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)?
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 19th week of the 2021 season, there are 607 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’!
Divisional Round ultra-volatile players
These players have standard deviations from their averages of 10-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.
WR A.J. Brown (Tennessee Titans)
Brown has had a really injury-impacted season in 2021. He missed W4 after playing just eight snaps in W3, then all games between W12-W15 (both included), and he could never build any sort of momentum other than a three-game streak of hitting 16+ PPR points (16.1, 27.3, and finally 31.5 in W8). After coming back in W16, Brown has showcased his full range of outcomes: banger against San Fran (31.5 PPR points with a ridiculous 16-11-145-1 line), dud against Miami (6.1 PPR points), reasonably average-ish game against Houston (16.8 PPR with a 6-4-68-1 line). See, we know what Brown can do. He’s put up more than 30 fantasy points twice this year and has another 27+ PPR-point outcome to his name. After gearing up for three weekends and having an extra week of rest, odds are Brown is as strong as he has been in a while. I am of the opinion Tennessee will need to throw the rock a ton to keep up with Cincy, and that can only benefit A.J. Negative: three games with 8+ targets and single-digit FP. Positive: three games with 8+ targets and 27+ FP. I’m afraid the risk/reward figure just went off the charts, so if you’re heart-attack prone you might want to skip this one.
Divisional Round moderately-risky plays
These players have standard deviations from their averages between 8 and 10 fantasy points. We’re starting to get into the meat of the player pool, and decisions start to get tougher here.
TE Rob Gronkowski (Tampa Bay Buccanneers)
The Bucs are surely hurting at the WR position. None of Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin are in town nor available going forward. Mike Evans has stayed there, but the likes of Cyril Grayson and Scotty Miller have been the ones stepping up and filling the glaring gaps, which is no bueno. Somehow, Rob Gronkowski has avoided heavy injuries and played 14 games through the whole season including last weekend’s Wild-Card Round matchup against Philly... in which he hauled a touchdown in. See, Gronkowski has been a top-7 TE in the past three games including the postseason slate. The problem? He could only score 4.9 and 3.3 PPR points in weeks 15-16, and thus he carries a huge what if concern and risk along with him. Tommy Brady has utter confidence in his longtime pal, and the 10-10-6 targets in the past three games (7+ per game on the season) prove it. But Gronk has had as many games with 115+ receiving yards as he’s had performances in which he didn’t go past 31 with three games of each variety. The lack of warm bodies should aid Gronk’s upside and opportunities, but keep in mind there is a chance he just doesn’t produce and whoever no-name wideout ends being the random start of the Divisional Round for the Bucs.
Divisional Round relatively-safe plays
These players have standard deviations from their averages between 5 and 8 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.
RB Elijah Mitchell (San Francisco 49ers)
The 49ers have something going at the quarterback position. Will they stick with Jimmy G going forward (whatever happens), or will they finally move onto Trey Lance (that was a huge trade to land him last offseason if you ask me) and go from there? The thing is, Jimmy is the starter for now, and that means the backfield is not going to get opportunities taken by a rushing quarterback, which JG is definitely not. Enter RB1 Elijah Mitchell and his ridiculous 80.8% opportunity share... which he’s been good to translate into 4.8 yards per opportunity. Mitchell has had his up and downs, yes, but he’s been an absolute threat through the last third of the season, starting in W12 when he put up a season-high 27.8 PPR points. It’s been six games in a row for Mitchell rushing the rock 21+ times. While he had a couple of single-digit tallies in W10 and W18, he has hit at least 15.5 PPR points in all other four games since W12. The carries are sky-high, he gets some pass-play looks here and there, and he’s scored one touchdown in four of the past five games. San Fran will need to toss the rock this weekend in a tough game, but that doesn’t mean they will be able to entirely abandon the running game, with Mitchell leading the way.
Divisional Round ultra-risk-averse plays
These players have standard deviations from their averages between 0 and 5 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.
QB Ryan Tannehill (Tennessee Titans)
Tannehill and the Titans are back this weekend after a much-needed week of rest thanks to their taking of the no. 1 seed. It was needed, mostly, because it gave Derrick Henry a full extra week of recovery time and that could change the outcome of the Divisional Round game for Tennessee if he can make it (almost) healthy to the field. Whatever happens on that front, though, Tannehill will be the man tasked with performing to the best of his levels to keep Tennessee’s season alive. Joe Burrow and the Bengals will definitely score points. It won’t be a run-the-clock game for the Titans, so Tannehill will need to connect. And truth be told, he’s been safely good at it through the year. He’s a much more solid player than last week’s pick Jimmy G. Tannehill has put up double-digit scores in all but two games, did average 17.9 FPPG in the games Henry was active and is coming off his best game of the season after trashing Houston with a 23-287-4 outing for 27.3 FP. Hard to see Ryan reaching those heights once more, but he should be good for some 14-FP floor if you want to save on the position and spend some bigger bucks at WR/RB to fill your DFS lineup.