How Smart Players Win at Best Ball

Minnesota Vikings WR Justin Jefferson
Minnesota Vikings WR Justin Jefferson
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Offseason - Why should you try Best Ball fantasy football? It's an easy two-fold rationale for me:

  1. There are bigger potential winnings than any other type of fantasy football, with tournaments that feature up to $2 million to first place.
  2. You focus on the most fun part of fantasy football, with an 18- or 20-round snake draft being the only action you need to field a team across the entire regular season. No waiver wires, no bye week concerns or lopsided trade offers, no management whatsoever.

There's more nuance to that—you're less likely to succeed in Best Ball waltzing into a draft unprepared on player Average Draft Positions or an awareness of positional value than you would be in your local office redraft league. But ultimately I think the effort and upside are rewarded more in Best Ball than any other format of fantasy football. That includes weekly NFL daily fantasy which, while I still adore it, is far more a "game theory" exercise than a pure reward on player/team prognostication and team construction.

There have been a lot of great offseason guides on how smart people win at Best Ball that include tons of graphs and data deep dives. In particular, Mike Leone's Best Ball Manifesto at Establish the Run is a great way to dive deeply into the concepts of roster optimization in large-field Best Ball tournaments.

This article will be catered more to getting to the meat of things on what I'd prioritize first and foremost without scaring you off by getting too into the weeds. How could I explain how to build a great Best Ball team to someone with the attention span of a Golden Retriever in a competitive marketplace with tons of ways to spend your time and gambling dollars? Here are four simple concepts to follow to give yourself a better shot at success.

Forget What You Know about Running Backs

This is a huge leap for a lot of people right away, one that I have observed first-hand as we have hammered hundreds of streamed Best Ball drafts on my and Pete Overzet's show Splash Play:

People cannot stay away from their season-long league zest for running backs.

I get it. At some point, a LaDainian Tomlinson or Shaun Alexander stormed into your life and won your home league with their 30-plus touchdowns and heavy usage on every down. Cherish those memories but live in the world of the modern NFL, one where a high-level running back prospect such as Bijan Robinson is being questioned as being worth a first-round pick in an actual NFL draft due to positional values.

In Best Ball, you are rewarded if you are strategic about how to allocate your draft picks for upside, specifically the upside you need to win it all as you advance from a 14-week regular season and then compete in three playoff weeks as other teams are whittled down.

The wide receiver position provides that upside more reliably with elite receivers, the alpha target earners who can explode for a 30-point week that vaults you ahead of the field. It's much harder to find that reliable upside than it is with running backs later in the draft. Running backs luck into larger roles, either due to injury or the age of the player ahead of them, by the time in Week 17 when points matter the most. They also frequently have touchdowns vultured in goal-line situations—apologies for triggering any D'Andre Swift fans—by their backup or a second back in a committee, something that can provide leverage if you luck into a much more lowly drafted Jamaal Williams.

You'll often find novice players spending three or four early-round picks on running backs. That is something that can allow opponents to build WR-heavy superteams in the much-discussed yet still largely understood Zero-RB construction (which does not actually entail drafting no running backs, but instead a wide variety of them starting in Round 6 or later as you pair high-upside pass-catchers with a portfolio of running back lottery tickets).

Take your Ekelers or McCaffreys if you must and the ADP (Average Draft Position) lines up. I also have no issue grabbing a Josh Jacobs or Derrick Henry at a decent discount compared to previous years' running backs with their profiles. But it's important to not draft too many of these guys early on to give your teams the upside needed to capture regular-season spike weeks of fantasy points as well as for the playoffs when you need them the most.

Use ADPs As Your North Star

ADP is the best market data to use for a draft. (No. 2? FO's SPAGS Rankings, which are 10% off with promo code SPAGS. SHILL SHILL SHILL.) These numbers will move throughout the draft season, which now goes from early February through the first week of September, and represent thousands to millions of people drafting players in specific draft positions. As a result, you get the "wisdom of the crowds" that allow you to properly assess a player's perceived value.

As an example prior to free agency, Rashaad Penny was drafted in the 180s a few months ago with an uncertain home after it was clear Kenneth Walker had usurped his role in Seattle. Penny, coming off an injury, had a lot of red flags for casual drafters. However, once he signed a deal with Philadelphia, his ADP soared into the 90-to-110 range with the assumption that he is now a potential bell-cow back for Super Bowl contender. It's possible he gets drafted even more highly if there are training camp reports about him playing well or seizing a clear RB1 role.

These pockets of information, or lack thereof, create ADP value situations. It's the equivalent of placing a +200 bet that has a true probability of -110, the much ballyhooed "closing line value." Does it mean Rashaad Penny is now a better player with a higher success rate? Not necessarily! But it does mean there are positive signifiers that not only make people more inclined to draft him more highly—while also allowing you to feel like you have built a stronger team solely because you drafted Penny during that previously uncertain window.

That's why I would advocate for drafting teams year-round, with a goal of heavying up as you get closest to the season and have the most information. In Mike Leone's aforementioned Manifesto, he points out that one team construction goal is to have the maximum amount of players active and scoring points in Week 17, which is when tournaments are won. It's easier to draft these players with some assumption on their roles closer to the regular season's start, but you're more likely to get outlier draft values if you draft earlier in the summer or even spring.

No matter when you draft though, use this market-driven data that is visible on every Best Ball app to determine where you should draft players. And don't be afraid to embrace the value that a falling player can represent if you see a pathway to his success.

Stack Up Your Quarterbacks

FO has previously covered at great length why stacking is important in Best Ball, a little bit before the industry fully caught on with the feng shui joys of pairing a quarterback with a pass-catcher of his or two. But the importance has been highlighted over the last few years as a differentiation point, particularly in drafts in Underdog's Best Ball Mania, where your competition against 450,000 drafters relies heavily on correlating plays to give yourself a chance.

Best Ball Mania 3 winner Pat Kerrane highlighted some reasons why it's crucial to stack your quarterbacks—and why players who sabotage those stacks might be harming their team while helping yours. The basic rationale for why you'd want to do this is simple:

  1. By stacking your quarterback with at least one pass-catcher, you are decreasing the parlay that lineups inherently are. If your quarterback excels, particularly if he's not a great rusher, he's more likely to provide outlier upside to at least one of his pass-catchers.
  2. If a quarterback and his pass-catchers are in a high scoring game, it's also likely there was production from their opponent to keep up. With prize pools providing their biggest expected value in Week 17, you are more likely to capture an outlier game if you pair your quarterback stack with a player or two whom they'll face during that championship week.

The correlation is positive for all of the above. And there is comparable value if you stack in an attempt to capture team production. If you had stacked a Jalen Hurts with a Miles Sanders, you're not likely to see a ton of directly related value with Sanders only catching 20 passes in 2022. But you would have captured 24 rushing touchdowns between Hurts and Sanders as well as an insane portion of the Eagles' total yardage in their highly successful season.

You are far more likely to lose money than win if you simply structure your team with the hope that all of your player takes are correct enough to beat out hundreds of thousands of people. Take two quarterbacks, three if there's meaningful ADP value, and stack them up with one to three teammates and potential Week 17 game stacks each time if you can (once the NFL schedule has been released, obviously).

Aim for Younger Players

You all know by now the Curse of 370 and how it relates to the concept of player age and its effect on performance. What if I were to tell you that you should have a similarly quizzical eye towards any player as they start to march towards their 30s, perhaps excluding quarterbacks?

Of course you'll have your Travis Kelce types who continue to excel despite being some of the oldest players in the league. But generally, if you take players whose value is depreciating, particularly if it's on an assumption of volume rather than outlier metrics, you'll find yourself disappointed more often than not.

Let's look at DeAndre Hopkins. He turns 31 in June and is currently in flux as he awaits a trade or other change in contract status with the Cardinals. He currently has a 34 ADP and, with a -11.2% receiving DVOA in 2022, Hopkins is drafted ahead of younger players who outperformed him like Amari Cooper and his 15.8% DVOA, Calvin Ridley with fresh legs, and young receivers such as Christian Watson and Drake London who flashed high EPAs with iffy offenses.

Is it more likely that DeAndre Hopkins, an aging contested catch receiver, outperforms all these guys? I'd argue no. But because he has been a fixture in fantasy households for a decade now, he'll go higher than he should simply based on inertia.

Maybe a Buffalo or Kansas City finds room for Hopkins, as he seems to want. Even then, Hopkins would likely see a downtick in volume even if he saw an uptick in efficiency. If Hopkins somehow ends up trapped in Kyler Murray-less purgatory in Arizona? You are left holding a very dangerous bag at high draft capital.

And that doesn't account for basic expectations of how younger players are likely to take leaps in their first three seasons, how these players might be part of ascending offenses with other undervalued young players, or how they simply are more likely to give you 17 games or see enhanced roles by the time Week 17 rolls around.

A good question my podcast partner Pete has posed before: Where do you envision this player being drafted next year? If you target players you believe could somehow be a first- or second-round pick next year, you'll likely end up with stronger teams if that potential is fulfilled.

Another great way to ensure winnings? Use promo code OUTSIDERS on Underdog Fantasy and get a deposit match up to $100! It's my favorite Best Ball platform to play with a great UX, smart drafters, and huge prize pools (including their near-filled Big Board: Superflex format with $100,000 to first place, which includes all the incoming rookies and the ability to play multiple quarterbacks in a Superflex spot). If you made it to this point in the article, you know enough now to give it a shot.

Check out my FO-affiliated show Splash Play, where we endlessly draft teams while debating and deciphering fantasy football news, if you want more of a deep dive into this world. I appreciate the support for these columns so far so I hope it helps and I'll see you guys again soon!


1 comment, Last at 20 Apr 2023, 2:12pm

#1 by Theo // Apr 20, 2023 - 2:12pm

Speaking of money ... how is the situation going?

Points: 1

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