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Tip Drill: Strategy for a December to Remember

Do you want the Washington defense on your fantasy roster? Maybe in a week or two. (AP Photo/Mark Tenally)

No matter background or personal beliefs, every fantasy player wants the same thing for the holidays.

An asterisk.

The asterisk is the holy grail at this point of the Yahoo Fantasy Football season. It means you’ve qualified for the playoffs, made it to the tournament. It means you still have football to analyze and football to watch, with the most personal of stakes. It means this could be your December to Remember.

As we get ready to begin Fantasy Football’s second season, let’s jot down a few strategy tips. Some of these things are specific to December; other tips are more universal. As usual, many of these tips are common sense — common sense is the sharpest arrow in your quiver.

It all boils down to good decisions. That’s what probably led you to this point, and that’s the key to giving yourself the best chance in the next few weeks. Keep making those good decisions, amigos.

Here’s what you need to know and consider.

Fantasy Roster Composition Changes In December

The bye weeks are long gone and forgotten. Depth isn’t nearly as important as it once was. If you run into a bunch of injuries in September, you rally, you make the best of it. If the wrong guys get hurt at this time of year, you probably lose. That’s just how it goes.

I’m willing to consider player types now that I wouldn’t care for in August or September. A juicy handcuff running back doesn’t matter to me when the season starts — I’m trying to hit home runs then, assemble a team with theoretical upside — but the insurance might make sense at this time of year. Even positions you generally don’t handcuff could be handcuffable in the right context (and yes, Virginia, it’s always contextual). If Jimmy Garoppolo were still on the Patriots, say, I would understand if a Tom Brady owner considered a possible handcuff with a roster spot that was available.

It’s also a key time to consider more than one fantasy defense. And that’s because of the next point.

Looking Ahead is Critical

I’m a firm believer that fantasy football is best played with a microscope, not a telescope — let’s focus on what’s in front of us and not kid ourselves with our ability to tell the future, months in advance. Summer strength-of-schedule? I’ve always considered it a fool’s errand; a low-end piece of info that’s sometimes pushed into the wrong ratio of importance.

But this late in the season, I’m going to start looking ahead. We have a much better sense of what good and bad matchups look like. And heck, maybe you scored a Week 14 bye — in that sense, you start planning for Week 15 and Week 16 right now, with casual indifference to what happens this week.

I favor having at least two fantasy defenses at this time of year because fantasy defenses, while maddeningly erratic at times, are heavily dependent on matchup and opponent. You always want to play a DST that’s a favorite in its game, and it’s not easy to latch onto a defensive team that will have pristine matchups for 2-3 straight weeks. Sure, the fluidity of the league will kick in and some matches will gain or lose luster when the week eventually arrives. But I’m comfortable doing some speculating now. (These are some lousy offenses out there, let’s pick on a few!)

Know your FAAB Neighborhood By Heart 

Free-agent bidding is always a league-contextual exercise, but the task at hand becomes more specific at this time of year, with less teams still eligible to bid (or engaged in the league) and not all teams having ample resources. When I’m making early-season bids, I’ll loosely consider where the rest of the room stands with needs and leverage. But at this time of year, I will make sure I know exactly what the other teams need and what they can and can’t do.

FAAB familiarity is my theme for September; come this time of the year, I want to know every other roster (and likely motivation) by heart. With less rosters to worry about, there’s no excuse. Bidding is a lot looser in September, much more specific now.

Don’t Fret Over Week 16 Sitdowns

Fantasy Football is a better game now that Week 17 is commonly ignored in head-to-head leagues (though I do not mind continuing to play on through Week 17 in hybrid formats). Many playoff-bound NFL teams have little to play for in the final week, and will approach the game as nothing more than a glorified exhibition.

But sometimes I hear fantasy owners working themselves into a tizzy over Week 16, concerned that a clinching team might blow off their penultimate game. While this is possible in theory and has occasionally been an issue historically, it’s a very rare occurrence. Most teams realize it’s foolish to go into shutdown mode a full three weeks in advance of its playoff schedule. From where we sit today, I’m going to fully expect all teams to play with usual motivations in Week 16.

Consider All You Respect, but Make Your Own Decisions

You’re the owner, the CEO, the general manager, the marketing director. You win, you get the spoils. I don’t blame you for seeking out information and other opinions — I’m going to do the same thing — but at the end of the day, you want to be responsible for your choices. You know your league better than we ever could.

There are no shortcuts or golden tickets, even as we want to believe in those things sometimes. This would be a rather boring game if the answers were easy. No analyst is worth your blind devotion, nor is anyone so dense that they’re worth an automatic fade (that would be just as valuable as the omniscient analyst, but neither exists). Consider the reasonable opinions you normally seek out, but condense everything down to your own sound decision-making process.

Don’t Play For Friendliest Loss

This note isn’t for everyone, because I understand that many owners want simple rules of thumb to follow as they struggle with the Paradox of Choice. “Always Start Your Studs” has always struck me as a crutch, not an answer to anything — because the definition of a stud is too fluid. Is Dez Bryant still a stud? Is Russell Wilson a stud if the opponent is Jacksonville? What about an injured star, or a player coming off a multiple-game layoff?

 

Most coaches in professional sports manage by the book, and often they flush expected value in the process. It’s understandable that they’re pushed in this direction — they need to keep their jobs, answer to the media and the public, keep favor in the locker room. Very few decision makers are tenured in a way that they can do unorthodox things without significant risk.

But fantasy owners don’t have that invisible hand guiding us. We don’t have to please ownership, or win the media, or placate the players. We just want our best chance of winning.

I am not going to pick my starting lineups by name-brand value, or by price paid in August, or by how I viewed my depth chart a month ago. I will try to make all of my key decisions in the sole objective of scoring the most points. I do not care which potential losing scenario would hurt the least (that’s why it’s so hard for some to bench a name player; it’s human nature to try to cushion the blow before it even comes).

Think Like a DFS Player

Keep in mind your head-to-head game and your starting lineup are constantly-evolving entities, both before the games start and while the games are in action. If you find yourself shifting from clear favorite to obvious underdog after a few results filter in, it might make sense to embrace volatility in the later part of the slate. Optimum decision making is a dynamic process; like a card counter at the blackjack table, the variables are constantly in flux. Don’t throw common sense out the window as your game progresses, but at least consider how the picture is changing, and if you need to take a different strategy as your winning odds are improving or decreasing.

A key hack that ties into this — realize what your flex spots are for. If you’re going to play anyone in the early games, make sure they’re occupying a static position (RB, WR, etc) rather than a flex spot. Remember the Antonio Brown injury worry in Week 13? Smart owners tucked him into a flex position all along, so if Brown came into a Monday night scratch, those owners would have an expanded player pool to choose their replacement, not merely the wide receivers available.

This article could be a non-stop entity; eventually we have to hit publish. A few other bite-size thoughts: weather is worth considering but as a low-end priority; heavy wind is generally the only thing to be proactive about . . . If you can get an indoor or warm-weather kicker, that’s nice, though mostly I just want a kicker tied to a team expected to win . . . The skill of fantasy football is what you do over the long run, the balance of the season. See the playoffs for what they are, a tournament. We all get bitten by variance sometimes . . . Take as much time as possible before you commit to decisions. The walk-up days are for collecting information . . . Make sure you’re regularly auditing the league transactions, especially players cut. It’s not unusual for a playoff team to release a useful player because they have immediate needs, and can’t wait for a later benefit. That’s where you might want to swoop in.

I’m sure I left out some tips that are prominent on your clipboard. Share your best in the comments.