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Think You’re Drafting a Running Back in the First Round of your Fantasy Draft This Year? Think Again!

If there is one thing just about everybody agrees on when it comes to fantasy football, it’s that you need to spend your first pick on a running back. It’s even common for your first two picks to be running backs. And there is good reason. Last year I did some data analysis and confirmed that you should still be drafting a running back with your first pick. But that was 365 days ago! There has been an entire season’s worth of data since then. Just like in the quality improvement world, the landscape of sports is constantly changing. You'd better keep your information up to date, or you’ll end up in your fantasy league’s basement!

Last Season’s Data

So what happened in the NFL last year? Well, we know it was a great year for quarterbacks. Not one, but two different quarterbacks broke the NFL record for most passing yards in a season.  On top of that, 3 different quarterbacks threw for over 5,000 yards and a fourth (Eli Manning) threw for 4,933. Before last year, only two quarterbacks in the history of the NFL had ever thrown for 5,000 yards.

So how does this relate to fantasy football? I took the top 25 scoring quarterbacks from 2011, and compared their total number of fantasy points to the players from the previous 5 seasons with the same rank. For example, Aaron Rodgers led all quarterbacks with 431 fantasy points last year. The quarterbacks that led the league in fantasy points the previous 5 years (Vick, Rodgers, Brees, Brady, and Manning) scored an average of 347.8 points. So Rodgers scored 83.2 more points than the average #1 ranked quarterback.

NOTE: All data comes from KFFL.com and does not include any games in week 17 or the NFL playoffs. You can get the data here.

Rank

2011 Player

2011 Points

Difference from Previous 5 Years

1

Rodgers, Aaron

431

83.2

2

Brees, Drew

400

84.6

3

Brady, Tom

384

83

4

Newton, Cam

372

79.4

5

Stafford, Matthew

341

55

6

Manning, Eli

302

25

7

Ryan, Matt

296

28.4

8

Romo, Tony

294

32.8

9

Rivers, Philip

277

29.2

10

Sanchez, Mark

265

23

11

Roethlisberger, Ben

247

11

12

Vick, Michael

235

5.4

13

Fitzpatrick, Ryan

233

8

14

Flacco, Joe

232

13.2

15

Freeman, Josh

221

5.6

16

Dalton, Andy

219

7.2

17

Smith, Alex

216

11.6

18

Tebow, Tim

214

14.4

19

Hasselbeck, Matt

198

9.8

20

McCoy, Colt

180

3

21

Schaub, Matt

179

10.6

22

Jackson, Tarvaris

178

20.8

23

Moore, Matt

171

16.4

24

Grossman, Rex

169

17.6

25

Cutler, Jay

161

15.6

The difference is green if it is positive and red if it is negative. Yes, that’s right. Every single quarterback scored more points in 2011 than the average quarterback at their rank the previous 5 years. But before you start screaming “ZOMG, I’m drafting 8 quarterbacks this year!” ask yourself a question: Was last season simply a statistical outlier, or was it part of a trend?

Sounds like we need to look at a time series plot.

You’re looking at a time series plot of the average fantasy score for the top 25 quarterbacks each of the last 6 years. Does anybody see a trend? Not only does it appear that last season wasn’t an outlier, but I wouldn’t be surprised if 2012 was an even better year for quarterbacks.

But Here’s the Rub

We already know that quarterbacks score a lot. In the past if you didn’t get Rodgers, Brady, or Brees, you could draft somebody else that wasn’t too far behind. As for running backs, if you didn’t grab an elite one early, you were in serious trouble because there just aren’t that many great running backs.

But take a second look at the table above. Sure, everybody improved, but who improved the most? The top quarterbacks. While everybody may be getting better, it’s the elite quarterbacks who are benefiting the most. All of a sudden if you miss on Rodgers, Brady, or Brees, you’re sacrificing a lot more points than you used to. And I can show it.

The Proof Is in the Pudding

In part II of my fantasy football draft process analysis last year, I looked at the standard deviation of different positions. The greater the standard deviation is, the more the data are spread out. The position with the greatest spread is the one you want to draft early on. So what if I use data from last year? Let’s compare the standard deviation of the top 10 quarterbacks to the top 20 running backs (I use 20 running backs because you draft more of them).

  • Top 10 QBs: Standard Deviation = 57.5 Fantasy Points
  • Top 20 RBs: Standard Deviation = 39.1 Fantasy Points

Things have changed! You’re now losing out on more points if you draft an elite running back instead of an elite quarterback.

For example, let’s say last year you had the #1 pick in the draft and you knew Aaron Rodgers would be the #1 QB and LeSean McCoy would be the #1 running back. Whichever position you don’t draft, you have to take an average player (the #10 ranked player for QBs, #20 for RBs). How many points would you be giving up by passing on either one?

  • Draft Rodgers: 272 (top RB score) – 136 (average score) = You sacrificed 136 points
  • Draft McCoy: 431 (top QB score) – 265 (average score) = You sacrificed 166 points

By drafting the RB first, you’re losing out on 30 more points. And this assumes you knew McCoy would be the #1 running back. Had you drafted Adrian Peterson (the preseason #1 RB), you would have lost out on 121 fantasy points!

And just to drive the point home, here is an individual value plot of the top 25 quarterbacks and running backs from last year. You can easily see that after the first 5 quarterbacks, you’ve already lost out on 129 points. Meanwhile it takes 19 running backs to be drafted until you lose 129 points.

Individual Value Plot of 2011 Fantasy Football Points

So yes, this is all based on a single year of data. There is definitely a chance the top quarterbacks come back to earth this season. However, we already saw that their scores have been trending up the past six years. I would argue that the potential rewards outweigh the risks.

So Who Should I Draft?

Aaron Rodgers should be your #1 pick, without a doubt.  He’s ranked in the top 3 in fantasy scoring each of the last four years. And last year, even if you knew who the best running back would be, Rodgers was still the better decision. If he is off the board, you can’t go wrong with Tom Brady or Drew Brees. If you could tell me who the #1 running back will be at the end of the season, I would tell you to pick them. But you don’t know who that will be. Remember what happened to Chris Johnson last year? Running backs are a lot more inconsistent year to year than quarterbacks. With the rate that quarterbacks are scoring at now, I would actually take Brady and Brees #2 and #3. And seeing as how most people will still draft a running back first, you should be able to get either quarterback even if you don't have a top pick.

If those 3 guys are all off the board, don’t hesitate to pull the trigger on Matthew Stafford or Cam Newton. Now, I wouldn’t draft them ahead of any of the top running backs, but they are fine selections in the late first round or second round. If you miss out on any of those five, your best bet is to wait awhile to draft your quarterback. But with 5 legitimate options (maybe six with Peyton Manning), you should be able to grab a top quarterback with your first or second pick. And if the quarterback trend keeps going up just like it has been the last six years, you’ll be glad you did!

Photograph by avinashkunnath.  Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.
 

Comments

Name: Alex • Monday, August 6, 2012

I love the article! I've had this debate with people all offseason and its nice to have numbers to justify what I've been trying to say. Anyways, I have a question for you, and maybe a possible article breakdown before people start having their drafts. One thing I've been curious about is how accurate are the projections that experts put out? Obviously you want to take them all with a grain of salt, and they can't account for major injuries, but I guess more specifically I'm wondering if it'd be smarter to use those projections or the previous year stats (which I think you've talked about before as being a poor predictor, with an R-squared around 50% if I remember correctly). Anyways, keep up the great work! I always love reading these articles!


Name: Kevin • Monday, August 6, 2012

Thanks Alex. I tried looking around on ESPN and Yahoo, but I can't find any of their projections for previous seasons. Probably so that nobody can see how off they were! Anyway, I won't be able to see how accurate they are until next year (I saved off their top 100 players).

As for your question on whether to use previous stats or expects picks, I would say a mix of both. Using the past two seasons of data, I got an R-sq of only 60% (50% using only 1 season). It can be helpful, but shouldn’t be the only thing you look at. The biggest flaw in previous seasons is that it can’t account for players changing teams and rookies. And even if a player stayed on the same team, a change in their offense line or QB could greatly affect their performance. The “experts” are at least able to factor this in (although it can be a guessing game to how much affect it can have and how good rookies might be).

Looking around at some of the experts rankings, the one I liked the most is actually Mathew Berry. Everybody else seems to be sticking to the “RB first” strategy. But Berry actually has Rodgers #1, Brady #2, and Brees #6. Although I would take Brees at #3, I wouldn’t blame anybody for taking Rice, Foster, or McCoy (his #3, #4, and #5) ahead of Brees. It at least shows he seems to be noticing how well QBs played last year and isn’t just following the old way of thinking.

So next year I’ll have to take some of the “experts” picks and compare them to if you had just picked based on stats from the last two seasons. Then we’ll be able to see which is better!


Name: Meetloaf13 • Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Hello Kevin,

I chanced upon your article today, well almost, I did google "fantasy football std deviation analysis".

I am intrigued by your articles and hope that you have a few more up your sleeve as my draft day approaches.

This year I'm cutting my snake league as it's not very competitive (always 2-3 go inactive), so I can spend a little more time on my auction draft.

I just wrapped up a successful fantasy basketball league and I owe my success mostly to using std. deviation analysis to exploit value. We played h2h most cats. I was able to punt blocks and create a valuation that differed vastly from anything our there.

I know the scoring is a bit different, but I'd like to take a similar approach to my fantasy football draft this year (I don't plan on "punting" any cats, since it's all points =]).

I'm curious what you think of this:
http://rotoworld.com/articles/nfl/41100/71/value-based-drafting-revisited

I don't know a ton of stats, just enough to follow along.

Do you think it's possible to easily translate some of your analysis on "who to pick first" to "who to spend the most on" or "how much to spend on___"?

Thanks!


Name: Kap • Sunday, August 26, 2012

I strongly agree with this article: simply put, guessing the top running backs this year is basically impossible, even within the top 3 backs of this year atleast two of three are guaranteed to not fall into the top 3 again at the end of this year. In contrast, the top qbs have a high chance of repeat performances, especially rodgers. Instead, you can basically find backs that had great years last year or have potential to have great years this year under certain cirumstances in mid to late rounds. There will be 16 other solid backs, and many averages backs, but thing is they could be anyone, in any of the first half rounds or even after, so basically you want to just play the numbers. Draft a TON of high risk/reward (one or two solid ones) RB's after u grab your qb and wr's, and some of them will be average, and atleast one will probabaly be solid. The odds are just better to try ur luck on RB's than on QB's, there were only be a few solid qbs and we are pretty sure who they will be. WR's are the easiest to predict because it comes down mostly to talent and the power of offense/ expected throws. You can grab some elite WR's that you pretty much know will perform well above average and/or above average, securing yourself some distance from your opponents who draft wr late (very few good WR's and ALOT of average ones). This is alot safer, and is going to be my strategy:

1. Early First Round - Pick Best Available QB, because none of the elites will be left by the late second round (UNLESS the first round QB's are all taken which means the top 3 rb's dropped down to you, in which case you might as well take them, since you still have a better chance at 5 or later to get an elite QB or elite WR if all else fails (your in a better value position and reaching for a second round qb may be even riskier).

2. Lat First Round - Pick an elite WR in first round and then and elite Best Available QB in the Second

Wondering what other people think of this strategy? Thanks, Gl.


Name: greg • Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Awesome article. This was exactly what I was looking for Kevin, thanks. I read through some of your other stuff on here it's very helpful to look at the top QB vs running back comparison when you look at the Standard Deviation. I would love to see similar stats for even WRs vs TEs like Graham. TEs seem to be acting more like WRs every year, I think mainly because of rule changes that make it much harder to play defense (no contact after five yards, for example).


Name: Meetloaf13 • Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Draft is tomorrow evening. Wonder if Kevin is back from honeymooning in time to recap with us! =]


Name: Kevin • Monday, September 3, 2012

Sorry, I got back last week, but the commenting feature has been down, so I haven't been able to reply until now.

Love the Supply/Demand idea to determine the benchmarks. Wish I would have ready that before I wrote the top 100 article. It just seems to make more sense. Say people are only drafting 5 RBs in the first 100 picks (just humor me a minute). But RBs get hurt/benched so often that you're going to need a bunch of them throughout the season. Then you know that you should be drafting more of them early, and you will gain a significance advantage upon everybody else. Although looking at your numbers and the ones I used for the top 100, the only big difference is tight ends. So let it be known, Jimmy Graham and Gronk are even more valuable than people think!

Greg:
Speaking of tight ends, I already wrote an article that did this same analysis for TE and WRs. It came out last week.

Kap:
I agree with everything you said in #1. Although for #2, if the top 3 RBs and QBs are gone, the only WR I would consider taking is Johnson. I would draft Stafford, Newton, Gronk, and Graham before I'd take a different WR. Even if you miss out on one of the top WRs, you'll sacrifice less points by taking an average one than you will at any other position.


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