Two Charts that Will Change How You Play Fantasy Football

Most draft strategies and player rankings prey on faulty assumptions, coercing you into making bad decisions that dramatically decrease your chances of success.

Mike Evans might be one of the best wide receivers in fantasy in 2020. But what if drafting him is a mistake? (Photo: The Tampa Bay Times)

Fantasy football is a game most aptly described as unpredictable. After all, so much of our achievements are tied to forces well beyond our control. We all seem to inherently understand this — and yet, we all seem to embark on the same, monotonous strategy on Draft Day. Sure, some individual player preferences might be unique to each of us, but the framework of what positions we draft when is largely identical across every fantasy news site, and within every fantasy league.

That should lead the scientist within us all to ask the question: is the conventional draft strategy actually the one that guarantees us the best chance of fantasy success?

On the surface, the answer to that question appears to be: yes. Across most fantasy sites, you’ll see a carefully constructed list of player rankings that seems to equate projected player performance with the draft position they should be selected in. In other words, you’ll see the 36th ranked wide receiver suggested to be drafted right around the 30th ranked running back (the WR36 and RB30 each generated about 120 total points in 2019).

All of this makes sense . . . right?

Not so fast. Because what trips up most fantasy analysts — and their resulting draft strategies — is the same thing that trips up many economists that attempt to predict consumer behavior or marketplace trends.

You see, there is a faulty assumption nearly every fantasy expert makes when they rank players. And it leads to a cognitive blindspot that is significantly hampering your chances of drafting a championship-caliber lineup.

First, some assumptions (and limitations)

Before I press onward, let me state some assumptions — and limitations — to my unorthodox Draft Day strategy. After all, even the best ideas have their shortcomings. Let me try to identify some of mine.

First, while I do believe that what I am about to share has merit in nearly any league format, my findings — and subsequent recommendations — are specifically geared towards leagues that employ a conventional “snake order” draft.

Further, the deeper the league you play in, the more critical my advice is to you. The following statement is rather intuitive, but I do want to call it out: there are infinitely more ways to win in, say, a six- or eight-member league than there are in a twelve- or fourteen-member league, because the pool of desirable players is so much deeper in smaller leagues. This isn’t to say it is easier to win smaller leagues — more ways to win shouldn’t read as less difficult. But drafts in smaller leagues (six-, eight-, and even ten-team outfits) are somewhat less consequential, because the players remaining on the waiver wire are typically much better than the players remaining in twelve- or fourteen-team leagues.

I also assume that your league features a standard(ish) starting lineup: one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, and at least one flex position (kickers and defenses are irrelevant to my argument, so whether your league employs them or not is immaterial).

Finally, it should be noted that this fantasy draft strategy — one that generated a championship (and record-breaking regular season point total) in my ultra-competitive twelve team league in 2019 — has nothing to do with quarterbacks. But, I should divulge that, in addition to employing this eccentric draft strategy last season, I also drafted Lamar Jackson (QB1). This selection, of course, dramatically inflated my team’s performance regardless of what else I chose to do.

So, here’s what the rankings get wrong

Pick any list of fantasy player projections heading into a football season. For the sake of summation, I’ll use this list from FantasyPros, because it aggregates many experts’ recommendations into one synthesized, consensus ranking.

The first twenty spots feature eleven running backs, and seven wide receivers. Thus, experts slightly skew their rankings to favor the value of the running back position, but not aggressively so. And any favorability to that position dissipates quickly: within the first forty spots on the list, there are 18 wide receivers and 17 running backs. Stretch it out another twenty spots, and the list begins to favor wide receivers: in the Top 60, there are 27 wide receivers and only 23 running backs.

What are these rankings trying to tell us?

Well, they seem to suggest that running backs and wide receivers are equally valuable to your fantasy lineup. Instinctively, this makes sense. After all, the points we award these players for yards gained, receptions, and touchdowns are identical. So, we should treat them as equally important . . . right?

But, what is the result of these balanced, egalitarian running back/wide receiver rankings? They coerce you to draft (multiple) wide receivers and running backs in the early-to-middle rounds of your draft. Again, this intuitively makes sense. These positions do the bulk of the heavy lifting for your lineup. If you lean too heavily on one position, the hole you’ll create elsewhere will be fatal . . . right?

Wrong. Because the data I’m about to show you will demonstrate that running backs are not only far more important than any other position in your fantasy lineup, but are also far more difficult to suitably replace.

And this fact is compounded by a cognitive bias I referenced earlier, one that joins forces to create a lethal elixir, dooming most fantasy lineups before the season even begins.

So, what is this blindspot?

The rankings don’t expect — or allow — you to fail.

Let me explain.

Consider last year’s (2019) consensus fantasy rankings. Among the top twelve players, they ultimately featured (in order): the RB10, RB12, RB1, WR5, WR24, WR6, RB4, RB38, WR1, WR66, RB17, and TE1. In other words, Saquon Barkley was rated the number one projected fantasy player going into 2019, and he ultimately ranked as the tenth best running back (RB10) in fantasy by the end of the season.

Look carefully at that list. If you drafted a running back in the first round in 2019, you might have ended up with the RB1 (Christian McCaffrey), the RB17 (LeVeon Bell), or the RB38 (David Johnson). Likewise, drafting a wide receiver in the first round of 2019 might have afforded you the WR1 (Michael Thomas), WR24 (Davante Adams), or WR66 (JuJu Smith-Schuster).

The problem is: you didn't know that at the time.

So, if you draft purely based on positional need — which is what all fantasy rankings universally tell you to do — you may move on to drafting a wide receiver in the second or third round, assuming you’re “set” at one running back position after drafting Christian McCaffrey (true!) or David Johnson (decidedly not true!) in Round 1. After all, the egalitarian nature of fantasy rankings (remember: the Top 100 features 42 wide receivers and 35 running backs) seems to suggest that you can make up for your shortcomings later in the draft.

But here’s the thing: you can’t.

OK, let’s look at some charts

Now, before we get to these charts, let me warn you: they aren’t pretty. But I’m going to talk you through them, and trust me — the extra few minutes spent digesting this information will be worth the extra hours of fantasy football euphoria you will be rewarded for understanding them.

Here’s what I did: first, I took the 2019 half-point PPR fantasy player projections — again, for sake of average, from FantasyPros — and pasted them into a spreadsheet. I assumed a twelve-team league, and went up to the 12th round (144 players total).

Next, I replaced the player’s name with their final 2019 point output. In other words, Saquon Barkley (in spot 1.01) has been replaced with his eventual 2019 point total (218.1). Finally, I highlighted (red: running backs; blue: wide receivers) the Top 35 players at both positions.

Take a look.

There’s a few things that I’d like to point out. One: for as much as we criticize fantasy football analysts, at a macro view, they’re right more often than they’re wrong (look at all of that red and blue that dominates the first six rounds of the draft board. In other words, the players they predicted would be at the top of the leaderboard at the end of the season, by and large, were at the top of the leaderboard).

Two, and more to my point: there is next to no value in drafting running backs after the sixth round. Of the Top 35 running backs in fantasy football in 2019, 29 of them were drafted, on average, within the first 72 picks. There were precisely zero running backs drafted in rounds 7–10 that returned value. Compare that to wide receivers: only 21 of the Top 35 were drafted within the first 72 picks. Another seven were drafted, on average, in rounds 7–12. And another seven wide receivers — players that ultimately finished within the Top 35 at the position — weren’t drafted in twelve-team leagues at all (compared to only three running backs).

OK, let me add some nuance to this. The next chart is admittedly a bit more chaotic, but the point I’ll derive from it is proportionately more emphatic. In the following version of the chart, I assigned point thresholds for each round. After all, there is a world of difference between the RB5 and the RB35, but my first chart doesn’t account for that. It labels them as the same.

In this chart, players/point totals are only highlighted if they meet an expected minimum threshold for the round they were drafted in. In Rounds 1 and 2, that threshold is 210 total points (the top 11 running backs and wide receivers in 2019 all cleared that number — and in the first two rounds, of course, you’re aiming for a player that will return Top 10 positional value). I took the threshold for success down to 180 points in Rounds 3 and 4 (equating a Top ~20 wide receiver or running back); I decreased it to 150 in Rounds 5 and 6 (Top 26 running back/Top 34 wide receiver); and 130 in the final six rounds measured (Top 32 running back/Top 40 wide receiver).

Take a look.

Adjusted to account for the round they were drafted in, there were 16 running backs and 15 wide receivers that returned their value in the first six rounds. Which, again, might initially lead you to the (faulty) assumption that it’s equally important to draft both early in the draft. But look deeper. Look at the next six rounds. In those rounds, another nine wide receivers drafted were true contributors to their fantasy managers’ lineups (compared to only three running backs).

Let me break this down in terms of percentages. If you drafted a wide receiver in rounds 7–12 in 2019, there was about a 35% chance that player would be a solid contributor to your fantasy lineup — not always a sure-fire starter, but a player worthy of consistent rostering. If you drafted a running back in those same rounds? That player met the minimum viability threshold a mere 13% of the time.

Let’s put this all together

So, if you listen to the experts, the players you draft in your first six rounds will be a balanced mix of running backs and wide receivers. But, refer to the chart above. Of the eleven running backs drafted in the first two rounds in 2019, only about 50% of them returned Top 10 positional value. And of the eleven wide receivers drafted in those rounds, less than 30% of them returned Top 10 positional value.

The point: you will be wrong more often than you are right on Draft Day.

Next, consider the sheer difference in point totals between the best running backs and wide receivers. In 2019, the Top 10 running backs averaged 17.78 fantasy points per game (half-point PPR). The Top 10 wide receivers? 13.14 points per game. So, even if you are perfect, a lineup that features two Top 10 running backs will still outshine a lineup that features two Top 10 wide receivers by about ten points per game across both positions.

The point: great running backs outperform great wide receivers in fantasy lineups.

Finally, refer once more to the charts above. Remember: there were fourteen Top 35 wide receivers still lurking past Round 6 on Draft Day in 2019 — compared to only six Top 35 running backs. And of greater consequence, the difference between the 20th best running back (Marlon Mack) and 60th best running back (Brian Hill) was a whopping 112 fantasy points, or about 6.5 points per game. The difference between the 20th best wide receiver (John Brown) and the 60th best wide receiver (Kenny Stills)? Just 83 fantasy points, or about 4.8 points per game.

The point: it is (much) easier to find viable wide receivers later in your draft — or on the waiver wire — than it is to find viable running backs.

Drumroll, please.

Your new draft strategy: exclusively select running backs for (at least) the first four rounds

The big difference between how I draft in fantasy compared to virtually every other fantasy expert is this: I assume I am wrong. There are are a host of cognitive biases that play with our minds on Draft Day (I’ll cover those separately someday); plus, we human beings are pretty bad predictors of the future. Don’t fight that fact — embrace it.

If you draft two running backs and two wide receivers in your first four or five rounds, the odds are strong that at least one (and probably two) of them will not pan out. And as the data demonstrates, it’s easier to fill a hole at wide receiver than it is at running back in fantasy lineups. Said differently, you can’t afford to fail at the running back position on Draft Day.

And, look, you can believe with all of your heart that you won’t choose the wrong player. But if you’re only giving yourself two or three shots at picking the most valuable position (running backs) in the first six rounds, you’re effectively rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

In 2018, I drafted six consecutive running backs before I drafted any other position. In 2019, I drafted seven, and didn’t draft a wide receiver until Round 10. I did this because I assumed that I would be wrong about at least half of them, and I knew that I would not find a comparable alternative later in the draft or on the waiver wire.

I was right. In 2019, I drafted, in order: Dalvin Cook (RB5), James Conner (RB33), Aaron Jones (RB2), Chris Carson (RB11), Tevin Coleman (RB36), Latavius Murray (RB29), and Malcolm Brown (RB62). If I had stopped drafting running backs after the second round, James Conner’s disappointing 2019 campaign would have done significant damage to my season’s prospects. But, I assumed I was wrong — and, I knew that virtually every running back of consequence would be taken within the first 72 picks. So, I kept going.

(I should note: my league has two flex positions. If we only had one, I might have pivoted away from running backs one round earlier.)

My wide receivers were a constant patchwork effort, including the likes of Tyrell Williams, James Washington, and by my fantasy championship week, Breshad Perriman. I wasn’t always right; but, as the data demonstrated, it was easier for me to fill a hole at receiver every week. Plus, my three mega-hits at the running back position (Cook, Jones, Carson) more than negated my four mostly-misses (Conner, Murray, Coleman, Brown).

Look, I wasn’t smarter than my other league opponents. No: I just knew what the most valuable position was in the game, and drew myself a much larger circle to search for it. And I knew that it wasn’t just the size of the circle: it was where I drew it. If I took seven consecutive running backs from Round 7 onward, I would have (probably) missed on all of them — because viable candidates didn’t actually exist.

Many fantasy experts will tell you that successful drafting is akin to risk mitigation. If you believe this, then the universally-adopted strategy of filling your proverbial fantasy cart with a balanced mix of wide receivers and running backs is tantamount to trying to win a hand of blackjack with only one card. The data says that one position is far more valuable to get right, and far less replaceable when you’re wrong.

Yes, selecting four (or more) consecutive running backs to start your draft will cause your fellow league members to look at you with bewilderment. You might even be subject to some mockery.

Don’t fret. Just smile. Because, unlike them, you understand the faults in the human condition: you assume you are wrong.

Because, unlike them, you’ve seen that the data is on your side.

Because, unlike most of them, you’ll still be thinking about your fantasy football lineup in late December.

Writing at the intersection of culture and psychology.

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