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How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love PKs and DEFs in High Stakes Best Ball Leagues

Truly, is there a format better suited to the unmotivated fantasy football hobbyist than a best ball league? All you have to do is draft a team, then let the divine hands of the fantasy gods decide your fate as your optimal lineup is automatically selected for you each week. It’s win-win!

Unless, of course, you draft a crappy team. Then it’s more like lose-lose. Fortunately, there are ways to gain an edge. In highly competitive leagues such as the FFPC’s best ball format, every extra bit counts, which is why we’re going back to examine ADP data to see what we can glean.

Three years ago, I competed in the FFPC’s Bare Knuckle 12-team league for the first time. The unique format has a live draft that takes place immediately following the opening Thursday night NFL game. Right before the draft, owners draw lots to determine the order, so no one knows which pick they have until about 15 minutes before they’re on the clock. There are 28 rounds (336 picks), but no cheat sheets of any kind are allowed, nor writing utensils, phones or any other memory aids. Drafters must rely only on their memories and the draft board, and they get only 30 seconds per pick. For hardcore fantasy addicts like me, it’s a nerve-wracking blast.

Before the draft that year, I had read a RotoViz post from a writer competing in the Pros Vs. Joes best-ball contest, where fantasy industry “pros” take on regular “Joes” to determine which side has fake football superiority. In outlining his draft strategy, the writer included the following:

That’s right, I took FOUR defenses and FOUR kickers and couldn’t be happier. In fact, I had all four of both before some other teams even had their second. The great thing about best ball is it allows you to harness variance to score points for you. It’s openly acknowledged that DEF and PK are the most random positions in fantasy football, so this is a match made in heaven! You may not be able to improve your skill position scoring very much, but adding that fourth PK and DEF actually adds a significant scoring total on average within the simulation. The fun part is that no one else does it so you can wait pretty late and not spend much draft capital. You also get to box all of your opponents out of these points since there are only 32 team defenses to pick from and even less PK I feel confident will start all year. I personally believe this is by far the biggest and easiest way to obtain edge in the format.

So I did the same. Starting in the 16th round, over my next 11 picks, I took four kickers and four defenses. During the 16-week season, I scored more than 2,700 points, finishing in second, 19 points behind the leader, a nearly negligible point difference in this format. I’m not saying that this particular drafting strategy ensured success – I got lucky with Jordan Reed (second overall tight end) in the 11th; Cam Newton (top-scoring quarterback) in the 14th and then-rookie David Johnson (third overall running back) in the 15th – but I believe it definitely gave me an advantage. In the 2016 Bare Knuckle draft, I took three kickers and four defenses, and I finished sixth; last year, I took the same amount, finishing fourth. However, in both those latter drafts, I waited until the 18th round before taking my first kicker or defense.

In another post from 2015, RotoViz took a look at FFPC best-ball ADP to determine the average number of players taken at each position. Unfortunately, a note in that post explained that “the data in this table may be off due to looking at some drafts that weren’t complete.” Still, it noted that an average of about 2.5 PKs and 2.5 DEFs were drafted per team. That would mean 30 of each were drafted.

I decided to see if that still held true by taking the most recent slow-draft best-ball ADP (comprising 146 drafts) and analyzing the top 336 picks. Here are updated averages:

POSNUMAVG
QB383.17
RB897.42
WR988.17
TE473.92
PK332.75
DF312.58

As you can see, the averages are slightly higher. Leagues are averaging 33 kickers per 336 picks, which makes sense because some drafts took place before the Vikings drafted kicker Daniel Carlson (despite having already re-signed Kai Forbath), so both players have an ADP in the top 336. On average, all but one defense, the Colts, appear in the top 336 picks. However, the ADP also shows that large numbers of kickers and defenses went undrafted at least once, so even though there’s an average of 31 defenses selected per draft, it doesn’t mean that 31 are selected in every draft.1

So, is this still a viable strategy? I believe the answer is unequivocally yes, with a few caveats: Keep an eye on other drafters to see if anyone is employing the same strategy, and adjust accordingly, but aim to take your first defense or kicker around the 16th round. Also, I would put a premium on PKs more than DFs. Simply put, the supply of usable defenses during an entire season is capped at 32, so no matter which ones you draft, they’re guaranteed to start every week. But in 2017, 42 kickers scored at least one point in fantasy, and 39 scored in at least three games. Last year, my third kicker was Jason Myers, who was cut after six games and didn’t kick for anyone else the rest of the season.2 In the classic best-ball format, there are no waivers, so the only kickers who matter are the ones rostered by an NFL team on draft day, even if not all of them last the entire season. By stocking up on at least four PKs, you capitalize on variance, receive insurance in case one of your kickers doesn’t last the season, and decrease the pool of available kickers for your opponents to draft.

  1. It’s also pretty clear that high-stakes drafters believe the Colts defense will really suck.  (back)
  2. If I’d drafted Myers and only one other kicker, I’d have been at a disadvantage the final 10 weeks of the year.  (back)

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