NFL Season is nearly upon us, and sports fans across the country are preparing and researching for it as if there will be an examination on it. Going beyond a love of rooting for their local teams, data nerds are trying to absorb as much relevant information as they can on all 32 professional American football teams including their coaching, rosters, injuries, and any other significant detail or change in the past year. Despite sporting a name more associated with elves and dragons rather than spreadsheets and visualizations, Fantasy Football is a pastime that has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years and is only possible thanks to our ability to digest and share massive data sets. Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of fantasy football fanatics to be found at MicroStrategy HQ.
This year, in advance of our office league draft, I tasked myself with analyzing where the best value draft picks could be found, to see if I could find any guiding principles to assist me in my 2015 draft. I managed to scrape together 2 separate data sets, one that included all of the 2014 results, as well as one that sampled live draft results conducted after the 2014 preseason which determined the average draft positions of NFL player in 2014 leagues.
My reasoning was that if I subtracted the Average Draft Position (ADP) from the End of Season Fantasy Rank, I could create a score for players that over-achieved compared to their average draft position. This would filter out star players who went undrafted, but my thinking is that any amount of data crunching would help unearth players effectively off the radar at this point in the season. While this list was useful, it also gave me a large list of players who over-achieved their expectations because there was no expectation of anything. I refined this group a step further, by only focusing on players on this list who finished in the top 10 for their position for the season. The chart below shows the players who met this criteria, with the Draft Value Score on the X axis and Total Points on the Y Axis. I also sized the player’s marker by their position rank at the end of the season (Biggest = 1st).
I also added contestant reference lines at the overall Median values so that I could divide the players into quadrant categories. Here are the labels I chose:
Exceeded Expectations: Players who outperformed their expected value, but were not huge scorers.
Unexpected Contributors: Players who were "under the radar," but were not big scorers.
Rising Stars: Players who outperformed their expected value and scored the most points overall.
Best Draft Value: Players who were “under the radar” and scored the most points.
When most people are looking to strike gold in their fantasy draft, they are thinking of my Rising Star category: people who finish the season with more recognition than they started with. However, I would argue that the Best Draft Value category should be central to any draft strategy. This category serves as the bargain bin of top performers, filled with players who consistently deliver but don’t receive much hype for it. These are players who are likely drafted as backups but ultimately ended up as starters.
As a next step, I decided to filter this chart by position to see if I could find any hidden insights:
Five different QBs qualified for my list of overachievers: 2 Rising Stars and 3 Best Values.
Average Stats of 2014 overachieving QB: 309 Points, 102 ADP (Mid Round 8 in 12 Team leagues), Finished 40th overall in Fantasy Points, and is around 28 years old.
Insight: Early round QBs have a premium because they are consistent high scorers; Andrew Luck finished as the #2 QB, but only barely outperformed his draft position to make this list. You are unlikely to find hidden value in the early to mid-rounds at this position. However, if you were in the position to draft Russel Wilson in the 6th round last year, but instead opted to wait until the 9th round for Ben Roethlisberger; you would have lost only 22 points over the season but could potentially snag a much higher scoring WR or RB with your earlier picks (which would help your team score more overall). Another aspect that really stuck out to me is a majority of the QBs that made the overachieving cut have been to the Super Bowl multiple times, including 2 in the bargain bin who each had 2 rings for winning them. This might imply that drafters don’t always value consistent success, or have a tendency to under value the role these players had in winning national championships.
5 Different Running backs qualified as overachievers in my analysis: 3 Rising Stars, 2 Best Values
Average 2014 overachieving RB: 237 Points, 58 ADP (Late in Round 4), 11th Overall Season Rank, Age 24
Insight: RBs were heavily found on this list in Rising Stars, but were all found in the upper half for points. They also dominate the overall points for fantasy, with the 1st, 2nd, & 6th top scorers as the Rising Stars. Everyone in this group was under 30, and only 2 were over the age of 23. None of the group had post-season success, implying that drafters over-value Super Bowl performance for a RB. The RBs who made the best value category barely did so, which implies that you are unlikely to find too much value in this position in later rounds. This makes sense since most leagues allow a team to start 2 RBs, and this position tends to offer the most fantasy points. Given this, I would try to get my starting RBs before the mid rounds to maximize potential points, as there is a significant drop in production even when only looking at players who finish in the top 10.
6 (out of 10) WRs met my criteria, all of which were in my Rising Star category
Average overachieving WR: 209 Points, 44 SDP (Mid Third Round), 16th Overall Rank, Age 26
Insight: WRs are the most plentiful, but also in the greatest demand. While every team in a 12-team league can feasibly draft the top RB of 2 different teams, drafting 3+ WRs means that people will need to dig deep to find value (and according to the above they will rarely find it). It may seem counterintuitive to place a premium on WRs who tend to rank lower overall than RBs, but because of their scarcity you should focus on addressing WR early. None of the overachieving WRs in 2014 would be found in a draft after Round 6, so in order to maximize your impact you should focus on getting a couple of WRs early, as you will need to start 3 and are unlikely to find hidden talent in the later rounds.
7 TEs Made my over achievement criteria: 1 Rising Star, 1 Exceeding Expectations, and 5 Unexpected Contributors
Average overachieving TE: 136 Points Scored, 136 ADP (Early 11th Round), 35th Overall Rank, Age 28
Insight: Rob Gronkowski was the only TE to barely break the mid-range on points (he did by 6), and the overwhelming majority of TEs were Unexpected Contributors. Given that “Gronk” finished as the best fantasy TE, it is safe to say that you should not be planning a team around a star TE. This was the position that showed the greatest value in the later rounds, with 108 average picks made between the first and second players in this position for a 30-point difference. As you only need to play a single TE every week, and they are unlikely to contribute significantly, it seems to be most strategic to delay picking a TE until much later rounds (probably after your backup QB). The TEs that seem to achieve the best are those on teams with a top tier QB but no true WR stars.
My dataset did not include Kickers & Defenses so I can’t filter for those unfortunately, but it is safe to say that these are similar to your TE: positions with value available in late rounds because of availability and low overall score impact relative to QBs, RBs, & WRs.
In summary, it is important to note the demand for performers at a certain position when drafting just as much as which positions deliver the most points. While QBs deliver the most points, you need to start 2 RBs and 3 WRs, and there is deep value to be had since QBs tend to perform better at higher ages (which means that good ones are not forced into retirement as often). Running backs age most poorly/get injured often and thus will peak earlier in their careers, but also rarely leap onto the scene from off of the radar. Meanwhile, WRs are going to spend the most time on the active roster, are in the highest demand (At least 3 per roster x 12 teams = 36), and any of significance are rarely found in the late rounds (for players that go drafted). It’s because of this that I will be picking up WRs in the early rounds of my draft, hoping to stock my team with the most precious players, and hoping to snag some later round bargains at the other positions on my roster.
I will be sharing the MSTR file for my Fantasy dashboard on the community. Be sure to look for the link in the comments below!