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Don’t Worry, I’ll Manage

Roster Management
By John Evans

Your draft is important, trades are important, setting your best lineup every week is important. Having a cool team name is important. So are diet and exercise. But managing your roster — knowing how many players at each position to carry, and how to strike the right balance between upside and security — is more of a factor than many fantasy owners realize. Sure, we all avidly pursue the latest waiver-wire wonders and try to get them on our teams, but who are you cutting to make room? And sometimes it isn’t the flavor-of-the-week you should be targeting. Sometimes it’s the second or third priority, the player who didn’t have a big game last Sunday, who will help your team the most because he’s set up for future success.

Every fantasy owner has had this experience: your roster is full, the guy you’re stashing on the bench has high upside but can’t get healthy (or can’t get snaps), and you really need that bye-week fill-in or potential handcuff to your banged-up starter. So you swap out the bench stash for someone you need more right now, only to watch the guy you cut become a must-start on someone else’s team. A few tears in the shower later, you’re wondering if fantasy golf is a better bet. Or crocheting.

This may even have happened to you as recently as 2014, with a certain Giants wide receiver from Louisiana State University. Or maybe you picked him up and will always remember the year Odell Beckham, Jr. helped you win your league. Whatever side of that seemingly minor waiver-wire transaction you were on, now you know it was an object lesson in the importance of shrewd roster management.

It’s impossible to get every roster management decision right. For every OBJ there’s a Justin Hunter. For every C.J. Anderson there’s a Christine Michael. Not every seemingly high-upside guy poised to explode actually does. He might become better known for stabbing a dude at a seafood joint. How long should you wait? What is the opportunity cost of hanging onto your lotto ticket and leaving other players on the waiver wire? These are the difficult questions fantasy owners wrestle with.

There are times that being too cute with your roster composition can leave a hole behind your starters that you run out of chances to fill. “I don’t need Knile Davis,” you think, until Jamaal Charles gets hurt and now you have to spend 50% of your FAAB budget to get him. Last season I experimented with extreme roster churn, constantly cycling the end of my bench in several leagues. I lost this game of musical chairs, cutting guys like C.J. Anderson before their opportunity to shine and chasing one-week wonders who didn’t pan out (I did win another league with waiver-wire acquisition Odell Beckham, Jr.). In the balancing act of patience vs. aggressive moves, patience lost and so did I.

The experience was instructive, however, and I realized how vital it is to maintain your optimal roster throughout the season. Every league, roster and week are different, but there are certain strategies and scenarios that are instructive. Periodically during the 2015 season I will be examining them from different angles and hope the lessons we learn together can be applied to your circumstances. As an avid dynasty player, I will view things through that lens at times but for the most part this series will be focused on the all-in, winner-take-all game of redraft. It won’t be a waiver-wire column so much as a study of different principles for successful roster management.

If you have just completed your draft/auction or are about to, there is still time before the bullets are live. Injuries and depth-chart decisions will inevitably change the fantasy value of many NFL players. Depending on when waivers open in your league, there may be an opportunity to re-shuffle the back-end of the roster. Here is the first question to ask once the first incarnation of your team is set.

Do I need to carry two quarterbacks and two tight ends?

I’m assuming you have around 16 roster spots, as is the case in most redraft formats. If you have a deeper bench and roster spots aren’t at a premium, then there is more reason to carry backups at these positions. However, in most leagues with 12 or fewer teams, you really only need to carry one quarterback and one tight end.

These are we call “onesie” positions, where you only start one each week (unless you’re in a superflex or start-two QB format). On NFL fields there are 32 quarterbacks and 32 tight ends starting in non-bye weeks, and only a third of them are starting in your league. Meanwhile, of the NFL’s 32 starting running backs, how many will be starters in your league’s lineups that week? 24—26 right off the top, before flexes are even taken into account. It’s fairly likely that all 32 NFL starters will be in your league’s lineups. There are a number of committee backfields in the NFL today, so how many of those running backs are good fantasy starts in any given week? But every owner in your league is forced to start two, maybe three running backs.

It is much easier to pull a fantasy starter out of thin air at QB or TE than it is at RB or even WR, a much deeper position.

So you’re carrying just one QB and one TE. Let’s say your starter is playing a defensive juggernaut, or he’s on bye, or he’s going to miss a week or two due to injury. Now you have to give up the roster flexibility you’ve enjoyed by carrying one instead of two (or more) players at his position.

No problema. Even if all of your adversaries are carrying two “onesies,” that leaves 10 or 12 starters on waivers (again, outside of the byes — good roster management mandates more forethought when that week approaches). Of the free agents, how many have good matchups this week? If you’re the only owner in your league with one QB and one TE on the roster, you won’t have much competition for the handful of decent plays. If others are doing the same thing you are, that means the pool of potential starters is larger.

If you need to stream QBs week to week, simply cycling through starters and devoting a single roster spot to the position, the matchups make this possible. It can be a little aggravating, but QB is a somewhat volatile position anyway. The Sultan of Streaming, J.J. Zachariason (@LateRoundQB), tells us that in 2013, 44 different quarterbacks had at least one top-12 week and in 2014 the numbers were about the same.

There aren’t that many lead-pipe locks for a spot in the top 12 scorers every week. Both Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck had epic duds when you needed them most, in the fantasy playoffs (Rodgers vs. Buffalo in Week 15 and Luck vs. Dallas, Week 16). Meanwhile, it’s possible to predict a game like Ryan Fitzpatrick’s six-TD bonanza vs. Tennessee, one of the cushiest passing matchups imaginable last year. Fitzpatrick has proven himself a serviceable passer and his team (Houston) wasn’t without weapons, so you don’t go in expecting 30-plus fantasy points but you do know he’s got a good chance at QB1 numbers in that matchup.

You will having varying degrees of certainty when you start any quarterback, but matchups have more to do with who comes through in any given week than at the RB or WR positions, where the consistency of touches and targets have a greater correlation to usability in fantasy. The real reason you don’t start LeGarrette Blount against the Bills is because you know the Patriots are going to pass against them, not because Blount would give you zilch on 25 carries. With that kind of volume, in today’s era of RB scarcity in fantasy, he would still probably turn in a low-end RB2 day.

Tight end scoring is harder to predict than quarterback — it’s inherently a boom-bust position. The names on the list of top-scoring tight ends from week to week is an ever-changing cast of characters. Most of these guys might as well be on milk cartons most of the year, as invisible as they often are. Good data does emerge in the course of the season to indicate which teams are surrendering the most points to TEs (Arizona is perennially on the list, it seems), but it’s harder to play matchups at this position than it is with QBs. You know a quarterback is going to get his hands on the ball at least 20 times. A tight end is extremely lucky to see 10 targets (Rob Gronkowski got off to a slow start and averaged 8.7 targets last year).

The reality is that unless you own Gronk, Jimmy Graham or potentially Travis Kelce/Greg Olsen, you are unlikely to get steady production from your tight end spot. Why burn two roster spots to play matchups? Either go with one guy and ride out the inevitable peaks and valleys, stream the position week-to-week, or occasionally pick up a second starter when circumstances suggest it’s the best play for you.

For example, if you are making occasional roster moves for spot-starts at QB/TE — a strategy I recommend — there will be weeks where your starter faces a bad matchup and there is someone available with a much better chance to produce in this given week. Fine, pick him up. You don’t have to cut your generally reliable QB or TE, but nor do you carry a backup as a matter of course. On weeks where your one QB and one TE both have reasonable matchups, you use that spot on a RB or WR who might break out on your bench. Then, next week you can unleash him on your league.

Isn’t that better than having a backup “onesie” whose peers are probably on your waiver wire? Why let Blu-rays gather dust in your living room when you can dial up any movie you want, in HD? If you’re in a bar, order the draft beer — don’t pay more for a bottle you could have at home. Okay, that’s enough advice for one day. As Liz Loza (my co-host on the Xs and Ys Podcast) likes to say, win big!

John Evans is the co-host of the Xs and Ys Podcast: A His and Hers Guide to Fantasy Football, available wherever podcasts are found. Follow him on Twitter @JohnF_Evans.