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Finding an Edge in Roster Construction: How to Approach the Single-Digit Rounds of Best Ball Drafts

I drafted so much Brandin Cooks last offseason.

He was coming off of four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and seemed destined for another in what looked like one of the league’s most potent offenses.

He finished the season with 110.5 points and a 2.9% win rate — the fourth-lowest win rate among all players drafted in at least 200 drafts.

Here’s the thing: I’m going to be wrong. A lot. So are you. Player evaluation is hard. We do our best, but our best is still far from perfect, so we also need to look for an edge in other areas. Like how to build a roster. When to draft each position. How many of each position to draft.

Last summer, I wrote an article that used data from the previous four seasons to highlight general trends for RBs and WRs in the single-digit rounds. It was one of the most actionable things I’ve ever written. Today, we’ll update the results from that article to include data from the 2019 season and discuss how you should use this information to attack 2020 best ball drafts.

Running Backs

As I wrote a few weeks ago, RBs drafted in Rounds 3-6 in 2019 — the so-called “RB Dead Zone” — scored 29.2% more points than the average from the previous four years. In last year’s iteration of this article, I recommended that you forgo RBs in these rounds in favor of WRs because you could get similar production out of RBs drafted rounds later.

All of that is still true. It’s just not as striking when you look at the graph because of how well dead-zone RBs performed this year.

As you would expect, the first couple of rounds are extremely strong for the RB position. Once you get into Rounds 3 and 4, the graph begins to flatten and it sort of jumps up and down for the rest of the single-digit rounds. If we had a larger sample, those jumps would probably become less pronounced; although we know ADP isn’t that efficient, eighth-round RBs are probably not 25 points better than those drafted two rounds earlier. It’s also not like a player’s outlook plummets as soon as his ADP dips from Round 3 to Round 4. However, we can feel pretty confident in saying that it’s generally wise to move away from RBs for a while after the first two or three rounds because you can get similar production at a much cheaper cost later in the draft.

I used median in that graph because I wanted to stop guys like 2015 Devonta Freeman (who had an ADP of 87.2 and finished as the RB1) from singlehandedly dragging up the mean for their round. However, some RBs may be drafted higher because they are perceived as having a higher ceiling. Maybe only using the median fails to capture the upside Round 3 RBs have that Round 10 RBs lack.

Nope.

The results when you use mean are fairly similar to the previous graph but perhaps even more shocking. RBs picked very early in drafts remain king, but the position quickly turns into a wasteland. RB is often said to be shallow, and it’s true. It’s so shallow that if you don’t get one of the top guys in the first two or three rounds, it’s best to pivot to other positions for a while because you’re already in the deep end at that point.

The table below shows average win rate and hit rate1 by round. Since scoring is relatively flat from Round 3 to Round 10, it makes sense that these two metrics peak later in the single-digit rounds because you’re getting comparable production at a cheaper price tag.

 
Round Count Average Win Rate Hit Rate
1 31 9.2% 35.5%
2 24 8.0% 29.2%
3 21 7.9% 38.1%
4 25 7.3% 40.0%
5 23 8.4% 47.8%
6 21 7.7% 28.6%
7 20 8.4% 40.0%
8 20 10.3% 55.0%
9 15 8.3% 33.3%
10 17 9.1% 41.2%

Wide Receivers

The WR graph is pretty much the exact opposite of the RB graph. There isn’t that much of a difference in Rounds 1-5, and then the position completely falls off a cliff.

Like we talked about with RBs, it’s not like a guy becomes undraftable the second his ADP dips from 59.9 to 60.1, but there is a general trend of WR being strong in the middle rounds and falling off thereafter. The graph using mean paints a similar picture, although it does a better job of illustrating the upside advantage early-round WRs have over those drafted later.

Regardless of which graph you use, it’s clear that WR scoring is pretty flat for the first five rounds or so before dipping down significantly. Looking at the average win rate and hit rate by round is almost like looking at an inverse of the RB table.

 
Round Count Average Win Rate Hit Rate
1 24 9.1% 45.8%
2 28 8.0% 35.7%
3 28 9.1% 50.0%
4 32 8.7% 56.3%
5 28 9.6% 60.7%
6 23 8.3% 39.1%
7 21 7.4% 33.3%
8 28 8.2% 42.9%
9 20 7.0% 35.0%
10 20 8.1% 35.0%

How to Play It

The fantasy football deities have lined it up perfectly for us.

In the first two rounds, you can’t go wrong with either position, although you shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to draft an elite RB because of how quickly they dry up. After that, you can see on the graphs below that WR production drops off after Round 5 or 6, so it makes sense to load up before you hit that cliff. Since RB production is so flat after the first two rounds, you aren’t missing out on much by forgoing the position entirely until WR drops off. Then you can shore up your RBs in Rounds 7-10 when WRs have historically been less productive. In doing this, you’re spending the smallest amount of capital that still allows you to be competitive at both positions.

This game is all about opportunity cost. When you pick one player, you’re predicting that you won’t be able to get similar production later in the draft. Therefore, you want to time when you pick each position such that you aren’t wasting capital. In general, that means focusing more on WR in Rounds 3-6 and RB for a few rounds after that.

Of course, you never want to set a hard-and-fast rule for yourself. If there’s an RB you love available in Round 4, go for it. Last year, Courtland Sutton was an example of a player who had a lot of breakout indicators but was going at a point in drafts when WRs are typically not a great investment. There are always going to be guys who are simply being picked too late. However, it’s important to be aware of these trends so that you know when it’s generally optimal to target each position.

Image Credit: Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Devonta Freeman.

  1. Hit rate is defined as the percentage of players who posted an above-expectation win rate.  (back)

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