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Finding Value in Your Fantasy Football Draft

Football!When it comes to fantasy football, there is a common statistical term that comes up again and again. It’s "variation."

From season to season, week to week, and even quarter to quarter, NFL players can be very inconsistent. This can make selecting your fantasy team as much about luck as it is about skill. Nobody has a crystal ball that reveals who will be fantasy sleepers and fantasy busts in the upcoming season. And even if they did, they’d be keeping it to themselves and making millions in Vegas rather than writing about it on the Internet. (Can you make millions off of fantasy football in Vegas? I’m assuming yes, because...you know, Vegas.)

But all hope is not lost. In fact, we can use that variation to our advantage. And I'll use Minitab to show you how. 

The Data Analysis

I used ESPN’s projections to rank the top 100 players. But it wasn't as simple as seeing who was projected for the most points. If Aaron Rodgers is projected for the most points, but 10 other quarterbacks are projected for only 5 fewer points, it doesn't make sense to spend a high draft pick on Rodgers—you can grab a quarterback just as good later on. So we need to compare our projections for each position to an “average” player of the same position. A common way to determine the average player is to use the number of players in each position that are drafted in the top 100. I used EPSN’s average draft position to look at the first 100 picks.

On average, 13 quarterbacks are drafted in the first 100 picks. So I took the projection for the 13th pick (Eli Manning) and subtracted it from the projections of every other quarterback in the top 100. After doing this for each position, I was able to have a common value (I called it the “Value Score”) I could rank all the players on.

But I wanted to do one more step. After determining a player's ranking based on the projections, I compared that to their average draft position. Then I could see if the player appears to be overrated or underrated. For example, Wes Welker is ranked 52nd based on the projections, but is currently has an average draft position of 33. So I would say that Welker is somebody that you should avoid drafting! (That is, until the 52nd pick...but odds are he’ll already be drafted by somebody else by then.)

Now, let’s break down the results!

NOTE: All of my data came from ESPN. Obviously other projections would yield slightly different results. Because of this, I wanted to also compare Yahoo’s projections. But unfortunately, you have to pay to get them this year. Because writing this blog hasn't doubled my salary yet, I decided to just stick with the free ESPN projections.

The Top 10

Rank

Player

Value Score

1

Adrian Peterson

165

2

Arian Foster

147

3

Aaron Rodgers

120

4

Marshawn Lynch

119

5

Ray Rice

118

6

Jamaal Charles

114

7

Calvin Johnson

113

8

C.J Spiller

113

9

Trent Richardson

112

10

Doug Martin

112

No big surprises in the Top 2. The statistics say that Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster should be your top 2 picks, and it’s not even close. Their value scores are both well above the rest of the top 10, so don’t think twice about pulling the trigger on those two if you have a Top 2 pick.

But I should tell you something you don’t already know, right? Okay. Look at the value scores for the next 8 players. There is only a difference of 8 points between all of them. By the end of the season some of these players will live up to and exceed expectations, while others won’t. But because of all the variation in the sports, it’s almost impossible to say which players will do what. So how can this help you? Easy, there are two ways to use this data.

1. Take the “safe” route and pick Aaron Rodgers if you have a pick between 3-10. His average draft position is 9, so you’ll most likely be able to grab him no matter where your pick is. Rodgers is the “safe” play because quarterbacks are very consistent players from year to year. You can minimize the amount of variation in your picks because running backs and receivers are much less consistent. Drafting a first-round running back that turns into a bust can be a disaster for your fantasy season. Drafting Rodgers would be an easy way to avoid stepping on that landmine.

2. Pull a Bill Belichick and trade down. You don’t want to trade out of the top 10 (values scores start dropping more rapidly after that), but if you have the 3rd or 4th pick, see if you can’t trade down and get the 8th, 9th or 10th. You’re not really giving up much value, and you should get extra picks in return!

The truth is, because those 8 players are so close together and we can't predict which ones will be busts, you really can't go wrong. But try to take advantage if you can!

Wide Receivers

Instead of going through all 100 players, I’m going to go through each position and pick out a few select players you should avoid, and then some that you should draft. I’m basing these selections on the differences between the average draft position and their ranking (so positive values are underrated, while negative values are overrated). Let’s start with wide receivers.

In general, the stats don’t like drafting wide receivers too early (Calvin Johnson being the one exception, which makes drafting him in the 1st round a very good option). Of the 35 wide receivers in the data analysis, 29 of them had negative differences, meaning they’re being drafted too early. The 6 receivers who aren't being overrated are:

  • Calvin Johnson
  • TY Hilton
  • Stevie Johnson
  • Mike Williams
  • Torrey Smith
  • Cecil Shorts

Other than Johnson, that’s not too great of a list. All of these receivers should be available in the 8th round and later, so I would prioritize other positions early, then aim for 2 of these players later on to give you WR depth. And I’m not saying don’t draft any wide receivers. I’m just saying only take one or two and save your depth for later.

If you do draft a wide receiver early, here are the top 5 most overrated receivers (with their difference in parentheses)

  • Danny Amendola (-47)
  • Hakeem Nicks (-32)
  • DeSean Jackson (-31, although the projection may have been made before Jeremy Maclin was injured, so take this one with a grain of salt)
  • Dwayne Bowe (-22)
  • Wes Welker (-20)

Quarterbacks

Quarterbacks are the antithesis of wide receivers, in that the statistics say they’re being drafted too late! There wasn't a single quarterback in the top 100 who was being drafted way too early (RG III was the closest, but his difference was only -3, so he’s really being drafted about where he should be). So if you miss on one of the elite quarterbacks early, it would be in your best interest to wait and take one of the following names late. Each of these 4 quarterbacks is going in the 6th round or later, but the stats say they should all be about 4th round picks.

  • Matthew Stafford
  • Russel Wilson
  • Andrew Luck
  • Tony Romo

A quick note about the last name on that list: if you’re looking for that most undervalued guy in the draft, Romo is your man. His average draft position is 77, but the projections say he should be the 38th pick. The difference of 39 is more than any other player in the top 100.

Running Backs

There isn't a lot to say here, as most running backs are being drafted close to where they should be. Only 4 running backs have a double-digit difference (two of them being overrated and two underrated). Your overrated running backs are Vick Ballard and Chris Johnson, and your underrated running backs are BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Shane Vereen. Vereen is the most drastic, having a difference of 20. With Danny Woodhead being out of New England, Vereen could be a pleasant surprise even as the backup running back for the Patriots. Keep him in mind as you look to get running back depth.

Tight Ends

There is one name and one name only that I have to mention when it comes to tight ends: Rob Gronkowski. The statistics have him ranked at #22, one spot behind Jimmy Graham (the consensus #1 tight end). But his average draft position is 43, giving him a difference of 21 spots! Of course, the main reason for this is his injuries and how soon he’ll be able to recover. If you like to gamble, aim for Gronkowski in the 5th round. If he’s healthy all season, you just got the steal of the draft. And if he’s not, well, there are worse things than losing a 5th round pick.

But imagine if that 5th round pick came from a result of trading down your early 1st round pick! Then you just got a lower 1st round pick with almost the same value as the one you traded, and you have an extra 5th round pick to take a free gamble on Gronkowski! That’s how you win your fantasy football league.

After all, you’re never going to get rid of the variation in the NFL. But if you know how you can use it to your advantage, you can put the fantasy odds in your favor!

Comments

Name: Alex • Sunday, August 25, 2013

Great stuff Kevin! Value Based Drafting is possibly the best and maybe easiest way to gain an edge over opponents from day 1 of the season. Your Top 100 is a popular method of ranking, as is the Worst Starter method (using the Nth best player at each position to set your baseline, where N=total number of starter spots each position has across the entire league) so that you're comparing each player to the least valuable player starting at each position. But I also wanted to mention to you, in case you didn't know, a great place to get a diverse collection of projections (I really hate relying on 1 source for season projections, especially if that 1 source is ESPN). Fantasypros.com is free and pulls projections from a number of places (including ESPN) and averages them. Even lets you select/deselect sources that are weighed into the average. I always love reading your breakdowns of fantasy football this time of year so enjoy and keep up the good work!


Name: Kevin • Monday, August 26, 2013

Wow, that fantasypros site is fantastic. Really wish I knew about it before I wrote this article! Now I'll have to see if I can't use their numbers to do one more post before the season starts. Thanks for sharing!


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