I love statistics, I always have.
In statistics, you can find whatever it is you are looking for, good, bad or indifferent. Those that don’t like the use of statistics will argue that you can make them look however you like toward proving a subjective point. In most cases I have found that to be the case as well. But in the hands of someone seeking objective information or trends, the use of statistics can deliver powerful results. Firstly, however, you must approach the analysis of your gathered data without bias as to what you expect to result. One of my favorite tenets is one that I came up with many years ago: There can be no objective thought within a subjective mind. Before all exercises like this, I keep that tenet close.
If you have followed me for any length of time, you have likely come to expect a series of “Inside the Numbers” articles where I break down the previous decade of NFL and fantasy drafting with the hope of uncovering trends that we can all use to make us better drafters. We’ve found key trends in wide receiver drafting, quarterback success and the likelihood of success or failure of a particular pick depending on drafted position. And, yes, I also practice what I preach when the statistics talk to me.
It has been shown that a wide receiver drafted within the first five picks of the NFL draft will go on to be a fantasy stud 80% of the time (given my most recent receiver analysis). In 2011, when A.J. Green was selected fourth overall, I eventually traded my own 1.05 and my 2012 first round selection for the 1.01 pick – ultimately A.J Green. It’s clear that Green pastures are in store. Without the use of my statistics, I never would have made that trade for a wide receiver.
For my first ItN piece of 2012, I’m taking a different angle and one that I hope you will like. I’m using one of my primary dynasty leagues as a live exercise of statistical analysis relating to first and second round draft trends with the hope of determining how live drafts in the past have panned out and what, if anything, can be gleaned from them. This is a longer running league and I have selected years 2004-2010 as my test bed to keep the data small enough, but also representative enough to provide enough variability. Why not 2011? Even 2010 is a bit soon to begin labeling players and 2011 is just too recent to apply labels. While mock drafts can be interesting when it comes to statistical analysis, there’s no substitute for a series of live drafts, with live coaches that have made the picks with the expectation that the drafted players will pay dividends in the years that follow.
This league is comprised of fantasy knowledgeable coaches, ten teams, NON-PPR w/IDP. This is important because the non-PPR format immediately shifts the focus to one favoring running backs rather heavily. You’ll see that this most definitely shows up in the numbers. That said, however, as we’re looking at bust rates of positions stemming from NFL performance, the addition of PPR likely wouldn’t skew the numbers tremendously. The addition of IDP does throw a wrinkle into the analysis but I’ve left them in as they only skew the second round statistics slightly. No IDP players have ever been taken in the first round of any previous draft.
So, each round consists of ten picks, over seven years. 70 first round picks and 70 second round picks as my statistical foundation.
Secondly, I have created three tiers of players for this study, not my typical four. These tiers are “Stud”, “Productive” and “Bust”. These three tiers make for relatively easy categorization. There may be some subjectivity in assigning players to one of the categories but in a vast majority of the cases, the players are easily defined. You’ll have to trust me on this. Additionally, I’m only looking at the numbers and percentages here, not discussing or displaying the players or specifics behind each selection.
Below is a breakdown of our first round selections over the established period of time:
This gives you some indication of the productivity, in fantasy terms, of the rookies drafted during this period of time. The far right column summarizes the total percentage for the given categories on the left over this period of time. The chance of getting a “stud” player is roughly 18.6%. Stud players include such names as Larry Fitzgerald, Steven Jackson, Adrian Peterson, Calvin Johnson, Matt Forte’, Ray Rice and others. Productive players include such names as: Kellen Winslow, Eli Manning, Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, Reggie Bush, Jay Cutler, Marshawn Lynch and others. As noted, productive players could be had 37.1% of the time. And, lastly, busts (too numerous to name) occurred at a rate of 44.3% – not trivial.
In the next table, I break down the totals by position so you can get an accurate representation of how the positions are stratified compared to their listed category. As you can see, running backs were drafted 39 times of the 70 total picks, or 55.7%. and of the running backs drafted, 43.6% (17) were busts. As expected, wide receivers were only drafted with 16 of 70 selections for a total of 22.9% and busted at a 56.3%. Note that PPR or not, this rate will still be the same. Quarterbacks bust at a rate of 38.5% and consist of such names as Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Jamarcus Russell and Brady Quinn. Arguably, you could deduce that a first round TE in fantasy is usually a good bet but only two were selected during our sample period.
Looking at the first table again, years 2005 and 2007 were particularly notable (not in a good way) in fantasy. 2007, specifically, was the only year in which our league saw seven busts, picks 1.04 – 1.10 as it were.
Without regard to actual selection, you can get an idea of the “hit” rate of a first round pick in fantasy. Given only an 18.6% historical rate of drafting a would-be fantasy stud in the first round, you can make a clear case that if you are able to trade the pick for a near stud or productive player with upside, it may make sense. But wait, it gets better – especially for those of you holding very high picks.
Consider the following table further breaking down the first round in years 2004 – 2010:
If you haven’t noticed yet, take a look at picks 1 and 2 with regard to Stud, Productive and Bust categorized players. That’s right, in seven years of draft history over this period, only a single “stud” resulted (Adrian Peterson). And of those 14 picks, 11 were running backs, one was a quarterback, one was a wide receiver and one was a tight end. The tight end and quarterback were Kellen Winslow (1.01, 2004) and Eli Manning (1.02, 2004) and the wide receiver was Michael Crabtree (1.02, 2009). As one would expect, the bust rate of the first pick is only 14.3% and the second pick is only 26.6%, higher but relatively low when compared to the picks that follow.
Perhaps even more interesting is the stratification of the 1.03 selection with a 0% bust rate and three studs drafted. In a conversation about this table today with a fellow DLF’er, he pointedly asked “Are you saying that the 1.03 is more valuable than the 1.01?”. The quick answer to that is obviously, no. 1.01 will always be more valuable than 1.02 which will always be more valuable than 1.03, etc. etc. The pick itself, before being utilized carries greater value due to the ability to make the choice given available players or the ability to trade the pick to another coach wanting to make the choice. The true result of the pick cannot be realized until AFTER is it made. But when looking at this sample data, you can make an argument that the 1.03 may yield better fantasy results. Without getting into a lot more data and explanation, I believe I can make a case for this that makes some sense.
Typically, teams picking highly in the NFL draft are less competitive teams needing many pieces in order to be competitive. Quarterbacks taken early often struggle early in their careers without weapons around them to propel them into a higher category. But, clearly, our draft has been characterized by running backs not living up to expectations at the very top of our drafts. Save Adrian Peterson, no studs have emerged over that time. That’s not to say that there isn’t quality or productive players, just not “studs”. At 1.03, we start seeing the third running back off the board or the first wide receiver. The third running back is often going in the bottom third of the first round, teams that are far more competitive and with a better foundation for productivity in place. The top backs drafted in fantasy are in better starting situations but it is beginning to appear that greater talent may not be enough to overcome lesser drafted situation. At the wide receiver position, our 1.03 is where the first receivers often start coming off the board. My past articles have shown that the first non-running back player within his position has the best percentage possibility of reaching the higher categories. If that happens to be a top receiver in the first five picks of the NFL draft, that selection has resulted in a stud 80% of the time in the past decade. This does shed some light on the 1.03 mystery.
Less interesting is the drop-off after pick 1.03. In fact, 1.04 has produced no studs as coaches return to the running back position primarily in hopes of getting lucky. It hasn’t happened, leading to a 57.1% bust rate at the pick. Beyond that, it’s up in the air as quarterbacks finally begin coming off the board along with a relatively even distribution of running backs to wide receivers. Not surprisingly, the bust percentage fluctuates materially, most likely due to the depth and skill of the year’s draft class.
How to use this information?
That’s up to you. Most fantasy football players are of a gambler’s mindset. We like to spin the wheel and take our chances. It’s clear to me that the picks to have are certainly 1.01, 1.02 and 1.03. The 1.03 stratification was a real surprise that caused me to start looking deeper into whether it was an anomaly or whether there was a correlation with something tangible. I have concluded, thus far at least, that there is enough data to support the fact that 1.03 is indeed a more productive pick due to the worst-to-first NFL draft format as it relates to late-first-round running backs specifically.
You can play your first round pick in hopes of landing that stud player but the odds above clearly show that it is somewhat of a fool’s errand. But isn’t part of the fun spinning the wheel?. The better strategy is to trade the pick for a known young player already productive with upside, especially if you are in one of those first two slots. Tough to do, but what you receive could very well exceed what you will ultimately draft with the pick itself. There’s also the possibility that you could land a young stud for the pick from another coach wanting to spin the wheel.
With bust rates exceeding 70% in some cases, the path to higher ground is a trade out altogether.
Before ending this already too long piece, let me throw in one last table for you. This is the stratification of the second round of our drafts over that same period of time, 2004-2010.
Bust rates for players in the second round are 64.3% during this period. You have less than a 10% chance of getting a stud from any point in the second round. I didn’t further break down the positions or picks here in an attempt to find order from this round because it became very clear, very quickly, that the entire round is a crap-shoot and the studs, productive and bust players are relatively evenly distributed throughout the round, both by pick number and position. The most noteworthy stat is that you are playing against the house if you wish to make this pick rather than trade for a productive player or a player with upside.
In most situations here, you are advised to trade a second round selection if you can receive known value in return.
Feel free to leave comments, your own thoughts or analysis of your own drafts if you are so inclined. And if you are with an NFL team looking for a lead statistician, I’m your guy. I’ll even double as a scout!
You can find Jeff on Twitter at @dlf_jeff