Sunday, January 21, 2018

Fantasy football: When drafting quarterbacks, it’s better late than early

Quarterback is often referred to as the most important position in team sports. It only stands to reason the same position is vital to building a championship fantasy team, correct?

Before answering that question, consider the evidence:

• Winning championships in highly competitive leagues typically requires being able to start a top-five option at no fewer than three of the four skill positions every week. Quarterback and tight end are two of the four that require only one starter in most leagues, while the former is the only one of all the positions in which owners can generally accept the notion that supply equals or exceeds demand.

• Last season, 13 quarterbacks threw for 25 touchdowns and 13 also passed for more than 4,000 yards, while nine did both. All three totals were higher than the average from the previous five years — but not significantly so — hinting there is a strong trend developing to suggest this level of year-to-year production is sustainable and will continue.

• In 12-team leagues, this means roughly 75% of owners every year should be able to land a quarterback who accomplished both feats while every owner should be able to get his hands on at least one who did one or the other. With more offenses passing more than ever and quarterbacks staying healthy enough to play in 15 or 16 games more often, the supply isn’t expected to go down anytime soon.

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There is no question owners of Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady typically enjoy an advantage on a weekly basis and those players appear near the top of the fantasy points leaderboard at the end of each year. However, simply looking at end-of-season fantasy point totals doesn’t come close to telling the full story.

Assuming a 12-team point-per-reception (PPR) league that requires one starter at quarterback, two at running back, three at receiver and one at tight end, it helps to be able to quantify how large of a difference there is between the best and worst starting options.

In other words, is there a way to illustrate the difference in fantasy points between the No. 1 and No. 12 quarterback, No. 1 and No. 24 running back and so on? And if so, how should it affect draft strategy?

For the sake of relevancy, let’s consider only the last two seasons:

Fantasy point spread by position (2016)

QB (1 to 12): 119.4 points (27.4% variance)

RB (1 to 24): 243.3 points (60.0% variance)

WR (1 to 36): 122.9 points (40.0% variance)

Fantasy point spread by position (2015)

QB (1 to 12): 102.2 points (22.9% variance)

RB (1 to 24): 154.1 points (48.6% variance)

WR (1 to 36): 204.9 points (54.2% variance)

In this case, the higher the variance, the more the evidence points to owners prioritizing that position early. It is less important to look at the point difference and more important to look at the variance. Variance touches on opportunity cost — or losing potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is picked — associated with drafting a quarterback early.

Quarterback is on the low end of the totem pole without question, while running backs and wide receivers are the runaway winners, falling in line with traditional drafting logic. It stands to reason, considering owners need more backs and receivers to fill out a starting lineup.

If quarterbacks are truly the least important fantasy starters, then when should owners take the plunge in drafts?

Below are two charts that show fantasy points-per-game (FPPG) averages at each position broken down by round based on ADP provided from FantasyFootballCalculator.com. The data are for PPR leagues with the starting lineup requirements mentioned earlier:

QB fantasy points per game by round

Round 2: N/A (2016), 23.10 (2015)

Round 3: 20.23 (2016), 21.72 (2015)

Round 4: 27.21 (2016), N/A (2015)

Round 5: 22.10 (2016), 19.24 (2015)

Round 6: 25.05 (2016), 24.02 (2015)

Round 7: 21.53 (2016), 18.08 (2015)

Round 8: 19.56 (2016), 19.66 (2015)

Acknowledging Brees and Brady were steals in the sixth round last year, it should be noted Brady and Russell Wilson also were bargains in the same round in 2015. This doesn’t necessarily mean the sixth round is the hot spot to draft a quarterback, but it suggests owners historically have a good chance at landing a quality, every-week starter at the position who will be comparable to the first two or three off the board.

There are even more data to reinforce waiting on quarterbacks. In 2,386 standard redraft public leagues on RTSports.com last year, only 5.3% of league champions drafted their quarterback in the first three rounds while 41.2% nabbed their primary quarterback between the fifth and seventh rounds.

While waiting on quarterbacks might be the smart play, owners still need to ensure they receive quality production from the position, so the sixth round is generally a good time to invest in a passer. After all, is that high-upside RB4/WR4 really worth more to a fantasy team than a quarterback who is likely to start virtually every week?

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It’s important to note the above logic still applies when passing touchdowns are worth six points instead of the standard four, although a compelling case can be made for bumping up the top quarterbacks a half-round or so in those leagues. The same cannot be said for two-QB and/or super­flex drafts (ones in which a quarterback can be used as a flex), however, when 10 or more quarterbacks come off the board in the first two rounds.

Needless to say, the evidence heavily supports building a strong running back/receiver foundation first and then taking advantage of the depth at the quarterback position. In case pinpointing the top overall scorer at quarterback sounds like an easy task, it is worth noting owners haven’t done it since 2010, according to average draft positions (ADP).

Back-end QB1 options such as Philip Rivers and Matthew Stafford tend to keep pace with the big boys most weeks anyway. Consistent production should be the goal of every fantasy owner, and drafting a high-end quarterback tends to make a team more, not less, volatile.

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