When to Take a Knee

It was 8:15 EST on Sunday evening.  Sitting at a high-top in Chili’s waiting for a drink, my appetizer, and the start of the vaunted match-up between Denver and New England, a tweet came in.  It was from one of my more interactive followers, @Ricc_flair.  His question quickly got my attention: “Should I bench the NE DST?”  A fair question, to be sure.  Peyton Manning can shread a defense to pieces.  And the Patriots defense was banged up.  But with only 2 football games left in the weekend, the pickings to replace the Pats DST would be slim – Denver, San Francisco, or Washington.

There was no time to discuss which of those DSTs might be available to him or to explain any rationale behind my thinking; he had only minutes to make a decision.  So I simply responded, “Yes.  Unless your only other option is the Washington DST.”

To his credit, @Ricc_flair had a more creative approach in mind, one that stopped me in my tracks, “I’d take the 0.  I only have 1 DST.”  Little did I know, he had just watched his opponent receive -2 points from the Kansas City DST in their game against the Chargers.  To imagine what Peyton Manning and the Broncos might have in store for the Patriots DST that night….  After taking a moment to rethink the situation, I went on to suggest he start the New England DST due to the cold and windy conditions on the field.  It was worth a shot for some points.

Two quarters later, I wasn’t feeling all that comfortable about my suggestion.  But in the end, the Patriots DST managed to get their fantasy owner 7 points – and hopefully a win.

This story brings up a great point:  When is it best to simply take a zero somewhere on your roster?   When do you leave a spot vacant?  Or, in football terms, when do you simply take a knee?  There are those that play fantasy football who would insist you must never leave a roster spot empty.  But I would disagree with them.  There is a place for such a move.  More than one, in fact.  And understanding when to go down that path is an important part of any fantasy owner’s skill set.

The key element in determining whether to go empty somewhere on your roster is your league’s scoring system.  For starters, if your league doesn’t penalize your fantasy players with negative points for making mistakes such as throwing an interception or allowing an opponent to score too much, then you have nothing to worry about.  Without the threat of negative points, owners should make sure every spot on their starting roster is filled each week, even if it means starting a WR4.  But if your players are penalized for mistakes (which is usually the case), you need to be familiar with how much these mistakes may or may not cost you.

In standard leagues, the penalties usually amount anywhere from -1 or -2 points for interceptions, fumbles, and sacks, to -10 points for DSTs that allow opponents to score 35+ points.  This isn’t too bad.  In fact, despite these deductions, DSTs in Yahoo standard leagues have finished with negative points only 15 times in 352 opportunities so far this season.  And none of those DSTs has scored worse than -3 points.  What’s more surprising is that the Jacksonville Jaguars DST has only gone negative once this year.  As for individual players, they usually don’t finish with negative points in standard leagues unless they are carted off early in the game after having fumbled or thrown an interception.

So when it comes to standard leagues, my advice is to always start someone in every roster spot.  The chances of getting negative points from your players, or even your DST, are actually pretty slim.

Things get more complicated in certain custom-scoring leagues.  We are talking about the ones that exact a heavy price for the mistakes your fantasy players make.  Don’t get me wrong; I love these leagues.  In fact, I play in several custom leagues with all sorts of different scoring systems.  But in these leagues, you need to think through your roster more carefully.  As a general rule, you should still start someone in each position.  But if bye weeks are forcing you to make a choice between starting a QB3 and simply taking a zero in a high-penalty league, consider leaving the spot empty and taking the zero if your QB3 faces a tough passing defense – especially if he has to play them on the road.  That is an appropriate time to simply take the goose egg rather than risk getting -15 points out of the effort.  I have done it (and have failed to do it…) in a high-penalty 2-QB league.  It’s an option worth considering in these circumstances.

When it comes to DSTs in high-penalty leagues, you should watch for match-ups where your defense plays a high-powered offense (both at home and on the road).  Avoid these match-ups.  Find a different DST to start instead.  In some cases, you can get away with starting a mediocre DST against a mediocre offense.  But if for whatever reason you can’t find a suitable replacement, then it’s time to consider taking the zero instead.

Before we go much further, I can’t emphasize this enough: the most important factor in making the decision about leaving a spot vacant due to possible negative points is your league’s scoring system.  Even in leagues with high penalties, sometimes there are enough points awarded for other achievements to offset these penalties.  So be sure you know your scoring system, and analyze how other DSTs are performing in that system.  This will give you a feel for whether you should be concerned when a high-powered offense comes your way.

There is one other time when you should entertain the idea of leaving a roster spot unfilled.  It usually occurs when a combination of a bye week and injuries takes a toll on your roster.  You could be left in a position where the only way to fill a roster spot is to drop one of your stud players.  Do not drop one of your studs to cover the gap.  Take a knee instead.

To be clear, in this situation you should first look into the possibility of working a trade with someone.  But if a trade is not in the cards, then begin studying your roster more carefully.  If possible, you don’t want to leave the vacancy in a high-scoring player position.  So consider dropping someone at your lowest-scoring position to make room for a pick-up that will cover your initial vacancy.  Usually that means dropping your kicker.

However, this is not always the case, so be sure you know your scoring system.  In an IDP league last season, I found myself in a bye week-injury trap.  The kickers got some of the best points in the league.  And the best kickers far outscored the mediocre kickers – and I had one of the best on my roster.  When his bye week came, I no longer had a backup kicker due to injuries.  And I sure wasn’t about to drop my star kicker in this type of league (do not drop your studs!).  Instead, I dropped a defensive back (the lowest-scoring position in that league) and took the zero there that week to make room for another kicker, one who would score more than a DB.

There are many complexities in fantasy football and a variety of risk fantasy owners are willing to accept, so there will certainly be exceptions to the guidelines I have provided.  But the underlying rationale generally applies.  Basically, there is a time and a place to consider taking a knee at a position on your roster: 1) if a starter has a strong possibility of scoring negative points (based on your scoring system) and you have no other options, or if 2) you have to drop a stud to avoid the zero.

Best wishes in your ongoing efforts to win your league.  And safe travels today.

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