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The Most Important Component of Any Drafting Strategy

It was two days before the 2003 draft for my league, and I had just assured myself of what I considered to be the perfect position in my draft. I don't do a very good impression of C. Montgomery Burns, but after I hung up the phone, I indulged myself, tapping my fingertips together while snarling breathlessly, "Excellent. Everything is falling into place."

For reasons that cannot possibly be of interest to anyone outside my own fantasy league, it appeared that Jamal Lewis was going to be available as late as the 4th pick of the second round. I knew in advance when Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, Daunte Culpepper, and Peyton Manning would go. And that meant that if the running backs were picked in the order one would expect, I would be able to snag Shaun Alexander at 1.9 and Lewis at 2.4. After swinging a trade for the set of draft slots that came with the 9th overall pick, I went into my draft brimming with confidence, thinking about the risks I would be able to take on my receivers with a running tandem as productive as I expected Alexander and Lewis to be. Even if I decided to take an early flier on perennial headcase David Boston, I would be all right with that incredible backfield.

According to the scuttlebut, the three guys picking ahead of me in round 2 all had Edgerrin James, Tiki Barber, and Corey Dillon ranked ahead of Lewis. I didn't care how things would sort themselves out with picks 2.1, 2.2. and 2.3 as long as Lewis was still available at 2.4.

Things played out pretty much as I expected through round 1; I ended up with Alexander, just as I had hoped. Manning went at 2.1; James at 2.2. But then, in a surprise move, the guy picking ahead of me at 2.3 nabbed Lewis. Barber and Dillon were both still available, but I didn't want either one. I was leery of Barber because I had too many concerns about the O-line in New York and our league's stiff penalty for fumbles. And I certainly didn't want Dillon, as I already had one feast-or-famine runner in Alexander.

But I had already outlined which receivers, backup RBs, and QBs I expected to have available in rounds 3-10. And as things played out, my projections were pretty much on target. I was able to grab Matt Hassleback in the 8th (which was where I wanted him) and Derrick Mason in the 4th. But Mason and Hassleback were small consolation given that my backfield had fallen from stellar to lackluster in one single pick.

The Mistake
So who did I take in round 2? I ended up taking Dillon even though I really didn't want him--and we all know how that worked out. I reasoned, at the time, that my whole draft strategy was contingent upon getting 2 RBs in the first two rounds. I told myself that I didn't want to throw my whole strategy out the window just because I couldn't have Jamal Lewis, so I settled on Dillon because, as I put it at the time, "at least he is a running back."

That wasn't very clear thinking. My whole strategy had not been built simply on getting 2 RBs in the first 2 rounds; it had been built on getting 2 very specific RBs: Alexander and Lewis. Once that became impossible, I should have reacted with more flexibility than I demonstrated.

When I had outlined the possible configurations of my team before the draft, I had done so with Alexander and Lewis in pen and everyone else in pencil. With two such dependable RBs, I reasoned that I could take some risks with my receivers. Although I wasn't sold on Donald Driver, his performance in 2002 meant that he was sure to go late in the 3rd or early in the 4th in my draft. I knew that the most reliable receivers would be gone by the time I picked at 3.9, but I figured I could afford to take a chance on a Driver or a Boston with a backfield as solid as mine would be.

But when my backfield turned out not to be the one I expected, I still went with Driver as if the switch from Lewis to Dillon had no impact at all on the risk I could afford to take with my receivers.

Part of my reason for drafting the way that I did was simply that I was in denial. The season was well underway before I accepted the fact that I had not gotten the running back tandem I wanted. But the main reason I drafted the way I did was because I had put so many hours of thought into building a team around Alexander and Lewis that I didn't want to "waste" that mental energy by building a team around Alexander and Dillon.

In other words, I was lazy. I didn't react well to the fact that things didn't go as planned primarily because I had already done my mental work and didn't think I should have to do it again.

What is Value?
When we are inflexible in our thinking, it is usually because we are succumbing to this kind of laziness. Psychologists and economists are familiar with a series of fascinating studies about the role that laziness plays in the ways that we, as humans, assign value to things. You won't have to go very far in your draft in 2004 to see their findings at work in the thinking of your competitors (or perhaps even in your own thinking).

For a long time, we thought that valuation worked like this: A is more valuable than B, and B is more valuable than C, so A is more valuable than C.

But some sneaky psychologists have demonstrated that in actual practice, we don't consistently assign value according to this traditional model. The experiment that proved this point was a bit underhanded, but extremely convincing. Data collectors handed out questionnaires to kids on college campuses, promising rewards to those who took the time to fill out the questionnaires. The questionnaires themselves were simply a prop; no one cared how the students responded to the questions. They were interested in which rewards the students would take. The first batch of students who handed in their questionnaires were told that as compensation for their participation, they could choose between a fancy pen and a decorative keychain.* Overwhelmingly, the first batch of students opted for the keychain.

It appeared that the keychain (A) was more valuable than the pen (B).

But when the second batch of questionnaires were handed out, the students who participated were given 3 choices. They could have a fancy pen or a decorative red keychain or a decorative blue keychain.

All of a sudden, people started going for the pens.


It seems that people didn't want to have to choose between the red keychain and the blue keychain. By opting for the pen, the participants spared themselves the mental anxiety of having to choose between the 2 keychains. Value, in other words, isn't simply a function of what a thing can do for us; it is often a function of how much thought we have to put into an acquisition.

When I was outlining my expectations for the 2003 draft, I saw that no matter how things played out, a number of risky receivers with great upside potential would be available to me at the end of the 3rd. Did I really want to use my third round pick on a risky wide-out with upside? No, not really. But I knew that settling on that possibility would spare me the chore of having to think through the whole range of choices that would be available to me then.

Be Prepared To React
Although there are all sorts of circumstances in which it makes perfect sense to adopt a Value-Based Draft model or to subscribe to the Stud-RB Theory, the fact is that we cannot always predict how a draft will go. A blind adherence to any theory or model is probably a symptom of laziness--an unwillingness to adapt to the fluctuating values of players based on the unique dynamic of the particular drafting situation in which we find ourselves.

A steal isn't always as advantageous as we think. I may be able to pick up a solid RB prospect in the 6th round even though I expected him to go in the 4th, but if I already have 3 RBs that will start ahead of him, then what value am I getting? Certainly I am hurting other owners by depriving them of access to that RB, but am I hurting my own team more? That question can only be answered after careful thinking--thinking that cannot usually be done ahead of time and that not everyone in your draft will be willing to engage in.

There is something comforting in telling ourselves that we will always draft running backs in the first two rounds or that we will always take the player with greatest separation from other players at a given position (whether we need any more players at that position or not), but that comfort is nakedly related to the fact that it lifts from us the burden of having to think or react on the fly to the infinite variety of unpredictable variables that crop up in a draft. My advice is to plan on building your team around a particular marquee player only if you have the top overall pick in your draft. Otherwise, be prepared to react. Depend on nothing going according to plan; be ready to adapt.

*I don't really recall which objects were used in the studies, but I don't think my faulty memory of the particulars does anything to undermine the importance of the lesson the studies teach us.