Best Ball Academy: Part 1

Whether you’re new to NFL best ball leagues, or have played in this type of league prior … welcome! Best ball has rapidly consumed the offseason portion of NFL season, typically spanning from March through early September. It continues to grow at an exponential rate, thanks to multiple league hosting sites recognizing the power of best ball leagues and offering their own variations of this fantastic format.

Here are five lessons that go over the basics of the format, its strategies and ways to excel in best ball leagues.

Best Ball Basics

In a best ball league, the only participation requirement is the draft! This means you won’t stress over start/sit decisions, hassle with time-consuming waiver claims, haggle trades with finicky owners, or fight commissioners for your rightful winnings. This is why I find the format so attractive. You simply draft and move on! This format strips away the headache and day-to-day rigmarole packaged with standard fantasy leagues, freeing up more of your time for other pursuits.

How do best ball leagues determine winners?

Once you’ve completed the draft, you may wonder how the winner is determined in this format. As mentioned above, there are no start/sit decisions or waivers to manage. Instead, at the conclusion of each week’s games, the host site will automatically compute your optimized roster based on starting requirements and individual player scoring. Your team will start the “best” lineup possible based on who you’ve rostered. Obviously, this is the genesis of the “best ball” name.

Typically, best ball leagues play Weeks 1-16 of the NFL season. At the conclusion of Week 16, teams will be ranked based upon the aggregate of their optimized weekly scores, then paid out according to the league’s structure. This could be Winner Take All, Win/Show/Place, 50/50, Double Up, or one of numerous other payout structures.

Who plays in best ball leagues?

More folks than you think! Odds are that your favorite NFL daily fantasy personalities are frequent players in best ball leagues.
Personally, I’ve seen a wide array of folks who play this format, including those focused on dynasty leagues, daily contests, casual leagues, and everything in between. The overarching idea is that anyone can play (and win) in the best ball format. All you need is your brain, a few bucks, and a few minutes to draft your team.

Where can I play Bestball, and how much does it cost?

Currently, we enjoy many different site options for best ball leagues, with each site offering their unique flavor of the format.

The most prominent sites offering best ball leagues at this time include:

I will not be surprised at all if more league-hosting sites join the fray, including major players like DraftKings, ESPN, and CBS.
How much will it cost, you ask? Entry fees typically start at $10; however, some sites offer leagues with entry fees as low as $1! If you’re a high stakes player, you’ll be happy to know that can find leagues at $100 entry and well beyond. Sites have expanded league pricing structures over the past two years, and players have reacted in kind by filling leagues at every price point offered.

Why should I play Bestball?

This is what you’re really here to learn, right? Personally, I play in best ball leagues for a few reasons:

*Require a minimal amount of time
*Allow year-round involvement in fantasy football
*Encourage preparation heading into the regular season
*Facilitate socialization & sharing of ideas

I’m sure you can come up with a few reasons of your own above and beyond my own.

General Principles by Site

DRAFT

This site thrust themselves into the best ball scene in June 2017 and haven’t looked back. One thing that sets DRAFT apart from the crowd is the diversity of league sizes and payouts.

  • League size(s) – Three, six, 10, or 12 teams
  • Price point(s) – $1 to $100 (and even higher during the summer)
  • Payout(s) – Vary (Winner Take All, Win/Show/Place, Top 4, 50/50)
  • Draft Style – Snake
  • Draft Clock(s) – Fast (30-second timer) and Slow (8-hour timer)
  • Roster Size(s) – 18 players (QB, RB, WR, TE)
  • Scoring – Half PPR

Bestball10s (formerly Fanball MFL10s)

For nearly five years, MFL10s have been considered the gold standard for best ball leagues, and with good reason. They were straightforward, draft-only leagues at a reasonable price point. However, just after New Year 2018, Fanball announced they had acquired the rights to MFL10s from MyFantasyLeague, the site that launched and popularized the best ball format. For 2019, they’ve rebranded as Bestball10s, but everything else about the product remains the same.

  • League size(s) – 12 teams
  • Price point(s) – $10, $25, $50, & $100
  • Payout(s) – Winner Take All, 50/50, and Win/Show/Place
  • Draft Style – Snake
  • Draft Clock(s) –Fast (60-second timer) and Slow (2-hour, 4-hour, 8-hour timer + overnight pause)
  • Roster Size(s) – 20 players – QB, RB, WR, TE, DST
  • Scoring – PPR

FFPC Best Ball Satellites

The Fantasy Football Players Championship has offered best ball leagues for multiple seasons.

  • League size(s) – Twelve teams
  • Price point(s) – $35 to $1250
  • Payout(s) – Vary (Winner Take All, Double Up, Win/Show, Win/Show/Place)
  • Draft Style – Snake
  • Draft Clock(s) –Fast (90-second timer) and Slow (8-hour timer)
  • Roster Size(s) – Vary (22 players or 28 players; QB, RB, WR, TE, PK, DST)
  • Scoring – PPR (TE Premium – +0.5 bonus per reception)

Yahoo Best Ball

Yahoo stayed true to their promise from early 2019 and entered the best ball market! Currently they provide limited offerings, but expect to ramp up heavily later this summer and into the 2020 offseason. An added wrinkle from Yahoo provides a weekly prize for the highest scoring team across each of the 16 weeks.

League size(s) – Ten teams
Price point(s) – $1 to $100
Payout(s) – Win/Show/Place
Draft Style – Snake
Draft Clock(s) – Fast (60-second timer)
Roster Size(s) – 20 players (QB, RB, WR, TE, DST)
Scoring – Half PPR

Drafting

Best ball drafts work in much the same way as standard fantasy league drafts, but with a couple of slight differences. Much like standard leagues, best ball leagues draft in a traditional snake pattern. In some unique cases, there may be a Third Round Reversal, which some league hosts believe levels the playing field somewhat.

Your draft can either be a fast draft that takes place directly on the league site, or a slow draft that sends alerts via email or text as picks are made. Fast draft clock timers vary anywhere from 30 seconds to 90 seconds, while slow draft clocks typically run for eight hours before auto-selecting a player and moving to the next pick.

You may have noticed that I mentioned auto-selection, and you are right to take notice. In these drafts, owners that allow the draft clock to expire prior to selecting a player are subject to having a player automatically chosen for them from a pre-made draft list. This draft list can be the site default, or a list that you’ve curated yourself. I recommend that you curate your own list, as many auto draft algorithms see no issue with adding excessive players at certain positions, such as QB, TE, or DST.

Preparation

How should we prepare for best ball drafts? Generally speaking, you should prepare for them the same way you might prepare for drafts in your current redraft fantasy leagues – absorbing news updates via fantasy-centric sites and podcasts, familiarizing yourself with coaching changes, and assessing offseason events such as free agency and the Draft.

A critical point of preparation that we need to acknowledge off the top: we will misjudge situations/talent and collaterally make poor picks from time to time. As you’re probably well aware, this is simply a part of fantasy sports and gambling on the whole. I’ve planted my flag in the wrong places many times, and I don’t regret it. You shouldn’t, either. Instead, view it as an opportunity for retrospection and refine your method.

Deconstructing ADP

What is ADP?

More than likely, you are intimately familiar with this acronym, as it has entrenched itself in fantasy sports culture over the past 15 years. If you aren’t, however, then it’s time to learn!

ADP stands for Average Draft Position. Simply, it’s the raw average of every pick invested in a particular player. However, this lesson will teach that ADP is only a number. While it provides reasonable information about player popularity, it can simultaneously obscure the truth, mask recent sentiment, and seduce casual players into a costly comfort zone. We should approach ADP logically and remember that it is only a very rough representation of where a player might be drafted.

What can we learn from ADP?

If you’re familiar with my prior work on this style of league, you’ll know that I focus heavily on distributions, probabilities, and timeframes. For those of you unfamiliar with my work, let me provide some show-and-tell that highlights the driving forces behind ADP.

Overall Draft Position Distributions

Every time a particular player is drafted, his Overall Draft Position (ODP) is noted in the “system.” We define Overall Draft Position as the raw pick number where a player was chosen. For example, if we select Sammy Watkins with pick 6.04 of a 12-team draft, his ODP is 64. Over the course of hundreds or thousands of league drafts, every pick invested in a player will create a distribution that looks something like this:

The distribution above encompasses roughly 500 Bestball10s drafts spanning from July 15-29, 2019. You’ll notice in the middle of the distribution a peak, representing ADP. You should notice the shape of this distribution – it looks like a bell curve! This type of distribution quickly relays that while Watkins’ and Kirk’s ADPs are near the beginning of the seventh round, they were selected prior to that ADP in approximately half of the 500 drafts.

Draft Position Probability

How can we action a distribution like the one above? First, we must understand how it affects the probability of desired players being available when we pick. Below is a representation of probability on a normal distribution. If we compare it to the draft position distribution above, we can draw some rough conclusions that will help us in our drafts.

Calculating the probability that a player will be available at a particular pick isn’t too difficult if we know three things:

  • The player’s ADP
  • A reasonable estimate of the player’s standard deviation (SD)
  • Which pick we wish to target said player

So far as a “reasonable estimate” of SD is concerned, I recommend three (3) picks for the first two rounds, six (6) picks for rounds 3-4, nine (9) picks for rounds 5-6, and so on. A standard deviation of 1.5 picks per round will put you on very solid ground for probability purposes without diving into specific data for a player.

Knowing the probability a player (or group of players) will be available at a particular pick helps us structure our drafts in real time. It allows us to plan ahead one, two, or more rounds based on the player pool available and the ADP furnished by third-party apps, or by the host site itself. Similarly, we can use the same methods to back-calculate the overall draft position we should expect a player to be available given an estimated probability.

If you’d like to learn more about the math behind probability distributions, and even calculate rough numbers for yourself, check this link.

Understanding Recency Bias, Sentiment, and Timeframes

If we want to create sound draft plans, it is critical to understand how time affects ADP and draft distributions. The big picture, although giving the most information, may not supply us with the most accurate data we need to draft today. Below, you see ODP distributions for Miami running backs Kenyan Drake and Kalen Ballage from July 15-29, 2019. With this broad timeframe, we may be led to believe that Drake should almost always be available at the end of the fourth round, and frequently at the beginning of the fifth round, while Ballage could usually be drafted in the 14th round.

However, if you look at the evolving ODP below, you quickly understand that timing is critical to our measurement of player availability.

Through this two-week period, we see that Drake’s ADP shifted significantly from the fourth round into the sixth Round, while Ballage surged from the 14th round into the 11th round. If we just view his overall draft distribution through the same time period, however, we read the wrong story. With only wide-band ADP to go by, we might end up missing out on Ballage in almost every draft, thinking (falsely) that our opponents are simply drafting him well ahead of his ADP.

Instead, if we utilize recent sentiment and restrict our timeframe to a more reasonable period (in most cases, the last two weeks will suffice), we can ebb and flow with the market much more accurately. This knowledge allows us to draft players at better value versus the market, and also avoid potential landmines when the market is overpaying for a particular player or position.

Defining and Recognizing ADP Tiers

We define ADP tiers as natural gulfs that develop between groups of players (typically within a position) during the course of a draft season. These separations naturally manifest as the crowd of drafters vote on how players will perform in an upcoming season. How do they vote? It’s simple – they draft!

To provide a visual example, I’ve taken quarterback ADP data from two weeks of 2019 Bestball10s leagues and manipulated it to illustrate how tiers developed in their player pool.

With the divisions in place, we see how the crowd created clusters at the QB position. I’ve noted the ADP lag in the far right column (LAG), and will use this lag to define where one tier ends and the next tier begins. This lag measures the ADP differential between successive players. When the lag reaches a significant difference, we can draw a line and say that a tier has developed.

First, however, we must quantify what “significant” means in this context. A reasonable rule of thumb to separate tiers can be when ADP lag reaches roughly a round’s worth of picks. In some cases, I will use a percentage that scales as the draft goes into the later rounds (i.e. 20% ADP drop early vs 5% ADP drop late) to determine boundaries.

Creating personal tiers

Now that you understand ADP tiers, and a few ways to calculate tier separations, it’s time for you to define your tiers. If we don’t define our own tiers and our own ADP, we may miss opportunities to acquire players at contrarian values to the marketplace. If we don’t leverage our unique insight and thought process, we fall into the trap of following the crowd.

Below, you’ll find a very rough “first draft” for ADP tiers at the QB position in 2019.

When I define tiers, I simply place every projected starter into a list, then rank according to my own beliefs. In cases where I’m not comfortable with the projected starter, I simply toss that player out and continue the ranking process. After this ranking process, I see that there are usually very clear separations in my hierarchy, based on how well I think players will perform. At this point, I will draw lines to create my personal tiers, and use these tiers in my drafts.

Avoid Unforced Errors

If we know where each step-down occurs for every position group, we can monitor our upcoming picks (up to three rounds ahead, in some cases) and determine if we should draft a desired player/position at the leading end of the draft distribution curve. Should we draft a player early to guarantee ownership, or should we wait?

It’s critical to look ahead, and tiers are one tool that help us in this regard. We must avoid unforced errors that cause us to draft non-desirable assets at or above value because we missed a “window.”

For a practical example, envision that we’ve decided to run a Mid + Late QB draft strategy in a particular best ball draft. We’ve determined that for us to implement this strategy successfully, we should acquire two quarterbacks from the third tier (QBs 10-25) and one from the sixth tier (QBs 28+). We notice that a mini-run on quarterbacks has pushed the available player pool down to QB23 (Alex Smith), and reason that we should probably commit our next two picks to the position to adhere to our plan. If we decide to wait another round, however, it’s entirely possible that our plan blows up in our face and we’re forced to pick low-ranked players as our “starting” options. Not a savory option in most cases.

Drive Behavior

Another phenomenon created by tiers involves gamesmanship (some may call it sociopathy), perceived scarcity, and driving your opponents into uncomfortable decisions. I know you’re a budding sociopath because you’re immediately asking how to implement this in your drafts. This strategy typically involves picks near the turns (in 12-man drafts, the 1, 2, 11, and 12 slots) where you can take two players from a particular position group in succession. If timed correctly with the right group of drafters, you can force positional runs within a tier that allow other positions to fall down draft boards and gain value against their ADP.

To demonstrate, we’ll revisit the 2x Mid + Late QB example above. In this version, however, we’re about to draft 13.10 and 14.02. We’ve recognized that a few other drafters are also waiting on quarterback. Here, it makes sense to go QB with back-to-back picks (Dak Prescott + Kirk Cousins) to adhere to strategy, but we are also likely to drive a quarterback run between 14.02 and 15.10, when we pick again. This may mean that you draft a player ahead of his ADP, but the idea is it will force others to forego desired players in an effort to simply fill their starting requirements.

In creating a positional run with back-to-back picks, we also create access to players/tiers that might not have been available otherwise. This is how we put positional tiers to work. Remember – your personal player and position values/tiers will frequently conflict with the crowd. Use this to your advantage when applying the two principles discussed above.

Roster Construction

Every offseason, I see drafts where an owner will effectively ignore the scoring and/or roster requirements for a best ball league, and draft a very oddly-constructed roster that has literally no chance of winning. How does this happen? Oftentimes, it will occur when drafters choose to chase positions much earlier than they should (ex: drafting D/ST before round 16), or elect to roster multiple resources at a position that doesn’t necessarily require them (ex: drafting five QBs when only one can score). These teams are often drawing dead as soon as the draft completes.

If you don’t build your roster along well-defined principles, then you give yourself incredibly long odds at paying out. That’s the bottom line.
Now, let’s learn how to maximize our probability!

General position guidelines

While roster requirements may differ slightly across best ball sites, your roster will likely score one QB, two RBs, three WRs, one TE, one FLEX, and one D/ST on a weekly basis. In some cases, leagues will require only one RB or WR score while allowing two/three FLEX scores per week.

Immediately, this should inform our roster construction process. In this case, we can borrow the concept of “diminishing returns” from Economics, which describes a phenomenon where additional resources allocated toward an activity provide no appreciable value in return over what has already been invested. This same idea easily fits our process when building best ball rosters. If we can only score points with one QB or DST each week, does it make sense to go overweight at that position and roster several players from each? Absolutely not.

On the flip side, we must remain cognizant of what’s required to simply survive an NFL season when waivers and trades aren’t at our disposal. Our rosters should have enough depth to withstand not only bye weeks, but injuries, suspensions, and role changes. We should draft enough players at each position to have a reasonable probability of survival, but remain cautious against drafting too many at any position.

Generally speaking, these guidelines will fit the majority of best ball leagues that offer FLEX eligibility to RB, WR, and TE:

  • QB (Start 1) – Draft 2-3 players
  • RB (Start 2) – Draft 4-7 players
  • WR (Start 3) – Draft 5-8 players
  • TE (Start 1) – Draft 2-3 players
  • DST (Start 1) – Draft 2-3 players

Portfolio management

If you’re like me, you find that one best ball league simply isn’t enough. It’s easy to find yourself entering multiple leagues, and over the course of an NFL offseason, you’ve joined 20 or more. The simplicity of best ball makes this an easily achievable goal, and the lower price point allows folks the opportunity to play in dozens (and in some cases, hundreds) of leagues for a reasonable expense.

Participating in dozens of best ball leagues requires forethought regarding the types of players we choose, how often we choose them, and how we commingle them to other players on multiple rosters. If you immediately think this concept resembles principles from DFS lineup construction, then your mind is in the proper place. They are very similar ideas, but with some slight differences. Let’s dive into the principles as they relate to best ball rosters.

Player exposure and balance

If we intend to play in multiple leagues, we should keep in mind how many times we’ve drafted specific players. Similar to daily fantasy mass-entry fields, you’re probably allocating players across only a percentage of your rosters.

Across your rosters, it is important to avoid drafting one player too frequently, no matter how strongly you feel about their prospects for the coming season. What is a reasonable percentage, though? For the players I feel most strongly about, my rule of thumb is to avoid drafting them to more than 65% of my rosters. If a player is lower on my desirability list, then I will skew that percentage even lower, closer to 40%.

There are no sure things. Even players in the most seemingly advantageous situations fail to perform. Offenses that appear to be slam-dunks in July may never get off the ground. I work hard to temper my enthusiasm and avoid going too overweight on certain offenses, and in some cases, investing more in contrarian offenses, as a means to create a more resistant portfolio.

Injuries are always a threat. Even the most resilient players miss games periodically. Losing 25% or more of a player’s weeks to injury caps the upside of your portfolio.

Role changes are somewhat common. Players can simply lose projected volume to other players who may be performing better. Spreading exposure across multiple players vying for a role can improve your resistance to possible role changes.

Consistency vs. Volatility

We should also understand risk as it pertains to consistency and volatility in our best ball rosters. This, too, is very similar to how we study DFS lineup construction with respect to cash games and tournaments.

Consistency and volatility matter when we consider payout structure (winner-take-all vs 50/50), position allocation (how many players we choose to draft at each position), pick allocation (what positions we choose to draft early/mid/late), team projections, and player projections. Each factor will weigh into how we optimize our roster builds.

A general best practice dictates that we pick more consistent players with early picks (rounds 1-6), add somewhat more volatile picks in the middle (rounds 7-14), and choose the most volatile players in the late portion of the draft. Obviously, some nuance exists within this best practice, as we will encourage drafters to wait until the very late rounds to choose D/STs, etc.

On the whole, our rosters should mix both consistent and volatile players. Consistent players will produce a reliable floor value on a weekly
basis, providing the bedrock scoring necessary to compete. Volatile players complement these consistent players, offering “boom or bust” scoring that will, at best, push high-floor teams into top position.

There will be a Part 2 to this article examining additional draft strategies and roster factors.

About the Author

  • Josh Hornsby (joshadhd)

  • Josh ADHD is the proprietor of FantasyADHD.com. His background in new product engineering & development, combined with nearly 20 years of data-driven fantasy experience, compels him to think outside the box. Josh loves to challenge popular thinking and typically does so with numbers and visualizations in hand. You can find him on Twitter @Josh_ADHD.

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