Welcome to the 40th installment of the “The Wrong Read.” This article series started as one that reflected on recent podcast episodes and extended the ideas discussed there to logical conclusions with broader applications. Since then it’s become a space for me to write about whatever I want, with irregular references to various podcast episodes. Nevertheless, I’ll link to the episode that started my train of thought if applicable.
Last week’s edition of “The Wrong Read” explored the idea that certain players might be systematically undervalued by ADP. Rookie running backs, particularly those drafted in the middle rounds, appear to be just such a group. While all RBs in Rounds 9-12 outperform ADP based expectations, rookie RBs do so to a much larger extent. And they also outperform other rookie RBs drafted later, a trend we do not see with veteran RBs.
One way, therefore, to beat ADP without needing to create more accurate rankings is to draft rookie RBs in the middle rounds. However, in 2018, that means there are two players you’re targeting: Kerryon Johnson and Nyheim Hines. Even if they both outperform ADP-based expectations according to historical averages, we’d expect only about 150 PPR points from Johnson and about 110 points from Hines, neither of which would likely be good enough for an RB2 finish.1 In other words, the additional points you’re getting by targeting Johnson and Hines are not likely, on their own, to have an outsized impact on your fantasy team as a whole.
Perhaps, however, it’s possible to view the selections of Johnson and Hines within a larger structure that enables us to take advantage of ADP inefficiencies. If you’re a regular RotoViz reader — or if you read my title — you can already see where I’m going with this. Johnson and Hines both fit well within a Zero-RB approach. Are there other aspects of a Zero-RB approach that help you exploit inefficiencies in the way the fantasy community values players? Funny I should ask — the chart below shows average outperformance by position in each portion of the draft, since 2010:
Every position tends to underperform in the early rounds, which makes perfect sense. Expectations are high for early picks, making it very difficult to exceed them. The hope for first-round picks and even picks in the next three rounds is mainly that they meet expectations. Outperformance in these rounds is mostly gravy. The most important thing is to avoid massive underperformance. However, since 2010, no position has underperformed expectations in Rounds 1-4 more than RBs. This is consistent with previous findings about injury rates for early-round RBs.2
Wide receivers drafted in the first-four rounds underperform expectations by about 42 points on average; tight ends, by about 46 points. RBs drafted in the first four rounds, on the other hand, underperform expectations by a whopping 61 points on average. To put that in perspective, 61 points is approximately the difference between finishing as a top-12 RB, and finishing outside the top-24 at the position. Based on 2018 ADP, it’s the difference between Christian McCaffrey and Alex Collins.3
You don’t have to be the world’s most accurate ranker to win at fantasy football. You only have to be able to recognize where the wisdom of the crowds isn’t always so wise. ADP tends to undervalue rookie RBs in the middle rounds, and it tends to overvalue all RBs in the early rounds. So, if you want to win your fantasy league, avoid RBs in the first four rounds, and grab rookie RBs later.4
- Of course, what’s more likely to happen if history repeats itself is that one of these RBs breaks out and outperforms ADP by a lot, and one finishes in line with ADP-based expectations or even slightly underperforms. If I have to pick just one, I’m betting on Hines to be the breakout, not least because his situation is much more clear, but also because the cost to place that bet is quite a bit less. (back)
- Interestingly, QBs have been among the safest early-round investments. The tradeoff is that by drafting early QBs instead of RBs or WRs, you put yourself in a position where you are forced to take RBs and WRs in the later rounds, where QBs truly shine. Nevertheless, if the goal of your early picks should truly be, as they say, not to lose your draft, then taking a QB in the first four rounds gives you the best chance to accomplish that goal. (back)
- Not only that, but historically, WR has been one of the worst positions to target in the middle rounds. I don’t have an explanation for why that might be. My best guess is that Rounds 9-12 is the portion of the draft where we find a lot of No. 2 options on weaker offenses who are being overdrafted because of their perceived opportunities. The weakest offenses in the league can rarely support even two fantasy-viable WRs. This is also the range in which we find a lot of rookie WRs. Unlike their counterparts at RB, rookie WRs tend to underperform veteran WRs virtually across the board.
There has only been one rookie WR drafted in the first four rounds since 2010: Amari Cooper, the first WR selected in the 2015 NFL draft — the year after the historic 2014 class — was drafted by fantasy gamers at the end of the third round in his rookie season. He fell about eight points shy of ADP-based expectations. (back)
- If you simply must take a RB in the early rounds, however, the data suggests that rookies, surprisingly, appear to be safer investments than veterans. There may be something to this, but part of the reason for this effect is no doubt that rookie RBs never truly make it into the highest value picks — the first half of the first round, where expectations are especially heightened. Fantasy points increase exponentially with positional finish: the gap between RB1 and RB2 is equal to the gap between RB10 and RB18. Because rookie RBs are almost never taken with a top-3 pick, their expectations are almost always lower, on average, than veterans in the same four-round range. (back)