Either you are a risk-averse fantasy owner, or a risk-tolerant one. There is not a unique, written-on-stone way of winning at fantasy football, nor a dominant personality of owner that always get the “W.” So no matter which side of the coin you fall on, here are some players that fit the risk range of outcomes to different extents so you can put them in your lineups fully knowing what you’re getting into!
How does the season look so far (a little primer on volatility)?
Okay, so to measure how risky a player is I did something very simple. I calculated the fantasy points per game each player has scored through all of the games he has played, and then calculated the standard deviation of his different scores through his games. This way not only do I get his average points per game, but also I get to know how his scores vary between games (how “volatile” they are).
Having those two numbers, it is easy to see who is putting on good performances constantly, who is having boom-or-bust games, etc. Through the end of the 2020 season, there were 589 players with at least two games played in fantasy football. Here is how they are spread in a graph that includes their fantasy points per game and their standard deviation (we’ll call it Volatility from this point on) from their mean values:
Now, that is a goddamn mess. At the top of the chart, you have the best players by points per game. At the left, you can find those who—almost—always score the same points, and at the right those who have wide variations between different games.
That chart is fine and all, but it’s much better to break it down and separate players into different categories so you can make decisions easily come lineup-locking time. Let’s get it poppin’!
Week 1 ultra-volatile players
These players have standard deviations from their averages of 11-plus fantasy points. They are as capable of putting on a monster, record-books performance as easily as they can lay a goose egg on any given day. You’re playing with fire here, boy.
RB Alvin Kamara (New Orleans Saints)
If you don’t live under a rock, you know what’s popping in NOLA. The Saints are Drew Brees’ team no more, and that means there will obviously be changes. I personally love the fact that Jameis Winston will be throwing bombs all around the dome, but we’ll see how rusher Alvin Kamara operates on this Jameis offense, how much coverage and attention the RB gets, and most of all how Michael Thomas’ (probably the only viable receiver in this squad...) absence limits the attack and forces New Orleans to feed Kamara too much. That doesn’t have to be bad—he posted an average of 25+ FPPG last year in 15 games—but the truth is that we don’t really know the Kamara we’ll be watching any given week. His volatility was the second-highest, only trailing Tyler Lockett’s as AK had as many games below 18 PPR (four) as he did above 30 PPR (four).
RB Derrick Henry (Tennessee Titans)
The Titans aren’t debuting too much of a new offense, but the truth is that they acquired Atlanta’s top wideout and all-timer at the WR position (Julio Jones) this summer. Jonnu Smith is out and playing for the Patriots next season, but no one is going to even argue that Jones won’t get as many targets as the former Titan did last season—if not more. The main casualty of this addition could be Derrick Henry, even more considering QB Ryan Tannehill’s evolution since he stepped into Tennessee’s facilities. Henry is a true beast, played all 16 games last season, and finished the year ranked RB3 while averaging more than 20 FPPG in PPR leagues. The problem, though? Henry is an absolute boom/bust play among top-tier performers: Henry’s seventh-highest volatile was that high precisely because he had wildly contrasting games throughout the season—he finished in the RB3-realm in three of those, was the absolute RB1 in another three, and even put up a 95th-best (among RBs) dud when he scored just 9.8 PPR in W16.
Week 1 moderately-risky plays
These players have standard deviations from their averages between 9 and 11 fantasy points. We’re starting to get into the meat of the player pool, and decisions start to get tougher here.
WR Brandin Cooks (Houston Texans)
There is an obvious reason to fear playing Cooks and finding him in the wrong side of things when all is said and done by the end of Week 1. That’s because the Texans are no longer employing (well, actually, playing) Deshaun Watson as their QB1 while he solves his issues with the NFL and all of the stuff he’s been going through of late. Cooks was fantastic last season posting a neat 15.5 FPPG average in 15 games played, and although his volatility came in at a bulky 10.1 VOL, the truth is that he was a rather “safe” play among risky ones. The thing with him, though, is that he’ll be playing under QB Tyrod Taylor at least to kick the year off, and also in a role perhaps too big for him to excel at as there are virtually no other viable receivers in this bunch. Taken out of context, though, Cooks was great in 2020 when looking at his post-W4 numbers: 11 games played, an average of 18.9 FPPG, and only one game below 11 PPR points ranking in all the WR1/WR2/WR3 realms in all of those games and closing the season with a masterful WR1 finish thanks to his 39.6 PPR tally against Tennessee.
QB Kyler Murray (Arizona Cardinals)
Is this the year we finally get to watch Prime Kyler? We can only hope. Don’t get me wrong, Murray has been excellent in his two seasons as a pro already, finishing QB8 two years ago and QB3 last season—just in case, Murray is still 24 years old and has a ways to go when it comes to keeping improving and developing his skill set. Speaking about that skill set... That is precisely what Murray’s volatility is about. This man is one of the best rushers among players at the position, has attempted 93 and 133 runs in his two first seasons, and has rushed for a total of 1,363 yards while scoring 15 TDs on the ground. The days those legs weren’t working, though, killed Murray’s upside. Only twice did Murray top 25 PPR points in games in which he failed to rush for more than 31 yards, while he put up six such games in the nights he was able to rush the rock for at least 60 yards. Not that he’s the ultimate boom/bust play, but know what you’re getting into by playing Kyler.
Week 1 relatively safe plays
These players have standard deviations from their averages between 7 and 9 fantasy points. This is where most of the rostered players and those that are part of your weekly lineup fall. They can have up and downs in their outcomes, but they mostly produce to their true talent.
QB Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks)
There will be a point at which we all agree and declare Russ a great QB once for all, right? This man has strung nine seasons—all of his pro-career, that is—of finishing in the QB1 realm becoming the actual No. 1 player at the position just four years ago in 2017 when he dropped a 347.9 total-FP year and averaged 21.7 FPPG. I mean, that’s nuts, but he went on to improve on those numbers last year while reaching 359.8 FP and a 22.5 FPPG mark. What’s to hate about that!? Yet folks keep sleeping on Russ... Wilson completed all 16 games from the 2020 season and only a little upsetting second half of the year could bring his numbers down a bit. From W1 to W9 Russ was averaging a ridiculous 29.4 FPPG while never falling below the 21-FP mark in any of the eight matches he played in that span. He had two games below 14 FP after that, sure, but the other six saw him put up at least 14.4 FP and he reached 18+ FP in four of those six.
WR Stefon Diggs (Buffalo Bills)
Just when I thought I couldn't love Diggs more than I already did, he moved to Buffalo and played his best ball to date—and, if we’re honest, it wasn’t even remotely close to his now-second-best season, that of 2018. Back in that latter year, Diggs finished with 266.3 PPR points averaging 17.8 FPPG. In 2020 he absolutely demolished those marks playing under QB Josh Allen for a total 328.6 tally while averaging 20.5 FPPG while featuring in all 16 games. Diggs racked up numbers, finished as the WR3 of the year and a top-16 player overall, and he did so dropping below 14 PPR points just twice through the season. If we exclude the last of the season from the equation (he only played 31 snaps, 48% of the Bills’ total that week), Diggs closed 2020 putting up four consecutive 19+ PPR games accounting for a combined 115.5 PPR points and a 28.9 FPPG average. Uh, oh.
Week 1 ultra-risk-averse plays
These players have standard deviations from their averages between 0 and 7 fantasy points. Most players fall inside this group as most players either are good, or bad. You know what you’re getting from these players, as they operate as robots on the field putting on heavily consistent performances weekly.
RB Myles Gaskin (Miami Dolphins)
This has been the summer of the Gaskin Hype. The new RB1 of the Dolphins has every fantasy GM dreaming about, precisely, an RB1 campaign in 2021 coming from the rusher. Whether he turns into such a talented player, we’ll see, but there weren’t many players averaging as many FPPG (16.4) as Gaskin in 2020 with such low volatility (6.6) on a weekly basis. Sure, the sample size isn’t the largest as Gaskin only logged 10 games played last year, but that doesn’t take away from his exploits. In fact, Gaskin's “shaky” games all came in the first four weeks of the season when he couldn’t even reach 15 PPR points in any of them—though it must be said he only rushed the rock more than 10 times once in that span. From W5 to W17 (he didn’t play in the W9-W12 span), on the other hand, Gaskin put up at least 14 PPR points in all games but one had two games of 20+ PPR points and topped at 33.9 in W16 when he finished RB4 in the slate. Not bad.
WR Terry McLaurin (Washington Football Team)
This Terry... this Terry is Scary. And not precisely because he carries what we’d call a boom/bust profile of play. Far from it. While there were up and downs in his 2020 season, Terry McLaurin had an outstanding campaign playing under below-subpar quarterbacks in Washington. That’s no more, though, as the Footies have brought Ryan Fitzpatrick to the fold and that can only help Scary Terry going forward—or for a single season, at least. Barring three stinkers in which McLaurin could only finish with less than 6 PPR points each time, he was ridiculous. Remove those three outings from his 15-game numbers, and his average FPPG comes out at 17.5 PPR points per game which can be broken down as follows: four games of 21+ fantasy points, five more of 14+, and three more between 11 and 14. Every time McLaurin reached 7 receptions he went on to score at least 14.4 PPR points, and that mark can skyrocket with an actual, pro-level passer tossing him the ball this season.