By Robert Woo – @TheAsianSlant
Remember how screwy last year’s fantasy football was with all the shifting games, quarantined players, and Andy Reid’s complete inability to properly wear a mask or face shield? Well just when we thought it was safe to get back to only worrying about CTE, COVID-19 is back baby! With a Delta sheen that’s been wreaking havoc on the country… or is a complete myth, depending on who you voted for. Apparently. Because that’s how science works now, I guess.
But this time around, the powers that be in the NFL aren’t going to try that hard to make sure every game is played no matter what happens with COVID outbreaks. If the games can’t be easily rescheduled, teams are probably going to forfeit. And this will completely kill your chances of winning your fantasy football league this season. Because knowing how last-minute the changes were with COVID outbreaks in 2020, you probably won’t have much time this season to shuffle your players in and out when the inevitable happens.
Unfortunately, the season is about to start just as COVID cases are spiking as high as they were last summer, and various teams are already being hit with the Delta. Raiders, Vikings, WFT, it’s happening everywhere. Clearly, the illness is something we’ll have to contend with this season. So how best to do that? How do you build a roster that has the best chance of being unaffected by COVID?
I got you. Let’s map out all the data we have to see how you should be building your all-COVID safe fantasy football team. Science!
Play the Odds Part 1: COVID Hot Spots
All the COVID mapping data referenced in this post is from The New York Times, and you can gather a lot of information for your fantasy team by using its outbreak heat maps. Here, I’ve crudely overlaid all the football towns on top of where the virus is currently surging:
Darker means worse so already we see that a bunch of teams are in bad shape, especially in Florida, Texas, and the South East. Sure, Alvin Karama already had COVID last year. But a) you can get it twice, and b) it doesn’t matter if he’s immune if the rest of his team isn’t. Forfeit’s on the table if there aren’t enough people to play come game time.
And sure, teams travel, but if last season was any indication, playing against even COVID positive opponents didn’t create new infections for the traveling team on the field. Delta is more contagious, true, but we’ll have to assume that will be the case again. All outbreaks were due to team practices, so traveling probably won’t be a factor.
So first order of business is to think twice about dedicating your fantasy team to players in these hot spots. Alternatively, give the players in low outbreak cities a second look. Justin Jefferson is pretty safe where he is, and he’s fully vaccinated to boot. Oh wait, Kirk Cousins and other Vikings players are not getting vaccinated. So it’s not enough to scout teams with low home COVID rates. We also need to look at…
Play the Odds Part 2: Vaccination Rates
It’s nice to pick players in a high vaccination rate area of the country (the darker the better, above), but since the teams will probably keep a pretty tight bubble around themselves, it’s more a matter of internal, team-wide vaccination rates. Now, these numbers are changing by the day, but this report from mid-July showed that “Pittsburgh, Miami, Carolina and Denver had the highest vaccinations rates” (at least 85% of the team vaccinated), and Washington and Indianapolis had the lowest.
Then you’ve got notable holdouts (at the time of this writing) like Cousins, DeAndre Hopkins, and Lamar Jackson. Most are unwilling to discuss their vaccination status so that makes it harder to factor into our fantasy equation, but when names pop up in the news, it’s good to pay attention. This goes for coaches and owners too. Ideas tend to trickle down from the top, so pay attention when a coach is fired for refusing the shot… but then rehired and reassigned? Sure, ok.
And yes, the Delta variant has been punching through some vaccinations, so it’s not some panacea to the issue of COVID spread within the team. We have to go deeper…
X Factor Part 1: Indoor Facilities
COVID spreads poorly outdoors, and much easier indoors. Cold weather teams don’t spend too much time outside, so did they actually see more outbreaks last season? Let’s see:
Teams with decently large outbreaks in 2020: Baltimore, New England, Denver, Cleveland, Jacksonville (training camp), Cincinnati, Indianapolis, New York (Giants), Carolina, Houston. See the pattern? Most were indeed cold weather cities.
If owners were smart, they’d buy a few dozen industrial heaters and keep their players outside. Hell, Belichick usually does this without heaters anyway. But for us fantasy makers, considering the issue with cold weather teams should be another factor in our roster making process. You want it hot hot hot.
X Factor Part 2: The Wild Cards
Look, we all want to have fun and eat W’s without our masks on. But we just can’t right now. I haven’t been to a movie theater in like two years because I know with my luck, I’m going to snort up all the COVID at my local AMC. And if not COVID, at least some hepatitis (my local AMC is filthy). With Delta numbers this high across the country, you can’t let your guard down.
But we all know the teams that will.
I don’t want to name names, but of course the Saints, Raiders, and Buccaneers are going to get COVID violation fines for doing dumb shit. We all know this. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Ravens and Browns on this list either. Patriots too, since Belichick is going to be desperate for wins and is fine with bending whatever rules are in place.
When crafting your all-COVID free roster, you have to keep these misfits in mind. It’s not a matter of if, but when they all break protocol and earn that forfeit.
The 2021 All-COVID Free Fantasy Football Team
So with all those factors in mind, here’s what my quantum computer came up with for the safest players to have on your fantasy team this season:
I went heavy on Denver and Kansas City because those cities are relatively in the best spots to be during this COVID surge. Nothing is near Denver and the Chiefs have an over 90% vaccination rate. We have some LA representation out of Matt Stafford and Robert Woods because even though COVID cases in Los Angeles are surging, that happened last year too and neither the Chargers nor Rams saw much of an outbreak in their ranks. They can also hold meetings outdoors, which they did last year.
Of course, Tom Brady is not only immortal, but the NFL is going to bend over backwards to have him not miss any game, so he’s in. (You remember what happened the last time the NFL caused him to miss games) So although I expect Tampa Bay to have an outbreak, I also expect the schedule shifting around for the defending champs.
Derrick Henry has a partnership with Kroger about the vaccine, so expect him to stay safe and active no matter what, and although Nashville is seeing a surge, I’m betting on the Titans being mostly smart about COVID. Aaron Jones is in because I bet Rodgers is going to sleepwalk through the season, so someone has to carry the team.
If (When) Brady plays, he’s going to need Mike Evans and Chris Godwin to throw to. Amari Cooper should get tremendous yards from Dak for a few weeks… then again after Dak is back from sitting due to contracting COVID (Dak no likely vaccine). Dak will throw to Cooper enough to make up for a couple lost weeks with backup Gilbert.
Travis Kelce and Noah Fant are safe bets, and the Rams defense looks great this year (and so does their vaccination rate). The 49ers look solid on defense as well, and their access to the outdoors is key to their safety. Plus Bosa’s going to stay healthy this year, goddamn it!
Finally, Youngehoe Koo is the best kicker ever, even if he has Delta, Lambda, and Gamma in his system. But Harrison Butker should do in a pinch.
Mark my words, COVID is going to do a number on all of our fantasy teams this season. Keep an eye on my picks here at least for bench positions. You’ll thank me when your starters are all on ventilators.
Ride or Dynasty