Understanding How Fantasy Scoring Affects Player Value
Your first step toward fantasy football dominance is realizing that not all fantasy leagues are created equal; by customizing your approach to fit the protocol of your league, you can significantly enhance your win probability. Understanding fantasy scoring systems is a major aspect of that.
While the majority of fantasy football leagues are fairly similar in terms of how they dish out points, there are a few subtle differences that we see on a pretty regular basis. Let’s dive into a few of those changes and how they should affect your strategy moving forward.
While nearly every fantasy league awards one point for every 10 rushing/receiving yards and six points for rushing/receiving touchdowns, leagues are split on how they compensate quarterback play. Most leagues award one point for either 20 or 25 yards passing, as well as between three and six points for passing touchdowns. The differences can shift quarterback value in a dramatic way.
An overlooked aspect of a league that has rich quarterback scoring is that it increases the value of the top passers. In 2013, for example, Drew Brees scored 362 points in leagues that handed out one point per 25 yards passing and four points for touchdown throws—55 points more than Philip Rivers in the same format. In leagues that awarded one point per 20 passing yards and six points for scores, however, Brees scored 492 points—77 points more than Rivers.
The effect is obvious; high-end quarterback scoring increases the scarcity of the league’s top signal-callers, which can have a dramatic effect on your draft philosophy. Namely, a late-round quarterback strategy has a whole lot more value in leagues in which quarterbacks aren’t awarded points at an elite rate—particularly six points for passing touchdowns.
Point-Per-Reception (PPR) Scoring
As fantasy leagues have evolved, more and more have adopted PPR scoring. There are still plenty of standard scoring leagues out there, however, and there’s perhaps no change in scoring that can have as profound of an impact on your course of action.
PPR scoring obviously increases the value of running backs and receivers who see a lot of targets and catch a lot of passes. Even so, the market hasn’t caught up, at least for backs. Based on average draft position for both PPR and standard scoring leagues over the past five seasons, running backs who catch at least 30 passes have been under-drafted by an average of five spots in PPR leagues. That’s significant.
The relationship between catches and PPR scoring is pretty straightforward within each position, but the major impact that PPR scoring can have—the aspect of PPR scoring that should shift your draft approach more than any other scoring change—is how it alters the value of positions relative to one another.
Specifically, PPR scoring increases the value of wide receivers so that they “catch up” with running backs. Whether or not that will have a significant impact on your league depends on if you have a flex position. If you have a running back/wide receiver option in any starting spot, that’s an opportunity for you to gain an advantage over the field.
While others often load up on running backs early and frequently start one in the flex, wide receivers offer far greater value than running backs as flex options in PPR leagues. To show why this is the case, I charted the 2013 fantasy scoring distribution for the top 36 running backs and wide receivers.
You can see that the elite backs not only scored a lot of points, but they were also scarce resources (hence the steep drop). No matter what league you’re in, it’s tough to pass up on the elite pass-catching running backs like Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy at the top of the draft.
After that top tier, however, note how the running back curve flattens out to resemble the wide receiver curve. This sort of distribution is a common occurrence, not just specific to 2013. The only difference is that the wide receivers score more points; the No. 12 wide receiver will almost certainly outscore the No. 12 running back in PPR leagues this year, for example, the No. 24 wide receiver will outscore the No. 24 running back, and so on.
In some cases, the difference in scoring among positions doesn’t matter; you just want the scarcest players within their respective positions. In leagues with a flex spot, however, the difference in scoring does matter. If filling the flex position is a race to secure the most overall points, the evidence suggests that wide receiver is the direction to go in PPR leagues.
That idea is strengthened when you look at the path of a typical draft.
Most years, the number of wide receivers drafted doesn’t approach the number of backs selected until around the sixth round. Before that point, you can fill your flex spot with a wide receiver who 1) will likely score more points than a running back drafted in the same round and 2) will cost less than a back with a comparable projection.
The ultimate goal is to generate the most fantasy production at the cheapest price, and altering your approach to filling your flex position based on your league’s scoring can ensure that.
Whether you plan to draft a defense and stick with it for much of the year or just stream various team defenses off of the waiver wire, it’s important to know how fantasy scoring affects their value. Some leagues award up to two points for sacks, for example, while others don’t give anything for sacks. Most leagues hand out points for takeaways and defensive touchdowns, though.
Predicting defensive touchdowns is extremely difficult, and even takeaways are hard to project (particularly fumble recoveries). That’s why your approach to picking defenses should actually be the same regardless of the scoring: target pressure.
My past research suggests that the correlation between pressures/sacks and future takeaways is much stronger than that between past takeaways and future takeaways. That is, since interceptions and fumble recoveries are volatile, even over the course of an entire season, they aren’t a great predictor of future takeaways.
Meanwhile, the defenses that generate the most pressure on quarterbacks are continually those that produce the most takeaways—including the coveted strip-sack scoop-and-score—and defensive pressure is far easier to predict than turnovers.
Finally, the addition of bonuses can alter fantasy scoring to a strong degree. Most commonly, leagues award bonus points for 300-yard passing performances and 100-yard rushing/receiving games.
Note that predicting such games is extremely difficult; we know Calvin Johnson is going to have more 100-yard games than Terrance Williams, for example, but projecting Megatron’s exact number of 100-yard performances isn’t extremely useful because we can’t have a lot of confidence that we’ll be correct.
While the implementation of bonus points might not affect your individual player values all that much, it should affect how you value positions as a whole. Take a look at the total bonus levels reached in the NFL since 2008.
While both 100-yard receiving and 300-yard passing performances have been trending upward, 100-yard rushing games have been on the decline. This might increase the pool of start-able receivers and quarterbacks, but it also again increases their value over running backs if you’re in a league that requires a flex starter.
There are lots of ways that changes in fantasy scoring—even alterations that seem minor—can have a major influence on the optimal strategies you employ, whether during or after the draft. As you sit down to conduct your preseason research and ultimately draft your squad, ask yourself “How can any deviations from traditional scoring methods lead to a competitive advantage for me? How can I exploit aspects of this league’s scoring system that are likely to open the door for market inefficiencies?”
There’s no easier way to gain an edge than by exploiting your league’s scoring system, and there’s no better time to think critically about how to do that than right now.