I don’t know as much as I think I do about fantasy football. That might seem like a dumb thing to say for someone trying to give you advice on the topic, but I really believe that embracing the uncertainty inherent to the game—accepting what we don’t know or what we think we know that could just be wrong—is essential to progressing as a fantasy owner.
Think back a few years and consider your fantasy football knowledge. How many beliefs did you hold that just turned out to be wrong? How many poor predictions did you make? How many times did you tell everyone who would listen that Trent Richardson was worth a top-four pick last year? Maybe that last one was just me. The point is that it would be irrational to think that all of our beliefs about the 2014 season are accurate—even the ones that seem undoubtable—and we just need to accept the fact that we’re going to be wrong. A lot.
That doesn’t mean that drafts are total crapshoots and you’re no more likely than your Aunt Debby to win your fantasy league, though. One way to stand out from the crowd is to embrace year-to-year volatility, knowing where the crowd is going to overreact to recent results to make drafts inefficient. By and large, current season ADP is more or less a reflection of the prior year’s results.
In this article, I’m going to compare 2013 fantasy results to those from the previous four seasons to see where last year might be an outlier. In siding with five-year trends as the basis for our rankings, we’re basically saying “I don’t know exactly how things will turn out this year, but I realize there’s variance on the seasonal level, and in that case, I’m best off just going with the long-term average.”
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My favorite example of this type of inefficiency is 2012 ADP following the historic 2011 season for quarterbacks. You remember that year, right? A-Rod led the way, but there were five quarterbacks who produced at a level we’ve simply never seen before. To give you an idea of how much of an outlier that 2011 season was, consider that the top five quarterbacks recorded more fantasy points than all but one passer in the previous six years!
Below, I’ve broken down the fantasy point distributions for the top 12 quarterbacks over the past five seasons.
The 2011 season—in orange—is ridiculous. Heading into 2012 fantasy drafts, shrewd owners knew that others were highly likely to overpay for those top quarterbacks. That would deflate their value while also inflating the value at other positions. The merits of going against the grain in that situation are pretty obvious; such a contrarian strategy works because you’re buying low on positions that perhaps underachieved in the previous season.
Where’s the QB Value?
If you look at the 2013 distribution in black, you’ll see a massive drop after Peyton Manning. Those quarterbacks ranked second through sixth or so are getting drafted lower this year than in many other recent seasons. Although many experts are following the late-round quarterback strategy, I think there are times when it’s okay to jump on potentially elite passers in the middle rounds.
Specifically, if you can get Rodgers/Brees in the fourth round or Luck/Foles in the sixth or seventh, those are situations I think are very favorable—owners overcompensating for getting burned in the recent past. You probably won’t see quarterbacks drop like that in novice leagues, but when it happens in more advanced leagues, I think it’s difficult to pass on that sort of safety.
Moving on to recent running back trends …
Note that one of the natural outcomes of analyzing point distributions is seeing the greatest fluctuations near the top. We’re never going to see the No. 12 running back in Year X differ from the No. 12 running back in Year X+1 by a crazy amount, but we might see the top running back’s fantasy production really shift from one year to the next.
You can such a deviation in the 2010 season; there was a really big drop from the top back, but then the production leveled out almost entirely from the No. 2 back to No. 12. The average drop from the No. 2 running back to No. 12 during the five years was 84 points with a high of 101; in 2010, it was just 38 points. In that situation, we’d need to be careful to realize that the 2011 running back distribution would be more likely to resemble long-term trends (with a greater slope) than the 2010 results—and you can see that did indeed happen.
Where’s the RB Value?
The 2013 season was typical in just about every sense of the word for running backs as a whole. So does that mean you should jump on backs in the early and middle rounds?
It depends. To understand where we need to go at the running back position, we need to analyze them in relation to wide receivers.
The wide receiver position has been interesting to follow lately because there’s been a clear upward trend for the position as a whole. While 100-yard rushing games have more or less remained constant over the past half-decade, the occurrence of 100-yard receiving games has increased by nearly 40 percent. Forty percent in five seasons!
The 2013 distribution is very interesting because, although it’s very flat, the entire line is bumped up over previous seasons, i.e. wide receivers have been scoring more and more fantasy points. I don’t think that’s a fluke; we’re not looking at a handful of spots rising and the rest achieving as normal, but rather a unified leap for all wide receivers.
That doesn’t necessarily increase the value of wide receivers, though. That all comes down to your league’s scoring and starting requirements.