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Value Based Drafting is Dead; Subtitle: Long Live Value Based Drafting


I don’t doubt that Value Based Drafting (VBD) is theoretically sound and offers value for fantasy football players trying to think about positional value. But I don’t actually draft using a VBD approach. When I say that I mean that I don’t calculate baselines, create projections, and then go through the draft taking the guy that has the greatest VBD value with each pick. I have a slightly different approach that I’ll describe below, but first let me offer a few words about VBD.

Probably the most read piece that I’ve ever written was for RotoWorld and offered a new theory for calculating baselines for VBD. At least as a thought exercise that still strikes me as a valuable piece. But the problem is that we’re now at something of a ceiling with VBD-based thought because there’s only so far you can go with theory and eventually someone needs to design a simulation framework that will solve the VBD puzzle. It’s one thing to say that you just subtract a player’s projection from the projection of the baseline player. It’s another to know what the baseline should be. I could argue that the baseline should be based on some kind of data as to how many games each position give you, but then I’ve opened another can of worms because when we’re talking about how many games each position gives you, do we mean starter level fantasy points? If you’re talking starter level fantasy points, that’s very league size dependent. You can see how difficult this becomes and my suggestion above that only a similation framework will work is an admission that VBD is a difficult problem.

Joe Bryant is the godfather of VBD and his solution to the baseline problem has been basically using an expectation of how many players at each position will be selected in a fantasy draft’s top 100 as your baseline. So if you expect 6 TEs to go in the top 100, then Rob Gronkowski’s value is however many points he scores over TE6. But I find that to  be a problematic methodology (and I promise I’m not doing the douchey analyst move here of just suggesting the shortcomings of someone else’s work without offering a solution) because the whole idea of VBD is that we’re supposed to be using our understanding of value to exploit inefficiencies in the player market. If we take the top 100 approach, we’ve conceded the efficiency of the market, so what’s the point in trying to exploit any inefficiencies? I’m not criticizing Bryant’s work. He’s a legend in the fantasy industry and I have no doubt that he has the right approach. I just think that in order to arrive at an exploitable baseline, you’ll have to do a bunch of analysis that you’re probably not capable of.  Instead, I think if you look at the problem another way, you can cut through all of that analysis and still come out on top. In order to do that, you have to slightly tweak the value paradigm that VBD puts forth.

VBD makes you calculate relative value at a position so that you can compare between positions. The value is denominated in fantasy points. I would argue that value shouldn’t be denominated in fantasy points, but rather in draft spots. The scarce resource that you run into during a fantasy draft isn’t fantasy points. The scarce resource is players who can outperform their draft position. So all of your effort should go into figuring out how you get those guys on your team. To put it another way, focusing too much effort on the top of the draft is going to be inefficient because those players have the lowest likelihood of surpassing their ADP-implied value. To put it one other way, the path to winning leagues is to make sure that all of your WR3s perform as WR2s or WR1s (with the same rule for the other positions), so all of your effort should go into building a team in that manner.

My method is as follows:

  1. Rank players at each position based on my internal projections
  2. Calculate how many draft spots of equity exist between my rankings and Average Draft Position. If my valuation is WR12 (speaking in terms of ADP now) and the player is being drafted at WR40, that’s 28 spots of equity.
  3. Create a target list of guys likely to outperform their draft spot (at their position)
  4. Figure out which position will offer the most value in the middle of the draft.
  5. Choose the positions at the top of the draft that I don’t believe I’ll be able to get value out of in the middle of the draft.
  6. Do some mock drafting to ensure that I can actually get the players where I think I can.

Because I have a ton of confidence in my WR model and because there are usually exploitable differences between my valuation and the valuation of the ADP-based market, I like to get WRs in the middle of the draft. But if you felt like you had a head start on RBs and your valuation of RBs was better than anyone else, then you could spend the top of the draft picking WRs. This strategy is based on your own skills of picking players and how well you can predict the future. Maybe that’s done with a model, or maybe you just have an uncanny knack. There’s an important point to be made about the middle of the draft and that is that in the middle of the draft, teams often go in disparate directions looking to fill need. So things get really variable and you can sometimes go a couple of rounds of picking guys that you were thinking about taking a round earlier.

To give you an example of how this worked last year, I had a few ideas in mind when I approached fantasy drafts. They were as follows:

  1. I’ll be able to get Marques Colston at WR16, he’s a rough approximation of Larry Fitzgerald. No need to spend an early pick on Fitz.
  2. I’ll be able to get RGIII later in the draft, he’s not as much of a screaming value as Cam Newton was in ‘11, but that’s good enough for QB.
  3. I have both WR1 and QB1 taken care of without using a high pick, so I’ll go RB first.
  4. I also had a few other ideas that will seem much better in hindsight, but that weren’t no brainers at draft time. One of those ideas was Vincent Jackson, who was on all of my teams. But even if I had missed out on VJax, there were other WRs in the same part of the draft that I felt comfortable with. When I say comfortable, I mean guys that I could pick as WR3 and they would perform as WR2 (even though missing on VJax would have meant missing the WR3 that would perform as a WR1).

But just because I feel comfortable that I’ll be able to pick middle round receivers well, that doesn’t mean that every draft plan done this way would result in an RB being picked first. For instance, I think that people last year that just decided to load up on the WAS backfield in the RB40s area of the draft were doing the same thing by exploiting an area where they knew that they could outpredict the market.  But I will say that the key part of my plan is that I’m going to start with the part of the draft that I think I’ll be able to beat (mid round WRs) and then I’m going to back into the rest of my draft plan (including the 1st round) to fill in what’s left. When I do things this way, it’s often the first few rounds of the draft that I have the least amount of confidence in.

There’s probably an important point I should address here and that is the difference in league roster sizes. For instance, if I were going to start 3WRs and then a couple of flex spots it would change my approach a little. But I would still start in the same place. I would try to see where I thought I could get value and then I would back into the top of the draft based on what positions were still left to fill. But because there would be more required WR starting positions (if we include the flex) then I would still need WRs at the top of the draft because I would only be able to reliably get a few in the middle of the draft. So roster composition changes what you’re going to do, although not dramatically.

As we get closer to fantasy football season I’ll illustrate this method with posts on actual guys to target. The important thing for this post is basically to stop thinking about drafting in terms of points, start thinking about it in terms of acquiring equity in players, and you can stop giving yourself an ice cream headache trying to figure out what VBD baseline you should use.

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