Fantasy Football Value Based Drafting

So your incommunicado brother forced you to draft for him and you’re still trying to confirm your draft strategy?  Or is that just me?  Probably just me.  As fantasy football never stops never stopping and the impending season draws closer, it’s finally time to finish the draft preparations (and hold the draft while you’re at it).

At the end of the season, any reasonable analysis will show that the league winner either lucked out late in the draft, won the waiver wire each week, and/or a magic leprechaun granted the winner injury luck (sorry, Spencer Ware owners!).  In leagues that I have won, my team at the end of the season has consisted of as few as four players I originally drafted.  Ultimately, success in fantasy football drafts is dependent on a few key decisions and, if you did everything right, some luck.

Even though the draft may not be an integral part of the fantasy football season, there are still several ways to trounce your friends or family members.  The easiest way to is draft the right positions at the right moments in order to derive as much value as possible from each pick.  I’ve offered a lot of counsel to my dad over the years, including waiting to draft a defense and a kicker until the very end of the draft (he loved his Texans defense a little too much last year).

As I discussed in my last post, I frame each selection under the concept of Value Based Drafting (“VBD”) which compares a player’s fantasy output to the output of a replacement level (or non-starter) player at the same position.  VBD is typically defined 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.

However, I’m going to twist the definition of a baseline player for purposes of this analysis.  Instead of using the replacement level player as defined above, I classified the replacement level player as the first non-starter at each position in a standard 12 team league.  That is, assuming flex starters are ½ running backs and ½ wide receivers, the replacement level player is:

  • The 13th ranked QB;
  • The 31st ranked RB;
  • The 31st ranked WR; and
  • The 13th ranked TE.

Under the Value Based Drafting approach, QB13 is the first non-starter in a team league.  Each season, only the top 12 quarterbacks should start (ignoring bye weeks).  Therefore, the points generated by my starting quarterback above the points scored by QB13 is the value offered by my quarterback.  This is a little different than marginal benefit (in Econ speak) as marginal benefit measures the value above the next best player (e.g., QB1 compared to QB2).  But since fantasy football is relatively egalitarian, all players have equal rights to select any player.  That is, my opponents have equal opportunity to draft other quarterbacks and I can’t load up my roster with one position without suffering horrible consequences at every other position.

In order to understand which position offers the most value, I calculated the 2012 to 2016 five-year average value above replacement for the top 12 quarterbacks, the top 30 running backs, the top 30 wide receivers, and the top 12 tight ends based on total fantasy points scored each year.  The table below displays the top 24 (i.e., the first two rounds) skill players with the highest average value above replacement over the last five years.

As the table shows, the top scoring running back over the last five years outscored the 31st highest running back by an average of 188.2 points.  Over 16 games, that’s 11.8 points per game, which can easily be the difference between winning and losing any given week.

The top five spots are all held by the running back position, suggesting that it’s probably smart to draft a running back in the first half of the first round.  After that?  It’s fairly even between running backs and wide receivers with a few quarterbacks and tight end sprinkled in.  Given this, it makes sense to focus on running backs and wide receivers early in the draft.

What about a quarterback?  The value above replacement at QB1 is distorted by Peyton Manning’s 55 touchdown season in 2013 and Cam Newton’s 2015 MVP season (inflated by his 10 rushing touchdowns, a tough feat to replicate).  Unless you are absolutely sure which quarterback will post QB1 numbers, it’s best to wait until later in the draft to select a quarterback.  This could mean waiting until the third or fourth round for Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers (if still available) or playing the long con and taking Tyrod Taylor in one of the later rounds.

The same is true at tight end.  Rob Gronkowski’s 2014 and 2015 seasons (12 and 11 touchdowns) inflate the value above replacement at TE1.  Unless you’re sure about Gronk’s health (he missed 19 games over the last four seasons) and that Brandin Cooks won’t vulture touchdowns, it doesn’t make sense to draft a tight end until the third round at the earliest, though I would wait longer.

I can’t predict how any player will actually perform this season.  Guys nobody has heard of will emerge and at least one headline player will go on IR early in the season.  While fantasy football relies on a lot of luck to be successful, you can increase your chances of winning by employing a sound draft strategy, including targeting the right positions (wide receiver and running back) early in the draft.

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