Game Theory: The Most Important Information So Far This Season

Four weeks of the 2021 NFL season are done. What kind of information should you be looking for—and using—to form opinions on players moving forward?

So we are four weeks into the season and we now know more about players than we did heading into the season. How do you use this information to your advantage? What’s real? What’s not? That’s what we’re going to get into today.

Let me start off this article with a disclaimer:

Predictions in fantasy football are not, and I repeat, not about being right. They are about being more right than everyone else. It is OK to be wrong sometimes because it is impossible to be right every time. I’ve said this before and I will say it again, our goal is to be the best that we can be with the information that we have. Perfection is impossible, don’t aim for it. Aim to be the best that you can be.

The NFL is a very short season. There are only 17 games so we aren’t going to get a large enough sample size to make super confident decisions about anyone. In fantasy, the edge goes to the manager that can make the best decisions given the information that they have so far. Because we are only four weeks into the season, we still are acting on very limited information, and because football is such a high variance sport, only some of that information is important or predictive.

A lot of what we see in the first four weeks is luck—but not all of it.

What information should you be looking at and what information is predictive? I’m going to share which stats to look for so you can make the most optimal decisions when managing your lineup this season. Which players should you be holding out hope for and which players should you be leaving behind?

You need a good understanding of how to judge production so you can manage your expectations for future production. I’m going to touch on some topics I’ve previously discussed—like upside and risk—and incorporate those topics into this article.

First, let’s talk about which statistics are predictive. I’ve mentioned this on my podcast before, but now that we are four weeks into the season, hopefully it will be a little bit easier for you to digest what exactly to look for. Let’s start on offense.

With wide receivers, we’re still looking for targets because that is the foundation for some of the most predictive statistics. However, we aren’t strictly looking at just targets. We are also looking at target share: the percentage of a team’s targets that are funneled to a specific player. Target share is not totally predictive because it is also largely dependent upon who is covering each player on the defensive side of the football and who gets open on a route per route basis.

That being said, we do have a general understanding of how most of the offenses in the NFL are functioning at this point. We know which offenses plan to be pass-heavy, which offenses look to be run-heavy, and which offenses are just straight-up garbage. Now, it’s not smart to expect this to be the exact same for the entire season, but it is still more valuable information than no information at all. So, we can use our target share number and combine that with how pass-heavy we expect offenses to be to determine how reliable wide receivers will be. This is more helpful than just thinking about how highly we drafted the player to determine if we should start them or not.

For running backs, we are looking for players who have a large rushing volume and are also involved in the passing game. This should not be news for anyone. I would hope at this point you’re still attempting to compete in your leagues and add players off of the waiver wire because there will still be more relevant running backs that nobody is rostering right now, so stay on top of that.

Tight ends… yeah, I am not going to touch that position. I said it before and I’ll say it again, that position is disgusting, so just aim for easy defensive matchups.

On a week-by-week or game-by-game basis, it is also important to understand which defense your team is playing against. As we get farther into the season, the sample size of games grows and our understanding of how good defenses are is also greater. The best passing defense now will probably not be the same team as halfway through the season. But as our understanding grows, so should your process.

I’m going to take a quick second now to explain Game Script. Game Script can be broken down into three different categories: 1) positive game script 2) neutral game script and 3) negative game script. Positive game script describes the offensive plays a team makes when they are in the lead. Neutral game script is when they have a score relatively close to their opponents. Negative game script is when a team is losing by a significant margin. A team’s game script can be somewhat predictive in determining whether a team will be passing or running the football.

If a team is in a positive game script, they are more likely to run than they typically would. The opposite can be said for negative game script: they will likely throw at a higher-than-usual rate. You can use your understanding of a team’s matchup to make an educated guess on what the game script of a specific game will be. Once you have a general idea of how a game might play out, you can prognosticate the offensive opportunities to go to players of the position that that specific game script favors.

For the defensive side of the football, I’ll repeat what I’ve said before elsewhere: look for snap percentage. Players that play the greatest percentage of their team’s defensive snaps are the players that are most likely to see production. If you thought offensive players were unpredictable, defensive players are even more unpredictable.

Just because a player has a bad game does not necessarily mean that they are not a good asset, you should instead look at their snap share to determine whether or not they are worthy of rostering. A quick side-note: there are a lot of great resources to find snap shares and other useful player statistics, and my personal favorite is PFF.

However, you can also follow some really great accounts on Twitter. For IDP, a few of my favorites are @adamidp, @PFF_Macri, @TomKislingbury, and @Mike_Woellert. For those guys and others that I didn’t mention, just go check out my Twitter: @BGTEvan. I do my best to share their content on my Twitter page, so if you’re looking for good follows for in-season IDP stats, you can start there.

OK, so once you understand how many snaps a given player receives, your next goal is to look at where those snaps were located on the field. This is especially important for safeties. Defensive lineman will play on the defensive line and rarely move around. Linebackers can be all over the field, but that varies highly on a game-by-game basis.

Safeties are the players whose snap location is the most important to look at. You want safeties who are playing closer to the line of scrimmage, and if you can find which percentage of those snaps are closest to the line of scrimmage, you will have a greater chance of finding fantasy production than if you don’t use this method.

As we get farther into the season, we also have a greater understanding of what to expect from cornerbacks in certain matchups. If you’re in a CB-required league, I would recommend Johny the Greek’s (@OrangeMan3142) streaming CB article.

Whew. That was a lot. I’ve got one last bit of info for you.

The most important thing I can tell you today right now on this episode is to continue to be active in your leagues. I could care less how you started the season. If there is a mathematical pathway for you to make the playoffs, you should be giving it your all every week. Heck, even if you ARE eliminated, you should continue to play so you’ll be more prepared for next season. If you are a competitive person who wants to win, don’t let a big deficit keep you from earning a championship this year.

It is a purely psychological block and if you needed somebody to give you the encouragement to keep trying, here it is. You can do it. You have the resources, you have the time, and you have the skills. Go out there and go get ’em.

Don’t forget to set your waiver claims, offer a few trades, and drink some water. Good luck this week, and I’ll see you all back here for the next Game Theory article.

Check out the podcast episode here.

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Photo attribution:

All-Pro Reels, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A guest post by
Evan is the host of The Big Game Theory Podcast and specializes in teaching fantasy football managers how to apply the science of decision making to their fantasy leagues.