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As we kick off the Best Ball season, I am excited to share some of the knowledge and insights I have gathered over the years that have become foundational building blocks for my Best Ball strategy. Starting now and leading up to the NFL season, I will be working with the Establish the Run crew to bring you insightful, actionable, and at times counter-intuitive articles to help you improve your Best Ball drafting. I understand that in this industry, there is often an overabundance of information which makes it difficult to decipher what is most important. Thus, I will try to focus these articles on succinctly providing you the most important information on critical topics.
If you’re interested in seeing how some of these rules are used in practice, I’ve written up a round-by-round recap of Mike Leone (Director of Analytics) and I’s Best Ball draft from the FFPC Inaugural draft.
To kick the Best Ball season off, I’ll start by giving my Five Keys to Winning at Best Ball:
1. Study the Structure, Format, and Scoring
Best Ball is a game. And like any other game, it is important to ensure we understand the rules before playing. I say this not in jest but because ensuring we understand the rules and intricate details of each type of league or tournament provides us a leg up on our competition when drafting.
If we’re playing a tournament, we should consider what is necessary to advance each round, how many people we need to beat each round, and most importantly, the construction of the final round. If the final round includes 150 people with a major percentage of the prize money at the top, we should focus on a more fragile but high-upside strategy that sets us up to succeed when our teams make it to the final week. If we are playing more cash style where top three make money and payouts are generally flat, we should adjust our strategy to a potentially safer draft that can survive mid-round injuries (perhaps drafting three QBs or TEs). And just as important as the structure of the tournament or league is the scoring specifics.
Here’s a few examples:
— FFPC: PPR, TE premium, QB passing yards are 20 yards per point
— DraftKings: Standard DK PPR scoring which includes 100-yard rushing/receiving and 300-yard passing bonuses
— Underdog: .5 PPR, all else traditional
For more details on how to adjust for unique scoring formats, see Michael Leone’s evergreen content on the subject.
I highly recommend you use our rankings that are customized for each site. If you don’t see a certain site up there, see if that scoring format aligns with one of the other existing rankings. If not, feel free to reach out and we’ll see what we can do.
2. How To Stack Without Going Overboard
If I had to identify a theme of 2020 Best Ball drafting in one word, without hesitation I would say “stacking.” Most people familiar with the concept understand that when drafting for upside, drafting a QB and WR from the same team is a +EV play as their success correlates.
But with Best Ball being for the entire season, I actually expand my correlation to anyone on the team. Even two players you likely wouldn’t play together in DFS, such as Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry, who negatively correlate in any given game, positively correlate across the season as if the Titans are an efficient and winning team, both Tannehill and Henry will likely have strong years.
That is why when I think of stacking, I’m primarily considering how many players on the same team I can draft no matter the position. I’ll often even still stack 2-3 WRs and a TE or RB from a team even if I miss on drafting the QB. Because if that team has success, I can still make up the QB points elsewhere but capitalize on the correlated assets on that team.
The trick with stacking though is to not go overboard – especially in tournaments. Across a large enough portfolio, we should take advantage of stacks when they fall to us naturally or require minimal reaching; especially in the early rounds. Every time we reach for a QB to complete a stack, we are likely giving up substantial value as someone else in the tournament will get the same stack but improved pieces around it. It is also worth considering that if you’re heavy on the early players of a stack and looking to draft their QB, if no one else is trying to complete that stack, there’s an increased likelihood the QB will drop to or past his ADP. There is no hard and fast rule here, but in general, I’m willing to take more risks in tournaments to try and find unique value compared to the field.
As the draft progresses and you get into the later rounds, this is where I would recommend feeling free to reach a round or two. Even the best of us are very bad at predicting who will perform better between a 14th-round and an 18th-round WR. I’d go so far to guess it’s mostly a coin flip. However, while picking between two late players in a vacuum may be close to a coin flip, we can increase our win expectancy by drafting the player who correlates with the rest of our team.
Consider this scenario: You have drafted three Raiders, and in the 16th round, you are between drafting Hunter Renfrow or Russell Gage. By projections, we have Gage ranked around 10-15 spots higher than Renfrow. But given we are already invested and partially dependent upon the Raiders having a strong offensive season, now given that new information that the Raiders are going to be a strong team, it is a far smarter play to take the correlated WR in Renfrow and hope he’ll thrive just like the rest of the offense.
In summary: Stacking should be a core part of your strategy, especially later in drafts, but be careful not to reach significantly and give up substantial value.
3. Always Be Thinking Ahead
Before each pick, you should be asking yourself one key question: How does drafting this position now impact my draft strategy going forward? This is because there is an opportunity cost for each pick that must be considered.
If I pass on a RB with both of my first two picks, how am I going to alter my draft strategy to ensure I make up for that lost early RB production? If I am in the ninth round without a QB or TE and I choose to avoid that position again, am I content with drafting three of each position to make up for the lack of quality? Or simply when deciding between two positions, can I project what alternate scenarios I’m passing on as I make my decision?
For that last question, I often like to do a form of 2v2 analysis. In the “2021 Best Ball Kickoff Draft Recap,” I’ve included a conversation between Leone and I where we used a 2v2 analysis to determine if we should select a QB or TE. The technique is to compare your top two players at the two positions being considered and map out what your draft could look like depending upon which one is taken. Granted, one difference in pick can lead to a completely different draft but to simplify things, we ideally just consider the current pick and a future pick where you would choose the other of the two positions in consideration. In our draft, we were between Deshaun Watson and Dallas Goedert (TE premium scoring) and likely would choose a player from the alternate position the following pick. This left us with the following projected comparisons:
Deshaun Watson + Logan Thomas or Evan Engram
Dallas Goedert + Justin Herbert or Ryan Tannehill
Through identifying which players we project will be available at our next pick, we can easily compare which of the two combos we would rather have on our team. While this comparison only had a round of picks in between, it could just as easily be done with a sixth-round pick and 10th-round pick if say we didn’t love the TEs in the next round but wanted to wait on a value.
Every time we are on the clock, we should consider which player best fits my current lineup, but also which player will best fit what my final lineup will become.
4. Playing for Upside
One of the greatest edges we have in DFS and Best Ball is our ability to understand range of outcomes and take opportunistic risks where others won’t. This key to success is rooted in that understanding.
In regular leagues, usually only about 25% of entrants profit and first place can 6x+ their money. In large tournaments, usually only about 8% of entrants profit and first place can 40,000x their money. You can understand why playing for upside is extremely important for tournaments, but it still applies for regular leagues. There is probably a sliding scale, balance of risk that you can determine based off the type of best ball you’re playing.
Now how do we play for upside?
Don’t be scared of injuries
Injuries are unfortunate and can destroy an entire Best Ball team but that isn’t a reason to drastically change our drafting strategy. They are often unavoidable and once we accept that they will inevitably kill some of our teams, the better off we are. If you want to avoid what you believe to be players with increased injury risk, that’s fine. What you don’t want to do is start drafting additional depth in places where you’re concerned you may get an injury.
Say for example you draft George Kittle in the second round. You’re concerned he may miss more time this year and decide to prioritize drafting a quality back-up or two additional TEs as depth. The problem here is you are making a decision based on a situation that if it happens, probably removes you from winning your league anyways; and you’re doing it at the expense of upside. If your second-round draft pick misses substantial time, you’re already significantly behind the eight ball. Grabbing a third TE late or paying up for a quality back-up may increase your chances of not finishing last, but it is unlikely to move the needle to still win your league.
For you to win your league, you probably need a very strong year from George Kittle and if that’s the case, you’ve then wasted either a mid-round pick or an additional draft pick on an extra back-up TE. This is one of the reasons why I’m a strong proponent of when grabbing an elite TE, only pairing him with one late TE.
When drafting for upside, we are looking to optimize for when things go well – rather than when they go poorly. Just like with injuries, if our first-round TE is a complete dud, it is unlikely that grabbing a third TE in the 16th round would be enough to win us our league. Instead, we should be basing our mid- and late-round draft decisions on the assumption that our early picks are mostly successful. In fact, when we look at win percentages for Underdog’s 2020 Best Ball Mania, we see that the two best roster constructions only had four RBs. This fragile build allows us to make a bet that our early RBs will stay healthy and perform well, allowing us to load up at a more volatile position like WR where quantity can provide us increased spike weeks. For Underdog drafts this year, I’ll mostly be aiming to draft two QBs, four RBs, nine WRs, and two TEs – with the last pick being either a WR or TE.
Every pick should have line of sight to a valuable role or spike weeks
This stance may be a bit controversial but it’s something I strongly believe in. I don’t allow myself to draft the safe guys with minimal upside. I don’t try to round out my lineup to avoid the potential zeroes. Every pick I make is someone who may find themselves in a valuable role or contributing through occasional spike weeks. This mentality is most relevant in the later rounds of the draft when deciding between roster depth.
For QBs, I don’t want the QBs that have zero rushing upside and a run-first team mentality – just because I know his job is secure. I want Justin Fields (ADP 142) over Kirk Cousins (ADP 121).
For RBs, I don’t want the timeshare back on a team that has shown even with injuries, they’re not willing to give one RB a bell-cow role. I usually won’t even be drafting the third-down backs unless they have shown an ability to put up spike weeks. I would rather take the back-up RB to a bell cow who is unlikely to see the field early in the season than the RB with a guaranteed third-down role but no line of sight to much more. I want Alexander Mattison (ADP 161) over Gus Edwards (ADP 128).
For WRs, I don’t want the WR3 on a bad team that is likely to get five catches for 50 yards a game. If my team needs those 5/50 weeks or even consistently needs those weeks with a touchdown, my team isn’t going to be very good anyways. I would rather draft the WR4 on a high-scoring team and hope he finds himself into a starting role or the occasional spike game. I want John Brown (ADP 162) over Sterling Shepard (ADP 156).
For TEs, I don’t want the old, reliable TE that people are drafting because he’s the starter. The role of TEs have shifted in today’s NFL and so should how we draft at this position. The top guys have elite talent with a guaranteed role. Look for guys where the role is ambiguous, but the talent is clear. That is where the value in drafts lie and where the sleeper TEs can be found. I want O.J. Howard (ADP 193) over Dawson Knox (ADP 186).
5. When and How To Be Contrarian
This final key to success is specific to large GPP-style tournaments where you must advance out of your initial group to compete against others that have likewise advanced, usually 2-3 times before culminating in the championship round. For standard leagues where you are only competing against the other people in your draft, there is minimal if any value to being contrarian. But for tournaments, this may be the No. 1 opportunity to gain an edge against your opponents during the most valuable weeks.
In DFS, the reason for being contrarian is that when your low-owned player performs well, you have an edge on the field as others don’t also have that low-owned player. On a given week, that may be the pass-catching RB or a third-string WR. But in Best Ball, drafting a backup RB who you may consider a sleeper isn’t contrarian if he is a common late-round pick in other drafts. The key is finding players that are rarely being drafted at all. That way, if that contrarian player ends up having a big season, not only will he help you win your regular season, but when it comes to the playoffs, you’ll have a unique contrarian player relative to the field.
Let’s use three players as examples from last year: Nyheim Hines, Mike Davis, and James Robinson.
Nyheim Hines: RB15 in PPR scoring, ADP of 150 (13th round), drafted in nearly every draft
Mike Davis: RB12, ADP outside of 220 and drafted in <10% of drafts
James Robinson: RB7, ADP outside of 220 and drafted in <1% of drafts
All three had great years and yes, Mike Davis and James Robinson ended up finishing slightly higher than Nyheim Hines in points. But more importantly is that those two players brought exponentially greater value heading into the playoffs. While all three of these players had substantial win rates for teams during the regular season, if Nyheim Hines has a great game in the playoffs, there is only marginal value as he’ll likely be owned on other teams. But because Mike Davis and James Robinson were drafted on such few teams, they remained low-owned assets throughout the playoffs.
This strategy is most actionable in the last round or two of drafts. If you are choosing between two similar players, draft the guy who will have significantly lower ownership across the entire tournament. And if you can combine that with a stack, you are really capitalizing on those final rounds.
I hope this information is helpful and if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out on Twitter (@JustinHerzig). And keep an eye out as we’ll be posting a lot more Best Ball content throughout the offseason.