In all my years of fantasy football (I think I am going on year 11 or 12 of being a redraft junkie) I have seen drafting strategies come and go. In the past decade, it was all about drafting running backs heavy at the beginning because of the every-so dying breed of the “bell-cow” back. Then, as this breed continued its decline, the rise of PPR leagues and high-powered passing offenses gave higher value to receivers. As a general trend, WR’s have been moving up in drafts. Just a few years ago, it would have been considered laughable to take a receiver first overall, yet this summer’s ADP indicates that Antonio Brown is likely going to be the first player off of the board in your league. For heaven’s sake, tight ends are being drafted in the first round of fantasy drafts! (More on that later)
Trends come and go, but one thing shouldn’t: your cool-headed ability draft the most valuable player on the board. The concept of Value Based Drafting (VBD) was coined by Footballguys.com in the 90’s and is a method that still works if you know how to use it. For some basic rules of VBD click here. Don’t bother reading the rest of the article unless you either know how VBD works already, or you read it. This article will stop making sense right about here otherwise.
With all of the wacky names for trends flooding the fantasy community like the “zero-RB strategy,” I decided to get back to the basics and do stat projections for the relevant players of the upcoming season. Then as the VBD strategy suggests, I took a baseline player for each position and calculated each player’s X-value. I did this for standard scoring rules, ½ PPR scoring, and full PPR scoring for reference. I took the QB with the 12th most fantasy points as my baseline QB, the 36th RB, the 36th WR, and the 12th TE. I decided on these because it was close enough to the recommended 100 players in a starting pool, and they were all the last player who should be starting on evenly drafted fantasy teams. Then I put all of these players and their X-values and sorted them so that each player had a rank. This not only tells me which players are the most valuable vs. their baselines, but also vs. other positions. Now comparing apples to oranges is possible.
For example, the full PPR X-value for Julio Jones is 133. This means I project he will have 133 more fantasy points than the baseline player. (in this case Marvin Jones) This is significant because comparatively, Le’Veon Bell had a full PPR X-value of 161. (Projection made pre-suspension news) While many will argue that Jones is the safer player for several reasons, (myself among them) this does tell us that Bell will give you a significant advantage over Jones in this format because of his ability to out-produce other backs at his position vs. Jones’ ability to do the same to other WR’s. When you have that entire list compiled, it is very helpful to use as a cheat sheet when drafting, because you can see who the best value picks are in a world where nobody gets injured and everyone lives up to your expectations. (This is fantasy football after all)
As a general rule, I draft safe in the beginning rounds and get riskier throughout the draft. This usually means taking receivers early, but with the “zero-RB strategy” becoming more popular, players like LeSean McCoy are slipping to rounds 3 and 4 whereas, in previous years, he would be a sure-fire first or second round pick. I have high expectations for McCoy, so if I see him still available after I have taken 2 solid receivers, the value is probably too great to pass up on. The receiver depth in this draft is exceptional. In fact, for full PPR leagues, I am projecting that the average WR4 will outscore the average RB3 and the average WR3 will outscore the average RB2. This speaks to the fact that the NFL is continually moving more towards a pass-heavy league. The valuation of running backs is getting slightly out of hand. If you take go WR-WR in the first 2 rounds, and take McCoy in round 3, you are still likely to have a solid WR2 or WR3 sitting there for you in the 4th round. The X-value rank cheat sheet is very helpful for deciding between players at a certain pick, and ADP helps to see if a player you want a round later may still be there. Need factor (also explained in the article by Footballguys.com) is also helpful so you don’t end up starting your draft with 6 WR’s in 7 rounds.
X-Value Rank vs. ADP
What I found much more significant is the valuation of X-value Rank vs. ADP. You can literally take the X-values of every position, and rank them 1-whatever, and then subtract the ADP of each player from this to give you a very useful value. This value tells you whether a player is being valued better or worse than where he is currently getting drafted. Take Eric Decker for example: I projected him to have 980 yards and 8 scores on 75 catches. Looking at past years and his quarterback situation, this doesn’t seem too off base. These stats give him a full PPR X-value rank of 80. (that is to say, if you were drafting completely on value, he would be the 80th pick of the draft) However, he is currently being taken around spot 51 in PPR drafts. (according to fantasypros.com) This means he is being overvalued by more than 2 rounds according to his value vs. other players. What this should tell you is that if you are sitting within a few picks of 80, and Eric Decker is left, he is a good value there. If he goes near his current ADP, the owner that takes him will be missing out on values of potentially 29 other players. This is a significant disadvantage in the long-run. My player with the X-value rank of 51 for full PPR is Jarvis Landry. He has an ADP of 30 for full PPR, so if he is still available, that may be a minor miracle. But say hypothetically you had the option to choose between Landry and Decker. At the stats I projected, Landry will get you 14.41 PPR points per game. Decker will only get you 13.81. The difference is subtle, but if you draft a team full of value picks like this, then that 0.6 point-per-game advantage from one player vs. competition suddenly becomes 6 or 7 points or more on average that you have as an advantage over your opponents. If you can predict statistics with any kind of accuracy, this can give you the edge you need to win your fantasy league.
I love the mid-round depth at running back this year, and I love the value even more. There are a ton of mid-late round backs with enough upside to win your league if you play the rest of your draft right. Since going wide receiver heavy is becoming so much more popular this year, it is creating a very large disconnect of the values of both running backs and wide receivers. Take a look at these charts to get a better picture of this concept:
*Based on X-value rankings vs. ADP. All values are 2016 Projections
*More people are reaching for receivers than ever in 2016
If you look at the charts above, you can clearly see what I am talking about when I say that traditional values have changed. A ton of running backs are being undervalued if you value a player by subtracting the ADP from that player’s X-value rank. This is understandable with the valuation of receivers going up.
Here are some running backs that are getting undervalued based on this logic:
*Green value means that their X-Value rank is higher than their ADP rank
If you are having trouble reading the above chart, take a look at the LeSean McCoy column: His current standard value ADP is 27th overall, while I have calculated his standard X-value to be 8th overall. The difference is 19 spots, which means he is undervalued by 1-2 rounds based on my predictions. This makes him a decent value at his ADP.
A halfway decent strategy for some of these players would be to target them a little before their ADP. For example, Charles Simms is going at the beginning of the 9th round for 10-team PPR leagues. People obviously aren’t too high on him, so if you are picking in the 8th round, he looks like a steal if he can produce like a 4th round pick. The guy had over 1,000 total yards last year, and is the 3rd down back for the Bucs, so that kind of production is not out of the question. A few more touchdowns and he is an RB2 in PPR leagues.
There aren’t as many examples of overvalued running backs, but I identified Eddie Lacy, Carlos Hyde, and Devonta Freeman as players who’s ADP was slightly higher than their X-value rank. I understand Hyde and Freeman. Freeman is coming off the best season of any fantasy back, and despite poor efficiency, he still catches a ton of passes, making him a pretty high value in PPR leagues, and at should at least put up admissible RB2 statistics in standard leagues. Hyde will hopefully be healthy enough to take on the lead back role in a Chip Kelly offense that has historically been at least half-decent to running backs not named Demarco Murray. As for Lacy, I guess people are banking on a bounce-back year. I’m not taking him anywhere near his ADP. If he can’t control his weight, how am I expected to spend a 2nd or 3rd round pick on him? Reports are that he has lost some weight, but he still needs to get back into shape and fight off James Stark for carries. There are much safer bets at both running back and receiver. I wouldn’t take him before round 4, and even then I would still definitely be hesitant.
On the other hand, wide receivers are getting overvalued and “reached” for in many drafts. For a lot of players, this is just due to the unpredictability of running backs and the higher injury risk involved with NFL running backs. There are, however, plenty of receivers getting reached for even considering my previous statements.
Here are some undervalued/overvalued receivers I identified:
*The red highlighted values mean that their X-Value rank is lower than their ADP rank
Willie Snead was easily the most undervalued relevant wide receiver I could find. I think people forget that he almost cracked 1,000 yards, and developed a strong rapport with Drew Brees. Rookie Michael Thomas won’t steal enough targets to effect Snead having a respectable WR3 season. In standard leagues, he is being drafted as an afterthought. If you are looking for a 4th or 5th receiver, and Snead is still on the board, you can get significant value from him later in the draft. John Brown is also getting slightly undervalued, which I think has a lot to do with the fact that everybody seems to have a different opinion on the Cardinals top 3 receivers.
Apparently, I am a lot lower on Larry Fitzgerald versus much of the fantasy community and slightly higher on Brown. If you take a look at the game logs, Fitzgerald failed to crack the 100-yard mark in any of his last 7 games, and only scored twice during that span. I think we will see much more of that Fitzgerald in his age 33 season. The future hall-of-famer hadn’t racked up 1,000 yards in a season in the 3 seasons prior to 2015, and with all of the other options for Carson Palmer to throw to, I don’t see him surpassing 1,000 yards again. For the record, I am staying away from Fitzgerald, Brown, and Floyd unless one of them gets hurt. I can easily see any of them busting, and any of them blowing up.It’s not difficult for me to imagine all 3 getting near equal targets either, making all of them only average plays at best. So much will depend on the game plan, and David Johnson could make them into a run-first team anyway, so why bother.
I have no idea what is up with Julian Edelman’s ADP. He does catch a lot of balls making him a PPR asset, but there is so much working against this guy: He won’t have Tom Brady for 4 games, he has only played a full slate of 16 games once in his 7-year career and he is coming off a major injury and his career highs are 1,056 yards and 7 touchdowns. Sure, Edelman was on pace for over 1,200 yards and 10+ scores, but the Patriots have a lot of offensive weapons they can rely on when they are all healthy. The guy has a much lower ceiling than other receivers being taken in his ADP range, and I don’t see him finishing better than a WR3. Guys Like T.Y. Hilton and Golden Tate are going right around where Edelman is falling, and I would take the ceiling on either of those guys over Edelman’s above-average floor. If there are injuries to other offensive options in New England, Edelman probably moves up my board a little.
NOTE: A lot of the differences in X-values vs. ADP have to do with my personal projections of player statistics. I don’t have a crystal ball, but to the best of my judgment, I predicted how things will go. I encourage anyone serious about fantasy football to do the same thing, it is a great way to recognize draft steals, and play with draft strategy.
Flaws of the VBD Strategy:
The VBD method does have some flaws, and here are some ways I have come up with to skirt around potential issues of following this strategy to a T. To learn about some of these issues, I did just that: I followed the strategy to a T. I tried a mock draft and took only players with the highest values available. I quickly realized that I would only be taking running backs for the first 5-7 rounds because they represent the best values at the moment because of the trend towards early-round receivers. In reality, the trend is for a reason: receivers make better early picks. Running backs bust at a higher rate, and get injured at a higher rate. High-octane passing offenses create receivers with much higher scoring potential. it’s just that simple. If you miss out on one of the few ultra-talented running backs who is not in a running back by committee, a receiver is likely to score more points at a reliable pace wherever you are picking in rounds 1-4. This is especially true for PPR leagues. A wide receiver is going off the board first overall consistently for the first time I can remember. Antonio Brown (as well as Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr.) are likely 3 of the safest picks you can make, and I even think Brown makes takes a legitimate shot at a few NFL single-season receiving records this year.
The other thing to consider is that it is very difficult to find a receiver after round 6 or so who can be an every week starter. Basically, someone has to get injured, and even then Kamar Aiken and Stevie Johnson weren’t top-flight options after Steve Smith and Keenan Allen went down last year. However, since the NFL running back talent has much less variance than wide receiver talent when a player like Le’Veon Bell or Jamaal Charles gets hurt, their backups are starter-worthy basically every week. There are also players like Devonta Freeman who can come out of nowhere to have relevant fantasy seasons simply because they get high volume. Out of the middle tier of running backs (Ryan Mathews, Matt Jones, Jay Ajayi, Ameer Abdullah, Melvin Gordon, etc), I would be willing to bet at least one of those players finishes in the top 10 at the position, if not a few of them. They all have the opportunity to get just as many carries as some of the top-tier backs. Predicting which one can be difficult, but if you take a couple of shots at these guys, you are greatly increasing your chances of landing an absolute steal in the middle of your draft.
This type of running back value means that when the receiver pool starts to dry up a bit, or you already took your top 2-4, there will still be good running backs available, and this is great news for people who want to ride the hype of the “zero-RB strategy,” but are afraid the hype will force them in a different direction. Be flexible in your draft, but find out what rounds you are comfortable taking certain players in. Don’t let a running back that slipped 5 picks longer than you thought completely change your strategy, but if your top rated RB is still available at the beginning of round 3, don’t be stupid. Do lot’s of mock drafts, and do them from all different picks. Your mock drafts may look consistent from picks 3-5, but if your randomly selected draft order puts you at the 9th or 10th pick, you are going to be pretty unprepared for what you want to do, as your strategy can be altered greatly, especially for the first few rounds.
I also came across a couple of points in my mock drafts where the X-value pick was a quarterback or a tight end. Despite what my X-value cheat sheet said, I am a huge advocate on waiting to draft both positions. Here are some reasons why for each:
I actually toyed with the idea drafting Russell Wilson in a mock draft I was running to test out my x-value chart. He was the value pick, and my other options were to take someone lower down the value chain at another position. I identified 4 quarterback’s in the tier of elite fantasy QB’s who I think will have a significant point advantage over their competition. These are Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, and Andrew Luck. I projected the group to average 22.7 points per game. This average is a 3.5 point Jump over my 5th best QB. My only problem with them is their asking price. I am just not willing to spend one of my first 5 or 6 picks on a QB, and that is what a lot of their ADP’s seem to be dictating.
Here are my thoughts on that: After my “elite 4” tier, (knew I could get a Pokemon reference in here somewhere) there are 16 QB’s who I project on average will score 18.45 points, with very little variance. This is only about a 4.35 point difference from the elite tier. For Comparison, the difference between an average WR1 and an average WR3 in PPR leagues based on my projections is 5.75 points. Factor in that a lot of WR3s will be starting in Fantasy, and much fewer QB2s will be starting, and that 4.35 points doesn’t sound like as big of a difference.
Cam Newton currently has a PPR ADP of about 39th overall. A similarly ranked receiver is Golden Tate at 37. Consider that you could wait and pick Eli Manning at the PPR ADP of 95. At a similar ADP, you could grab receiver, Corey Coleman. The Newton/Coleman combination will average an even 34 points per game by my projections, (done before the Josh Gordon news) whereas the Manning/Tate combo will average 34.76 points per game. The difference is small, but as the recurring theme of this article goes, that small advantage adds up if you draft for value.
Quarterback play can be pretty dependent on the matchups, especially for those outside the elite tier. You could hypothetically grab a QB off of the waiver wire every week who will put up a QB1 performance and only give up a couple of points to someone who drafted an “elite 4” QB. On top of that, if your “elite 4” QB has an off-year (see Aaron Rodgers 2015) or gets injured, you pretty much wasted a draft pick knowing you could get a decent replacement 5+ rounds later or off of the waiver wire. Since the running back and wide receiver positions start more players, depth at these positions is much more important. If your WR1 goes down from an ACL tear, and you don’t have depth, you probably won’t recover from it. If you take a QB in the 10th round, you can easily replace him off of the waiver wire. Ask Andrew Luck owners and Andy Dalton owners last year and see who was more upset about their quarterback getting injured, that should tell you all you need to know.
If you want an “elite 4” QB, either hope one slips to the 7th round or later, or be really good at hitting on late round picks. I’m not saying taking an early QB can’t work, but I am saying that it represents a much bigger risk as you are putting way more eggs in 1 basket. By drafting an elite QB, you are either leaving your depth up to later round picks (which are inherently riskier) or you are taking talent away from other starting positions which are counter-intuitive to the reason you took a top-5 QB in the first place. If you want a team prepared to deal with injuries (which, you know, do happen, and quite often in the NFL) and a team with higher scoring potential every week, I highly recommend passing on the temptation to take a QB higher than round 7, and if at all possible, curbing this itch until at least round 10.
My approach to the tight end position frequently changes, but this year my strategy will be to wait on a tight end. I really believe in the depth of this year’s tight ends, and for the same reason I am not willing to invest high draft capital in a quarterback, I won’t do it for a tight end. Taking Gronk in the first round is the most idiotic thing that the fantasy community has come to accept in recent years.
There are really only 3 tight end strategies in fantasy redraft right now. They are:
A) take Gronk, probably with your late first or early second round pick.
B)Take one of the other highly touted tight ends such as Jordan Reed, Greg Olsen, Travis Kelce, Delanie Walker, and a few others depending on your opinion
C) Wait until the later rounds to take a tight end with upside.
I used to be a proponent of strategy B, as you rarely had to spend a top 4 pick to get any of the mid-round tight ends, and they are still a starting position on your team, so they can’t be completely ignored…right? WRONG! Last year I was burned by this strategy. I targeted Martellus Bennett and was kicking myself for half of the year until I finally dropped him. Luckily, for some reason, I decided to take a late round flier on Tyler Eifert. Boy did that pay off. So did going heavy on the early-round receivers to make up for my Bennett pick. Here are some tight ends that had ADP’s better than Eifert last year: Martellus Bennett, Jordan Cameron, Jimmy Graham, and Jason Witten. Guess who had more fantasy points than all of them? You guessed it: Mr. Tyler Eifert. Not only did Eifert outperform these “blue-chip” tight ends, but so did Gary Barnidge, Ben Watson, Richard Rodgers, and Zach Ertz. There is a good chance that all of them but Zach Ertz went undrafted in your league last year.
Just like with the quarterbacks, there seems to always be replaceable talent at tight end off of the waiver wire. There is no reason to waste high draft picks on guys who can likely be replaced with free agents.
I know I haven’t convinced many of the Gronk truthers yet, so here is my argument against taking Gronk: I realize that he has an advantage over his tight end brethren, but it really isn’t that big of a leap. In 2015, he only scored about 0.7 more fantasy points per game than Jordan Reed did, and he can be found usually 3 rounds later.
Say, for example, your draft is 4 rounds. Your 2nd and 3rd round picks are a running back and a receiver. Your 1st and 4th rounds go something like this: You can take either Gronkowski in the 1st, and Latavius Murray in the 4th, or you can take Adrian Peterson in the 1st, and Jordan Reed in the 4th. I actually have projected Gronk to separate a little more from the field, scoring 2.38 more points than Reed whom I have ranked 2nd on my tight end big board. This seems significant until you consider that If you took Adrian Peterson instead of Latavius Murray, you gain the difference of about 3.1 points per game. Based on my projections, the Gronkowski/Murray combo will combine to average about 22.56 points per game, and the Peterson/Reed Combo will average 23.28 points per game. Score one for team don’t take Gronk.
This difference still exists the later you go. Let’s try replacing Jordan Reed with Julius Thomas (standard ADP around 100) and Latavius Murray with Rashad Jennings (standard APD around 101) I project Julius Thomas to average about 7.13 points per game, and Jennings to average about 7.75 points per game. At my projections, the Gronk/Jennings combo will average 20.13. The Peterson/Thomas combo will average 20.41 points per game. Even worse are the risks that come with waiting to add depth. 7.75 points per game is a generous projection if Paul Perkins overtakes Jennings mid-season as the starter. While Jerick Mckinnon is talented, it would take an injury for him to start over Adrian Peterson.
While I understand that you have the ability to draft other starters in the middle rounds, many of these guys are dart throws, which is why, as I have expressed before, depth at running back and receiver is king in fantasy football, and that all starts with solid early round backs and receivers. If you want to put 2 wide receivers into this example, replace Peterson with Jordy Nelson, (high 2nd round, late 1st round ADP) and Murray with Randall Cobb (4th round ADP), run the numbers, and the points per game differential from Nelson to Cobb is almost 4 points per game at my projections, greater than the 2.38 point advantage Gronk has over Reed. On top of all that, neither Gronkowski or Reed are pictures of perfect health anyway.
When I look at the tight end pool, I see almost 20 players with the upside to finish in the top 8 or so tight ends. More than half of these players can be selected after round 8, so do yourself a favor, and take a shot or even 2 at late rounders, and then work the waiver wire if they flop. I can almost guarantee your situation will be better than if you take a tight end higher in your draft. (as long as you aren’t also drafting a high QB) Some late round tight end options are: Eric Ebron, Vance McDonald, Zach Miller, Clive Walford, and Dwayne Allen among others. All have favorable situations, and could easily out-produce players being taken much higher like a Tyler Eifert.
If you work your draft right, you can easily land 3 of the top 15 running backs or wide receivers with your first 3 picks. Those 3 players could easily net you over 50 points per game in standard leagues. The advantage these 3 players can give you over people who take an early tight end can be astronomical.
If you still aren’t convinced, consider this: Only 9 tight ends scored over 100 total standard fantasy points last year. 100 fantasy points averages out to 6.25 points per game. By comparison, I am projecting the average RB3 to average about 9 standard points per game. Tight ends simply don’t score a lot of points, so don’t fret about them!
-Value based drafting, and some simple stat comparisons tell us that we shouldn’t take anything but running backs and wide receivers until after about round 6. When you can start 5 or more running backs and receivers in most leagues vs. only 1 each at tight end and quarterback, this should be more obvious than it is.
-There are plenty value picks based on X-value rank vs. ADP. The dichotomy can be utilized to identify players who are being over-drafted and under-drafted. If you get the best value out of your draft, chances are you are going to have a significant point advantage on average versus the rest of your league if you can accurately project statistics. I’m no projection expert by any means, but after following the NFL for over a decade, and keeping up with all league news and trends for years, I think I can make predictions that will at least identify the major values and reaches in drafts according to ADP.
-Drafting trends will come and go, but the only tried and true method is to draft for value.
-Know your league rules and don’t be a complete idiot. If you are considering taking your 6th wide receiver in round 6 because the value is so great on them, you should still seriously consider taking a RB if you need to start at least 2 of them, and a max of only 3 WR’s. Depth at receiver and running back are more important than getting high-end starters at other positions, but your 6th receiver isn’t going to give you anywhere near the value of beginning your stockpile of running backs at the same pick, or even considering tight end or quarterback depending on the value available.
-Running back and wide receiver are the 2 positions you absolutely cannot stream if you want to be a championship contender. You can get a QB1 or a TE1 after round 10 or on the waiver wire. You probably can’t get an RB1 or a WR1 after round 10 or on the waiver wire. Injury risk is also much higher with an early round quarterback and tight end because of the inability to get an adequate replacement. If you center your team around getting advantages at tight end and quarterback in the early rounds, you are screwed if one or both get hurt. There is very little risk in doing the same with drafting both positions late because of how replaceable those positions are.
-If you really need another argument for why depth at running back and wide receiver is king, think about your in-season weekly start/sit decisions: If you have an average QB with a poor matchup, you can easily pick someone up off the waiver wire to replace him that week. Even if your elite QB can still succeed against bad matchups, your depth at wide receiver and running back will end up leaving you with difficult decisions to make. Picture this potential scenario: Because you spent your 4th round pick on Cam Newton, you now have to either start your RB2 against the league’s best rush defense, or pick up a backup running back whom you hope may get a few catches for 35 yards. On top of that your WR1 has a hamstring issue and is questionable for the game. You don’t want to be in that conundrum as it usually leads to minimal fantasy points, and likely a loss. If you have 7 or 8 quality running backs and receivers, the chances of you being forced to start more than 1 or 2 in a bad matchup are greatly diminished. Plus, these players will likely be much more talented meaning that the matchups won’t affect them as much.
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