with nuance that we must not forget going into 2022. Emotions ride high during the playoffs, making it easy to forget how wins became wins and losses became losses.
In my primary league, after 13 years I finally won. With 3 previous championship losses, 2 previous playoff losses as the #1 seed, and 12 total playoff appearances, "always a bridesmaid" was the title thrown at me by my league mates year after year at draft parties. But not this time. This year, I'll admit I had some good luck, as many chips fell my way with good matchups and catching my opponents at the right time. More than anything, however, this year I worked for it like never before. From draft prep, to weighing risk on player ceilings vs player floors, to smart but aggressive FAAB bids, to preemptive bench moves, I managed my team this year as if I were a financial advisor managing the portfolios of his billionaire clientele.
I boiled down what I learned to the following 9 insights I plan on taking with me into next year to defend my crown...
1 - Spending on (or acquiring) a top tier TE is a massive advantage, IF you find good value at RB and WR
This is easy to say because I had Mark Andrews, a major league winner in 2021. I can already hear all the counterpoints from those who drafted Darren Waller. However, the strategy in my opinion still holds, particularly in shallower leagues where the talent pools at other positions do not dry up quite as quickly. There is enough volatility and attrition at other positions where you can bank on your weekly TE advantage while playing the odds on weekly upside at other positions based on matchups. Of course, "playing the odds" at other positions requires paying close attention to more advanced analysis. For WRs, this may include WR/CB matchups and outside vs slot coverage quality from opposing defenses. For RBs, green zone opportunities (inside the 5 yard line) as well as run funnel defenses (such as the Chargers in 2021) are paramount to make mental notes on.
2 - 2nd year pass catchers present strong value
The adage in fantasy used to be that 3rd year receivers presented tremendous value. The learning curve is shortening with players becoming ready to explode even sooner in their 2nd year, usually indicated by a late surge in their rookie year. Furthermore, if they dominated in their rookie year, then there is nothing that can stop them in their second year other than an injury to themselves or their quarterback. This is why I gladly drafted Justin Jefferson in the early 3rd round as I felt he had overall WR1 upside (turned out he was # 5, which is still pretty fantastic). For that reason, I'd be willing to go all in on someone like Ja'Marr Chase in 2022, while also spending above ADP on guys like Amon Ra St. Brown or Elijah Moore.
3 - Spend FAAB early
There are two schools of thought with FAAB: Spend it early to get breakouts, or save it to use late when key guys emerge due to attrition (think Ronald Jones for Leonard Fournette, or Jaret Patterson for Antonio Gibson). This year firmly validated for me that being aggressive with FAAB early is the way to go. There are a few reasons for this. First and foremost, FAAB itself is deflationary as the season goes on. Acquiring a player in week 3 is far more valuable than acquiring an equal level player in week 10, simply because you would have more weeks to utilize that player and to navigate bye weeks. Additionally, it can give you added trade chips prior to your league's trade deadline. Lastly, hoarding FAAB doesn't do you much good if you miss the playoffs. It is critical to string together wins early in the year, allowing you to stash valuable injured players or players with strong playoff schedules, rather than selling out to win each week out of desperation by midseason. Elijah Mitchell probably represented the best deployment of aggressive FAAB bidding early this season, dominating work when healthy for a run-heavy team.
4 - Stockpiling RBs is especially valuable in 2 flex leagues
An increasingly popular format in fantasy is the double flex league, particularly in 10 team leagues, in order to thin out an otherwise loaded talent pool and introduce an added level of strategy. Very commonly, fantasy owners tend to start 2 RBs and 4 WRs in this format, simply due to limited availability of quality RBs. However, being aggressive enough with running backs to be able to start 3 or even 4 quality backs in a given week is a huge advantage, especially in the playoffs when you need to string together 3 consecutive strong weeks. Guaranteed workload is the best route to consistent production, and starting 4 running backs not only gives you great odds to produce, but also blocks your competition from doing the same.
We all remember what a hero Ja'Marr Chase was in championship week, but don't forget that he had 1 catch for 3 yards in Week 15, causing many to never benefit from his championship performance. High volume running backs, by contrast, minimize that volatility when they can be placed in 4 of your 6 RB/WR slots. A major part of my championship run was driven by only needing 2 WRs who I could count on (Justin Jefferson and Deebo Samuel) while filling out the rest of my lineup with high volume rushers like Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, and popular flavors of the week like Rhamondre Stevenson and Boston Scott.
5 - Don't spend on a QB early - it's still true
I'm not sure why people still don't seem to get this one even though it becomes more evident each year. The temptation can be so strong to get a Ferrari of a quarterback like Mahomes, Kyler, or Lamar early in the draft, but the odds of that strategy panning out are incredibly small. Josh Allen drafters may disagree, but even he was quite volatile at various points this year and probably lost his managers a few weeks along the way.
My quarterback this year was Justin Herbert, taken in the 7th round and finishing as the QB2 on the season. The others I was considering on draft day in the mid to late rounds were Tom Brady and Jalen Hurts, and either of them would have been just fine as well. Quarterbacks are NOT like tight ends in fantasy. While both positions tend to have many streaming options on a weekly basis, tight ends have substantial and consistent value at the top of the ranks while quarterbacks do not. As a bonus tip, NEVER EVER EVER draft early for BOTH your quarterback and your tight end. Our toilet bowl recipient can vouch for me on that after going Kelce and Lamar in the first 4 rounds. Great players, but just way too difficult to field a strong overall roster as a result.
6 - Pay attention to when volatility is just volatility, or when it is tied to structural change
This is another way of saying to look beyond the box score. Especially in a year like 2021 with COVID impacting the availability of various players, spikes or dips in performance may have a deeper story tied to them. This may include key absences on the offensive line resulting in a down game from a quarterback. Conversely, it might include key absences on the defense resulting in an unusually strong day from the offense in an effort to compensate. Pay attention to what appears replicable vs what doesn't. Take mental snapshots of a players' strong games and poor games and observe the peripherals. This may include surrounding players' snap counts, opposing defensive personnel, home vs road splits, game scripts, and in some cases even weather.
D'Onta Foreman was often chided for his limited snaps, but he was the back in Tennessee who was used most similarly to Derrick Henry when it came to goal line work and killing the clock. He came through in championship week with 26 carries for 132 and a score in what appeared to be a tough matchup against Miami. No rankings site that I came across had him ranked as a top 20 back that week due to splitting snaps in prior weeks, but this was an ugly weather game at home where Tennessee was well positioned to have positive game script in a 34-3 romp.
7 - Don't buy the rookie tight end hype
This one is quick and easy. Kyle Pitts is obviously the poster child for rookie tight ends this year, and I was going nowhere near him in drafts. I think the guy is going to have a fantastic career, and as frustrating as he was for fantasy due to lack of red zone opportunities he was actually quite good as a player. However, tight end is a difficult position to make the adjustment to the NFL due to the combination of pass catching and run blocking, so taking a chance on him as a rookie in the middle rounds of my draft was a mistake I was happy letting someone else make. That said, I also believe my tip on 2nd year pass catchers applies to tight ends, so I have no problem taking him in 2022.
8 - Draft for ceiling, not floor, even in the early rounds
I used to be timid in the early rounds. I figured there were always so many early round busts that I just needed to get safe pieces early while taking my shots later. The reality is fantasy football is won with superstar performances. You need the guy who can occasionally drop 30 points and carry your team when others underperform. I went with that mentality this year and drove me to more aggressive plays with notable risk. I had a miss with DJ Moore in the 4th, and took proven stars with Alvin Kamara and Justin Jefferson in the 1st and 3rd, respectively. Otherwise, the rest of my top 9 picks included Joe Mixon, D'Andre Swift, Mark Andrews, Justin Herbert, Deebo Samuel, and Mike Williams. I got a little side eye from other league members with Mixon and Swift early on, and definitely with Deebo late, but this was my way of swinging for the fences and it paid off. Long gone are my days of taking an Allen Robinson or Robert Woods in the first 5 rounds in an effort to be safe.
9 - Be active
Aside from defense, my championship lineup consisted of 7 out of 8 players who I drafted, and yet I still led the league in transactions for the season. I found this particularly interesting. I was consistently making bench moves to preemptively find backup running backs before their starter got hurt, or to think multiple weeks ahead for defense matchups and bye week fill-ins. The countless moves may feel trivial at the time, and it's certainly possible to overanalyze things, but ultimately being active in your league makes a big difference. Be a step ahead of your competition and the little things here and there will add up. Finally for me, it added up to a trophy I can relish for at least the next 12 months.
Cheers to a great season and to this wonderfully frustrating game of fake football! It's never too early to start thinking about next year.