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In May, I released an article titled “Upside Wins Championships” which introduced a draft-strategy describing essentially that: when it comes to winning fantasy championships, UPSIDE IS EVERYTHING. A player’s bull-case projection matters much more than his base-case projection which matters far more than his bear-case projection. Leagues are won and lost, not by balanced teams drafting a number of good-to-great ADP-beaters, but by teams who correctly identified a few key league-winners and rode those players all the way to a Championship title.
In other words, our goal when drafting should be trying to correctly identify players with league-winning upside. It’s not easy, but as I showed in yesterday’s article, it’s probably a lot easier than you might think. In that article, we took a look at the top-10 league-winning players over the past three seasons, and after re-examining my pre-season analysis on each player, it was clear that far more often than not I correctly identified the league-winning upside in each player.
In today’s article, we’re going to be doing something similar. We’ll be looking backward at the top league-winners over the past three seasons, but instead of viewing each player through the lens of an ex-ante analysis, we’ll be applying an ex-post analysis on each position. Essentially, we’re trying to find a common thread that links some or all of these players together. And in so doing, hopefully, identify potential league-winners in 2020 and beyond.
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How are we defining league-winners? Rather than merely highlighting ADP-beaters – which as we showed in ‘Upside Wins Championships’ is exactly the wrong way to think of league-winners – we’re defining league-winners by their rate of occurrence on ESPN Playoff teams.
A few things:
1) This means every observation and relevant takeaway must be understood within the context of ESPN’s unique settings. An ESPN standard league is as follows:
- 10 teams
- PPR scoring, 4 points per passing touchdown
- Starting 1QB, 2RB, 2WR, 1TE, 1Flex, 1K, 1DEF
- 7 bench spots
In other words, this is the worst type of league to employ a Zero-RB strategy. Running backs are by far the most valuable position in ESPN standard leagues, and there’s not even really a close second. As for the reason, it has to do with positional scarcity, and was explained beautifully and succinctly by Adam Harstad here.
Imagine the same type of league, but with an added Superflex spot. Quarterbacks would become roughly 2X as valuable, and now at least nearly as valuable as running backs. Or, imagine if instead of adding a Superflex spot, the league added another starting wide receiver spot. Wide receivers would become roughly 1.4X more valuable.
2) Why did we choose “rate of occurrence on ESPN Playoff teams” rather than “rate of occurrence on ESPN Championship-winning teams?” Forgive me for going deep into the weeds once again (and we’ll dig deeper into this at the end of the article), but fantasy playoff performance is mostly a function of variance while fantasy regular season performance is far more a function of skill.
Who is the best team in the NFL in any given season? Probably the team with the best record across the largest sample, and not necessarily the team that ultimately won the Super Bowl. Though the team with the best odds of winning the Super Bowl is probably the team with the best regular season record, that doesn’t frequently happen (think 2007 Giants/Patriots or 2017 Eagles/Patriots). Essentially, being the best team across 16 games is far more representative of skill than being the only undefeated team through three or four consecutive games. This is true in all games of skill and chance – the smaller the sample, the more variance (the more luck and less skill) at play.
The same thing is true with fantasy football. It’s easier to be the best team from Weeks 14-16 than it is to be the best team from Weeks 1-13. And the same thing is true with fantasy football players. Who is most likely to dominate from Weeks 14-16? Probably the players who dominated from Weeks 1-13, though that’s not always the case.
3) A three-year sample size is infinitesimally small. I have nothing else to say for myself other than that it was the largest sample I have access to. Nonetheless, mea culpa.
At the quarterback position, I saw two immediate takeaways:
1- Clearly, you don’t need to draft a quarterback high. In fact, it’s probably a mistake to do so.
- Eight of our top-10 quarterbacks were drafted in the last five rounds of the draft or not at all.
2- Even if you do hit on a late round gem, it’s still not really much of an advantage.
- The No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 quarterbacks on our list were actually less valuable than the No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 defenses on our list.
Again, I think this goes back to our earlier point on scarcity. Quarterbacks outscore all other positions, but they’re the least-scarce (essentially tied with defenses and kickers) and thus the least-valuable position in this format.
In 2018, Patrick Mahomes scored the most fantasy points by any quarterback in any season in NFL history. In 2019, Lamar Jackson averaged the most fantasy points per game by any quarterback in any season in NFL history. Both players accomplished these feats with an ADP in the double-digit rounds. And even so, both ranked lowly overall (in terms of helping you advance into the playoffs). In fact, Mahomes ranked only 10th-overall in Win% (aka percentage of ESPN playoff teams rostering this player) in 2018.
Lesson Learned: As ridiculously good as Mahomes and Jackson certainly are, you’re still better off leaning towards under-paying rather than overpaying for a quarterback in fantasy.
- Interestingly, five of our 10 league-winning quarterbacks (including each in the top-three) were entering their sophomore season. Other examples, within a broader sample, might include Andrew Luck in 2013 (QB9 ADP vs. QB4 finish) and Blake Bortles in 2015 (QB26 ADP vs. QB4 finish). Perhaps current drafters are sleeping on Kyler Murray (ADP: QB4), Daniel Jones (QB13), Gardner Minshew (QB26), or Dwayne Haskins (QB31)?
- Six of our top-10 quarterbacks averaged at least 3.0 rushing fantasy points per game. This is no coincidence. Mobile quarterbacks are basically a cheat code in fantasy football. Clearly, when 50 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown is equivalent to 175 passing yards and one passing touchdown, Lamar Jackson has a massive advantage over a pure-passer like Drew Brees.
- In several instances, we might have been underrating the impact of a new offensive play-caller joining the team. This was at least certainly the case with Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott, and Jared Goff (2018), though several others might qualify. (As I detailed in my pre-draft analysis, Jackson and Prescott were my two highest-owned quarterbacks last year for this reason, among others.) Perhaps this year, we’re sleeping on Ryan Tannehill (OC Arthur Smith), Gardner Minshew (OC Jay Gruden), Drew Lock (OC Pat Shurmur), or Teddy Bridgewater (OC Joe Brady). We’ll go more in-depth on play-caller analysis later in the season.
- In the case of Patrick Mahomes, we also may have been underrating his coaching staff and supporting cast, especially after Alex Smith easily hit career highs and led the league in passer rating and AY/A, and then was unceremoniously traded away for the sophomore. Perhaps we might be seeing something similar with Joe Burrow, as I argued here.
- Might we be sleeping on Jared Goff? He has already twice proven to be a league-winner when overlooked by fantasy drafters, and in 2020 is being overlooked again (ADP: UDFA). He struggled massively last season, but also led the league in pass attempts. Over the prior two seasons, he ranked behind only Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees in ANY/A (7.70). And, just one year ago, his head coach – Sean McVay – was still being heralded as arguably the greatest offensive mind in football.
Like it or not, the running back position is THE most-important position in fantasy.
More so than any other position, running backs make up the far majority of any season’s league-winners. And, typically, you’re going to have to pay up to acquire them.
Excluding Spencer Ware – a late-season pick-up who only started two games – 47% of the running backs on our chart were drafted in the first two rounds. 65% were drafted in the first four rounds.
Over the past three seasons, 10 running backs scored a Win% of at least 60.0%. Over the same span, only two wide receivers, one quarterback, one tight end, two defenses, and one kicker reached that threshold.
Why is this so? Well, because of scarcity – as we keep saying. But also, because running backs are typically your high-end producers. Over the past three seasons, all-six of the top-six highest-scoring flex-eligible players (by fantasy points per game) were running backs. As were eight of the top-10.
Balancing both points: despite being drafted with a top-three pick in nearly every draft last season, it felt almost impossible to own Christian McCaffrey and not make your league’s playoffs. This was due in part because he out-scored the next-closest wide receiver by +6.0 fantasy points per game, but also because he out-scored the worst starter-worthy running back (RB20) by +15.2 fantasy points per game. In contrast, Lamar Jackson outscored the worst starter-worthy quarterback (QB10) by +8.6 fantasy points per game. Michael Thomas outscored the worst starter-worthy wide receiver (WR20) by +8.5 fantasy points per game, and even further behind was Kelce (+4.0).
This discrepancy becomes even more glaring when contrasting to the best-available running back or wide receiver on your waiver wire.
So, should you go out of your way to draft at least two running backs in the first three rounds? Is ‘Zero-RB’ a suboptimal draft strategy? Yeah, probably.
Again, this is specific to ESPN standard leagues and to our data -- which only goes back three seasons -- but all of these assumptions have certainly held true over that timeframe. Leagues are won and lost at the running back position and league-winning running backs are typically found early in your draft.
Broadly speaking, this has been true and I think this will probably be true again in 2020. But of course, it’s not necessarily true, or true in a vacuum. That’s because every season is unique in its own way. Would an RB-early approach be optimal if Melvin Gordon, Miles Sanders, Kenyan Drake were being drafted in the double-digit rounds this year? Almost certainly not.
- 10 of the top-11 running backs on our chart were entering their first, second, or third year in the NFL. Excluding Spencer Ware (who will also be excluded for the remainder of this article), all 17 running backs were 25 years old or younger, and 14 of 17 were 24 years old or younger. This isn’t a coincidence. Statistically-speaking, running backs are far more productive much earlier than any other position. Rookie running backs dramatically outperform rookie wide receivers and tight ends, and running backs hit their peak years (Years 2 and 3) and also start to decline much sooner than any other position. Don’t be surprised if David Montgomery, Ronald Jones, or another Year 2-3 running back surprises us this year.
- Of the non-rookies, we also see a number of running backs making the list following a play-caller change: 2017 Todd Gurley, 2018 Christian McCaffrey, 2019 Dalvin Cook, 2019 Derrick Henry, and 2019 Leonard Fournette. In many cases, I don’t think this is a coincidence. In 2017 Sean McVay promised reporters Gurley would be an every-down bell-cow heavily used in the passing game, and besides, it’s hard for any coach not to be a massive improvement on Jeff Fisher. Similarly, Dion Lewis out-snapped Derrick Henry in 12 of 16 games in 2018. It was hard to imagine Arthur Smith wouldn’t remedy that to some degree. For McCaffrey and Cook, the running back resumes of Gary Kubiak and Norv Turner speak for themselves. John DeFilippo also promised a lot more passing work and a true bell-cow workload for Fournette in 2019, which eventually proved true. This brings us to our next point…
- Perhaps we should pay more attention to what coaches are saying to us, rather than just immediately dismissing it as “coach-speak”. In addition to Todd Gurley (2017) and Leonard Fournette, there are a number of instances where a breakout might have been more obvious had we only listened to a player’s coach and/or front office. Savvy drafters could have envisioned 16.5 fantasy points per game or more for a rookie-year Alvin Kamara based on the role GM Mickey Loomis was envisioning for him. In 2018, both Ron Rivera and Norv Turner (in separate interviews) said 25-30 touches was a realistic expectation for McCaffrey. I’m sure there are other examples we can pull as well.
- The running back position is also the most volume-dependent position in fantasy. Therefore it’s no surprise that 13 of the running backs on our list ranked top-12 in weighted opportunity per game. Compare that to 14 running backs ranking top-12 in fantasy points per game. The outliers were 2019 Derrick Henry (just missed the cutoff), 2018 Phillip Lindsay, 2018 Aaron Jones, and 2018 Nick Chubb. So, basically, Lindsay and three of the league’s five best and most-efficient runners on the ground. For running backs, volume is far more important, sticky, and predictive than efficiency when it comes to scoring fantasy points, but that also doesn’t mean hyper-efficient running backs can’t surprise us every now and then. They’re just difficult to see coming – essentially variance-driven outliers – and typically not good bets ex-ante.
- On that point, some of these breakouts might have been borderline impossible to have seen coming in the preseason. Even back when he was going undrafted, James Conner was my No. 1 must-draft handcuff and a top sleeper, but even I never would have imagined Le’Veon Bell would sit out the entire season. Nick Chubb was always a bet on talent over opportunity, but surely you didn’t envision Carlos Hyde getting traded half-way through his rookie season.
- There are only 24 instances of a running back averaging at least 5.5 targets per game over the past three seasons (eight per season), but 10 of our 17 running backs averaged at least 5.5 targets per game. That’s no coincidence – for running backs, targets are worth 2.8X as much as a carry in PPR leagues. This was a much more important factor than gamescript, for instance, as only 9 of our 17 running backs (53%) were on teams that finished above .500.
Looking back at our running back chart, you’ll see 47% of our sample was drafted in the first two rounds. But in this chart, you’ll find only three of 19 wide receivers (16%) were drafted in the first two rounds. Why? Because, again, the running back position is the most important position in fantasy. High-end running back production simply matters more than high-end wide receiver production, and if you’re drafting a wide receiver early, you’re not drafting a running back early (which is where league-winning running backs tend to reside).
Of course, Michael Thomas ranks second on our chart with a first-round ADP, but he also just scored the ninth-most fantasy points by any wide receiver ever. In addition to fewer early-round names, you also see a number of UDFAs. However, you barely see any (actually only one) wide receiver selected in Rounds 7-13. Why is that? Well, because wide receiver is definitely the second-most important position in ESPN leagues and because ADP is actually pretty accurate with wide receivers (in comparison to the other positions). But also, maybe, don’t be surprised to find a gem off waivers early in the year.
- To nearly the opposite effect of running backs, 11 of our 19 qualifiers (58%) were age 25 or older. That makes some sense, as wide receivers do tend to break out much later in their careers than running backs. Generally, a wide receiver’s breakout year and, actually, peak year is Year 3. Perhaps uncoincidentally, six of the wide receivers on our chart were entering their third year in the league, which was double the next closest year. Could D.J. Moore, Calvin Ridley, Courtland Sutton, D.J. Chark, or Michael Gallup finish as elite fantasy options this year? Or, might Christian Kirk, Anthony Miller, James Washington, or Russell Gage at least exceed expectations?
- While Year 3 is a wide receiver’s breakout year, their best two-season stretch is Years 5 and 6. (In contrast, remember, a running back’s best seasons come in Years 2 and 3.) This again showed up in our data, with 12 of our 19 (63%) league-winning wide receivers being somewhere between Year 3 and Year 6 in their careers. There could be some sort of lesson there, and an edge to us – don’t give up on wide receivers too early. Tyler Boyd who broke out in Year 3 (7.8 to 5.7 to 15.8 fantasy points per game) with second-round draft capital. A more recent example is former first-round draft pick DeVante Parker who didn’t break out until Year 5 (6.7 to 10.3 to 10.0 to 5.5 to 15.4 fantasy points per game). Are we unfairly sleeping on Corey Davis, Breshad Perriman, Mike Williams, N’Keal Harry, John Ross, and others who have disappointed despite good draft capital? Maybe.
- While efficiency outliers (aka regression candidates) should be avoided at the running back position, that’s not entirely true for wide receivers. The efficiency numbers aren’t repeatable, but high-efficiency seasons do tend to lend themselves towards more volume in the following year, as I proved here. We also saw this play out in our data. 8 of our 16 (50%) wide receivers (three didn’t qualify) ranked top-10 in fantasy points per target in their previous season. In the actual season, only 6 of 19 (30%) ranked top-10. What’s the takeaway here? Volume is more important than efficiency in fantasy, but efficiency can also do a pretty good job of predicting a future increase in volume. Might A.J. Brown (first in fantasy points per target), Deebo Samuel (second), Stefon Diggs (fourth), or Calvin Ridley (10th) be in line for more volume and a breakout season this year?
- 11 of our 19 wide receivers (58%) finished the season top-12 in fantasy points per game, though, only eight wide receivers (40%) finished top-12 by targets per game. And actually, nine (47%) finished outside of the top-20. Wide receiver, like running backs and tight ends, are heavily reliant on volume for fantasy points, but clearly far less so than for running backs. On this point, Washington signing Antonio Brown could actually be beneficial for Terry McLaurin. His number of routes run would remain unchanged, and while he may see fewer targets (though I’m not even sure that’s correct), his efficiency should skyrocket. Washington will likely be able to run more plays, more plays near the end zone, and he’ll face softer cornerbacks and fewer double-teams from opposing defenses. Last year, Julian Edelman and Courtland Sutton were both dominating early in the season before opposing defensive coordinators made them the focal point of their gameplan.
- 10 of our 19 qualifiers (53%) were slot, rather than outside, wide receivers. Over the same span, only 36% of any season’s fantasy WR1s were slot wide receivers. It’s not obvious to me why, but perhaps fantasy drafters do tend to underrate slot wide receivers by ADP. Perhaps because they’re so much less important than outside wide receivers in real life.
What immediately jumped out to me here was how obvious this list looks both pre- and post-hindsight. All 10 tight ends finished top-six in fantasy points per game, and 8 of 10 finished top-4. Basically, all of the names on this list are all of the names you’d expect to see.
Even pre-hindsight these players were pretty obvious. Mark Andrews was my top tight end sleeper in 2019 and Darren Waller ranked right behind him. In 2018, George Kittle was Graham Barfield’s top sleeper, and Eric Ebron was John Hansen’s top sleeper. Add in Travis Kelce, who made the list all three years and that’s 70% (7 of 10) of the list.
Beyond that, ADP was all over the place: 60% of our list was selected in the last four rounds of the draft or not at all, while the other 40% had an ADP in the first four rounds.
Although all of these tight ends finished top-six in fantasy points per game, and although (surprisingly) Darren Waller was statistically more valuable than Michael Thomas last year, you don’t necessarily need an elite tight end to win your league. Tight end is the third-most valuable position in fantasy, but on the whole, is still probably closer to quarterback and defense in terms of value. Over the past three seasons, there are 45 instances of a player finishing with a Win% of 55% or higher. Here’s how that composition shook up:
Broadly speaking, this is telling us that high-end running backs are worth roughly 1.7X as much as high-end wide receivers, which are worth roughly 1.8X as much as high-end tight ends, which are worth roughly 1.5X as much as high-end quarterbacks (which are worth the same as high-end defenses). Or, rather, high-end running backs are worth roughly 1.7X as much as high-end wide receivers, 3.1X as much as high-end tight ends, and 4.7X as much as high-end quarterbacks and defenses.
At the very least, this has literally been true of league-winners (defined as narrowly as we have, but which can be used somewhat interchangeably with “high-end producer relative to price”) over the past three seasons. And the values here do seem to follow what we’d naturally expect based on Harstad’s back-of-the-napkin math on positional scarcity.
- Without question, Travis Kelce has been one of the most underrated players in fantasy for a number of years now. In fact, he’s the only player with a Win% over 50% in each of the past three seasons. He posted a 59.1% Win% last year, which ranks third-best among tight ends in our sample, and despite the handicap of an ADP in the early- to mid-second round. And, it appears he’s being underrated again, with an ADP in the early- to mid-second round. Over the past four seasons, Kelce has finished first, first, first, and first among tight ends in fantasy points. Among all wide receivers, he would have ranked top-10 in fantasy points in each of the last three seasons. By VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), it was even more obvious he’s been worthy of a first-round pick in 12-team leagues, finishing (among all players) sixth, 11th, and 12th. Or, versus wide receivers third, third, and third.
- Waller was another instance of us underrating coach-speak. Coach Jon Gruden said all offseason, Waller was one of the NFL’s “best-kept secrets” and would be given “the chance of a lifetime” as Oakland’s TE1. Just the year prior, in Oakland, Jared Cook finished top-five in total fantasy points. We already brought this point up with running backs, though Patrick Mahomes (2018) and Chris Godwin (2019) also qualify, among others.
- Two sophomore tight ends made this list, and, like with quarterbacks, I don’t think that’s too surprising. Tight ends typically make a massive leap from their rookie to sophomore seasons. And it probably shouldn’t be too surprising who these two sophomore tight ends (specifically) were. Evan Engram was one of the all-time great outliers, but typically, rookie tight ends rarely finish as fantasy-relevant contributors. While that was true for George Kittle and Mark Andrews, both did post historically great rookie seasons, finishing with 500-plus receiving yards – something only 16 other tight ends have accomplished over the past 30 seasons.
- How much overlap was there between these two charts? Very little. Only nine of 30 players (30%) appeared on both charts. As for why this is, this goes back to the point made in our introduction. Fantasy postseason performance is far more a function of volatility than fantasy performance in the regular season, which is far more a function of skill. As for a fantasy-relevant takeaway, it’d be easy for me to say “Don’t be afraid to ‘stream’ your way to a title.” Look at what Breshad Perriman (UDFA), A.J. Brown (UDFA), Tyler Higbee (UDFA), DeVante Parker (UDFA), Ryan Tannehill (UDFA), and Raheem Mostert (UDFA) accomplished last year, but, at the same time, that’s a lot easier for me to say now in hindsight.
- Across both charts, only 6 of our 60 (13%) league-winners were drafted in Rounds 4-9. Why is the middle-bulk of the draft so under-represented by our data? Well, basically, it’s really hard to be a league-winner with a low ADP (expensive price-tag). The players who were able to rise above it, were truly dominant, sometimes posting historically great numbers. And the players capable of posting such dominant numbers are typically known names who were already being drafted early.
- But what do these two charts tell us about positional value? Among the top-30 most common players on playoff rosters, we see 4 quarterbacks, 14 running backs, 7 wide receivers, and 5 tight ends. Among the top-30 most common players on championship rosters, we see 2 quarterbacks, 13 running backs, 11 wide receivers, and 4 tight ends. Again, running backs are typically your league winners, followed by wide receivers. And contrary to the Zero-RB theory, league-winning running backs are not easily acquired.