Just as it's changed our collective world for now, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected and will continue to affect how the NFL operates. Even Fantasy Football, a game based on reality but with tons of imaginary factors (team names, team logos, PPR scoring, imaginary dynasties that only you care about), will be affected. If you're a league commissioner, you need to plan ahead. If you play in a bunch of leagues, you need to plan ahead. If you love football and are just a casual Fantasy manager, you need to plan ahead.
You don't need to stand 6 feet away from your screen to read our evolving Q&A on how COVID-19 will affect your Fantasy season. Just keep in mind: I'm not a doctor, I'm not a disease expert, and I'm not privy to the NFL's plans for the season. I'm just a Fantasy writer, dadgummit!
Q: Will there be football this year?
A: Know that the NFL is a multi-billion dollar business. It will do everything in its power to have a season. If baseball and basketball can do it, so will football.
Q: Phew! Something to look forward to! What's been different about this offseason that could impact how players play this season?
A: It's been a normal offseason in terms of free agency, and sorta normal in terms of drafting and signing rookies. Otherwise, teams have taken significant precautions to limit the infection risk of their players, coaches, trainers and staff, and that included staying separated until the start of training camp. The usual minicamps that teams have in April through June weren't allowed, replaced by video conferences. There have been no official on-field practices for any team.
Q: So players were just sitting at home eating potato chips on their couches?
A: Hopefully not! There's gigabytes of evidence of players doing on-field training without coaches. In many cases, they're getting together on fields at parks, schools or other training facilities. Some players are practicing with teammates (Tom Brady with his new pals in Tampa Bay), others are practicing with whoever is around (Russell Wilson with Antonio Brown). Ultimately, they should come to training camp in good shape.
Q: How many players have contracted COVID-19?
A: The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) announced that over 100 contracted COVID-19 before the start of training camp in late July. Ezekiel Elliott, Von Miller and rookie Antonio Gandy-Golden were three familiar names who tested positive before camp and have since recovered. We're keeping track of other notable Fantasy players who landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list here.
Also, there is no assurance from medical professionals that those who have been infected with COVID-19 can't get it again, so it doesn't mean a whole lot if someone has already overcome COVID-19. We should find out if a player is unavailable during training camp and into the season. A lot more on that to come.
Q: Could this lead to some players opting out of playing?
A: It already has. Chiefs guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who is a doctor, was the first to opt out and instead plans to help people heal from COVID-19. Damien Williams, Marquise Goodwin, Dont'a Hightower and Marcus Cannon are four other players who have opted out. Others, including Todd Gurley, seem to be considering sitting out. The NFL keeps pushing back their deadline for players to give notice for sitting out the season -- mid-August appears to be the current time frame. Those who do cannot come back to the team this year, nor can they renegotiate their contracts until next spring. They can be traded, however. Why these stipulations? So players can't opt out and use it as an excuse to hold out for a new deal.
Q: What will training camp look like?
A: Upon arrival, players and coaches will be tested for COVID-19, then sent away for several days before getting tested again. Two negative tests will result in a player getting access to team facilities. There will still be daily testing following those first two initial exams.
But don't expect video footage of padded practices anytime soon. There won't even be practices with helmets and shoulder pads until mid-August, and fully-padded practices (of which each team gets just a handful for the summer) won't start until late August. This isn't business as usual since social distancing is the major priority.
Q: Anything else different about training camp?
A: Probably more than we know at this point. One thing is the NFL and NFLPA agreed on an 80-man roster by mid-August. Some teams are starting camp with 80 players instead of 90. There is no word on whether there will be expanded active rosters or practice squads for the season, but one of the two seem likely. Also, joint practices between two teams have been outlawed.
Q: Wow, so this could seriously negatively impact rookies and veterans who are new to teams or learning a new system?
A: Rookies will basically get their first taste of NFL practices in August, three months later than normal. It could absolutely stunt their development, though one could argue that running backs don't need as much preparation as other positions. As for the veterans, at least they have experience on their side.
Q: What about the preseason?
A: There is NO preseason. It's all been scrapped. Veterans with a certain roster spot are probably thrilled, but fringe roster players and probably a lot of coaches might not be as happy.
[Fantasy managers enter the chat]
Q: NO PRESEASON GAMES?! OMG WTH?!?!
A: Chill my dude. It's significant, but it's not a crusher. Remember, at least half of all preseason games involve back-of-the-roster players anyway. Some teams barely use their starters at all.
It might lead to some sloppy football to start the year. Our Heath Cummings pontificated on our Fantasy Football Today podcast that it might give an early edge to run games because defensive players won't have as much time to refine their tackling techniques, and passing games might not quite be in sync.
Q: Fine, but isn't this amazing rookie class going to struggle without a preseason?
A: It's not just the preseason, it's that they're barely going to have any full-padded experience before Week 1. All of the acclimating to the speed, intensity and power of the pro game is out the window, and it's been that way since they were drafted because there were no offseason minicamps for them to attend. They'll literally have a handful of padded practices and that's it.
That being said, some positions can adapt better than others. Running backs, for example, aren't really doing anything new that they weren't doing in college except for pass blocking, which is an issue for every rookie anyway. Defensive tackles and pass rushers also won't have as much of a learning curve to overcome. But most rookie receivers and quarterbacks are for sure going to have a tough time playing well right out of the gate. You may wish to avoid them on Draft Day, particularly the ones who came into the league without a refined skill-set.
Q: What should Fantasy managers do right now to prepare for an uncertain season?
A: The only piece of advice for now is to just pay attention to football news. It's something you should do year-round anyway if you care about winning your leagues. That's how you'll learn about which players won't be available, which are sitting out the season, when they'll actually practice football, etc. Stay alert and you'll be an informed Fantasy manager. That's pretty good advice for beyond Fantasy Football, too.
Q: Should roster management be a bigger issue than before?
A: Probably so. Imagine this scenario: It's the Sunday morning of a big week for your Fantasy team and the stud running back you've rode to the brink of a playoff berth is out for the game due to a positive test or contact tracing issue. Would you rather start some schlub on your Fantasy bench, or the appealing, young, real-life backup runner who is about to see a ton of touches because the guy in front of him is out? Sure seems like it'll save you a lot of headaches.
Q: So we should prioritize getting the backups and/or complementary players to our stud rushers?
A: It depends on the stud rusher. Whoever is backing up Christian McCaffrey or Saquon Barkley won't be able to do as well as the starters. But there are certain cases where it makes sense to grab the guy behind the guy because the backup has great potential in his own right.
Here are the early-round rushers with defined late-round backups behind them who would be Fantasy must-starters if pressed into action.
Ezekiel Elliott - Tony Pollard
Alvin Kamara - Latavius Murray
Dalvin Cook - Alexander Mattison
Derrick Henry - Darrynton Evans
Joe Mixon - Giovani Bernard
Kenyan Drake - Chase Edmonds
Chris Carson - Carlos Hyde
Mark Ingram - J.K. Dobbins
And here are the running back duos where if one back goes down, the other would star.
Nick Chubb - Kareem Hunt
Clyde Edwards-Helaire - DeAndre Washington
Melvin Gordon - Phillip Lindsay
D'Andre Swift - Kerryon Johnson
Jonathan Taylor - Marlon Mack
Raheem Mostert - Tevin Coleman
Ronald Jones - LeSean McCoy
Devin Singletary - Zack Moss
Jordan Howard - Matt Breida
Q: Alright, it makes sense for running back. Should it also apply to other positions?
A: The deeper the league, the more likely you should think about it — but again, only in very special circumstances where we know who would benefit if the stud goes down. You could go get Chad Henne in case of a Patrick Mahomes illness, but he doesn't figure to be as impactful, so you might as well roll with a more talented quarterback on another team. But it's a little different for others.
Here are some non-running back handcuff possibilities you might want to think just a little bit about.
Lamar Jackson - Robert Griffin III
Dak Prescott - Andy Dalton
Drew Brees - Jameis Winston
Carson Wentz - Jalen Hurts
Michael Thomas - Emmanuel Sanders
Tyreek Hill - Mecole Hardman
Zach Ertz - Dallas Goedert
Rob Gronkowski - O.J. Howard
Q: Whoa, did you really just suggest handcuffing tight ends?!
A: Yeah. I admit I feel stupid even hinting at the idea of handcuffing a non-running back because no one does that. So why actually type these words and hit the publish button on purpose for everyone to see? Because these are uncertain times where players could miss multiple games without warning. Uncharted territory. If my league offers the extra roster space to carry another player (or two), then I want to at least think about being a responsible Fantasy manager.
Q: Extra roster space! Now that could be cool. Should I tell my commissioner to give us more bench spots?
A: It's a good suggestion. One of many for league commishes.
[League commissioners enter the chat]
Q: Being a league commissioner is a thankless job, but I'd rather get ahead of problems than wait for them to happen and then have everyone in my league complain. You feel me?
A: Of course. Smart plan.
Q: Thank you. So what should commissioners think about doing to prepare for this season?
A: In previous years, we knew if a player was questionable to play and could plan ahead by having an alternate starter on the bench. This year, landing on the COVID-19 reserve list would automatically rule out a player on the day of a game.
The easiest and best solution is to expand rosters. I even bolded and italicized the sentence to make sure you caught it. This way, each team can shelve enough depth at each position to not have to sweat last-minute dilemmas caused by a sudden illness. Besides, Fantasy managers love to draft — what's wrong with adding two or three more rounds or 15% more to an auction budget?
Q: Yeah but a lot of the peeps in my league won't handcuff anyone. They'll just draft more sleepers and further diminish who's on the waiver wire. How does that help?!
A: It doesn't, but it also takes any responsibility off your shoulders if a manager botches how he uses those extra roster spots. If on a Sunday morning a manager has an unfixable hole in his or her lineup, a commissioner can basically shrug his or her shoulders and say, "Not my problem, you blew it, you big dummy." It's one less headache for a commissioner to be forced to deal with.
Q: But I'm a hands-on commissioner, and our league likes having solid options on waivers. We don't want a longer draft. What could we do instead?
A: Maybe the next-easiest option is to allow emergency pre-game add/drops and extra IR spots for ill players. In case someone is ruled out at the last-minute, let managers hit the waiver wire to find lineup replacements. FAAB leagues that hold auctions for free agents could allow for last-minute moves for a fee (say $5 per add). But that would mean the commissioners would have to be available to facilitate adds and drops every Thursday, Sunday and Monday.
Q: How about using Team Quarterbacks instead of individual quarterbacks?
A: Alright, this would guarantee that every Fantasy manager would have *somebody* starting every game. So that's a plus. Just remember that not all TQBs are created equal — the Saints have used multiple quarterbacks in the same game and teams like the Eagles, Patriots, Dolphins, Chargers and Raiders might copy them in 2020. This does theoretically boost those TQB values.
Q: Problem solved! Uh, but what about the other positions?
A: There aren't similar designations for running backs, wide receivers or tight ends, at least not officially. Commissioners could automatically assign the primary backup running back or tight end to the team who selects the starter on Draft Day, but that could lead to arguments among league managers, not to mention a shorter draft because there are fewer players who could get picked. This seems neither fair nor fun.
Q: When should I schedule our league's draft?
A: First of all, it should be an auction, because auctions are way more fun.
One thing the pandemic hasn't changed is the value of having your draft as late as possible. Any player who's hurt or suspended will be known by the time the preseason is over. Any player who intends to not play this season in order to not risk getting infected by COVID-19 will be known before the start of the season, too.
Q: How should Fantasy commissioners adjust if the NFL is forced to alter its schedule?
A: Unfortunately, there's a chance some games get cancelled. It's also possible that complete weeks could get wiped out. Hopefully not a big chance. But in the event the league shortens it season, Fantasy commissioners can re-calibrate their schedules pretty easily by simply working backward from when you intend to hold your league's title game. Assume you'll need three weeks max for playoffs — the rest of the remaining schedule is the regular season.
Q: What if it's something more random? Like for instance, a team is forced to quarantine because of too many infected players, but only that team and their scheduled opponents don't play and the rest of the league plays on as scheduled.
A: A scenario like this just underscores how important it is to have expanded rosters and how necessary depth is. Otherwise, commissioners may have to allow some leeway with how managers replace players from a quarantined team.
But the question was about a unique circumstance, potentially something you might not have thought about. In the event something totally unforeseen happens, I think it's very important for league commissioners to create a protocol. At the very least, the league as a whole should be open to an email chain or group text to discuss a problem and come up with a fair solution in real time. A commissioner shouldn't have authoritative powers to make decisions on behalf of the league unless the managers all agree to give that person such power. But everyone in the league should have a vested interest in how the league moves forward regardless of the circumstances. In other words, no deadbeats — especially deadbeats who complain about decisions made that they didn't participate in making. So, be sure your league has no deadbeats.
Q: And if (gulp) the season ends abruptly, how should a league champion get crowned?
A: Man, I don't even want to address that. I hate this question.
IF the season ends like a Thanos snap, I'd argue that however playoff spots are determined in a league is how a winner is crowned. If playoff seeds are based on record, then so too should this. If points scored is a tiebreaker, then use it when necessary to determine a champ. And if a league uses points scored for playoff seeding, then that's the primary way to determine the winner instead of win-loss record.
A commissioner may wish to set a certain number of weeks for a Fantasy season to "count." In other words, if the NFL's best efforts aren't good enough and we only get three or four weeks of football, commishes can cancel their seasons, refund their league fees and pretend nothing ever happened. I think seven weeks of football would be enough to satisfy managers and crown a champ. Your leagues may vary.