Fantasy Football: using data to guide your draft strategy
Aug 28, 2018
When it comes to preparing your draft board, it’s important to find value in your picks. Fantasy leagues are rarely won in rounds 1 and 2. It's critical to find players in the later rounds that can contribute to your team's success. It also goes without saying that team management (waivers, weekly rosters, injury management, etc.) is also mission-critical, but let’s just focus on the draft for now. So how can we uncover value when possible on draft night?
Well, I always think of value in two ways:
Holistic value. How do you value different positions? How do you value building a well-rounded team vs. taking the best player available? In other words, how do you approach your draft? Having some overall philosophies on your approach will go a long way come draft night.
Pick value. Some people think of this in terms of finding “sleepers.” Sure, finding guys in the late rounds that have breakout seasons is fantastic, but it doesn’t have to be so boom or bust. How can you ensure you’re finding value in every level of the draft; from your top picks to your last?
Let’s start with positional value. In real life, the QB is the most important position on the field. On a fantasy roster, I’d argue the contrary. If we look at the top 10 fantasy QBs last year, aside from Russell Wilson at #1, there are marginal differences in performance for the remaining (granted, Aaron Rodgers was injured). Cam Newton at #2 totaled 299.5 points*, while Ben Roethlisberger at #10 had 260.7 points, roughly 39 point difference. Over the course of 16 games, that’s 2.4 points per game. Furthermore, there were 22 QBs who had over 200 points on the season. Comparing that to RB, the difference between #1 and #10 was 161 (10 ppg) and only 9 total with 200 points or more. Parlay that with the fact that you only need to select one QB (in most leagues) and multiple at other positions, moral of the story; don’t value your QBs too high.
Now let’s determine value between RBs and WRs. Again, the popular belief is that the NFL has become a passing league, and therefore WRs should see more action on gameday. That’s not wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to fantasy value. Most teams run offensive sets of 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE or 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE as their base. Even if the passing game accounts for 60%+ of a team’s snaps, that is spread across multiple WRs on the field at once, whereas the sole RB on the field will get all touches on running plays. Let’s see a breakdown from last season:
Notice a difference? On average, receivers were targeted on 11% of the 44 snaps they played per game. That’s roughly 4.8 targets per game (targets don’t mean catches). RBs, on the other hand, see action on 40% of their snaps, roughly 13 touches per game. As you can imagine, this provides RBs with more opportunities to make something of their involvement in a game. Don’t take my word for it though... take a look at average fantasy points per 100 snaps between the two positions:
Okay, so core philosophy number two: Take RBs early. In addition to taking them early, try and favor “bell cow” RBs. These are guys who rarely split carries, and average in the low to high 20s in touches per game. There were only 8 of them last year, so like I said... take RBs early. Even if at the league average of 4.1 yards per carry (which these guys all exceed), that’s 80-100 yards before touchdowns or receptions.
There’s definitely some of you reading this right now saying, “Well I’m in a PPR or Half PPR league, so I’m disregarding this.” Fair, but this also comes down to scarcity. As we see above, there are only so many productive RBs to go around. Most teams have one if any, draftable RBs you can start, whereas they usually have 2 receivers worth drafting. Also, there isn’t as much of a drop off when it comes to receptions per game for receivers as there are touches per game for RBs. Last year, #1 ranked WR Antonio Brown averaged 7 receptions per game. #36 ranked WR Allen Hurns averaged 4 receptions per game. That’s a difference of 1.5 points per game for half PPR leagues.
Alright, so we’ve discussed some holistic value approaches when it comes to how you view positions on your draft board. Now let’s talk about how we can find value in each pick. Let’s first take a look at a projected draft pick vs. total points distribution for this year compared to last year’s draft pick vs. total points distribution outcome:
It’s pretty funny that the relationship is never as directly correlated as you think it’s going to be. So how do we find the DeMarco Murray (see above) of the 2018 draft class? Drafted late, if at all, Murray was the 23rd ranked RB scoring 152 fantasy points on the season. Well, Murray averaged 15 touches per game (above the league average) and 3 targets per game. This almost puts him in the bell cow category, mentioned earlier. It also means Murray made the most of his snaps. One area to focus on when finding value is points per snap. If you look at the top projected players this season, there's one clear outlier:
If you haven’t spotted it yet, it’s Alvin Kamara. As a RB who split time last season, he was incredibly efficient per snap. Enough to land him the 6 overall projected player in 2018. Will the Saints increase his snaps as a result? Will increased snaps have diminishing returns? Probably yes to both, but still an incredible value. So who are some lower projected guys with high efficiency per snap:
Here are some players getting picked in the 5th round or higher with some pretty incredible efficiency. By this time, full time starters are gone. If you need to grab a backup or #2, might as well grab the most efficient.
Another core philosophy I have when deciding between two players in a draft is consistency. Boom or bust players will leave you frustrated more often than not. Below is a prime example. This is T.Y. Hilton's yards, touchdowns, and running point total from 2017. Yes, Andrew Luck wasn’t playing QB, but his production was incredibly inconsistent regardless. He is currently projected to get drafted around pick 25 (Round 3).
Meanwhile, Doug Baldwin, currently projected to fall 7 picks later at pick 32 (Round 4) had a different story:
You can see his production was much more consistent. With guys like this, you know what you’re getting week in and week out. This not only helps with scoring but with your overall team management. Reduce your Sunday morning stress of Googling “who to start” websites by drafting consistency.
To compound on this, I also look at how players pace over the course of a season. Meaning, do they start off great and then trail off? Do they take a few weeks to get going? Again, fantasy seasons should be treated in full, not week by week. I find it interesting that Todd Gurley is the undisputed #1 pick for most leagues, while Ezekiel Elliott is projected to go #3, even #4 behind Le’Veon Bell, in most leagues. If you look at last year, after 8 weeks, right before Elliott’s suspension:
He was matching pace with Gurley going into the second half of the season and was outpacing Le’Veon Bell through the first half of the season. In fact, by week 9, Elliott had 18 more points than Bell on the season. If you are picking in the 3, 4, even 5 range and Elliot becomes available, it's a sure-fire pick in my mind. I will conclude that statement by saying I am a diehard Dallas Cowboys fan.
That’s all I have. To recap:
- Have some core overall philosophies entering your draft.
- Don’t value QBs too high.
- Draft RBs early and aim for “bell cows”, even if they are on bad teams.
- When it comes to later rounds, look for efficiency or high points per snap.
- When comparing players, look for consistency and pace throughout the season. Boom or bust players make weekly management a nightmare.
*All player data is from Fantasydata.com and covers the 2017-18 season, 2018 projections are from Fantasydata.com and 4for4.