External Factors That Determine Player Performance

As a DFS player for many sports (R.I.P. college football DFS), I have become very aware that player performance in sports has just as much, if not more, to do with external factors than actual player skill. LeBron James is the best player in the NBA right now (this coming from a lifelong LeBron hater), but he isn’t always the best pick in NBA DFS, even from a raw points standpoint. On the other hand, Jeremy Langford is objectively not a good NFL running back, but he was a popular play in fantasy at times last season based solely on his situation.

What do I mean by external factors? Basically, those are any part of a player’s situation that is out of his control. A lot of times this is common sense, but as we approach this college football season and we prepare for fantasy drafts, it’s good to review these things so we ensure that we’re not missing anything in our research. When I put together my player rankings, I go through a checklist of all of these factors with every player I rank. It helps me eliminate preconceived notions about a player and get the most accurate analysis of a player as possible, which leads to finding more sleepers and breakout candidates than other players in the draft. Aside from individual player skill (an internal factor), I’m going to walk you through the things I look at to create my rankings.

Opportunity

Opportunity is probably the most obvious thing to think about when looking at a player. In most cases, opportunity is the number of times a player touches the ball, and how they get those touches. This is very important and often goes overlooked, so I’m going to repeat that: in most cases, opportunity is the number of times a player touches the ball, and how they get those touches. 

I’m mostly focusing on the last part of that statement, because the first part is something that every fantasy football player does. They see a split backfield, and each running back becomes half as valuable in their minds. They see two elite wide receivers and they each become less valuable. In some cases, this turns out to be an accurate assessment. However, in most cases, those two players can coexist in the offense because they are used in different ways.

If a coach has two running backs with identical styles of play, he’ll likely choose one to be the bell cow because he has nothing to gain by splitting snaps between the two players. He would, however, split carries if they have different skill sets that make them playable in multiple situations (i.e. Anthony Wales and D’Andre Ferby at WKU or Corey Davis and Daniel Braverman at Western Michigan last year).  On the other hand, players like Corey Clement of Wisconsin can be played without pause despite what appears to be a muddy situation with Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal. Clement does the same thing as Ogunbowale and Deal, so we can expect Paul Chryst to give Clement the bulk of the carries.

However, in some cases, running backs aren’t just competing against other running backs for carries. Dual-threat quarterbacks have a direct effect on running back production, especially near the end zone. Kenneth Farrow, a very capable goal-line back last season for Houston, rushed for 12 touchdowns, which seems good until you see that quarterback Greg Ward Jr. ran for 21 touchdowns. If Farrow hadn’t been losing goal line carries to Ward, he could’ve realistically run for over 20 touchdowns himself. Some big time running backs who may see red zone work cut into by their quarterbacks are: Royce Freeman, Matt Breida, Wayne Gallman, Marlon Mack, Mike Warren and Jalen Hurd, to name a few. This isn’t a reason not to draft them; in fact, all those guys rank relatively high among running backs for me. This is more something to think about if you’re having trouble deciding between two guys.

Wide receivers are different from running backs because there are always multiple pass-catching threats on the field for any team, in any situation. Because of this, more than one pass catcher from the same team can be an elite fantasy target, which can’t necessarily be said for the running backs and quarterbacks. Now, obviously some receivers are built for red zone targets, some for deep balls, and some for early-down possession work. This is certainly a good thing to look at when deciding where production will come from in an offense, but for now I’m going to focus on two other ways that wide receiver and tight end opportunity is impacted.

The first way involves a group of players that fantasy players aren’t necessarily used to discussing: the offensive line. We’ve all seen this situation when watching a football game: “The quarterback was under heavy pressure, so he threw it up to his favorite target and let him go make a play.” Looking at how often the quarterback will be under pressure due to offensive line struggles and who the quarterback throws to in response is one way to get an edge in fantasy college football.

When a quarterback is rushed, there are really two receiving options that they look to. The first is like the scenario I used above: they throw it to their most physically gifted receiver to “go get it”. Right away, I think of SMU’s Courtland Sutton. At 6’4″ and 215 lbs. and ridiculous jumping ability, Sutton is a freak of nature physically. The Mustangs’ offensive line leaves plenty to be desired, and it makes sense that, if feeling the rush, quarterback Matt Davis looks to Sutton before anyone else. This resulted in a sizable statistical difference between Sutton and the other SMU receivers and a collection of Odell-like highlight reel catches.

The second option is a simple check down. These receivers can be a lot harder to find, as it isn’t necessarily determined by physical gifts. A lot of times, it’s the tight end or a running back. Really, there isn’t a numerical way to see who gets most of the check-down targets for their team. This is information that’s best gained by watching the games and noticing trends in different quarterbacks and offenses.

The other thing I look at when trying to measure wide receiver opportunity is how effective the team’s backfield is around the goal line. If a team has no real short-yardage threats, they’re more likely to go to the air in those situations. In the NFL, the Jacksonville Jaguars were a perfect example of this last year. T.J. Yeldon anything but good around the goal line, which resulted in increased touchdowns for Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. At the college level, I think TCU could have a case of this, as none of their running backs are suited for goal line work.

I haven’t mentioned quarterbacks yet in this section because generally, teams pick a starter at quarterback and that player is on the field for every snap, barring injury or blowouts. However, there is one potential situation that’s worth mentioning when talking about quarterback opportunity.

Just like with running backs, there are instances where a team will switch their quarterback with another one who’s a better runner around the goal line. This happened to Mason Rudolph last year with J.W. Walsh subbing in around the end zone, and it really has a negative impact on a player’s fantasy value. Touchdowns are king in fantasy football, and if you take away a player’s opportunity to get those, it’s hard for them to have any upside at all. A situation I’m watching this season is at Texas, where I think Tyrone Swoopes could vulture some red zone snaps from freshman Shane Buechele, who I think is an otherwise sneaky pick this year.

Strength of Schedule

Individual matchups are a lot of times lumped into the “micro” part of fantasy sports; in other words, people usually only care about the opponent of their players when they’re deciding who to start that week. However, in college football more so than NFL, there is a huge edge that comes with looking at a player’s schedule.

If you’ve followed college football at all you know that some conferences are higher scoring than others. Conferences like the Big 12 and the PAC-12 are going to see higher scores on average than say, the Big 10 and the ACC. While there are teams in the “slower” conferences that can put points on the board with the best of them, it’s best to target faster conferences because on a week to week basis they’ll be in a better matchup for fantasy purposes. This, however, is pretty obvious. Let’s dive into some more advanced strategies to use when evaluating strength of schedule.

The first strategy is to really emphasize picking players from conferences outside the Power 5 (Big 10, ACC, SEC, Big 12, and PAC-12). This is mainly because of the lower talent levels, but not because the defenses are less talented. It has more to do with the player’s opportunity within their team.

In a Power 5 program, the team is usually loaded with higher rated recruits and overall better players than the smaller schools, obviously. Therefore, the same player could be a star at a smaller school and a regular starter at a bigger school. This is well documented, but why is this the case?

It isn’t because the other teams are less talented. In the section above, I talked about how important opportunity and touches is to fantasy production. It isn’t because players at small schools have less competition from the other teams, but rather because they have less competition on their own team. A small school player could be less talented than one at a big school but put up much bigger numbers because they get more touches and opportunity. There’s little risk of a player losing their role once it’s been established because there just isn’t as much talent behind them.

Another thing that I do when looking at a player’s schedule is to focus on the last few games, when fantasy playoffs are happening. Most skilled players can build a team that sees success over the course of a season, but time and time again a “stacked” team disappoints in the playoffs and all the regular season success goes out the window. Really, the goal of fantasy football isn’t necessarily to have an undefeated team (although that certainly isn’t bad either). What we should be aiming for is to do well enough to make the playoffs, then have our team be hitting their stride at the end of the season. This can be accomplished through smart trades and free agent pickups, but it starts as early as the draft.

Game Flow and Team Tendencies

In fantasy football, we generally don’t care about how well a player’s team does as long as that player does well individually. However, it’s worth taking into account how good a player’s team will be because it affects the way that team plays and calls plays.

If a team isn’t very good and plays from behind more often then not, they’ll probably pass more and play at a quicker pace because they’re trying to comeback. We want to target their passing game, and have caution when drafting running backs from these teams. Likewise, a dominant team that finds themselves ahead a lot, they’ll have no incentive to play fast; they’ll run the clock out, which should put a red flag on their quarterbacks and receivers.

Notice how I didn’t say we should target the running game of the latter. That’s because the main running backs don’t see much of a benefit from this and might even take a hit from it. First of all, these teams aren’t playing to score at the end of a game, so there isn’t much touchdown upside for the winning team in a blowout. Also, they play at a slower pace, and less plays doesn’t necessarily benefit anyone. Lastly, the winning team is likely to be the first to pull their starters, so the lead back for a dominant team might hardly play in the last parts of games. It’s best to target the backfields of teams who are likely to be in a lot of competitive games.

Team tendencies are  something that often go overlooked in college fantasy football. In early drafts this season, I’ve seen players who figure to have big roles in a system fertile for fantasy production go undrafted. The first example I think of is the Syracuse offense this season. Players like Eric Dungey and Steve Ishmael will see loads of opportunity in a Dino Babers offense but go significantly undervalued. D.J. Thompson from Southern Mississippi, Ronnie Moore from Bowling Green, Dontrell Hilliard from Tulane, and Tre’Quan Smith from UCF are other players that should have big roles in great systems for fantasy production that have gone undervalued in drafts so far this season.

 

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