Fantasy football and COVID: What your fantasy league needs to consider in 2020


The 2020 fantasy football season promises to be unlike any other, as coronavirus concerns will bring a new level of uncertainty with regard to whether your players will suit up on game day … that is, as long as the games get played.

With peak fantasy draft season upon us, it’s worth thinking about measures your league can take to minimize the impact that postponements and positive COVID-19 tests for individual players could have on this fun game we play. There are so many different ways to play, but we will try to provide changes you might want to consider implementing in your league, with regard to roster depth, lineup composition, potential scoring adjustments, what should constitute an official fantasy season and more.

Since league frameworks can vary so much, this column is not intended to be all-inclusive, but rather to highlight options you can utilize in some form. These decisions should be made prior to your draft, if possible, and certainly before the season starts.

League setup

Play in a private league: If you are looking for the most customizable experience — and in these times, it’s highly recommended you should be — sign up to play in a private league instead of a standard public league.

Use IR slots: Regardless of league type, one of the easiest things you can do to have built-in roster flexibility is to utilize injured reserve (IR) slots. While ESPN standard leagues added an IR slot this season, and players on the COVID-19 list will be IR-eligible (as are all players with an “out” designation each week), private leagues allow you to have up to four IR slots.

Utilize more flex or OP spots: If you’re in a league that uses larger starting lineups — like two QBs, three RBs, four WRs, one flex, one TE, as an example for this potential option — you can lower the number of minimum starters at each specific position (say, one QB, two RBs, two WRs) and add more starting flex spots (RBs/WRs/TEs are flex-eligible) and/or use an “offensive player” (OP) slot (QB/RB/WR/TE are OP-eligible). This way, if players become unavailable on Sunday morning and you are suddenly thin at a position — something that’s even more common during bye weeks — you will have an easier time fielding a competitive lineup … and you will be less likely to have to hit the waiver wire to do so.

Consider drafting Team Quarterbacks: Instead of drafting an individual quarterback, say Dak Prescott, and then using a bench spot on his backup, Andy Dalton, you can draft “Cowboys TQB” and you’ll automatically get the output of whoever is under center for Dallas on Sunday. This does insulate league managers from the dreaded midgame quarterback injury, but it also means you get the stats of his backups, even if all they “contribute” is throwing a pick-six, so take it all into account when making your decision.

Explore the options of your provider: We know there are many different places to play fantasy football, and each site offers slightly different features, so take the time to look at the options at your disposal. You might find just what you’re looking for but never knew was there. For example, on ESPN maybe you didn’t know what an OP was or that Team QB was an option.

How to handle postponed games

If you are in a yearly redraft league, the number of overall concerns you face are significantly fewer than those who play in dynasty or keeper leagues. But that doesn’t mean you should be any less prepared for the disruptions COVID-19 can cause, particularly in a non-bubble environment such as the one the NFL will play in. If you play fantasy baseball, you’ve already had a taste of this recently, and one hopes it got your attention as a fantasy football manager.

How is your league going to handle things if, for example, the Monday Night Football game is postponed on the day of the game due to COVID-19 concerns? How do you determine a winner in an incomplete fantasy game? While this could happen to any NFL game in a given week, having it happen on Monday night is the worst-case scenario, since there are no lineup moves managers can make or players they can pick up, since it’s the final game of the NFL week.

It’s very likely that the results of multiple games in each fantasy league hang in the balance entering MNF, and at the very least, many teams started players in that game who can add to their point total for the season (which is a common tiebreaker in the standings). You need to have a plan in place, so that starting lineups can be adjusted to replace the players who won’t get to play for their fantasy teams that night. If you are in an ESPN private league, your league manager has the ability to edit the starting lineups and even manually adjust the scoring for any team. But before you can do that, you need to have a process for making retroactive adjustments fairly and evenly. Here are some possibilities:

Insert player with highest projection: Here at ESPN, the trusty Mike Clay does our projections and a lot of work goes into them, including adjustments right up until kickoff of each game. So one simple way to determine the fill-in for a player whose game was postponed is to use the eligible bench player with the highest projection. If there’s no position-eligible player with a projection greater than 0.1 points, refer to the emergency waivers option below.

Insert player with the highest PPG for the season: Another option is to insert the bench player with the highest scoring average for the season. One potential drawback could be that a player’s points-per-game average might not be an accurate reflection of his value at that given time, especially early in the season, as small sample sizes can greatly skew things. If there’s no position-eligible player who was active for his NFL team that week, refer to the emergency waivers option below.

Have each manager rank their bench players: Let’s be clear: It takes a lot of extra effort you and your leaguemates might not want to put in. This is mostly for those in leagues with high engagement and, perhaps most important, trust among the league’s managers. That said, it does give the manager maximum control in these emergency situations. Simply create a Google sheet visible to the entire league and ask each manager to keep it updated each week. The highest-ranked player on the bench at the needed position replaces the starter whose game was postponed. Bench players who play before Sunday are locked into the spot they occupy at their scheduled game times.

Emergency waivers: What if there are no eligible replacements at the needed position on the team’s roster? The commish can utilize the aforementioned ability to adjust scoring by going to the waiver wire and inserting the position-eligible player who had the highest projection for that week (or highest season PPG, if you prefer). This “emergency pickup” should be returned to the free-agent pool immediately for anyone to pick up for the following week’s game.

Of course, it is also an option to treat COVID-19-related missed games just as you would an injury or an off-the-field suspension, and tough luck to those who miss out. But that’s why discussion with your leaguemates is important, so you come to an agreement about just how much lineup risk you are willing to accept.

Crowning a champion

Decide what constitutes an official fantasy season: What if the NFL season is canceled before your fantasy playoffs begin? What if it happens during your league’s playoffs? You must decide on a minimum number of weeks played, after which you’d feel comfortable about naming a champion. Have your league vote on it, so it’s clear at what point in the league season it becomes official.

How should you determine the winner? If you are forced to determine a champion before the playoffs, there are a couple surface-level, relatively low-effort ways to do so. Your league can decide to use any of these methods as the main factor, or for use only in the event of a shortened season. Once again, vote on it.

• You can simply go with the best record, using total points as the first tiebreaker. That’s the default in ESPN leagues.

• However, because a shortened season means you might not get to face each team at least once in your head-to-head league, you can ditch the traditional wins and losses and award the championship to the team that scored the most total points for the season. One huge reminder if you decide to go this route: In this season of uncertainty, the measures you take for “emergency fill-ins” above will take on even greater importance, and could cause even more drama in your league than you’d like.

• Last, and this is a favorite of mine: You can have each team in your league play every other team in the league each week. For example, in a 12-team league, each team plays 11 games each week. The highest-scoring team in a given week would have an 11-0 record and the lowest-scoring team would have an 0-11 mark. These standings reflect a true measure of the strongest and most consistent teams in your league over the course of a season. And if you choose to do this only in the event of a shortened season, it’s easy to go back through the weekly schedule to tabulate.

League fees and prize money: We know many of you play for more than pride. If there is general concern that there might be even more luck than usual involved in winning this season, some might be in favor of lowering the league fee and, therefore, the amount of prize money. Another option is to make it conditional on the NFL season itself. For example, if the season is played to your league’s completion, the full league fee will be charged and prize money doled out. If the season is cut short but still reaches your league’s threshold for an official season, you can adjust the fee accordingly. Once again, have your league vote on it and decide before the season begins, or things can get messy.

Keeper and/or dynasty leagues

Because there is no general standard for these types of leagues, it’s not worth getting too deep in the weeds in this space. However, here are some basic issues you might need to address with regard to salaries and rosters:

• Do you advance salaries/contracts only if the threshold is met for an official season in your league?

• How do you handle players who have opted out of the 2020 season? Do you place them on an “exempt list” and they don’t count against that team’s roster limits or salary cap?

• If the NFL season is canceled before your league’s season becomes official, do you simply roll back all trades and pickups that occurred during the season to reflect the rosters from immediately following the draft? Or do you count all the moves that were made and carry over the rosters as of the point that the NFL season was cut short? The answers to these questions could greatly affect the amount of activity in your league, so take the time to think about it.

There are so many possibilities, but we hope this column at least gets you thinking about what might work best for your league. When you give everyone in the league a vote, the league is more likely to be at peace with whatever changes you decide to make. When it’s all said and done, fantasy leagues are supposed to be fun, and having a strong league constitution can go a long way toward ensuring they are.

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