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Four Takeaways From the 2020 Fantasy Football Season

Now that most of the year’s fantasy football champions have been crowned, it’s time to look ahead and figure out which lessons to take into the 2021 season

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With Week 16 of the NFL season in the books, fantasy football is officially over (unless your league plays in Week 17, in which case you should look into finding a new league for 2021). The best time to prepare for next season is right now. Whether you won your league’s championship or missed the playoffs entirely, this is the moment to reflect on the season that was and evaluate what can be learned from it. So here are four big takeaways from the 2020 fantasy season:

The waiver wire is fantasy’s one true inefficiency

Across ESPN fantasy football leagues this season, the most-rostered player on teams that made the playoffs wasn’t Alvin Kamara or Dalvin Cook or Davante Adams. It was undrafted Jaguars rookie James Robinson. The fourth-most-rostered player was Justin Herbert. And even Chase Claypool, Myles Gaskin, Mike Davis, and Justin Jefferson made the top 15.

There is a good chance that none of these guys were drafted in your fantasy leagues. And while plenty of highly drafted stars dot this list as well, it is often filled with late-round picks or undrafted players. Last season, guys like Lamar Jackson and Darren Waller provided the most value. In 2018, James Conner, Phillip Lindsay, Nick Chubb, Aaron Jones, George Kittle, and Patrick Mahomes led the way. In 2017, Alvin Kamara was the king of fantasy. You get the idea.

The sneaky secret of fantasy football is that a championship is not won on draft day. It is won every day during the season. The fantasy GMs who stay on top of injuries, depth chart news, and breakout performances are the people who are most likely to win their leagues year in and year out. The draft is always a crapshoot, but the waiver wire is a perennial source of value—if you’ve got the knowledge to take advantage.

This season, you could have completely whiffed in the draft and still ended up with Robinson, Herbert, Jefferson, and Davis if you played the waiver wire right. That’s not a super likely scenario, but even one or two of those guys would have provided a big edge. If your Week 14 roster looks like your draft-day roster, you’ve messed up.

Even if you don’t get the guy who ends up on a best-value list at the end of the season, though, there are plenty of waiver-wire adds who can give an opportunistic GM a boost for a week or two. The manager who picked up Tony Pollard after Ezekiel Elliott was ruled out for Week 15 likely punched their ticket to the fantasy championship (Pollard put up 25.2 points in Elliott’s absence). The very next week, Jeff Wilson Jr. put up 26.9 points as a fill-in for the depleted Niners running back corps. These opportunities aren’t available every week, but jumping on them can push a team over the top.

The tight end position remains a wasteland

Every year, fantasy experts will try to sell you on late-round tight ends. It comes with the business. You scout these overlooked guys, see some promising traits or a lucrative situation, and become enamored. That’s why we’re writing notes in December—so you don’t fall for this again next year.

The tight end landscape has been bleak for some time, and it gets worse and worse each year. NFL teams are passing more than ever before, but they’re also sending a larger percentage of targets to wide receivers. This season, that meant that if you didn’t have Travis Kelce or Darren Waller, you were probably frustrated with your tight end spot more weeks than not.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Kelce is a bona fide first-round pick in 2021. This year, he’s recorded 1,416 yards through 15 games. The next closest tight end is Waller, at 1,079 yards, and then T.J. Hockenson, who has 698. Essentially, Kelce has had double the production of this year’s third-best tight end. That’s a league-winning gap in production.

Kelce was the second most-common player on ESPN playoff teams in 2020, and ranked fourth in VBD, which measures a fantasy player’s value over a replacement-level player at the same position. In 2019, Kelce was eighth in VBD; in 2018 he was also eighth; and in 2017—when he had Alex Smith at quarterback—he was 13th. Kelce has been the first tight end off the board for the past few years now, but this season he was going 19th overall. There’s a good argument that he isn’t being drafted high enough.

Similarly, be prepared to pay up for Waller and 49ers tight end George Kittle next season. In this past draft, Kittle was on average selected 22nd overall, but Waller was in the 60s. Waller should jump up to at least Mark Andrews’s level (36th overall) but could be much higher. If you’re using a second-round pick on these guys, you aren’t reaching—you just understand how insanely scarce the tight end position is these days, and how much of an advantage a great tight end can bring.

On the flip side, if you miss out on these top guys, just forget it. Kelce (20.9 points per game), Waller (16.8), and Andrews (12.6) were the top-scoring tight ends in fantasy this season by PPR. The next 13 guys after them all averaged between 11.3 and 9.1 points per game. So either you get one of the handful of stars at the position, or you spend your season throwing darts. If you’re doing the latter, you may as well do it with a late-round pick and not waste decent draft capital.

There is value to be found in mid-round QBs

The six most highly drafted quarterbacks this year were Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, and Kyler Murray. And the top six scoring quarterbacks when it was all said and done featured four guys from that group: Mahomes, Watson, Wilson, and Murray. Prescott was having an all-time-great fantasy year before he tore his ACL, and Jackson disappointed, though is still eighth among his position—not a total bust.

A common fantasy strategy for years now has been to wait (and wait, and wait, and wait) to draft a quarterback. It’s still true that the very top QBs are usually overvalued—Mahomes and Jackson weren’t worth the second-round picks it typically took to acquire them this season. But the fantasy GMs who waited until the final few rounds of the draft to take a trendy “sleeper” like Matthew Stafford or Ben Roethlisberger likely regretted it. If those managers didn’t grab Herbert off the waiver wire, they probably struggled all season to find quarterback production that could compete with one of the QBs above.

This doesn’t mean you should reach for Mahomes next year, but there is a case that it’s time to rethink some of the common assumptions about drafting quarterbacks. Given the state of the modern NFL, we know it’s best to draft a quarterback with rushing upside. Of the top seven QBs in points per game this year, five recorded at least 400 rushing yards. And if Prescott had played a full season, that number would have been six of the top eight. Fantasy is a game of math, and rushing yards are worth 2.5 as much as passing yards and rushing touchdowns are worth 1.5 as much as passing touchdowns.

Those six top-drafted QBs from this season, plus Bills breakout star Josh Allen, will be high on draft boards again in 2021. And based on how they did in 2020, it wouldn’t be foolish to grab one. That doesn’t mean you should spring for Mahomes with a second-round pick, but it increasingly looks like it doesn’t make much sense to wait until the double-digit rounds to take your first passer, either.

There’s not much upside to middle-tier running backs

Here were this year’s RBs 13 through 24 based on average draft position:

  • Kenyan Drake
  • Miles Sanders
  • Todd Gurley
  • Chris Carson
  • James Conner
  • David Johnson
  • Jonathan Taylor
  • Leonard Fournette
  • Le’Veon Bell
  • Melvin Gordon
  • Mark Ingram
  • Raheem Mostert

If your team was heavily reliant on one of these running backs going into the season, you don’t need me to tell you how frustrated you were. Just two (Carson and Taylor) leaped into the top 12 in fantasy points per game (minimum eight games played), showing how little this group delivered for fantasy general managers. Nine of the 12 finished outside the top 20.

I’m not a follower of the zero running back strategy, which says to skip the running back position at the top of drafts and instead load up on many of the best wide receivers, tight ends, and quarterbacks. To backfill the gaps, zero RB drafters invest heavily in late-round, lottery-ticket running backs and aggressively play the waiver wire throughout the season. But that’s a risky strategy, and if you don’t land a gem—like Robinson—it’s a sure way to struggle all season. The performances of highly drafted running backs like Kamara, Cook, and Henry show that there is plenty of league-winning value in the best running backs.

But a “one running back” strategy would have paid dividends this year. A fantasy GM who drafted one top-tier back in the first round and then spent most of the rest of the draft loading up on other positions would have fared very well in 2020, especially if the GM hit on a late-round value like Antonio Gibson or a waiver-wire addition like Robinson. Even the GMs who drafted Christian McCaffrey could have survived his injury woes had they been the first to grab Mike Davis.

It’s worth noting, of course, that this strategy works only if you follow the first takeaway. Going light on running backs means you have to find the right late-round sleeper or aggressively play the waiver wire—or both. But that hustle could win you a fantasy championship.