Fantasy football can seem quite a bit like teams trying to draft quarterbacks these days.
A casual observer can see the league has a serious quarterback problem. The college game’s trickle-down effect is apparent as offenses become streamlined and pro coaches have to adapt, but most of the problems seem like paralysis by overanalysis.
Fantasy owners can fall into the same trap. Call this the golden age of fantasy information. Owners have free access to droves of spreadsheets, data, advanced metrics and more, a seemingly endless information flow making the job of drafting a quality roster more difficult, not easier.
Let’s simplify the process below, keeping in mind the details come in via a Yahoo standard 12-team league.
The first thing sure to jump off the page for owners is the lack of a quarterback.
But this isn’t the NFL—it is a game based on the NFL. About five quarterbacks will flirt with or surpass the 300-point mark each year, as they did a year ago. But owners can replicate the same production on a week-to-week basis by putting in the legwork at the easiest position to project.
Let’s look at a brief, somewhat weird example. Philip Rivers of the Los Angeles Chargers is a recognizable name. He put up a quality season a year ago by throwing for 4,386 yards and 33 touchdowns against 21 interceptions, rightfully earning him an average draft position (ADP) of (9.07), per Fantasy Football Calculator.
But let’s take a look at another quarterback from a year ago who slotted in the top 10 for the second season in a row. He threw for 3,905 yards with 23 touchdowns against 16 interceptions, and by way of rushing for almost 400 yards and three scores, he ranked well above Rivers. ADP wise, though, he doesn’t make the same list, one plotting 15 rounds of numbers.
That quarterback’s name? Blake Bortles.
The point is owners can find production rather easily. And if following a no-quarterback strategy to begin with, owners become less reliant on the position for production because the skill players put up so many big numbers.
Those big numbers come from running backs and wideouts. The former is a feast-or-famine position these days. Nerdy Football’s Gary Davenport summed it up perfectly: “Owners would be wise to grab a ball-carrier with one of their first two picks, though. By the end of the third round, the remaining running backs look like the three-dollar towels at a Black Friday sale.”
Indeed, David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell are it when it comes to reliable workhorses who reach huge touch totals because of their skills on the ground and through the air. Traditional workhorse backs aren’t reliable thanks to health and how the league continues to split up carries among committees, something fantasy owners can’t replicate, placing an even bigger emphasis on versatile workhorses who can still make the opportunities-equal-production rule ring true.
Look at the ADP chart: Six of the first 12 picks are running backs. By the end of the first round, the last back off the board is Jay Ajayi, whereas the last wideout is Jordy Nelson. Notice the disparity?
At the start of the third round? Marshawn Lynch, Isaiah Crowell and Christian McCaffrey are the best backs available: a back who took a year off, a back for the Cleveland Browns and a rookie back.
Conversely, the best wideouts available in the third round are notables like T.Y. Hilton, Terrelle Pryor and DeAndre Hopkins.
That means high-quality wideouts outnumber running backs by a huge margin. It is simply where the game is at, and owners have to adjust. When more than 40 wideouts are getting 100 or more targets like they did last year, owners can afford to wait.
Chris Raybon of 4for4 put it best when describing the bottom-up approach’s increasing prevalence in fantasy football today (via Sports Illustrated):
“Your largest middle-round value tier is WR12–WR30. On average, those wideouts go from rounds three through six. Let’s also say you don’t like the RB value at the turn in rounds three and four, and five and six. Since you know you can draft up to four receivers in those four spots, you decide to go RB-RB with your first two picks.“
The ideal scenario for any owner in a 12-team league is getting running back out of the way early and focus on target hogs at wideout later. Many other factors come into play when looking at wideouts, but we are keeping it simple as opposed to overwhelming with endless numbers, remember?
Don’t forget about tight end, either. Get a Rob Gronkowski or a Tyler Eifert if you are willing to gamble on injury risks or otherwise sort by targets in the middle rounds and choose one, hopefully pairing a quarterback with his real-life tight end in the process. But it’s easily fantasy’s most unpredictable position, so like bye weeks, don’t fret over it too much.
Unlike NFL teams searching for a quarterback, fantasy boils down to a simple numbers game. Walking into a draft with the sheer basics like this down will put owners at an advantage, especially if the rest of the owners in a draft keep tripping over the endless droves of information while on the clock.
All scoring info, points-against info and ownership stats courtesy of Yahoo standard leagues. ADP courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator.
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