2016 Fantasy Football Strategy
Fantasy football isn’t something that you learn over night. Those who are successful in it spend many years honing their craft and understanding the nuances of the sport. This is something that takes time to develop. You also won’t get better by just thinking you know football, or after awhile, fantasy football. I am going to tell you something that is going to upset you: You don’t know as much about fantasy football as you think you do.
Neither do I. I also don’t pretend I do. All year, I read articles to see what other people are thinking and I really dive into the research they’ve done. After all, no one has time to do everything themselves. Those who are truly successful at anything in life absolutely continue to inundate themselves in research and information about the subject matter they are trying to further understand.
I’m writing this with the intention of explaining some of my thought processes when I go into research and then ultimately drafting fantasy football teams. It is likely to be updated often, as I develop new tricks or find new pieces of information that I believe will help you better understand how to develop your own strategies for fantasy football.
With that said, let’s get things started!
KNOW YOUR LEAGUE
Often times, people will go into leagues without understanding two facets that are very important to your success in fantasy football: who they are playing with and the scoring systems. Let’s being with who you are playing against.
The first thing is that you might not know. I play a lot of Yahoo paid leagues each year, and you have no real understanding of how your competition will draft. This is why it is important to remain flexible when drafting, which is something that we will discuss in a later section. If you are playing with your friends though, and have played with them over a period of time, there is likely to be information that you can glean there that can make drafting easier for you.
For example, if you play in a league whose members run to draft running backs in the early part of the draft, you are likely to be able to build a strong stable of wide receivers. In 12 team leagues, I have been able to put together very strong wide receivers. Last year in Yahoo leagues, in which many still saw players try to grab all the running backs early, I was able to typically take Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins and Brandon Marshall, while grabbing guys like Jonathan Stewart and Chris Ivory in the middle rounds, where receivers like Michael Floyd and Jordan Matthews were being taken. This year, a lot of the opposite could end up taking place. I’ve been seeing more and more drafts where Brown/Jones/Beckham/Hopkins and others are being taken before some talented running backs, so there could be an opportunity in some leagues to draft some guys later than you should be able to. These are the situations you want to take advantage of. This, without question, gives you an advantage against your opponents.
Are you in a league where defenses and kickers start going in the sixth and seventh round? If so, don’t fall victim to that flawed logic. There are still highly talented players that will help you win your league in that range. Remember: you are filling your bench with skill position players, specifically running backs and wide receivers. There is a big difference between a 12th round running back and a 7th round running back. There is a much smaller difference between a 12th round defense and a 7th round defense by the end of the year. You know what things you stream? Defenses and kickers. You know what things you don’t stream? Skill position players. You’re trying to play the best matchups. Somehow, a defense is going to have a good matchup 14 weeks of the season? Think about that. I’ll talk more about that later as well.
If you see people “making a run on” a position, meaning they start drafting a position to the point where players are being taken in a row, and most often, far ahead of their draft position, don’t fall victim. There are plenty of players that are going to be available later in the draft. You might want to consider checking out our sleepers article for some suggestions late in the draft. Panicking in a fantasy draft will likely cause you to make decisions you will regret later on.
The other facet of fantasy football that is overlooked is the actual scoring system. Not all leagues are created the same. In fact, in this day in age, almost no two non-generic leagues see the same. You can join a league where you have no PPR, half point PPR or full point PPR. There are leagues where you can get points per carry, or rushing yards are twice the amount as receiving yards. Some leagues are touchdown only. I’m in a league where all yardage, including passing, is all the same.
So, with that said, if you have the number one pick in the draft, who should you take? You see where I am going with this? There is no solid, definite answer. I know a lot of people who would say “take Antonio Brown regardless”, but that couldn’t be further from correct. If you get twice the amount of rushing yards than receiving yards, that immediately vaults at least half a dozen running backs ahead of Antonio Brown.
I do countless leagues where no one has paid attention to how the scoring for the league is set up. This in itself creates a major opportunity for you take advantage of. Being one step ahead of the other players in your league in this manner will give you an advantage not just in drafting, but also in making trades and using the waiver wire.
REMAIN FLEXIBLE IN YOUR DRAFT
One of the biggest mistakes I found myself making was being overly structured in my drafts. By that, I mean I went in with almost a script in hand. Back in 2012, I remember that was the year where it all went wrong for me. Everyone was screaming about how you needed to take running backs early because they were sure to win you your league. Myself, and most of the others that I drafted with, took 3 running backs in the first three rounds. In a 12-team league, there were honestly on average about 20 running backs taken in the first three rounds. Needless to say, those of us who went by that strategy didn’t make it too far that year. Those leagues were dominated by teams that were wide receiver focused or at the very least, well balanced.
The same thing still occurs today. I read TONS of fantasy content. It isn’t all from the major websites either. I see a variety of articles from guys with a lot of pomp and circumstance to guys who just have a WordPress page they write on as an exercise in mental gymnastics. A lot of what I see is the same. Here is a listing of things I have seen commonly in articles:
- Always draft your RB first
- Make sure to wait on receivers
- You’ll want to get your QB in the first four rounds
- Don’t be afraid to reach to grab a defense or a kicker
- Always make sure you have your starting lineup filled before picking your bench
For any number of reasons, I cannot express to you how all of those things are horribly, horribly inaccurate. This is just as bad as saying “I’m going to draft 3 WRs, then 2 RBs, then my TE.” You are not being flexible.
Let’s assume you are picking in the 10th spot in a standard league. You tell yourself that your draft strategy is taking wide receivers with your first three picks. Your turn comes up. Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, Dez Bryant, A.J. Green, Rob Gronkowski, Jordy Nelson, Ezekiel Elliott and Adrian Peterson were all taken. You’re up, and Todd Gurley is still there. Are you really going to stick to your guns and draft Allen Robinson or Brandon Marshall? If you would answer yes, you need to take a very serious look into your drafting habits.
There is room to stick to your strategy and be flexible. When something falls into your lap, take it. Don’t be stubborn because you feel like you NEED to stick to what your strategy is.
I want to take a look at some numbers with each of the positions in this article. Saying things like “just draft a quarterback late” is worthless unless there is some type of empirical data to reinforce your position. It is essentially like going into court with a very strong opinion but no evidence. You’ll get heard, but not listened to.
With that said, I want to look at a few different things to see if that gives us any idea of where it is a good idea to draft each position. For the quarterback position, I wanted to look at what round the Top 5, Top 10, and Top 20 QB’s were drafted. The results for 2015 were, assuming standard scoring in 12 team leagues:
|Rank||Average Draft Position [by round]|
This information gives us a little information about the results of 2015 in terms of ADP by round. The Top 5 QB’s were, on average, drafted near the end of the 9th round, the top 10 finished near the end of the 8th and the top 20 on average finished in the middle of round 10. This lends credibility to the idea that it probably isn’t imperative to draft a quarterback early, but I think we need to see some more information about how the scoring for QB’s drafted in each round went. Please note, anyone not drafted was put into the 15th round:
Again, this is usable data, but several of these data points include only one entry [Cam Newton – Round 10, Aaron Rodgers – Round 2, Peyton Manning –Round 4 to name a few] or outliers [Tom Brady – 343.7 points and Tony Romo – 40.6 points, both Round 7 picks]. The reason I chose to not remove these data points from the calculations is that those situations will occur again this year. There will be rounds where only one quarterback is taken, and there surely will be situations where injuries occur to skew the results. Ultimately, what needs to be done is that more data needs to be used to create a bigger sample size, something we will at least have next year as we write this article.
So what can we glean from this information then? For one, this is not standalone data. We have to examine the rest of the data for other positions to understand what the opportunity cost of choosing Aaron Rodgers in the second round. What it does certainly look like, excluding Cam Newton’s monster year and the fact that he was the only one taken in round 10, is that round 9 seems to be a good spot to take a quarterback. In 2016, this is the tier that includes players such as Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr and Tyrod Taylor, all players that could certainly end up putting up nice fantasy seasons, and most definitely, strong weekly performances.
Another important note to make is that the average points by QB’s who scored at least 100 fantasy points in 2015 was 233.6. In 2015, EIGHT quarterbacks went undrafted or drafted very late in drafts exceeded that amount, including 8 that finished in the top 20, 6 that finished in the top 15, 2 that finished in the top 10 and one that finished in the top 5. There aren’t a ton of guys with really late ADP’s this year, but some include Ryan Tannehill, Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco, and one very underrated Robert Griffin III.
All things considered, I do think that there is a strong argument to be made that you don’t need to reach this year for Cam Newton, Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers in order to win your fantasy league. It would be nice, but I think the data is going to show later that you are likely to be able to grab better players at other skill positions at this point in the draft.
Now we will move on to my favorite position, the running backs. I have been down on running backs for quite sometime now, since that year where everyone needed to draft them early and often and that backfired. In fact, since that time, the Zero-RB strategy has really gained some momentum. Essentially, this means drafting other positions earlier, and grabbing your backs in the middle tier of drafts. Again, this sounds great, but does the data back it up? Let’s find out.
We are going to handle things the same way for each position as we did quarterbacks. Here is the breakdown of average round taken for the three different variables:
|Rank||Average Draft Position [by round]|
This paints an interesting picture for running backs. To get a top five running back last year, the average draft round would have been the sixth round. For a top ten player at the position, you would have needed to select toward the end of the fifth. For a top 20 player, your average draft round would have been early in the fifth. What does that tell us? For one, a top five back could have been drafted a little later than you probably thought. That isn’t tough to explain though: we are talking about 5 players, so one outlier could cause a reasonably dramatic shift in an average. You’ll notice that by the time we are talking about a top 20 running back, the average draft position has jumped up a round to the fifth. This lets me know that as more samples were drawn [more running backs added to the count], there was a return to the mean.
The biggest question is if this holds true in terms of which rounds produced the highest point totals. Here is the round by round breakdown of average points per round:
OK, that’s a lot to take in. It should be noted that Rounds 12, 13 and 14 only had one player at that ADP, so it will skew results some, but they appear in various positions in this table, so it’s not that worrisome to me. Rounds 9 and 11 both only had two players [Round 9 – Devonta Freeman and Duke Johnson, Round 11- DeAngelo Williams and David Johnson]. Round 1 in 2015 had some players who succumbed to injuries, as really only Adrian Peterson was worth his draft position.
If we don’t include Rounds 9 and 11, and start with Round 2, there doesn’t seem to be a compelling argument to draft a running back in Round 2 or 3. Rounds 8, 13 and 5 were at most 16 points difference, which basically amounts to a one point per week difference. To me, that is not enough of a significant difference to warrant paying up for the running back position. I think we can certainly agree that the argument is there that it makes more sense to take a running back before a quarterback though. It isn’t always about total points, as much as it is about the difference in points between rounds at each position.
The final note to make on the running backs is that only 4 running backs who were not drafted exceeded the average points for running backs with a minimum of 50 fantasy points in 2015. This is a much different situation than occurred for quarterbacks. There are a number of reasons this can occur. Some of this has to do with situations like Tim Hightower taking over for Mark Ingram, and doing well, but only having a limited window in which he was active.
The data thus far has shown that quarterbacks are likely to be able to be drafted a little later in rounds, while running backs on average can populate the middle rounds. Will the data give any type of confirmation that, in fact, wide receivers should be drafted in the early rounds? Let’s take a look at what it says about draft position for Top 5, Top 10 and Top 20:
|Rank||Average Draft Position [by round]|
Thus far, the wide receiver average draft round is the lowest for Top 5 and Top 10, but it dips below the Round 5 ADP for Top 20 running backs. This is pretty easily explainable, as there are as many as 3 wide receivers for every running back. What it does begin to indicate, though, is that there is evidence that wide receivers should be drafted earlier than running backs. Let’s see if the round by round breakdown confirms this assumption or not:
The results are pretty alarming here. The top 7 rounds produced the top 7 scores in terms of average points. This pretty much shows that, at least for 2015, the earlier you drafted a wide receiver, the better off you would have done. It also looks like taking 3 wide receivers last year in the first three rounds may not have been the worst strategy. This type of situation certainly goes back to our discussion about remaining flexible in drafts. If a better running back is available than the wide receivers are available, then it would make sense to take the running back.
Though the picks from Round 15 [undrafted] overall didn’t far well, nine players scored above wide receiver league average last year, including Doug Baldwin, who finished 7th among receivers. There are always going to be players that don’t get drafted who end up doing well; that is precisely what the waiver wire is for. The wide receiver situation has been the most interesting yet, and surely shows the consistency in the position in 2015.
The tight end position for the last few years has been Rob Gronkowski and then everyone else. Gronkowski is currently being drafted in the first round of 12 team mock drafts. That seems like an awfully steep price to pay for the tight end position. Let’ see how the top picks at each level ended up:
|Rank||Average Draft Position [by round]|
The trajectory of the tight end seems to be eerily similar to that of the quarterback. How can that be if Gronk is being drafted so early in drafts? Let’s look at the points earned by round in 2015:
Gronk obviously finished first in 2015, just under 40 points above the next closest player. The question is Gronk worth the 2 more points per week on average at his current ADP? The question gets more difficult when considering that the two and three top producing tight ends in 2015 went undrafted in normal drafts [Gary Barnidge and Jordan Reed]. While Gronk is an awesome player, I do think it makes a ton more sense to take a receiver in that position, especially considering the addition of Martellus Bennett and Tom Brady being suspended for the first four games of the year.
This year makes for an especially interesting situation, as there are some guys going undrafted, such as Vance McDonald and Clive Walford, that could end up being nice plays that cost you nothing to obtain. I know there is a major appeal to Jordan Reed this year in the fourth round, but with his injury history and the fact that there are ample options available allow me to take a tight end in the last rounds of the draft.
More and more I am moving the leagues I run away from the kicking position. To me, there is more variance at this position than any others. This is actually the only position that I am not going to do analysis on. Stephen Gostkowski is typically the first taken off the board, and while he finished last year as number one kicker, didn’t finish by a large enough margin ahead of the number two kicker to warrant being draft where he does. The kicker should be the last position you take in drafts. Take one from a team that will either score or get into scoring position more often than bad offenses.
The final element of standard fantasy leagues is the defense. These too can on occasion seem a little too random, but I think on a whole, there is far more skill in picking a defense than there is a kicker. Here is the breakdown for defenses:
|Rank||Average Draft Position [by round]|
Let’s face it: no one is drafting defenses in the first five rounds. Somehow, though, it seems like there is always that one guy that needs to have last years top defense in the 6th round. That’s just silly. Don’t be that guy. Here is how defenses accumulated points per round:
In terms of defenses, I am much more likely to grab a defense with my second to last pick, and then stream options as needed. I typically feel like I build my teams well enough that I can afford to use my waiver wire pick to grab a defense that I believe is in a better matchup than the defense that I have. One of those defenses I am looking at this year is the Minnesota Vikings, who should be pretty good, but I can still stream around when the matchups aren’t great. In fact, we’ve published a list of defensive streamers on our research platform.
Ultimately, I don’t think there is much of a reason based on this data to take a defense prior to your second or third to last pick.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
So what does all of this mean? Well, to start with, it appears that your draft should probably start out with wide receivers, as long as there aren’t running backs falling down the board. Running backs are the next group that would make sense to take, followed by quarterbacks and tight ends. The end of the draft should certainly feature the last two needed pieces: the kicker and the defense.
If I am doing a 12-team standard draft, I could feel comfortable taking 8 wide receivers and running backs, grabbing my quarterback and tight end, building my bench, and then grabbing defense and finally kicker. Based off of 2015 statistics, this would be a pretty good strategy to use to build a strong fantasy football team that should be able to withstand injury and demotion.
This is something that will change from year to year. I plan on making this feature more data, and more important, a larger sample and range of data. I think this is the best thing we can do to determine how we can best create our teams. While fantasy football is always about the future, it is governed by the past.