Balancing Expected Value And Future Value When Making NFL Survivor Picks

We go through some examples of situations involving Future Value and Expected Value and how our recommendations were made on those factors.

Combined Future Value and Expected Value

The Past Met the Future in New York with Daniel Jones and Eli Manning (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

Ultimately, survivor decisions are based on both the Expected Value for that specific week, and how valuable it is to preserve that team for future value. Generally, the best survivor choices are those that:

  • Have the highest win odds for that week;
  • Are as unpopular as possible; and
  • Do not have much future value.

Those are the platonic ideal for survivor choices. But reality is often far more complex and conflicting. Teams that tend to have high win odds also tend to be very popular, at least until other entries have already used them up as options. The best options by expected value also tend to have higher future value. A lot of the same teams tend to show up as favorites from week to week.

What happens when some of those goals conflict? That’s why we develop grades that incorporate both Expected Value and Future Value to make decisions in individual pools.

Those grades combine both elements to weigh the value of making a pick, and are customized by the particulars of each pool, including the size and the specific rules.

We will go through some archetype examples, using examples from the 2022 season.

High Expected Value and High Future Value

What happens when the team with the highest expected value also has the highest future value? We saw this in action in 2022 with the Buffalo Bills. In Week 5, the Bills were a big favorite against the Pittsburgh Steelers, with win odds of 86%. The Bills also had the highest Future Value. That’s because they had several other weeks where they were expected to be a large favorite. (This estimate was accurate: the Bills had win odds of 75% or more in seven additional weeks after Week 5, and were a key part of a tough stretch run.)

The answer in these situations is largely: it depends.

In Week 5, we largely avoided recommending the Bills. They did have the highest EV, but the differences weren’t massive from other options, because of their high pick rate. And they had a lot of future value over the second half of the season, during several weeks where a lot of the same teams (Bills, Chiefs, Eagles, and Cowboys) tended to be among the top favorites. Those who didn’t preserve any of those teams were hurting in 2022.

Good, But Not Great Expected Value and High Future Value

When a team has the best EV for that week, maybe the circumstances of your pool still dictates using the team even if they also have great Future Value. But when the EV goes to simply “pretty good,” things change.

This is illustrated by the case of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2022. Kansas City was favored in nearly every week, but also had great Future Value late in the season. In week 3, Kansas City was playing the Colts, and they were the most popular pick of the week at about 25%. This was a week where no team was favored by 7 points or more, so it was a difficult week. Maybe that factor led a lot of people to put their faith in the Chiefs, even though they were only a 4.5-point road favorite at Indianapolis.

But since they didn’t have the highest win odds, and were the most popular pick, Kansas City had a sub-par 0.90 EV for the week. Meanwhile, as it turns out, the Chiefs’ future value forecast turned out accurately. They were the largest favorite in three different future weeks, and had much higher win odds in several others.

You don’t want to typically use a team with great Future Value in a situation where they are not clearly a top EV choice. Those that avoided the popular Chiefs in Week 3 were also rewarded when the Colts won the game and knocked out the popular pick.

High Popularity and Low Future Value

You should NOT pick a team just because they have little future value. Usually, they have no future value for a good reason, and they also have little current expected value. But situations do arise where a team has little future value, but provides decent Expected Value, even if other teams have a slightly higher EV.

Whether these teams make for good picks often depends on their popularity, and how that impacts the EV of other options that week. There are times when the public goes overboard in taking a team because “this is the spot to use them.” That can lead to value elsewhere by not following the crowd.

The Rams in Week 6 and the Patriots in Week 7 are examples of where teams had higher popularity because it looked like the last clear spot to use them in terms of future value.

The Rams had 34% popularity when they played the Panthers (in the first game after the team fired head coach Matt Rhule), while the Patriots had 25% popularity a week later against the Bears. In both of those cases, the teams had middling EV’s around 1.00 because of the high popularity, and because there were teams with both higher win odds and lower pick rates. Still, they had the popularity they did because “you had to use them.”

In our recommendations, we still had some subscribers who received the Rams as a recommended pick (as part of portfolios, and depending on size and rules). It was, though, lower than the public (24% versus 34%). The Patriots were an almost complete avoid, only being recommended to under 3% (often in specialty pools such as multi-pick.)

The best way to deal with these is on a case-by-case basis, but if you can do a better job of preserving future value early in the year, you can pivot and play higher value teams in these weeks where the public gets concentrated on a choice.

Low Popularity, Decent Expected Value, and No Future Value

The other situation to consider involving teams with no future value is when they are not popular, but have good enough win odds to have one of the Top 5 or 6 EVs for the week.

This is, in many ways, the opposite situation from the Kansas City example earlier. Here, Future Value (and lack thereof) push a team that otherwise merely looked like a decent option into one of the better plays in some types of pools.

Perhaps the best example of this in 2022 was in Week 12, when the New York Jets ended up being our second-most frequent recommendation at 27%. In Week 12, the top EV choices were teams that had been heavily used and had high future value, in Kansas City, Buffalo, Dallas, and San Francisco. Miami, meanwhile, was the second-largest favorite, by two touchdowns, over Houston, and had massive popularity pushing well over 50% in many pools.

As a result, we recommended the Jets, favored by a touchdown over the Bears, nearly as often as the Dolphins, even though the public was 10x heavier on Miami.

With a pick popularity just below 5%, the Jets made up for the difference in win odds, and had a similar EV to picking Miami. Both had lower future value than the other options. Picking the Jets, though, was the alternative to the most popular pick, while saving future value for other teams, and providing a decent EV in the process.

Preserving the Better Future Value Team In Close Calls

Finally, in other weeks, the differences between Future Value may not be as stark, but you can still trade out some Expected Value now for better Future Value. In Week 8 of 2019, the Minnesota Vikings (51%) were the most popular choice, while Pittsburgh (23%) were the second-most popular choice.

On the surface, it was a week very similar to Week 4 of 2019, when the Chargers were the most popular choice and had the best win odds, and the Rams were the second choice with the second-best win odds entering the week. In fact, the difference in both win odds and EV between the two choices in those weeks were almost identical.

The primary difference was Future Value. Pittsburgh had some Future Value after Week 8, but it was about half that of Minnesota. Meanwhile, the Rams rated slightly higher than the Chargers in Future Value in Week 4. Those Future Value differences solidified the Chargers as the better choice in Week 4, while it swung the recommendations to more likely using Pittsburgh in Week 8, and preserving the Minnesota Vikings to use in a future week.

So while Expected Value is still the primary driver of decisions on the best survivor values, Future Value does have a role to play when developing the best strategy for your pool.