The Productive Struggle Strategy

Not to be confused with the method of the same name for teaching grade school mathematics, “Productive Struggle” is a term coined by DLF’s Ryan McDowell some years ago to describe what is, in my opinion, the best strategy to take into a dynasty startup draft.

McDowell’s definition of “Productive Struggle” was essentially, “punting” on Year One of a dynasty league, and prioritizing youth in the startup draft, the idea being that stockpiling youth and struggling through the first season on purpose in order to have a high draft pick in the initial rookie draft the following year will help lead to a better chance of sustained success later on as opposed to wasting startup picks on assets that will quickly descend in value.

In order to make this strategy work for you, it is imperative you realize that this isn’t just “tanking.”

It’s so much more than simply losing on purpose.

Here are five steps to follow in order to successfully implement the Productive Struggle strategy in your dynasty startup and (hopefully) enjoy long term success because of it:

1. Acquire More Picks

Assuming your dynasty league allows managers to trade startup picks before and during the actual draft, Productive Strugglers should be trying to add more draft capital if they can, both startup picks as well as future rookie picks.

One of my go-to strategies is to try to trade away my first round startup pick in exchange for someone’s second round startup pick plus a first round rookie pick from the following year. This might take some effort, contacting each manager in your league to see if he or she is looking to move up back into the first round.

Usually, I have decent success convincing someone that having that extra first round startup pick is worth it, especially in Superflex where the lure of an extra top end QB is there, and all that person has to pay in order to move up and secure that premium asset is a draft pick that is a year away.

Just prior to my most recent startup draft earlier this summer, I was picking at the 1.08 spot out of 12, and I was able to net a 2022 first round pick to move down to 2.06.

Pro-tip: when dealing with trades that involve draft picks from both the startup and future rookie drafts, always attach names to the startup picks to add context, even if those picks haven’t actually happened yet in your particular draft (use mock drafts, ADP, etc.).

For example, a league mate saying, “I’ll give you my 2.06 and a 2022 first for your 1.08,” can be tricky in terms of determining value in your head. Knowing that, I projected 1.08 in my Superflex startup draft to be one of the Top 7 QBs (Prescott, Lawrence, etc.). Assuming I want to go QB with my first pick (and I usually do), I figured someone like Justin Fields, Russell Wilson, or worst case, Trey Lance would be available at 2.06.

Now the question becomes a more standard trade question of, “In a dynasty league that has already startup-drafted, would I give up Lawrence for Fields and a 2022 first round pick?”

Regardless of your answer to that specific question, the point is that these questions of startup pick value versus rookie pick value are easier to digest when you attach names to the startup picks. It makes it much easier to decide if you are gaining or losing value with these moves.

Moving down in the startup draft or moving out of the first round entirely can be a little scary given the importance of a startup draft, but take a look at the first “two rounds” of players in terms of ADP heading into 2018 and 2019. Every year, there are plenty of second round-ranked players in startups that are worthy of being your “first pick,” especially if you have already committed to struggle in Year One and are gaining future draft capital by doing so that you will then combine with your own (presumably early) first round pick come rookie draft time next year.

Obviously, having more bullets in the chamber to try to hit on young players in the future rookie draft(s) is the main goal, but secondarily, accumulating picks will also provide you with valuable trade ammo where you can be a little more precise in the sense of positional need as you add pieces to your roster over the long haul.

Looking for a RB as your final piece in 2022, but all the good ones will be gone by the time you pick in Round One of your 2022 rookie draft? No problem. You have multiple firsts to get a deal done to address that area of need.

2. Mind the “Two to Three Year Window”

Yes, obviously, youth is an integral part of the Productive Struggle strategy. Players on the verge of retirement are less valuable in dynasty, and anyone reading this understands how that works. But when we judge how valuable that youth is, we, as savvy dynasty managers, need to dig a little deeper than just simply worrying about a player’s birthdate.

Instead, it is best to look into the future in two or three year chunks, not five or seven or ten year chunks.

You always hear about elite prospects like Trevor Lawrence or Ja’Marr Chase, and people will go on and on about how “I got Lawrence, and now my QB position is set for the next ten years!”

And that’s all well and good! But the overall number of players who maintain star-level value without wavering for ten straight seasons are very few and far between. We in the business refer to them as NFL Hall of Famers.

If you, as a dynasty manager, are going to concentrate all your focus on trying to build a roster that is a championship contender for ten straight seasons, you are going to fail no matter what you do. Careers are too short, and player value is too volatile from year to year to make that a realistic goal.

Better to look at assets and the future in two to three year windows, a much more manageable period of time for building a roster capable of contending for championships.

For context, take a player like Dolphins’ RB Myles Gaskin.

Photo by Sam Greenwood / Getty Images

On the surface, Gaskin is a 23-year-old starting RB for an exciting young team who went 10-6 last year. Gaskin was RB28 in 2020, but RB13 in terms of points per game after missing six games. At his age, he seems like a great long term RB candidate for Productive Struggle, doesn’t he?

Well, not so fast.

Gaskin was a seventh round pick in 2019, and therefore the Dolphins have very little invested in him, meaning they are not pot-committed to him if a better RB option is available next offseason, much like what happened with Jacksonville drafting Travis Etienne in the first round even though they already had James Robinson.

Gaskin’s value rose after the 2021 NFL Draft because Miami did not spend a high pick to replace him as many experts predicted, but reports have since surfaced that suggest the Dolphins were going to take UNC and now-Broncos rookie RB Javonte Williams with the 36th pick before Denver moved up to No. 35 to take him.

The low draft capital and contractual investment combined with the fact that Miami was reportedly all set to draft Williams early in the draft indicates that Gaskin is not necessarily in their long term plans, and that they will not hesitate to try again to replace Gaskin this upcoming offseason.

Because of this, barring a truly elite 2021 season, Gaskin’s outlook as the Dolphins’ starting RB is, at best, murky beyond this season, making him a risky option in Productive Struggle. The shelf life of an elite RB prospect is short enough, let alone a former seventh round pick being paid the minimum whose team was planning to replace him.

Young WRs Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle or Laviska Shenault are all going right after Gaskin in dynasty startups according to DLF’s ADP. All three represent much better Productive Struggle options than Gaskin.

Conversely to the whole Gaskin discussion, an “older” player can still be more than viable within that two or three year window we’ve been talking about.

Someone like Matt Ryan, who just turned 36, is practically radioactive waste in the eyes of most dynasty managers because of his age and the idea that he could retire or break his hip at any moment.

But just like with Gaskin, we have to take a closer look, case by case, through the lens of that window of time.

Despite his advanced age, Matt Ryan is still producing (finished as a QB1/QB12 overall in 2020) and is contractually very likely to be with the Falcons through 2022 unless Arthur Blank and company want to suffer a massive dead money hit (over $40 million). Even with Julio Jones now in the Music City, Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts ― already (being drafted like he is) the greatest TE to ever walk the Earth ― provide enough weaponry to where one could reasonably predict Ryan to have a decent season and thus remain a useful fantasy QB for the next two seasons, especially in Superflex leagues.

Beyond that, Ryan has already publicly stated he wants to have a 15-20 year career, and by 2023, there are sure to be a couple of QB-needy franchises who would be willing to give Ryan a short term contract to either make one final run at a title or place-hold for a rookie QB.

Gaskin and Ryan are just two opposing examples of how to approach the “Two or Three Year Window” concept.

Simply put, age doesn’t matter as much as projected production in that window of time.

Overall, the question dynasty managers need to ask themselves (in 2021) is, “how likely is this particular asset/player to be productive in 2022, 2023 and 2024?”

The goal is then to stockpile as many of these assets as you can with the hope that enough of them do indeed produce in the same season or seasons in order for you to have a championship caliber team during those years.

3. Choose Talent over Situation

Being that you as a Productive Struggler are more focused on that two or three year window like we discussed, it is important that you do not get too worried about any individual player’s “situation” or current position on the depth chart more than his sheer talent and skill set.

This sounds obvious and has been a popular dynasty rule of thumb for years, but every year, countless managers seem to forget and fall victim to placing way too much stock in a player’s current situation only to be reminded later that talent almost always wins out.

Last year, Clyde Edwards-Helaire became the poster child for this concept as CEH was most people’s RB5 or RB6 based on “talent” in the 2020 rookie class for almost the entire calendar year leading up to the draft.

The vast majority of experts and managers had D’Andre Swift, J.K. Dobbins, Jonathan Taylor and Cam Akers, in some order, ahead of CEH for the entire pre-draft process, with Taylor in particular coming on late as the near-consensus RB1 after his impressive season at Wisconsin as well as a stellar combine and pre-draft process.

Fast forward to the 2020 NFL Draft when CEH was a surprising first round pick of the Chiefs at the end of Round One as the first RB off the board. Almost immediately, CEH vaulted to the top of the class based solely on the fact that he was about to play with Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid. Visions of CEH becoming the modern-day Brian Westbrook danced in the heads of 1.01 owners, and CEH became the new consensus RB1 heading into the majority of rookie drafts.

And while the history books are still largely unwritten at this point regarding Taylor, CEH and the rest of the 2020 RB class, I don’t know many CEH owners who would not trade him straight up for Taylor if given the chance.

Bishop Sankey, N’Keal Harry, Jalen Reagor, and Keshawn Vaughn are some additional examples of “situation” enticing managers into over-drafting them based on their talent.

On the flip side, I remember just a couple of seasons ago, A.J. Brown of Ole Miss was a lot of experts’ WR1 talent-wise heading into the NFL Draft, and many of those same experts were fading Brown as soon as he landed in Tennessee with their run-heavy offense. We all know how that has turned out since then.

This summer, I am hearing many dynasty managers similarly fading RB Travis Etienne, saying, “I don’t know what exactly his role will be in Jacksonville.”

It’s true, Etienne has a little bit of mystery surrounding him due to the uncertainty about how Urban Meyer and the Jags will use him, especially with the presence of 2020 breakout rookie James Robinson still in Jacksonville.

But savvy dynasty managers, especially those savvy enough to execute Productive Struggle, will likely be able to see right through this perceived usage question with Etienne and focus on the fact that Etienne is a stud who has first round draft capital and is now reunited with his college QB with whom he was one of the top prospects in the game for the past several years at Clemson. Even if Etienne does not dominate touches in the Jags’ backfield as a rookie, chances are good that his usage will eventually match his first round draft capital.

When doing the Productive Struggle, it is even more imperative to prioritize talent over situation because situations are always changing, and with your window to win being a season or two away, there’s even more time for that cream to rise to the top.

4. Be Mindful of Your Roster Construction from a Positional Standpoint

Perhaps my favorite roster building blueprint in dynasty is some variation of the Zero RB strategy.

The reason is that, like we’ve talked about, RB shelf life is by far the shortest, and you don’t want to waste a year of their prime sitting on your roster when you aren’t interested in winning in Year One anyway.

Not to mention, your league mates, who will presumably be placing higher emphasis on the RB position than you in that initial startup draft, will happily gobble up those early round RBs, leaving the cream of the crop at WR and TE for you.

Photo by Hannah Foslien / Getty Images

Elite WRs and TEs, as long as they are in favorable conditions that have a fair chance at remaining favorable for the next few seasons, generally last much longer than RBs, making them good building blocks for your Productive Struggle plans.

Additionally, RBs, while not necessarily easy to acquire in rookie drafts, have shown an ability to produce immediately as rookies if given the opportunity by their real life NFL team to do so.

This makes the strategy of going heavy on QB, WR and TE in the startup very appealing. The following season, if you’re able to somehow acquire a couple of strong rookie RBs to plug in, now your roster starts to look very strong overall, and you are matching up the “prime years” of all your players.

Again, some context:

In the recent startup draft I referenced above, I started my draft with WR Justin Jefferson at 2.05 (remember, I traded down), Justin Fields (plus a 2022 first rounder) at 2.06, and CeeDee Lamb at 3.05.

After it was all said and done, the first third of my draft looked like this:

(2.05) WR Justin Jefferson
(2.06) QB Justin Fields [traded down from 1.08 for 22 first]
(3.05) WR CeeDee Lamb
(4.08) WR Calvin Ridley
(5.11) QB Matthew Stafford [traded down from 5.05 for 22 second]
(6.08) QB Zach Wilson
(7.05) TE Noah Fant
(8.08) RB Chase Edmonds
(9.05) RB Michael Carter
(10.08) WR Elijah Moore
(11.05) WR Jalen Reagor

It’s not hard to see my strategy with my core group of startup assets.

Three “elite” WRs who theoretically should all be high value studs for the next two or three seasons, and a three-headed monster at QB with Stafford and the two rookies, which should lock up the position for the duration of my “window” from 2022-2024 or so. And even if Wilson and Fields struggle as rookies, both are pretty stable in terms of value due to their age and position scarcity as QBs. Fant rounds out the group as a high-upside TE who might get a big boost in value and production if the Broncos land a big fish at QB next offseason.

So, then looking at my projected starting lineup moving forward:

QB – Matthew Stafford
RB – (Chase Edmonds for now)
RB – (Michael Carter for now)
WR – Justin Jefferson
WR – CeeDee Lamb
WR – Calvin Ridley
TE – Noah Fant
Flex – Elijah Moore
Flex – Jalen Reagor
Superflex – Justin Fields (Zach Wilson behind him)

Imagine if my Productive Struggle in 2021 goes well, and I land an early first round pick to go along with the first round pick I added by moving down in the startup.

I could potentially take RBs like Breece Hall and Isaiah Spiller in the 2022 Rookie Draft, or someone like Tank Bigsby or Bijon Robinson in the 2023 Rookie Draft, and plug them into that core starting lineup.

We’ve already discussed how WRs, TEs and QBs have much longer careers than RBs, and we’ve already talked about how rookie RBs can step right in and produce, and so all of my young core players should be entering or still in their primes by the time I’m able to plug these potentially elite RBs into the equation.

This is a vastly superior strategy for someone implementing Productive Struggle than “wasting” a 2021 startup pick on someone like Ezekiel Elliott or Derrick Henry in the first few rounds, who, for as great and currently valuable as they are, will likely be declining assets by the time your team is ready to compete due to mileage, age and contract structure.

Both Todd Gurley and David Johnson are cautionary tales from the past few seasons; Gurley was a Top 2-3 dynasty asset (in Superflex!) heading into 2018, and Johnson was RB6 by ADP entering the 2019 season. Now, in 2021, Johnson is on his last legs, and Gurley is currently out of football.

This is not to say you need to ignore RB entirely if you want to implement the Productive Struggle strategy. RBs are still massively valuable, but you need to be mindful of their accelerated timeline and relatively short shelf life, and act accordingly to avoid being stuck with a declining asset during your championship window.

5. Stock Your Bench With Young, High Upside, Ascending Assets

I know I spent almost the entirety of Section Two above talking about how age is just a number and to not ignore older players, so this section might seem a little bit contradictory, but I assure you it is not.

Yes, we want to leave our startup drafts with as many high-end assets that will peak over the next couple of seasons as possible. And yes, like we talked about, age doesn’t matter as much as viability in that two to three year window.

But when we are talking about the middle to late rounds of your startup draft when you will be filling in the depth of your squad, Productive Strugglers should have a bench teeming with young, high-upside players with a heavy emphasis on rookies and second-year players whose value will ascend by then, not decline.

Remember, a big part of the Productive Struggle method is that you struggle in Year One in order to start Year Two with a premium draft pick.

You want rookies and second-year players not only because they are the best bets to be ascending assets in a year or two but also because, by and large, they will not win you games this year. And remember, Productive Struggle is not tanking, but you still don’t necessarily want to win in Year One.

Here’s the rest of my draft I alluded to in the previous section:

(12.08) RB Gus Edwards
(13.05) TE Pat Freiermuth
(14.08) WR Amon-Ra St. Brown
(15.05) WR Bryan Edwards
(16.08) WR Nico Collins
(17.05) QB Kyle Trask
(18.08) WR Josh Palmer
(19.05) RB Joshua Kelley
(20.08) RB Chris Evans
(21.05) TE Dan Arnold
(22.08) WR Cornell Powell
(23.05) QB Gardner Minshew
(24.08) WR Dazz Newsome
(25.05) WR Byron Pringle
(26.08) TE Tre’ McKitty
(27.05) RB Giovanni Bernard
(28.08) QB Dwayne Haskins
(29.05) WR Seth Williams
(30.08) RB Kene Nwangwu

As you can see, we have a lot of high-upside youth in these rounds who won’t necessarily score a lot of points in 2021 but might be solid contributors by 2022 and beyond, which is the goal.

This is where your college scouting that you’ve done pre-NFL Draft will come into play. If you are someone who has done a fair amount of film study and online research on a wide range of players from the past few rookie classes, you will really have a leg up on your more casual league mates as you sift through these later rounds for hidden gems.

Extra Point

To this point, we’ve been talking exclusively about the Productive Struggle method as it pertains to dynasty startups.

This strategy can also be used in established dynasty leagues whenever it is time for you to rebuild. We’ve all had dynasty teams that become stale when star players age or other assets decline in value due to contractual situations or injury.

The same principles we have discussed in this article all still apply.

When you sense your roster has one too many declining assets and you foresee your current roster having some tough seasons ahead, you should never be afraid to take matters into your own hands and change your team’s destiny, knowing it might require a year or two in the basement of your league in order to get to where you want to go as a team.

Gain more draft picks. Identify which of your assets are likely to be less valuable next year than they are now, and try to move them for draft picks or for players whom you think will be more valuable than they are now. There is a balance you might strike, though, because while acquiring more draft picks is important, you don’t want to gut your squad unless you are receiving fair value in return. Trading and all that goes into it is another article entirely.

The players whom you have identified as your cornerstone players moving forward should fall into that “two to three year window” for your squad. Depending on what positions those players play, you’ll plan accordingly for future drafts.

Despite this, youth will be the priority for the most part just as it is for brand new dynasty teams.

Stockpiling youth has benefits besides the fact that you’re trying to build up for the future. Young players, by and large, retain value better and for longer than older, and perhaps, more win-now players.

Take Cam Akers. Imagine if David Johnson or Melvin Gordon had suffered the same injury as Akers. Their value would be absolutely cooked (and probably rightly so). Akers, at 22, still has some believers (either in Akers or in modern medical science) judging by the trades involving him that I’m seeing.

The point is, young players have a better chance of remaining valuable the following year(s), even if they struggle or get injured. And that is key in the Productive Struggle method not only because young players might not yet be ready to produce big numbers which helps your draft position, but also high value equals more currency on the trade market, something every dynasty manager needs regardless of overlying team building strategy.

Additional Information

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