By Gerry Love - SPM Fantasy Staff
Given everything else that has happened in 2020, the only thing we knew for certain heading into this National Football League season was that it would be a year like no other.
That was pretty obvious considering that games were going to be played in front of few or no fans following training camps featuring limited contact and no exhibition contests. Rosters and practice squads were expanded to account for potential COVID cases and a likely increase in injuries, and the length of time hobbled players would have to spend on injured reserve before being eligible to return was shortened to three weeks.
We knew that it would different for sure, but no one could have predicted the wild and crazy first two weeks we have witnessed. Many observers figured there would be more aches and pains, as well as sprains and strains, during the first few weeks of games – more like what we are accustomed to when preseason games get underway.
But Week 2 produced more than just bumps and bruises, turning into Sunday Bloody Sunday as numerous ACL tears and other serious injuries sidelined key players such as Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffery, Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas. Other high-profile names such as Davonte Adams, Raheem Mostert, Drew Lock and Courtland Sutton also are likely to miss substantial time because of injuries.
Despite the lack of preseason games, there already have been some amazing performances and fantastic finishes. Dallas rallied from 15 points down in the final five minutes to beat the Falcons thanks to an onside-kick snafu that cost the Falcons, and Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker made the game-winning field goal three times – twice from 58 yards and once from 53 –
thanks to a flag and a timeout in Kansas City’s come-from-behind overtime victory against the Chargers.
Rookie first-round draft pick Justin Herbert was thrust into starting QB duties for Los Angeles in that game thanks to a freakish team-doctor-induced injury suffered by Tyrod Taylor, who couldn’t play after receiving a pain-killing injection gone awry. All Herbert did in his NFL debut was throw for 311 yards and a touchdown in nearly pulling off an upset of the defending Super Bowl champs.
Top overall draft pick Joe Burrow appears to be the real deal, having thrown for better than 500 yards and 3 TDs in two starts for Cincinnati, and second-year Jacksonville thrill-a-minute signal-caller Gardner Minshew chucked the pigskin around to the tune of 512 yards and six scores in leading the surprising Jaguars to a 1-1 start.
On the flip side, a few teams that figured to be playoff contenders and are led by veteran quarterbacks have struggled to find their rhythm. Future Hall of Famers Drew Brees and Tom Brady both are staring at 1-1 records, while Kirk Cousins has thrown for just 372 yards and compiled a 61.9 QB rating during the Minnesota Vikings’ 0-2 start.
Speaking about Brady and his new team in Tampa Bay on his weekly radio show, Hall-of-Fame quarterback Brett Favre equated the first month of games to preseason and said the Bucs should hope they can win two games so that they still are in contention when the offense starts hitting on all cylinders.
Former Washington Football Team tight end Chris Cooley described his ex-team’s offensive game plan as a glorified “high-school offense” on a D.C.-area podcast despite a 1-1 start that included an opening-day upset of the Philadelphia Eagles. Cooley reasoned that the combination of a second-year quarterback who entered the season with eight career starts, a new head coach and offensive coordinator and a lack of offseason workouts and preseason games probably had forced the team’s new coaching staff to take things slowly.
While it has been far from perfect, the start to the 2020 NFL season has provided its fair share of excitement and intrigue, and the overall level of play has been surprisingly good. Even if it takes a little longer than usual for most teams to hit their stride, it’s great to have NFL football back after a long summer during which many of us wondered if there would be any season at all.
So, what does all this mean for fantasy team owners?
One key to building a championship team under any circumstances it to check the waiver wire on a weekly basis in hopes of finding potential sleepers who might be able to provide depth and help you win a championship. It’s also imperative to be aware of who is available in case one of your top players suffers an injury. Too many owners wait until they have an emergency to check for available players, in which case it may be too late. With all the injuries to top players through just two weeks, it appears that it will be more important than ever for owners to always be aware of who is available in their leagues.
Watching the Jaguars and Dolphins play as I write this, I’m seeing players who were available on waivers in almost every league as recently as this week – Myles Gaskin, Minshew, James Robinson, Laviska Shenault and Keelan Cole – making key contributions and piling up points. If you blinked, many of these players were snatched up by opposing teams in your league, and if you blink again, one of the players who you are counting on to carry your team might be the next one to suffer a major injury.
Staying on top of which players are available in your league on a weekly basis, even if your team is healthy, can allow you to add depth for later in the season and also make preemptive strikes against other owners who aren’t as diligent and end up with holes in their lineups down the road. Sometimes the moves you prevent other teams from making are as important as the ones you actually make to help your team out of necessity.
As was written here last week, it also is important to be patient and not panic if things aren’t going as well as you hoped through two weeks. If many real-life NFL teams are approaching the first month of the season as if it’s their preseason, fantasy team owners should consider a similar approach.
If players are still building up their conditioning; coaches are still figuring out what combinations of players are going to ultimately receive the bulk of the snaps, targets and touches; and coordinators are still fine-tuning their offensive and defensive systems, it doesn’t make sense to blow up your roster after a couple sub-par performances. Don’t help a rival win a league championship by dropping a player who is off to a slow start just so you can find a way to win a game in Week 3.
Keep in mind that many times in fantasy football the teams that sprint out of the gates and get fat and happy with a lot of early season wins often face adversity later on and may not be prepared for it because complacency sets in or the owner gets lazy. Teams with owners who build depth and work hard to have an answer for every possible emergency as the season grinds on and player attrition naturally occurs are the ones that usually find their way into the playoffs and are better positioned to make a run toward a championship.
Take Brett Favre’s advice and use this first month as if it’s your preseason, too. Figure out your team’s optimal lineup and improve your team’s depth while playing to stay in contention. When forming your weekly lineups try to stay away from boom-or-bust players and look for players who are likely to be on the field for a high-volume of snaps and receive a high-volume of touches or targets.
Playing the best players from weaker teams is never a bad plan – since those teams usually rely on their top guys to keep games close – and neither is using players from teams with established coaches who have well-documented tendencies and a track record of how they call games and rotate their personnel. With so much uncertainty and craziness, the key right now Is to maximize your chances of putting a consistent, productive group of players in your lineup without taking too many risks.
Looking at individual and position-specific matchups can be helpful, too, but at this early juncture you are generally better off going with players who are known quantities, have high floors and are likely to be on the field for the majority of their team’s snaps over the hot prospect who is only getting a few targets or touches per game but has a good matchup and the potential to make a game-breaking play at any time.
As time goes on you will start to get a better feel for the right mixture of high-upside guys and consistent core players, but for now the best strategy is to go with the high-volume players and let the chips fall where they may.
In a normal year, championships are not won in September or October. That will not change this year, but championships can be lost by owners who overreact to early season losses and pull the trigger too quickly on releasing players who aren’t producing as expected before giving them a chance to work their way back into game shape and solidify their roles.
Just like the real thing, fantasy football is a marathon and a war of attrition. By playing the percentages now to make sure your team is competitive in the short term while doing your homework and putting in the time necessary to build a deep and versatile roster, you can maximize your chances of staying in the thick of the race early and ensure that you are capable of weathering the storms in November and December.