The 2016 NFL regular season is now in the books and the fantasy football trophies have been handed out. This is a time for reflection on the season and how our teams fared. A chance to improve from our mistakes and develop fresh strategies while the games are still fresh in our mind. It’s also a time to look back at how wrong the preseason ranks were.
The way fantasy football players are ranked by the two major fantasy outfits (Yahoo and ESPN) is fundamentally flawed and I have not been able to figure out why it continues year after year. Every year, fantasy gurus push one position harder than others and claim you need to get (blank) in the first round. This year it was wide receivers. The top three players in Yahoo’s preseason ranks and three of the top four in ESPN’s preseason ranks were wide receivers. It was the can’t miss play. But guess what. If you went with wide receivers in the first or second round you did miss. Not that they were all terrible picks (though many were, looking at you DeAndre Hopkins), but fantasy players did not get first-round value from their first-round wide receivers. In fact, of the top-20 players from the preseason rankings (using Yahoo for our example) only thee ended up posted numbers deserving of a first or second-round pick (highlighted in green below). All three happened to be running backs, though there were plenty of (minor) busts at that position as well:
Some fantasy owners will point to injuries as the reason that some of this high value picks were derailed (Peterson, Gronk, Watkins), but as we have highlighted in previous articles, injuries are somewhat predictable with certain players, so the injury excuse still does not make it a great pick. If you took a risky player and got burnt, well, you burnt yourself partially.
2016’s in vogue strategy of going heavy on wide receivers in the early rounds of drafts really did not pan out. As a group, the wide receivers ranked in the top-20 preseason ended up with an average actual rank of 97. Mike Evans and Antonio Brown were the closest to returning something near first or second round value.
Running backs fared a little better, but on a case by case basis. Owners of David Johnson, Zeke, and those willing to gut out Le’Veon Bell’s early season suspension felt great about their picks. But the rest of the top-20 backs did not return top-20 numbers.
So, you might be asking, if all these top-20 wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs did not return top-20 fantasy points, who did? The answer is quarterbacks. And it’s always been quarterbacks. Here’s the actual top-20 at the end of the season (Yahoo again):
Yes, 16 of the top-20 fantasy performers were quarterbacks (green highlight) in 2016. Not a single wide receiver cracked the top 20… And the list looks like this every year, it’s not an anomaly, it’s a completely predictable pattern. This doesn’t mean that these quarterbacks were the best football players or that they should all be MVP candidates (Tyrod, Bortles, yuck). It just means that the fantasy game is slanted toward signal callers (unless you are in a league with non-standard scoring). Quarterbacks consistently have the most opportunities to score points (rushing and passing), are generally less injury prone (especially compared to running backs), and they almost never have to share snaps like players at other positions. Yet quarterbacks are given no love in the preseason ranks. The highest preseason ranking for a quarterback in 2016 was Cam Newton at the 30 spot for Yahoo and 35 for ESPN. Even with a pretty bad season, Newton still finished better than his preseason ranking, with an actual ranking of 21. That alone highlights how undervalued quarterbacks are in the preseason rankings.
Want another example to drive the point home? Andrew Luck finished as the 5th highest fantasy scorer overall. This should not be a surprise as he is one of the best quarterbacks in the game today and he plays on an elite offense. Luck’s preseason rank was 43. Can anyone honestly saw that they expected Andrew Luck to score less fantasy points than Carlos Hyde (preseason rank 34), Eric Decker (37), or Donte Moncrief (40 and Luck’s #2 wide receiver)? Yet all three of those players were ranked higher than Luck.
If you are not bought into the central thesis of this article yet then you have probably been converted to the cult of “position scarcity”. There is a popular belief that some positions are deeper than others, especially in particular years. This might explain why you would feel the need to get elite wide receivers early, because the drop off in production between the top tier and the next tier might be steep. However, we explored position scarcity over the last three seasons leading up to 2016 and the results showed that (drum roll) elite quarterbacks are actually the scarcest.
So quarterbacks as a group score the most points every year and the elite quarterbacks are actually the most scarce commodity in the fantasy game. So why are they not ranked accordingly? It is completely nonsensical that Aaron Rodgers would be drafted in the 4rd round. Rodgers, Brady, Brees, and perhaps Matt Ryan should logically be in the top 5 for all drafts as they are the closest possible embodiments of a sure thing. Even when you miss with a quarterback (like Newton in 2016) you typically don’t miss by much. Newton still scored more points than Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones.
Now a savvy gamer might point out that since the preseason rankings always have QB’s as 3rd-5th round talent, you can wait and grab one when they come around in the draft order, maybe with a late 2nd or early 3rd round pick if you want to be safe. And often that might work, waiting several rounds to draft the quarterbacks has become sort of a weird fantasy football tradition. If everyone else does it, you are not at a disadvantage. But if a few people in your league jump up and start taking the elite QB’s with their early picks you might miss the boat on getting your true money maker while you were squandering picks on DeAndre Hopkins and Brandon Marshall (yes, that’s a loaded example).
If the 2017 preseason ranks took actual points scored during the previous season into account the top-20 would be loaded with quarterbacks, including some that are fairly mediocre in the real game. But don’t expect that to be the case come 2017. The top-20 will once again be filled with big splashy wide receivers and tight ends that have no chance of putting up the same point totals as any competent quarterback. Travis Kelce may feel like a sexier pick than Drew Brees, but there is almost zero chance Kelce scores more points than Brees (assuming both are healthy). There will be plenty of running backs too, and some will be deserving of that rank and have a chance to return on that investment (David Johnson won a lot of people their championship). But many will not be as effective as predicted or will get hurt. Quarterbacks, the safer investment and the bigger point scorers, will be once more projected to be drafted a round or two (or three) later. If anyone can explain how this makes any mathematical sense I am all ears. In the meantime, I’ll be using an early pick on a player who gets to throw the ball 40-60 times and rush a half dozen times each game and not the wide receiver who will be lucky to garner 10 targets.