News & Analysis

Fantasy Football and COVID-19: League recommendations and best practices

The New England Patriots are one of the most successful and winningest franchises in professional sports because they continue to evolve and adapt. They don't use the same strategy year after year — they adjust, typically before the rest of the NFL.

As the 2020 fantasy football season approaches amid uncertain times, we need to follow suit and realize that last year’s mindset and strategy are not going to produce winning results. Taking home a championship this season is going to require keen adaptation. So will managing our leagues during a time when things are changing fast.

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I reached out to three fellow PFF fantasy analysts — Kent Weyrauch, Nathan Jahnke and Sosa Kremenjas — to kick around some thoughts on how to approach 2020 fantasy football with COVID-19 protocols in mind. How should we adjust our game strategy? What league settings, rules and formats need to be updated? I've folded their thoughts into the following collection of recommendations for managing our teams and running our leagues to ensure that the 2020 fantasy football season is as fun and fair as those of the past.

League Format Updates

The most common question that has surfaced across social media is how league settings should be addressed with COVID-19 in mind. It's crucial that league commissioners and all league members maintain communication in order to start off on the right foot. All rules and regulations should be clear to all parties before any league fees are collected.

These new settings — or topics of discussion — should include:

  • Additional IR spots
  • Expanded overall rosters
  • Implementing daily Free Agent Acquisition Budgets (FAAB)
  • Cutoff deadlines to declare a winner in case of a shortened season
  • Protocol if an NFL team is forced to forfeit

For the most part, these seem self-explanatory, but each has slight tweaks that need further explanation.

Kent Weyrauch suggests that leagues need to stipulate that any additional IR spots are for COVID-19 players only — not just a way to hoard players with other injures. This keeps the league format more “normal” while at the same time helping teams that may be get hit hard by the virus. Unfortunately, this might have to be a manual process, and the commissioner will have to track it.

Having bigger rosters overall (18 or 20 players) should help make it easier to substitute in the case of players being ruled out last-minute. That way, if a team misses out on waivers during the week, the owner can salvage a starting lineup — especially when bye weeks start to hit. 

All leagues should switch to a daily FAAB waivers system. That way, once a player is ruled out due to a positive COVID-19 test result, it is not just a free-for-all to the waiver wire to add the player’s backup. 

Nathan Janke recommends having the blind waiver period run from Tuesday up through Saturday. Once the Sunday waiver period runs, only then can you pick up players off the waiver wire without bidding (this is to protect against pregame scratches). The last thing you want is for someone to be stuck with a glaring hole in a lineup 90 minutes before the game with no way to add a replacement. 

The last two settings to discuss — whether to declare a winner in a shortened season or what to do if an NFL team forfeits — are worst-case scenarios but things we should prepare for. Make the cutoff deadline in your league somewhere between eight and 12 games. Then make sure it’s clear how the payouts are structured — whether the most points or best overall record is the winner. If the season doesn't reach the game threshold, then everybody should have their league entry fees reimbursed.

If a team is struck hard by the virus leading up to a game, there is also a chance that we could see a forfeit for the first time in NFL history. Last season, we almost saw the Kansas City Chiefs forfeit to the New England Patriots when it was discovered that they did not have all the equipment needed to play in the game.

According to the official NFL rulebook: If a team forfeits a game, the opponent will be declared the winner by a score of 2-0, but the points will not be added to the winning team’s record for purposes of offensive production or tie-breakers.

This rule would indicate that no offensive players in fantasy would accumulate any fantasy points, but DSTs could still potentially be played and would score points based on one team allowing zero points and the other allowing just two points. Keeping DSTs in place even in forfeits could provide an interesting wrinkle, but everybody in the league should be aware of the rule.

As for offensive players in forfeits, discuss whether the commissioner can make manual switches to lineups. For example, if a team forfeits and your backups have already played, are you out of luck, or can you swap in someone who has already played? After all, if an NFL team forfeits, that creates two teams of players that nobody can use. 

What I would suggest is that all teams submit one or two bench players to the commissioner each week — those players could act as a “swap-in player” should a team forfeit after the players lock at 1 p.m. All “swap-in players” would be required to be submitted before 1 p.m., so whichever player is ultimately swapped is predetermined.

Targeting Continuity

The best plan for the 2020 season is to favor teams that are well-coached and have continuity. Every season, NFL teams face adversity from injuries and coaching changes, but the best teams consistently rise above the rest.

The Philadelphia Eagles have dealt with major injuries the past three seasons but have still managed three playoff berths, including a Super Bowl championship in 2017 with a backup quarterback.

That's why it’s crucial for the majority of the core players you draft to be on teams that project to be on quality offenses. There are always going to be teams that outperform expectations, but teams that were above average in 2019 and are returning similar players and coaching personnel should be prioritized in drafts.

PFF’s Ian Hartitz ranked the continuity of all 32 NFL teams’ passing games back in June, but here’s is the quick SparkNotes version of teams that ranked highest: Kansas City Chiefs, Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Las Vegas Raiders, Atlanta Falcons and Tennessee Titans.

Conversely, this also means investing less into teams with less continuity between coaching staff and players: Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, New York Jets, Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns. Of these teams, both the Panthers and Browns have new head coaches and offensive coordinators. Expect these teams to start slow out of the gate.

Overall, we have five new NFL head coaches this season and 11 new offensive coordinators, with Doug Pederson serving as both the head coach and OC for the Eagles.

New Head Coaches in 2020
Kevin Stefanski Cleveland Browns
Ron Rivera Washington Football Team
Joe Judge New York Giants
Mike McCarthy Dallas Cowboys
Matt Rhule Carolina Panthers

Of the five teams with new head coaches, only the Dallas Cowboys did not change their offensive coordinator for 2020 — they retained OC Kellen Moore after he helped Big D rank No. 1 on offense in average yards per play in 2019. This year will be the first season for Stefanski, Judge and Rhule as NFL head coaches.

New Offensive Coordinators in 2020
Chan Gailey New York Jets
Alex Van Pelt Cleveland Browns
Jay Gruden Jacksonville Jaguars
Pat Shurmur Denver Broncos
Scott Turner Washington Football Team
Bill Lazor Chicago Bears
Gary Kubiak Minnesota Vikings
Joe Brady Carolina Panthers
Doug Pederson Philadelphia Eagles
Kevin O'Connell Los Angeles Rams
Jason Garrett New York Giants

Nathan Janke points out that with offenses expected to have the advantage early on, targeting teams in-season with new defensive coordinators could pay huge dividends. There are eight teams with defensive coordinators who are new to their organizations: Carolina Panthers, Los Angeles Rams, Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Cleveland Browns, and the Washington Football Team

With defenses in 2020 projected to continue the trend of poor tackling efficiency, targeting players that are great at breaking tackles and creating yards seems like a winning proposition.

Targeting continuity is not a strict rule in terms of which teams to target in drafts, but it can be used in a tiebreaker situation between two players within the same tier rankings

Injury-Prone Players and Early-Season Schedule

When it comes to player selection, you should embrace injury-prone players and be aware of early-season strength of schedule. With COVID-19 creating an atmosphere where any player can miss games at any given time, the playing field has been leveled when it comes to avoiding players because of their likelihood of missing games.

For players like Cam Newton, James Conner, Todd Gurley II, Will Fuller, Marquise Brown, DeVante Parker and Evan Engram — who all have donned the “injury-risk” scarlet letter — the risk is being factored into their ADPs, which makes them all relative value plays. Their likelihood of missing games in comparison to other players is not nearly as high as in years past.

This also makes it much more difficult to follow a “zero-RB” approach. In a non-COVID season, it might be easier to implement zero-RB and capitalize on turnover at the position. But this year most players are at similar risk levels, which includes offensive linemen. You're not going to feel great about starting a second-string running back behind a bunch of backup guards and tackles. If an outbreak were to occur on one team, it's probably going to be devastating to the entire team’s fantasy value.

Sosa Kremenjas points out that there will be more backups garnering playing time if COVID hits teams. Turnover is tough on our fantasy teams, but players seeing new opportunities can help us fill those spots. Know that there are potentially going to be new starters on the waiver wire in addition to the later rounds of drafts. 

Early-season schedule should also be an integral part of your strategy — if there is a shortened season, the wins and fantasy points compiled in the first few weeks are going to play a larger role down the stretch, especially considering the attrition were are likely to see as the season goes on.

PFF has its own strength of schedule tool — the teams that project to start out favorably include the 49ers, Eagles, Bills, Ravens, Steelers, Cowboys, Chargers and Washington. Kent Weyrauch also just released his strength of schedule by quarterback, which highlights the signal-callers likely to start the season strong, like Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and Dwayne Haskins.

Identifying early opportunity is also why “fading rookies” (even with a lack of continuity) is not a good approach. Fantasy drafts are all about value, and with rookies being downright discounted this year, the ones who have direct paths to snaps in Week 1 should be firmly on your radar to target in 2020.

The same cannot be said for some veteran players on new teams, as their draft stocks have not been nearly as suppressed as the incoming rookie class. DeAndre Hopkins (WR5), Todd Gurley (RB17), Melvin Gordon (RB16) and Hayden Hurst (TE9) are all on new teams, but their ADPs do not reflect any concerns. 

I am less worried about the running backs because of the plug-and-play nature of the position, but Hopkins and Hurst are both facing uphill battles to just match their current ADPs.

The better strategy would be targeting players with the “new team discount” already factored in. Cam Newton (QB18), Stefon Diggs (WR26), Austin Hooper (TE11) and Eric Ebron (TE22) are prime examples of veterans on new teams who can be drafted at a better value.

Build Depth

Focus on building depth as best you can. The classic “stars and scrubs” approach that has worked for many years was not tailor-made for 2020. You need to be prepared to replace major contributors to your team throughout the season. 

Sosa Kremenjas notes that it will be important to stay up to date on second- and third-stringers across all rosters. If a starter is forced out, you'll know who to go after. This isn't a major change for anyone playing in deeper leagues, but the average fan might want to get more familiar with all NFL depth charts. 

The days of leaving your fantasy draft with only one quarterback and one tight end are probably over. Even if you draft Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce with earlier draft picks, Nathan Janke thinks you will sleep much better at night knowing you have a backup option just in case disaster strikes.

COVID-19/Reserve List

Sorting through the COVID-19/reserve list will be tricky; all we know about the list is that it’s for players who either test positive for the virus or players who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive. 

As of this writing, some of the biggest names on the list include Matthew Stafford, Kenny Golladay, Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Justin Jefferson, T.J. Hockenson, Jace Sternberger and Gardner Minshew.

Players can come off this reserve list at any time — they just need to pass NFL-NFLPA testing and treatment protocols. Miami Dolphins rookie defensive lineman Benito Jones became the first player activated from the list, just two days after landing on it.

The best approach here would be to look for other options until we start to see major dips in ADP. In the case of Golladay, who has the highest ADP as a second-round pick, I would want him to fall into the third round before taking him. After drafting Golladay, I would make it a priority to add strong receiver depth and target the other Lions’ receivers, Marvin Jones Jr. and Danny Amendola.

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