While a cagey owner can make trades and waiver wire pick-ups that can save a season, fantasy football is typically won and lost in the draft room before the first game is ever played. Draft gurus have lots of pet theories about which position you should draft first. Some say you go running back-running back. Others advise locking up your QB early. A wide receiver-heavy strategy has been in vogue lately. We decided to use statistics to try and answer a simple question: which position should you draft first in fantasy football in 2016?
The entire debate about what position to draft first centers around the concept of position scarcity, or the idea that at some positions there are only a handful of highly producing players while the talent is more uniform at others. If you can identify the “scarce” positions and get one of the upper tier players you will have an advantage over your opponents. Following that strategy means that you will target certain positions earlier than others in the draft room. But the success of that strategy depends on two things: first, there actually has to be some position scarcity to take advantage of, and second, you have to correctly identify and draft the players in that upper tier without overpaying. Which is fantasy sports in a nutshell, get more back from your investments than what you put in and you’ll likely win.
So, to explore position scarcity and try to come up with an answer for which position you should draft first in fantasy football this year we mined data from the last three seasons (2013-2015). We used a standard scoring format to calculate total points for players throughout a whole season. We then ranked all the player’s performances by position so we could identify the top scoring tight end, wide receiver, etc. in each season. After that, we averaged the performances at each rank, winding up with a three season average for the top tight end performance, a three season average for the second highest scoring tight end and so on.
Next, we used those average scores by player rank to come up with a means to describe position scarcity. In essence, what we want to do is figure out how much a fantasy player would be missing out on if they pass on the top QB and come back to draft a lower tier QB later. Then we want to see at which positions it would hurt the most to miss out on the top tier talent, and which positions you might get away with it. If you can identify these patterns you can use your limited draft picks more efficiently, grabbing scarce talent early and waiting until later to pick up players at deeper or more even positions. We’ll go through each position and then end with some specific recommendations that you can take into the draft room.
Quarterbacks are by far the highest scoring players in fantasy football, so it’s surprising that so many draft strategies call for avoiding them in the first round or two. Those strategies would work if there was a big group of QB’s that scored about the same number of points each season, but that’s not the case:
Our analysis shows that there is typically one quarterback (sometimes two) that have it all come together, resulting in a season with considerably more fantasy production than the next highest producing signal caller. Over the last three seasons the average drop from the number 1 producing QB to the number 2 is 47 fantasy points (standard scoring), which is about 3 points per week. Now, keep in mind, that’s just the difference between the top QB and the next best player. The difference between the top QB and the 10th QB (a statistic we included to simulate someone waiting to take a QB until everyone else in their 10-person league already drafted one) is a whopping 118 points. That is a huge advantage at that position for the player with the top QB, and as you see later on, it’s the widest gap in production at any position. So when it comes to quarterbacks, there is some position scarcity for elite producers. The trick is identifying who that elite producer will be… Over the last three seasons there have been three different players holding down the top spot (Cam Newton – 2015, Andrew Luck – 2014, and Peyton Manning – 2013) and the top producer is rarely the top ranked player by the experts (see Cam in 2015). To further complicate things, Luck and Manning went on to have terrible, injury impacted seasons following the season when they led in fantasy production. So there are no safe bets at this position. However, if you can identify who will be this year’s top QB and nab him on draft day, your advantage will be likely huge and would justify a very early pick. Though depending on your league, it may not need to be a first round draft pick to still get the first QB off the board. Most of the big fantasy sports outfits rank QB’s lower than their point total would suggest. Which is very curious, they score the most points and are one of the more scarce positions. Why not get yours early?
Running backs consistently get ranked very high by fantasy experts and the top 3 picks in many fantasy drafts are routinely used on running backs. But is that justified? As we just noted, there is considerable scarcity in elite producing QB’s. Do we see the same in running backs? In theory, yes. On average there are about three running backs that stand out over their peers as elite level producers. Once you get beyond the first three, the drop-off in production is more gradual:
Over the last 3 seasons the difference between the top producing back and the second highest producing back has been about 20 points per season. The difference between the top back and the 10th highest producing back is about 106 points. Neither of these statistics indicate that running back has more position scarcity than QB, but it is relatively close. The fact that most leagues require 2 running backs complicates the math a little bit. Based on this analysis, if you cannot get an elite level quarterback your next best bet from a scarcity standpoint is a top tier running back. However, the challenges in identifying the top tier talent can be even greater with RB’s than QB’s. Over the last three years three different RB’s have been the top fantasy producer and no single running back has even managed to crack the top 3 more than once in that time. So once again, the potential advantage to owning a top tier player exists, but the challenge still lies with the fantasy owner to find the talent (and then lies with the talent to stay healthy!).
Wide receivers are the most abundant position in the fantasy game, leaving owners with lots of options to choose from. Most teams have a clear #1 wide receiver established, and when paired with a talented quarterback (and a bad defense can help too) there are points to be scored. But is there scarcity at the wide receiver position? Our analysis indicates that the drop from the top producing wide receivers to the lower tier producers is not as steep as some of the positions highlighted previously:
The difference between the top producing wideout and the next highest producer is an average of only 10 points per season which is less than 1 point per week. The difference between the top producer and the 10th highest producer is only 60 points, the lowest of any of the positions we’ve looked at so far. This indicates that there is more parity at the position and not as much evidence of an elite tier of receivers. As a result, this may be a position you can wait on while focusing on some of the scarcer positions (QB, RB). As an example, grabbing a great RB and waiting on a lower tier WR appears to be a better bet than using an early pick on an elite WR and settling for a mid-level RB. The good news in the WR department, and a possible case for taking one with an early pick, is that there has been some consistency at the top. Antonio Brown has been the top producing wideout in both 2014 and 2015.
The tight end position may have birthed the whole discussion on positions scarcity. For several years there appeared to be a very clear upper tier that included Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and at times Julius Thomas. But how do the numbers behind that theory hold up? As it turns out, fairly well:
At the tight end position, the top ranked producer (which happens to have been Gronk twice and Graham once in the last 3 years) is pretty clearly a cut above the rest of the pack. The average difference between the top producer and the next highest producer is about 36 points. Which is actually the biggest difference if you look at it as a percentage drop. But you shouldn’t do that since fantasy success is based on raw points! In other words, you might feel good knowing you will have a clear advantage at tight end, but since tight ends typically don’t score as many fantasy points as the other main offensive positions the advantage is really not that large in effect. The player who invested more in elite RB’s and a QB will laugh you and Gronk out of the building. Where the tight end gets a little more interesting is how quickly the talent drops off as you move through the rest of the top 10. The average difference between the top producing TE and the 10th highest producing TE is 94 points, which puts it close to the same drop as RB’s or QB’s. So here’s the moral of the story: paying a premium price for the absolute top TE at the expense of other positions doesn’t look like a great call, but you also don’t want a bargain bin TE. Shoot for one of the TE’s ranked 2-6 at the position which all typically wind up with relatively similar production to each other.
Maybe at some point you’ve been the owner that drafts a kicker a handful of rounds earlier than everyone else. You probably got a little ribbing for it. And unfortunately our analysis will not offer you much validation. Kickers all score about the same number of fantasy points and there is rarely an elite level producer:
The top producing kicker averages just 7 points more than the next highest producer over the course of a season and just 27 more points than the 10th highest producer. So in effect, where you draft your kicker will likely make a season long difference of less than 25 points. So this probably goes without saying, but do not use a premium pick on a kicker. Don’t even use a mid-round pick. But, once it comes times to grab kickers there has been a clear top producer. The New England Patriots Stephen Gostkowski has been the top producer the last three years in a row. Even with a Tom Brady suspension coming for the Pats, Gostkowski has a good chance of repeating as top leg. However, even with him on your roster, your advantage at the kicker position is relatively small.
Drafting a defense is an afterthought for many fantasy players. A popular piece of conventional wisdom is to swap defenses often and play the week-to-week match-ups. With that strategy, drafting a defense doesn’t matter too much. But some will always grab the “elite” level defensive squads (sometimes using a relatively high pick) and ride them through all matchups. How does that strategy stack up?:
Like kickers, the difference between the elite defensive units and the next tier is pretty slight. The top producing fantasy defense is on average only 16 points more productive than the next best unit. Over the course of a season, that’s not much of an advantage. The difference between the top defense and the 10th best defense is only 39 points. As a result, there is not much evidence to support grabbing an elite defensive unit before other positions where the production is more variable. This appears to be a position you can wait on. The only real trick then is making sure you grab a defense that is at least average. Lot’s of other players will also have an average defense. It’s the nature of the position.
So, which position should you draft first in fantasy football this year?
Here’s the summary of the stats that have been used in the article up to this point:
And since we hate operating only with abstract advice, here are some straightforward ideas you can take to your draft based on our analysis:
- Quarterbacks score the most points and there is typically a sizable drop-off between the best and the next best. The only thing that should give you some concern about this investment is that there is not much consistency at the top from year to year. Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers look like decent bets this year.
- Elite running backs are somewhat scarce. There is a top 3, and then things start to drop off. Fortunately, this is a position where you can look at a player’s situation (is there a goal line vulture? What’s the O-line like?) and make some reasonable inferences about who will be at that elite level. If you don’t feel comfortable picking a QB early, then one of the highly ranked running backs is a good choice.
- There should be no rush to draft wide receivers. Strategies that call for using your first 2 picks on wide receivers don’t seem to hold water. You can wait a bit on this position. There will be plenty of safe producers in the middle of your draft. Use those early picks on RB’s and a QB.
- Similar story with tight ends. Some will try to convince you that Rob Gronkowski is in a league of his own at this position (especially after Jimmy Graham went to Seattle to waste away). They are right. But he’s also still a tight end. Meaning the advantage you gain by owning him is not justified by an early pick. You can wait, but don’t wait too long. Try to get someone in the top 6 at the position.
- For Christ’s sake don’t draft a kicker any earlier than the second to last round. If it is the appropriate time and you get the first crack at the field of kickers, Stephen Gostkowski is the safest option right now.
- There is not much evidence that having an “elite” defense will give you much of an advantage if you have to pay a price to get one. There are plenty of serviceable ones, and the scoring will likely be dictated by matchups anyhow. Here’s a dirty secret about NFL scheduling that impacts the fantasy game: when a team does well (perhaps because of a great defense) their schedule the next year features better teams. That tougher schedule could neutralize the defense’s fantasy value. Playing the match-ups from week-to-week might be a safer (cheaper) play.
Good luck gamers.