Fantasy Owners Are Missing Out on a Massive Edge in the Middle Rounds of Best Ball Drafts
Image Credit: Tom Walko/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Austin Ekeler.

If you’re a longtime reader of RotoViz, you know how effective Zero RB can be when executed correctly. While best ball drafts don’t grant you the luxury of going to the waiver wire to pick up Phillip Lindsay after Week 1, Shawn Siegele has used the Roster Construction Explorer to demonstrate why it still makes sense to load up on WRs early in best ball.

But you still need to start two running backs every week. So when should you stop drafting wide receivers and start drafting running backs?

To answer this I decided to attack these questions from another angle, so I looked at individual player data from the last four years and compared how RBs and WRs produced relative to their ADP.

I went in with an expectation of what the results would look like, but even I was shocked by the clarity of the message the data showed.

Running Backs

Over the last four years, the average running back drafted in Rounds 3 through 6 has outscored the average running back drafted in Rounds 7 through 10 by a total of 14.8 points — that’s just 0.9 points per game.

If you use median instead of mean to exclude the 2015 Devonta Freemans of the world, that number rises slightly to 1.1 points per game.

Fantasy football is a game of opportunity cost. When you pick one player, you’re giving up another under the assumption that the player you draft will give you production that won’t be available in later rounds.

This raises the question: Why are we drafting running backs in Rounds 3-6 when we can get nearly identical production in Rounds 7-10?

Round Number of Players Hit Rate1 Median Fantasy Points Scored
1 25 36.0% 222.4
2 18 27.8% 172.5
3 15 40.0% 155.6
4 21 38.1% 108.6
5 17 52.9% 150.3
6 18 33.3% 118.4
7 17 35.3% 109.4
8 16 62.5% 145.3
9 13 38.5% 94.5
10 13 53.8% 176.2

As you can see, the slope of the graph from Round 3 to Round 10 is fairly flat. Because we can get similar production at a significantly lower cost, RBs drafted in Rounds 8-10 have had much better win rates over the last four years.2

In Lesson 8 of the Best Ball Workshop, Shawn showed that teams that drafted their RB1 in the first round have had above-average win rates over the last four seasons, and my research agrees. With a median of 222.4 points and a sharp drop-off from Round 1 to Round 2, it makes sense to go with Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara, or David Johnson if you are lucky enough to get one of the first five picks.3

Things get trickier in the second round. While the median of 172.5 fantasy points looks okay, only 27.8% of Round 2 running backs had an above-average win rate, the lowest percentage of any round. The second round has had a couple of league-winners — 2018 McCaffrey and 2017 Todd Gurley come to mind — but it has also been home to numerous landmines. Tread carefully if you decide to go RB in Round 2.

After that, scoring flattens out even further. As I mentioned at the beginning of this section, the difference between running backs picked in Rounds 3 through 6 and those picked in Rounds 7 through 10 has been negligible from a total points standpoint. My advice: Load up on wide receivers – and, as Shawn detailed in Lesson 2 of the Best Ball Workshop, an elite tight end – for a few rounds.

Wide Receivers

For consistency’s sake, let’s start off this section the same way as the last one: Between 2015 and 2018, the average wide receiver drafted in Rounds 3 through 6 outscored the average wide receiver drafted in Rounds 7 through 10 by a total of 66.5 points – 4.2 per game (using mean instead of median increases that number to 4.8 per game). That difference is 4.7 times greater than the difference at running back.

Unlike running back ADP, wide receiver ADP does a pretty good job of predicting fantasy production for the first six or seven rounds.

Round Number of Players Hit Rate Median Fantasy Points
1 20 50.0% 238.1
2 24 37.5% 225.1
3 22 54.5% 202.3
4 26 50.0% 185.0
5 20 50.0% 170.5
6 20 40.0% 126.4
7 16 37.5% 102.0
8 22 31.8% 112.9
9 15 46.7% 73.9
10 16 37.5% 85.4

This fits perfectly with Ryan Collinsworth’s findings in his recent look at WR trends and ADP, and the conclusion he draws is exactly right. At wide receiver, you are actually giving up a significant number of fantasy points if you wait till the later rounds. Because of this, WRs in early rounds have had higher win rates over the last four seasons.

How to Attack Your Best Ball Drafts

Outside of the first few picks, early-round running backs hit less, score less, and win less than their wide receiver counterparts. Therefore, the best way to attack your best ball leagues this year is by loading up on wide receivers in Rounds 3-7 (and you should think about throwing a tight end in there as well) and running backs in Rounds 8-10. Obviously, you can’t start six wide receivers every week (unfortunately), but I suggest waiting for a running back to fall to you instead of chasing one in the early rounds.

Round 7 has been a dead zone for both positions over the last four years, but wide receivers have fared slightly better by win rate. That seems to be the crossover point for when it becomes wise to go RB instead of WR.

Between 2015 and 2018, 35.7% of teams picked a running back in Round 3, 38.0% in Round 4, 37.7% in Round 5, 38.0% in Round 6, and 35.5% in Round 7.

36.4% of teams chose a wide receiver in Round 8, 32.9% in Round 9, and 30.1% in Round 10. 53 WRs had an ADP in Rounds 8 through 10 versus only 42 RBs even though RBs picked in those rounds were much more successful.

You don’t want to set a definitive rule for yourself — if there’s value at RB in Round 4, jump on it — but you can gain an edge over your competition by mostly going WR in Rounds 3-7 and RB for a few rounds after that.

Image Credit: Tom Walko/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Austin Ekeler.

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  1. Hit Rate is defined as the percentage of players that have a win rate above expectation.  (back)
  2. You might notice that only three rounds have a median win rate above expectation. This is because player win rates do not follow a normal distribution (i.e. most players have a below-average win rate).  (back)
  3. Melvin Gordon would also be worth taking here once his contract situation is figured out.  (back)
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