Structural drafting is arguably the key component to fantasy football. Knowing your league scoring, starting lineups, and bench settings then incorporating your draft approach around those requirements is something I fully endorse as where you should be placing your front foot forward.
There are a lot of draft strategies now deployed in fantasy football. All have their pros and cons, but they all are rooted in tenets that orbit around two primary principles. The first is the replaceability of a player — how valuable a player is over his own peers and the baseline of his position. This is the primary factor of many value-based drafting models and draft approaches.
The second is replicability, which is the ability of a player to generate consistently high-scoring weeks in your lineups — the ability of a player to stay in your lineup means you do not miss out on the best moments that a player has while he is on your bench. This also has added value in creating more roster flexibility when it comes to your depth.
We are going to run through the how and the why of what drives all these fantasy strategies by diving into those two core elements on the replaceability of a player at his position and the replicability in which players at each position provide an edge. Brass tacks, we are uncovering why fantasy football is being played the way it is.
With that in mind, the first thing we are going to look at is the average amount of points that each player has scored per season based on his season-long finish.
Starting with a top-down look at overall scoring. We can see what the top-36 scorers at each position have averaged per season in PPR formats over the past decade.
From an overall scoring perspective, you can see right away how “Zero RB” and “Modified Zero RB” have become so popular in reception-based formats. Wide receiver scoring catches running back production on average at the RB4 spot and then never looks back. This is why drafting WR-heavy has increased in popularity and why going after an RB bellcow incredibly early and then drafting pass catchers for several rounds before circling back to the running back position can be successful.
In an interview with C.D. Carter on NBC Sports Edge, Antifragility and Zero-RB godfather Shawn Siegele highlights the simplicity of the backbone to the approach…
“One question that may be helpful to ask when you’re on the clock and trying to decide between two options: Who is the best reality player of the pair? If the answer to that question isn’t the same as the direction you’re leaning with your pick, make sure you have a strong explanation for why you’re going to go with a worse player.”
If you are in a league that forces you to start three wide receivers; you already inherently need more receivers on your roster than running backs and if your league has additional FLEX positions on top of three wideouts, the necessity for roster allocation to the position is enhanced.
Where most people mistake Zero-RB or WR-heavy drafting is in the allocation to the running back position itself. They take the moniker too literally. Although the moniker suggests it is a draft strategy centered on not taking running backs, ignoring the position, and hoping to solely run into lottery tickets, the actual core and underlying strategy is about allocating the majority of your tangible draft capital into the position that requires the most resources and by selecting overall higher-scoring players compared to running backs with those spots.
This, in turn, creates a roster strength. By drafting backups who are already higher-scorers at a position you have already invested in, you are not only increasing your potential of consistently maximizing your own lineup now for 17 regular season fantasy weeks, but you are also decreasing your opponents’ resources in that area. I do not always draft WR-heavy and am more inclined to go for the modified/anchor RB1 aspect when I do go that route, but the reasons stated above are why it has become an increasingly viable strategy that has gained popularity in those specific formats that a full-PPR scoring and have three or more starting wide receiver spots.
In leagues that are not full-PPR scoring, the tides get turned. Here is the same chart as above for running backs and wide receivers, but for standard scoring formats.
When we remove the reception-based element of scoring, the running back position has a much wider gap at the top of seasonal scorers and holds onto that edge nearly all the way through the top-24 scorers at each position. This is where knowing your league scoring settings are vital, but nearly no main site is offering standard scoring as an option to the general public anymore.
Leagues using 0.5 PPR scoring, wide receivers on average catch the running back position at the WR12/RB12 spot and never look back. 0.5 PPR formats are often considered meeting in the middle, but have far more of a lean to actual full-point PPR disparity at the two primary positions than assumed. In any format that receptions are rewarded on any level, the running back position thins out fast in pacing wide receivers in top-down scoring ability.
Of course, there is still a discord between scoring the most points over the course of the season and holding onto leverage at your position. This is where the intersection of value-based drafting comes into play. Taking the same chart we opened up with at the top, here are the percentages of points scored at various baselines of each position compared to the top scorer at those positions.
While the open showcases how drafting WR-heavy gained viability and warranted popularity, here we see why the pursuit of top-scoring running backs still carries so much allure to fantasy gamers.
In terms of seasonal advantage, here we can see why the running back position carries so much leverage in context of comparing the top of the position to the baselines of the position as you progress through the position.
On average the WR6 has produced 81.5% of the scoring output as the overall WR1 over the span above, while the WR12 has produced 71.7%. Compared to the running back position, the RB6 is at 69.5% of the top scorer while the RB12 sags down to 56.4%, which is even below the WR24 in PPR formats. This is the lowest-hanging branch in why running backs dominate early-round draft capital in your drafts despite being lower-scoring options than the wide receiver position. Hitting on a top-scoring running back simply provides more of a scoring advantage in context of the position itself.
Having average fantasy production at the wide receiver position is just flat out more functional than having average running back play in terms of positional leverage. By the time you get to the RB36 above (which only produces 33.8% of the RB1 scoring on average), you are at the very end of the table. The RB36 is so low in terms of providing production comparable to the top scorer at the position that it is below the TE24 arbitrary baseline.
This happened again last season, something we highlighted after the season ended. Davante Adams just turned in a stellar WR1 season, but Alvin Kamara dwarfed him in seasonal leverage since Tyreek Hill (91.8%) and Stefon Diggs (91.7%) were a strong proxy of his output. At least 10 wideouts produced 70% of the fantasy output as Adams did with 15 matching two-thirds or more of his output.
Compared to the running back position, those marks were just four and seven players. Adams scored more fantasy points than all but one running back, but the RB2 produced just 89.4% of the points Kamara posted while the RB12 was at 54.7%, and the RB24 was at 44.6%.
When you hear that the wide receiver position is inherently deeper than the running back position it is not just a throwaway line, the position is actually a deep-scoring fantasy position that produces more usable scoring compared to the top of the position than running backs do. This is the gift and the curse of why running backs still remain on the top of ADP in your fantasy drafts. Landing an elite one is the most advantageous position you can have in your lineup although there is no parachute compared to the wide receiver position.
Moving away from the running back versus wide receiver portion, this also highlights how a top-tight end will pop as having high positional leverage compared to his peers at the position despite the top-scoring tight ends being nowhere near the top scorers at running back and wide receiver on average. Most players treat the TE12 as the baseline for the position in draft models based on 12-team leagues, but the actual requirement for games missed puts that mark closer to the TE18 range. Regardless, each of those baselines are way down the line with the TE12 producing just 53.7% of the top tight end production and the TE18 at 44.9%, which are the lowest rates among those points of every position.
In our Best Ball roster construction series on tight ends, we noted the run of dominance Travis Kelce has been on in individual player win rates at this position. Last season, Kelce was arguably the most valuable player you could have over the course of the season in terms of gaining leverage over your opponent. If it was not for a strong close to the season for Darren Waller, Kelce would have vaped the field entirely, but he still provided the largest positional leverage gap in scoring over the TE3 in scoring over the past 30 seasons.
Here, we also get a clearer understanding on how tightly packed quarterback scoring overall and why the popularity of SuperFLEX and 2B formats have increased in popularity.
IT’S A WEEKLY GAME
So far, we have been taking a top-down look at seasonal production. Flipping things to a weekly level, we can take a look at the same chart to get a clearer picture on positional leverage, which ties into actually winning weeks.
This is largely known by now among fantasy circles, but no position gives you less of a weekly advantage than having the highest-scoring quarterback. On a weekly level, the quarterback position is at the top in matching production of the top-scorer at every threshold above through the top-18 scorers at the position. Even with the 2020 offensive climate aiding all-time highs in nearly every possible category for quarterback performances, it held true again.
In fact, 2020 was even tighter than our averages above over the past decade. The average weekly QB6 last season matched 72.3% of the QB1 production while the QB12 (56.9%) and QB18 (46.6%) were also over the marks above.
Once again, the running back position is at the bottom in terms of the gap between the highest scorer at the position and the positional baselines that create roster allocation to starting lineup requirements. Factoring in those requirements means that having a consistently high-scoring running back is still the biggest edge you can have in fantasy football on the weekly and seasonal level. This is also why you see so many DFS gamers willing to stack lineups centered around high-priced running backs.
Establishing a similar layout from a weekly leverage stance as a seasonal one, the final remaining question in context of everything so far is just how often are we finding the players at each position that can perform at the starting thresholds regularly per season?
Here, we are looking at the number of players who produce starting-caliber weeks and sustain that output over the course of a season, using the top-12 scoring weeks for quarterbacks and tight ends, top-24 scoring weeks for running backs, and top-36 scoring weeks for wide receivers.
No position has a worse rollover in terms of week-to-week consistency than the tight end position and it is not particularly close. In our sample, just 66.4% of all tight ends to post at least one top-12 scoring week in their respective season had two or more starting weeks that season compared to 75.9% at running back, 78.7% at wide receiver, and 79.9% at quarterback.
Just 21.8% of all those tight ends went on to have six or more starting-caliber weeks in a season while every other position is above 30% at that point. Just 11.6% of those tight ends produced starting-caliber weeks in eight or more games while every other position is above the 20% mark still at that stage. This is where finding that strong tight end is an advantage within the context of his position when you pair the past two charts together. Travis Kelce is coming off a season in which he produced 15 weeks as a TE1 scorer, the most for any tight end over the past decade. This is after having 14 TE1 scoring weeks in 2019.
With tight ends occupying the bottom in terms of weekly reliability, the majority of your league is finding quarterback play that can produce multiple starting-caliber scoring weeks. On average over the span above, there are 12.3 quarterbacks per season producing seven or more starting-caliber weeks per season.
The interesting thing here is that although there are a lot of quarterbacks turning in a plethora of good fantasy weeks per season, the number of quarterbacks turning in massively consistent starting level scoring weeks per season actually fall below the number of wide receivers and running backs doing the same.
On average, just 4.4 quarterbacks per season have produced double-digit starting weeks in a season compared to 14.8 wide receivers and 10.6 running backs per season doing the same. The top-scoring weekly quarterbacks provide the lowest positional leverage, but only a few per season are turning in near wire-to-wire elite performances.
We have already recognized that top-scoring running backs are the largest advantage you can have in context of their position and the rate of running backs producing starting weeks at double-digit game rate actually surpasses the wide receiver position. At 10 or more games of starting production, 12.5% of all running backs to have at least one starting week have gone on to have 10 or more compared to 11.9% of all wide receivers and they sustain that edge all the way through the high-end of the chart above. This is no doubt a byproduct of the scarcity of good running backs to begin with while the wide receiver position has more competition.
While elite backs do have more wire-to-wire leverage than elite wideouts, there is more stability in finding wideouts who are turning in multiple starting-caliber weeks. Wideouts that turn in at least one starting week have a higher rate of matching that feat compared to running backs all the way until we reach that double-digit mark.
Wrapping things up, the one last thing we need to mention within all of this context is opportunity cost. Where a strictly value-based approach can get you into some trouble is the supply and demand component of fantasy football.
A traditional fantasy football lineup requires only one starting tight end, but at least two running backs and wide receivers. Adding on injury rates, players busting, a potential third starting wide receiver requirement and the possibility of added flex spots, the demand for running backs and wideouts is much greater than the other positions. Even before factoring in that those players score more points as we just showed; they are inherently more expensive in drafts because the need to obtain those players is higher.
What many value-based approaches fail to fully encapsulate is demand in relation to cost. While your board may be telling you that you should take a quarterback or tight end versus a wideout or a running back at a specific point because his value over the baseline player of his position is greater than anyone else available, what it doesn’t account for is where the cost of the other positional baselines is.
Over the past decade, the TE12 has been drafted at an average pick of 116.6 overall while the average QB12 has been selected at 93.0 overall. The RB24 has held an ADP of 64.5 overall and the WR36 an ADP of 92.3 (the WR24 at 58.1).
If your baseline player at the position in terms of generating your value system is being selected that much later than the baseline at another position then you are forfeiting part of your edge gained by being forced to take on -and be correct on – players that fall below those value-generated baselines at other positions. There is the conundrum you will face when drafting a quarterback or tight end — positions where you only start one player — early in drafts, since you will then have to forego selecting a running back or wide receiver with that draft pick and sacrifice some of the supply that meets the demand for your league’s starting requirements. This is also why value-based drafting models tend to produce teams that offer less overall upside, since they are inherently cautious on positional leverage over draft cost. If you can land a Travis Kelce, then things are gravy. But missing with a selection of George Kittle or Zach Ertz at a high draft cost like last season puts you in an extra bind since you are inherently chasing the running back and wide receiver positions throughout the draft.
I can make more of a good case for early-round tight ends over quarterbacks, but that is the question you will have to ask yourself when looking to take an early-round plunge at those positions since you inherently need more backs and wideouts altogether.
We were running dense here, so as TL;DR…
- Wide receivers score more points than running backs outside of the very top of the position in any format that rewards receptions.
- Top running backs provide the highest scoring leverage from a weekly and seasonal perspective out of all of the positions.
- Wide receiver is the deepest scoring position in relation to matching the production of the top scorers at the position on a seasonal level.
- Top tight ends provide a positional edge nearly on par with running backs and finding tight ends that stack starting-caliber scoring weeks is the rarest among all positions.
- Top quarterbacks provide the lowest weekly advantage of all positions.