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Fantasy Football Volatility Index: Reviewing the riskiest and safest plays from the 2021 NFL Season

Antonio reviews the most (and least) volatile players of the 2021 NFL season to help you with your upcoming 2022 fantasy football draft decisions.

Los Angeles Chargers v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

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 did the season look (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 22nd and final week of the 2021 season, there were 623 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’!

2021 NFL Season - 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.

Group Overview

For the most extreme of crops, this one is reasonably large including 12 players and representing 10 different teams. Of course, 12 guys are a measly number compared to the whole bunch of 623 qualifiers, but to find more than 10 super-volatile players sustaining that variance through the whole season (with the lone exception of Josh Johnson, who only played two games) is quite interesting. All players represented in the chart above scored at least 10.6 PPR points per game while playing at all four fantasy-eligible positions, another interesting tidbit.

Three players were good for a volatility of 12+, one per position excluding TE, and if we remove the low-sample Johnson we’d be left with the pair of Derrick Henry and Tyreek Hill. Gotta go with Hill as the legit VOL champ, though, as even though his mark was slightly below that of Henry (12.2 vs. 12.6), the wideout did it over a massive 20-game sample compared to Henry’s nine games played through the Titans postseason elimination.

Spotlight: WR Tyreek Hill (Kansas City Chiefs)

Arguably the VOL Champ of the 2022 season, Tyreek Hill found a way to finish as the top-11 OVR player of the year in PPR leagues (that is including the postseason) along with a WR4 finish. Only one other WR (Ja’Marr Chase) was almost as volatile over the year as Hill while finishing inside the top-5 of players at the position.

The chart above tells you all you need to know. It’s virtually impossible to find two consecutive games in which Hill performed to similar levels for fantasy GMs, posting gaps as large as that between his season-high 47.6 PPR points and the prior week’s 9.7 score, pretty much five times lower. Hill was sublime through the Chiefs postseason, though, posting three consecutive scores of 16.7+ FP while contributing one touchdown in each of those matches. As long as Patrick Mahomes keeps manning KC’s pocket and Hill keeps racking up targets, he should be as viable a fantasy player as there are in the NFL these days. Though keep in mind you might be in for a wild ride.

2021 NFL Season - Moderately-Risky Players

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.

Group Overview

The sweetspot of volatility. This group boasts the most top-12 overall finishers (postseason included) in terms of PPR points and as many as 19 players making it to the top tier of their respective positions. That said, of the five players in this group that went on to close the year as top-12 players OVR, four of them played at QB, with only one (Davante Adams) playing at wide receiver. As for the particular position ranks, the 19 are split in 6/7/4/2 QB/RB/WR/TE.

There were no real outliers in this group, as all players with at least 12+ PPR points per game and a volatility between 8-and-10 played at least seven games through the Super Bowl weekend, and the top-10 appeared in at least 15 each.

Spotlight: QB Tom Brady (Tampa Bay Buccanneers)

There is a chance this is the last couple of paragraphs I write about Tom Brady in the fantasy context for the rest of my scribing days, so yeah, that’s mostly the reason I opted to highlight him here. Brady, never the greatest fantasy quarterback but always a steady performer, was good enough to put up the fifth-most FP overall and the fourth-most among quarterbacks through the 2021 full season, playoffs included. Barring a couple of outliers in the games against Miami (37.7 FP) and the one against New Orleans (5.8), Brady mostly scored fantasy points in the 15-to-30 clip weekly, thus the 22.0 FPPG average to go with his VOL of 8.1, at the lower end of this group’s spectrum.

Brady already announced his retirement, yes, but it’s going to be hard to forget about this myth’s exploits. While there were some duds along the way (back-to-back games with two interceptions sandwiching Tampa’s Week 9 bye, for example), Brady also put up some ridiculous outings such and an overall tidy season with six games scoring 4+ passing touchdowns, entering the end zone rushing the ruck for a couple of extra TDs, and passing for a solid 5916 yards through the year for an average of 311 Yds/G. If you were a Tom Brady believer, though, start scouting your next option. Tommy’s ship has sailed for good this time.

2021 NFL Season - Relatively-Safe Players

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.

Group Overview

First of the “safe” groups, and first clogged one too as it almost doubles the amount of players present in the prior one (188 vs. 102). Makes sense, though, considering there are many more players scoring fewer fantasy points per game and doing it on reasonable amounts rather than exploding/busting on a weekly basis. As I have always said and remarked in the weekly columns through the season, the lower the risks, the lower the potential rewards. Unless you’re named Cooper Kupp, I guess.

Kupp, the clear-cut best fantasy players in the 2021 season from start to finish, belong to this group with a reasonably low 7.3 VOL over 21 games played. Not surprisingly, Matthew Stafford is the second-highest scorer of the group with 20.9 FPPG and a 5.3 VOL in the same number of games. Three more players finished with 20+ FPPG here, namely Jalen Hurts, Deebo Samuel, and Aaron Rodgers. Although only four players in this cohort finished inside the top-12 OVR, the truth is that as many as 19 (same as those in the prior VOL group) finished as top-tier players at their respective positions (split 4/3/4/8—yes, that’s eight tight ends).

Spotlight: QB Matthew Stafford (Los Angeles Rams)

Shout out the Champ! Sucks for Detroit fans out there, but a change of scenery was all Stafford needed to put on a masterclass of a season and grab hold of that elusive ring. The lower the VOL goes, the more the curve flattens; just peep at Stafford’s chart of weekly outcomes above and compare it to those of Hill and Brady in the two sections discussed before. All games with the exception of one (at Minnesota) watched Matty scoring between 11.8 and 29.5 FP. Even more, remove the second-lowest score and you end with a minuscle 14-FP gap between the 15.1 outing against Tennessee and his 29.5-best facing Tampa in Week 3.

Stafford’s steadiness through the whole regular- and post-season was golden and his fantasy GMs can attest. Even more, Stafford didn’t have a single game below 19.9 FP in the playoffs, which surely helped Los Angeles nicely navigate the postseason en route to their chip. Yes, Stafford changed a couple of rushing touchdowns in the first two games of the playoffs (with no INTs) for one-and-two interceptions in the last two (with no rushing TDs) but he was still good to throw 2+ TDs in each of the postseason games he played including three in the Super Bowl clinching match. Perks of having a wideout unit featuring the best player in fantasy football, Gawd Kupp.

2021 NFL Season - Ultra-Risk-Averse Players

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.

Group Overview

The ugliest of groups, as it obviously includes some very middling players if only because guys with fewer games played tend to have similarly low fantasy outcomes. There are 375 players in this cohort, representing 60% of all qualified players (those with min. 2 games played) for the purposes of measuring volatility in fantasy contests. The highest FPPG belongs to QB Kirk Cousins with 18.8, followed by five other players at 15+ FPPG each (two QBs, two WRs, and one rusher).

As we could have expected, none of the ultra-safe players finished as a top-12 player OVR and only six of the 375 were good to play to top-tier level at their positions (the split was 2/1/2/1 QB/RB/WR/TE). The jump from the first-best to the sixth-best (TE Tyler Higbee) was more than substantial, though, as Higbee finished the year with 166.5 total PPR points compared to the fifth-highest tally of 242.7 while also averaging 9.3 FPPG compared to the fifth-highest 15.2, almost a full six-point distance.

Spotlight: RB Josh Jacobs (Las Vegas Raiders)

I have been praising Josh Jacobs all year long, yet fantasy GMs out there still seem to not buy into this man. The only thing separating Jacobs from finishing 2021 as the King of the RB Hill was missing a couple of games at the start of the year. Other than that, you couldn’t have asked much more from this hella steady rusher. Just look at his FPPG chart, and marvel. Not only was the Raiders RB a bona fide lock to score 10+ points a week, but when he deviated from his average he only did to put up surprisingly good/better outcomes such as his couple of 22+ PPR-point matches against Washington and Los Angeles.

Another couple of 15+ PPR games (those he missed in W2-W3) and we would be talking about Jacobs as the RB6 of the year instead of the RB9, only behind Taylor, Mixon, Ekeler, Najee, and Fournette. The Raiders will keep riding the Jacobs train and they’d be good if they work on a JJ-heavy gameplan if you ask me. Don’t get fooled again next season, and trust Jacobs. You won’t gate a safer player with a bigger upside attached to him.