Alshon Jeffery, Le’Veon Bell, and Why NFL Draft Analysis Wins Fantasy Titles
It’s easy to see NFL Draft coverage and fantasy football coverage as two completely separate entities. The NFL Draft is about reality football – teams filling reality needs and scouts determining reality player values. Fantasy football is about creating fake teams and figuring out who will have the most opportunity based on where players end up being picked.
It probably won’t surprise you that I think this is something of a false dichotomy. While it’s easy to lampoon fantasy writers who do draft coverage – and that includes folks who approach it from both the scouting-based and analysis-based perspectives – as dilettantes and armchair GMs, I think they have one big advantage over draft-specific media: playing fantasy football teaches you to value the characteristics that lead to points.
Fantasy players tend to be ahead of general NFL thinkers in understanding the value of wide receiver size and the value of running backs who catch passes. Many fantasy players are also experienced in drafting multiple teams, managing multiple teams, and getting weekly and yearly feedback on a wide variety of players.
Frank DuPont in his iconoclastic book Game Plan theorizes that many Madden players are better playcallers than NFL coaches because they’ve called a much higher volume of plays. This is sure to offend the sensibilities of the “let the football people make the football decisions” crowd, but the literature on simulators and the effect of high volume practice is quite extensive. A similar phenomenon is probably true in the draft.
While there are dissimilarities between a fantasy draft of professional players and a reality draft of college players, there are plenty of similarities as well. One of the largest is how you deal with feedback. Fantasy players who resist the notion of grading their draft performances – while attributing wins and losses to injury luck – rarely make significant improvements. The NFL Draft is almost set up to resist self-evaluation. For example, reality NFL general managers may only select five or six early round wide receivers in the course of 10-year career. It’s very likely Martin Mayhew views the selections of Titus Young and Ryan Broyles as bad luck instead of bad strategy.
Many people subscribe to the theory that you can’t grade a draft for at least three years. This is partially due to the bizarre yet somewhat prevalent theory that it’s a scout’s job to find the exceptions to the rules instead of finding players who fit the established models of prospects who successfully transition to the NFL. There are two key reasons why it doesn’t work to wait three years to see if longshots like Tavon Austin or Marquise Goodwin pay off. First, if you wait that long to self-evaluate, you will make many more mistakes in the interim. Second, it encourages the lottery ticket idea. A lottery ticket purchaser is not vindicated in his strategy simply because a given ticket pays off. (On the other hand, a team that gathers a lot of very cheap tickets could see the approach pay off handsomely.)
With that as sort of a general prelude, here’s why I think the offseason fascination with the draft can be a gigantic source of fantasy value if you approach it in a rigorous and analytical fashion.
1) Rookies are players too, and therefore score points and win titles.
A lot of experts scoff at the idea of emphasizing rookies in roster construction. And for good reason. Coleman Kelly’s Rookie Derangement Syndrome article was one of the best pieces on RotoViz last year. In part because the Draft is the most exciting part of the offseason, it’s frequently freshest in our minds when we start fantasy draft season. Rookies tend to be overvalued in fantasy drafts, so targeting rookies based on hype is usually a roster-destroying proposition. On the other hand, rookies are unproven by definition, which means they can also be mispriced in your favor. My team that finished second in the NFFC Primetime started Le’Veon Bell, Zac Stacy, and Keenan Allen. That means 38% of the starting positions on a $30,000 team were filled by rookies.
2) Draft position tends to be a strong predictor in any fantasy projection model, but draft position also tends to be fully priced into ADP.
Until the last several years, my approach to the NFL Draft was fairly casual and my evaluation of rookies relied heavily on scouting reports and where they were selected in the reality draft. This makes some sense. Especially if you believe in the wisdom of professional scouts, draft slot is a decent proxy for talent. It also sends a crucial signal as to how a rookie will be used and how quickly. It doesn’t particularly matter if Stedman Bailey is immediately the best receiver in St. Louis if the Rams don’t intend to play him.
But since rookies tend to be overvalued relative to ADP and since ADP largely reflects reality draft position, you must avoid rookies entirely if you are relying on the opinions of others to slot rookies onto your Big Board.
3) It’s easy to beat the market on rookie receivers.
While relying on draft position is a lose-lose proposition, other approaches are possible. Wide receiver in particular is a position where it’s easy to beat the market over time. There are four key tenets to selecting impact wide receivers. I examined most of them in the Three Holy Grail Components to Wide Receiver Evaluation. Those characteristics are weight, rookie age, and Dominator Rating (the average of market share yards and market share touchdowns). The fourth is breakout age, which I discussed in Keenan Allen and Why Breakout Age is the Skeleton Key.
If it’s so simple to beat the market, you would expect the market to adjust accordingly, but draftniks, fantasy pundits, and fantasy players operate on different sets of incentives. If you’re a draftnik or a pundit, being wrong with the crowd has very little downside while being wrong alone can cause lasting reputational damage. The incentives are almost entirely reversed for fantasy players.
4) Second year breakouts are the key to fantasy titles and finding them traces back to NFL Draft analysis.
In the aforementioned Rookie Derangement piece, Coleman recommended passing on DeAndre Hopkins and selecting Alshon Jeffery. This ended up being one of the best pieces of advice anyone gave all year (and especially relevant to RotoViz readers since we were very high on Hopkins). But why did he recommend Jeffery and not Kendall Wright? Wright was a higher draft pick who gained 250 more receiving yards and scored one more touchdown as a rookie.
Part of the reason had to do with greater faith in the Chicago passing game, but the lion’s share dealt with their receiving profiles. Based on size and collegiate production, Jeffery fit the profile of a true No. 1 receiver, the kind of receiver who doesn’t always break out, but when he does, he breaks out big. Wright fit the profile of an NFL possession receiver, possibly an elite possession receiver, but a player who would have a WR2 ceiling barring a trade to play with Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.
These types of inefficiencies exist at every skill position. A player’s rookie year frequently gives some glimpses of his likelihood to break out, but those glimpses are often cloaked in sample size issues which can point completely the wrong direction. The only way to maximize your chances to hit on second year players is to start with a good foundation by evaluating them as NFL Draft prospects.
It may be an overstatement or a failure to distinguish my personal narrative from longer lasting trends, but I think taking risks on the right types of first and second year players is a big key to winning fantasy titles. While it’s not true that veteran players are correctly valued by ADP – and the RotoViz Sim Scores can give you a good sense of where those values are wrong – there aren’t that many veteran players who are mispriced so egregiously that selecting them will single-handedly tilt an entire league in your favor. (For a look at a handful of veterans who just might be that mispriced, check out my post-hype super sleepers.)
On the other hand, first and second year players often carry ADPs outside the Top 100, or roughly equivalent to that of free agents. If it’s true that some of our RotoViz favorites are significantly undervalued, then hitting on them in fantasy drafts can lead to the creation of ubersquads. My first and second place NFFC Primetime teams started a combined 9 first or second year players in the 16 skill positions. That means 56% of my starters came from this basket of players targeted specifically because of our draft evals.
Shawn Siegele is the creator of the contrarian sports website Money in the Banana Stand and Lead Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy.