FANALYTICS: What I learned from my first f$#@#*!! draft

Imagine a parallel universe where the national pastime is... um, Twister.

You remember that game, don't you? It starts with a large plastic mat with colored circles. Players must place their hands and feet on specific circles, often forced to contort their bodies in the process.

This kids game actually does have team play and tournaments. But now imagine that there are professional leagues as well. In our parallel universe, we follow our favorite players and root for our favorite teams.

And there is Fantasy Twister.

In fact, I am now inviting you to fill an open spot in one of our leagues. And the draft is... tomorrow.

You're intrigued and you'd like to try it. But, while you are familiar with the game, you don't know any of the players.

How would you approach this challenge?

For starters, you'd probably look for an information support site. You're in luck—there's TwisterHQ.com! (This is a parallel universe, remember?)

You'd quickly learn that players are evaluated based on their height (tall players have certain advantages; short players have some advantages too), flexibility, balance and the always-important health.

So then you'd download TwisterHQ's handy cheat sheet. The first round ADPs look like this:

ADP Player              Ht   Flex  Balance  Health
=== =================  ====  ====  =======  ======
 1  Boris Malkovich    6'1"    A      A       A
 2  Garrett Evans      6'6"    A      B       A
 3  Belvedere Tate     5'8"    A      A       B
 4  Jonathan Cho       5'9"    A      A       D
 5  Ed Richmond Jr.    6'4"    B      B       A
 6  Drew S. Meadows    6'1"    A      B       C
 7  Rodrigo Chavez     5'3"    A      A       A
 8  Ahmed Vashist      5'9"    C      A       A
 9  Billy Ray Jones    6'8"    B      B       A  
10  Sig "Mole" Brody   5'1"    A      A       B
11  Fleishman          5'7"    B      B       A
12  Dallas Houston     6'0"    A      C       A

As a Fantasy Twister novice, this is just a bunch of random data to you. The names are completely meaningless. You don't know a Malkovich from a Fleishman. It's pretty clear why Brody is nicknamed "Mole," but is it safe to conclude that Dallas Houston is from Texas? (He's not; he's from Cleveland.)

You've been seeded 4th in the draft. Assuming the first three players go chalk, who do you pick?

Cho has the #4 ranking, but his health is a question. At #5, Richmond would seem reasonable but his flexibility and balance are not as good as some lower-ranked players. Meadows has health issues too. Do you dip down to Chavez at #7 for your pick, even though his lack of height must put him at some disadvantage? Decisions, decisions.

As clueless as you are in this process, that is exactly how I felt when I participated in my very first fantasy football draft a week ago Thursday.

Random names and skills, and less than 48 hours to prepare.

How is it that I've been playing fantasy for 30 years and I've never done football?

The old story I tell is about how my first fantasy foray was a hockey league, back in 1984. Living in New Hampshire at the time, we called it the Hockey Association of the Granite State (HAGS). When we started baseball the following spring, it was the Baseball Association of the Granite State (BAGS). For one season, in 1990, we tried basketball (also BAGS).

We never did football. It might have been nomenclatural.

That one basketball league was a very telling experience. I had lost interest in the NBA once acrobatics and attitude started trumping skill and gamesmanship. So I drafted my team straight from a ranking list that appeared in USA Today. And I won.

It proved to me that maintaining an emotional distance from the game had great merit. So football might be worth trying.

When it comes to the NFL, I am a casual fan. I watch a few games per year, perhaps a bit more when my Giants are contending. The Super Bowl is an event just like for anyone else, although a rooting interest helps. Thankfully, I've had that rooting interest a lot. I also sorta follow the Patriots (after having lived in New England for 12 years) and the Broncos (long story; it involves a girl).

Why fantasy football now? Last week was the first time anyone had ever invited me to play. It was a casual league with a bunch of my industry friends, so I accepted.

How did I approach this challenge?

Pretty much just like you did with the Twister league.

1. I started by downloading a ranking sheet from my friends at Rotowire.com.

2. I crossed off every player who was dealing with some sort of injury or involved in any situation that might impact his playing time. I didn't know who they were or what their upside was; it was pure risk avoidance. I never had a need to know, or care, who Ray Rice was.

3. I then read all the articles on sleeper picks at USAToday.com, and highlighted them on my sheet. My approach was going to be to draft according to the list in the early rounds and backfill the roster with sleepers, never straying far from the draft rounds.

A good approach? A reasonable start, anyway.

I am going to reveal my roster now. For those who don't play football, it will look exactly like the Twister list above, so feel free to skip ahead to HERE. For those who do play fantasy football, feel free to point out all my mistakes and punctuate your comments with derisive laughter. I'm ready.

Rd  Player              POS  TM
==  =================   ===  ===
 1  Jamaal Charles      RB   KC 
 2  Aaron Rodgers       QB   GB
 3  Ashlon Jeffery      WR   CHI
 4  Michael Floyd       WR   ARI
 5  Chris Johnson       RB   NYJ
 6  Eric Decker         WR   NYJ
 7  Greg Olsen          TE   CAR
 8  Stevan Ridley       RB   NE
 9  Carolina Panthers   DEF
10  Martellus Bennet    TE   CHI
11  Ben Roethlisberger  QB   PIT
12  Jordan Matthews     WR   PHI
13  Tre Mason           RB   STL
14  Dwayne Allen        TE   IND
15  Phil Dawson         K    SF

I went into the draft taking the advice I kept reading: focus on wide receivers early and go WR/RB in the first two rounds unless one of the top running backs was available in Round 1. I landed the 2nd seed, so I chose RB Jamaal Charles.

The advice also said to draft a quarterback in the middle rounds unless one of the top three fell to me early. Aaron Rodgers was still on the board at the end of Round 2 so I opted to grab him.

Then I just followed my list.

At the end of the draft, the hosting site, MyFantasyLeague.com, ranks each team. I ranked 4th out of the 12 teams, which is either encouraging or the kiss of death.

My Twitter followers were less optimistic. One wrote: "You'll make the playoffs but no chance of winning the league. I know because your team is similar to mine." Another responded: "Terrible fate.... you already have no chance to win the league after one week."

Yes, I'm already 0-1.

HERE

What I learned

1. The underlying preparation process is applicable to any sport.

As noted above, there are enough tools available to give you a decent head start. And in a snake draft league, it's tough to completely tank because everyone has to get a player from every tier. Whether or not they perform (I'm looking at you, Jamaal) is another story.

So, be confident that you chose as well as could be expected in the first round of your Twister league. For what it's worth, I would have gone with Chavez.

2. A fast draft has great merit.

Our draft took just 90 minutes. Twelve teams, 15 players. For an online draft, that was a perfect time span. It makes it easy to access the sport and enticed me to want to field multiple teams.

The MyFantasyLeague.com draft room also provided an audio function that announced each draft pick. I found that incredibly helpful in keeping on top of things and moving the process along.

Now, I'm talking about online drafts. In-person drafts are events and can take eight hours if they have to.

3. The hard work really begins now.

It's all in the details, and that's where I already have fallen short.

For instance, the common wisdom is that running backs get injured more frequently so you should draft plenty of depth. But I neglected to consider pairing my high-value top pick—Charles—with a natural backup like Knile Davis. We don't think much about handcuffing high-risk players in baseball—even though rostering both Troy Tulowitzki and Josh Rutledge has its benefits—because the season is so long. But in a short 16-game season, it makes more sense.

After losing my first game, I was immediately approached with a trade offer. I was offered a RB/WR combo for one of my excess tight ends. I immediately recognized it as a classic attempt to acquire (Gold) with an offer of (Garbage + Garbage) but I don't know enough about the player pool to respond with an adequate counter.

I need help.

4. With fantasy football, it's all about accessibility. That's where baseball falls short.

Frankly, it seemed too easy to come out of the draft with some semblance of a reasonable roster. I don't know whether I can keep it up all season, but I was competitive in week #1, even though I lost.

And I barely know the player pool. The barrier to entry, and potential competitiveness, seems wafer-thin. Yes, it could blow up in my face, but it's all about perception.

For most new fantasy leaguers, baseball seems incredibly daunting. That's why football gets all the attention.

My game design efforts over the past years—Roto500, the monthly game, Quint-Inning, et al—have been attempts to create a more accessible fantasy baseball format.

The moving parts remain the same: number of teams, roster size, player pool penetration, length of season, draft method, scoring method, etc. For a fleeting moment, I considered that ESPN's 10-team leagues with 21-man rosters might have it right. But that only addresses part of the problem. Any league where players like Michael Brantley and Rick Porcello are likely in the free agent pool after draft day (ADPs outside of 210) does not have it right.

But there is some format out there that will combine the challenge of fantasy baseball with the accessibility of fantasy football. It's there, waiting to be designed.

We just haven't found it yet.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.