Managing risk crucial to managing a winning fantasy football team
Fantasy owners need to balance draftees at risk of injury with more reliable talents
Many underestimated Wes Welker's ability to perform well in 2010 after ACL tear
Most fantasy teams likely to lose at least three players during the season to injury
You don't need a manifesto. You need results.
There are only two ways to win in sports: get talent and put it on the playing field. To do that, it has to be healthy and as close to optimum as possible. It's easier in fantasy. You don't have to worry too much about personality, how a player likes his ankles taped, and if he's in the right frame of mind. You can worry if you like, but unlike an NFL team, there's not much you can do about it. There are better things to worry about.
The biggest worry you should have is that the talent you bought at auction or drafted with a precious top pick will be healthy. There's no more sickening feeling than seeing that No. 1 pick laying on the field or being carted off. I can't guarantee you won't get that feeling this year -- I know I did last year when Ryan Grant's season was done early last season, making that 11th overall pick a total wash. What I can do is make it less likely that you'll end up in the fetal position, feeling like you just got kicked in the fantasy cojones.
You already have your favorite sources for rankings, for projections, and for team-level predictions. I hope that you'll give SI a heavy weighting when you're putting together your prep material, but I'll admit I'm biased. What you need, no matter what you use for performance data, is to understand the injury data as well. Even more, you need to understand risk.
For those of you who have been around here for the last few years, you'll understand this concept already. Risk is not an absolute, but a range. I can't tell you whether or not Michael Vick or Tom Brady is going to get hurt this year. I can tell you which one is more likely to get hurt. People seem to lose sight of a concept they understand in life. Teenage boys pay more for car insurance than middle-aged men. You look both ways before you cross the street, even when there's no apparent traffic. Yet when it comes to fantasy, people operate on faith ... or worse, emotion.
There are five things you must know about injury and risk management before heading to your draft:
Hedge funds have something of a bad name right now, what with that whole "melt the economy down" thing going for them. Hedging your bets, however, should be part and parcel of your fantasy strategy. If you're going to take on that high risk, high reward receiver, make sure you get a more stable guy with your next pick. Correlating risk is something you'd better understand. One of the best ways to do this is to take the point total from last season and look at how much it varied. Michael Vick had a high of 38 and a low of 3 (in a game in which he left early. If we take that out, he still had a game at 13.) A variance of 35 (or 25) is massive. How many games did you win or lose by 25? Almost all of them, I'd guess. Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, had a non-injury variance of only 18. Looking at the variance around the projection is the best way to ensure you don't get crushed by zeros in any given week.
Circumstances change. Schemes change. Even Vick seems to have changed. Players break out and fall back every year, but for the most part, Dennis Green would agree that they are who we thought they were. The best players are usually the best players again, absent an injury. More elite players -- the guys we'll be drafting high in the coming month -- will fade away, not burn out. A player who is regularly missing games due to injury has to be considered a major injury risk the following season until you're absolutely sure that the injury is not a factor. Even in situations where an injury appears unlikely to be an issue, the threat has to be considered and worked into the value.
Wes Welker was coming off a "short" rehab for an ACL tear headed into the 2010 season. There was a lot of panic and hand wringing, but there was also an opportunity. Welker's projection shouldn't have changed significantly from '09 absent the injury. Once I was able to get good information on Welker's physical condition, I was confident that people would overreact to the injury. That gave me a chance to advise everyone to move him up on draft boards. It wasn't a significant change, but most projection systems had also given too much weight to his injury risk, so many were "double counting." In the end, while Welker's numbers were down, he was still a value in most leagues. A player like Arrelious Benn or Austin Collie could be that guy this year.
Mark Twain didn't actually say that, but the sentiment is true. Some injuries are worse than others, but in assessing how a player will come back from injury, you need to know the full recovery time and the chance that an injury will linger. A broken leg is bad, to be sure, but bones heal. They heal cleanly for the most part, they're easy to check on with X-rays, and once healed, they're as good as they were before. It's less clear with other injuries. Knowing that high ankle sprains linger or that a player is on his fourth "minor" knee surgery is important to avoid the worst effects of injury.
Your players are going to get hurt. You're going to lose three players out of the standard 15 if you're an average team. If you spend less time worrying about the injuries that are bound to happen and more time on preparing your team for when it happens, you'll be better off and you'll have eaten a lot fewer Tums. It's worth your time to sit down with your roster in between the draft and Week 1 to play a little game of "what if?" Take each player and say "what if this guy got hurt?" If you don't have an immediate answer for each player, you have an issue. This is harder in deep or large leagues where the waiver pool is thinner, but in those cases, it's even more important because the drop-off is bigger as well.
Over the next three weeks, I'll be taking a hard look at the biggest names in fantasy and their injury risks. We'll do this position by position, starting at QB on Thursday. Of course, I'll take time to look at the inevitable injuries that happen in camp as well, while also taking a look at the larger issues of an unusual start to the season. (If you haven't listened to Ralph Reiff's take on this last week on SI Inside Fantasy, do so now. His insight on how players prepare in the offseason was pure podcasting gold.) As always, I'm happy to answer questions via the mailbag link above, on Twitter (@injuryexpert), and heck, if you can get a carrier pigeon to me, I'll work with that as well. I'm here, alongside some of the best writers and researchers in the business, to be your fantasy medical staff.
Want a take-away, or have an early fantasy draft? Avoid Arian Foster, Andre Johnson, Darren McFadden, Tony Romo, and Antonio Gates. I realize I told you to avoid the top-rated RB, WR, and TE, as well as two other players that are in the Top 25 in most systems, but you'll thank me for it later.
Just remember -- fantasy football is supposed to be fun. It's a game, a hobby, sure, but for many it's turned into a passion or even an obsession. As we all prepare for the upcoming season, whether we're trying to hang on to a trophy or avenge last year's 5-8 finish, the basic principles hold true: Prepare hard, stand on the strength of your convictions, try not to get emotional, never drink before the third round of a draft, and never count on Wi-Fi to work properly. Finally, remember what we call people who don't properly value injury risk: losers.
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