The key to a successful fantasy football draft seems to rely on nailing a particular position. In 2016, for example, hammering RBs early in the draft was crucial. In 2015, drafting early WRs was the key to victory.
End-of-season point distributions can help show why -- and how we should approach drafts in 2017 (and beyond).
Last year, the advantage of landing a top RB was magnified by the fact that no later-round RBs truly hit. The top 8 finishers in PPR formats were all drafted in the top 21 RBs, and 6 of those 8 were top 12 draft picks at the position.
In 2015, the success of early-WR draft structures was more about end-of-season distributions at the other positions. Top WRs hit, but so did some value guys like Larry Fitzgerald and Doug Baldwin. So you weren’t out in the cold if you waited like you were at RB in 2016.
Where the damage was done to rosters that waited at WR in 2015 was at the other positions. Waiting at WR meant drafting early RBs, and they busted at a high rate. Of the top 7 PPR backs end-of-season, 4 carried preseason ADPs of RB39 or lower.
A similar trend was true at TE, where 4 of the top 6 finishers were drafted outside the top 100 overall picks. And at QB, where Cam Newton, Tom Brady, Blake Bortles, and Carson Palmer were all top 6 QBs. Brady was QB8 in preseason ADP and the others were all QB13 or lower.
Naturally, fantasy owners that target a specific position in the early part of drafts are more likely to be bargain shopping in the other areas. So in 2015, drafting WR early meant spending picks at QB, RB, and TE in the areas of the draft where values proved to be. In 2016, drafting RBs early meant focusing on other positions in the middle and later rounds, and not wasting picks on RBs that ultimately didn’t pan out.
We often discuss fantasy draft structures, searching for the optimal areas of the draft to target the various positions. Because that has proven to vary wildly in recent seasons, there’s been a tendency to overcorrect to the most recent results. But at the same time, the value of employing something like the Zero RB strategy in 2015 -- and the resulting spike in WR ADP in 2016 drafts -- isn’t what caused no late-round RBs to crack the top 8 at the position in 2016.
While identifying draft value and going RB-heavy early paid off in 2016, we must still recognize the separation of the contrarian 2016 strategy and the sequencing of results that emphasized its success. In that way, seeking out the next contrarian strategy in 2017 is, ironically, overcorrecting to the most recent results.
If we only looked at 2014 results, we’d see Odell Beckham’s monster second half run as a reason to target young WRs late in drafts. 2015 would tell us later-round RBs and TEs like Devonta Freeman and Jordan Reed grow on trees. In 2013, early-round RB Jamaal Charles posted a 5-TD fantasy semifinal performance so epic that you’d really have no choice but to go RB in the 1st. The biggest thing to recognize is each distribution is a sample of 1. We can’t draw meaningful conclusions from that.
So, we must take a longer view. But how long? The league has changed significantly over time, so going back to the early ‘90s wouldn’t be particularly applicable to the modern NFL.
There are also other factors in play here, including how fantasy drafters have valued various positions over time. To account for this, I analyzed within positions. I aggregated positional ADP vs. end-of-season finishes over the 7 seasons since 2010. That’s still not a huge sample, but it should give us some broader trends to analyze. I pulled 12-team PPR redraft ADP data from My Fantasy League’s awesome database using only drafts after August 25th, excluding mocks.