By Quinn Miller
*** Those of you just joining in should consult last week’s column wherein you’ll find the roster and league rules for this case study. If you’re planning on following the column, I’d recommend printing the roster and rules out, as otherwise there might be too much information to keep in your head. Also, as this column is intended to be interactive, I’ll be devoting the last section to responding to reader input. ***
When Will I be Competitive?
One immediate decision you’ll have to make as the owner of this team is to pick the year in which you’re aiming to be in competition for the league championship. You’ll accomplish this in two steps: first, you’ll take a cursory look at you’re your roster in order to form an impression; second, you’ll proceed to confirm or modify your impression by evaluating the players on your roster in order to determine their value to your team in light of your impression. For my money, the team we’re looking at is likely three years from being competitive, and given that, we can say that the following players can/should be moved if an advantageous deal presents itself:
Trade Him Or Keep Him
There’re some solid players here, for sure, but one of the key responsibilities of a fantasy football manager is to recognize the value of a player to his team as well as on the open market. There’s a chance Cutler will be performing well enough to help your team at 32 (which isn’t old for a QB), however, if you can get a late first/early second for him now, that gives you a chance to snag a 22 year-old gamble-RB/WR/LB who can help your team at a time it matters.
 A strategy I’m employing with my teams right now is trading for 2014 picks. The 2013 draft class is one of the weaker classes in recent memory, and waiting the extra year should bump any pick I receive up a round.
Your team’s future draft picks are an important consideration: every win your team gets next year will lower its pick in the subsequent draft, and thus as an owner you have a vested interest in fielding a weaker team. I realize that this leads you into an ethical gray area insofar as you have, as an owner, an obligation to put the best team forward that you’re able. While I can understand on some level it if you or someone in your league find the idea of an owner trading away his best players objectionable, if I were the owner my response to any such objections would be as follows: 1) the trade(s) I made serve the best interest of my team long-term. 2) If the ultimate goal of a fantasy football owner is to win the league championship, my trading players for picks that might/will help me achieve that ultimate goal has to be valid. 3) I’m not dumping the player, and thus not threatening to unbalance the league by allowing marquis players to hit the open market without receiving compensation. 4) I’m not allowing my best players to languish on my bench in order to ensure a high draft pick, merely positioning myself for the future by acquiring picks for a player who won’t/can’t help me achieve my ultimate goal.
One hazard an owner has to take into account as he seeks to trade a player is the possibility that there won’t be a market for that player. You may value Cutler at a late-first/early-second, but if the best offer you receive for Cutler is a 2013 4th, you face a difficult decision: either you sell Cutler well below his statistical value, or you keep a player who has enough talent that you have to start him in order to avoid allegations of throwing the season, and who will likely perform well enough that it will affect the outcome of your team’s matches, and thus potentially lower your draft pick in the coming year.
 One could make a fairly compelling argument that an owner has the right to cut any player he wants, especially in this league given that the waiver process is blind bid, and not based on a predetermined order that makes collusion and waiver manipulation possible.
 Cutler already has two talented WRs (Marshall and Jeffery), a marquis RB (Forte), and a talented TE with potential (Rodriguez), and I can’t imagine any scenario in which the Bears don’t upgrade their turnstile o-line in the offseason. Depending on who the next head coach is, I can see Cutler moving into the top 12 QBs. (N.B., I’m a Bears fan.)
Being something of a gambler, my call in this case would be to split the difference: if I can’t do better than a 4th in the off-season, I’d hold Cutler, and hope that another team’s QB goes down so I can trade him at mid-season. It’s a calculated risk, but it comes down to this: my team is awful, and short of putting up Aaron Rodgers/Tom Brady/Drew Brees/RG3-type numbers, I don’t think Cutler will ultimately make the difference between a win and a loss.
The decision making process modeled above is pretty straightforward, however, I want to emphasize two related points:
1) The process detailed above is incomplete. A serious owner’s determination of the worth of one of his players is never feeling-based, fuzzy, or entirely without demonstrable evidence. What I outlined above a partial representation of an intentionally constructed process, which is then executed for the purpose of evaluating a player’s worth. The end result of the process should be a determination of the player’s equivalent value in picks based on a set of numbers including, but not limited to: the average number of points the player scored per game over the last three seasons, the number of standard deviations of that number from the mean at the player’s position, and the decrease/increase in the average number of points scored per game from the player you’re trading to the player you’ll be replacing him with.
2) The benefit of the above process is that it standardizes an owner’s calculation of value such that all his moves are made within the context of a coherent, uniform strategy. I’m always amazed by how many self-professed “serious” fantasy footballers don’t have an explicit process for determining a player’s value and planning their strategy. One of the simplest and most effective strategies for achieving fantasy success is identifying and exploiting inconsistencies in competitors’ strategies and player evaluation, which is to say, identifying and exploiting the points at which they act based on assumptions that run contrary to what statistical analysis indicates is true, something which is almost impossible to do without a methodical, intentionally constructed process in place that enables you to approach your analysis the same way every time. Knowing why you made a particular decision and being able to demonstrate quantifiable evidence supporting that decision helps you understand why the decision worked out/didn’t work out.
 I’ll spend an entire column breaking down the purpose of statistical analysis and highlighting and demonstrating the types of analysis I think are most important to evaluating a player’s value in the near future, but for now, I merely want to suggest broadly the stages of the process of an owner evaluating his team.
 I emphasize “serious” here, because I want to acknowledge that the primary purpose of fantasy football is entertainment/recreation. Casual players won’t and shouldn’t be expected to put this kind of effort into planning and executing their strategy.
I can hear that loud clamoring of the “gut-feeling crowd” even as I write, people screaming that football is about more than numbers, and that my pocket protector-wearing, godless, nerd-gasm is sucking the life out of a game that’s about America, courage, teamwork, integrity, and every other red-blooded, positive, meat-eating thing. All I can say to such people is that you’re right: there are many intangibles involved in football, unquantifiable realities that descend from heaven or arise from the human spirit, or whatever else someone wants to claim comes from wherever else. New coaches bring new offenses, new drafts bring new weapons that affect individual players’ numbers, new off-season workout regimens can remake a player, etc. The benefit of numbers, however, is that they show you what is likely to happen based on what has happened over a given period of time. By all means, trust your instincts, but in the absence of a strong instinct, have a process in place that shows you what is most likely to happen given past performance. Have a means of verifying your instincts, or at least quantifying the leap you’re taking in following your instincts in a given situation. Following my instinct allowed me to land Victor Cruz, Danny Amendola, and Wes Welker, but statistical analysis landed me Tony Romo, Josh Freeman, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Forte, Shady McCoy, Bryce Brown, Owen Daniels, Chad Greenway, and Dannell Ellerbe. If you’re comparing the relative merit of the two sets of players, you’re missing the point. A good roster will be made up of both instinct players and analysis players, but only a rationally constructed process of player evaluation will allow you to understand and quantify what a players is worth, and to strategize accordingly.
 Unfortunately, my instincts have been far less effective in evaluating RBs.
A Further Advantage of Statistical Analysis
Unless you spend hours poring over tape, and moreover, have the skill to evaluate that tape, fantasy football is ultimately an exercise is math-based player evaluation. Understanding statistical analysis well enough to produce the data relevant to player evaluation requires that you understand the way in which certain units of production translate into fantasy points within a given scoring system, and those who have that level of knowledge are afforded a level of protection against bad investments that extends beyond their competitors. Tampa Mike Williams is an excellent example of a player whose fantasy production is poorly understood, and whom owners either over-invested in during/after the 2010 season, or now deride as a bum with character and effort issues. We’re all familiar with the typical Tampa Mike narrative: he had a great 2010, then got fat and lazy, and sucked in 2011, but as I wrote previously, the fat and lazy narrative is completely wrong. Tampa Mike had 65 receptions in 2010, and 65 receptions in 2011; the sole reason his point totals dropped from 233 to 166 was because his TDs dropped from 11 to 3. An owner who’d done a competent statistical analysis after the 2010 season would have sold high based on the statistical improbability of Williams repeating 2010’s TD production.
I’ve just about hit the 2,000-word mark I try to limit myself to, but I want to leave you with a few questions and controversial statements that I hope will generate some discussion.
1) The most valuable player to our team on the roster is Alshon Jeffery.
2) The player I’m most interested in unloading is DaSean Jackson (who, in my opinion, is one of the most overrated players in fantasy football).
3) The player I’m least likely to trade before mid-season is Darren Sproles.
4) I wouldn’t trade Turbin for less than a first.
Do you agree that the team is three or more years from being competitive?
How do you feel about the ethics of trading players under value for draft picks?
What are your thoughts on the role of statistical analysis following this column?
What would your next move be if you were the owner?