How to Draft on Value and Finally Deliver You Championships
It’s July. Draft season is getting ready to kick off in the fantasy football community and the hubbub of football being less that 50 days away is generating excitement.
You have many analysts, myself included, and publications who have published rankings and draft kits to get you ready for the season. Many sites have a huge amount of draft data to give you up to the minute ADPs to tell you where players you are wanting to select are going, therefore giving you a rough price you need to pay in order to get your guys.
All of this is invaluable information that will give you the pathway to execute your plan. However, the one flaw most fantasy football players make is that the above information is their plan. They follow Adam Rank or Evan Silva religiously and use their rankings, and use ADP to determine where to take those players. It will allow you to potentially get into the playoffs, but you will find this information and system insufficient in isolation of your own independent strategy and understanding how to draft better than your league competition.
Which is why I want people to understand value based drafting. This isn’t an original thought, or a strategy I have developed on my own, but merely a summary into the process that I believe yields the largest probability of success when it comes to making the playoffs in your league. Making the playoffs should be your primary goal in your league, with the goal of winning it almost secondary to actually making the playoffs. So here is a guide that will assist you in developing a value based strategy that you can adopt quickly and easily so as to give your roster the highest probability to succeed.
Know your league settings and scoring?
This seems like a very basic point, however you will be surprised how many people do not consider the type of league they play in and adjust their rankings accordingly. They assume that player rankings rarely change if the scoring changes and this just isn’t true. In Standard scoring, getting a stud Running Back is far more valuable than getting a WR or Kelce. This is because the amount of times Running Backs touch the ball and what they do with it counts very highly and a back carrying the ball 250 plus times is more valuable than a Wide Receiver who makes around 100 catches. Standard scoring is scoring production and nothing else. This isn’t true with PPR or 0.5PPR where players are rewarded for catches.
In order to understand how the scoring changes, you need to do a few of the following:
- Mock Draft on your playing platform such as Sleeper, NFL Fantasy Football app etc… Do several of these to understand who is going where and more importantly, why they are going there. It seems basic but it’s highly effective.
- Use the Fantasy Pros website or other resources to understand how the previous years have gone in terms of scoring. How many RBs vs how many WRs appear in the top 24 of scoring and what are the trends. Understand this gives you a significant advantage when trying to work out and understand breakout players and teams.
- Get multiple sources of information. Whether that is podcasts, articles, or magazines, try and spot trends. Eventually you will see who is predicting players more regularly and why. Use these resources to solidify your thinking as opposed to defining your entire strategy.
Fully understanding your league and the scoring is the first step to helping you understand what players are “value” and what aren’t.
Tier your player rankings
Doing rankings is important. Whether you do them yourself or copy someone else’s, it is important to have a list of 1-200+ players and how you view them. But getting hung up on selecting certain individuals will lead to you either being disappointed at missing out on said player and panicking, or overvaluing them and therefore taking them far too early, whereas if you wait you could still get them, and you have missed out on other great players that will deliver a greater value for you. This is why tiers is an important concept to understand and adopt.
When you have your final rankings, you need to start grouping players together. “If I miss out on player A, it’s fine as player B is very close in my rankings and I only separated them by a few points”. By doing this, you will find it hard to miss out. A 2018/2019 theme in drafts is this notion of sniping. The absolute worst thing you can do in a draft is to believe you have been “sniped” and even worse to publicly declare that to the league. Why? In a tier based approach, you aren’t looking at a one player fits perspective, but several players who have a quality you are looking for. For example, you might have started your draft RB, WR, and you want to get your second RB in round 3. You want a high volume back who will also get work as a receiver. You can create a tier that looks like Devonta Freeman, Kerryon Johnson, Aaron Jones, Leonard Fournette, Derrick Henry and Marlon Mack. In my projections in PPR I have these guys separated by about 25 points, or around 1.5PPG over a season. Am I truly upset if I miss out on Freeman but get Johnson. Not really as I filled what I wanted and I am not losing that much from my top guy I have ranked in that tier. Therefore I haven’t been sniped, I still got what I wanted. If you tell your league you have been sniped, you are giving away valuable information. I know then you are working off just a rankings list, and you are targeting individuals. It then becomes a jigsaw, and once you give me enough information, I can fill in the blanks as to who you are targeting and I can then snipe you again. And again. And again.
What happens when you miss out on an entire tier? You don’t reach for the next tier. You focus on other areas and explore value. I will cover this more in our roster construction article coming out later this week or next. The idea is to allow yourself to be fluid in your strategy and if you miss some targets, you can pivot into other areas and extract maximum value elsewhere. Knowing what type of players is important and what kind of roster you want to build is key, so keep an eye out for the roster construction article.
Understand your league’s ADP and using it as a guide to drafting.
I have touched upon this briefly, however, it is important to know your leagues ADP and where in general, the fantasy community value players. You can have a rankings list of where you project players to finish, but if you follow those in order, you will take breakout players much higher than you can get them, and essentially overpay for their production. Here is a recent example of a draft I was in. I currently have Albert Wilson Jr as theWR30 for this upcoming season, with an upside potential for WR24. His ADP hovers around the 12th round currently in 12 team leagues, sometimes lower. Now if I was to draft him as the WR30, I would have needed to take him between the 7th and 8th round and pass up getting Rashaad Penny and Ronald Jones II. My team had three RBs however I saw the tier falling off a cliff at RB, and wanted to get some solid backups on my bench with high upside. If I had taken Wilson at my ranking value, I would have missed one, or maybe both of these players, and therefore left a massive hole in the roster I wanted to build. Instead I took Wilson Jr. as my WR5 and the 56th WR off the board in the 11th round. Now not only have I got my WR30 at WR56, I then also filled my RB room with 2 guys who I also got below where I ranked them. So instead of getting 1 player at a potential value, or at cost, I got value on 3 players. I only need 1 player to outperform their position for this to have been a profitable strategy. This is right at the heart of value based drafting, as if you can understand cost of players, you can make smart moves to build your roster in a more efficient way.
Positional Value is key
This concept was introduced and solidified to me by Joe Pisapia, author of the award winning Fantasy Black Book. He talks about Relative Position Value. I am not going to copy his premise or steal the idea, so instead go an buy his book. It’s the best £12 you are going to spend on Amazon this year if you want to win championships.
However something I will share is this: understanding the gap in scoring between the Top scoring starter and the last starter in league is important to understand. For example, if the RB1 scored 250pts last year and the RB12 (if 12 team league, or RB10 in 10 team leagues and so on and so on…) score 150 points, knowing the difference in PPG and working out the value of that is incredibly important. 100pts works out to 6.25PPG, therefore targeting guys at the top end of the scoring in that tier is incredibly important. You then do the same for RB13-RB24 and so on and so on for all the roster spots in your team. Once you know the scoring difference for each position and spot on your roster, you know what areas to target and what are important.
One piece of advice in this however is to spot outliers and candidates for scoring regressing. I will cover Mahomes in depth shortly, however, I will say that Mahomes has become only the 3rd person to throw 50+ TDs in a season behind Payton Manning and Tom Brady. Those two guys have only done it once. The percentages of him repeating are remote, and therefore he is likely to see a decrease in touchdowns this year. You can also make the case for a yards regression also considering he might not have Tyreek Hill for some games and Kareem Hunt has vacated the backfield in Kansas City. Therefore when looking as his scoring, don’t get blinded by his last year numbers, but instead work out a discounted number and factor in the difference. Otherwise you will overdraft Mahomes and therefore potentially overpay and miss out on other positions and value.
Therefore for some people, taking George Kittle is a value play in the second round. For me he is not. However, if he falls into the 4th round, I become immediately interested as he outperforms the other TEs significantly enough and the other tiers I could draft could be much closer on scoring. So taking a player a round later and not giving up more than a single PPG whereas Kittle can deliver a potential 5PPG difference over the next tier of TEs makes him a massive value. Being fluid in your strategy, whilst setting up tiers and then knowing the difference in scoring between the first and last place person for a team position all allow you to be prepared to move in other directions and stop you from being pigeon-holed into selecting players that are overpriced, or reaching for inadequate talent.
Many people have caught onto “The Late Round QB” approach that was proposed and structured by JJ Zachariason 7 or so years ago and has been adopted by analysts across the industry. Again, this isn’t original insight, but I will add some context as to why you should adopt this approach.
I have talked about Patrick Mahomes and very briefly the case for regression back to the mean. I have been working out a regression of about 50 points in my projections this year as a minimum, so for the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to handicap Mahomes 50 points. Now you don’t have to and this could lead you to want to draft Mahomes in the 3rd round of your league. And that is fine, but it will come at a cost.
Working out 2018 rankings between the QB1 and the QB12, Mahomes lead the league with 399.7 points after 16 games (I have excluded week 17 from the samples). If I regress him to the mean and bring him to a league leading 349.7pts, he is still the QB1. Kirk Cousins was the QB12 after week 16 with 277.9pts. This is scored at 4pts per touchdown for context. The scoring difference between these two players is 71.8 points or 4.49PPG. If these results replicate this season, Mahomes in the 3rd round gets you less than 4.5 points a game to Cousins who is borderline not getting drafted. If you miss out on a RB2 or WR1 in this round, the drop in value will supersede 4.5PPG, let me tell you. Plus you will then have to reach to get other positions, meaning you will lose value in every round until the QBs go. This could cost your team, on a good day and perfect draft, 10PPG, and if it all goes wrong, upwards of 30PPG. You will always be behind the rest of the draft until the QBs come off the board, meaning you will always be chasing value.
How does this data compare historically. Well in 2017, the gap between the QB1 and the QB12 was 5PPG, 5.8PPG in 2016, and the same margin in 2015. So in all cases the margins aren’t game changing. It’s worth pointing out that if you take the QB1 out in all cases, that number drops to an average of 4.3PPG and once you get to the QB6, it drops down under 2PPG on average over the last 4 years.
We then come to the ADP of the 4 QB champs in the last four years. Patrick Mahomes in 2018 had an ADP of 10.08 and was the 15th QB selected off the board. Russell Wilson was the 5th QB off the board in 2017 at an ADP of 6.03. Aaron Rodgers was the second QB off the board in 2016 at an ADP of 3.08. And Cam Newton was, amazingly, the 15th QB off the board in 2015 at an ADP of 10.08.
So as you can see, the fantasy community, with the exception of Rodgers, is incredibly poor at predicting Quarterback final rankings, and that QBs who finish as the QB1 rarely put in a good defence of trying to repeat. Cam Newton was the QB16 in 2016, Aaron Rodgers due to injury finished at the QB28, and Wilson as the QB8. All 3 finishing well below where they were taken on the board. And that is because the Quarterback position is a highly volatile position. The variables are massive, from coaching scheme, to the requirement of receivers to make plays, to the offensive line holding up and being as effective or better as the year before, something that is extremely rare in the NFL, as well as the ability to remain healthy. Something that you cannot guarantee with QBs.
So not only do our top rated QBs let us down time and time again, but they don’t push the needle in terms of improving our team, and giving our fantasy football team the greatest chance of success. You are far better off targeting a mid tier QB who only regresses the PPG by 2.5-3 and then targeting value in the rounds before you take your QB. You will come out ahead every time this way, unless you are the unluckiest fantasy football player ever and you end up with all the players you select getting injured.
Defenses and Kickers. Do not draft before the final three rounds
The final value piece of advice when it comes to value based drafting is to not draft kickers and DSTs before the final three rounds of drafts. They do not move the needle in terms of wins and points per game. Also, similar to QBs, DSTs are extremely volatile and difficult to predict. Below are the last few seasons top 5 points in a season.
DSTs Top 5’s (Weeks 1-16)
2018- Bears 183 points, Rams 131 points, Texans 124 points, Ravens 120 points, Skins 115 points. The DST 12- Steelers 102 points. Difference between DST1 and DST12: 5.1 PPG
2017- Jags 190 points, Ravens 183 points, Rams 165 points, Eagles 160 points, Chargers 150 points. The DST 12- Pats 110 points. Difference between DST1 and DST12: 5.0 PPG
2016- Eagles 158 points, Chiefs 157 points, Patriots 155 points, Vikings 153 points, Broncos 148 points. The DST 12- Bills 121 points. Difference between DST1 and DST12: 2.25 PPG
2015- Cardinals 185 points, Broncos 181 points, Chiefs 174 points, Panthers 158 points, Seahawks 153 points. The DST 12- Eagles 132 points. Difference between DST1 and DST12: 3.3 PPG
2014- Eagles 177 points, Texans 159 points, Bills 159 points, Rams 143 points, Patriots 139 points. The DST 12- Vikings 122 points. Difference between DST1 and DST12: 3.4 PPG
Kicker PPG Average
2018- PPG average between K1-K12 2.7 PPG
2017- PPG average between K1-K12 2.7 PPG
2016- PPG average between K1-K12 2.6 PPG
2015- PPG average between K1-K12 3.2 PPG
2014- PPG average between K1-K12 2.4 PPG
Last year saw a huge outlier with the DST1 being over 50 points in front of DST2, something that has never happened in DST scoring over the past 10 years of data. Also if we looked at the scoring last year between DST2-DST12, the scoring difference in PPG is under 2. Since the Chicago Bears Defence was the 11th DST taken off the board in drafts, the fantasy community got this one wrong from a predictive nature. Infact, the best projection we have had in ADP over the past 5 years is when Arizona in 2015 was taken as the 8th DST off the board. In the other years, 2017, 2016, and 2014, the DST1 was going outside the top 15 DSTs drafted, and therefore they were generally not being drafted.
Know these data trends, plus the fact no DST1 has repeated in the top 5 DSTs except the Eagles in 2016 when they finished 4th in 2017, as well as the fact that DST scoring is declining due to rule changes such as the roughing the passer penalties being brought in, as well as more points being scored in the NFL due to the rule changes, means that there is absolutely no value in drafting a DST early. If you are going to draft one in the 3rd to last round, a kicker in the second to last round, and then take a late, last round flyer on a player, then that is a strategy I can see yielding value as you can jump up and get a top 5 or 6 DST and Kicker whilst the last person on your roster might not play 1 minute in your team this season. But any earlier than that, and you are throwing away value and missing out on high upside potential players like George Kittle and Phillip Lindsey last year.
So that is a guide to value based drafting. It is thinking outside the box, identifying trends and using that to your advantage, not limiting yourself to just one chain of thought or strategy, and lastly giving you room to pivot in your draft so you can always have a roster that is primed with talent, with a ton of upside potential, but also has a very safe and solid floor. Stop reaching for players and positions that don’t move the needle in terms of Points Per Game and start giving yourself room to zag when the rest of the league is zigging. Doing this not only makes you a better drafter for fantasy football, but also a better player week to week. What do you have to lose, if you didn’t win your league last year?