Navigating the Fantasy Football Draft

I watch preseason football.  There I said it.  I don’t watch a lot of it and I certainly don’t plan around it but I admit I do watch it.  It’s fairly boring football that provides little upside for the players in the games.  Most guys are trying to not sustain a devastating injury, make it to cut down day (Roberto Aguayo), or make the practice squad.  Watching special teamers and practice squad players play football is not exciting.  But it provides a glimpse of fall and the football that is yet to come.

Preseason football also means that fantasy football drafts are around the corner.  For avid fantasy football players like myself, the draft is a sign of the new season set to begin, more so than any preseason football game.

The inexperienced fantasy football player may think that the draft is the most important event of the fantasy football season.  That sentiment could not be more wrong.  While I firmly think that the season is won or lost on the waiver wire and trading block each week, the draft provides the foundation for one’s roster.

The approach to roster building depends on the overall objective.  The objective in head-to-head fantasy football is not to maximize the number of points scored.  Rather it’s to score more points than the opponent that week.  This may seem fairly obvious, but if the objective was to maximize the number of points scored, I would start off every draft by selecting a quarterback the position that scores the most points.

An elite kicker, compared to the rest of the kickers available, provides little marginal value.  So when your kicker scores 13 points and the other kicker scores 12, the 1 point advantage is all that matters.  Similarly, except for when Peyton Manning throws for 55 touchdowns or Cam Newton rushes for 10 touchdowns, an elite quarterback won’t provide a significant point advantage over the opponent’s quarterback (not to mention that it’s hard to identify elite fantasy quarterbacks in the preseason).

The ‘marginal value’ approach is a concept called Value Based Drafting that has been fleshed out and frequently discussed.  It compares a player’s fantasy output to the output of a replacement level (or non-starter) player at the same position.  Value Based Drafting was first popularized in the 1990s and, while there are multiple variations of it, is calculated as the player’s fantasy points less the fantasy points of the baseline player, where the baseline (or replacement level) player is:

  • The 12th ranked QB;
  • The 24th ranked RB;
  • The 30th ranked WR; and
  • The 12th ranked TE.

I employ a heuristic where I select two running backs with my first two picks, without taking into account Value Based Drafting.  While I know that elite running backs are generally more valuable than elite players at other positions (compared to an average player), it may not always be true that a running back will be most valuable.  Part of this is because it’s difficult to know which position will provide more value based on projections before a season begins.  Due to this uncertainty, relying on a heuristic is effective for me.

However, I was curious to know how effective my heuristic is.  Therefore, decided to test my heuristic by calculating the top 300 Value Based Drafting player seasons over the last five years.  The tables below show the player seasons over the last five years with the highest Value Based Drafting differential and the distribution by position.  The first table is the distribution of the top 60 player seasons so the “Expected First Round” column shows the number of players at that position expected to be drafted in the first round of a 12 team league if drafting was based solely on Value Based Drafting.  The second table shows 61 to 120, the third table shows 121 to 180, and on.

Of the top 60 Value Based Drafting player seasons, running backs resulted in 28 (and 22 of the top 30) of the player seasons over the last five years.  Drafting a running back in the first half of the first round always makes sense as long as there are 5 to 6 running backs who are expected to receive a bulk of a team’s carries.

But in the second half of the first round and the second round, wide receivers are more valuable and for good reason.  In fact, the top 61 to 120 player seasons, is composed of more player seasons by wide receivers than running backs.  As offenses become more focused around passing and less on the rushing attack of a singular running back, elite receivers start to provide more value.  The two best player seasons by a WR are Antonio Brown’s 2014 and 2015 seasons, where he caught 129 and 136 passes, respectively.

As offenses have changed, so has best practices in fantasy football.  There is no reason to stick to any rule on which to positions to draft earlier than others.  Elite running backs and elite wide receivers will always be valuable commodities in fantasy football.

Don’t rely on a heuristic.  While it’s likely that the best player available will be a running back, it’s important to be open to other options, especially as the draft progresses.  The real difficulty may not be deciding which position to draft, but identifying the right player (which requires luck).  Good luck drafting!

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