This is the 168th installment of The Labyrinthian, a series dedicated to exploring random fields of knowledge to give you unordinary theoretical, philosophical, strategic, and/or often rambling guidance on daily fantasy sports. Consult the introductory piece to the series for further explanation.
If you follow college football (and I assume you do because you’re degenerate enough to subscribe to FantasyLabs), you know this past weekend drastically altered the College Football Playoff landscape. Where there were mountains are now chasms: No. 1 Alabama lost 26-14 on the road to No. 6 Auburn, and No. 2 Miami lost 24-14 on the road to the unranked Pittsburgh. There are lots of ways to process this information — should you bet on the Tide when they play next? — but I want to look at the Alabama-Auburn game through the lens of prospect evaluation, which is an underappreciated skill in DFS.
The 2017 Iron Bowl
Last week The Action Network put together the ultimate Iron Bowl betting preview. We were decidedly on Auburn as +4.5 home underdogs, giving the Tigers the edge in every category. Here’s what I had to say about the key matchup between Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley and Auburn cornerback Carlton Davis.
Ridley arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2015 as the nation’s No. 1 wide receiver recruit and made an immediate impact as a true freshman, leading the team with 89 receptions and seven touchdown catches and breaking Amari Cooper’s single-season freshman receiving record with 1,045 yards. Comparisons to Cooper, however, are unlikely to cast Ridley in a positive light. Cooper hit 1,000 yards in 14 games as an 18-year-old. Ridley had 15 games to hit his mark, and he turned 21 at the end of his freshman season. As a 20-year-old junior, Cooper balled out with a 124-1,727-16 campaign in 14 games. Now a junior, Ridley turns 23 in just under a month, and in 11 games he has a 52-858-3 stat line.
On top of that, at the combine Cooper displayed good size (6’1″ and 211 pounds) and athleticism (4.42-second 40, 6.71-second three-cone). Ridley reportedly has good athleticism (4.35-second 40 in 2016 spring practices), but he’s smaller (6’1″ and 190 pounds). Given his advanced age, Ridley is a near-lock to declare for the draft after the season, and he’s received hype from draftniks as a potential first-round receiver. This weekend he’ll face Davis, a junior who has been a starter since his true freshman season. Davis himself has gotten some draft love because of his good size (6’1″ and 203 pounds) and steady coverage (10 passes defensed). If Ridley can get the best of Davis, that will go a long way toward helping Alabama win and alleviating concerns about his size. If Davis shuts down Ridley, it could mark the beginning of a long wintry road to the NFL draft.
Against Auburn, Ridley “led” Alabama with three receptions, which he turned into 38 yards. That’s not good.
Ridley is Probably Not a First-Round Wide Receiver
This might seem obvious, but it evidently isn’t because so many people think of Ridley as an elite college receiver: Ridley is almost certainly not worth a first-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft. He did draw two defensive pass interference penalties vs. the Tigers, so his performance wasn’t altogether horrible, but he was dominated by Auburn’s corners. It wasn’t just Charlton Davis who shut him down. True freshman Jordyn Peters broke up a third-down pass in the first quarter, and redshirt sophomore Javaris Davis deflected an end-zone pass for Ridley in the third quarter. Ridley got owned.
Why was he so ineffective? Carlton Davis credited the team’s decision to play press coverage (via James Crepea of the Alabama Media Group).
I think it’s like the worst thing you could do for a receiver and kind of get them off their groove at the beginning of the route. Pressing him worked good for us.
In other words, Ridley was ineffective because he was easy to push around — because he’s small (listed at 6-1, 188). He’s always been small and relatively easy for defensive backs to manhandle. That will be a problem for him in the NFL. Some small NFL receivers have been able to overcome their deficiencies — namely, Antonio Brown and T.Y. Hilton — but both of them were able to overcome their limitations in college and put up big numbers.
- Brown: 1,243.3 scrimmage yards and 10.3 all-purpose touchdowns per year
- Hilton: 1,007.3 scrimmage yards and 9.3 all-purpose touchdowns per year
That’s what Brown and Hilton did across their college careers. Ridley hasn’t sniffed that kind of production in even one season. He might be a smooth route runner with good hands — that’s what people tend to say about receivers with a sub-NFL athletic profile — but he has objectively been a disappointment at Alabama, especially this year. Through 12 games, he has 55 receptions for 896 yards and three touchdowns. Most of his market share numbers are acceptable-ish — he’s catching 32.0 percent of Alabama’s passes and generating 36.3 percent of its yards — but his low share of touchdowns (13.0 percent) is horrifying.
And then there’s this: At 23 years old, Ridley is much older than most true juniors.
Age and Experience Matter
Thanks to work done years ago by Jon Moore, Shawn Siegele, and others at RotoViz, the draftnik community now begrudgingly seems to acknowledge that age is an important factor to take into account when evaluating NFL prospects. The younger a player is when he enters the NFL, the better his career tends to be. The same is generally true for college players. It’s possible — maybe probable — that Ridley has failed to meet expectations at Alabama because his advanced age wasn’t properly taken into account as a recruit. When he was an 18- and 19-year-old high-school stud facing 16- and 17-year-old cornerbacks, the negative impact of his physical limitations would’ve been easily hidden. In college, though, against players with elite athleticism and comparable age, Ridley has been exposed.
Years ago Ridley looked better than he was as a recruit because of his age. Now, his age underscores the extent to which he’s being overhyped as a potential draft prospect.
But it’s too easy to say that, because Ridley is old, and because his age-adjusted production is poor, he’s not a good NFL prospect. We also need to take experience into account. I’ve previously made the case for the importance of experience-adjusted analysis, but experts rarely take experience into account. Instead, they use age as a catch-all factor, since it’s correlated with experience. On top of that, analysts are unsure about how to balance age and experience as two overlapping variables. Further, evaluators are even unsure about how to define experience. Is it …
- The number of games played?
- The number of years in college?
- The number of years at a school?
- The number of non-redshirt years in college or at a school?
- The number of years at a position?
- The number of years within the same system?
- The number of years with the same coaching staff?
In short, age is easy to define and quantify; experience isn’t. For that reason, there’s probably more of an edge right now in focusing on experience: That’s where the market inefficiency lies.
Experience is especially intriguing as it relates to Ridley. While the national media is likely to overvalue him, the community of amateur/innovative draftniks on #DraftTwitter will likely do the opposite, overweighting his age relative to his experience. To evaluate Ridley, the age purist will compare him as a freshman to Cooper as a junior — and that clearly makes little sense. Keep that in mind when three months from now you are inundated with Ridley-Cooper comparisons.
Why Does Any of This Matter to DFS?
I’ve argued that the NFL draft is the most important DFS event of the year. Of all the rookies in any major sport, NFL rookies have the largest impact. Additionally, they’re often misvalued, especially early in the season, when the leverage they afford is the most beneficial because of the uncertainty surrounding teams and the enhanced payouts in guaranteed prize pools. Plus, NFL DFS is the most lucrative of the DFS sports. People who know NFL rookies will have a significant DFS edge. It’s uncommon for mid- and late-round rookies to contribute, but three of the five fourth-rounders I profiled shortly after the draft are now getting significant opportunities with their teams. Knowing months in advance that these players should be monitored is an edge.
NFL prospect evaluation gives DFS competitors a Bayesian prior to use when evaluating players. The prior is valuable not only with rookies but also second- and third-year players. Having the prior helps us avoid recency bias. It gives us a larger sample of data to consult. It also provides us the opportunity to use “Bayesian prior” in a sentence.
For so many reasons, the extra context that NFL prospect evaluation provides is useful.
The Case for Amari Now and Forever
Here’s an example: Let’s say that a wide receiver played 39 college games across three seasons. He averaged 1,171.3 scrimmage yards and 10.3 receiving touchdowns per year before even turning 21. At the NFL combine, he showed off a good combination of size and athleticism. He went fourth overall in the draft, and in his first two NFL seasons he averaged 1,110 scrimmage yards and 5.5 touchdowns per year. In his third season, wouldn’t he demand automatic exposure in GPPs when available at a discount in price and ownership, especially if almost nothing about his circumstances had changed?
That’s the case for Cooper. In 2015-16, he averaged 8.2 targets per game. In 2017, he entered Week 12 averaging 8.4. He exited the game early with a concussion, and he’s struggled this year in general, averaging just 5.87 yards per target. At some point that number will progress toward his career mark of 7.84, but right now no one wants to roster Amari … except for people who have the longer-term perspective that a Bayesian prior provides. As we saw with Julio Jones in Week 12, at some point elite players have Black Swan performances, and Amari’s data from 2012-16 indicate that he is — or eventually will be — an elite player.
If you focus on Amari’s short-term production, it’s possible for you to talk yourself into believing that he’s a poor DFS play who outperformed for the first two years of his career. If, however, you view Amari through the perspective of someone who evaluates players before they even reach the NFL, you’ll know that Amari offers positive expected value.
At some point Amari’s going to go off. And when he does, CSURAM88 will win millions of dollars — as long as it doesn’t happen on a Thursday.
The Labyrinthian: 2017.73, 168
Matthew Freedman is the Editor-in-Chief of FantasyLabs. He has a dog and sometimes a British accent. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he’s known only as The Labyrinthian. Previous installments of the series can be accessed via the series archive.