Space & Innovation

Fantasy Football: How Science Can Give You an Edge

Computer-based algorithms use previous data to predict future results. It works, they say.

<p>Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters</p>

The multi-billion dollar fantasy football season kicked off Thursday, and everyone wants an edge. Can science or advanced math do a better job at picking winners than the "experts" or your own hunches?

Math whizzes across the country have been working on various fantasy football algorithms for the past couple years, using statistical tools and computer science concepts like machine learning to make them run more efficiently.

Andy Sun, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering at Georgia Tech, has developed a program that predicts future performance of NFL players based on past play. He tested the algorithm using several years of information, and it did give him and his team an edge in picking players.

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"You don't have to have a PhD," said Sun, who holds a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But if you have some analytical skills or statistical skills, the data for football is quite abundant. What we learned is that using data can really tell you a lot about the future performance."

Sun published the result of his work recently in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports.

The system, which is a computer program, predicts team and player performance based on historical data, and builds a "mixed-integer optimization model" using predictions for the draft selection as well as weekly line-up management to win the fantasy football season.

Sun did several test runs that showed the system worked better than trusting various "draft experts" that publish their preferred picks in online reports.

Sun hopes to have the model ready for a wider audience later this fall.

"It's a complicated suite of coding and programs," Sun said. "We are using it privately. It's not easy to interface right now. I'm trying to make it more accessible."

Until the George Tech model is ready, fantasy players can use Boris Chen's model for free. The San Francisco-based data scientist built his open-source fantasy football model back in 2013. It updates player performance using something called a Gaussian mixture model.

"Early on, when I was building it, a lot was manual," Chen said about inputting player data. "I ran the algorithm each time. But over the years, I automated it to the point that the algorithm updates every hour if I want."

Chen also says his model gives player a slight edge over expert picks. He says he tries to make life simple for his friends and others who have been hooked by fantasy football.

"What I focus on is the more complicated math behind the scenes, but at the end of the day I'm here to help the average fantasy football player," Chen said. "I present my findings and charts and data in the most simplistic way possible. I've tried more complicated ways, but the thing that does well is an easy visualization of the results. If you look at the results, it's clear what is going on."

Many players have already made their league picks, but there still may be time before Sunday's full slate of games to let math and computer science help you beat your rivals.

Super Bowl MVPs Through History: Photos

Football's last, great gasp sets television ratings records and makes sports fans go a bit bonkers. And, of course, the most valuable player of the game gets extra honors. Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller (58) won this year's trophy, after his team's 24-10 win over the Carolina Panthers. Miller, a key to the league's top defense, joins an elite club that features some familiar names and at least one Cinderella story. We take a look back now at the MVPs of the 2000s.

The first Super Bowl MVP of the new millennium was quarterback Kurt Warner. His St. Louis Rams topped the Tennessee Titans 23-16 in Super Bowl XXXIV on Jan. 30, 2000. Undrafted out of Northern Iowa, and released after a tryout with the Green Bay Packers, Warner famously found work stocking shelves in a grocery store. But he later dominated in the Arena Football League, before catching on in the NFL, where he went on to a 12-year career quarterbacking the Rams, New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals. During his stretch with the Rams, he won two league MVP awards alongside the Super Bowl XXXIV honor.

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NFL Super Bowl XXXV Champion and MVP Ray Lewis, of the Baltimore Ravens, played 17 years in the NFL as a linebacker, 13 of them as a Pro Bowl selection. He was only the second linebacker ever to win a Super Bowl MVP trophy when the Ravens beat the New York Giants 34-7 in the 2001 contest. The former middle linebacker is widely regarded as one of the best ever to play his position.

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Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002 marked the start of the dominant run of the New England Patriots franchise and its equally dominant quarterback, game MVP Tom Brady. With Brady at the helm, the Patriots went on to win three Super Bowls and appear in five. Here he celebrates his first championship with wide receiver Fred Coleman. The Patriots defeated Kurt Warner's St. Louis Rams 20-17. With gaudy career regular-season numbers, Brady is easily in the argument about which quarterback is the best ever to play the game. Brady has almost as much notoriety off the field as on, for his marriage to supermodel and gazillionaire, Gisele Bundchen.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Dexter Jackson intercepts a pass in the third quarter of Super Bowl XXXVII. Jackson intercepted two passes and was named the game's MVP as the Buccaneers defeated the Oakland Raiders 48-21. After retirement, Jackson went on to work in sports talk radio.

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Here is Tom Brady again, a Super Bowl MVP for the second time. He's celebrating the New England Patriots' 32-29 victory over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston, on Feb. 1, 2004.

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Brady's storied career -- he's a lock for first-ballot enshrinement in the NFL Hall of Fame -- is all the more spectacular given how many teams passed him over for other quarterbacks in his draft year. The Michigan quarterback was not selected until the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft, behind 199 other players, including six quarterbacks.

The Patriots won their second championship in a row, and third out of the last four, in 2005 when they beat the Philadelphia Eagles 24-21 in Super Bowl XXXIX. Here Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch (83), game MVP, tacks on some yards after a catch. Branch was chosen by New England in the second round of the NFL draft in 2002, and went on to become one of Tom Brady's most trusted receivers.

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The Pittsburgh Steelers won Super Bowl XL, topping the Seattle Seahawks 21-10. The game's MVP was receiver Hines Ward, who holds Steelers' franchise records in many top receiving categories. Ward played for the Steelers for 14 seasons and today works in the broadcast booth for NBC. He also appeared on the reality show "Dancing with the Stars" and he even got a taste of the coming apocalypse when he played a zombie in a 2013 episode of "The Walking Dead."

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Another current contender in the "best-quarterback-ever" argument is Peyton Manning, who took the MVP trophy when his Indianapolis Colts defeated the Chicago Bears 29-17 in Super Bowl XLI in 2007. Manning leads the NFL all-time in a host of statistical categories. Unlike his rival Tom Brady, Manning was highly touted out of college, after a standout career at the University of Tennessee. He was taken by the Colts with the first overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft.

Make way for sibling rivalry. The Super Bowl XLII MVP in 2008 was young Eli Manning, Peyton's brother. That match-up featured the younger Manning's New York Giants against Tom Brady's New England Patriots, in a game the Giants won 17-14. Here Manning accepts his MVP trophy during a press conference. Born in New Orleans, Eli and Peyton were active in relief efforts in the city following Hurricane Katrina. In 2010, the quarterback appeared in commercials to raise awareness about the effects of the BP oil spill.

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Another Pittsburgh Steeler took home the MVP award in 2009, when receiver Santonio Holmes had a great game in Super Bowl XLIII, as the Steelers defeated Kurt Warner's Arizona Cardinals. Holmes was a multi-sport high-school star in basketball, track and football and went on to put up huge numbers as a receiver at Ohio State. He was chosen by the Steelers in the first round of the 2006 draft.

The 2010 Super Bowl belonged to New Orleans Saints quarterback and MVP Drew Brees, who directed his team past Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, 31-17.

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The former Purdue University standout, first drafted in 2001 by the San Diego Chargers, nears the of the top of the career-passing-yards list. Brees gave considerable attention and time to helping the city of New Orleans recover after Hurricane Katrina.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers hoisted the Vince Lombardi Super Bowl trophy after leading the Packers to victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV on Feb. 6, 2011. Rodgers was chosen 24th overall in the 2005 draft by the Packers and had to spend his first three season as a backup to Green Bay legend Brett Favre, before stepping up to elite quarterback status in his own right. A picture of accuracy, Rodgers is the NFL's best in passer rating.

It was Eli Manning again taking MVP honors when the New York Giants, again, beat the New England Patriots, 21-17, to win Super Bowl XLVI in 2012. After this his second Super Bowl victory, Manning got the chance to once again follow in big brother Peyton's footsteps when he hosted a 2012 episode of "Saturday Night Live."

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In 2013, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco celebrated victory over the San Francisco 49ers, 34-31, in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. Selected eighth overall in the 2008 NFL draft, Flacco was flawless in the 2013 postseason, throwing a record 11 touchdown passes with no interceptions. He's known to have one of the strongest throwing arms in the game.

Seattle Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith was the MVP of Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014, representing a smothering Seahawks defense that manhandled the Denver Broncos to the tune of a 43-8 victory. For his game tally, Smith intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown; made nine tackles; and even recovered a fumble.

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MVP honors for Super Bowl XLIX went to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The Patriots leader won his fourth Super Bowl, and third as MVP, on Feb. 1, 2015, when the Patriots defeated the Seattle Seahawks 28-24. Despite throwing two interceptions that looked to be costly, Brady persevered and wound up the night going 37 for 50 on the way to throwing for 328 yards. He threw four touchdown passes and engineered two late-game scoring drives that sealed his team's victory. All at age 37. Brady joins Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks to have won four Super Bowls.

And, finally, as we noted at the top, there's Broncos linebacker Von Miller. Super Bowl 50, on Feb. 7, 2016, was a 24-10 victory for the Denver Broncos, in what might have been Peyton Manning's final game. MVP honors went to Miller, seen here (58) chasing down Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Miller, the stuff of nightmares for opposing quarterbacks, sacked Newton 2.5 times and forced two fumbles.

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