Is It Ethical To Use A Fantasy Football Loophole To Start A Player Out Of Position?
9:48 AM EST on November 24, 2020
Taysom Hill looked pretty good quarterbacking the New Orleans Saints. He looked even better if he was on your fantasy team as a tight end.
Hill was handed the starting role due to Drew Brees' fractured ribs. Though Saints coach Sean Payton was reportedly conflicted over starting him instead of Jameis Winston, Hill looked solid in his first start. The 30-year-old completed 18 of 23 passes for 233 yards, and rushed for 51 yards and two scores as the Saints beat the Falcons, 24-9.
It remains to be seen if a career gadget player can be a real option at QB for New Orleans. He did throw this hilarious duck. He did only beat the Falcons. But Hill's immediate future seems more secure in another area: fantasy football starter.
Hill's 24.42 fantasy points made him the week's third-best QB, so he would have been a fine starter under most circumstances. But what really makes Hill gold is that he still had eligibility at tight end on ESPN's fantasy platform (and at FanDuel daily fantasy). Hill's Sunday put him a full touchdown clear of the second-best tight end, Travis Kelce at 18.9 points. The advantage here was clear. If you were lucky enough to have Hill, you could start him in the TE slot and still have a QB slot to fill. It's like a cheat code for playing in a two-QB league, when all your opponents are stuck with one.
How did we get here? In April, ESPN’s Mike Clay announced that Hill would only be eligible at TE/Flex this season, though things could change if he became a starting QB. It made sense, as ESPN cited where Hill lined up last season; in a plurality of plays, he lined up tight to the formation. Per Clay, he only lined up at QB on 17 percent of the snaps last year. It made sense at the time, even if his actual usage hasn't matched the projections.
Veteran fantasy players might remember a similar situation 14 years ago, and also involving the Saints. In 2006, rookie wide receiver Marques Colston possessed tight end eligibility on Yahoo's platform. Colston had played some tight end in college, and was projected as a possible NFL TE, but when New Orleans picked him in the seventh round, the team announced he'd be playing exclusively WR in the pros.
Colston was an insta-star. As a wideout, he caught touchdowns in his first two games, and averaged a little over eight targets a game that season. Targets translate into catches, and catches translate into sustained fantasy points. He had 70 receptions for 1,038 yards and 8 TDs in his rookie year. People who picked him up early in the season in a Yahoo! league got an added bonus: A full season of being able to play a WR in the TE slot. One writer, Chris Murray of the Reno Gazette-Journal, named him fantasy’s tight end of the year.
This was naturally met with consternation, and since it was 2006 that was expressed not on social media, but on fantasy football discussion forums. On the venerable FootballGuys forums, users wondered if it were possible to start Colston at TE in leagues other than Yahoo! On the FFtoday forums, users complained that he didn't play a down at TE that season. I even found a Yahoo! Answers note rant. Yahoo, for its part, said its rules didn’t allow for changing positions in-season:
What determines the position eligibility for each player?
At the beginning of the Fantasy Football season, Yahoo! Sports placed all players into positions based on information from official rosters. Some players might appear in multiple position lists and are eligible to fill any of those positions.
In-season updates to position eligibility are made only if it is clear that the player's primary position has changed. Players do not lose position eligibility at any time during the season.
(Yahoo, in its early days, was a little lax with positions. In 2005, Mike Furrey played almost exclusively safety for the Rams. The next year, he signed with the Lions as a receiver and caught 98 balls for six scores and more than a thousand yards. My coworker Barry Petchesky played in a fantasy league with individual defensive players, where Furrey—still listed as a safety by Yahoo—was far and away the highest scoring IDP.)
It’s just fantasy football. But starting a wide receiver at tight end, or a receiver at free safety, or a quarterback at tight end does feel a little bit like cheating. It's an odd question, but I do think it's one to consider: Is it morally acceptable, in this instance, to play by the rules available to you?
I didn't have to go far to find people who have taken advantage of such loopholes. My league, started with some high school friends to keep in touch when we went to college, is still going strong two decades later. A legendary moment in our league's history remains Sean Nolan picking up Colston and riding him to the playoffs. (I looked at Nolan's 2006 roster; he also had Steven Jackson, who scored 16 TDs that year.)
I was angry at the time. Maybe I’m still angry. So I asked Nolan what he thought about it, so many years on.
“No regrets,” he told me. “I picked him up specifically because my tight end got hurt and he had tight end eligibility.”
(A call to Colston was not returned by press time.)
My colleague Drew Magary started Hill at TE this weekend in his ESPN league and easily won the week. When Hill got off to a slow start, Magary tweeted he “absolutely deserved” the shellacking he was taking. Things worked out, however, he said he’ll continue to play Hill at TE as long as ESPN allows it.
What do actual fantasy professionals think about it? Michael Beller, a longtime fantasy analyst now with The Athletic, told me via email that... well, it's unfair, but those are the rules.
I definitely wouldn't use the word unethical to describe playing Hill at tight end in leagues where he's eligible, but it definitely runs counter to the spirit of the game. Taysom Hill is not a tight end. He has never appeared on the Saints' depth chart at tight end. He's never appeared anywhere other than quarterback, though he has taken snaps lined up as a running back and wide receiver. There is no definition of the tight end position, however strained you want to make it, where Hill fits. He's not a tight end, and anyone playing him at that spot knows it. It's not unethical, but it doesn't pass the smell test.
Despite those realities, it absolutely was fair to play Hill at tight end in leagues where he was eligible. Anyone who stashed him knew that what played out over the last week—Drew Brees getting injured, Hill getting the nod at quarterback over Jameis Winston—was possible, and that they'd get to play a quarterback at tight end should that scenario come to fruition. The person who had the foresight to stash Hill took a major risk by burning a roster spot on him, and everyone else in the league had the opportunity to be first on Hill. You can't pull the rug out from under them just because it finally paid off.
This makes sense to me. Part of the fun of fantasy football is attempting to win by thinking months ahead. Players acquire backups on the chance of injuries to a starter; in dynasty leagues they stash bench-riding rookies for future seasons. Usually it’s just not as convoluted as “pick up this third-string QB in the hopes he’ll become the starter and you can use him in a TE spot.” Much like Nolan picked up Colston specifically to use him at TE, others did the same with Hill. They thought ahead. You probably didn't.
“Doesn't being ethical mean following the rules?” CBS Sports senior fantasy writer Dave Richard asked. “It’s within the rules to start a player at a position he's eligible for. I'm totally fine with it.”
Richard reminded me of another yet fantasy positional controversy I'd forgotten; Joe Webb, listed as a WR, started at quarterback the final two weeks of the season in 2010. “As the NFL continues to evolve, talented players will get on the field in any position coaches can conjure up,” he said. “So don't expect this to be the end of players playing in advantageous fantasy lineup spots.”
But fantasy players who took advantage of Taysom Hill being TE-eligible are now out of luck. ESPN has announced that beginning today, Hill will only be eligible at QB. Players who have them as their starting TE have their roster locked until they move him.
Early last week, ESPN Fantasy maintained it would not take away Hill's primary position eligibility of tight end once the league week began on Tuesday,” ESPN explained. “The reason for this is so fantasy managers were given ample time to make necessary roster assessments and lineup decisions before waivers running early Wednesday morning and in advance of the first game of the week Thursday. Now that it has been established that Hill will be primarily a QB, and with the above framework in mind, ESPN Fantasy is able to make the change at the start of fantasy Week 12.
Maybe that’s the lesson here, for fantasy and for life: When you see a loophole, leap through it before it closes.